MICHAEL JACKSON AGONISTES: An American Pop’era In Three Acts
Essay from July 2009
by Barry Michael Cooper
“…human beings are still human beings and not piano keys, which, though played upon with their own hands by the laws of nature themselves, are in danger of being played so much that outside the calendar it will be impossible to want anything.”
Notes From Underground
Act I: I Want You Back
Thursday, 25 June 2009, is the day everyone will live outside of the calendar, because that’s the day when time stopped and hovered over U.C.L.A Medical Center in Westwood, Ca.
That was the day our King Of Pop — Michael Joseph Jackson — died from cardiac arrest (a.k.a., a broken heart), at 2:26pm, Pacific Standard Time.
One-hundred-sixty-eight hours later into the twenty millionth rotation of a never ending news cycle — and to paraphrase a line from Joan Didion’s Slouching To Bethlehem (her shout-out to W.B. Yeats)—my center is not holding. A week later, and I am scared to turn on my TV, and not only because of BET’s dismal attempt at a Michael Jackson tribute during their annual awards show which aired the Sunday after his death. Despite the powerful and moving words from Janet Jackson — Michael’s beloved baby sister — and despite the best efforts of Ne-Yo, The OJays, Don Cornelius, Maxwell, New Edition, Tevin Campbell, Guy, Tyrese, Trey Songz, Monica, Keisha Cole, Jay Z, MC Lyte (the announcer), and Jamie Foxx as the host, the network (which some have caustically derided as Bamboozled Entertainment Television, a nod to Spike Lee’s 2000 satirical masterpiece on the state of African American TV) simply dropped the ball. And yeah, I’ve heard the apologia: they only had three days to prepare, a minefield of combustible backstage politics, blah, blah, blah.
This was Michael Jackson.
There are no excuses.
Even Sean “Diddy” Combs — a man constantly vilified in the press as an unrepentant attention whore, but who presented himself as a study of class, taste, and dignity in the front row audience Sunday night — seemed mildly befuddled by the uneven presentation. However, BET cannot be singled out, because all of the networks have been condescendingly mocking in their assessment of Michael Jackson, that Wacko-Jacko-weirdo-cosmetic-surgery-junkie-what’s-wrong-with-sharing-your-bed-pedophile. I mean, that’s the media’s King Of Pop construct, right? Even thought he was never convicted of the crime, and even though the kid from the first trial — Evan “Jordy” Chandler — has reportedly admitted almost two decades later, that Michael never touched him, and his stepfather wanted to fleece Michael out of millions.
Oh, did we mention that Michael Jackson has the biggest selling album of all time? That he was the greatest entertainer in the 20th Century? Naaaaah… just look at him! He’s the Joseph-John Merrick of Gary, Ind! The Elephant Man! He’s a freak!
I’m scared to turn on my TV right now, because I don’t have a life jacket to buoy me against the raging flash-flood of soundbites, clips, and endless b-roll of Michael Jackson’s oceanic talent. An oceanic talent which drowned in the undertow of our Tsunami-like exaltation.
You hear that?
It’s the explosion of grief, a lachrymal carpet bomb detonated by the wails of men, women, and children all over the world. There was a report on London’s contactmusic.com website , that 12 people in Europe have committed suicide. Said Gary Taylor, the president and owner of the MJJcommunity.com: “I know there has been an increase (in deaths), I now believe the figure is 12. It is a serious situation that these people are going through but Michael Jackson would never want this. He would want them to live. They (fans) can’t accept it, they feel in some sort of different reality. I’m stunned that he’s dead. One minute he is coming here for concerts and the next he is gone… there will be a huge depression in the fan community when that happens.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson also weighed in: “There is great pain but great cause to celebrate Michael’s life. It made Michael happy saying “We Are The World”. Don’t self-destruct. We fall down sometimes, we get back up. That’s the right thing to do. In Michael’s name let’s live together as brothers and sisters and not die apart as fools.”
That other sound in your ears, are the pinging, digital chirps of Blackberry’s, Palm Pre’s, and iPhones, confirming the delivery and receipt of texts, emails, pics, video, and file attachments; a cluster-pluck of Michael Jackson’s TM, which some have erroneously configured into his life.
Did he have a will?
Girrrl?! You know he was on that stuff! It was an overdose. He just didn’t wanna live no more.
I told you them kids weren’t his!
Is Katherine okay?
I bet he cut Joe out completely!
They found him with bruises and needle-marks, my dude. Come on, now?! You know what this is! They knew the value of that catalog would jump through the roof, if he was-
A beggars banquet on a gluttony of gossip. An instantaneous appropriation through the airwaves of MJ’s music, abracadabra, iconography, secrets, and brand to be bought and sold. But what can’t be purchased, is his soul. I believe Michael wished his ghost to Providence a long time ago for safe-keeping, long before the first trial, because he had seen how the carrion-eaters got down while he was still in grade school.
I think a prescient Michael Jackson — the original Benjamin Button — heard the flap of vulture wings when he was just a ten-year-old charmer channeling James Brown and Jackie Wilson, gliding and soaring and singing in that audition with his brothers in Berry Gordy’s mansion on Boston Street on Detroit’s West Side. Or maybe it was on the Ed Sullivan Show, where a sunflower-Afro and bellbottom-jean-wearing Michael led The Jackson 5 through the paces of I Want You Back. Or maybe it Michael Jackson stamping his Nijinsky onto Thriller — Michael’s American Schereazade — where he retrofitted the ‘epaulement, releve’ and grand plie’ into the Moonwalk’s reverse ballet, on Motown 25.
Whenever and wherever the maturation of Michael’s business acuity, he knew this music bidness was not his friend. This business was a means to an end, and that end was to entertain us. To make us happy. But we are not happy, because this is truly fini in the three-act modern opera (or Pop’era, if you will) known as Michael Jackson Agonistes.
Logging onto You Tube — that HD’d, 4G time machine where the future of the past can be viewed in the present — I realize I can’t deal with this finality, because I can’t stop crying as I watch the video for Rock With You. In 1979, I was a 21- year-old clerk employed by the U.S. Post Office on 33rd and 8th Avenue in New York City. On Saturday nights, I was dancing the night away at Club Pegasus on 2nd Avenue and 64th Street, with my first love, Cynthia. Cynthia pushed me to seek out a gig with Soul Magazine — edited thirty years ago by J. Randy Taraborrelli, the same guy who later wrote an unauthorized MJ bio titled Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness — which published my first stories. Cynthia and I always waited for Rock With You to get our groove on, and when Michael sang, Out on the floor/there’s nobody there/but us…, that’s exactly what it felt like. You Tube is my portal: Jimmy Carter was in office. Florida, J.J., Michael, Thelma, Keith, Willona, and Penny moved out of the projects on final episode of Good Times. Fish and chips from Seafood Haven on 136th Street in Harlem. Subways without $20 metro-cards. Communication by phones you couldn’t put in your pocket and mail delivered without the speed of e and without lol’s. Crack was still the kinder-chanting sing-song thing you avoided on the sidewalk — in order not to break your Momma’s back — and not an extended enchanted evening of white-rocked witchcraft inculcated by a dangerously ambitious Bad Lieutenant Colonel and teenage obeah men carrying divination rods that resembled AR-15's.
The video for Rock With You haunts me with memories and the desire to see that permutation of Michael Jackson once again. You know: Negroid Mike, the one with the subtle nose job and a splash of Luster-fied baby hair adorning his forehead like a Ethiopian crown. Rock With You projected a happy Michael Jackson onto the silver screens of our subconscious. A playful Boyish Man draped in a sequined, two-piece Osh-Kosh set — with matching booties — who mirrored a bioluminescent glitter child desperately trying to hold on to a rapidly evaporating innocence. Using his effortless choreography to transform fog, lasers, and halogen into his own sacristy, Michael Jackson allowed us into his sanctuary where the profanities of the material world could not touch him. Or U.S.
However, the noise from the rotary blades of that battalion of L.A. news-copters on Thursday, 25 June 2009, at 2:26pm, chopped the summer air and our glimmers of hope into quixotic slivers, as we realized our impossible dream was not going to come true.
Our King Of Pop was never going to wake up.
(Next, Act II: Mask In The Mirror)
(To read all three acts of Michael Jackson Agonistes, along with a mini-documentary of Spike Lee’s 2009 Michael Jackson Birthday Celebration in Brooklyn, NY’s Prospect Park, click on this link.)