For a last look back at the sad and remarkable life of Michael Jackson, here’s a different perspective from music critic Chris Morris, who posted his thoughts to Facebook the night of Jackson’s death. Rather than fawning over Jackson’s skill as a performer, Morris looks back at his legendary performance at Motown 25 to illustrate a crucial aspect of his persona, and of his lonely off-stage life as well:
More than three minutes into the number, Jackson uncorks for the first time what became known as the Moonwalk – that strange backwards heel-and-toe dance move that made it appear as if the singer was momentarily, magically gliding on air. The first time you saw it – and I remember watching it that night – you exclaimed, “What the fuck was that?” The audience screamed in astonishment. But, looking at it today, it seems more mechanical than otherworldly. Jackson wows the crowd, but there isn’t an instant of spontaneity in his entire performance. Every leg kick, spin, and outré terpsichorean innovation was calculated to astonish.
It was always easier for me to be boggled by the immensity of Michael Jackson’s stardom than it was to be thrilled by his music. Even as an 11-year-old, when he burst onto the scene with the exuberant, perfectly tooled Motown single “I Want You Back,” he sported a style that had a curious wind-up quality to it. He even then seemed to me a perfect pop creation, a human bangle devoid of an emotional core. Everything that followed it – the Jackson 5 hits, and then solo material like “Ben,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Rock With You,” and then “Billie Jean” and the rest from Thriller and its sequels – was lustrous on its surface, empty at its heart.
. . . What are we left with? Some records that were so big in their day that they will never be surpassed in these diminished times, and the story of a celebrity’s fall from grace (now robbed of a triumphal final act) as precipitous as any ever witnessed in our tabloid epoch. Was this fall a tragic one? No. The King of Pop was no Lear. You will forgive me, I hope, if I seek more substance in my tragic figures. Michael Jackson was a figure more worthy of T.S. Eliot than of Shakespeare.
That final paragraph reminds me of something Ashley said to me last week. I forget the context, but one day while we were driving from Smithsburg to Sharpsburg she turned to me and said, “People forget that ‘tragic’ doesn’t just mean ‘sad.’” Chris Morris agrees with her, especially when it comes to Michael Jackson.