Friday, December 18, 2009

The Gospel According to Michael Jackson ("Is This It?")

(#2 in a series of 4)

It’s a long ways from Gary, IN to Neverland Ranch.  When I was a boy I lived close enough to Gary to smell it.  The community where my family and I were safely tucked away was only about 15 miles from Gary;  I would look at the interstate frontage as we drove to visit family in Michigan for holidays.  Like most of my neighbors, though, I never actually set foot in Gary.  It was a certain kind of town for only certain kinds of people.  Through no merit of my own, I wasn’t one of those people.

I could, however, smell the town when the wind blew from the right direction.  Whenever the breeze shifted to the northeast the industrial stench from the steel mills in Gary would drift over Lansing IL, and for a few hours that distant world clouded my own.  When that happened I was forced to go inside and enjoy the air conditioning.

During those same years a crane operator at one of those steel mills was doing what he could to earn a living for his wife and 9 children.  Feeding all those growing children was tough, and so Joseph Jackson did what he could to moonlight in an R-and-B band.  As his sons grew he discovered that they shared his love of music.  He helped his sons form a group, eventually called the Jackson 5.  They even had little Jermaine and Michael singing back-ups and working their tambourines. 

Eventually the little guys worked their way to the front.  And after that the littlest guy, Michael, became the solo front singer for their group.  And they were amazing.  Polished, singing with an ease and maturity beyond their years.  (Check out their videos on Youtube sometime.  I’ve been to a lot of elementary school music programs;  trust me, they didn’t look anything like that!)   They didn’t look at all like Gary, they looked like Hollywood.

What no one knew at the time was that behind those practiced smiles was a domineering father who supervised the endless rehearsals with his belt ready to enforce his authority.  As various family members have explained in interviews, if you made mistakes you “got your butt tore up pretty good”.

Over time Michael Jackson moved from the front singer to THE singer, launching his solo career as the groups star began to decline.  He emerged on the scene just about the time a new music-video network was getting established:  MTV.   Michael and MTV fit like a marriage made in Neverland.    Before Michael Jackson MTV videos were mostly promotional footage for bands, showing concert footage and studio shenanigans of long-haired musicians.   But Michael reinvented the music video, shaping it into a form of cinema in its own right.  Billie Jean translated the classic detective movie into a musical form, Beat It re-invented West Side Story, and Thriller blew everyone away as the ghouls quietly emerged from their graves, clearly showing “the soul for getting down”. 

In all of these, Michael was amazing.  He could chase away the bad guys, he could reconcile rival street gangs, he could tame the dreaded ghouls from the graveyard…just by dancing!   He could fly loops around the globe faster than you could say “Black or White”.

And it wasn’t just that he was good.  Michael Jackson’s ability transcended whatever limitations mere mortals like you and me had to live with.  Gravity didn’t seem to hold him, the basic laws of physics were no more than mere guidelines as he moonwalked across the stage, sliding and bending in ways that only cartoon characters can hope for.

He made it look easy.   That was the thing, really—watching Michael Jackson made you think you could be cool.  For a few minutes even a heavy-footed, Midwest white boy could imagine gliding and sliding gracefully, every move just perfect.  A few weeks ago I watched “This Is It”, the tribute movie hastily thrown together for Michael Jackson.  It was fascinating to watch him:  a relentless perfectionist, working very hard making it look that easy.

Unfortunately Michael Jackson’s videos all ended after 5 or 10 minutes, only to leave me disappointingly aware that this middle-aged preacher wasn’t going to dance that smoothly any more than he was going to juggle chainsaws.

Of course, I knew that would happen…it happens every time.  But still…something inside me can’t shake the idea that I was meant to be awesome.  

And it’s at this point that God looks down on me from heaven and says…“You think?”

It’s right about then that I’m driven to Gen. 3 where I’m told that things were created to be awesome, that life was intended to be elegant and powerful and nothing was supposed to feel bleak or heavy or clumsy.  And once again I’m driven to realize that even though you can take people out of Eden, you can’t quite take the Eden out of people.

C.S. Lewis once wrote: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. … Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing."

Michael Jackson’s smoothness made us ache to get past the clumsiness of this life that we consider “real”.  We ache to moonwalk our way from our individual Gary, Indianas, to whatever Neverland might be waiting for us in the pleasant hills of Santa Barbara.    We ache for that…only to find that we can’t get there from here.

And, of course, the media have always made it very clear that not even Michael Jackson was actually as cool as Michael Jackson seemed to be.  The signs of an unsatisfied longing were obvious: the compulsive plastic surgery (reportedly spurred by his father’s verbal abuse accusing him of being ugly, having a big nose, etc.).  The various rumors and sexual charges that, at the very least, proved some serious eccentricity.  In fact, the man just seemed…bizarre, even before he dangled his child off that balcony.

Michael Jackson presented something that he probably didn’t have a whole lot of himself:  hope.  The hope of escaping the heavy drudgery which turns our loving into conflict, our creativity into mere day jobs and the creation itself into a series of environmental crises.

1 Peter 1 talks about the “inexpressible and glorious joy” that can be ours through Christ.  Not because we can finally Beat It, but because Christ himself will someday wipe every tear from our eyes, restoring the glory that we ache to see here in Gary Indiana. 

I can almost—but not quite—get used to living in the bleakness of life after Eden.  But when I see magic set to music something inside me is roused to eager expectation, if only for a few minutes. 

The man may have had flaws, but he helped us ache past our own.

No comments:

Post a Comment