I love what you say about Michael being one of pop’s “great confessors”—the usual view is that verbally he belongs in the shallow “that’s entertaiment” camp.
I’m heading toward your question about his ambition and the inevitable post-Thriller letdown. The “King of Pop” stuff was megalomania and yes, I agree—defensive and angry and desperate. Here’s something that’s always frustrated me and made me sad, too. Pop artists—movies, music, whatever—can either go crazy trying to top themselves, or diversify and change just enough to stay interesting (to themselves and others). How does Bette Davis top Margo Channing? But she also must have wondered how she would top Dark Victory or Jezebel or whatever. James Brown doesn’t top himself—he basically repeats himself but with enough variations to become a source for the new bold and restless. That’s the alternative to being a step behind the times: becoming a resource.
It’s also a HUGE problem if you believe you have to top yourself in purely commercial terms—record sales for Michael, say. It’s very likely not to happen as new movements such as hip-hop come along. But there has been some real respect for Michael in that world, and, would that it could have been, he might have built on that very cannily. Lord knows he has the talent to. The global empire of pop music is harder to rule now, isn’t it?
It’s so easy to get lofty-nostalgic about the grand old performers, but all of the examples I mentioned above show that your question is right: Are you a smart survivor, or are you overtaken by megalomania? Giving in to your ego is one of the oldest stories in the showbiz book. But so is figuring out how to stay vivid. So, I guess that’s the question: What combination of elements—cultural, historical, personal—led Michael to his impasse (in your words) of “artistic ego and frustration”?
It does seem to me—I’m thinking of culture and history now—that there’s a spooky solitude to his triumph. He wasn’t the first among equals: not as a star, not as a member of a group. No protection there. In his glory days it was Michael, one god above all others, world without end, amen. Race intensified this; he had basically re-integrated a music world that had worked hard at resegregating itself. Remember how furious he was when Off The Wall won nothing but R&B awards, which everybody knew were seen by the industry as second-class ghetto prizes?
When artists get paralyzed, it’s always partly pure terror. Terror feeds that kind of “King of Pop” megalomania; so does pride, of course. So do the people you choose to live, trust, and work with. Bottom line: Hopefully you find something inside yourself that gets you going again—a new idea, plain old craft-passion, the ability to block out your “the whole word is watching” fans and flunkies and producers and find the time it takes to do your work. Even we little writers with our struggles and blocks know something about this tangle of neuroses and the ways you hold them off, trick them, find some way through them, and then have to find that way again and again. Over and over. God, it’s exhausting! And for Michael this process is magnified to surreally epic proportions. And, since he’s a genius performer, it’s heartbreaking.
Now let me try to talk about that last line: “Michael Jackson represents the monstrous child in all of us.” The Montaigne line from “Of a Monstrous Child” is: “We call contrary to nature what happens contrary to custom; nothing is anything but according to nature, whatever it may be.” Part of what fascinates me so about the changing status of freaks—and Michael has been designated Freak No. 1—is that we judge them now by behavior at least as much as by appearance. And here’s part of what holds me in thrall about Michael. He takes common behaviors, needs, impulses, and actions and magnifies them to HUGE proportions. Or should I say, in him they become magnified?
Plastic surgery and body modification; all the games, confusions, obsessions set going by race and gender and class; vanity, insecurity, regression, narcissism; erotic hide and seek; sexual desires, sexual repressions. We know this stuff. So many parts of ourselves we try to hide, deny, or shamelessly indulge. Sometimes they work well for us. We certainly can’t wholly control them. Ask the people who know us best. Ask our families, friends, and lovers. Ask our therapists and analysts. Ask strangers in a club, at a party, on the Internet; maybe they’re the only ones we dare to act out in front of. Ask any of us to think back to our childhoods—and Katherine Anne Porter called childhood “the burning fiery furnace in which we are all melted down to essentials …”
So, here is Michael, acting all this out before the world. That’s what I was thinking of when I wrote that last line.