Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Blame it on the Boogie; or, in which I have more questions than answers

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

A small note on the text.

I have hesitated for two days over whether to put up this post. It is going to make some of my loyal readers very cross, because I know they are Michael Jackson fans. I hate the idea of trampling over tender feelings. There is a real danger that I am being too judgemental and unforgiving, or just plain wrong. This dilemma has made me ponder what blogs themselves are for. Who cares what I think? Perhaps I am falling into the blogger’s trap, the accusation of the mainstream media that the whole thing is merely an exercise in self-indulgence. I love the community aspect of blogging: I like it when we are all agreeing and getting along and laughing at the same jokes. The people pleasing part of me, which years of therapy could never quite erase, says I should just trash the whole thing and write a snappy little jingle of a post about how the sun is shining and the swallows are swooping past my window and a girl with a pretty voice is singing a cover of Joan of Arc, which is making me smile. The cussed part of me says: publish and be damned. The rational part of me says: your readers are grown ups, they can take a difference of opinion once in a while. For whatever reason, I am going to take the risk. If the comment board goes up in smoke, I have only myself to blame.

So, here goes:

In the summer that Thriller came out, I was deep in the Nievre on a French exchange with my friend Ally, listening to Leonard Cohen. The summer before I was in the West Indies, where my first and nastiest stepfather had taken my mother to live, and I spent two months listening to nothing but Bob Marley, in homage at first to my surroundings, in sheer awe and wonder, in the end, at his raging brilliance. The summer after that was the season of two songs only: Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown by the Stones, and Heroes by David Bowie. That was the soundtrack of my teenage years.

Through the long French summer of 1982, I ate pork rillettes for the first time, developed impossible crushes on a Portuguese and an Englishman, both equally dark and thrilling and out of reach, and was taught to do le roc by a wry Scot called Archie who made me laugh so much I could not see straight. I heard the heartbreaking sound of Fado, played on four guitars under a black sky littered with stars, and was not as kind as I should have been to the third exchange student, an upright serious boy called Lancelot, who wore tweed jackets and did not listen to any popular music at all. (I hope now that he is a brilliant professor of history or an expert on moral philosophy, and I hope that my memories of teasing him are overblown, and if I ever had any advice to give to the Young People it would be: never be mean to the geeks, because if you stop to listen, they are always more interesting than the cool kids, and will probably go on to conquer the world.)

In an old stable where we played ping-pong, its brick floor and whitewashed walls sheltering us from the scorching heat of the day, Ally and I waged a fierce battle over the turntable. She wanted Thriller, all full volume, all the time, and each moment she was not looking I rushed over and put on Songs of Love and Hate, or Songs from A Room, or The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Back and forth we went, from Billie Jean to So Long, Marianne. It was a war of attrition, and I don’t think either of us ever won. So even in when he was in his pomp, I never got Michael Jackson. As I grew older, he lived in the margins of my consciousness: I was dimly aware of the increasing freakishness, the mutilating plastic surgery, the allegations of child abuse, the odd collection of friends (Elizabeth Taylor, Uri Geller, Deepak Chopra), the massive debts, the bizarre way he created his children, the strange television interviews, the rehab visits, the court cases, the Jarvis Cocker stage invasion. I assumed that he had gone way past the tipping point, and was never again to be taken seriously.

And then he suffered a fatal coronary. Overnight, he was washed clean; people cried in the streets, Twitter crashed, spontaneous tributes were performed as crowds moondanced in public places. The King of Pop was gone; it was the day the music died. I felt: nothing. I read myself a narrative, because all humans need one of those. A sad man, who never really had a shot at life, died at a young age, before his time. Surely there is a sorrow in that? I, with my nice bleeding liberal heart should feel it, even from a distance. Fame, John Updike once said, is a mask that eats the face. Jackson’s face was almost literally consumed by fame, until there was barely anything recognisable left; he was a fable, a cautionary tale, a walking tragedy, right there up on the stage. I should feel: something.

I did, in the end, feel something. I felt a bafflement that came close to anger. It seemed inexplicable to me that people I liked, writers I admired, clever columnists I loved to read, were bending in homage to a man who frankly admitted to welcoming young boys into his bed. All our idols are flawed. The three writers I most worship, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Mrs Woolf, were a drunk, a misogynist and a snob. The singing voice I perhaps love most of all came out of Frank Sinatra, who consorted with mobsters and behaved unspeakably to his wives. But there was something about a powerful, famous man spending many nights with starstruck adolescents that I could not get past.

I called my friend Paul. He is the one I call when I have a question to which I do not know the answer. ‘Yes,’ he said, picking up on the third ring. We have the kind of friendship which goes so deep that even when we have not spoken for weeks there is no hello-how-are-you small talk when either of us answers the telephone. ‘Why is it,’ I said loudly, for I had grown intemperate, ‘that the entire world is in mourning for a man accused of fiddling with little boys?’ Slight pause. ‘I’ll take you off speakerphone,’ Paul said.

Later, he called me back, and we talked it over. Paul can be stern and rational when it is called for. He spoke of forgiving our heroes, and loving the music, and the crucible moment of a black artist going mainstream and what that meant. I spoke of Sam Cooke, and Al Green, and Etta James, and Nina Simone, and Stevie Wonder, and Ben E King, all of whom I thought wrote and sang greater songs than Jackson ever dreamed of. ‘But he was pop,’ said Paul. ‘Maybe you just don’t like pop.’ I stopped and thought, determined to be fair. I always like to be fair. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I love pop. I just don’t think he wrote great pop. It sounded to me commercial and overproduced. I think Jarvis Cocker did perfect pop, and Ray Davies with The Kinks, and Neil Hannon with The Divine Comedy, and all the boys in Blur, and I adored those great songs from the sixties that went build me up build me up buttercup or the concrete and the clay beneath my feet begin to crumble. If you stretched your definition a bit, you could even say The Ramones were pop. And I loved them like brothers.’

The conversation started to wind down. In a final burst of confusion, I said: ‘And that whole thing about him being a hero for the black community, how does that count for anything when he spent his life trying to look white? How does that work?’ There was another pause. Paul said: ‘I don’t think it’s as simple as that.’

So I got no answers, even from one of the men I most trust to give them to me. I have no answers now, only questions, than run around in my head like characters in a film on fast forward. I think it is curious the things that people forgive, and to whom they offer their forgiveness. Our members of parliament, who earn a tenth the amount in a year what Jackson could pull in from one concert, are excoriated and hounded through the market place for claiming bath plugs and scatter cushions on expenses. There is no absolution for them. They are booed on live television; they are all the same, only in it for what they can get. If one of them, however hardworking and untainted by expense scandal and dedicated to the democratic process, had admitted, as Jackson did, that he thought it a charming thing to share his bed with a thirteen year old boy, even if no impropriety was ever proved, just imagine the headlines in the Daily Mail, picture the paedo frenzy in The News of the World. The career would be over, all moral authority gone, any obituary would have only one lead headline. Many of those elected representatives are now packing it in, even though they have never taken a single Demerol, or told a young fellow that wine was good for him because Jesus drank it, or dangled a small baby over the balcony of a German hotel room. The public prosecutors who tried desperately to bring charges against Jackson, who believed the frightening stories that were told to them by the young children who slept at Neverland, who could never quite build a case that a jury would buy, told interviewers, over and over again, ‘He could get away with it because he was Michael Jackson.’ They did not mean that he got away with it because he was a brilliant dancer or a dazzling showman or a gifted songwriter; they meant: it was the fame and the money and the power. Comparing pop stars with MPs might be a case of apples and oranges, but it seems strange to me that Jackson is held to such a radically different standard than any other adult male, and I am not quite certain that I understand why.

I do have a fatal tendency to hero worship, which means I have to distinguish between the work and the person. I have written before about how it might be too much to expect a writer of genius to be also a great human being. I don’t so much forgive TS for his treatment of his wife, or F Scott for his petulant drunken outbursts, or Mrs Parker for her sottish episodes of slatternly self-pity, as try to read the work without remembering all that. I do think there are degrees of egregiousness. All rock stars are expected to do junk and sleep with hookers and do the diva jive; their public almost demands it. What would Keith Richards be without the smack, or Janis Joplin without the nights in the Chelsea Hotel, or Sid without Nancy? When Roger Daltry took up fly fishing, that was much harder for The Who fans to take than stories of debauchery and throwing television sets out of windows.

I find a slight tinge of the madness of crowds in this revisionist mourning. Maureen Orth, who wrote long and thoughtful articles about Jackson in Vanity Fair, has been called ‘evil’ because she went on television and described him as a failed human being. She covered all the accusations from the young boys who were interviewed by psychologists and judged plausible, whose stories all ran along identical lines. She reported on the $25 million paid to Jordie Chandler and the enduring belief in Jackson’s guilt of Tom Sneddon, the district attorney who tried the 2005 case. Despite her forensic reporting, we shall never know the whole truth. There is the chance that all of those children were making it up, for attention, because their parents were bent on extortion, because Michael Jackson was Michael Jackson, and he was naive enough to say, on national television, that there was absolutely nothing wrong with a grown man sharing a bed with a young boy. It was natural, he said, and beautiful. There is the possibility that he was more victim than victimiser.

I can’t tell if I loved Michael Jackson’s music more I would give him more latitude. I did not get him as a person, and I did not get him as a musician. This sad, freakish man makes me now feel like a freak myself, because I cannot join in this public mourning, this great uncritical outpouring of grief, this we shall not see his like again valediction, because I am too haunted by the faltering memory of those young boys, and the stories they told.


  1. As the news of Michael Jackson's spread like a stain on Friday, I found myself bemused by the fact that I semed to be the only one who thought the day's saddest news was that a 15-year-old being found guilty of torturing and murdering a toddler he was supposed to be looking after.

    I was starting to wonder if I was emotionally stunted because I wasn't crippled by grief at the death of someone famous who I had never met, but who was by all accounts a great showman.

    It was like when I refused to get caught up in all grief-fest when Princess Di died. Yes, it was sad. Yes, she was pretty. Yes, she had her share of problems. Yes, she was a loving mother. And yes, she seemed to genuinely care about people and want to help. But the same applies to literally millions of women around the world who have never had the adavantages of the priviledge she was born into.

    Dying in a Paris crash did not make Di a saint, any more than the sudden death of Michael Jackson raises him to the status of pop (sorry, NOT rock’n'roll) deity.

    I say “it’s a shame” when someone famous dies too early, too suddenly or too painfully. But I save my own sorrow for when I lose someone who really did touch my life - like when oesophagal cancer claimed my Dad within 4 short months of diagnosis. Now THAT was tragic (for me), but even he did not become a saint by virtue of dying. His death simply left a big hole in my life where he used to be.

    Let’s keep a sense of proportion folks. OK, we can acknowledge the passing of a cultural icon. But leave the weeping, wailing and rending of clothes please - there is more than enough things to be sad about without going looking for manufactured mass grief.

  2. At the risk of sycophancy, I mostly agree with everything you have written. I have never really got the whole Jackson phenomenon, and my heart quails when I think that his children are to be looked after by their grandparents, who have instilled such a pride of self and sense of esteem in their own children that most of them have resorted to surgery of any kind in a bid to what - not be a Jackson?
    I know what it is to hero-worship (Durrell - a drunk, a depressive and foul to his first wife, Hemingway and F Scott like you, amongst others) and yet to blindly, wifully ignore those characteristics that in real life, would ensure they almost certainly would not be a part of your social circle. Yet their particular talent washes over their faults and we can forgive them for the pleasure/reprieve they bring. So surely the question is - how big must the fault be for us to be unable to ignore it and enjoy the music/words/painting etc - and maybe this is it. We can take in our seeming stride wife-beating, lechery, adultery, alcoholism, addiction, cruelty, but accusations and improprieties with children must be the limit... This was a man so deeply flawed that his children will sadly, inevitably, also lead flawed and unstable lives (the mother of 2 of them professes to know them so little, she wants nothing to do with them - the very circumstances in which they were brought into the world makes me shudder).
    As my husband said, this was a shock but not a surprise. I tend to concur - such a life was never going to end happily.

  3. Ah, thank you both so much for making me feel that I am not alone.

    She Means Well - completely agree about expending the big emotions on the serious things. I am so very sorry to hear about your dad. Someone very close to me recently lost her mother, and I have been thinking a great deal about the hammer blow to the heart when a parent dies.

    Jo - my post was already far too long, so I did not go into the whole thing with the children, but I keep thinking: what chance do they ever have at anything like a normal life, and perhaps that is the worst crime of all. I think maybe you are right about the talent/fault ratio and that is the crux of the whole thing. If you go to Vanity Fair and read the Maureen Orth articles, the details of the story really are horrifying, and she is a level-headed woman of a certain age, not a tabloid sensationalist.

  4. Great post! I'm with you on everything, although I do actually like some of the Jackson Five music, and I think Jackson's body of work will stand the test of time. However, the weirdness that goes hand in hand with the music makes me uneasy too. And I also hate that people's 'foibles' are forgotten about once they die.

  5. 'A Mask that eats the face' - what a staggering quote, never heard it and so applicable in this case. I'm very ambivalent about pop icons like this (India Knight made a great point in the Sunday Times - are people mourning their loss or the end of their own youth?) As with Di, it's curious people seem more able to project their losses onto pop figures - like some spiritual hunger. MJ just seems a tragic car crash of a life on a mythological scale (talent, wealth, adulation, corruption of innocence, abuse, fall ...) Like you my musical taste ranges from pop to classical, but mostly jazz, blues, soul, artists with real stories to tell and real lives and loves they have experienced. What I really can't understand is how someone middle aged can be a 'fan' - surely we grow out of that maudlin hysteria after puberty??

  6. Thank you very much for your post and I applaud your decision to bite the bullet and post something you felt honestly even though it might fly in the face of "mainstream" opinion.

    I confess I did feel sadness upon his death and *some* willingness to forgive his sins (partly because people are never wholly good or wholly evil (and I find it possible to feel both grateful for what they give as well as disappointment for where they fail), and partly because I don't feel comfortable judging someone I hardly know and whose life I can hardly fathom); but the main thing I wish to say is that I felt sadness less perhaps for the man, and more maybe for what he symbolized. I thought he was rather a tragic figure, but I think I felt the most sadness because his music was always in the background of my childhood. Although I never personally bought any of his albums, I did enjoy his music, which was ever pervasive, and his death felt like the end of an era. I felt very keenly the passage of time, and our own inexorable march to face our own humanity.

    This doesn't make me less sad about the other sufferings in the world, or feel any less grief for the millions of people who do truly suffer. And I'm not hysterical in my grief, but I did feel it nonetheless, however irrational others might think I am for it. One can't help their emotions, only what they choose to do with them.

  7. I'm so bloody pleased to read this post. Somebody more literate and articulate than me speaking what I wish I could!

    I am fairly young, I think his early pop songs were great. I grew up in the eighties! But there is no way I can see past the human being he became.

    I was thinking about this when the tour dates were announced. I tried to think that if it was anybody else other than Michael Jackson, nobody would want to go and the tabloids would 'attack- attack' like they love to do. I sort of wished it, to re assure myself that humanity hadn't gone mad.

    But it has!!

    The moral compass of the world we're living in is desperately two faced. Money and power, not truth and justice, prevail.

    And at the root of it all, the man who was massively unhappy and tortured himself - was there ever any pleasure, (wrongly or rightly) from any of it??

    Michael Jackson should have been forgotten from the public arena years ago - for his own sake as well as ours.

  8. notSupermum - agree Jackson Five stuff was easily finest hour. Looking back on the small talented boy is poignant.

    Kate - mask quote is a brilliant thing, I so agree. Updike could really zing them over the net. (Although I admire more than love the Rabbit books.)

    Jade - thank you for such an interesting and nuanced comment. Completely respect and understand your feelings, and it was because of people like you that I was hesitant to put the post up. I think it is the extremes of the reaction that made me so unsettled. You, on the other hand, hold a moderate and humane view.

    i am here - thank you. Do agree about the worship of money and power aspect distorting everything (am really tremendous old lefty at heart, although I sometimes embarrass myself by yearning for a large hotel suite and room service).

  9. Hello People

    I was just coming back here to apologise for sounding so abrubt and a bit angry.

    I'm not angry at all, just saddened.

    More than that, entirely selfishly i've just got off a train at St Pancreas and endured a heavily ladened, overheated tube journey home!!

    Must. not. comment. when. hot. and. tired.

    Still, i think this post and the comments restore my faith a little, will look up the vanity fair articles after dinner.

    And if my biggest worry is a difficult journey then I am a very very lucky girl.


  10. I agree, on the whole, with what you've written. I loved his music but not to obsessive fandom, but still felt strangely unmoved by his death. I guess it felt like he'd retired anyway, and he was a shadow of the Michael Jackson of the Quincy Jones era.

    At best, he was a strange child-man, taken advantage of, and possibly abused. At worst, he had committed heinous crimes.

    The children are the ones I worry about. Temporary custody with their grandmother, who is nearly 80. No family to speak of, one of them with no mother, while the other two don't really know theirs. And now to have questions over their paternity splashed over the headlines = who will step forward and prevent them becoming as troubled as their father?

  11. ps

    weirdly, my husband quoted John Updike today on his blog.


  12. I love your writing.... humorous yet to the point, incredibly readable, intelligent and relevant.

    I applaud you for having an opinion and not being afraid to say it! I think a lot of people, maybe even the ones crying in the street, think what you think yet don't quite have the courage to think it, let alone say it!



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