Elegy for the Moonwalk

The planets are linin’ up
We’re bringin’ brighter days
They’re all in line
Waitin’ for you

Another Part of Me, Michael Jackson

There is a joke that NASA once spent millions of dollars to develop a ‘space pen’ in order to write in weightless condition, whereas Russian astronauts or rather cosmonauts would simply use a pencil. Never mind if this is just an urban legend, the moral of the story is the importance of lateral thinking. So did they really put a man on the moon 40 years ago? Well, if you believe so. It has emerged now that the original tapes of the historic moonwalk have been erased and recorded over, and while NASA officials say the restored copies of the original broadcast will look even better, it is bound to trigger off a new bout of conspiracy theories about the entire moon landing being staged on a set just like in Hollywood, all for the sake of an ideological war. I am not propagating these, only the point that sometimes, everything you know may well be wrong, and one should have the right to doubt and wonder.

Until today there are people who would believe that Elvis did not die of drugs but was abducted by aliens. I hope the death of Michael Jackson will never be shrouded in so much mystery, even to reach the level of sensationalism surrounding the death of Marilyn Monroe linking her to JFK . But there are those who see in Michael’s tragedy the kind of persecution one also felt in the case of Princess Diana. Again I am not propagating any conspiracy theory of murder like what threatens to circulate in the internet now. So, Michael reportedly converted to Islam in November last year. But would any declaration of his faith in a concert tour that one may imagine necessarily turn out as positive publicity for the Ummah (or simply the Muslim world, as Obama would put it)? I guess we’ll never know. It may ultimately be best to keep one’s belief a personal matter and not high-key in the public eye, given to scrutiny. Does being the world’s top-selling artiste mean one has to carry the weight of the world and prepare to be crucified if one is not a saint?

Let’s just celebrate MJ’s moonwalk as a little beautiful dance step for all mankind. Say what you will about the carbon footprint in pop music, but it will save our mortal souls sooner that those nuclear arms and spy satellites. Well here’s how I remember those grooves…

CONFESSIONS OF A MICHAEL JACKSON FAN (written a week after 25th June 2009)

Let me confess, even if it sounds as bad as saying I was a teenage vampire some centuries ago: I was once a Michael Jackson fan. I used to think that Thriller and Billie Jean, with the ghouls, the moonwalk and all, were the coolest music videos on earth. That was a long time ago, before rap music began to storm the charts and before this abomination called house music was born, before bands like Metallica crept into my consciousness like Sandman, before Kurt Cobain was singing about teen spirit and the umbilical cord, before Bjork put mythical Iceland into my world map of music. Or if anyone is too young to even remember these, well it was way before the existence of a virtual band like Gorillaz was a conceptual possibility, way before Kanye West was preaching about Jesus and the Devil and hip-hop dancers were practising their moves to wrong grammar by star producer Timbaland. We are talking here about the 1980s, when R&B music meant singing one’s lungs out like Whitney Houston and not shaking one’s booty like Beyonce, when the immaculate Madonna could still pass off as a virgin and George Michael was still straight but Bono was wearing his hair like a girl, when the alternative to breakdancing in a disco was swaying to the beat of electro-pop like Erasure, Pet Shop Boys or Bananarama, and radio was otherwise dominated by blue-eyed soul such as Huey Lewis, Hall & Oates and worst of all, Rick Astley (Joss Stone was still an infant in the cradle then, but if only I knew, hearing her cry must have been preferable). In short, there was very good reason to consider Michael Jackson a class of his own in mainstream pop music. He took dance moves from the ghettoes and turned it into a glamorous art, and he made funky soul music accessible to pop fans around the world, all this at a time when African Americans were still simply referred to as blacks. And if he became the best-selling singer in the world while he was at it, I for one was happy to second that.

My point of entry into Michael Jackson’s kingdom of pop was 1987 to be exact, when the Bad album was released, marking the comeback of the elusive singer who by then was better known for stories on his plastic surgery, his oxygen chamber and his chimpanzee Bubbles. Though the album was not to duplicate the record-breaking success of Thriller, I was convinced it was a more consistent and coherent collection of songs. Despite the brilliant bursts of genius in Thriller, it had too much old-fashioned R&B filler for my taste, whereas Bad was a refinement of its success formula, calculated as it might have been. And one just had to admire Michael for the way he was pushing his vocals to the limits, the forceful falsettos, the relentless accentuation of syllable endings, the guttural stops and all, which he crafted into the music. Add to that the perfect album cover packaging of him in that black leather outfit full of shiny studs and buckles, with his new surgically modified look that transcended racial divides of black versus white, long before computer morphing was possible like in Terminator 2 or in his own Black Or White video. (It was a look that also transcended other categorisations of course; he looked rather androgynous especially with those locks of hair.) The man who was known for his affinity with E.T. and the Elephant Man made his music comeback seem almost as dramatic as the landing of an angelic alien on planet Earth, and I totally bought into that as many young kids then would. Watching singles from his album climb to the peak of the Top 40 one by one became my obsession, a sense of witnessing history unfold.

I can still remember hearing over the radio the first single off the Bad album, I Just Can’t Stop Loving You. The strains of music heave in as gently as a sunrise, and then the piano sounds start rolling in as heavenly as a harp before the vocals begin tenderly; the mix of the music is pleasantly understated, the drum beat remaining a mere light tap until the song builds up to a climax punctuated by kettle drum sounds. And the way the voices of Michael Jackson and Siedah Garrett blend so well made it all the more sensuous – one could hardly tell where the man ends and the woman begins. But the hit that signalled Michael’s grand return was undoubtedly the title track itself, which opened the album dramatically with its classic knell of four notes; the MTV for Bad, directed by Martin Scosese and featuring a young Wesley Snipes, became iconic instantly. I shall skip past the rest and fast forward to one song particularly close to my heart – Man in the Mirror. Growing up as I was in the 80s, the 60s era of soul music like Aretha Franklin was little more than a strange past in black and white, and the 70s disco era seemed even weirder with music of Earth Wind & Fire and images of UFOs. Reality of the world as I could understand then was more like the star wars that former cowboy Reagan was about to wage on one hand, and the biggest pop stars in a motley coalition of USA for Africa on the other, with voices ranging from Lionel Ritchie and Tina Turner to Willie Nelson and Cyndi Lauper. But Man in the Mirror was the song that introduced me, a young pop fan still cluelss about music genres and history, to the heritage of gospel in black music (the lyrics of the song, imploring one to “make that change”, were admittedly simplistic but the soulful style of singing lent conviction to it) and its music video, consisting of news images of famine, poverty and war as well as footages of historical figures, planted the figure of Martin Luther King among others firmly in my mind, years before I got to watch Spike Lee’s movie featuring Denzel Washington as Malcolm X.

While some of the songs in the Bad album would sound totally quirky today (why is Swahili spoken in a song that is Liberian Girl?), others remain memorable and Smooth Criminal for one has surprisingly spawned a successful cover version (most recently there is even a violin version). Sadly, Michael Jackson made impact with just one more album after that, namely Dangerous in 1991. Produced by Teddy Riley, the master of New Jack Swing, it was a good attempt in updating the great singer’s music, but ironically, though I found it had better dance numbers than Bad, the music scene was fast changing by then, with the emergence of new trends like grunge, trip-hop and trance apart from the popularity of gangsta rap. Michael Jackson with the high artistry of his vocal style and his theatrics was no longer in vogue. True to his insulated and single-minded personality, his response was to retreat further into his fantasy world that only children or the childlike among us could appreciate. Poor he probably never quite grasped why the world stopped caring about him, or was not able to adapt and change himself anyway. I thought the song Remember The Time – with a fantastic video set in ancient Egypt, directed by John Singleton and featuring celebrities like Eddie Murphy, Iman and Magic Johnson, in which MJ’s light complexion sticks out like a sore thumb – encapsulated what might have been the most painful regret of his life, that one can no longer return to the young and innocent days when one has ventured too far out. It is symptomatic of our time that a world which no longer feels entertained by the roles of heroes or freaks that he spent the best parts of his career playing in his music videos, somehow chooses to be entertained by the eccentricities and blemishes of his character in tabloid reports, right up to his death. (It was like a hidden desire to incarcerate him and establish his abnormality, as if putting a particular face to perverted behaviour would affirm the normalcy of society at large, affirm the sanity of us common folks who can’t sing or dance and never own a fortune but at least look just like how a regular human being should look.) MJ must have been pushing himself very hard in preparation of his impending soldout concert dates, dreaming of basking in the limelight of a final comeback of his music career. It was not to materialise the way he imagined it. But I guess his spirit is at last set free from the weariness of a body and mind too long burdened by the weight of past glories.

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