On Michael Jackson, Margo Jefferson, Granta, £9.99, reviewed by Stoddard Martin
It is unfortunate, if perhaps inevitable, that great creators, not least of music, should morph into personalities to be analysed to death, or beyond. Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner qualify among musicians of a prior age; Michael Jackson stands out among legions in our own. Some bring the destiny upon themselves, knowing that their public craves seasoning for the feast. But music remains the main course and, without substance in it, indigestion arrives.
‘Billy Jean’ seemed an epoch-making pop song in its day; the video of ‘Thriller’ was more than eye-catching. What else remains in memory? Image and scandal perhaps most; pathos; a certain revulsion mixed with compassion, if not sympathy. So innocent, so young, so not for a brute world – these conditions spoke out of the poor mannish fellow’s face and persuaded us of their truth, whatever defiant counter-selves he may have adopted to mask them.
The fact that he was Black was of course part of it, though it was a new kind of Black in declension – not James Brown, not Hendrix, not his beloved Diana Ross even; androgynous, white-faced, almost – yet not quite – beyond gender. In this he prefigured our present epoch and its restless children. Given as much, it might seem more apt for a youth of twenty than a woman of seventy to be writing about him. But perhaps all reasonable opinions are allowed.
Margo Jefferson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic. Her book is succinct, analytical, non-linear, echoing a style of Susan Sontag perhaps or early Joan Didion. Feuilleton journalism weds a belle-lettres self-consciousness of a creative writing school – Jefferson teaches at Columbia. Chapters are shaped as if discrete essays; sentences are fine, if occasionally a touch preciously conceived. Such is in the spirit of bien-pensant America of recent decades. So too is a content ready to sum up its subject as embodying a form or forms of ‘mental illness’.
One is tempted to ask why. Was Jackson’s penchant to share a bed, probably asexually, with teens who adored him so perverse? Sub specie aeternitatis, it seems hardly abnormal. Beds have been shared since their invention, affection, safety and warmth the main, if perhaps not always sole, reasons. Watch a Pasolini film – Canterbury Tales, Decameron. It does not all have end up like Salò. Nor was there ever anything finally more solid than adventitious charge and prurient speculation to suggest that Jackson had malevolent, manipulative motivations.
These should be the basis for moral judgement. The legal wrangle, like most aspects of this young man’s life, veered towards the circus. Jefferson’s account of it, as about Jackson’s antecedents among performers, makes useful allusion to P. T. Barnum, Black minstrel shows and forbears closer in time, such as the sexually ambiguous Little Richard. She lays out a context in which it is easy to see why an ephebe of Jackson’s type might have longed to transcend not only race but sex, age and much else to become ‘free’ – i.e., an individual of his own creation. The quest is of course impossible. One’s ‘body of fate’, as Yeats dubbed it, ever intrudes.
In Jackson’s case, he was per Jefferson’s judgement never able to escape a psychological damage inflicted by an ’abusive’ or at least rather Leopold Mozart-like controlling father. To be a child star puts special pressures on a young life – from an outer view all-too-privileged, from an inner one all-too-stressed. But… enough of such excuses and melancholy tones. Jackson, again rather like Mozart, became a god in his art – on its own terms probably beyond compare. And does anything else matter finally to posterity than how he could dance, how he could sing, how he could hold up a mirror to a world in which it might espy its distorted face?
Everyone has problems. ‘Mental illness’ can be noted in all by observers who are so inclined. Was Jackson ‘sicker’ than his multitude of admirers? Certainly he was more driven. It is part of what enabled him to be surpassingly great; and the ingredients in that status seem to this reader more to marvel at than to diagnose with lament. He burned out fast, true. So too did Mozart, Schubert, Bellini, Robert Schumann, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison – the three ‘Js’ of an author’s generation. Perhaps Jackson like the rest is of some interest as a social phenomenon, a ‘tragic’ exemplar set against the cultural landscape of his time. But since the best in a surpassing artist is almost always contained in his work, why not just listen to the music?
Editorial note; Thomas W Sneddon Jr. was the Santa Barbara district attorney who prosecuted Michael Jackson for child molestation. Jackson was cleared of all charges. See ‘D.S.’, a song by Michael Jackson. It includes the refrain “Tom Sneddon is a cold man”
Dr Stoddard Martin is an academic, author and publisher