ON MICHAEL JACKSON, by Margo Jefferson. Pantheon, ' 160 pp.
One morning on a weekend in December 2003, at a coffee shop in Washington, D.C., I sat down next to a table where two people were discussing some news item. The actual event was impossible to make out in my groggy state, but it had them very excited. There were references to "his wealth," "his megalomania" and "his crimes." By the time one of them mentioned "his cult of personality," the caffeine was enlivening my senses, and I could draw a logical inference from these disconnected phrases: For whatever reason, Michael Jackson was back in the spotlight.
In reality, of course, Saddam Hussein had just been captured -- news so recent that it was not yet in the morning's paper. Learning this an hour later, I replayed the mental tapes and felt the suitable degree of embarrassment.
Wasn't there something appropriate about the confusion, though? The image of the King of Pop (self-crowned, like Napoleon) as Orwellian dictator surrounded by cheering, hysterical crowds is something that Jackson himself has played with in his videos. Of course, it has now been at least a decade since the Dear Leader's creativity generated as much excitement as his peculiarities. The collapse of that empire has registered, quite literally, on his face. And yet the ruins still fascinate.
About this grand, or at least grandiose, phenomenon, the New York Times critic Margo Jefferson has written a very short book -- an essay, really. The very title, On Michael Jackson, echoes the open-ended formula once used by Montaigne ("Of Vanitie") to introduce his musings. Jefferson follows the intuition -- which most of us have had at some point -- that Jackson has long since gone beyond the realm of ordinary fame and fortune. He now occupies some virtually unimaginable zone on the far side of celebrity, and just beyond.
So he is a symbol. But of what? To her credit, Jefferson mostly resists the quicker shortcuts of pop-culture punditry -- finding social or political meaning neatly packaged in entertainment products, reading the Zeitgeist via the latest sales charts. She pays attention to form, to performance, to the significance and the history of style. Whether or not he is an artist in any nontrivial sense, Michael Jackson is certainly a perfectionist. Whatever meanings his work and his public persona may have, they are embodied in gestures and images created, with obsessive urgency, by a man with an exacting sense of his craft.
"Time and again in his videos," Jefferson writes, "we see Michael Jackson undergoing monstrous transformations: from sweet young man to ghoul ('Thriller'); from natty pop star to black cat ('Billie Jean'); from dancing white-robed shaman to hooligan smashing windows, then seizing and stroking his penis ('Black or White'). ... He loves genres that emphasize mutable identities, carefree cartoons and horror tales."
It's easy enough to move from this aesthetic observation to comment on Jackson's own personality - his transformation into some kind of hermaphroditic, post-racial, trans-human creature from planet Narcissus. But that comes later. It isn't what made Jackson fascinating in the first place. The capacity to morph was already embodied in his moves on stage.
"It's mutability that makes his dancing so special," Jefferson writes. "That ability to smoothly turn a James Brown funky chicken into Josephine Baker's knock-kneed Charleston. The quick jumps. The pelvic thrusts in profile (one knee held up) that give way to sleek jazz runs. He has the ability to be liquid and percussive at once, to create an aura of suspense and improvisation."
At some point, though, Jackson's capacity for suspense and improvisation went horribly wrong. "Michael doesn't look like anything we can correlate with experience," as Jefferson puts it. His motives, the needs that drive him, invite speculation - but are almost impossible to imagine. It is like looking into an abyss to contemplate what Jefferson calls "the mystery of why someone would voluntarily pass over into the world of solitary freakdom."
The standard interpretation, of course, is that Jackson never really had a childhood -- so now, having access to enough resources to keep adult reality at bay most of the time, he is trying desperately to reclaim one. Drawing on various Jackson family biographies, memoirs and exposés, Jefferson revisits the now familiar stories of paternal brutality and sibling rivalry -- the whole constellation of dysfunction surrounding Michael, the youngest of the brood. He was also the most stunningly talented, as if destined from infancy for his vocation as song-and-dance man. He was generating millions at an age when most kids have just gotten an allowance.
Jefferson's thesis (if that is not too heavy a word for an argument sketched in, but largely unelaborated upon) is that Jackson did not simply have a show-business childhood. Rather, pop culture now forms the deepest layer of his self. "There is nothing natural about the making of child stars," she writes. "They are little archaeological sites, carrying layers of show-business history inside them, fragments of history and tradition.
"All children have a private culture," she continues, "put together from what they see and hear every day and from objects they turn into fetishes. It's a space to play and dream in. But Michael's private culture has always been turned into the stuff of his work life. Now it is the stuff of a private mythology he lives by and that we struggle to grasp." Or in the words of a psychoanalyst friend she quotes: "Do you realize that this is someone whose inner life is 'Tom and Jerry'?"
So his depths are all mass-culture surfaces. Instead of an inner self, he has a collage of scraps from minstrelsy, freak shows and Shirley Temple movies. (The latter being, as Graham Greene was tactless enough to point out in 1937, always more than vaguely pedophile in sensibility.) It's an interesting analysis and one that could be developed at greater length. With On Michael Jackson, we have a book closer in spirit to a performance by the King of Pop himself -- something graceful, capable of moves both liquid and percussive, dancing across the rooftops of cultural history rather than digging in the basement.