July 2, 2009
The Way You Make Me Feel
— Kathryn Lofton
You're tired of it already: the inundating coverage, the progressively whitening chronology, the recollection of malfeasance. Make it stop, you think. Let us move on to better problems, to anything but this.
I'm with you. Make it stop. But first, before the casket closes, take a moment, and download "The Way You Make Me Feel." Listen. See what you do. See what your five-year-old does. And think, briefly, about what sort of sublime work a pop song does.
The memorializing vocabulary describing Michael Jackson mirrors the confusions of his life. Described simultaneously as "childlike" and a "troubled soul," Jackson seems to possess qualities of someone both old too young, and young too far into old. The desolation of Neverland became a metaphor for his inner fetal rocking, but also an eerie embodiment of his uncanny set of skills. Despite his gestures to stock manliness (the crotch grab, those video damsels), his exclamatory rock falsetto endures as his signature. To the archive of transcendence he donates the flight of that sound, of his voice reaching for high-flying punctuation. The transitioning body, too, slunk in ways supernatural, no matter what fedora or sequins or epaulets flashed. Cultural memory will conjure him as a tragic infant divine, never quite managing to keep the best of little Michael into the multimillions of an international reign. Yet divine his muscularity remained, pulsing and pouncing through screens and stages with an impetus that had no obvious natural source.
Divine parallels prove limiting, however, since it was the case that Michael never moved by magic. He invented that stage. He choreographed his dance. He hustled his single-glove wares. In this, he was not so incomparable. Something happened to the celebrity icon in the Eighties. Scholars identify this as a decade of exponential magnification of the paparazzo's lens, and the multimedia diversification which created a new sort of permeating brand identification. But the iconic shift noteworthy here is the differential work ethic. Marilyn and Jackie O. did work, but by the Eighties they seemed rather indolent when posed alongside the laboring stagecraft of other single-name celebrities. Consequentially the icon's eroticism calcified: Ms. Ciccione, Mr. Jackson, and Ms. Winfrey were working too hard to be sexy. Indeed, they worked too hard to be believed. The Eighties celebrity became a machine, one known as much for its handlers and backstage rigging as it was for its productions. The celebrity was no longer the demigod of Olympian descent; it served as its own deus ex machina.
On the subject of Michael Jackson and the specific machina of his religious meaning, one might consider the invocations of religion or religious meaning in his music (i.e., "Human Nature"), the role of religion in his biography (from Jehovah's Witnesses to errant rabbis to flirtations with Islam), or the religion of his fans (all those screaming Japanese armies). Such commentaries are unlikely to provide much interpretive heft. Michael Jackson was not, in the end, a terribly thick subject for religious consideration: he dallied and discoed on the smooth tip of substance. Someone named "God" did, as he testified, inspire nearly every lyric. Pressed on the point, he mostly repeated himself, or offered vague dismissals of patriarchic doctrine. His cited divinity offered verbal mortar for his explanatory limits.
What is most tugging to those questing for the religious Michael Jackson is not to be found in biography. Rather, it is, always and forever, in the deus of those songs. It is difficult to think of another singer who has produced more music that serves such ritual function, be it Halloween ("Thriller"), peace summits ("We Are The World"), or the midnight club surge ("Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"). This musician knew how to capitalize upon the liminal gap between fear and pleasure, between acrimony and unity, between exhaustion and electricity, between rape and desire, between genders, between races, and between ages. He performed on the rite de passage. Perhaps righteously, the reporters and detectives found in that wobble foul play. But in the dancing delight of our most sentimental rites-at the wedding, at the middle school dance, or in the child's bedroom-such talk of Michael's molesting grotesque seems sacrilegious. Or it seems to miss the point: the glory of this voice, and the beats he pulled with a snap, was in its denial of this world, of its codes and clarities. The way you make me feel, you really turn me on, he sang. You give me fever like I've never, ever known, and you knock me off my feet. And so it was. And so it ever will be.
Kathryn Lofton is an assistant professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale University. Her first book, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, is forthcoming from University of California Press.