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Michael Jackson: The Possibility of Communion

By Published: July 5, 2009
What made Jackson's post-Thriller (Epic, 1982) music awkward was that it presented itself as superstar music, and though it reached audiences that most of the artists on could only dream of, those audiences no longer accepted it as superstar music. What looked effortless and cool before could not be restored by any amount of exhortation and hectoring.

Maybe another reason it's difficult to separate Jackson's creativity from his private demons is that the madness that visited upon him had to do with his inability to come to terms with demands made by his audience, or more accurately, by the society at large that made him a superstar: expectations that had to do with celebrity, aging, race and sex. These are not (merely) private matters, but social phenomena. The possibility of community I'm talking about had to do precisely with the way his music suggested—not in its lyrics, but in its very DNA—a way to transcend the divisions created by age, race and sex. That is the very positive aspect of his pushing at boundaries, aggressively but with unspeakable panache: that one nation, black and white, young and old, could be united, as Funkadelic would put it around the same time as "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," under a groove. The negative aspects of pushing those boundaries is that Jackson simultaneously sought to eliminate those boundaries in his own mind and body. That is, he refused to accept that he was an African-American man of a certain age, who had had fame thrust upon him maladroitly at far too young an age—indeed, had eagerly sought it—and who had probably suffered physical and perhaps sexual abuse as a child. His madness was the grotesque mirror image of the wonderful possiblity of community he communicated. And we, his audience, are complicit in both the wonderful and the grotesque.

Readers of are accustomed to celebrating the music of gifted musicians who will never achieve but a tiny fraction of the fame, the sales, the renown, that was Jackson's. Some will say that his music, in purely musical terms, cannot approach theirs in terms of excellence. Perhaps. But what Jackson shares with the best of them is something that extends beyond narrowly musical terms: the capacity to suggest to an audience, in the course of a performance, the possibility of communion, and by extension, of community. That is why we mourn.

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