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Michael Jackson: The Possibility of Communion

Jeff Dayton-Johnson BY

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Can anyone write about Michael Jackson's music without talking about themselves? My story goes like this. An after-school dance in the multi-use room at Charlotte Wood Junior High School. I'm 13 years old, my back firmly affixed to the wall, together with my coterie of friends, watching the less socially awkward kids dance in the center of the room. All of a sudden an insistent bass line, tapping me on the shoulder, resonating in my gut like butterflies in my stomach; a swirling string chorus, and then that vocal, falsetto, part Smokey Robinson, part Marvin Gaye, but altogether new and appealing: "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." Thirty years later, the record has lost none of its immense and immediate appeal.

No, I didn't take to the dance floor, liberated, at the sound of this pure pop perfection—though I'm sure that many in my position, at that moment, around the world, did—but the performance, the dancing, the beat, immediately suggested to my adolescent soul a world of possibility. Everyone knew Jackson from the Jackson 5 days, and we all knew his solo hit, the song about the rat, but this was a new, proto-adult Jackson. Soon we would begin to see him dancing on television—he danced a little like my classmate Tom Pangelinan, who would go on to be crowned the King of the Homecoming Dance in a few years' time, or rather, Tom was the earliest and best of his imitators at our school. Whatever might follow—allegations of abominable crimes, a descent into madness, a steady decline in the quality and relevance of his musical output, and last week, a premature death—nothing could dispel the pop magic of that moment, that song and others ("I Want You Back," "Never Can Say Goodbye," "Billie Jean") before and after.

What about the madness, the alleged crimes? We are accustomed to separating our consideration of artists' often monstrous private lives from their creative output, not letting their sins tarnish our appreciation of their genius. Picasso, Bruckner, the list is a long one. Why are we so reluctant to apply the same courtesy to Jackson? Putting "child molester" in one column and "musical genius" in the other, the two do not cancel each other out. They are incommensurable. (On this count, remember that Jackson had his day in court—and walked away a free man.) Just as "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" cannot erase the crimes of which Jackson was accused, or the madness that consumed him, by the same token those crimes and that madness cannot remove the luster from that song, or a handful of others, which are as near to pop perfection as any in the popular music pantheon.

But in Jackson's case, it is not so straightforward to separate the private man from his creative life. His best music cannot be judged solely in musical terms; or to put it more precisely, a purely musical analysis of "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" will miss an essential element of what made this a moment of pop genius. And that element is Jackson's relationship to his audience—me, Tom Pangelinan, the other adolescents in that sweaty after school dance, the millions who bought his records—a relationship that is implicit in the performance itself. "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" constituted an audience, and that audience was more than the sum of all the individuals who bought the record. It suggested the possibility of communion among them.

I'm not talking about Jackson the social crusader, Jackson the proselytizer: "We Are the World" and "The Man In the Mirror," noble though they may be, are an entirely different sort of enterprise. "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" is not about self-betterment or ending famine, it is apparently about dancing, or sex, or maybe both of those things and some other things besides. The record was everywhere, when I was 13: on the radio, on television, snaking out of an open window down the street, at the junior high dance. Other records, before and after, might be nearly as ubiquitous, but this one also exploited its ubiquity to send a signal, a meme, an impulse of shared purpose, shared taste, a shared groove; not by moralizing or preaching or reasoning, but by sheer dint of the young Jackson's musical prowess, his apparently effortless cool. (And it only looked effortless, to be sure.) That's a mean feat. And that's why so many commentators on his death are drawn to their own memories, because his music touched them and connected them to others in a way that can be called, without hyperbole, magical. Elvis Presley did it; the Beatles did it too, though arguably to a smaller slice of the social fabric. Perhaps no one else will.

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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