I've been a huge Michael Jackson fan for most of my life.
I mean, you couldn't attend a mostly black elementary school in 1983 and not worship Michael. To this day, to me, he's just Michael. Michael was the African-American equivalent of a Greek god, and he had an uncanny ability to connect with the kids of my generation. At times, Michael didn't seem human (yeah, yeah, insert joke here). But seriously, the dolphin-swim move at the end of the video for "Beat It"; the effortlessness of the zombie routine in "Thriller"; the glittery glow of those clothes; and, even then, those awesome bass lines he wrote (yes, that he wrote) were completely mesmerizing.
Michael deserved his own time zone, maybe his own planet.
I remember one schoolhouse incident at the height of Michael Mania that captured the effect Michael could have on people. My school, Danforth Magnet Elementary School in Syracuse, New York, had hired a local high school student to re-create the steps and dance routine to the video for "Billie Jean" as part of a talent show. The administration billed the young man, who with his Jheri curl, soft smile and wiry, athletic frame scarily resembled Michael, as a "surprise guest." At the end of the assembly, and following several teasing reminders, out came the special guest to one of pop's most perfect opening beats.
A few of us immediately ascertained that this was a ruse -- but only a few of us. Within about 10 seconds, reason left the building. By the end of his routine, the poor guy found himself being torn apart by a gaggle of 8-year-olds, who had rushed the stage screaming and, in some cases, dang near fainting. And for those of us who knew, it didn't matter that it wasn't really Michael. We all wanted this to be Michael, to touch him, to thank him for being in our lives.
I still want to believe in Michael, despite his reckless public behavior (dangling babies? Peter Pan?) in recent years. Michael whined about setups and pernicious timing after his stunning arrest last Thursday in connection with accusations of molesting a 13-year-old cancer patient (Jesus H. Christ!). But, for me, the arrival of Michael's new greatest hits CD and DVD collections in my mailbox the same day couldn't have come at a more perfect moment. I needed to escape the reality. Now, I had Michael's own gift of make-believe to help me do it.
Some may argue that Number Ones, as the new release is called, could be used as People's Exhibit A, a record of how a dashing young black fellow morphed into a creepy white woman over the course of 25 years -- literally, as each video reveals a newly shaped Michael. Regardless, the DVD portion of Number Ones is wonderfully entertaining -- cause for theme parties, popcorn on the couch with your girlfriend or late-night drunken nostalgia. The 91-minute DVD compiles all of Michael's essential music videos (the CD includes most of these songs plus a new R. Kelly-penned single called "One More Chance"), starting with 1979's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and winding through to 2001's "You Rock My World." Michael, of course, shows his eccentricities and at times makes us wonder if a kiddy-raper lurks underneath -- like, what was with Macaulay Culkin and other small children pretending to rap on 1991's "Black or White"? Even so, Michael's videos run consistently on a curious but inspiring internal logic. To list:
1. Michael can punk his enemies by scowling into the camera, angrily lip-synching his lyrics and biting his bottom lip for emphasis. Best example: "Billie Jean," where he really wants us not to believe that chick.
2. Michael can win any fight -- or settle any dispute -- by dancing. The big routines in his videos only come where violence should ensue. Best example: "Beat It," where a knife fight becomes effeminate choreography with the touch of Michael's hands on the combatants' shoulders.
3. Michael, in a related observation, really wants to head a gang. His most famous videos give him the chance to be the bad-ass he never could be while singing "ABC" as a kid. Best example: "Bad," where his boys are so bad, they can moonwalk on roller skates.
4. Michael can save the world. Best example: The touching "Earth Song," where Michael wipes out deforestation, ivory hunting and Bosnian genocide by reversing the destructive flow of the world, Superman-style.
5. Michael sees the world through movement. Even removed from the dancing, the videos are busy, with objects, people and cameras darting constantly. Best example: "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," featuring a superimposed, nappy-haired Michael against a background of flying pink and blue bubbles and objects that look like televisions and toilets.
6. Michael's sexuality to women speaks for itself. He barely touches his adorable, fawning co-stars but wins them over with charm anyway. Best example: "You Are Not Alone," where a pale, androgynous Michael and gorgeous ex-wife Lisa Marie Presley sit around in loincloths only gently -- and sparingly -- petting each other.
Ultimately, Michael comes across most in these videos as a beguiling but lonely performer who really just wants us to like him. He goes to ridiculous lengths to be the star. He makes up for his famous lack of a real life by overcompensating in his fake one. It's the reason I think we fell for him as kids.
The videos pile on the bells and whistles as he grows older and more estranged from reality. By "You Rock My World," Michael himself is almost invisible, replaced by a tall, willowy caricature that hides his face with a fedora and relies on Marlon Brando and Chris Tucker for legitimacy. But he still wins us over through a lighthearted send-up of crime-film clichés.
So even as the era of Michael the Public Pariah continues to intensify, we'll at least have Number Ones to serve as a constant reminder of Michael the Entertainer. As an entertainer, no one, in my mind, has ever been better.
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