Mad love

Two to tango
I wrote something on the Jam video with Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan last week for Dime Magazine, and was pretty pleased with the reception – even the Jordan Brand seemed to dig it. (How about a pair of Concords to show that appreciation?)

But one group took some umbrage with some of my wording: fans of Michael Jackson, leading to an interesting – and mutually respectful – exchange in the Dime comment section.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the term “descent into madness,” though as I explained, I thought that encompassed everything about the latter portion of Jackson’s life, including the media hysteria. There were constantly cameras around, hoping Jackson would do something crazy – but that’s probably because more often than not, he would.

But the reaction of Jackson’s fans got me thinking. One made the case that Jackson was “always perfectly sane,” which I thought was a difficult argument to make. But it’s interesting nonetheless to consider where he came from, and how things ended up the way they did.

When I was young, I was actually a pretty big Michael Jackson fan. I was 8 when Bad came out, and I loved him for the same reasons everyone else did. MJ was the coolest: an unparalleled singer, an unbelievable dancer, an incredible persona. I’d occasionally pilfer one of my mom’s white gardening gloves, and I’d clumsily attempt to moonwalk and breakdance, knocking stuff over left and right.

Jackson’s videos were magnificent works of pop culture art. When MTV would periodically run an hour-long block of his videos, I knew people who would record it, just to be able to have that tape in their collection with a scribbled “Michael Jackson videos” label on it.

I borrowed a friend’s tape to do a presentation for my seventh-grade drama class on my favorite musical artist, which at the time I actually considered to be Jackson. The videos were all great in different ways, presenting Jackson as larger than life using iconic images –the sidewalk lighting up under his feet in “Billie Jean,” his eyes flashing yellow at the end of “Thriller,” defying gravity while looking like a Reasonable Doubt-era Jay-Z in “Smooth Criminal.”

While screening videos before the presentation, I stumbled across one for “Leave Me Alone.” I’d never heard of it before – for good reason, it was a bonus track on Bad – but I was riveted.

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The video featured Jackson riding through a carnival funhouse filled with visual representations of the persistent rumors about his life – the llamas, the chimps, a big nose and scalpel flying through the air. The conclusion shows the funhouse to be Jackson’s body itself.

It was meant to be irreverent, kind of like Eminem’s freestyle at the end of 8 Mile served to steal his opponent’s narrative. (I realize the irony of that comparison given this video.) At the same time, it was poignant, most notably when Jackson floats past a shrine to a young and beautiful Elizabeth Taylor, with whom he shared a special and most likely platonic relationship.

The centerpiece of the video is Jackson’s haunting and somewhat moving dance with the Elephant Man’s skeleton, making light of the rumors that Jackson had acquired his bones. The real story, barring an elaborate hoax by Radio Canada, is that Jackson had indeed attempted to bid on the Elephant Man, but was rebuffed.

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This gets to the heart of Jackson’s later years: We don’t know what was real and what wasn’t, but I’m inclined to believe a lot of it was. The Michael Jackson who danced on the roof of a car outside the courtroom was a dramatically different person than the one that stopped time with his preternatural talent while dancing the moonwalk at the Apollo. After an abusive childhood had planted the seeds, the prism of fame twisted and magnified Jackson’s quirks, lending him both the money and lack of reality that allowed him to indulge them.

The irony of “Leave Me Alone” is that Jackson had spent his life carefully cultivating a career as the world’s most visible entertainer, complete with the publicizing of his own weirdness. It’s difficult to imagine Jackson truly wanting to end up all alone, like Burgess Meredith on the Twilight Zone, because you simply can’t have it both ways.

Highly underrated filmHoled up at his Neverland Ranch, he was a real-life Edward Scissorhands – right down to actually owning the actual scissor-adorned gloves Johnny Depp wore in the movie. But fame, coupled with the love he had for his adoring fans, was certainly the strongest intoxicant Jackson could have been addicted to.

I respect the passion of the fans that gravitated to the Dime article comment section, though I thought it was futile to argue that Jackson’s mind hadn’t gotten a bit warped over time.

That said, I think that’s understandable. I’m not sure it’s possible to remain totally normal when you possess genius levels of talent – Bobby Fischer went insane, Michael Jordan is an overgrown kid with overgrown toys and whims, Kerouac drank himself to death – and the constant red glow of the cameras of the information age have made that progressively more difficult.

The line between genius and madness is difficult to straddle, but there’s no inherent shame in that. He wasn’t the first; he won’t be the last.

There are obviously certain details and rumors of Michael Jackson’s life that we’ll never be able to reconcile. But as I said to the Jackson fans on Dime, I don’t question that he brought a lot of good to a lot of people both intentionally and inadvertently, and if that’s what they want his primary legacy to be, I see no problem with going along with that.


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