Friday, July 17, 2009

To escape the world I've got to enjoy this simple dance/ And it seemed like everything was on my side

This is a Michael Jackson post; over three weeks late, but on my birthday, so that's something right?

Part 1. Important Guy

He was important, and saying so is every kind of obvious. But I heard a lot of people say that they didn't expect his death to emotionally impact them as much as it did. I am definitely of that camp. Before he died, I would say I listened to him on average about once or twice a week. Over the years, his music videos and live performances have acted both as a great procrastination tool and as a magic elixir to low spirits. And though I was obsessed with Thriller when I was a kid, it did not survive into my teenage years, as during that time, I elected to develop horrendous musical taste. It pretty much took my college friends four years to correct this, and I'd say it's still shaky (I am a genuine fan of the Scorpions, for example, and I have listened to the song "Let's Get Retarded" more than someone with the resources to not listen to it should have). And so when I thought of Michael Jackson at all, it was with a touch of nostalgia along with a nascent appreciation for the fact that he was, indeed, the best performer in the world.

But I don't think I ever regarded myself as a fan. I turned to him the way you turn to puppies to lift your mood or decide the world is alright because some natural spectacle or other really got to you. It's like, yes, I guess I am a fan of baby animals and snow-capped mountains if I really think about it, and if they were somehow excised from my life, I would really miss them. But they never play into the analytical part of my brain, the way Woody Allen, or ODB, or the Kids in the Hall, or the Cure, or Nathanael West, or Dave Chappelle, or Karl Pilkington, or The Wire, or Bill Watterson, or countless other past and present obsessions have. Being a fan requires you to interact with work in a deliberate and aggressive way; you have to pick apart, parse out and compare each nuance of the person/group/thing's output so that when some unfortunate person asks you why you like it just for small talk's sake, you embarrass yourself by talking about it for an hour, and even when you relinquish the conversation, you are still revising what you just said about it in your head, so the next time it'll be two hours.

I never did that with Michael Jackson. If someone asked me about him, I'd probably say, "Yeah, he's the best", and I'd mean it, but it'd be the way I'd mean it when I say, "Man, these chips are delicious". His music and performances were just there, a reliable indulgence, and that was all. I had no idea that all those little bits and pieces of watching and listening him for my whole life had resulted in him building a pretty hefty residence somewhere in my consciousness. It's a shock that a person we thought we'd wasted no mental energy on was apparently deeply embedded in our thoughts the entire time, and then they're gone, and you're off balance.

Part 2. Who Else is That Important?

One weird thing I heard a lot, I think to counter the surprise emotional upset, was to postulate on what other person's death might impact us in both the same way and on the same scale. It's actually a sick response, but I know I am not alone in having it. Part of it, I think, comes from a kind of perverse addiction to the pleasure that accompanies an icon's death - we kind of want to speculate on when we will get the next big hit of world drama.

Let me qualify that: I've been lucky enough to never have anybody in my immediate family or circle of friends pass away, and on the few occasions when I've imagined what that must be like or have felt comfortable enough to ask others about it, it is resoundingly clear that the pleasure part is absent. It is absent because you knew that person, you related to them on a variety of levels, you taught each other things, you laughed with them, you puzzled over where you were disagreeing with them, you wondered what you should get them for Christmas. There would be subjects that only the two of you could discuss. You had seen the kaleidoscope of that person's personality, and they had for you too, and now you are never, ever going to be able to do certain things again because that person is not there to do them with you. Your life is going to be different, and you have to mourn both the person you lost, and the parts of yourself they took with them.

But we didn't know Michael Jackson. We have exactly the same relationship to him now that we did before his death. And our detachment excuses us entirely from mourning him on the level that the sane members of his family are. There is no personal pain of loss because there was nothing idiosyncratic about our connection to him; we share it with hundreds of millions of people. That is not to say that his music doesn't mean something different to each of us, but anyway, that's irrelevant, because we did not lose his music. About the only thing we lost was the hope that we might see and hear more from him in the future. But obviously, this is a very different kind of loss than if we'd known him personally. If we are upset by the fact that we'll never have his future music - well, that's crazy. We don't have it now either. We are just mourning a potential thing, that might never have happened anyway.

Some have posited that David Bowie's death will be similar. But of course, we know that will be a whole other kind of sad. Yes, Bowie rivals Michael Jackson for otherworldliness, but he knows that and cultivates it. Contrary to the way Michael Jackson tried harder and harder to be like a human only to accidentally become more and more like an alien, Bowie's androgyny and tri-yearly re-inventions are self-aware and deliberate and as such, make us much more comfortable than Michael Jackson's. We know that Bowie's in on it, and we know Bowie knows we know, and it's a whole positive feedback loop of knowing stuff, and our relationship to Michael Jackson just doesn't have that knowing-stuff-ness. Even with other alien-ish people, like Bjork or Crispin Glover, we can see that while they are super-weird, they still give the impression that they've got it under control. Again, Michael Jackson did not give that impression.

I've also heard Barack Obama as a comparable potential death, just in terms of scale. It is a good comparison for the scope of the loss, someone who was regarded as an icon around the globe, and who was truly loved by his supporters. On the other hand, it is a ridiculous comparison. Not that I'm stating anything ground-breaking here, but whoa, Michael Jackson and Barack Obama are the ultimate bizzaro-world versions of each other; they are at the farthest extremes of the charisma spectrum. Take alone their development of racial identity. In his thirties, Obama produces one of the most far-reaching, articulate and affecting books about race ever written. In his thirties, Michael Jackson at some point thinks "I think I am done with being black". And he actually has the money to be done with his race, at least superficially.

Yes, I'm aware that the point I'm making is that Michael Jackson and Barack Obama are very different people. Not all my trains of thought end up at stations.

For the record, the first person who popped into my head when I asked myself whose death would devastate me that much: Robert Smith. Holy fuck, I am going to lose my fucking shit when that guy dies, which my 15-year-old-me agrees with.

Part 3. Michael Jackson Was Super-Alive

Another reason I think his death affected people more than they expected is because every song and video he made indicates that he was about 3,000% more alive than we are. Whether it's his exuberantly happy kid-voice in "ABC" - indisputably joy incarnate - or it's that caged, edgy look he has in the "Beat It" music video - like he is just a mountain of pure potential energy - he was the epitome of life. Not life in the biological sense of "life on earth" or the social sense of "my life is okay" or the philosophical sense of "what is the meaning of life"; he is the epitome of "life" when used in the context of wow, Michael Jackson was "full of life".

Retrospectively, it's all over his work. When you're watching the video for "Earth Song", doesn't a part of you think it's a documentary? Like, the power of Michael Jackson un-logged that forest, un-warred that village, un-poached that elephant? In the "Thriller" video, don't you kind of believe Michael Jackson not only resurrected a bunch of people from the dead but also inspired them to be super-awesome dancers? And in every live performance you can find, there he is, leading his backup dancers. Those dancers will have gone through rounds and rounds of auditions, they have devoted their whole lives to their craft, they pay their Con Edison and AT&T bills with their ability to move well. And I am not shitting on them at all when I say they are furniture compared to Michael Jackson. He is not the focal point only because he is front and center with the glow of the spotlight encircling him. He'd be the focal point if he was three people in on the fifth row back. Something altogether different and exciting is going on when Michael Jackson performs, and it's the easiest example to cite when I claim that Michael Jackson somehow had a lot more life encased in his weird, pixie frame than the rest of us do.

Is there a unit of measurement for how alive somebody is? When Rip Van Winkle was in his 20 year sleep, he was, let's say, at 1 "lifey" (pronounced Lye-Fee). When Buster Bluth was faking a coma in Season 3, he was at 5 lifeys. When Linus van Pelt and Charlie Brown are lying on a knoll looking at clouds, they are at about 11 lifeys. When Jimmy McNulty drives his car into a pillar, gets out of the car, tries to re-assess the curve he needs to take, only to then drive into the pillar a second time, that's about 30 lifeys. On the higher end of things, we have the Greek heroine Atalanta; when she runs a foot race, she is at about 150 lifeys. Rick Moranis at the end of Ghostbusters 2 is at about 170 lifeys. When Wall-E first sees Eve, he's at about 200 lifeys, because you can have lifeys even if you are a robot.

And Michael Jackson, at a resting state, was at least at 500 lifeys. When he was performing, we think he was pushing 100,000, but we can't be sure if it was more, because our lifey scale could no longer accommodate his enormous lifey-ness.

It's just upsetting that this man with such a high lifey count is now at 0 lifeys, that's all.

4. Neverland

Peter Pan has been on my top five favourite books since I began listing my top five favourite books. In childhood, through my teenage years and still today, it is an endlessly appealing story to me. Right now, it is between Blood Meridian and Kafka's The Castle, which is VERY APPROPRIATE.

Anyway, if I was ever to become a multi-millionaire that had lost touch with reality, I would definitely build a Neverland, and would thus be viewed as utterly unoriginal in Michael Jackson's wake. I identify enormously with his compulsion to build that ranch; it might be the strongest personal connection I feel to him, music included. It bears mentioning at this point that I had a very happy childhood. If I, a girl who was lucky enough to spend her formative years actually being a kid - and I did such a good job of it that I intend to continue it today, my 25th birthday - if I am this attracted to a modern Neverland, it's not a stretch to see why Michael Jackson, who's childhood was adulthood in the extreme, would build it for himself.

It would be awesome if I could leave it at that; it would be very neat and clean. But of course, there's a reason that Peter Pan survived in my list of five favourite books throughout my teenage and adult years, and a reason I think it's appropriate to place it between Blood Meridian and The Castle, two dark, pessimistic books, one brutally violent and the other about characters fixated on getting to a place that may not exist. Peter Pan's got some sick and twisted stuff in it. You can sort of gloss over it if you turn a majorly blind eye, but the sex and violence is not even subtext. There was also a companion book J.M. Barrie wrote called The Little White Bird, in which the adult first-person narrator flat-out molests a little boy. It is waaay out of print; I remember having my ebay copy arrive in junior high with a Florida library barcode still attached, but it exists, and it is where the now legendary perennial boy made his debut. Barrie's own fiction betrays him as likely a pedophile, and definitely a man with violent thoughts. And it seems fitting that any Neverland be tainted, including Michael Jackson's.

I actually don't think that Jackson committed the crimes of which he was accused. Of course, I don't know, I fully admit that I have no way of knowing and will sign a waiver if you want me to, declaring that I don't know shit. But the reason I doubt it is because he legitimately seemed nuts enough to sleep in a bed with little boys not so much because he wanted to abuse them but because he desperately wanted to believe he was one of them. He was going off of Disney's Neverland, not Barrie's Neverland. And as somebody who has wanted to be some simple combination of Wendy, Tinkerbell but mostly Peter her whole life, wow, that just gets me where it counts.

Part 5. He Gave Me Rhythm

Oliver Sachs was on The Daily Show the other week, talking about Musicophilia. Jon Stewart was asking if somebody who goes through a stroke is more likely to lose music or language, and Sachs responded that they are way more likely to lose language, that music is very deeply embedded into our brains. He qualified the statement by pointing out that while some people can lose understanding of melody with brain trauma, rhythm is never lost.

For me, it cannot be lost, for it has never been there. It is known to many who have seen me dance that I am the exception to all of Dr. Sachs' hard-earned data. I love to dance, but - and again, many can attest to this - it is not so much "dancing" as it is "moving while music is playing". For it to be dancing, there has to be a relationship between the music and the motion of my body, and that is always the critical absence for me. I put my feet in different places, my arms do things, I swing my hips, I smile, I am always having a good time. But when Karl Pilkington described Steve Merchant's attempts at dance as "a piece of weird art", I knew I fit that bill too.

Except with Michael Jackson. I can actually dance to Michael Jackson, and I've attached proof. A year or so ago, my best friend Chris was visiting New York, and we went to the Times Square Virgin Records. We walked in, and to welcome us, the store immediately started playing "Billie Jean". We danced. On the escalators, in the $10 DVD section, in front of all who cared to look upon us. And below is a photo, which I think captures that I was actually dancing pretty well (by which I mean, what I was doing could be considered "dancing" and not just "being in motion as music plays").

I will always be grateful to Michael Jackson for this moment.

6. Planet Jackson

Here's what I imagine happened to him: there is a planet out there somewhere where all the planets' and moons' and asteroids' version of him goes to after they die. Like, all the weird, enormous superstars all go there, and they hang out. They relax. That's where I think he is, even though I know it's not. Some world where all the other worlds' otherworldly people go. He's taking a nap right now.