Michael Jackson as Tramp

Michael Jackson as Tramp: Man in the Mirror
by Farzana Versey
Counterpunch, June 26-26

There may never be a Graceland for Michael Jackson. He was the wrong kind of Bad. He could not be the rake you would love to hate. He did not have the charisma that made women go weak in their knees. If he ever took out his shirt to throw at the audience, they would see his skeleton covered with skin.

He died long ago. And was born many times. It was the rebirth of a wilful retard. Oscar Wilde wrote, “For he who lives more lives than one more deaths than one must die."

Some might say he does not even deserve a tribute because he was accused of several crimes. Social morality is as pat as it is divisive. The American media made late-night jokes of his exploitation which proved just how exploitative they were.

If he was a joke, then it is more likely it was, as Bob Fosse said, in the Charlie Chaplin mould. He was the quintessential tragi-comic hero. Dangerous more to himself than anyone else.

The Child

Chaplin explained to Mark Sennett how he worked on the tramp character in these words: “You know this fellow is many-sided – a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player…However, he is not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of its candy…”

Between a lost childhood and delayed adulthood, Jackson created an adolescent haven. Neverland was his utopia – a teenaged Shangri-La of fairytale rides and bubbles that never burst and chocolates that didn’t melt; it was a protection from a world that was not growing up but moving away. He could not grasp it. He was losing it. There was no boyish mop, no sideburns, no devilish rolling stone, no dervish rant. Imagine, no Imagine!

Jane Fonda got it right when she said, “His intelligence is instinctual and emotional, like a child's. If any artist loses that childlikeness, you lose a lot of creative juice. So Michael creates around himself a world that protects his creativity.”

He was comfortable with older women because they comforted the child in him, the thumb-sucker.

The Man

He was the wilful arbiter of his own life. Michael in the raw stood for something intangible. The emotional possession was cut short at some point. It was then that he made bold to insinuate that we liked him for his inadequacies, not ours. He made us feel good about ourselves.

How must it feel to be man, woman, child and product, all rolled into one, fashioned into a most exquisite piece of crystal, but always afraid of the mere nudge that could drop you to the floor into a thousand shards, each with a distinct identity and that terrible piercing feeling? Like a gymnast on a beam who wanted to perform a perfect 10, he was not unduly worried about falling down because there was a safety net.

He took umbrage in asexuality. Chaplin had chosen this path for a while and reasoned that like Balzac who believed that a night of sex meant the loss of a good page of his novel it took away precious time. It was only natural then for Michael who wanted to give a lot and take a lot to be lost to himself. He unabashedly created an androgynous persona and wanted to look and sing like Diana Ross at a high feminine pitch.

To make up for this sexuality-denying gesture, he performed the public shag. He was thrusting it in the faces of the spectators. According to an American critic, it was "to reassure himself the arguably Virgin King keeps publicly touching it".

It would appear that much like the low whisper which seemed to hold secrets he was rising above the body to become "someone who has connected with every soul in the world".

The Commentator

If Chaplin was inspired by the two world wars and the Depression, Michael had the Gulf War and the post-Woodstock yuppie punks to cater to. The gizmos he used onstage were those in-your-face things that appealed to the me-too generation of pretender beatniks.

There was orgiastic release through sex and scandal, but it had the veneer of ‘I smoked but did not inhale’ and the crustacean judicial impeachment that was rather soft within. Michael did not have too many social messages. He was the social message. However absurd may have been his attempts to become fair, straighten his hair, sharpen his nose, soften his lips, he was caricaturing himself. Is that why he rehearsed for hours in a room without mirrors? Was he avoiding his own image, the creation of a persona that he thought would be deemed acceptable? He was escaping Black and therefore rarely spoke up for it. He was the caustic commentary of our times.

He wasn’t trying to be the White man; he was only wearing a mask. He was telling them, “You're throwing stones to hide your hands”. He always wore gloves, diamond-studded gloves, and rhinestone jackets. He did not want to play the poor guy with Harlem knocking on his door wearing baggy trousers and a baseball cap, walking like he would in the streets looking for leftovers. He was the boy who had made it. He was not going to be apologetic about it.

He chose the moonwalk, a formless form, where the ground was never too close and yet not too far. “Who am I, to be blind? Pretending not to see…”

For him the baubles were discardables, a stinging statement on the state of entertainment itself, which is why he truly began to perform only when shorn of all those appendages, punishing his sinewy body to perform impossible feats because somewhere deep down he felt, "though you do not need me now, I will stay in your heart".

Unlike many pop icons, he broke the barriers of restrictive nationalism and race, and gender too. The oxygen mask he wore was perhaps not to protect him but to create an illusion of posterity. His own little tribute to the breath of life, a self-created obituary: "Just call my name and I'll be there."

Nothing can beat it.


  1. Well written, you covered everthing, his childhood, his art,
    his insecurities, his mask, his dance.
    "Unlike many pop icons, he broke the barriers of restrictive
    nationalism and race, and gender too."
    Whatever he WAS he is dead and gone, surely he deserved a few more
    good words. All said he was "The King of Pop". His Thriller
    is the best-selling album of all time,
    with an estimated 50 million copies sold worldwide.

  2. You have given a roller coaster ride of an article. When I lived in India he was a rage and like you said he broke many barriers. It is nice to read this by an Indian, it makes me more nostalgic.

    May he rest in peace

  3. Muneer:

    I tried to cover only those areas that worked within the parameters of how I saw a few aspects of his persona...one tries and is alas limited by one's own beliefs.


    I rarely strive to specifically write like an Indian, especially not if the subject is foreign, unless there is specific nuance that has affected me.

  4. It is difficult to add to what one has said, but I have got letters that have implied I have trashed him, which is rubbish. Some have said I did not mention his charity work...

    One letter and the reply I shall reproduce because it makes an important point about how language is interpreted:

    Dear Farzana,

    While I enjoy you insightful commentaries, including this one, I have to tell you that I took offense at your use of the word "retard" in the first paragraph, even if it was probably meant in jest. I am one of those probably 2% in this country who still find the word offensive, though I would never knowingly support "thought crime" legislation. People have the right to say stuff, and other people have the right to tell them how they feel. I have a neurological disorder, and was called that word as a child, perhaps by the same children who would have defended someone with Down's Syndrome, say, or some other "visible" condition. It hurt. It still hurts.

    I do remember Michael Jackson, and the Jackson 5, as a kid. He was such a cute little boy, and a handsome youth. I don't know why he decided to have all that plastic surgery and stuff, but perhaps a lot of other people in the world might have done the same, perhaps not as much. I don't judge him, either.


    My reply:

    Dear S:

    Thank you for your candid feedback. While I am against political correctness when it is used as a weapon and with hypocritical intent, I'd be ashamed if I was insensitive to a condition that no one has control over and are not given the dignity they deserve.

    I have not used the term 'retard' in an offensive manner for it was 'wilful retard' - the determined choice to appear foolish or socially inept. That was pretty much the theme of the article, using Chaplin as the focus.

    Hope that makes things clear now about my POV.

    On another note, while writing opinion pieces that do not strive for a 'balanced' perspective one does seem to be judging.



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