“You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday—but never jam today.”
“It must come sometimes to ‘jam today’,” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day: today isn’t any other day, you know.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”
“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first—”
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
Two days ago it was my 24th birthday and the first anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death. There’s a way of relating to Michael Jackson and his story that’s implied by the conjunction of those two facts. Steven Shaviro, a year ago, wrote: “At Jackson’s spectacular height, the time of Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982) and the subsequent television appearances and live tours, there really was nobody like him. He was a vision of ease and grace and energy […].” (Shaviro goes on to add that the moment of Thriller “coincides almost exactly with the midway point of my own life to date.”) This was not until recently a Michael Jackson I even knew, or not as anything more than a largely inaccessible ghost—certainly not the the Michael Jackson I knew as a kid, glimpsed all the time on other people’s TVs, the subject of constant uneasy jokes among all the (other white) kids around me at school in the Midwest in 1995, 96, 97. The important facts about Michael Jackson then were that he was turning into a (white) woman, he was going to molest your (white) kids, he had gone crazy. (I can actually remember listening to a lite-rock station sometime back then, in the mid-90s, when I couldn’t have been older than nine or ten—hearing the (white) DJ cut into the last full 30 seconds of “Black or White” (why did he always do that?) with the words, “That’s Michael Jackson, who can’t decide if he’s black or white!” and thinking Fuck you, your job is to play his song, don’t laugh at him.) My Michael Jackson is a figure always already associated not with performances of ease but with expressions of anxiety, his own and others’.
Shaviro’s essay is just one of many brilliant, necessarily conflicting reflections on Jackson’s music and life that I found online last summer—none of which I can really recommend highly enough, each of which makes me feel I have little to add, and all of which together clearly represent an invisible fraction of the brilliant things that must have been written and said: k-punk’s elegiac celebration of the promise of Off the Wall and “Billie Jean”; Jay Smooth’s filmed thoughts on “the limitless opportunity for liberation and imprisonment that the camera and the microphone provide”; Tenured Radical’s valuably unsentimental account of the last years, what the fans saw and what she saw; Hilton Als’s reminder of what it might mean to understand Michael Jackson as a gay black man; sally_bloodbath’s comic on the work of dance and of fandom; Tom Ewing’s insights on dehumanization and the “black swan”; others.
Versions of the pieces by Shaviro, Mark Fisher of k-punk, and Ewing appear in The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, a book I just remembered I still need to get my hands on. And, again, as the title says, most if not all of the authors represented in that volume actually experienced a time when the wreck didn’t seem inevitable. Shaviro’s and Fisher’s writing is at its most affecting when it focuses on those years. For reasons that I think are primarily selfish and inflected with all kinds of privilege, white privilege not least among them, I’ve found myself wishing I had something or someone like that to write about, or just to enjoy with fewer complications—someone as beautiful, and full of the utopian possibility described by Fisher, Shaviro, and Smooth, as Michael Jackson was, before there was even any reason to imagine that he could have hurt children, before it was obvious how badly he himself had been hurt, before it was possible to get tied up in knots attributing both his fabulousness and his disturbing behavior (and who knows how much of it was disturbing in the wrong way?) to the years of suffering under an abusive father. (As if what we all needed was to have another conversation about not-good-enough black fathers.)
And yet, when I tried a couple of months ago to write about the utopian vision of queer childhood and lateral growth that might be found in Pogo’s videos, I can’t deny that I also had (this late, anxious) Michael Jackson in mind; because, to the extent that I can piece together a sense of my own queer childhood, I can’t deny that (this) Michael Jackson was a major part of it. In the last week I’ve been back in my parents’ house, going through old boxes and papers and trying to help prepare for their move out and away to another city. The other day we found not only the drawing above (which I think must have been based on the image from Bad cover, only whitened and distorted, as if I had half-consciously overcompensated for everything that had happened since Bad), but also, from years earlier, a “book” I had written as a third-grade student for Mrs. Olson, listing all the things I wanted to do “someday.” One of them was to meet Batman and Catwoman, and one of them was to have a Terminator toy. (I know that at that point I hadn’t actually seen Terminator 2 (I still haven’t) or Batman Returns, but when I was seven years old images of Edward Furlong and Arnold Schwarzenegger on motorcycles and Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeffer in black leather were everywhere, and I think had a crush on all of them.) Another thing I wanted to do someday was to “meet Mickel Jackson.” This was in late 1993—I wrote “© 1993” on the inside front cover—months after the initial allegations of child sexual abuse had been made public. (I don’t know if I need to mention here that I have never been a victim of sexual abuse, but, in any case, I haven’t.) Just how aware of all that I was, or just how uncomfortable Mrs. Olson might visibly have been, I can’t remember. Of course I couldn’t tell you just what Michael Jackson meant to me in 1993 or in 1997, either; but he meant something.
This last year since his death has been:
- A good year for capitalism, all things considered, and a fatal year for the Earth, which is to say, obviously, just another year;
- A year marked by two globalized American pop-media events, taking as their respective subjects capitalism and the Earth, whose sheer brief saturative omnipresence seemed both very new and very old-fashioned, somehow of-the-80s, Jacksonist—Lady Gaga’s and Beyoncé’s “Telephone” video, in which the additional aesthetic debt to Michael is made explicit, and James Cameron’s Avatar, in which it’s arguably more of a trace connection, something to do with the desire to become alien, to inhabit a princely body that will never put a foot wrong and to change the color of the skin;
- A year of which I’ve spent a not inconsiderable part, like countless other people all over the world, returning to old songs and old videos and finding others that I’d never heard or watched before.
I’ve been a bit surprised to find that the song staying in my system more than any other song is “Jam.”
Here are two judgments on Michael Jackson in the 90s—first, from k-punk:
[D]eracination and desexualisation might precisely have been refusals of the Restoration’s compulsory ethnicity and sexuality, and Jackson could have been a poster boy for queer universality … if his dysphoria, his freakishness, could have found its way into the music. Instead, it was Gothic Oedipus in his (very public) private life dramas, and consensual sentimentality in the saccharine-bland songs. Only in “Scream” and its video—Michael and Janet in a deserted offworld leisure hive that resembles Gibson’s incest-Xanadu Villa Straylight—did the music and the crumbling mind ever meet.
Second, from Tom Ewing:
There’ll be a reassessment, naturally—ballads like “Butterflies” and “Stranger In Moscow” are too strong for there not to be. In comparison to “Off The Wall” or “PYT” of course, they sound petrified, seized up. In fact a lot of the 90s material sounds like multiple drafts of one single, crushed and frightened song by a man desperate to get the pain out […].
How can both of these assessments be correct (as I think they are)? “Jam” might be a good answer. Dysphoria, freakishness, anxiety find their way into the music here in ways that are at once obvious and attenuated and bound up with sentimentality and a kind of hopeless or no-longer-tenable performance of ease, or of having “found peace within my life”; which becomes, precisely through its untenability, mesmerizing in its own way, and not without its own weird, sad, queer beauty. Or at least it seems that way to me, because I’m white and 24 and this is the Michael I’ve always known. Heavy D raps: “Smooth criminal, that’s the man, Mike’s so relaxed.” But Michael’s voice and body are taut as he sings: “JAM / It ain’t / It ain’t too much to JAM / It ain’t too much / It ain’t too much for me.” Even the difference between Heavy D’s “It ain’t too hard for me to jam” (repeated in the video’s postscript by Michael Jordan, another star who I think can safely be described as more comfortable in his black masculinity) and this desperate-sounding incantation—it ain’t too much for me—is an astonishing difference. “It” here means nothing and everything because the song enacts an almost total erasure of the boundaries between (the ordeals of) Michael Jackson and (the forestalled end of) the world; this could be dismissed as supreme megalomania or deluded projection, or there could, on the contrary, already be a kind of implicit recognition of Steven Shaviro’s conclusion that Michael’s “sufferings and his strangeness are quintessential expressions of American life and society in this neoliberal age.” It ain’t too much for me might be the sound of the singularity of the late, anxious Michael, crossing over into its own (dystopian) universality.
And a phrase like Shaviro’s “quintessential expressions,” in the case of music like this, feels radically, etymologically, sensuously right. I don’t think we’re far here at all from the sense of “jam” as something sweet that comes from a crushing. The dancing instructions to Michael Jordan at the video’s end are full of booms and pows; “throw it out like fire”; “let it out”; “like a rocket coming out of your finger.” I wish I had a more nuanced language to describe how this explosive anxiety also charges the sound of Teddy Riley’s production itself; the way “Jam” feels at the same time like an amazing party (or the NBA anthem it immediately became) and like an extended panic attack, or what I’ve been told a migraine feels like; that exquisite burst of near-dissonance that begins every other measure, eventually playing under each repetition of the title word, sounding every time like a valve letting out excess tension that would otherwise be unbearable. The song is a pressurized zone, not easily entered or exited: it can begin only with breaking glass and can end only with an explosion.
The explosion is there for us to see, twice, in the video of “Jam” performed live at Bucharest in 1992—a performance that’s manifestly too much for everyone. This could not be further from Michael Jackson, the gorgeous icon of ease; this is Michael Jackson, the fractured master of neoliberal anxiety. But whenever I watch it there are moments so overpowering I almost believe the pain—Michael’s and others’—might somehow have been definitively exorcised, things will be OK, it ain’t too much—there might be jam today.
The reductio-ad-absurdum account of Michael Jackson’s bodily life, now almost universally accepted and inescapably shaped by racism, sexism, and transphobia, is that he began his career looking like a healthy black man and ended it looking like an unhealthy white woman. I think there might be more to say along these lines, especially after one year of a posthumous Michael Jackson, about resemblances in the cultural imagination between that spectral white woman and the figure of Emily Dickinson; which I may or may not try to elaborate on later. But I’m thinking partly of Joyce Carol Oates’s recent story “EDickinsonRepliluxe,” in which a childless suburban couple end up traumatized (and traumatizers) through their purchase of a sexless synthetic poet-child, “a brilliantly rendered manikin empowered by a computer program that is the distillation of the original” Emily Dickinson. And I can’t decide whether MJacksonRepliluxe would be the bestselling RepliLuxe of all time, or whether everyone would recognize that an MJacksonRepliluxe was already completely superfluous…