The tributes keep coming, with opportunities to listen to his music through the years and watch his videos, many of them long-form mini-musicals. His physical transformations become clear (and progressively more disturbing) after watching many at one time, as I did the other night, as opposed to watching him change gradually, incrementally, through the years.
As early as Rock with You Michael had made some adjustments, clearly narrowing his nose, using eyeliner, and possibly even pancake make-up to enhance his skin tone and appearance. But so what? He was in showbiz. And who walks around this earth exactly as they came into it? We all cut our hair, sometimes dye it, some straighten our teeth, some our noses. The bigger question regarding Michael's transformation is why didn't or couldn't he stop there? He was still adorable. Was that the problem? Was he trying to escape his adorable Jackson 5 lead-singing face?
In video after video Michael looks less and less like his younger self, more and more like - well at one point, he's got a distinctly Peter Pan-ish nose, later a very square cleft chin, ultimately hardly a nose at all, he looks more and more like an anime character. What also comes through very strongly in his videos is anger - when we do get to see his face he is frequently scowling and grimacing and looking generally pissed off. When I originally watched these short films years ago I assumed he was trying to act more masculine, but after watching twenty in a row, his anger is palpable, overpowering.
What also comes through again and again is his desire to hide. He was constantly changing and adjusting his face, but he also was showing it less and less - hiding it under SFX make-up in Thriller, under hats in Smooth Criminal, hard-to-see in animation in Leave Me Alone. In other videos he took a back seat and let others provide most of the visuals: Black or White, In the Closet.
Where Michael really wanted our attention was on his feet. Taking a cue from Gene Kelly, he wore white socks to draw attention to his feet while he was dancing. His love of old Hollywood musicals stands out in each video as he got to be a Jet or a Shark in his own personal West Side Story. Admittedly, the choreography can get a bit repetitive, but there's no denying that the man could dance. He constantly underlined his Hollywood fandom by populating his videos with bits by Movie Stars: Marlon Brando, an animated Elizabeth Taylor, and Vincent Price narrating Thriller. He "gotta dance."
It has been theorized in the past that Michael was trying to deny his roots by transforming himself from a person of color to a white man. As each small change was gradually revealed, I can see why some might have thought this, but after watching a video marathon I am convinced that was not truly the case. Whenever Michael cast himself as the romantic lead in his songs his love interest was always a woman of color - African-American, Hispanic, Asian. His dancers were a mix of all of the above. And he didn't look "white." His skin was pale, ultimately unearthly - check out Scream. But it was more kabuki. As he sang in another song, "it don't matter if you're black or white." It's a great message and a pretty great song. But like Judy Garland, it's hard to look at Michael Jackson and not see the tragedy of a lost childhood, of self-abuse, of a talent twisted by fame and god knows what else. Tragic, but endlessly fascinating, because it's so human. Stay tuned. I know I will...