Why is Michael Jackson the most famous man in the world? Because he’s the most ferociously gifted performer of our time. Because his voice can bolt a lyric to the floor or trim it into a valentine. Because to watch him in motion is to see a divine charge conducted down a mortal coil, a figure so adroit that the dull obligations of gravity, the confines of muscle and bone—all of the things that bind ordinary people—are magically dismissed.
Yet if he had been no more than a sequined glove drawing arcs in the air, a spin so swift and smooth a propeller might sigh with envy, the ’80s would have made him a phenomenon, but not, as he became, an obsession. Michael was riveting because he combined in himself the polarities of his time—black and white, male and female, even adult and child. Prince was provocative, but Michael was the prince of paradox.
Has there ever been another sex symbol who displayed so little offstage libido? The gentle boy with the whispering voice who shed tears while recording the E.T. storybook album never accorded with the impregnable warrior on Bad who snarls, “Your butt is mine.” Michael spoke from the groin or he spoke from the clouds, but rarely from any point in between.
Escape from reality has always been the special promise of show business, but Michael didn’t merely put aside the real world. He couldn’t abide it, ever. “I feel strange around everyday people,” he once admitted. “In a crowd I’m afraid. Onstage I feel safe. If I could, I would sleep on the stage.” If Howard Hughes had been able to dance, he might have been Michael.
Communing with E.T., bidding for the bones of the Elephant Man, Michael seemed most at home among fantasy characters and sought to become one himself. His face underwent a Claymation change—new nose, new chin, cosmetic touches all around that chilled out its clamoring assertions of race and gender. At the end of one version of his Smooth Criminal video, when he’s transformed into a spaceship, you wonder if it’s not just a preview of the next stage in his plastic surgery.
Yet it was his childlike mode that people found most captivating. It appealed to kids themselves, and it reached that vast market of aging baby boomers, deeply nostalgic for their own fabled childhoods. Michael spoke to that occasional urge to repudiate adulthood, to the times when we suspect that our possibilities are dwindling, that our best work is tainted by compromise and that the sexual drive is a pest.
Maybe we spent so much time peering into the riddle that was Michael Jackson because we hoped to see there the outlines of Utopia. “It’s a nice place Michael comes from,” Steven Spielberg once said. “I wish we could all spend some time in his world.” If Michael Jackson was the most famous person in the world, it was partly because his world and ours are not quite the same.