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Vol. 8, No. 3, 2009
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Robert J. Lewis
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Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

the awe and the aw


Yahia Lababidi



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).

It 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.

Time 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.

It 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.

Two 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.

But 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?

That 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?

In 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:

Paparazzi, 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.

And 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

Or, 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

Or 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.

These 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.

There 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 him, now.

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?

We 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.

In 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.”

The 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.”

Postscript: 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.

Since 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.

Related articles:
Manchild in a Promised Land
Another Seduction

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