the freak


In his 1985 essay “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Baldwin wrote of Michael Jackson:

The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael.

Baldwin goes on to claim that “freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.” But Jackson was not quite that articulate or vocal about his difference, if he even saw it as such after a while. Certainly his early interest in subtext —expressed primarily by wordplay and choice of metaphor—receded after he released his synthesizer-heavy 1991 album, Dangerous. That album gave us “In the Closet,” where an uncredited Princess Stéphanie of Monaco pleads, at the beginning of the song, for the singer not to ignore their love, “woman to man.” (It's another link in the chain of influence; she sounds like Jackson doing Diana Ross.) In a later part of the song, Michael pleads: “Just promise me/Whatever we say/Or whatever we do/To each other/For now we'll make a vow/To just keep it in the closet.”

But this would be his last engagement of this kind. Unlike Prince, his only rival in the black pop sweepstakes, Jackson couldn't keep mining himself for material for fear of what it would require of him—a turning inward, which, though arguably not the job of a pop musician, is the job of the artist.

more from Hilton Als at the NYRB here.