‘Behind the Mask’: An Appreciation

Reprinted with permission of the author @DoggoneCity

Behind the Mask’: An Appreciation

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Every album has one. A song you never thought you’d find on his album, and then realized could appear only on an album of his. That helps you escape to another place, releases you from the just beats, hooks, and lines—verses, bridges and choruses, and achieves a transcendence reserved only for the greatest of performers.

They all had it. The orgasmic, scatting crescendo on Get on the Floor. The insidious strings through an urban wasteland in BJ. The cardiac-throb of the bass in SC. The echoing corridors of vocal layering in Who Is It. The wailing synth-sirens on the rain-soaked streets of SIM. The torture chamber of industrial funk in Morphine. And the simmering pizzicato syncopations of young desire in Whatever Happens. And now it’s that tantalizing saxophone on Behind the Mask like an endless foreplay of hide and seek.

His genius as a musician is that he thinks of sounds in terms of images; his genius as a singer is that he creates melodic lines that evoke body lines; his genius as a producer is that he imagines a song as a concert.

His best songs always evoke stories, surreal and haunting. And what do we have here? A roaring stadium, swirling lights, fireworks, projections, mist-clouds. A sinuous saxophone line amongst the mass of swirling arrangements. The camera panning out and zooming in on a face among the flashes. She’s one among thousands, but he can see her. A girl in the crowd. Like Joanna Thomae at the Virgin Megastore, who’s number he made sure to get? ‘I want you…I know you’— ‘Who do you love?’ See that girl, she knows he’s watching. Is asking her to take off her mask and show her as herself. You can almost imagine him raising his voice, ‘Turn up the house lights’ – ‘I want to see you.’

This is the ultimate mask – between a performer and his audience. We never showed ourselves to him, any more than he showed himself to us. When he cried ‘Aaaow’, we could cry back, but we could never talk to him, because none of us knew what it was like to be him. As he sat signing autograph after autograph at the Virgin Megastore, they all came up to him with tears, awe, and stars and spangles in their eyes and on their clothes, but none could talk to him, human being to human being. We could say we loved him, and he’d say he loved us more. And that was it. It was a strange, distant love. Always about the show, always about the performance – his perfectionism and our adoration. ‘See you in July.’

See how that saxophone plays with and against his voice. A melody that falls and rises and falls and rises again, the pendulum of passion and indifference, the back and forth of desire and release, of thirst and quenching. She always takes it and all she does is throw it back. Like the two-edged sword of desire.

For all his greatest music is about desire. With Prince, that other great poet of desire, desire is a simpler sentence, subject, verb, object. I want you, let me count the ways, clauses following upon clauses, endlessly cumulative. But when MJ sings about desire, it’s like a complex sentence with a simple base clause but many subordinate clauses zooming in and out, dense, turgid, flowing, flowering, fading, full of textures that ripple on the surface, because his voice changes and transforms like the sea standing on a beach, the softness of shingles under leaden skies, when he is both panderer and seducer. Words will never be enough to describe him or his desire because, as someone said of religion, the central dilemma is trying to express the inexpressible. ‘Don’t try to understand me, because your words just aren’t enough.’

But when he looked at swarming sea of millions upon millions in tour after tour, what was he thinking? That thinking is the biggest mistake a dancer could ever make? Who was he looking at? Who was there to look at? Invisible presences, heavenly muses? Or an audience demanding to be quenched? One more comeback, one more number – why didn’t he stand on his toes, why does he lip-synch, why the same choreography, why was the lean so shallow? The mothers of the United States wanting to know why he always grabs his crotch? And was it a tourniquet or a mask – the finger tape, the wrist bandage, the arm band, the knee pads, the bullet strap, the epaulettes, the unrelenting emblems of his bleeding hope, a soldier of love and desire, his body emanating static, a conduction wire, a twisting line, a shapely misshapenness and misshapen shapeliness, like some gargoyle, spouting, empty but consuming, unfilled but fulfilling, enervated but exhausting, a drugged somnolence embodying a lifetime of desire in one concert night. They could never be satisfied, and he could never be satisfied with himself. See you in July.

And there he stands, still singing in December 2010, at some concert on high, here I am and I want you. Rapt in smoke and mists on stage, never transparent, always masked. But baring his talent naked, a spirit walking on the waters, a dove of desire. With the funkiest rhythm guitar riff that Prince never wrote; a snap-crackle rat-a-tat beat like breaking glass that Jonathan Moffet would have killed; a saxophone solo that plays hot and cold with his charged, panting, in-heat voice – as if taunting and egging him on through corridors backstage; the ominous samples from the Yellow Magic Orchestra; audience sounds from Moonwalker and Bucharest that works like a charm or a chant; a backing vocal that fades out with squeals that could come right out Stones’ Gimme Shelter; and for once, his hee-hees that constitute a melodic line by themselves in the bridge and chorus and not simply an adornment of the melody. I walk around I’m sufferin’/In my doom. And us sitting in our rooms.

It’s an incandescent performance, like a complex kiss of fame and fandom, tongues of fire duelling, enfolded in an ecstasy of longing, the desolation to which all thought leads, from which all action proceeds – the desolation we still feel after year and a half. But he’s still enacting orgasm, with his moaning, wheedling, growling ad-libs, on bended knees now, or standing upright as if directing Orianthi, longer, higher, higher, his lust an act of concentration. He touched us, and it stabs. Still.

Once it was as if the whole world was watching him all the time; now it seems as if he’s always watching the world. I might never see you, but hope you see me in July, Michael. Behind the Mask.

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 Original twitlonger posted March 20th, 2014  http://tl.gd/n_1s12fl7 

Behind The Mask Video

This entry was posted in In His Words, Michael News, Prose for MJ, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to ‘Behind the Mask’: An Appreciation

  1. Linda Ohl says:



  2. redfox says:

    Wow–is all I can say. Someone actually came close to describing in words the impossible genius of Michael Jackson. My jaw is still open. Thanks so much.


  3. corlista1 says:

    Brilliant. That’s all I can say — brilliant!!


  4. TheresaB says:

    Wow! You nailed his genius and mystery. Thank you to those who try to understand him, are inspired by him, and love him no matter his “otherness.” And, a curse on those who continue to dissect and judge his life and choices. You allude to explaining the unexplainable. Can he really be explained? Perhaps we should just bask in his brilliance


  5. Amen. Beautifully written. Spot on. I could feel him there behind the mask of your words.


  6. mjrocksmyworld8291958 says:

    Magnificent piece of writing indeed. Loved it<3 and I agree 100 percent with TheresaB let us bask in his brilliance!


  7. Isaura Vazquez-Reid says:

    My heart pounded as I was reading this article, my eyes rushed to capture every word as fast as I could and I can see him in my mind, I can see his beautiful smile, his perfect moves, his beautiful eyes, and his breath as he sings and dance, – Very simple – there are no words to describe MICHAEL JOSEPH JACKSON – I think His name says all – WILL NEVER FORGET HIM


  8. This is very well said, and very cleverly spoken and it’s truly a testament to Michael himself because as this essay states it’s nearly impossible to describe Michael Jackson, his music and his existence to anyone on earth who doesn’t inherently know him as his followers do. I love to talk about Michael to people and I try to explain who he is to people who don’t yet know him. Talking about Michael to strangers is a massive undertaking because the subject is so philosophical and so intense, and the reaction is so highly energized it’s hard to find words that capture it. The one thing that I do most often is give them his music, give them one of Michael’s cds of their own to listen to because Michael said “the love is contained in the music and it will not die.” Michael’s lyrics and all the sounds have to be experienced and I know that whoever receives his music will experience the same phenomenon described in this lovely essay. The one word that comes to my mind the most when I think about Michael is “mystery.” On one side of my mind Michael is a complete mystery, and I can spend infinity thinking about all his words and try to conclude their meaning and never understand all, yet on the other side of my mind all is perfectly understood and understanding Michael Jackson is the most normal thing in the world. Then….I’ll listen to one of his songs that I have heard countless times before and I’ll hear a word or a sound that I didn’t notice before and I’m right back to being completely intrigued and fascinated by the mystery of what he meant and once again I find myself thinking of Michael’s words “help me make these mysteries unfold” and I know I’ll spend the rest of my life loving the mystery that is Michael Jackson and his legacy.


  9. Mado says:

    Thank you for this great article. I have read it three times and I am amazed…


  10. corlista1 says:

    Jacqueline – I’m with you!


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