A Stranger in Moscow (and on Planet Earth): Michael Jackson in the 90s

Written a year before his death: Michael Jackson has been back in the spotlight this […]

David Zahl / 2.29.08

Written a year before his death:

Michael Jackson has been back in the spotlight this past month to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Thriller. He’s riding a wave of nostalgia powerful enough, it would seem, to make people forget/ignore what he’s become in the intervening years. People love Thriller (and what Thriller represents) THAT much!

Part of me is excited about this. I have been a devoted Michael Jackson fan since I first saw Captain EO as a six year-old, and it’s gratifying to see him recognized for something other than kookiness. And Thriller is an incredible piece of work.

But there’s “another part of me”(!) that, frankly, resents the revival and sees it as fair-weather friendship, one that fundamentally misses the boat when it comes to the King of Pop.

What do I mean? For those of us interested in the practical ramifications of the Christian Gospel, AKA how judgment, demand, scrutiny and conversely, love, forgiveness, and mercy play out in everyday life–there is no more interesting case study than Michael Jackson. And not Thriller-era, I’m talking about Michael Jackson in the 90s. Dangerous-era, HIStory-era, Lisa Marie Presley-era, etc.

The 90s also happen to be my favorite period of MJ, when I would argue he produced much of his greatest music. This is a controversial opinion, so let’s be clear: Michael Jackson is strange, strange man, full of contradictions, and an undeniable megalomaniac. Deranged? Perhaps. I may have agreed with the not-guilty verdict re: the “allegations”, but I would never go so far as to label him innocent. Not knowing him personally, none of us are qualified comment more than that. Where I do feel qualified to comment, however, is his art: his music, his dancing, and his videos, but especially his music.

By 1990, Michael Jackson had been in the public eye for over 20 years, roughly since the age of 10. This includes the 1980s, when he may well have been the most famous person on the planet. And his fame was well-deserved: he was that rare celebrity whose creativity and talent matched his charisma. (People often forget that Michael wrote and co-produced nearly all of his major hits). But if his 90s output is to be taken at face value, the success brought with it unbearable pressure and scrutiny. Suddenly everyone–in the world–was entitled to have an opinion about him. Judgment with a capital J!

Take the Free Willy song, “Will You Be There?”, released in 1991 on the album Dangerous. After a truly ridiculous choral intro, we hear Michael plead with a gospel choir for love and understanding, crying “I’m only human!” over and over. It’s powerful. The exhaustion continues in “Black Or White”, where he (and Slash!!) tells us, “I’m tired of this devil/I’m tired of this stuff/I’m tired of this business”.

The final masterpiece on Dangerous is “Who Is It”, another in his series of paranoid anthems (“Billie Jean”, “Smooth Criminal”, “Leave Me Alone”, “Ghosts” etc), where he confesses, “the will has brought no fortune/still I cry alone at night/don’t you judge of my composure/cause I’m lying to myself” and then finally, “I can’t take it cause I’m lonely!” It’s the sound of a man hanging by a thread.

Of course, elsewhere on the record is “Heal the World”, a song so sappy it makes “We Are The World” look edgy. As a sidenote, the range in quality found on a Michael Jackson album, with nigh-perfect tracks alongside ones so bad they produce secondhand embarrassment, is one of the many ways in which MJ is reminiscent of Brian Wilson.

As dark as Dangerous gets, it doesn’t hold a candle to the second disc of 1996’s HIStory. Which is ironic, considering that the first disc of HIStory (a defacto greatest hits) has got to be one of the most overt attempts at self-deification ever unleashed. The cover depicts our hero in statue form–it is not subtle.

But HIStory disc two, or HIStory Continues, is Michael at his most personal and vulnerable, his Plastic Ono Band, if you will. It opens with my all-time favorite MJ single, “Scream”. Over a chorus of breaking glass and slamming doors, he and his sister Janet yell, “stop pressuring me/just stop pressuring me/stop pressuring me/[you] make me want to scream” before finally begging, “somebody please have mercy cause I just can’t take it!” Woah.

I don’t see how anyone who’s actually listened to “Scream” could argue that it’s not operating on a deeper, more profound (albeit less fun) level than Thriller. Sadly, Michael made it impossible for us to just listen–we had to look too, and his appearance, by this time, had become way too bizarre. Just check out the video, where he unfortunately looked almost exactly like the alien he was trying (not?) to portray:

The second track on HIStory, right after “Scream”, is another blast of disaffection called “They Don’t Care About Us”. Then comes the inspired “Stranger in Moscow”, the loneliest of all his lonely songs, where he mentions his “swift and sudden fall from grace” and asks, “how does it feel/when you’re alone and you’re cold inside?” As if that’s not intense enough, he also makes reference to Stalin’s tomb, the KGB, and nuclear Armageddon. We’re a long way from “Rockin’ Robin”.

Michael’s solution to all this pain and fear: Peter Pan-style retreat to childhood, a place he associates with the unconditional love, joy and freedom he’s never known. I know I’m treading on shaky ground here, but taken out of the courtroom context, doesn’t this seem to jive, at least a little, with Jesus’ words in Mark 10 about little children and the kingdom of God? On second thought…

One could go on–don’t get me started on the brilliance that is the Blood On The Dance Floor EP–but the point is this: when St. Paul wrote that “the letter kills” (2 Cor 3:6), he was not kidding. The fruit of the law here, i.e. “thou shalt be the King Of Pop”, is alienation and loneliness, anger, depression, writer’s block and, yes, in all likelihood, more sin. A starker contrast to The Traveling Wilburys one could not find.

The burden of being Michael Jackson is something no one should ever have to bear. That he would crack up under that kind of pressure, that he would even try to transform himself into a different person, was a foregone conclusion. It may be a small mercy that his talent did not abandon him during his struggles, but it is a mercy nonetheless–and in a life that contained far too little, no message should have been any clearer.


P.S. Lest you thought MJ lost even a fraction of a step, dance-wise, in the 90s, hold on to your hat (pun intended):