Last evening, marking the first anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, “Dateline” aired portions of an interview with his mother, Katherine. My musical taste focuses more on classical than pop, but I bought “Thriller” when it was released in 1984 and thought it was a masterpiece. Watching his mother last night, I began to wonder what happened to him, really, after 1984. Where did his fresh, boundless musical talent go? I began to think of Michael Jackson as a character in a novel, which suddenly reminded me of Adrian Leverkuehn in Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus. Not that Jackson and Leverkuehn have anything in common, really. But somehow, the emotional landscape of the Mann story resonates with Jackson’s life.
It’s been years since I’ve read Leverkuehn’s story, and it would take way too long to re-read it for this post, so I decided to approach Jackson from a different angle. This morning, as I was cleaning, I slipped the DVD of “Ones” into my TV. I’d bought the DVD when I picked up the CD several years ago but had never watched it. At the time, I bought it because I thought it might somehow be a good thing to have. The DVD contains the music videos of his Number 1 songs, beginning with “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and ending with “You Rock my World.”
Superficially what struck me was the dramatic change in Jackson’s appearance and demeanor. He starts out fresh-faced, open, in wonder and joy at singing and making music…and resembling his father. By the end, his demeanor has closed, his movements more angular and not as natural but very choreographed and stylized, and his face resembles his mother’s. His Vitiligo had also taken a toll. Even in “You are not Alone,” the joy and wonder of his youth are gone, and he made that video during his marriage to Lisa Marie Presley. The emotional resonance of the early songs is of innocence and naivete, fun and joy. The songs from the “Thriller” album begin to acquire a darker edge, mixed with an impish humor — Jackson is growing up. There is an emotional murkiness that characterizes his later work, I think. Ambiguity. Jackson tries to take on a “criminal” or tough guy persona but can’t really pull it off because of his appearance and slight build. He looks like a boy playing at being a tough guy, a boy playing at trying to seduce a woman, a boy trying to save the world.
It was an act, of course. As a writer, what fascinates me about Jackson is that the act continued, evolved, and became the man even when he wasn’t on stage. Did he really know himself? The other thing that fascinates me as a writer is his reported difficulty with sleeping which led to his craving/need for Propofol, an anaesthetic which does not induce real sleep but does provide unconsciousness, a complete escape from the world. He was an addict, and not a recovering one. But what was his lesson to learn in this life and did he learn it? He tried to help children and do good with his money, his power, but that seemed to derail early with Neverland Ranch. Surrounding himself with children in the belief that he was doing good was a serious flaw in his thinking. Where was the trusted person who could tell him it wasn’t a good idea, show him much better alternatives for helping children, helping the world? There has always been a huge need to help children all over the world and all sorts of possibilities. Why did Jackson listen to the people he chose to listen to? Or did no one challenge his thinking?
I would not write about Michael Jackson, even in a disguised way, as a character in a novel, and I have no desire to write a non-fiction book about him. His life, behavior, his choices and talent, all offer questions to spark possibilities in characterization for a fictional character. Public figures or private, each person gives writers the opportunity to learn about people — by observation, study, looking for behavior patterns that might offer a glimpse into motivations, learning about the infinite diversity of human beings. Paying attention…..