Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)
Part III. COVERING THRILLER
SEARCHING FOR TRANSCENDENCE
THE NARRATIVE OF SUCCESS IN AMERICA EQUATES financial achievement with virtue. We like to imagine that artistic greatness reflects and, in some instances, projects our grandiose national identity. Even the long record of drug addicts, alcoholics, and suicidal artists in our national creative canon hasn’t totally punctured our desire to idealize our artistic heroes. Even funnier is that we act surprised and often outraged when these artists turn out to be flawed human beings—just like us. Nevertheless, it can be hard to reconcile great art with personal behavior some would characterize as despicable, disreputable, or just plain crazy.
I eventually came to terms with this dichotomy by acknowledging that great art is a projection of an individual’s highest, most evolved self and that its creation flows from the God within them, an inner energy that transcends their everyday human traits. The transcendent power of art derives directly from how it connects the creator and the audience to the highest, most divine part of themselves. It pulls us out of the dirt, clutter, and frustration of our day, connecting us to the best parts of our souls.
All of which brings me to the artistic impact of the sex scandals that started in 1993 and that dogged Michael until his death. I don’t know what transpired between Michael and Jordon “Jordy” Chandler, whose father, Evan, accused the entertainer of molesting his son and set off investigations and revelations about Michael’s personal life that continued on well after those initial charges were dismissed.
Chandler, then a Beverly Hills dentist, would forever change Michael’s public image (much more so in the United States than overseas) and cast a sinister shadow on his eccentricities past (Bubbles the chimp, the Elephant Man’s bones) and future (his brief marriages to Priscilla Presley and Debbie Rows, covering his children’s heads with blankets and veils in public). When Michael went on international television and advocated sharing his bed with little boys who weren’t his children, the audience saw clearly how isolated and delusional he’d become. No one living in the real world would have been all right with such an admission. The effect of the pedophile accusations, and of his own public statements, on his art was profound. From 1979 to 1991, he’d released four full-length albums. From 1993 to 2009, he released only two albums of original music and one remix album. Between 2002 and 2009, he released no new music. Between the domestic backlash, arguments with his record label, and his own indulgent production process (and lifestyle), a man once so consumed with work stopped doing what he had been born to do.
That anger in his voice, an element of his vocal approach that had been evolving for years, appeared in much of the tracks on HIStory and Invincible, but for so many years he was mute, but not unproductive. He built hospitals in poor countries and gave millions to charities. He lived for a time in the Middle East and was befriended by a sheikh who became a business partner. He raised three kids and was viewed by all who came in contact with his family as a doting, dedicated f ather.
He did make music—and lots of it. John Barnes, an extraordinary keyboardist and one of Michael’s longtime, closest musical associates, was working on cataloging Michael’s vast archive of unreleased recordings even before his death, much of it made since 2000. So at some point in the next few years, expect a torrent of Michael Jackson music, a flood that could dwarf the many hours of posthumous Tupac Shakur rhymes and the endless repacking of Elvis Presley’s performances. In that mass of music, you can bet there will be a gem or two that were left buried while Michael spent most of his focus on his precarious finances and gradually became a slave to debilitating medications.
Nevertheless, that yearning for transcendence, that quality he possessed and that possessed us, was what he communicated for his fifty years on earth. He did it as a child with an adult’s instincts, as a gifted teenage apprentice, and as a master craftsman. The problem every pop star faces in the rock era is that the music business is a young person’s game. It’s even more of a challenge when by your midtwenties you’ve already conquered that world. The adult Michael Jackson never quite found what he was looking for, but at least he left us enough music, both familiar and not yet known, so that we can continue his search ourselves.