For two months in the late fall/early winter of 1982-83, like many American children who grew up in the 70s and 80s, I spent my afternoons with Michael Jackson and an album he made called 'Thriller'.
At 9 years old, I was too young (or distracted) to have fully appreciated 'Off The Wall' or Jackson's earlier work as part of the Jackson 5/The Jacksons, but the release of 'Thriller', and the music videos that accompanied it, were nothing short of a revelation: Bass lines that shook the paper-thin walls of our modest suburban California home; lyrics I could easily read (and sing along to); a physicality that was unlike anything the world had seen before, at once loose-limbed and languid, purposeful and precise.
And that voice. My god, that voice.
I grew out of it, and him, of course; stopped spending my afternoons re-enacting the horror flick narrative of the album's title song, or gazing longingly at the two-panel portrait of Michael holding a baby tiger, his body betraying no evidence of inner tension, save the crevasses of the tendons in his right wrist. In later years, like many other people, I began to actively avoid him, switching the channel when his mutilated visage popped up on television or in my favorite magazines. It wasn't just the accusations of repeated instances of child abuse, or a growing disinterest in his music ('Bad' was the bookend to my interest in him as an artist) but the realization that I was witnessing a particularly epic, gruesome and appalling American tragedy, live and in living, clownish color: a cultural icon who was metamorphosing from a beautiful, at times cherubic, dark-skinned young Black man into something approximating an alien-like, broken doll. It was Michael's attempt to fit what someone – somewhere – thought of as an ideal aesthetic: narrow nose, stick-straight hair, hollowed-out cheeks. (The white skin was said to be the result of vitiligo.) Or maybe, as some have suggested, it was less a question of rejecting his ethnicity than rejecting his father.
About that father: Michael's search for a childhood (my god, who hasn't clung to the remants of his or her younger years, even without a history of punishing abuse and exploitation?) pained me the most; his regression was not only difficult to witness, but nauseating for those, who, like me, were working hard to successfully navigate the slings and arrows of adolescence and young adulthood, and fearful we'd fail. Michael's consorts, an entourage of innocents - children, animals, toys, mannequins - had an allure that was, sadly, understandable to anyone with the sort of psychic fragility that makes interacting with adults so difficult…and so dangerous. Running off to join the circus was not a fantasy specific to this particular pop star.
I'm not attempting to excuse Michael Jackson's eccentricities - or his disturbing (and reportedly criminal) interactions with children - but explain that I felt I understood them. (As others have pointed out, the loss of - and search for - a childhood is what fuelled Michael's metamorphosis and, now, much of the grief surrounding his untimely death.) I found him difficult to look at, and, eventually, listen to, not because he'd become a "freak" - a wholly unoriginal pejorative that has been long thrown around by more unsympathetic observers - but because he had turned himself into a canvas on which he painted his pain with the sort of haphazard brushstrokes specific to madmen and geniuses. I had to look away so as not to cry.