For the past six years, I've felt this calling that intensifies each summer. "It's Michael Jackson death/birth season," my brain says, "time to write down your news-pegged feels." And every year, I fail. I've spent too much time obsessing over this man to distill my thoughts into an essay that would both honor his memory and be digestible or sane enough for a normal person to read.
Instead, I'd like to offer up five Michael Jackson videos I've discovered, or rediscovered, in the past year. Videos I can't unsee. They're not necessarily new, nor are they conclusive of anything. They're not shocking or game-changing. If you're the type to Deep YouTube Michael Jackson (as I clearly am), you probably won't be impressed. But for me, these videos add insight into Michael's personality and private life. They were all illuminating in some way, and I want to share them on this, his sixth deathiversary.
Michael Jackson + Louie the Llama, the Unauthorized Interview
That Michael Jackson would kick off an interview showing off his circus-rescued llama is not revelatory; it's no secret he loved animals. But what struck me about this interview was when it was shot -- 1983. The height of his likability and popularity. There were a number of rumors that led to the "Wacko Jacko" nickname Michael despised -- sleeping in an oxygen tank, hanging ten with Bubbles -- but this video pre-dates all of that, and Michael isn't exactly putting on airs to tamper down his eccentricities. He snuggles with Louie the Llama one minute, then pushes him around the next, maneuvering him so that the camera can bear witness to his beautiful llama eyes. He says that Louie told him he "wants to be a movie star." Later, he ditches the llama and answers questions while sitting next to a distracting water fountain in his mother's backyard. At 4:38, he responds to a question about inspiration by bursting into song, "Dancing on a cloud/soaring up so high/watch me now/I can do anything." The freestyle is awkward, but so essentially Michael, that you have to wonder why his idiosyncrasies came as a surprise to anyone.
Michael Jackson at Studio 54
If you watched the Louie the Llama interview in its entirety, you'll notice Michael riffs on his love of magic, wonderment, and escapism -- recurring themes in his art. In this interview at Studio 54, shot during The Wiz era, a wide-eyed Michael praises the nightclub for encouraging escapism and freedom. It's a sweet sentiment, and in the context of his controlled, abusive childhood, it's nothing short of devastating.
The Banned Version of "They Don't Really Care About Us"
Michael's 1995 song, "They Don't Really Care About Us," was revived atseveral Black Lives Matter protests, and for good reason -- I can't think of one song that is more direct, unflinching, and critical of white supremacy. Which is why the song was slammed by white critics, shunned on the radio, and even banned from music television.
Around the time of #SonyHacks, self-described "citizen journalist for social justice" D.B. Anderson called attention to the shady history behind the song. Jackson made two versions of the video -- one shot in Brazil (the "safe" version, which features a dancing Michael backed up by an Afro-Brazilian drum group), and one filmed in a Long Island prison, spliced with recordings of police brutality, the KKK, and an emotional Michael trashing the prison's cafeteria (above). The latter was banned in the United States, presumably because it made powerful white people uncomfortable. In 2015, we have to beg pop stars of all races to make more than a passing statement on racial injustice. The fact that the most well-known performer in the world couldn't get away with exactly that is chilling. The accuracy of this 20-year-old video, even more so.
Michael Jackson's Kids Are His: A Visual Exploration
This is one of many fan videos that feature side by side visuals of Michael and his kids -- complete with closeups of Prince's vitiligo. There's little commentary (another video includes interviews with Debbie Rowe and Michael, if you want some), but the images are compelling. There was a lot of controversy surrounding the birth of Michael's kids -- their skin was too light, no one wanted to picture Michael and Debbie sexing (it didn't help that Michael was perceived as asexual at best and a child molester at worst). But the facial features the Jackson family share with Michael's kids transcend skin color. As a white-passing biracial woman, I know just how 'white' someone with a black parent can be, and I appreciate people taking the time to illustrate that. While photos aren't indisputable evidence that his kids are biologically his, I find them a decent supplement for people who wouldn't take his word for it either way.
"The Way You Make Me Feel"
OK, so you've probably definitely, seen this video. But have you seen it... on shrooms? Because I have. And it was disturbing.
This was the first video to give me V-tingles as a kid. I wanted to marry this blue-shirted Michael Jackson. It was only later, while shrooming, that I even realized the concept of the video was street harassment. That's the storyline, and it's intentional. But what's not intentional is how goddamn uncomfortable Michael Jackson looks while doing it.
The video starts off with a group of men commenting on a woman who's walking alone at night. Michael approaches from out of the mist and blocks her way. Off-screen, his friend yells, "What is he doing? I thought I told him to go home." They laugh as the woman brushes him off, and Michael's face heats up with the rage of a thousand MRAs. He screams "HEY," starts up some you think you're too good for me? snapping, and begins a song and dance. The girl sidles away, and his boys signal for him to chase her down. He only does so after receiving their encouragement, making strained "macho" faces as he tracks her. Minute two is when his performative masculinity kicks into gear -- note the put-upon air humping that reemerges every 40 seconds or so. The leading lady "comes around" at the end, enveloping Michael in an awkward hug. Which, thematically, is the least-fitting ending to this mini-film.
He looks 1000% more natural while dancing than he does anytime he has to relate his sexuality to someone else. This is evident elsewhere: There's also the horrifying embrace and kiss in the "Remember the Time" video (5:57), the hard-to-make-unsexy "In The Closet" video with Naomi Campbell and the cringe-y love scenes between Michael and his then-wife Lisa Marie Presley in "You Are Not Alone."
It's uncomfortable to watch him perform this persona that could not be further from his seemingly true self -- a shy, thoughtful, sensitive man who was self-critical enough without having to then embody our cultural ideas of what it means to be male. If I cringe watching these scenes, it's not because I agree with the lingering media narrative that Michael was some stunted, sexless alien -- it's because he lived and died in a time when culture was way resistant to supporting people who didn't fit gendered narratives. It's too bad that Michael never got to live in a post Jaden Smith-in-a-skirt world.
Michael Jackson remains a controversial figure, but to me he was the last true pop star -- someone who was irrevocably himself and paid the price. We'll likely never have a comprehensive picture of who he was, but these videos helped me get closer. RIP, fam.