The people who saw Michael Jackson live and joined in the chorus were themselves performing in the act; they were engaged in that collaboration of the audience with the artist which is a necessity, but not always an aspect of, all art.(1) After witnessing the countless collections of video clips and digital collage, revisiting the highs and lows of Michael's career, it is by no means a feat of astonishing bravery to conclude that the King of Pop possessed genial qualities. Michael's perplexing ability to draw the crowd into manic frenzy and tremendous applause, was, and will forever be, an attribute mastered by performers miniscule number. This is the ultimate reason why celebrities, politicians, critics, journalists and members of the general public will continue to occupy media attention with emphatic quotations of sorrow and lament for years to come.
I believe that the retelling of Michael Jackson's story is a positive thing, even if it is only possible to retell after his passing. The inevitable negativity that musicians endure from the media ultimately distract the audience from what the performer sets out to achieve and this is often menacing. The extraordinary dedication, skill and prowess that were undertaken to achieve the height of fame conquered by Michael are unimaginable, but the courage and values that were mirrored in his artistic qualities only just fall short of impossible. No performer should attempt to bite off red-hot iron unless he has a good set of teeth(2) however, and Michael's august nature had been rotting under the heavy mass of media pressure for over a decade.
The negative publicity was indeed a poisonous web spun by the powers that be and I often found myself being tangled up in it. But then there always was a nostalgic resonance whenever I heard the sound of his name that threw me back to the first time I heard 'Speed Demon', 'Another Part of Me' and 'The Way You Make Me Feel'. 'Bad' was one of the first records I ever owned and it was certainly one of the most frequently played. I was 7 when I got the album on cassette and I remember being fascinated by the fact that Michael used to black. As a 7 year old, I was (perhaps somewhat understandably) unable to comprehend how and, more importantly, why a black man would change his skin colour. There is only one way left to escape the alienation of present day society: to retreat ahead of it(3), but what I was unable to fathom at the time was the beautiful eccentricity, individuality and valor that Michael harboured. That he released such penetrating music was the icing on the cake for me, but this was something I did not take the time to reflect upon until his death.
If anything positive can be drawn from what has happened over the last few days, it will be a newfound respect for Michael and his work. The musical legacy he left behind is set in stone to act as an inspiration for generations to come but also as a bleak reminder of what happens to the heroes we torture in the press.
1 - Shamelessly adapted from T.S Eliot's 'Marie Lloyd' (1922)
2 - Harry Houdini
3 - Roland Barthes