the awe and the aw
Yahia Lababidi, aphorist, essayist and poet, is
the author of Signposts
to Elsewhere, selected for ‘Books
of the Year’ in 2008 by The Independent (UK).
was the summer of 1984 and I was 11, ripe for the ravages of
fandom -- not very sure who I was and prepared to project onto
a pop idol all sorts of unsorted energies, investing him with
a love that I could not direct at myself. We would camp out,
my younger brother and I, in front of a posh hotel in Mayfair,
London where Michael was staying, in the hopes of catching a
glimpse of the beloved. And we were not alone. There were other
near-hysterical, breathless adolescents huddled there. There
was also a look-alike, who simulated the act for us (twirling,
pouting and executing those peculiarly abrupt signature movements),
helping while the hours away, as well as a couple of cooler,
older girls that tried to get me to join them on the roof. But
I lacked the courage for that. My mother, however, did manage
to brave the hotel reception one day after pleading with one
of the bodyguards, something along the lines of ‘my boys
have come all the way from Egypt.’ When she emerged, brandishing
an autographed publicity photograph of Michael, my brother and
I greeted her with incredulous bliss and awe-through-association.
Upon returning to Cairo, this sacred article was promptly laminated
and placed in a shared drawer (along with youth’s other
flotsam) where we could frequently consult it, which we did.
The other laminated memory from this experience was the mayhem
that occurred when Our Savior -- embedded in a throng of bodyguards,
sequined glove and surgical mask in place -- darted from hotel
door to limousine door whispering “I love you.”
All Heaven broke loose.
passed and the indiscriminant adulation shifted to a more nuanced,
enduring fascination. He was still a thriller to behold, as
a stage presence. He could truly be electrifying at times, this
impossible creature, moon-walking across the laws of nature,
deftly defying them in dance. One sensed, without knowing how
or why, that they were witnessing some terrific exorcism, a
gripping expenditure of tremendous energy. And, there was the
joy and tenderness he could communicate in song. But the music
was soon eclipsed by psychological curiosity, directed towards
his other performance -- offstage.
is nearly a decade later, I’m in college, and Michael
Jackson (recluse and eccentric) has consented to an interview
with Oprah. I skipped class that day, they may have even cancelled
it. There was still something strangely captivating about this
creature. The live telecast from Neverland Valley proved a carnival
of an affair, with Liz Taylor just out of the frame, holding
his hand, and Michael providing his own lighting. There was
Oprah, representing the vulgar curiosity of the people, (‘the
fans wanna know,’ she offered crassly, every time she
asked a difficult question). And there he was: an unthreatening,
bizarre specimen, a slip of a man, more of a geisha girl really,
simpering, whimpering and tittering as he fielded questions
about his face etc. And, you couldn’t really take your
eyes off his face, not only because it looked like nothing you’d
seen -- sexless, ambiguous, uncanny, alluring; but because you
were desperately trying to read it, scanning its otherworldly
surface, rummaging beneath its mysterious skin, trying to determine
if he was telling the truth. He wasn’t about the plastic
surgery. But somehow that was to be expected.
difficult questions, and their diffident responses, struck.
“Are you a virgin?” the People’s Curiosity
blurted out. After much nervous giggling, and fey protestations
(I’m shy) he finally cooed, “I’m a gentleman.”
What does that mean I wondered, along with other tens of millions
of viewers, no doubt. Is that a yes or a no? Does that mean
gentlemen don’t have sex, or they don’t talk about
it? He was, after all, in his mid-thirties. The other tricky
question was why he grabbed his crotch so much when he danced.
More giggling, and fidgeting then, this: :I’m a slave
to the rhythm, Oprah.” (And he demonstrated how his hand
found its way there, crying watcha ooo, hee hee). Hmm.
What rhythm, I mused, is this gentle man a slave to? And with
his largely young fan base, what could he possibly think it
meant to them. And then again, there was the way he
grabbed his crotch: delicately, but decisively. More like he
was setting it, or presenting it (as evidence) -- something
he couldn’t get himself to really touch let alone grab.
It was a stylized gesture, a calculated impulse, invariably
punctuated by a falsetto animal yelp, a shrill hiccup or two
and a contorted, almost orgasmic facial expression.
there’s always been something incongruous about the innocuous
Peter Pan persona, and his other fantasy of Bad Guy. It’s
there as early as Thriller (‘I’m not really
like other guys,’ he tells his girlfriend at a drive-in
movie. ‘That’s why I love you Michael,’ she
says, as he proceeds to transform into a werewolf). In another
video, he is an old style gangster who morphs into a panther.
The name of the video is Smooth Criminal, and the gangster
imagery is typical, from Beat It through You Rock
My World. In between there was the awkward Black or
White video which outraged thousands with its violence
and sexual innuendo -- Jackson simulated masturbation and smashed
a car with a crowbar. He later issued a formal apology and announced
he would delete the offensive footage. Another video, this time
a 40 minute musical film called Ghost, showcased spectacular
special effects, including a disconcerting scene where Jackson
smashes his face to bits. Other suggestive song titles include:
Bad, 2Bad, Dangerous, Scream and Blood on the Dance
Floor. The image presented is not all that harmless, but
of someone unstable, threatening, even lethal. Was this merely
fantasy, or was Jackson confessing in code, perhaps in spite
of himself, over his own head?
same year as the Oprah interview, 1993, Michael Jackson was
accused of child molestation. But the case prematurely fell
apart when the victim accepted a multi-million dollar settlement
and refused to testify. A hasty marriage to Lisa Marie Presley
ensued. Presley would later describe Jackson as ‘somebody
whose mind was constantly at work, calculating, manipulating.
And he scared me like that.’ The tabloid feeding frenzy
was not, however, mirrored by a unanimous public savaging. People
still wished to believe in the incorruptibility of their child
star -- sure, he’s weird, but he’s not bad -- and
he insisted on his innocence. Yet, one question lingered. What
was this grown man doing having regular pre-teen sleep-overs?
the following years, a sour note crept into Jackson’s
discography as autobiography. Jackson’s self myths and
idealizations now manifested into a full blown persecution complex,
striking Christ poses, literally (in his concerts) and figuratively
(in his lyrics). His songs were now littered with instances
of his insatiable appetite for self-pity. In Childhood,
he sings: ‘No one understands me . . . It’s been
my fate/To compensate/For the childhood I’ve never known
, , , Before you judge me/Try hard to love me/ . . .The painful
youth/I’ve had.’ He could be guilty of astonishing
bathos, as in Privacy, where he aligns himself with
the recently deceased Princess Diana:
get away from me
Some of you still wonder why, one of my friends had to die…
My friend was chased and confused . . .
Now she gets no second chance, she just ridiculed and harassed
. . .
Stop maliciously attacking my integrity.
his indignant self-righteousness could sound alternately megalomaniacal
or menacing, as in HIStory:
He say one day you will see
His place in world history
He dares to be recognized
The fires deep in his eyes
in They Don’t Care About Us:
Beat me/Hate me/You can never/ Break me/Will me/Thrill me/You
can never kill me/Jew me/Sue me/Everybody/Do me/Kick me/Kike
me/Don’t you/Black or white me
more explicitly still in Threatened:
You’re fearing me, ‘cause you know I’m a beast/Watching
you when you sleep, when you’re in bed/I’m underneath/You’re
trapped in halls, and my face is the walls/I’m the/floor
when you fall, and when you scream it’s ‘cause of
me/I’m the living dead, the dark thoughts/ in your head/I
know just what you said/That’s why you’ve got to
be threatened by me . . . What you have just witnessed could
be the end of a particularly terrifying nightmare. It isn’t.
It’s the beginning.
threatening and particularly prophetic last lines, along with
the above-mentioned lyrics are all part of the self-dramatization
displayed in his latest studio albums: HIStory and
Invincible. (Jackson publicized the release of HIStory
by floating a 60 foot statue of himself down the Thames). Other
examples from those two albums which exhibit this strain of
wincing braggadocio, for someone posing as a victim, are: Unbreakable
and Tabloid Junkie. Interestingly enough, the title of
his latest single is: One more Chance.
Nine years after the Oprah spectacle came the Martin Bashir
debacle. Jackson had agreed to participate in a BBC documentary
and his interlocutor permitted to shadow him for eight months
and granted unprecedented access. Not quite at the peak of his
powers, musically or otherwise, his mounting eccentricity nevertheless
ensured a fair share of curiosity. His intention, one presumes,
in consenting to this probing was to rehabilitate his image.
I found it to have the opposite effect, not exactly damning
for what he said, but for what he had become.
is something sinister about this Michael Jackson, this creepy
curator of his own waxwork museum. He still professes shyness
(only we don’t trust it), he still chokes up (only the
tears never fall), he still indulges in childish antics: climbing
trees, riding bumper cars (only it feels joyless). There is
something extinguished in the eyes. Something is rotten in the
state of Michael Jackson, and the overall impression is: contrived,
disingenuous, untrustworthy. At one point in the interview,
he sits in his recording studio, behind him a larger-than-life
idealized painting of himself in a loin cloth with surrounding
cherubs. His imago’s face is framed by two rosy cherub’s
butt cheeks. Another moment lacking in taste is a shopping spree
at a gift shop inside a Las Vegas casino where Jackson spends
millions on kitsch, hardly noting what he purchases (gaudy gilded
urns, painting and statuary reproductions). There is something
pathetic about this decadent, lethargic Jackson and the means
with which he arouses himself. His eyes are as wide as dinner
plates, two haunted orbs, mostly vacuous. There is no reading
In another episode of the documentary, when he harps about his
dad calling him ‘big nose,’ we roll our eyes, thinking,
please, get over it. We are all-too familiar with Jackson’s
past, Jackson senior’s unusual expectations and usually
cruel punishment (including alleged eating). But, it’s
Michael’s present state that concerns us, now. What to
make of the unsavory prospect of an unmarried and middle-aged
man, sermonizing about the unassailable innocence of his ongoing
habit of having overnights with kids. "When you say 'bed,'
you're thinking sexual. They make that sexual; it's not sexual.
We're going to sleep, I tuck them in and I put a little like,
er, music on, and when it's story time, I read a book. We go
to sleep with the fireplace on. I give them hot milk, you know,
we have cookies. It's very charming, it's very sweet.”
Earlier, he had declared, “it's what the whole world should
do," while holding hands with a 12-year old boy whose head
is resting on his shoulder. One can’t help but wonder,
is this the kind of love the whole world needs more of?
know that he has an addictive personality as evidenced by the
compulsive plastic surgery. We have always suspected that he
is violently uncomfortable in his own skin or at war with his
own impulses, as seen in the tension between his Peter Pan and
crotch-grabbing, bad-guy personas.
short, that Michael Jackson may suffer from a kind of arrested
development (or stunted emotional maturity) and/or a psycho-sexual
disturbance should come as no surprise to us. Is it unimaginable
then, that just as he claims to so completely relate to children,
he also shares his sexual self with them? Is it not possible
that this unhealthy man, with his victim complex could have
justified to himself that, in Shakespeare’s word’s,
“[he is] more sinned against than sinning,” and
thus permitted himself to violate the innocence that he claims
to have been deprived of? Or, in the words of Auden “I
and the public know /What all schoolchildren learn /Those to
whom evil is done /Do evil in return.”
question still remains is how much can one forgive the man for
the sake of the artist, and his undying, unlying legacy of song
and dance? One can only say this, with Pascal: “Man is
neither angel nor beast. And it is his misfortune that he who
seeks to play the role of angel, acts most like a beast.”
Rarely seen in public since his acquittal of child molestation
charges in 2005, Jackson, now 50, will play 50 consecutive sold
our concerts in London (July/August) at the 20,000-capacity
O2 Arena. The swan song, which he says will be a “final
curtain call,” will be Jackson's first major live performance
in 12 years.
2005, Jackson spent much of his time living in Bahrain, sold
his Neverland ranch in 2008, and has been in the news chiefly
on account of rumors of financial difficulties and health problems.
in a Promised Land