God, that picture looks freaky. Michael Jackson’s mugshot, taken in November of 2003, taken due to felony child molestation charges (of which he was universally acquitted), shows the singer without any of the lighting, airbrushing, or accoutrements he had become accustomed to when he was photographed. The photograph shows a man who looks less like an icon and more like an extra in the “Thriller” video, if it was shot by George Romero or Danny Boyle. For one of the few times in his adult life, Jackson was in a situation he had little or no control over. His eyes are bug-eyed, lips unsure of their proper placement, it seems he had little knowledge or concept of why he was being arraigned and even less on how he should conduct himself. It may have only started to dawn upon the superstar that he was indeed guilty of one particular incident: being Michael Jackson.
The late Timothy White was able to land one of the last interviews with Michael Jackson before his ascent to mega-stardom with his 1979 album “Off the Wall.” White was given massive access to Jackson, including a luncheon in which Jackson displayed such bizarre behavior as eating his Caesar Salad with his fingers, oblivious to the “oily dressing accumulating on the tablecloth.” Jackson would also admit to not knowing Gerald Ford had been president. It became apparent to White that Jackson had little touch with the real world, except when it came to music and dance, of which he was a prodigy in the vein of Mozart. When asked if he was scared of being in a movie, Jackson responded “No, not at all. Honest to God, I’m not. I’m challenged. I love it. I’m not scared at all.”
Despite his childlike demeanor, Jackson had already developed the self-confidence that would propel him through three classic records, music videos, and tours, during which he developed some of the most amazing dance moves of his (or any) era. He also expressed interest in working with Quincy Jones, the man who would eventually produce “Off the Wall,” “Thriller,” and “Bad.” However, when distracted with other topics, Jackson revealed a bizarre affinity for rats, his inability to understand “Star Wars” and an obsessive interest in his Scarecrow character from “The Wiz.” Jackson told White: “Sometimes, when I come home with my makeup, I keep dancing in front of the mirrors here as the Scarecrow…When I get into it, I forget everything else but the Scarecrow’s world. It’s a feeling of peace. It’s just like…magic.”
Soon after this interview, White believed Michael Jackson’s management severely curtailed media access to the star, as his eccentricities could easily overshadow his music, as the 2003 documentary, “Living with Michael Jackson” would ultimately confirm. When focused on music and dance, Jackson had no peer. His videos for the 1979 “Off the Wall,” made before the advent of MTV, show the singer in a plain black and white tuxedo and beginning the formation of the dance moves which would excite millions. However, he had started the process of reinventing himself physically, a habit that became so addicting it would become an object of continual ridicule. Jackson’s death at age fifty represents the apotheosis of media hypocrisy. The same media which would continually cover everything “Wacko Jacko” now worships him. It seems this musical Julius Caesar will not be buried, but praised in his wake.
The success of both “Off the Wall” and “Thriller” netted Michael Jackson more money than anyone with a child-like mind could really comprehend. He also began an infatuation with being a hero of some sort. His personas in the “Beat It” and “Bad” videos showed him a cross between badass and peacemaker, a kind of dancing Superman. He further expanded his concept in the “Captain EO” film and the “Moonwalker” video game, the former being ironically executive produced by George Lucas. Although he would adapt many other guises, it seems Jackson was more comfortable in the idol-hero guise than any other. He took this to an extreme measure at the end of his 1991 “Black or White” video, when he violently destroys the majority of the street set. It is possible he was reacting to many of the anti-heroes of the time, trying to be as badass as many of the hair bands that were in constant MTV rotation during the era (insert ironic comment here).
Jackson spent much of the 1980’s working with charities, a fact that is still relatively unnoticed by the now-adoring media. Initially, his projects such as “We Are the World,” written for the USA for Africa album, we taken as universally generous gestures. As the 1980’s waned, his purchase and construction of the Neverland Ranch gained more scrutiny, as the majority of young children he asked to visit and stay there consisted of mostly young boys. Jackson seemed completely oblivious to this criticism except in song. Songs such as “Leave Me Alone,” “Stop Pressuring Me” and “Scream” addressed his antipathy towards the press. Yet Jackson refused to modify or control the behaviors which netted him such massive scrutiny. There is little doubt of Jackson’s affinity toward childhood and the wide-eyed hope and wonder which comes with it. It is hard to compare this attitude with that of the savvy musician and businessman who outbid his onetime friend Paul McCartney for the Beatles catalog. Was he really clueless or was he addicted to being two Michael Jacksons?
There is the performing Michael, the self-anointed “King of Pop” who causes sold out crowds of adults to scream wildly during his concerts. There is “Peter Pan” Michael, the real-life Willy Wonka who gave thousands of children a golden ticket to his private castle. The superhero who longed to protect and help guide child stars like Emmanuel Lewis and Macaulay Culkin possessed little knowledge on how to protect himself was becoming an addict to an ever-evolving identity he could never settle on. Part of growing up is discovering who you are; the person you present yourself to be in the public eye. Children tend to decide upon this in adolescence. They spin “The Breakfast Club” wheel and become some version of the athlete, the princess, the brain, the basket case or the criminal. For some tragic reason, Michael Jackson could never make this decision for himself. In the end, he would become all of them.
Jackson’s lack of real-world comprehension outside of music and dance would ultimately become terminal. His 1993 civil settlement for alleged child molestation caused the star to enter into a marriage with Lisa Marie Presley; a union now considered an ill-conceived business arrangement. Presley’s presence at Neverland gave the impression of normalcy, as did his “You Are Not Alone” video which showed both of them scantily clad and supposedly in love. Business marriages of this type were common in old Hollywood, designed to stop any investigation of what were then considered “alternative lifestyles.” The marriage was supposed to be mutually beneficial. Jackson could still be the Peter Pan of Neverland while Presley could milk his massive genius for the music success which eluded her. Unfortunately, the decade was the 1990’s and not the 1930’s or 50’s. The marriage ended in a few years, leaving Jackson another void in his life.
Jackson entered into another ill-fated marriage with Debbie Rowe, who would bear the first two of his three children. The second union dissolved as quickly as the first, putting him back into the media spotlight with mounting “Wacko Jacko” coverage. Jackson attempted to escape the publicity in the only was the businessman knew how: a series of concerts at Madison Square Garden in 2001 celebrating his thirty years as a solo artist. The concerts, as always, were phenomenal. His performance of his classic hit “Billie Jean” showed he hadn’t lost a step, despite entering his early forties. During this time, Jackson would experience the first commercial disappointment of his career. The album “Invincible” sold poorly. The videos showed an artist searching for identity which was compounded that he had little grasp on reality itself. He never stopped inviting children to Neverland or on tour, despite incessant coverage of his actions. Like a child, he never thought of the potential ramifications or if he did, was comfortable in his own mind that he was doing nothing wrong.
It is likely Michael Jackson did know the police watched him everyday. He also knew he was doing nothing legally wrong. He placed the same trust in children as they did of him; an innocent longing to be in a place he was denied by his overbearing, abusive father. It would be hard for a person such as Jackson to deny and distrust the affection of kids. It is likely in 1993 he committed minimally the crime of indecent exposure. After he became a media magnet for weirdness, it is harder to believe the 2003 accuser had more than financial gripes against him. It was easy to believe he did it: he was Michael Jackson – King of Weird. Yet his behavior at the trial, baby dangling and calling his third child “Blanket” on TV did little to help the man. In the end, addiction overcame any sense of reality he had left.
As Michael Jackson entered into a self-imposed exile for much of the last decade, it seems he finally found the childhood affection that he had been denied. He did little performing but the headlines by his posthumous media friends never subsisted. Having his own children may have given the “King of Pop” a sense of peace and fulfillment, but the call of the limelight still beckoned. Whether it was to appease debtors or his millions of fans, Jackson decided to embark on one more great tour. What exactly caused his death weeks before his London engagement began may never be solved. What is known is that a complex, troubled man with a schizophrenic identity had little to lose and much to gain. He was a person who longed to be a hero, a “smooth criminal,” a genius, the best dancer in the universe and ultimately became a basket case due to the media coverage he helped create. Michael Jackson didn’t start the fire, but he did little (if anything) to fight it.
Copyright 2009 Adam Koeppe
Timothy White's Michael Jackson interview published in "Rock Lives"