Reprinted with permission of the author @DoggoneCity
‘Behind the Mask’: An Appreciation
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.
Original twitlonger posted March 20th, 2014 http://tl.gd/n_1s12fl7
Behind The Mask Video