Michael Jackson's still shape-shifting

Today I took my daughters to see "This Is It," the rehearsal film for what was to have been Michael Jackson's final concert tour. When he died before the tour last summer, my husband and I -- Jackson's contemporaries -- found ourselves trying to explain his legacy and talent to our girls. We were talking across a generational divide; they knew just a little about him, and what they knew added up to a freaky cultural icon who had tried to turn his skin white. I had laughed off their childish comments. Then he died, and I felt I had to convey his right to the title, the King of Pop. I was blown away by the movie. Maybe it's because I was trying to explain Michael Jackson that I took a look at him in a new way.

Right after his death, I was affronted by the star-maker machine that kicked in to eulogize him. There seemed such a desperate, over-the-top struggle to swat away all the tabloid images -- Michael dangling his baby over a high-rise balcony, the pedophilia allegations, the bizarre features that had become more mask than face. He had the nerve to deny having much plastic surgery! As if it wasn't plain to everyone.

The Quincy Jones, the Spike Lees, the 50 Cents -- they were so anxious to celebrate Jackson's artistry. It seemed that they had to make up for what appeared to be, through the plastic surgeries and whitened skin, a rejection of his own race. They wanted to re-embrace him as a great black artist.

Of course, I also wanted to dig through the detritus about Michael Jackson, for my own purposes. I don't carry the same racial baggage. But I grew up during the same time; we were nearly the same age. After he died, I felt that I had to express to my kids what the world had lost. It was hard. He had become such an other-worldly creature by the time I tried to begin.

Out onto the stage of this documentary stepped a supremely cool figure. The tight orange pants, shiny silver blazer and fedora hat, the white socks with black loafers -- who else could pull that off? His long thin limbs shivered and snapped in signature dance moves that always spoke more eloquently than his words. At one point, he reached back into the Jackson 5 days for a trio of hits, and his dancing took a 40-year trip back in time as well. I whispered to my daughter, "Did you see that? That's how they danced back then." She didn't catch the regression.

He looked stiff from time to time, especially compared to the muscular male dancers backing him up. He was 50, after all.

As I watched him perform, his sexuality was on my mind. I remembered the pedophilia charges. "Does he like men? Boys?" I thought. There was a lot of the usual crotch-grabbing. Then he began crooning "The Way You Make Me Feel" to a sexy woman as she pranced around the stage. It seemed wrong. I wondered again about his sexuality. But his talent as a performer pulled me into the moment. As he sang about his lusty excitement for this new love, I began remembering those times in my own life. I smiled. Maybe it doesn't matter who or what he likes, I thought. Something here is universal.

I had a second awakening when Jackson sang "Black or White." A young singer, a black man, joined him on stage and rapped a few verses. In his final line, he said he wouldn't be defined race -- I don't recall the exact words. I thought, maybe Michael Jackson is to race what David Bowie and other androgynous performers have been to sexuality. Maybe it's possible to view Jackson's racial metamorphosis in that light. Did he ever put that into words?

Now he can't, of course, which is both tragic and easier for his ambivalent fans who want nostalgia. Except for the tell-alll possibilities, no further disappoinments await. For me at this film, he was an artist in full flower. That's no small achievement for a little boy thrust in front of a big audience. 

His penultimate performance, "Billie Jean," was electric -- so much so that I forgave the filmmakers for cutting to admiring hollers from the worshipful crew and cast. Thousands of empty seats ascended around them.

As we left the theater, I asked my daughters if their opinion of Michael Jackson had changed. They said they understand that I think he's a great performer, which was kind but not all I had hoped for. Maybe it was enough that the film challenged what I thought I knew about the man. Long live the King.