Michael Jackson's Complicated Legacy

I grew up in the '80s, the heyday of Michael Jackson pop. But I never really dug him. I can get into some of the music—the old Jackson 5 singles, the Quincy Jones–produced solo records—but even that requires ignoring the Jacko mythology before I can enjoy it for its own sake. He was impossible to escape, even in the tweedy environs of my parents' graduate-school crowd. I remember that the neighbors' children whose parents refused to buy a television somehow still knew the lyrics to "Bad" as they skipped across the community playground. That impressed me, even if I didn't particularly feel like singing along.

Besides the "Thriller" movie, and the solo gloved hand, the other indelible image of Jackson from my childhood was a parodic one. The video for Neil Young's anti-corporate-sponsorship anthem, "This Note's For You," mimics Jackson's real-life accident with a punched-out stage light that, in turn, engulfed his head and body in flames. Sign a big contract with Pepsi, Young seemed to warn, and you get burned by the karmic payback system of authentic music. Looking back, the symbolism of those flames was prophetic. Jackson was a man consumed by the incendiary mega-ness of his stardom. So it's not because I can't hear the talent in Jackson's voice that his music doesn't connect for me. It's the fact that, by the time I was in high school, everybody knew that stardom doomed him to a tragic adulthood. Seeing video of the frantic crowds screaming irrationally for Jackson doesn't make me nostalgic for the '80s. It just looks a little sick.

So my life was not changed by the King of Pop as much as it was by the musical regime that dethroned him. When Nirvana's Nevermind displaced Dangerous on the Billboard 200 Album chart, my middle-school soul thrilled to the new order. I celebrated the rise of grunge and dove into the back catalog of its antecedents, from garage rock to punk. When I wanted a thundering beat, there was hip-hop. When I wanted double-entendre, there was Prince. And when I wanted a groove, there was plenty of jazz to enjoy, much of which was wilder and freakier than anything on the radio. Who needed Michael?

By the time I got to college, though, my taste started to evolve. I began to tire of grimy sonics. I wanted something cleaner. Not perversely slick to the touch, but with at least a little polish. In making my first concerted effort to absorb the American catalog of soul music, I inevitably wound up listening to the Jackson 5 song "I Want You Back." There's little left to say about that wondrous chord progression, the shocking authority of that preteen voice, but it did what pop music should: it shook me. Jackson's early solo albums have the same power, though the songs that were huge enough to inspire one of the generally witless Al Yankovic parodies are still hard for me to enjoy completely free from the context of their cultural bigness.

Other generations have different reactions. My parents will probably never forgive Jackson for buying up the publishing rights to the Lennon-McCartney catalog (and then pimping it out for commercials). The high-school generation before me, of course, was the one that drove his chart success. And now again, my younger brother's generation, which wasn't even around for any part of the authentic Michael 1.0 experience, merely sees him as the godfather of current tween auteurs like Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Miley Cyrus. In between, there are people like me—those who are only too happy to celebrate his talent, but are put off by his decades of enabling the tabloid culture that both elevated and obliterated him. Some redemption may come from remix artists like Girl Talk, who are helping to give us a new sonic context for appreciating Jackson.

For us, the most poetic summation of Michael's life is probably Harmony Korine's experimental film Mister Lonely, in which a Michael Jackson impersonator is invited to help colonize an island with other individuals who make a living from impersonating global icons. Our ersatz Michael falls in love with a Marilyn, also played by a damaged soul looking for a little glamour. The poetry of the film comes from the fact that not only do the characters inhabiting the roles of Marilyn and Michael find a few fleeting moments of communion, but so too, in a sense, do those restless, self-destructive icons. Viewing the film, one imagines that these megastars might finally escape inner torment and achieve a modicum of peace. If I ever want to try and understand Michael's spirit, I'll take that over TMZ.