Michael Jackson: The Serendipitous Genius (Part 2)

Posted: July 21, 2013 in Random Thoughts
Tags: , , , ,

A recent email conversation with a friend produced the opinion, exemplified to her by the written recap of tapes of Michael Jackson speaking to his friend Rabbi Schmuley, that Michael was “not well-spoken”.  I think the concept of expression is key when considering Michael’s genius.

Like so many gifted creators, Michael did not have the standard opportunities while young to learn how to express himself verbally in public or in conversation and instead, his art became his principal and most eloquent voice. (Historically this is certainly not uncommon among artists in every form of art, and among theoretical thinkers in science or philosophy who may also have been described as genius…)

It may not have been evident to him at the start of his career that verbal expression would ever become as important as it did, and it probably came as a continual surprise to find out how many people wanted to know what he thought!

There seem to be clear patterns in the relationships that Michael developed over his life, at least as they have been described or have described themselves. The most influential of these patterns seem to grapple with a central problematic theme for him: self-expression.

He gravitated towards four main groups of people who assumed great importance in the serendipity of his life and his artistic growth:

First, he gravitated towards those who with whom he shared a childhood (or world-wide fame) in the entertainment industry and were subject to the same isolation, insulation, and concentration on career (to the exclusion of a “normal” youth or later life) and the social issues evolving from that. They understood his expressive problems.

Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Jane Fonda, Macaulay Culkin, Lisa Marie Presley, Tatum O’Neal, Freddie Mercury – to name just a few… all examples of those limitations and who, like Michael, may have needed to find other ways to express themselves in their art rather than just verbally, especially when verbal expression was simply not adequate and only served to feed the publicity mill surrounding celebrities. (They were also subject to the peculiar perception that celebrities simply don’t share the issues and concerns of the “common people”!) Many of Michael’s later interviews were examples of the difficulty he had in making his truth understood as a “celebrity” while also attempting to avoid manipulation by biased media representatives. Add to that his deep shyness and understandable desire for privacy after living in a perpetual spotlight his entire life…

Second, Michael Jackson developed relationships with “alternate families” within which he could (theoretically) freely express the part of him that needed unconditional acceptance and love, away from the hyper-competitive and often jealous world of his biological family, and away from the stressful and also very competitive world of the music and entertainment world in which he chose to create.

With alternate families he seemingly didn’t need to be Genius – or Artist – or Celebrity – and could instead just be a person, a father figure, a mentor, a friend, and a big goofy kid at heart. He could relax and unwind and express the unsatisfied longing he had for a “normal” family life.

Most examples of this were unconventional in public perception and rife with dysfunction, sadly were often misunderstood, and extracted a terrible toll on him emotionally and financially, even the potentially inspiring relationship with Rabbi Schmuley, a self-proclaimed “man of God and spiritual adviser to the Stars” as well as prolific family man. The exception perhaps is that of the Cascio family, which chose to accept Michael as he was, protected his privacy and did not exploit him while he lived.

(This category perhaps demonstrates what I know from personal experience:  that intellectual intelligence and emotional intelligence often travel different roads.)

The reason these alternate relationships rank as serendipitous is their varied effects on Michael’s own psyche and how that translated into later artistic expression. His art became deeply personal, revealingly intimate, and shared the artist with his audience in a manner rare in music and quite unprecedented for a “pop” entertainer.

Third and most successfully, Michael gravitated towards creative individuals who had the ability to take him from his deeply personal and often very conceptual expression into practical realization. Let’s call them “translators”.

In a recently-viewed YouTube video, the late choreographer Michael Peters describes how, during Thriller rehearsals, Michael would express a concept he wanted to explore in a very emotional or descriptive way – a “hot” feel or “angry” feel to the movement he wanted, for example – which Peters could then translate for Michael, using the language of dance, into a practical application which became a dance routine. Kenny Ortega is also an example of a successful artistic “translator” who over several collaborations came to know Michael’s manner of expression well enough that they often communicated in an intuitive verbal shorthand. Michael’s long-time recording engineers, vocal coach, technicians and studio musicians are other fine examples.

Countless creative individuals in music, dance, fine art, film and television became translators for and serendipitous contributors to Michael’s genius, taking his very conceptual intuitive instinctive skeletons and fleshing them out with their own specific version of applied intelligence, in their own specialties — adding their lyrics to his melody so to speak. They helped translated his visions into practicality to allow him expression in ways he had not necessarily experienced himself. And he learned from each of them and added their parts to his whole.

Last, and perhaps most challenging where his genius was concerned, he gravitated towards individuals where he encountered intelligence that could speak on a level with his own, but who were also able to verbally express themselves more eloquently and creatively and influentially in public. Because of these individuals Michael was able to broaden his horizons even further and learn ways to better express in similar fashion who he was as a person and what was important to him.

One prime example here seems to be Dr. Deepak Chopra, who went from the practical-factual-functional world of medicine into the deeply theoretical, less measurable personal world of spiritual guru and successful metaphysical author, and was able to challenge his readers and listeners by being conceptual/artistic and expressive enough simultaneously to inspire in them the desire for more knowledge and understanding of their own emotional and spiritual lives. Inspiring one’s audience to care, to learn further, and to create in their own ways had become increasingly important to Michael too.

I think Chopra likely had a strong influence upon Michael (his close family life appealed to Michael on the alternative-family level as well) – and there are parts of Michael’s second book “Dancing the Dream” that are so typical of Chopra’s manner of personal expression (including the preface passage quoted in a recent Dancing With the Elephant blog), it further demonstrates to me that Michael was very interested in and open to new ways of expressing his deepest thoughts.

Am I saying that Chopra sat down and wrote passages that Michael put forth as his own? Definitely not. Michael had a very strong ability to learn from others no matter how the topic of choice was conveyed – his intelligence allowed him to make that connection, recognize relevance,  and translate their ways of expression into something he could then use himself with some level of comfort. He always made what he learned totally his own. His other mentoring “father figures” such as Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Fred Astaire fit this category of Michael’s self-expression as well, and evidently he reached out to Chopra again near the end of his life.

When some of his later collaborators (like songwriter Siedah Garrett) describe that Michael wanted them to be aware he was learning as much from them as they might be from him, and actually expressed that in words to them, it was genuine – straight from his over-arching humility and humanity, in what I consider THE most striking example of a natural, authentic, focused, life-long, artistic and personal collaborator I’ve ever encountered.

Notably, too: iconic historical figures who interested Michael – who he read about, studied and in some cases venerated – included those who expressed themselves verbally and publicly, not just eloquently and with passion – but also at a level that allowed them to influence large numbers of people to some sort of real action or demonstrable unity of purpose. For Michael, the act of developing self-expression had evolved from a limited personal desire to a possibly unlimited, potentially real medium for larger-scale change.

Action speaks way louder than words. Where speeches failed Michael Jackson, he made his case in his art.

As Eleanor Bowman and host Dr. Willa Stillwater pointed out in a  recent Dancing With the Elephant blog, the eloquence and passion of “Earth Song”, both in song and short film, do provide the perfect example of how expressive and powerful he really could be (and also of serendipity in action). As biographer Joe Vogel described in his fine monograph “Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus”, Michael worked and re-worked the song (and many others too) over a long period and it evolved as he evolved – expanded in effect as he expanded in intention.

Not surprisingly “Earth Song” was appreciated far more around the world than in the U.S. Audiences in Europe often wept openly during the vignette that Michael added at the close of the song live on the HIStory Tour, being no strangers themselves to the sight of a tank or armed soldiers arriving in their towns or the threat of innocents dying in conflicts beyond their control. The act of staring down the barrel of a gun and turning it aside, as devised and portrayed by Michael, was more eloquent in expression than any words I can think of.

Earth Song finale

So, mastering the art of self-expression meant for Michael Jackson a final cohesive process of martialing all the personal talents and abilities he had been given plus mixing in the traces of many influential people who passed through his life in five decades of exploration and four+ decades of performing, in order to accomplish something beyond original, beyond beautiful, beyond successful, beyond unforgettable: something meaningful.

Invest energy to create awareness, create art, and create positive change!

To what better return on investment could anyone – especially a serendipitous genius with a gift for inspiring millions – aspire?

  1. Mike Jack says:

    Thanks! Love you ❤

  2. Beautifully written! Thank you for providing your insightful “Random Thoughts” to someone who has never explored the deeper meanings and representations of Mr. Jackson’s life and work. I am a new fan of yours and will be visiting on a regular basis. You have also provided some intellectual “relief” from my otherwise current emotional state on this day before the five year anniversary of Michael’s death. Thank you again!

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