The Way He Made Them Feel


Michael Jackson never formally abdicated his throne but his reign over pop culture ended long ago. His demise was gradual but inexorable, dragging out painfully over three decades.

It will be weeks before the telltale toxicology report comes in – but the Jackson family is already hinting at pharmaceutical abuse, giving their prodigal son’s final curtain call more than a passing resemblance to that of another doomed musical monarch, who once held court at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee.

Expect the public outpouring of grief to quickly give way to forensic analysis of the bizarre minutiae that surrounded Jackson’s strange, self-styled life.

That’s a task best left to the motley crew of biographers, former aides, doctors, psychologists, pundits, personalities, associates, TV quacks – and Uri Gellar. What I can offer is my brief but unforgettable experience of the rabidly devotional fandom that dogged Jackson to the grave.

In 2001, I was working in London as an assistant editor when I read of a Michael Jackson fan-club convention at Hammersmith Palais, a few minutes walk from the office. Apparently MJ himself would be making a rare personal appearance – tickets were still available.

Curiosity got the better of me and my colleague, Jo. Neither of us were card-carrying members of the club, but it’s not every day you get the chance to gawp at the most famous man on the planet. Kings of pop don’t come round that often, unless you happen to live near one. 

Knocking off time came round and we set off with a skip in our steps and a hee-hee in our hearts. As we neared the theatre, our chatter quietened. A strange, hyper-real buzz drew us in. Strains of Michael Jackson songs, both crooned and emitting from portable stereos wafted.

My vision pinged to crystal-cut clarity as we moved into the loose assemblage of fans outside, who seemed to represent a broad cross-section of humanity; a human Noah’s Ark of ages, nationalities, creeds, and colours, all seemingly sharing a pervasive, giddy sense of expectation. (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just me, anyway. I was just there for the freak show.)

Jo and I walked into the foyer and wandered over to the first bar we clocked. I was ordering a fix of pre-show Dutch courage when Jo tapped my shoulder urgently and squeaked, ‘There he is!’

Along with everyone else in the vicinity, I looked up, as if on cue, Michael Jackson sashayed down a spiral staircase in his iconic regalia of sparkling rhinestone suit, surgical mask, topped off with a cream fedora.

He strutted onto the foyer floor not 20 yards from us, flicked a single diamante-studded white glove, did a Jacko spin and kick grabbed his crotch, tipped his hat, and pointed skywards.

“That’s not him!” I realised aloud. “I don’t reckon he’d be keen on the foyer bar.” We’d been had – but it only served to amp the atmosphere of anticipation. Shaken, we took our seats on the ground floor.

The evening’s schedule proved to be resoundingly mediocre. It presented a rotating selection of yawn-some B and C-list celebs – I think Gabrielle was among them – performing earnest covers of the hits, punctuated by fawning “genius of our times” talky guff. So far so shrug-worthy. The audience simmered quietly.

Things improved immeasurably when they dropped a giant projector screen and began showing explosive concert footage of Jacko in his gold-suited prime. Some of the more excitable elements of the audience rose to their feet with hollers of appreciation.

One maverick couldn’t hold himself back. He bolted down an aisle, leapt on stage, and began dancing for his life. The throng’s roar of appreciation droned into a chorus of booing when three security guards rugby tackled our hero, and dragged him, fighting, offstage.

How we cheered as he somehow freed himself from the collective grasp of The Man, and dashed back centre-stage for another moonwalk before being bundled into the wings. Scores of police filed into the aisles. The tone shifted up to fever pitch, as the minutes ticked by until – finally – the moment arrived.

The second he appeared from stage left, face glowing alien white, hobbling on crutches, which hitched his shoulder pads to a Frankenstein-like repose, the audience, as if engaged in a pre-planned communal ceremony, jumped up and burst into collective tears in a screaming, hugging frenzy. It was terrifying.

I distinctly recall the two normal-looking twentysomething girls seated to my right standing on their seats in floods of hysterical tears. Jo and I were the only people who remained seated, stunned by the emotional power of this manic display of devotion. It was terrifying.

“I love you!” he squeaked in that breathy falsetto. The place seemed ready to explode. “My new album [2001’s Invincible] – not long – two more months. I really love you. So much.” And he was gone.

On went the show. But, as if on some unspoken cue, the faithful upped and began filing out. “This is how cults work,” I thought, shell-shocked.

Perhaps it’s lucky that, despite the obvious messiah complex, Jackson’s concept of utopia would likely be rollercoasters, lollipops and tree-houses rather than a Branch Davidian-style sect. Had he ever decided to launch a dictatorship, surely he could’ve purchased an island base – Greenland, say – from which to command his faithful followers.

But then, as the old saying goes, no man is an island.

-- Published by The Phnom Penh Post, 2009


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