Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson: Bless His Soul

      When I was contacted by Sony Legacy last year to write the liner notes for the re-issues of the Jacksons’ CDs Destiny and Triumph, as well as a new Greatest Hits collection, I immediately felt two emotions: fear and excitement. This wouldn’t be me introducing an artist or an album/CD to an audience. This was music with which I already had a deep personal history, but which a whole lot of folks knew far better than I. I’ll admit that I entertained the fantasy that Michael and his brothers might actually read the notes. Somewhere in my mind the dozing fanboy was stirred and I thought of this as a chance to stitch a thread that would do some heavy duty connecting: from the younger me who’d religiously watched the J5 Saturday morning cartoon; to the very young me who’d watched his diaper-clad toddler cousin, Lesley, bend at the waist to smack the floor with her palms for emphasis as she sang I-I-I wun-duuuuuh who’s lovin’ you; to the preadolescent me who’d been so dazzled by the Jackson (and Sister Sledge) concert in support of the Destiny CD that when I returned home and my mother asked how it was, I stuttered and grinned like a fool; to the teenage me who’d watch my sister wash dishes and sing along to “Bless His Soul,” “Push Me Away,” and “That’s What You Get for Being Polite,” and be moved and a little frightened at the wistfulness in her voice & eyes as she sang; to the me who instantly got sick of “Beat It,” but could play “Rock With You” over and over, and over again… I wanted to draw a thread from all of me to all of the Jacksons, and express something of what their music had meant to me. I’d never wanted to be Mike, or be anything like him; never imitated him in a mirror or “performed” him for family entertainment. But I’d closed my bedroom door, turned up the music and fallen in.

This is an excerpt of what I wrote in the Destiny notes:

      "While “Blame It on the Boogie,” “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” “Things I Do For You,” and “All Night Dancing” are vintage Jackson high energy dance tunes, it was the ballads – “Bless His Soul,” “Push Me Away,” and “Destiny” – that were most dazzling. 20-year-old Michael had himself just navigated the turbulent, terrifying waters of adolescence, which so often wreak havoc on everything from the tone and pliability of one’s voice to the health of one’s literal skin, and he’d emerged as one of the sturdiest heartthrobs and most influential soul singers ever. As the front-man on Destiny, he masterfully rolled out his signature vocal licks, revealed a deepened artistry as a sensitive interpreter of lyrics, and hung tight in the middle between the most delicate vulnerability and an undeniable strength on his lead vocals. He wholly immersed himself in the music and the listener had no choice but to follow him. He was also planting the seeds for the lyric themes and ideas (one-world harmony; the difficulty in being one’s self when the world is watching and judging) that he would explore so successfully in his near future as a solo artist.
      The Jacksons were the flowers of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Pride movement. Their exquisite, perfectly round afros and stylized street attire celebrated a proud new aesthetic. Their stop-on-a-dime perfect choreography drew from the hottest moves of the day while simultaneously harkening back to black performing traditions gleaned from masters like Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown and the artists at the Jacksons’ first musical home, Motown. In their own relentlessly honed and perfected artistry, they paid homage to those who had come before them while updating the blueprint for future generations. They were the carriers and embodiment of so many hopes, fantasies and dreams – cultural and political ambassadors just by virtue of their being: Smart, talented, visionary, hard working young Black Americans, coming into their own after a decade of bloody struggle and sacrifice. The Jacksons seemed to be pointing not only black and white America but the world at large toward new possibilities of expression and being.”

      I think a point in the second paragraph should be underscored regarding the cultural and political climate that shaped Michael into the force he became. He was Blackness and maleness, soul music and pop culture, all forged pre-hip-hop, pre-Reagan, pre-crack, pre the implosion of short-lived Civil Rights-era idealism and hope. That’s an incalculably important point to understand the thick strands of optimism, possibility, aesthetic & political vision that ran through his work. And that makes the darkness and paranoia that marbled so much of his later work all the more heartbreaking, especially as it roughly paralleled the shifting tenor of the times. He never lost his humanitarian streak or his belief in the overall goodness of humanity, but the evolution of his own relationship to the world and his feelings about how he was treated darkened noticeably.

      I want to pull forth another DNA thread for a minute: The beauty and power of Michael Jackson, particularly in the first 30 or so years of his life, was that he was Black. It’s important to stress and explain that because in this “post-race/post-black” moment, it’s become obvious that a lot of Negroes rushing to free themselves from the so-called shackles of Blackness, aided by “colorblind” and “progressive” non-Negroes, don’t even know what Blackness is: Working like a dog while mired in poverty in Gary, Indiana – endless rehearsals, mastering back-breaking craftsmanship, sweltering under the heat of a father’s dream deferred – all while aiming for a big time mapped out by sweat, hope and faith; that’s Black. Not letting your lack of material comforts impede your forward motion; that’s Black. Being rooted in the working-class/struggling class vortex of innovation, perserverance and resilence that has birthed all the Negro musical r/evolutions in this country; that’s Black. Building effortlessly on the past and setting a whole new bar for the future; blacker than Black. Exercising the prerogative of organic genius by laying claim to shit that already exists and just making it your own; B-l-a-c-k. Mapping the template and setting the pace that will govern the globe; b-b-b-b-Black. Coming of age amidst proud shouts of “Black is beautiful” and effortlessly embodying the adage, but somehow getting infected with the centuries-old disease of white supremacy and internalized racism that will have you repeatedly take a knife to your natural born beauty… that’s so very Black. Being universal in your struggles and triumphs just by being you: Black.

      There is so much more to say and it comes in a rush, so bear with me and I’ll try to be coherent and succinct.

      So many of the tributes being written, especially by Negroes, and most especially by Negro males, think they are bestowing the ultimate praise on him by positioning him alongside conventional, traditional soul men or icons of Negro male cool. Make that unquestionable hetero Negro male cool. But the thing about Michael, especially in his adolescent and early adult years, was that he resonated so powerfully precisely because he upended and shimmered beyond gender convention. It seems especially noteworthy that he cemented his solo superstar status during the gender-bending / gender-fucking era of the early ‘80s, alongside Boy George, Annie Lennox, Prince, a funkily reinvigorated Grace Jones – though he was a seasoned old pro in comparison to all of them. (It was his second start at a solo career.) Because his gender-tweak shit was subtle relative to those artists, it doesn’t really get commented upon. But Mike evolved from childhood mimicry of the masculinity of soul titans to something more complex and more layered. It was his. And it eventually housed a much more problematic sexuality. It’s difficult (if not impossible) to know the ways in which his abusive childhood, the adult responsibilities carried on his childhood shoulders, and the paradoxically sheltered and wide-open pop star lifestyle he lived at an early age all contoured his sexuality, and to then fully know what inclinations and fetishes might have been innate and which were externally shaped.

      Curiously absent from the praise and aesthetic roll-call being put forth for Mike is one name: Diana Ross. His obsession with and emulation of her are well documented but she’s not being cited in the obits. It’s a glaring and telling omission that has much to do with the low critical regard in which Ross is held, and the reluctance of critics to own up to not just the deep influence that diva Ross had on boy wonder Jackson, but on the ways in which her persona and performing style play out in his style. Here’s what I wrote about Diana and her artistic spawn, Michael, in my 2006 essay, “Diana Ross: OG Diva Sings the Blues”:

“It’s well known that Mike studied James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr. and a host of other captivating male singers in order to perfect his showmanship. His idol-worship of Diana Ross has been reduced to snickering speculation on his sexuality and sanity. In truth, Jackson simply spotted in Ross a kindred spirit — someone born to the stage, someone who is without peer when inspiration strikes. He recognized a fellow artist.”

Peep the Ross/Jackson love in the following clips:

I also find it interesting how the lyrics in so many of the old Jackson songs seem to be young Michael speaking with wisdom and foresight to his future self – warnings, laments, foreshadowing:

From “That’s What You Get for Being Polite”:

Jack still cries day and night
Jack's not happy with his life
He want to do this, he want to do that
You want to be kind, but ends up flat for love
For love

He tries so hard to give a lot
He wants to be what he is not
Love's not harsh and love's not bad
And what's he doing for love is so sad
(He wants to be so bad)
(He wants to be so bad) All the time getting in
Things he can't get out
Something deep inside of him
Eating up the pride of him
That makes him buy things for the girls
(That's what you get for being polite)
(For being polite)

Jack still sits all alone
He lives the world that is his own
He's lost in thought of who to be
I wish to God that he would see just love
Give him love

From “Bless His Soul”:

I try to do what's right for me
But no one sees the way I see
And then I try to please them so
But how far can this pleasing go…

Sometimes I cry ,cause I'm confused
Is this a fact of being used
There is no life for me at all
'Cause I give myself at beck and call

From “Destiny”:

In this world there's much confusion
And I've taste the city life and it's not for me
Now I do dream of distant places
Where? I don't know now, but it's destiny...

If it's the rich life
I don't want it
Happiness ain't always material things

I want destiny
It's the place for me
Give me the simple life
I'm getting away from here
Let me be me
C'mon let me feel free…

      There is so much more to say. Michael Jackson was layer upon layer of metaphor and walking commentary/cautionary tale. But I want to close by saying that the bifurcated coverage of his death leaves both sides with an incomplete picture. The sensationalists ignore the power and beauty of his work while wallowing in the sordid. Michael tapped into something universal and transcendent that reached from Gary, Indiana to Selma, Alabama to Moscow to Paris to Hong Kong. His soulful, heartfelt music and poetic athleticism were otherworldly; they resonated with all kinds of people. They soothed and inspired. At the same time, though, this is a man who had an obsession with childhood and an idealized notion of its trappings of innocence and playfulness, extending all the way to his hosting sleepovers with young boys that were, at a minimum, creepy as hell. He was damaged. He was thwarted in some crucial ways. It seems to me that the same impulses that manifested in his divine art also manifested as questionable (to put it mildly) predilections for companionship. (He’s in esteemed company in that regard.) It should all be put on the table at once. That’s the only way to get a truly complete picture of the man and glean something of both the sublime and the darker elements of his life and work, and to make sense of the fact that a wealthy, immeasurably influential, unfathomably talented global icon was seemingly so unhappy, so pained, and so unable to combat it.

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Unknown said...

Thank you! That was a lot to give, and yes, there's so much more to say. You inspire me to try and unravel all the threads.. your vision clarifies mine.

Jordan said...

Thank you.

Unknown said...

This is the best tribute to MJ I've read. And I've read them all, I think.

Lisa Seymour said...

Damn, but you have a way with words. I admire your thought processes. And I wonder, too: whither Diana Ross in all this talk in the past 24 hours?

Lisa Seymour said...

OK, now that I've re-read it and watched the videos at the appropriate breaks, all I can say is: Ernest, this is pure genius. Thank you.

MDargis said...

Thank you for this beautiful, morally centered and historically insightful appreciation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this beautiful, emotional, morally centered and historically insightful appreciation.

KCH said...

Bravo / Brava!

Knew you wouldn't let me down

M said...

Best thing I've seen yet. Bravo.

Unknown said...

Magnificent job Ernest. Just is so much better than 99% of the smoke the talking heads are blowing on TV right now.

kill him is kim hill said...

thanks ernest! great post and clips!!! you always have just the right words and perspective... perfect! said...

Wow. and fucking wow. way to talk about the man/myth and handle the post-black nonsense being touted about these days. bra-vo.

Joe said...

Eloquent, thoughtful, informative, cathartic... Let me also overstate that with "Thriller" the man delivered the single most enveloping, effective and important piece of television in the history of the medium. Those who were there, well know this to be true.

rena said...

oh man... i can't get over this. those videos of him and diana are so crushing. great thoughts EH.

Tavia said...

Wonderful essay, beautiful memories, challenging ideas.

mockstar said...

Superb thoughts, great writing, best piece I've read ... thanks

Unknown said...

Ernest once again you have proven why you are one of the best writers of our time.I simply adore you.

Unknown said...

This is as thoughtful and insightful as it is complete. It is written by a true fan someone who was not so enamored with MJ's talent to overlook his tortured soul but not so " shocked" by his behavior that he could not still see the amazing talent that he posessed. I was of course a MJ fan. My favorite MJ songs are pre- Thriller, the off the wall album was absolute genius and I believe before his subsequent break with reality as we know it. As mentioned he is not the only eccentric artist of our generation. The point that his solo career reached it's heights during the sexually ambiguous 1980's which may have had much to do with his early persona.

Unknown said...

i loved this. Thanks, Ernest. i too, referred to the lyrics of "That's What You Get . . ." during my initial reaction to his death in my blog. i had just listened to that track earlier that morning, which was so eerie to me.

RIP Michael.

Anonymous said...

This is such a great piece Ernest. Thanks for your insights and perspective.


easyplankin said...

Beautiful piece of writing. It's so hard to articulate right now. But you do it well and it helps.

easyplankin said...

Beautiful piece of writing. It's so hard to articulate right now. But you do it well and it helps.

Unknown said...

Thank You.

Ernest Hardy said...

^ That's my diaper-clad cousin just above, all grown up now. :-)

Spinmaster Win said...

I'm reading this for the third time but, now with's wonderful mix as accompanying soundtrack. Thank you for this, Ernest. Your words --and his music -- are tribute fe' real. I think about the good times . . . The good times, baby.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji said...

you are so brilliant, blak yoko, thank you for this, especially for speaking the connections to the politics, culture that surrounded him. ashe

passedthecurve said...

excellent writing Ernest...i'd also been writing about Jackson's race and sexuality projects...we're left with maybe even more questions in his death than in life. - Jason King

yo said...

Thanks for looking out, I think there's so much more to this conversation. i think its amazing how people are remembered. American collective memory is so short, so proactively forgetful. why do we only remember what we want to and never anything else? its amazing that public figures are so dependent on our mood swings, our temper tantrums of opinion. Thanks so much for your work, it's so important to culturally remember the things that you do.

Unknown said...

you are beautiful brilliance. thank you and thank you and xxxxxxxxx

Courtney Desiree Morris said...

Wow...that was the best commentary I've read on Jackson since he died -- everything else is just the same old media frenzy bullshit.
On another note, I just bought and devoured Blood Beats, vol. 1 and 2 and Mr. Ernest Hardy you are simply fucking brilliant. And that is all, my friend.
Thanks again and keep the cultural criticism coming, please.

Anonymous said...

This brings a tear in a way that gaudy Staples Center tribute could not. I'll Thank Jack D for the link.

Julie de la rivière said...

Beautifull, thanks.

Jacko said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
soulbrotha said...

I'm not sure how I missed this piece when you first posted it, but as usual you did an outstanding job. Wow. I have such a crush on your mind.

Anonymous said...

It was extremely interesting for me to read that article. Thanks for it. I like such themes and anything connected to this matter. I would like to read more soon.

Anonymous said...

Your analysis about Michael Jackson is wonderful and I think much more can be said about the multi-layered extraordinary work of this true artist. And I disagree with all this blah blah blah that goes around about his "tragic life". Tragic is not to have a legacy. He died while working and the documentary This is It is just amazing (and believe me, his children have all they need to honor their father). The problem here is US, who live in a very literal world and could barely appreciate this non-literal artist, US who spent more time accusing, vilifying and making fun of this artist instead of fighting against the war in Irak, and US who may never have that kind of a legacy. In this "bubble gum" world we live in, we use too easily the word "tragic", perhaps to avoid looking at ourselves in the mirror to see our shortcomings and illusions. Michael had problems like all of us, it's just that we turned the mirror so he would be the only one looking at it. Bravo to him!!!! He tried and tried and tried and was loved. When he was called "weird", he was wondering why the world was so weird. I am going to finish this remembering a man in the streets of Paris who told me happily: "Oh, Michael Jackson.... Marcel Marceau... Oui!!!" It's time for US to change.

Posted by: Mariana |

Anonymous said...

Michael didn't "tweak" his gender, that's just stupid, he was always looked and acted like a man he was straight too wether people want to believe it or not, that's the truth. Michael's sleepover with children were not creepy either, it's the media that makes us think that way, what's wrong with it? he didn't do anything wrong,