The Moonwalker’s Strange Quest for Perfection : Has Michael Jackson’s Wacko Image Eclipsed His Talent?


It remains to be seen whether Michael Jackson’s on-stage pyrotechnics will be enough to make us forget the geek-show persona he’s been saddled with in recent years.

Kicking off a series of nine sold-out Southland shows with three at the Irvine Meadows Ampitheatre beginning Monday night (the tour moves to the Sports Arena on Nov. 13), Jackson will no doubt turn in a dazzling show--he is nothing if not a seasoned professional--but his talent is in danger of being eclipsed by the darker aspects of his career.

Grown from a teen-age musical marvel with lightning feet into a troubled cultural oddity, Jackson has come to seem like en exotic hothouse flower, overripe to the point that it’s begun to give off a sickly sweet smell. The cracks and fissures have begun to show, and confusion and stark terror are frequently evident in his heavily made-up face.


Often ridiculed by the media that once canonized him, Jackson seems on the defensive now. With strong contenders like Madonna and Bruce Springsteen giving him a run for the money in the quest for world domination, Jackson--who sets considerable store by such things as awards and numbers of records sold--seems to be growing increasingly paranoid.

His current LP “Bad” includes a song about a speeding driver roaring toward escape at the border, a eulogy for a girl murdered in her apartment, a tune about a predatory groupie and, of course, the immortal anthem of revenge, “Bad,” whose opening line--”your butt is mine”--will surely go down in the annals of pop history. “Leave Me Alone” is, as Michael explains in his best-selling autobiography “Moonwalk,” “a song to people who are bothering me.” Holy Howard Hughes! This is a very weird record!

Take a strange life and anoint it with truckloads of money and you get a strange life with tail fins and flashing neon, and Michael Jackson leads a very strange life indeed. He is a Peter Pan who grows more childlike every year.

A sinfully rich man who seems to immerse himself ever deeper in the childhood he missed having when he was a boy, he is 30 going on 12.

An R&B; child prodigy cocooned since infancy in a lonely world of managers and meetings with fellow superstars, Jackson has been sheltered from “the real world” for most of his life and the world at large still seems to frighten him deeply.

Like a shy woodland creature darting from tree to tree for shelter, he dons disguises for fleeting forays to visit amusement parks, to buy the publishing rights to the entire Beatles’ catalogue and attempt to purchase the remains of fellow human curiosity the Elephant Man. Extensive press coverage of Jackson’s unusual leisure activities--which include cosmetic surgery and meaningful relationships with chimpanzees--has cast a disturbing light on the former boy wonder, whose life now resonates in decidedly unsettling ways.


Jackson is inarguably an immensely gifted performer, nor is the purity of his intentions suspect; he seems genuinely dedicated to showering the world with Disneyesque fairy dust.

It’s hard, however, to swallow happy-ending fables from a man whose own life seems so singularly lacking in freedom and joy. Jackson has taken his own life hostage by his neurotic need to be the best, the biggest, and everybody’s favorite--and if that isn’t America’s No. 1 hang-up in a nutshell I don’t know what is.

Jackson may be flawed, but he is us. He is every person who ever dragged himself to an aerobics class in a desperate attempt to transform from a lumpy duckling into a swan. He is the quest for perfection taken to a pathological extreme, Western cultures’ over-identification with the body--you are what you look like--gone haywire.

The physical ideal Michael seems to have in mind is a composite of his sister Janet and Brooke Shields, and he gets closer to his goal every year. Beyond race, beyond gender, his increasingly androgynous appearance is a triumph of the will and the wallet.

The lust for perfection that fuels Michael’s bizarre physical metamorphosis combines equal parts vanity and terror; terror that the mass audience will cast him aside as no longer desirable, vanity fed on a lifetime spent gazing at pictures of himself, dancing before a mirror, studying videos of himself, learning which parts of himself he should hide, which parts he should highlight.

Narcissistic as that might sound, Michael puts himself through all this not so much for his own pleasure, but rather for some mythical audience that he apparently feels not only applauds his triumphs, but needs them in order to carry on.

As he modestly asserts in “Moonwalk,” “It’s very hard to create something when you feel like you’re in competition with yourself. You can always say ‘Aw, forget “Thriller,” but no one ever will.” Michael obviously has little understanding of the public’s short attention span and even shorter memory. He believes no one will ever forget “Thriller.” What a burden for the poor boy!

Believing his every move to be of paramount importance to adoring fans, he strives to be all things to all people. And, in the great American tradition of Elvis, he has set aside any need he might have for a normal life and cast himself on the burning pyre of show biz so that others might be entertained.

He’s become a super-host to the parasite called mass media, a vampiric entity that feeds on selected victims’ privacy and freedom in order to give birth to mythical figures able to sell out stadiums.

Jackson apparently feels those are small sacrifices to make in exchange for eternal life on the walls of poster shops around the world.