Exit the Dancing Machine

Every few months, whenever stress levels would increase and desire to work would decrease, I’d go on a YouTube jag of Michael Jackson videos. Specifically his early years with the Jackson Five, when he was younger, seemingly more innocent, and still full of apparently unfettered joy about performing for an audience, even if he would be shy and awkward in interviews. I’m not entirely sure why except that watching someone so obviously a star, so in his element and, even so young, so clearly dominant a performer damn near took my breath away. Not to mention the sense of unlimited potential, realized at the end of the 70s with OFF THE WALL, rocketed into stratospheric territory with THRILLER and BAD and then, then, the decline and fall.

Tributes, analysis and critiques of Michael Jackson are already taking over the Internet. Things are only getting started what with basic questions about the state of his finances, family relationships and the real story behind the child molestation allegations requiring answers. All I really have to add to the general sense of things is that Jackson represented the ultimate American narrative, reared from an early age to work hard and produce, to support a family rife with internal tensions and jealousies and to appease the hangers-on, trapped by his penchant for excess and flaws tragic and monstrous. Dreiser might have had a field day with a character like him. But when it comes right down to it, what brings me back to MJ’s classic songs, his groundbreaking videos and those breathtaking live performances is the way he moved, his total command over space, the upward slope of his arch and downturn onto the balls of his feet.

There’s the Moonwalk, obviously, and the gasp of pleasure at seeing that iconic move for the first time. But go back in time and see its ancestor in “Dancing Machine”, the hops and skips, the whirligig 360 turns, the straight-legged robot moves. He was younger and cockier, but still not quite in full command of his dancing prowess. But the sure way he glided across a given stage set further stages for greater flights of dancing fancy.

THRILLER showed Jackson at the peak of his dancing powers; those lengthy videos wouldn’t have worked if not for the hours upon hours spent repeating, honing, zeroing in on what worked with his body and what did not. BAD wasn’t that far off the mark, but watch the dance sequences in the title video (directed by Martin Scorsese and scripted by Richard Price) and already, the turns aren’t quite as crisp, the movement is just off slightly. Then watch “Black or White”, especially the segment where Jackson moves in and out of animal guise, and the erosion becomes clearer. Even more so with “Scream”, where he’s moving enough, but sister Janet is clearly the more agile one. And when Jackson replicated “Dancing Machine” at the 2001 Madison Square Garden concert, it’s almost painful to watch how his body can’t keep up with his muscle-memory for what he’s supposed to be doing.

Time will tell what Jackson’s state of mind was nearer to the end of his life, but knowing so much money was riding on him delivering the goods at a series of concerts at London’s O2 Theater next month couldn’t have helped. But in the deluge of stories and the inevitable and definitive biography and biopic get released, I hope the most important relationship Jackson might have had – the one with his feet – doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.