John Kilgore

... Ah jealousy & woe
Ah poor divided dark Urthona now a Spectre wandering
The deeps of Los the Slave of that Creation I created

— William Blake, The Four Zoas

When Michael Jackson died last summer — so unexpectedly, to such worldwide outpourings of grief — I happened to be teaching a British Literature seminar in which the assigned reading was Frankenstein. Ever since then, foolishly perhaps, I have been dogged by a sense of connection between the two things: on the one hand Jackson's spectacular career, with all its prodigious ups and downs; on the other Mary Shelley's 1817 novel, most unlikely of classics, with its durable myth of unnatural creation.

In both cases, to begin with, it's fair to say that the excitement is not really about art. Among the aesthetic flaws of Frankenstein, written when Shelley was not yet nineteen, are tuneless language, cardboard characterization, over-the-top sentimentalism, and a nearly incoherent plot. If it were not a great book, it would not even be a good one. Still, there it is, a true colossus, the story everyone knows in some form, sacred birth site of science fiction and the modern Gothic.

Jackson's art, likewise (to put it coldly), falls well short of accounting for his colossal fame. The best one can say about an early Jackson Five hit like I'll be There is that Michael's screechy soprano hits the right notes in the right order. The song's success depends absolutely upon one listening in the spirit of a parent at a school recital, fearing disaster, ready to accept anything else as triumph. In adulthood the voice grows stronger, but not by an order of magnitude. No matter how cleverly it is dubbed and redubbed over itself, it lacks range and depth. It keeps repeating the same few tricks (hiccupy yelp, weepy tremor), then wanders off into what used to be called "background," an endless aural hall of mirrors, defiantly ersatz, elevator music gone nuclear.

You're right: I don't get it, never will. But even I can appreciate that Jackson's success was not as a singer per se. Rather, as the pundits kept repeating, he was a great entertainer, meaning by this not just that he danced, too, but that he figured as composer, inventor, impresario, huckster, cute-costume-wearer, paparazzi magnet, and overall force of nature. (They also kept citing his record-setting sales figures, as if only that could truly take the measure of the man.) Jackson's dancing, I grant, is often magical; yet that, too, is machined and unnatural and subtly disturbing. In the videos, he jerks, spins, geeks, lurches, moving with impossible suddenness and angularity, as if he were made of metal. The dancing is not something he does with his body but something he does to it, in an impossible fusion of grace and dorkiness.

But what both singing and dancing serve well enough is something that never quite got mentioned, that week of his death: Jackson's status as a latter-day myth: the way he came to epitomize a particular knot of pain and desire that concerns us all.

The later Jackson, everyone knew, was the boy who never grew up, Peter Pan agonistes, with the question of sexual innocence pulled out of the closet but then endlessly mooted. It is after all what mythical heroes do: defy the laws of the gods, then pay for it. So Jackson built Neverland, his kitsch Xanadu, and in effect commanded time to stop, inviting bands of Lost Boys for sleepovers, as if fully convinced that he himself was still nine. This eventually drew the attention of the authorities and the ire of much of the public; but what was his 1985 hit We Are the World, if not a close musical equivalent? A tune so saccharine and monotonous that no one over twelve can be forgiven for liking it, a sentiment earnest and simplistic to the point of pathology, and a big posse of headliners somehow persuaded to join in, trying to drown the world's problems in a torrent of unrelenting niceness. I don't doubt that the associated philanthropic efforts were genuine in their way, even effective. But the song itself was not about the world's hungry. It was about us, our generosity, our amazing sweet goodness — and our right to go on forever being uncomplicated children: "We are the world / We are the children / We are the ones ... " If you bought the song, literally or figuratively, you have been to a Michael Jackson sleepover of sorts.

But for me the signature Michael Jackson moment will always be the one that caused the halftime cameras of the 2004 Super Bowl to lurch into evasive maneuvers: the crotch-grab that should have been expected, apparently, since by then it was a regular part of his routine. "Grab" is in fact a euphemism for what I saw. After several pelvic thrusts so long and languid they would have done credit to a contortionist, Jackson stroked himself very slowly and softly, with the gentle reverence of a Gollum at long last reunited with his Precious.

So there he was, a forty-five-year-old man, demonstrating in the most determined way that he had not yet absorbed the lesson always impressed on kindergartners: not to hold themselves in public. And there we were, a billion of us viewers worldwide, after weeks and months of anticipation, expecting nothing but the best on this day of days — the best football, the best announcing, the best commercials, and you-better-believe the best halftime entertainment. And it came down to this: watching Michael Jackson pet his organ through his goofy sequined pants. The moment was supremely weird.

Yet the gesture was, in its way, Promethean. It said to the gods, I refuse! I am staying right here in the land of polymorphous perversity, in the latency period, hanging on to the chief perk of childhood: that shameless delight in the body that so haunts the adult imagination once it has been lost. I may have sampled the apple a bit, said Michael, but you're not going to chase me out of the garden. He would refuse to let the hormone storms of adolescence do what they do to mere mortals: sweep him on out into the harsher terrain of adulthood. He would remain right there amid the fronds of Innocence, being horny and nice.

This was late Jackson, of course, already dethroned, his sales sinking like the Lusitania. But in a strange way the later "weird behavior" fulfills and validates the earlier work, rather than tarnishing or recanting it. Backtrack to Thriller, in 1982, the best-selling album in the history of music, and you find the same dynamic. The video, far more famous than the tune, features a squeaky-clean Michael who out-sweets anything on fifties TV, his voice girlish and small, his lean dancer's body broadcasting not desire but just the opposite: complete sexual denial, resolute incomprehension of the onrushing mystery of adult feeling. Out on a date with a girl as sweetly prelapsarian as himself, he walks her home, asks her to go steady, then suddenly transforms into a werewolf. Lycanthrophy in this video is much what philanthropy was in the other: erotic metaphor, hinting at mildly nonstandard leanings. For an instant Michael's werewolf seems quite creditably terrifying, looming over the girl, ready to perform that nameless horrible something around which the Gothic orbits endlessly.

But then the confrontation is revealed as "just a movie," being watched by a second Michael, or rather the same one, sitting in the theater happily munching his popcorn, clearly more interested in that than in the terrified date snuggling up to his lapel. They leave, he walks her home, and as the music finally starts, Michael morphs again, this time into a decidedly less scary zombie with craggy features and flashing eyes and a big happy troop of zombie buddies. Together they spend most of the video's eleven minutes harassing the girl with epic dance moves. Finally zombie-Michael corners her, closes in, and ... melts back into the innocent boy-Michael, in the kind of ultra-gentle ending one finds in the simplest children's games and stories: the monster was friendly after all, or just pretend, or only you or only me. The video closes with mild hints that boy-Michael aims to keep in touch with beast-Michael. But the overall effect — astonishingly, for a rock mega-hit — is nearly anti-sexual. All the darker possibilities of sensuality have been reinterred, de-fanged, wished away. Childhood has staged a successful incursion, extending its empire out over the one province of adulthood that threatened it most.

It was for such reassurance that so many fans loved Michael Jackson, I think, though it was not a thing that could be said in so many words. He gave permission to the Peter Pan and Jo March in everyone, to that corner of the personality that longs to remain infantile — unthinking, secure, pleasure-driven. Though he constantly plays at being a rocker love-god, the emphasis is on the act of playing, not on rocking or loving. Even while he perpetrates hip movements more explicit than any achieved by Elvis or Mick Jagger, the song at some level remains as prim as a closing number from The Partridge Family, conveying not sensuality or passion but an oddly Victorian yearning toward innocence. The high, soft voice always recalls the youngster who chirped and bounced his way to his first gold record at age eleven, and the subtext of Jackson's celebrity is always that he is still that Michael, the very same, no matter what the years and make-up and the scalpel have done since. The endlessly repeating hooks and tag-lines of his songs seem intended to defeat time, and the lyrics, when they can be made out, are mostly barren of story, and hence of passion as anything but an abstract proposition.

So here is a theory, for what it's worth, from someone too old ever to have gotten a Jackson song by heart or danced to it with close attention hoping to get lucky: the work is less about sex than the dread of sex. In our conflicted post-Puritan culture, where kids are first ritually spoiled and softened, then shoved out into the storms of adolescent Eros, with all its peer-group terrors and unexplained mood swings and strange smells, as if what awaited them there was nothing more complicated than another trip to Disney World — in such a world, such a bard was needed. Jackson spoke to the legions who would secretly have liked to skip the whole thing, to remain forever eight years old, curled up in front of the TV on a Saturday morning in a Star Wars sleeping bag.

But heroes are never heroes until they suffer, and if Jackson had really seemed to succeed in his Great Refusal, he would have been as boring and bland as Richard Simmons or Pee Wee Herman or Liberace: a swishy indeterminate boy-man, ponderously going to seed. What made him infinitely more intriguing was the pain, quietly manifest no matter how he denied it. The star himself seemed unable to read the message that his serial self-maiming broadcast to everyone else: here is a soul in agony, desperate to be someone and something else. When he told interviewers, in that lifeless girly-voice suffused with unexplained sadness, that he had never had plastic surgery, the claim was so absurd that he could seem really cracked; but there was something terribly touching about it. Pain is all the more moving when it does not recognize itself. As it happens the lightening skin may really have been the result of disease, compounded by overcompensating make-up; but the impression that it was done deliberately, in another panicky assault on the Man in the Mirror, always lingered.

It was as if, aiming at eternal childhood, Jackson had landed instead in a painful backwater of adolescence: a bad-hair, bad-complexion, bad-period, mean-friends day made permanent, multiplied into a Dantean circle of depression. And if you were fifteen and felt like a freak and were thinking of having your face tattooed with something ugly, if you were an anorexic or a cutter or someone who couldn't get out of bed last week, if you were yielding to or struggling against an erotic compulsion that might ruin your life, you could look at that scary face of Michael Jackson — that papery skin, those huge eyes, that nose whittled down to nothing — and sense a kindred spirit. His real gift to the fans was not song or dance, but absolution.

So what does all this have to do with Mary Shelley? Plenty, I submit; for in Frankenstein, too, sexual dread is the real animating passion, the true concern lurking beneath the easy surface morals about pride and the limits of science and so on.

In her Introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Shelley tells us where the story, spectacularly famous by then, first began: not with the four chapters of boilerplate character background that husband Percy would persuade her to write, but with what is now Chapter Five. Victor Frankenstein — not the monster's name here, but the scientist's — has created life, in the scene Hollywood would always love best of all. "I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs" (56).

What happens next in the movies, always, is a satisfying round of histrionics between scientist and monster. But in the book the drama is mainly internal. Victor looks at the culmination of his two years' toil and responds for all the world like a fledgling author going suddenly sour on a project, or (to take a close parallel) an unstable lover in the grip of post-coital sadness: with uncontrollable revulsion against what he himself has done. "The beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.... No mortal could support the horror of that countenance" (56–57).

So Victor flees the scene, and before long, oddly, falls asleep in his clothes. And then he has a dream that one is simply astonished to find in a book written so many years before Freud was a gleam in his father's eye:

I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped and rushed downstairs. (57)

How did Mary Shelley know so much about the dreams of men? By the divinings of genius, no doubt; or perhaps Percy, notoriously unable to shut up about anything, simply told her. First there is one instant of glad sensuality, as Victor, elsewhere as repressed and joyless as Norman Bates, embraces his beautiful fiancée Elizabeth. But then his touch transforms her into the corpse of his dead mother, worms and all, and the erotic shudders into the Gothic. The point is not so much that the parent (or "society," as we primly put it) directly forbids sex, but that an infantile libido, still bonded to the parent, represses itself, finding sex dirty, dangerous, and evil. So imagination recoils in horror from the flesh, but even as it does so seems to understand that persistent infantilism means sacrificing the future for the moldering corpse of the past. Does a fellow want real romance with all its thrills, or the uncomplicated and infinitely safer love of Mom? The physical or the Platonic, the future or the past, adulthood or childhood? Victor can't decide.

And then the creature arrives at his bedside, completing a succinct algebra of desire: longing plus denial equals the grotesque. Like Victor's mother, the monster comes from the grave, piecemeal in his case, as if she had been torn apart and reassembled into him; but unlike Madame Frankenstein, he is suffused with fresh vitality. Grinning, parting the curtain in an ancient symbol of hymen-breaking, backlit by the moonlight that "forced its way" through the shutters, he reaches for Victor in what looks like a demand for love. Before long he will demonstrate world-class prowess at glacier-climbing and other grueling outdoor events, together with a knack for remorseless murder. He will demand that Victor create a lady monster to be his "companion," and when Victor refuses, will (in another version of the same nightmare) strangle Elizabeth on what was to have been her marriage bed. Gigantic, graceful, and superhumanly strong, the monster is nonetheless so grotesque that people who see him faint dead away or lash out in fury. Clearly, he stands for the instinctual, animal self, but in a form already scarred by repression: Id as seen by the superego: passion and the horror of passion, fused into one.

For the rest of the story, the creature is Victor's Doppelganger, a shadow self who haunts and dominates and ultimately destroys him. Their alter ego relationship is intimated in countless ways. The journeys of monster and maker take them all across Europe and eventually north to the Arctic, but the creature never has the slightest trouble finding Victor when he wants him. Victor for his part knows or senses the monster's crimes well before such knowledge could be available by natural means. More darkly, he incites and "enables" the murders, by abandoning the creature in the first place, by later aborting the lady creature, by refusing to inform the authorities no matter how much blood spills, and by always putting himself in the wrong place at the crucial moment. Meanwhile he offers rationalizations of such teeth-grinding implausibility that they always seem to me a chief defect of the novel.

But the story's eerie sense of doubleness, the spot-on portrait of Mind divided and estranged from itself, is wonderfully evocative. I can remember reading Frankenstein for the first time at age sixteen and feeling so implicated by it, so caught, that I could scarcely breathe. The tale reveals just what it is to be a teenager: you have a self that you show to the world, a rather fragile thing, full of gaps and improbabilities, unspeakably awkward at times, but still the person you have decided to be in life. But in the very act of constructing and choosing this self, you have somehow created its anti-type, an unacknowledged monster-self comprised of discarded parts: all those impulses you check, the flaws you struggle to disown, the upsurge of intemperate fantasies. And this bastard child of your psyche now haunts your every move, always threatening to emerge into the light and disgrace you. You get confused: which is the real self, again, and which the pretender? Which the creator, and which the creature?

To a great extent the remedy to such torment is simply to grow up. Teenagers, though, invariably feel that it is the world that needs fixing, and this sentiment is tellingly caught in the book. In its primary sense and acceptation, Frankenstein is a great liberal myth, a cautionary tale about the evils of repression. It belongs in the line of Rousseau, and of Shelley's parents William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, arguing for liberty and revolution, pleading the goodness of human nature. Everyone recognizes the partial justice of the monster's lament, "I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend" (95) — a formula that holds the seeds of a thousand left-of-center social treatises. Yet as crime follows crime and the victims pile up — little William, Clerval, Justine, Elizabeth, Alphonse, Victor himself — the rationalization wears thin. It becomes harder and harder to "blame society," and the whole argument of the book turns upside down, somewhat as Mary Shelley's own life did, the years changing her from a fiery Bohemian outcast to a stodgy middle-aged lobbyist for aristocratic privilege. Seen from the far end, the tale can look less like a plea for reform and liberty than a warning against pursuing those things too ardently, and withal a wistful lament that such a thing as passion should exist. Victor's essential crime, after all, is not abandoning the creature but creating it in the first place, and his final act, in which he regains a modicum of dignity (after too much histrionic dithering and repentance) is to try to hunt the thing down and kill it. He doesn't succeed, but what he is after — death of the beast — seems to decode as a world cleansed of desire. Apparently we are not en route to Whitman and Allen Ginsberg and the Sexual Revolution after all, but to the high Victorianism that would bury sex deeper than e'er did plummet sound.

And we are headed, too, toward Michael Jackson, a much later artist who would use his own body as raw material, becoming the monster he created in an instinctive, heartfelt renunciation of the flesh.

Of course, Jackson was not the first or only rock star to woo the public in monstrous guise, or to blend the erotic and the Gothic. Such maskings are part of an established and more or less conscious iconography, one that extends back through the popular culture to folklore and ancient legend. In tales that descend from the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, young male lovers are routinely transformed into beasts who must then seek redemption via the love of a maiden. ("Beauty and the Beast" is the instance of the pattern currently best known, in its massively bowdlerized Disney version.) Eros himself falls under the accusation of being "a huge winged serpent" and is torn apart from Psyche, and both lovers have to undergo long penitential adventures before they are healed and restored and reunited. In this and other "animal-groom stories," the basic message is clear enough: emergent eros, young love, is naughty and bestial until it proves otherwise. Its potential to rend and devour must be sublimated into something finer and gentler; police and parents and above all the lady herself must be won over. Only then does the frog turn prince.

By ancient rule, thus, monstrosity is the hallmark of quickening libido; love arrives first not as beauty and enchantment, but as disgust and terror. And these are lessons that the popular culture has generally remembered. In monster movies, for instance, the eponymous creature is often almost openly a sex symbol. He is King Kong with his hopeless yen for Fay Wray, the sharks in the Jaws movies scarfing up naked kids, the terrifying alien rape-machine of the Aliens movies carrying its torch for Sigourney Weaver, Jabba the Hut slobbering over Princess Leia in her titanium bikini, Hannibal Lecter choosing to dine on his own hand rather than Agent Starling's, Dracula recruiting new troops in an unmistakably erotic grapple, Boris Karloff's Frankenstein with the peasant maiden in his arms or Peter Boyle's later send-up, in Young Frankenstein, smoking cigarettes with Madeline Kahn after the event.

And in rock music, he is any of countless stars who in one way or another have monstrified themselves in service to their cult of Venus: Mick Jagger in some incarnations, all the members of Kiss, Meat loaf exploring the limits of makeup in his music videos, Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Marilyn Manson always, the Nine Inch Nails swinging concrete blocks from chains attached to their nipple-rings, bloated Elvis in his revolting jumpsuits, Metallica in the graveyard imagery of their album covers, and everyone else in the general riot of hair, skin, sweat, tattoos, and outrageous gestures. Back in the more sedate Doo Wop and early rock eras, when singers still had to wear blazers and string ties, something of the same effect was caught by the tradition of falsetto singing. The song might be about cars or sock-hops, but the subtext said something utterly different: Honey, I'm a freak for you. Something of a wolf in sheep's clothing, the castrato both declares his harmlessness as he retreats into endearing, infantile octaves, and begs to go forward, fast, much faster than the girl wants, into the promised land of full-functioning sexuality. But those same gentle screechings convey pathos and puzzlement, the angst of the swain who finds himself transformed by love into something he can barely recognize.

All of which is to say that the Gothic is a sort of pupal stage of the erotic, a signature of the adolescent imagination. It is fantasy balking at the threshold of mature sexuality, dodging out of the boudoir into the graveyard; hence its special importance and striking popularity in the amped-up popular culture that mediates adolescence in modern America. For teenagers, monsters figure a sort of standoff between one's keenest desires and worst fears: freedom and exile, animal grace and lurching dysfunction, sexual longing and sexual disgust, beauty and ugliness, violence performed (as in heroic fantasy) and violence suffered. The monster's deformity can be a consoling vision to kids living in chronic anxiety over their own and other people's bodies, and his monomania amounts to a reassuring parody of sexual obsession. Even in the R-rated gorefests that disturb adults most, all those sadistic visions of bodies hacked, stabbed, raped, et cetera beg to be understood as (in principle) the psychic fare of an audience beset by unappeasable desires and unbearable dreads: in which light they emerge as oddly cheery and sensible. Always partly a put-on, such fantasies act out a rebellion against the new tyranny of the sensuous, a recoil into naïve dualism: if bodies are being chain-sawed and perforated and otherwise insulted, they must not be so important after all. Horror restores a slipping taboo and affords a temporary respite, a quick trip back to equanimity and Innocence.

What is distinctive about Michael Jackson's take on the Gothic, though, is his wanting to stay there, or to leave the way he came in, rather than proceeding through the time-out and on to adulthood. Four years after Thriller, in a slow-arriving and less revered album, he shouts "I'm bad! I'm bad!" and begins the lewd dancing, all clad in gang-banger leathers. The effect, though, is not cocky self-assertiveness, as a producer somewhere must have intended, but actual remorse and bewilderment. Jackson can go through the motions (we wish he wouldn't) and say the words, but at heart he is still the kid who wants to wrinkle his nose and shout "Gross!" when he sees grownups kissing.

And that same lost boy — increasingly sad, increasingly wistful — is everywhere in his work, in the dancing that is only about itself, in the flat sentimentalism of the lyrics, in the restless blankness of song after song that starts off pleasantly enough but then seems to find nowhere to go. No bard of love, he is instead the bard of love-doubts, the patron saint of arrested development, gentle perennial pilgrim to a place beyond time and gender. Jackson was never convicted of what he called "these terrible, terrible charges," in what was to me a plausible show of bewilderment that anyone could think such things. It was not children he lusted after, but childhood itself, a lost world he madly believed he might recover. In our culture of hellbent consumption and pleasure-seeking, as we continually hurl ourselves toward the future, he stands as a persistent totem of our secret misgivings. It is reason enough for tears at his untimely passing.

© 2010 John Kilgore
Previously published in The Vocabula Review
See the Talent Index for more of Kilgore's writing in TheScreamOnline.