One of the greatest and most controversial icons of the 20th century, Michael Jackson was omnipresent on our pop consciousness from the moment he first lined up on stage beside his brothers, to the 24-hour rolling news coverage of his ‘brutish’ death.
Margo Jefferson is a Pulitzer prize-winning critic and author who, in her latest book, On Michael Jackson, turns her razor-sharp mind on the many guises of the King of Pop to offer a definitive account of a pivotal cultural figure. In July she joins Reni Eddo-Lodge at Southbank Centre to talk about the life, legacy and impact of Jackson’s life and music.
Here, ahead of that discussion, Margo Jefferson charts six things that led to Michael Jackson’s rise and fall.
First came Joe Jackson, a ferociously ambitious father from the black working class. He knew that for black children the surest route out of poverty and hard labour city factories was hard labour in the entertainment business. He’d wanted to be an entertainer himself, and he’d failed. He made sure his sons didn’t. He trained and rehearsed them as relentlessly as any factory boss would have. And he made sure, for good measure, to throw in mental cruelty and physical abuse.
Being a child — a little boy — made Michael Jackson safely adorable across all generations, and across all racial and gender lines. He was precocious and astounding in those early years. But he was never threatening. And, as the leader of The Jackson Five, he made sure that his older brothers were not threatening either. They were a black version of a fun-filled America family. The older boys deferred to him. Every note he sang, every step he danced, every pose he struck made clear that he loved us all and wanted us all to love him back and would never stop working to earn our love.
His talent, and his genius, joined mimicry to originality. This was a double pleasure. He could dance like James Brown, he could tap like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, he could moonwalk, he had jazz moves and African moves. His music drew on soul, rock, funk, disco and tearjerker ballads. His videos drew references from the bottomless vault of movie history; horror, sci-fi, noir and gaudy Technicolor musicals.
Above: Michael Jackson makes his debut appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show as part of The Jackson Five in 1969
When he began the series of physical modifications that so rattled people — the whitening skin, the lacquered wigs, the surgeries that narrowed his nose and mouth, enlarged his eyes and sculpted his cheekbones — he had no explanation, no proud declaration of rebellious independence. He couldn’t name or claim the needs and desires that drove him. Instead he denied that most of the changes were even taking place. He left us to our interpretations; self-loathing, dysmorphia, rage, madness. And he left us feeling betrayed by the Michael we’d loved and thought we knew and trusted.
Life catches up with us all. The damage that didn’t show when we were young, that we could triumph over, haunts us as we age. Joe Jackson and those years of punishing work and abuse caught up with Michael Jackson (was it the survival tactic of hiding his real needs and desires from his father that set Michael’s compulsive secrecy in motion?) The years of compensatory excess caught up with him: creating the Neverland where he could live out infantile emotional and sexual fantasies; spending billions of dollars then plunging into debt. The belief that, as a King, he was above the conditions and consequences of life. All of this caught up with Michael Jackson. As did the drugs that couldn’t quell his physical or his existential pain.
His death was nasty, brutish and short, but it also allowed for his resurrection. In the years following the trial, even though he was found legally innocent he was, in effect, a pariah. Dying restored his reputation as a glorious artist and entertainer – truly great at his best and never less than fascinating. His death released us to remember and relive all that, and to look long and hard at the culture, our culture, that made and destroyed him.