Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, is dead of a heart attack at the age of 50. In the next few days we will be treated to endless eulogies mining the rich archive of his music, dance, videos, performances and especially his purported habits, hobbies, misdemeanors and alleged crimes. After all, what writer could resist mentioning the various critters and tchotchkes he collected: the hyperbaric, youth-preserving oxygen chamber, the Elephant Man’s bones, his pet chimp Bubbles, the Beatles catalog, Neverland Ranch, Macaulay Caulkin, Elizabeth Taylor, his many noses, skin pigments and hairstyles, his one bright white glove. I certainly can’t.
These mutations will inevitably be placed in the tragic narrative of his decline. We will be asked to remember Jackson in his prime–as the smiling, dancing, "P.Y.T." black child star who outshone his less talented siblings in the Jackson Five or as the pop-and-dance virtuoso who transcended Motown by bringing us "Thriller," "Beat It" and "Billy Jean." Forget the eccentricities and footnote the accusations of child abuse and molestation (he was never found guilty). Those are but sad stains on the larger spangled fabric of his life and career.
Well, I am here to say: fuck that shit. Without his extravagant eccentricities and ambiguous, obsessive relationships to race, gender, mortality and childhood (and children)–indeed without the conspicuously tenuous link he had to the category of the human itself–Michael Jackson would have been a B-list has-been. Most likely last seen on the latest episode of Celebrity Apprentice, his obit would have followed Farrah Fawcett’s. In short, he’d be John Oates.
Our fascination with Whack-o Jack-o has never been only, or even primarily, with his prodigious skills. It was with the way he personified our culture’s most central ambitions to whiteness, immortality, wealth, real estate and fame. Lodged somewhere between the superhuman and the alien, aspiration and disgust, Jackson was a grotesque reflection of our collective desires.
As Margo Jefferson noted in her perceptive book On Michael Jackson, the best reference point for the "Man in the Mirror" is P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth. Like the Chinamen and Arabs who peopled Barnum’s circus, Jackson came to embody the space between "Black or White." Like Barnum’s pygmies, giants, bearded ladies and albinos, Jackson mesmerized us with his recombinant body, the weird scale and mix of his anatomy. His animal menagerie helped too.
Like those with too many or too few body parts, Jackson was a human freak, to be pitied, sure, but also to be mimicked, always to be looked at and, in some way, to be wanted. He was a freak like me, a freak like you.