Say goodbye to Michael for me

When I was growing up, I often heard the maxim that “nobody can forget where they were when they learned that JFK had been shot.”

I was on Twitter when I learned that Michael Jackson had passed. Not quite sure, but I think I was at work in Cambridge. When you’re in Twitterspace, do your surroundings matter?

I turned to my pal Cutler and told him that news was breaking that MJ had suffered a heart attack.

“That guy’s living on borrowed time,” he offered.

“That guy’s living on borrowed cash,” I countered.

My dear friend NPR was filled with soundbites about today’s memorial service. I heard the Reverend Al Sharpton’s heavy, rhythmic tones, his howl that we should focus on the artist, the love. I heard a woman saying that she’s sending her kids to the memorial service because “this is what music is about”.

Well, if you had a pulse in the last 30 years (and knew it), your life was touched by MJ one way or another.

Personally, my life was touched by Quincy Jones more than by MJ – but I’m the type of guy that listens to the bass lines and horn parts BEFORE ever listening to the lyrics. There are dozens of pop songs from the sixties and seventies that I can sing all the orchestrations of, but i barely know any words other than the lyrics in the hook.

Same with MJ. Take, “Rock With You”, which, counter to one pundit’s opinion I heard during the last week’s media hysteria, is most definitely “baby making music”. It opens with a classy, lonely Moogy-sounding synthesizer and builds to a real-live-string-section disco gesture all in the first eight bars. In the hook, there’s a flugelhorn – flugelhorn, mind you – counter line that puts the right touch of mascara on the eyebrows on the song. I could listen to that track over and over – if it weren’t for MJ’s singing.

Yes, I will commit the ultimate heresy and tell you that, to my taste, Michael’s adult singing style is highly irritating.

I heard some breathy ballad he did on the radio the other day, one that I did not recognize. It reminded me of all those cuts that Sinatra shouldn’t have made. I couldn’t really listen to it. His intonation, his attack, his lack of support – it just made me uncomfortable. And that says nothing about the treacly sentiment he was trying to get across. I agree with The Critic I Can’t Remember on one point: Michael had a hard time with the plain old straight-ahead “I Love You” song. It always seemed to come out more like an alien setting foot on our planet for the first time and falling head over heels for a Tussaud wax figure of Marilyn Monroe – kind of stilted and surreal and filled with inner torment and impossibility.

I heard a lot of African-American voices this morning on the radio calling, “He’s black! He’s ours!” Agreed – well, he sure started out black. He was a role model for young African-American artists. He was hot. He was successful. I remember the pictures of him before adolescence descended on him, with his ‘fro poking out from under one of those badass floppy hats. Flaired knit pants and vests – he was totally IT and I sure couldn’t dress the way he did and go around Cleveland expecting to avoid a hassle.

I’ll tell you one thing – I didn’t hear a lot of men calling out, “He’s male! He’s ours!” this morning on the radio.

Let’s face it: Michael wanted to obliterate the assignments of race and gender that he felt made him a prisoner in his own voluptuous castle. He went to great lengths and great expense to alter his appearance to become what? A white woman?

That doesn’t really describe it. Maybe the negative space approach helps here: he was aiming for not black. Not white. Not male. Not female. Not old.

Many complained while he was still alive that the result of his body mod experiments was something not human. So, yeah. The dude looked like a freak show. He was visually hard to take, especially as the surgeries progressed and got worse. In the interviews I heard with him (and I did not see the whole TV special stuff that he put on during the trial, I just heard sound bites) his speaking voice was soft and effeminate. It was as chiseled as his chin, and the point was to communicate, “I am a gentle soul.”

So now, in death, I am hearing many calls to ignore what he did, and to focus on what he produced. What he stood for in his art.

OK, I can do that for a little while. It don’t matter if you’re black or white. I’m down with that. What about the paternity suit inspired “Billie Jean” – the kid is not my son? (It don’t matter if you’re Mom or Dad, he snarked.) But then, there’s “Man In The Mirror” – which is a righteous piece of funk if ever there was one. Read the lyrics: it’s about trying to change the world for good, starting with changing yourself and your outlook. I can get behind that song.

But tell me – “Smooth Criminal” is about a woman getting murdered, right? “Beat It” is about running rather than fighting a gang – do I have that one right too?

I know. You’re saying, “Come on. What? What are the Sex Pistols lyrics about? Or The Clash? James Brown? U2? Rick James? Duran Duran? Don’t come the innocent prude here. People listen to stuff just to feel good.”

Well, you’re right.

But the point I’m trying to make here is that we’re putting Michael in the ground without really looking at him as we’re saying goodbye. Or not saying goodbye, as some have it.

We’re turning a blind eye to the troubled person he was. We’re ignoring that his identity probably tortured him greatly, and that no amount of plastic surgery or lipstick or pretending he was still 11 years old helped him feel better about himself for long. We’re ignoring his legacy of financial mismanagement and his narrow scrape with pederasty laws.

We’re ignoring to a large degree any inroads he might have made in disrupting the boundaries of race and gender. Instead, we’re basking in his huge ego trip, and making it our own huge ego trip.

Just look over your shoulder, honey.