Once my mind cleared after word reached me that Michael Jackson had died, I wondered how much my 1985 book Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream was going for on Amazon ($14 used; $100 new) and came across a review from ’85 that said, “Marsh…sees Jackson as a Peter Pan figure, afraid of responsibility, trapped inside a self-created fantasy world where he struggles to remain free from such adult realities as sex, politics, and race.” Sounded good, so I read the last chapter for the first time in a long time. It holds up. So we offer it to you here.—D.M.
The Victory tour crashed into the headlines with more fanfare than any pop music event since the Beatles hit the States. It skulked off, fading away in embarrassment and something akin to shame. The stories about Kansas City made the front pages; the ones about Los Angeles were buried back in the amusement section, filler for a slow news Monday. The two hundred out-of-town journalists who had besieged the Jacksons’ opening night were reduced by the end to a visible complement of two. The tickets that were supposed to be so hard to get at the beginning were as easy to find as BMWs in Westwood in the final days.
Meantime, Michael Jackson, the puzzle seeking its own answer, was all but discarded, tossed aside like a contraption that had outlasted its fad—not broken just sort of boring. If he did something (U.S.A. for Africa, Madame Tussaud’s) the media would cover, but dutifully, without any of the hysterical urgency that had attended the heyday of Thriller. If he did nothing, that was all right, too. Maybe it was even preferable. The self-inflating machinery of hype that had pumped him up into the Biggest Star in the World had finally worn itself out…at least on this one topic.
Left was a sour smell, a bitter taste in the mouth, the aftershock of cheat and frustration, a nasty, nagging mood. What was most curious about these sensations was their familiarity. Had we known all along that anyone who flew so far beyond our expectations as Michael Jackson would someday simply disappear, clean out of sight, returning only episodically, like Halley’s Comet?
No, that’s not it at all. Michael Jackson has been removed from orbit. That doesn’t mean he has lost a shred of his musical talent or an ounce of his showbiz savvy. It does not mean that he has wearied of public attention and gone into retreat. It simply means that the story of Michael Jackson has burned out, that “everybody” is ready to move on to the next thing: Prince’s movie, Bitburg, Bruce Springsteen’s wedding, a famine in Africa. It really doesn’t matter. Soon enough, these things too will run through their cycle of fascination and the headlines will recede deeper and deeper into the back pages, to be replaced by newer pop stars, scandals and outrages against humanity. Of course, in the cycle of these things, there is always the chance that Michael Jackson will reappear. A “comeback” is always an interesting spectacle.
In this environment, no story is truly enduring and all stories are very much the same, since all have bang-up beginnings and their conclusions just sort of fade away. Think of Vietnam and Watergate, the central events of American life in the past ten years. When did the war end? When our last troops left or when Saigon fell? Where did Watergate stop? When Nixon was pardoned or the last trial was complete?
The answer is that those stories aren’t over, probably because truly completing them would mean remaking the world and ourselves much more drastically than most story-tellers care to imagine. Nevertheless, the stories linger, hovering just around the corner or rattling around in the attic, locked up like nineteenth century madmen. Either way, they’re gone but not forgotten. The biggest of them lurk into ghosts, haunting our dreams, twinging always at our conscience.
In the context of Vietnam and Watergate, the unfinished story of Michael Jackson seems small and superficial. If he were just a pop singer making a bigger score than usual, that might be true. But Michael Jackson is one thing before he is a singer or a success or a star or anything else. He is a black person in America. As a result, he set some older chains to clanking, stirred some ancient ghosts, incited some venerable dreams.
The ghosts of slavery and racism are four hundred years old but their power is fresh and strong. The dreams he incited are equally old—the fantastic hope that we can somehow be brought together long enough to lay those ghosts to rest. Give the dreams their names, too: Emancipation, integration, liberation. Or call them with the term show business now uses: Crossover.
But never forget: The similarity between the crossover dream and the hope embodied by the idea of integration is deceptive. Their roots are identical, but their aspirations are polar. Integration implies the liberation not just of an entire people but of a whole society, while the practitioners of crossover ask only to receive individual liberties. It’s the difference between Jackie Robinson, whose personal emancipation within the world of baseball inspired not only black Americans but the whole country, and Michael Jackson, whose triumphs in the world of popular music were so private that they were ultimately never shared with anyone and as a result, curdled, turned sour and evaporated into a sickly residue of their original potential .
This consequence was so predictable that it now feels inevitable. Like anyone indulging in the crossover dream, Michael Jackson played a dangerous game. He imagined himself capable of receiving an exemption from the visits of the horrible ghosts of American racism. This is an exceedingly dangerous illusion, for in the end, the ghosts will always come to call, all you’ve done is condemn yourself to a role as a villain or a fool. There is no exemption, not only because of what fame such as Michael Jackson’s stirs among the spirits of the past but because of what it awakens among the living.
Of course, there are those who would like to pretend that time has healed all wounds, that the scores are settled and it’s time to move on. Michael’s dreams of exemption—like all crossover dreams—play right into such hands. So Michael was held up as an example, living proof that the system worked and things weren’t so bad after all.
This version of the crossover dream isn’t just a fiction, it’s an outright lie. So the minute it showed a crack in its surface, it had to be discarded, swept under the rug, superseded by new distractions. As long as Michael Jackson was simply The Thriller, a disembodied performer on vinyl, a flickering image on the TV screen, his image could hold any meaning assigned to it. The moment that he headed out for the real world, taking the stage as a figure of flesh and blood, the crossover dream cracked wide open and where once unity proudly beckoned, now only divisions were apparent. It was time to go.
In a sense, Michael Jackson walked away intact. He retains a huge audience and a bankroll unrivaled by any popular musician in history. He was well-positioned to begin his long-sought career as a moviemaker. But if it is ever possible or permissible to feel pity for a person who has been given so much, it was in those months when the worm turned and he became, not just a figure of occasional ridicule or the target of various hostilities, but washed-up, yesterday’s news, subject to the most dread of all superstar critiques: “Who cares?”
Can Michael Jackson escape this fate? Consider that, if his next album sells, let’s say, fifteen million copies, he will have failed—not only by the false standards of the music industry but by his own criteria. If it sells a more reasonable five or ten million, God only knows the reaction—Michael’s or the world’s.
Suppose the opposite. Imagine that, against all odds, Michael Jackson’s next project—be it film or music or something else entirely—reflects what he learned in the cauldron of Thriller and Victory. Dream that it presents him as the master of a new kind of crossover, presenting with new maturity his perspective as the master and victim of fame and notoriety. In the face of this crossover dream, the question would fall away from him—whether he sold five million or fifty—and descend back upon the rest of us, inhabitants of the world of unfinished stories and restless ghosts. If Michael Jackson managed this kind of crossover, one answer would still be left outstanding. Is there anyone left who can hear him? ( DAVE MARSH, December 1985)
DAVE MARSH (along with Lee Ballinger) edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org. Marsh’s definitive and monumental biography of Bruce Springsteen has just been reissued, with 12,000 new words, under the title Two Hearts. Marsh can be reached at: email@example.com