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Can U Tell Me? Short Stories as Pop Songs


Early summer 2007, I spent all my non-working hours sitting next to the warm, greasy swimming pool of my apartment complex listening to Hanson’s “MMMBop” on repeat through a crummy pair of earbuds. I was, admittedly, feeling a bit lost at this point in my life, so there was something comforting in recognizing and fulfilling my part in such a straightforward symbiotic relationship: my job was to listen to “MMMBop,” and the job of “MMMBop” was to make me want to keep listening. As long as I kept hitting repeat, something in the world was working exactly how it was supposed to.

Around this same time, I was getting serious about writing fiction, and one day a question occurred to me: Is there a literary equivalent of pop music? Is it even possible to reproduce that catchiness, that playfulness, that danceability with the written word?

I certainly want it to be possible, so I’ve been kicking the question around ever since. It’s a tough one to answer, though. One big challenge lies in defining pop music, a genre that encompasses everything from “We Belong Together” to “The Twist” to “Shake It Off.”

Most broadly, pop music is music that’s popular. Based on that definition, the answer to my question is obvious: The literary equivalent of pop music is literature that’s popular. Pull up The New York Times bestseller list, see what’s at the top, and there you go — nice and easy. But to paraphrase the great Tina Turner, we’re not going to do this nice and easy. We’re going to do this nice and rough — to understand how pop music works, we’re going to look at an explanation of how popular movies work according to Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return,” a short story which itself might be the literary equivalent of a pop song.

At the beginning of Bolaño’s story, the unnamed narrator dies — “death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning” — and then, as a ghost, follows his corpse around to observe its postmortem fate. In describing the experience of dying, the narrator invokes the 1990 Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze movie Ghost. When he saw the movie in theatres, the narrator dismissed it as kitsch, especially the scene where Patrick Swayze’s character dies and “his soul comes out of his body and stares at it in astonishment. Well, apart from the special effects, I thought it was idiotic. A typical Hollywood cop-out, inane and unbelievable.” However, much to the narrator’s chagrin, on dying he finds himself, a disembodied soul, staring down at his own corpse: “I was stunned. First, because I had died, which always comes as a surprise, except, I guess, in some cases of suicide, and then because I was unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost.” The movie’s depiction of dying may be completely inane, but it also turns out to be true.

Though initially dismayed that such a meaningful moment in his own life so closely resembles the death scene from Ghost, the narrator’s opinion of the movie improves after some consideration. Though he prided himself in life on being a man of refined taste, he concedes after his death that “there is sometimes more to American naiveté than meets the eye; it can hide something that we Europeans can’t or don’t want to understand.” The narrator discovers that in Ghost, the truth about death is hiding in plain sight, obscured not by layers of symbolism or ambiguity, but by its own kitschiness. Because it resembles so many other lazy Hollywood depictions of death, it might seem meaningless, but banality and truth are not mutually exclusive, an idea that’s key to understanding pop songs.

Take the lyrics of “MMMBop,” which manage to be completely bland, and at the same time, deeply preoccupied with some heavy existential ideas. About a third of the way through the song, the brothers put forth the following proposition: “Plant a seed, plant a flower, plant a rose / You can plant any one of those / Keep planting to find out which one grows / It’s a secret no one knows.” That last line signals a preoccupation with the unknowability of the future that only increases as the song continues, reaching an apex with the final insistent refrain: “Can u tell me? oh / No you can’t ‘cause you don’t know / Can you tell me? / You say you can but you don’t know / Say you can but you don’t know.” Amid all the ba duba dops, then, Hanson is wrestling with a relentlessly ambiguous universe and a completely unknowable future. These are big ideas — truly — and I’m not cherry-picking lines, either. Take a look at the full lyrics of the song, and the existential preoccupations become even more apparent. Ghost-like, Hanson’s song obscures its insights by stating them so unremarkably. The larger insights are also obscured by the fact that the lyrics are nearly unintelligible as sung, and while that may be completely appropriate to their larger thematic interest in the incoherent, it does mean that they lose their frightened edge for listeners and fail to create contrast with the song’s sunny melodies.

A better and more recent example of a pop song grappling with big ideas that we “can’t or don’t want to understand” is Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.” Where “MMMBop” focuses on unknowability, “Call Me Maybe” explores the frighteningly compulsive nature of infatuation. Again, there’s an occasional triteness to the lyrics, especially in the verses, that belies its weighty preoccupations. A line like “I trade my soul for a kiss” may be hackneyed enough to blow by unnoticed, but it’s still describing a willingness to make a Faustian bargain. Adding to the singer’s angst is her self-awareness that the infatuation in question is just that — an unexpected (“I wasn’t looking for this”), unshakeable (“but now you’re in my way”) obsession with a near stranger (“Hey I just met you”). The singer finds herself in thrall to forces beyond her control, but what delights and disturbs me most about “Call Me Maybe” is the way it replicates that same compulsion in its listeners, just as Ghost’s depiction of dying is mirrored in the narrator’s own death.

In a 2013 interview with Mashable, Taylor Hanson (of Hanson) lays out his criteria for a great pop song: “Does it get in your head? Do you sing it over and over? Do you wanna sing it?” That last question gets at one of the more unsettling qualities of a catchy pop song, that sometimes, even if we don’t want to, we might find ourselves not only replaying a song again and again in our minds, but actually singing it out loud and maybe even dancing. It’s such a commonplace occurrence that it’s easy to think nothing of it, but really there’s a kind of possession taking place, a mysterious outside force commandeering our minds and compelling us to use our bodies (to sing or to dance) in ways that are not always voluntary. A catchy song is not unlike that creepy fungus that hijacks the brains of ants and compels them to climb higher and higher and higher so the fungus can sprout from the ant’s head and spread its spores.

And that compulsion brings us back to “The Return,” where the narrator’s dismay arises in large part from the fact that he’s “unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost” (my italics). He’s become an active participant in a piece of art which he disapproves of, and it’s happening against his will. At this point, though, the effects of pop music diverge from the dynamic in Bolaño’s story. In “The Return,” there’s no indication that the narrator’s death resembles that scene in Ghost because he saw the movie; there’s no causality there. Instead, the movie is accurately (and probably accidentally) describing a phenomenon that the movie itself has no direct effect on.

In contrast, a song like “Call Me Maybe” not only describes the frighteningly compulsive experience of infatuation (just as Ghost depicts the experience of death), it also generates a new compulsion in its listeners, a compulsion to sing along and dance along and, at the height of the song’s popularity a few years ago, to produce lip-sync tribute videos. This last phenomenon is pop music possession at its most explicit. If you haven’t seen any of these videos, here’s how they work: A group of people, sometimes famous, sometimes not, films themselves lip-syncing to Jepson’s song, and then they post their video on YouTube. These videos are then viewed (tens of millions of times, in some cases) by people who, in turn, create lip-sync videos of their own, and so it goes, on and on and on.

Unlike the narrator of “The Return,” these lip-syncers go out of their way to channel a piece of popular art through their own bodies; there’s a palpable eagerness there to be a conduit for the song. This is where Taylor Hanson’s third criteria is illuminating — plenty of pop songs might get stuck in your head, but a great pop song is one you want to get stuck in your head. It’s a form of voluntary possession in which the makers of these tribute videos capture — and create — a very public form of ecstatic experience, of being swept by something big and incomprehensible.

Because there is something big and incomprehensible about songs like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe.” I just checked and, three years after its release, the official music video for “Call Me Maybe” has over half a billion views on YouTube. Granted, it’s a plenty catchy song that holds up on repeat listens, but who can fully account for that degree of widespread enthusiasm? There’s something majestic and frightening in the scope of its popularity which for me pushes “Call Me Maybe” into the territory of the sublime. To borrow 18th-century essayist Joseph Addison’s description of the Alps, Jepson’s song, and others like it, “fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror.” That seemingly irreconcilable tension — agreeability and horror — is essential to great pop music.

This is why, for instance, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the greatest pop album of all time. Jackson and producer Quincy Jones astutely foreground that tension between agreeability and horror throughout, creating music and lyrics (and music videos) that are catchy and danceable, and at the same time, preoccupied with discomfort. In “Billie Jean,” the tension arises from a baby’s disputed paternity. In “Beat It,” it’s knife fights. In “Thriller,” it’s werewolves. And start to finish, the album is compulsively listenable. Even the train wreck of “The Girl is Mine” (the doggone girl is mine — what?) is hard to turn away from.

So, to return to our initial question — if these are great pop songs, then what are their literary equivalents? (I’m going to exclude poetry at the outset as being too close to music to be an equivalent.) We’ve already looked at some key concerns and characteristics of pop music — compulsion and tension, agreeability and horror, banality and truth. I’d also add that pop songs are short, usually under five minutes, so their literary equivalent needs to be short as well. For that reason I’m excluding novels. Short stories, though, can be read in one sitting.

And of course, great pop songs have great hooks, so their literary equivalent needs to be both attention-grabbing and memorable. For a perfect case in point, here are the first lines of “The Return:” “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.” It’s a memorable opening — and premise — that in lesser hands might produce a story that coasts on shock value. Instead, Bolaño develops a complex and surprising relationship between the narrator’s ghost and (fictional) French fashion designer Jean-Claude Villeneuve.

Like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe,” “The Return” capitalizes on a tension between the agreeable and the horrible. While certain elements of the story — death, necrophilia — might inspire unease or distaste in readers, other elements — the story’s humor, its compassion — make the story not just palatable, but pleasant. It’s a fun read that also grapples with overwhelming concepts like death, compulsion, sex, and loneliness.

For all its pop-musicality, though, “The Return” is not an especially well-known story, at least not yet. And while we have rejected popularity as the sole defining characteristic of pop music, it is an important element. For that reason, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” serves as a useful case study. Like “The Return,” it’s a story with a horrifying core — the random and ritualistic selection of a small-town resident for stoning — made agreeable by its engaging narrative elements — a stunning concision, a compelling sense of mystery. The story has also achieved the ubiquity of a “Hey Ya!” or an “Imagine.” Everyone reads this story in junior high, and with the possible exception of “The Most Dangerous Game,” no other 20th-century short story has insinuated itself so completely into the pop culture lexicon.

“The Lottery” also shares with “The Return” a counterfactual, high-concept premise that resists easy allegorizing. This play with realism correlates to another widespread characteristic of pop songs, the nonsense lyric. The chorus of “MMMBop” is fun to sing along with and it also means nothing, at least in a conventional sense. What’s more, you’re not going to find a lot of people puzzling over what mmmbop ba duba dop actually signifies, because signification isn’t the point.

No story exemplifies this dynamic better than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” in which a winged old man shows up outside the house of a poor couple where he’s caged and examined until, at the end of the story, he flies away. The story’s characters, as well as its readers, find themselves asking questions that listeners of “MMMBop” don’t bother with — what does this nonsensical figure mean? But the story’s refusal to yield any clues as to the old man’s provenance or nature makes a strong case that we should read the story the same way we listen to the chorus of “MMMBop.” It matters less what the old man means, and more how his enigmatic presence fits within and affects the rest of the narrative.

Of course, some readers will persist in being frustrated by “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” just as many listeners are enraged by pop songs like “MMMBop” or “Call Me Maybe.” I think that’s true, actually, of all three stories I’ve mentioned, that they’re just as likely to inspire consternation as admiration.

Part of the reason for that is their ability to get under a reader’s skin. You may hate “The Lottery,” but if you’ve read it, you’re likely to remember it for a very long time. Similarly, people who hate “MMMBop” don’t hate it because it’s forgettable, they hate it because they can’t get it out of their head. Even that hatred, though, is a remarkable artistic feat. Love and hate are, after all, both forms of devotion, and the ability to inspire that devotion is, the more I think about it, the most essential characteristic of a truly great pop song.

When, in 2007, I fell in love with “MMMBop,” I felt an irresistible urge to share the song with others, to ask them to listen and to consider if maybe, like me, they’d dismissed it too readily when it first came out 10 years earlier. We’ve already discussed how that compulsion to share is a strange, overwhelming force, and it’s a compulsion I feel again now. As I’ve thought through the possible criteria for determining the literary equivalent of a pop song, I’ve thought of so many stories that fit the bill, stories that have gotten under my skin, stories that I have to share. Unable to resist that urge, I’ve put together a Thriller-sized playlist of nine pop-musical short stories:

1. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson (from The Lottery and Other Stories)

2. “The Return,” by Roberto Bolaño (from The Return)

3. “Good Country People,” by Flannery O’Connor (from A Good Man is Hard to Find)

The names alone of the two main characters (Manley Pointer and Hulga) are worth the price of admission, and the story just gets better from there. Its jokey setup — a woman with a PhD in philosophy sets out to corrupt a naïve-seeming bible salesman — serves as a funny vehicle for a troubling exploration of condescension and pain.

4. “UFO in Kushiro,” by Haruki Murakami (from After the Quake)

After the Kobe earthquake of 1995, Komura’s wife leaves him, explaining in a note, “you are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air.” What follows has the feel of a verse/chorus/bridge song structure as seemingly disparate narrative elements — the accusing note, a package whose contents are unknown to Komura, an extended conversation with the sister of a colleague — trade back and forth until they all come together, more-or-less, at the end of the story.

5. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (from Collected Stories)

6. “The Cats in the Prison Recreation Hall,” by Lydia Davis (from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis)

A prison recreation hall is infested with cats and then the warden gets rid of them — that’s basically the whole story. But the simple premise yields an engaging pop-song-short two-page narrative about power, cruelty, and the passing of time.

7. “End of the Line,” by Aimee Bender (from Willful Creatures)

“The man went to a pet store to buy a little man to keep him company.”

Another killer hook, this time for a story that takes a whimsical premise and follows it to dark places. By the end, the reader is left with the troubling question of whether the big man subjects the little man to a series of cruel humiliations because he can’t see his pet’s humanity or because he can.

8. “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” by Steven Millhauser (from We Others: New and Selected Stories)

Nineteenth-century Austrian magician Eisenheim stages increasingly audacious illusions that captivate the public and trouble government officials. It’s not just the descriptions of the magic tricks that captivate, though. The narrative itself contains flourishes and reveals that, rather than feel cheap or contrived, organically grow out of the story’s interests in spectacle.

9. Dormitory, by Yoko Ogawa (from The Diving Pool)

Tiny mysteries accumulate in this story, creating a tone both haunting and precise. The narrative’s indelible physical details — a stained ceiling, omnipresent bees, rigorous five-item to-do lists — ground the reader in a distinctly tangible world, which makes the dread-filled, disorienting effect of the story’s conclusion all the more affecting.

Image Credit: Flickr/modomatic.

The Wake of What I Love: A Commencement Address

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On June 25, 2010, Poet Jon Sands delivered the commencement address for the Bronx Academy of Letters – A charter school in Bronx, New York, founded on the concept that, “students who can express themselves clearly in writing can do better in any path they choose.”

Class of 2010. Here we are. 27 years, 6 months, 26 days, 7 hours since Michael Jackson released Thriller (which is still the best selling album in music history). 143 years since Christopher Latham Sholes invented the modern typewriter. 46 years, 9 months, 28 days since Martin Luther King Jr. told a crowd of over 200,000 that he had a dream.  And, 36 years, 4 months, 6 days, 8 hours since my own father – after dropping out of his second year in college – decided to take a computer class to make more money than was possible at his construction job. And with a clear Manhattan morning waiting outside the glass windows, he asked the foxy lady wearing big glasses – who would turn out to be my mother – if the seat next to her was taken… and here I am.

All of which is to say, there are many paths that have brought us to this room today. Stories which led to stories which lead to right now. There is no person in this room without a great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother. Or more accurately, 128 great, great, great, great, great, great grandmothers. Beautiful ladies (I’m assuming) with favorite foods, dreams at night, who lived entire lives, and created lives that have led specifically to you… which has led you – here. We are in this room because an incredible line of history said, “yes,” when it could have said, “no.”

In 2003, my Uncle Don was practicing law in New Jersey. Don taught himself to play guitar when he was in high school, spent years covering other people’s songs at parties or reunions. Every so often – he would write a song for a funeral. Always, it would land with precision on what that person actually meant to each of us, individually. At 47, he decided his guitar made him happier than nearly anything else. He sunk an incredible amount of everything he had, financially and energetically, into creating an album; contacted professional musicians with samplings of his work, to ask if they would join him. Now there are maybe 1,500 people outside of my family who have this remarkable CD – someone I love doing what they love. Eighteen months after the disc was released, my uncle was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After a strikingly short 5 months, he passed, leaving behind a wife and three children (ages 13, 15, and 17).

When we miss him. When the people who love him need to spend time with him – they skip photo albums and old videos, and instead go to a CD. To the documentation of him doing what he loved. Not to be a millionaire. Not to be famous. But to give this world some account that says, this – this right here – is what it feels like to be me.

Each of us entered this room – as we do any room – carrying many labels. Which is to say, today, you are high-school graduates. There are 64 of you. Two months ago you may have been the kid freestlying battle raps outside McDonald’s with three friends who couldn’t stop laughing, or the quiet girl in the back of a library – her nose glued into a 3.8 GPA.

I spend a significant amount of time being the crazy dude who came to someone else’s classroom to talk about how poetry is amazing. Right now, I’m the commencement speaker. I promise, in three hours, I’ll be the guy who looks uncomfortable in a tie on the downtown 4 train. The way it feels to live a life that can only be yours is never as clean as whatever label this world attaches to you. If you are alive  — Is every person here alive?… If you are alive in this world, you can attest. What it feels like to be you is more complicated than what it looks like to be you.

So, is there ever a time you are more yourself than when doing what you love – with the people you love? Who you are exists in what you love. It is how you tell the children you have yet to bring into this world the person you were today. To tell the you who will exist 20 years from now what it felt like to close the locker door on your high school years.

We are all here because today is important. A chance to reflect on the way our lives are changing. We are also here – to celebrate – the choices you have made that led to your caps and gowns. I think we can take a minute to blow the roof off for that.

But, you will have many todays. No one else can decide how they will look. Michael Jackson, when recording Billie Jean, could not have known the way our ankles would pop for decades. Martin Luther King Jr. chose to ascend the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, not to become a cultural icon, but to communicate the vision he had for a nation. My Uncle Don could never have known what his artistry would mean to his wife, his nieces and nephews, his parents, his three children. He made music because it was what he loved. It was who he was. A choice to say, “yes,” when he could have said, “no.”

We have been afforded the opportunity to write our own chapters in the story of this life because millions of people, over thousands of years, have said “yes.” It is not feasible for me to tell you what is possible in your life. History has written you here, the next chapter is yours. Here is the news: It’s supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to be easy (the juiciest stuff rarely is). It is supposed to be yours. And what better news can there be?

I cannot wait to witness the stories you write into this world. Congratulations Bronx Academy of Letters, Class of 2010.

[Image credit: ChrisGampat]

This Is Michael Jackson

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I’m not sure what made me so certain I wanted to see Michael Jackson’s This Is It.  It wasn’t the reviews, I hadn’t read any.  In fact, I knew absolutely nothing about it, except for the trailer that came on in the middle of the baseball game and made my eyes grow wide and something tingle in my rear-brain. (I’m not even much of a cinema-goer these days, Netflix is more my speed.) And it wasn’t that I considered myself a “fan” exactly. Over the last decade, like most on-lookers, I’ve cringed at news of Jackson’s bizarre personal life and shuddered at the barrage of tabloid visuals chronicling his macabre cosmetological quests and seeming death-by-emaciation.

But there I was, at Magic Johnson Theaters in Harlem, on a Friday night.  I dragged a semi-willing friend, paid for his ticket. “The early show,” he’d said, dreading the crowds that I (not-quite-consciously) was seeking.  “Fine,” I said, a concession. The audience for the 5:30 show was sparse.  Older people and younger people mostly; a scattering of children.

I don’t think I have ever in my life left a movie theater and immediately called someone to say, “You have to see this,” which is exactly what I did once the credits finished rolling.  (Okay, in fact, I sent a text – mesmerizing…nourishing…body and soul – but only because I was embarrassed in front of my friend.)  My friend did not share my enthusiasm.  Shoddy filmmaking, sub-quality sound, packaged product, blah blah blah.  (He’s a media guy, of course).  I was incredulous, aghast, I wanted to throttle him.  The last time I got this emotional over a movie was… never.

Reading a few reviews afterward, I gathered that critics who were lukewarm cited the same “rough” feel of the film.  Indeed, it is a patchwork; highlights from Jackson’s more than 100 hours of taped rehearsals for the 50-concert comeback tour that he and director Kenny Ortega were preparing for when Jackson died in June.  The footage, intended for Jackson’s personal archives, never aimed for movie-quality.  But herein lay my incredulity; what could be more compelling than film footage of the King of Pop so clearly not meant for our eyes?

I was nine years old when Thriller came out; it stayed on the charts for two years.  So Michael hit me at the heart of my tweens, back when there was no such consumer category, technically speaking, and yet I can’t imagine why not.  I was the youngest of three girls, and so in a sense I was nine, eleven, and thirteen all at once.  (Imagine if Titanic had come out in 1982; instead of moon walking, I suppose we would have learned to hock loogies, stand on our tippie-tippie toes, and sketch nudes.)   But then, watching This Is It, it all came back to me — the trauma, the apparently repressed memory: my sisters trotting off to the Thriller tour concert at RFK Stadium with their friends (Jill and Lisa, also sisters, their age), waving their glitter-gloved hands at me.  I’d been deemed too young.

Regardless.  For two years, we played and replayed our Thriller LP and 45-singles.  When Michael performed or when his videos premiered, we were glued to the TV,  we had never seen anything like him before.  No one had.  He didn’t just dance, it seemed as if he was inventing the human body. I am no Joan Acocella, I don’t mean to make grand statements that make dance aficionados and scholars of Fred Astaire, Baryshnikov, and Nijinski scoff.  But, Christ Almighty.

We were budding adolescents, we hated and feared our bodies, we were figuring out so many dark and exhilarating and terrifying things about these fleshy vehicles that were taking on a life of their own; and here came Michael.  He made the jiggling and slithering of our bodies cool, and creative, and communal, and fun.  As we left childhood behind (or it left us behind), our bodies’ shapes and sizes—the ways in which we were able to adjust and make ourselves appealing (to ourselves, to others) or not—would begin to separate us, create cruel physiocracies.  But back then, for a time, a short time with eternal qualities, Michael brought us together, he synchronized us.

We shimmied our shoulders and clapped our hands over our heads; we wore black loafers and white socks and kick-twisted our right legs like karate chops; we threw our arms out in front of us, limp and aggressive at once, revving invisible motorcycle handles.  Right arm left leg, left arm right leg.  Pull and pelvis, pull and pelvis.  We practiced practiced practiced. Like infants, we discovered our limbs anew.  We fully inhabited our bodies, un-self-consciously; perhaps for the last time.

We sang, hooted, and hiccupped.  Later (because we discovered Off the Wall and The Jackson Five later), we wept because she was out of our lives, and we recruited the neighbor kids so that we could, in rapid-fire succession, spin around on the balls of our feets and bow down while we rolled our fists.

Even the boys loved Michael; even the boys.  It wasn’t “gay” to love Michael. To us, he was beyond sexuality, he was, in a way, the answer to sexuality before we could even articulate the questions.  His whisper-high voice and crotch thrusting was unquestionably, miraculously, of a piece.

We were not there when Jack Kennedy was elected, or when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  We were not there when Rosa Parks refused to stand up or when Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream.  We were not there for Elvis Presley, or James Brown, or The Beatles.  We were not there for Stonewall or Roe v. Wade.  We were not there for much, because we came of age in the ‘80s.  But we were there, we were all there, for Michael Jackson.

“I’ll be there,” he sang, and as kids we waved our arms like we never did in church.  But would he?  Would Jackson be all there in This Is It?  I braced myself, as many viewers did, for God knows what.

At first, the shaky-grainy cam frustratingly keeps us from making determinations about just how decrepit and grotesque he’s become.  We are aware of our own morbid urge to ogle him; we want to know, we want to see, if the circus-show is on. We enter his and Ortega’s world fully expecting to remain the subject to Jackson’s object; we are the upstanding humans, he is the ravaged creature.  Then, in one rehearsal segment, he is gloveless and without the bandages we’ve often seen mysteriously flagging his fingertips; he gestures dramatically, the camera shot is straight on, we see his hands.  His hands, his real flesh and substance, the flesh, yes, of a 50-year-old man. He is thick-fingered—a contrast to his pencil-stick legs—nails slightly long.  From that moment on, for me, Jackson begins to inhabit the screen.

The collage-edited rehearsal footage is the meat of the film, the marvel and privilege of seeing Jackson in action—hands-on with musicians, dancers, and back-up vocalists, all marveling at the privilege as well.  Ortega succeeds in showing us that MJ is and always was a man who, as one of the musicians puts it, “knows his music,” and for whom, as Ortega himself puts it, “everything is larger than life.”  He comes across as a perfectionist of both artistry and kindness.  “It’s not right, but that’s OK,” he says. “It’s all for love.” Then, “Just get it there.”  Fascinating especially is seeing his creative intuition, both exacting and ethereal, at work:  “Let it sizzle,” he says, or “It has to bathe in the moonlight.”  His music director asks him to let him know if the arrangement needs more “booty.”  “That’s funny,” Jackson says, to which the music director replies, “Yeah, but you know exactly what I mean.”  In a rehearsal for a particularly fun black-and-white Hollywood homage set to “Smooth Criminal”– featuring Jackson in a white pinstripe suit and spliced into interactions with Rita Hayworth (from Gilda) and Humphrey Bogart—Ortega and Jackson discuss cues, i.e. Jackson wanting to revise the timing for his entry.  But how will he know to begin, Ortega asks, without the music to cue him; to which Jackson replies, thoughtful but confident, “I’ll just have to feel that.”

The rehearsals draw heavily from MJ’s older hits, notably from Thriller, which satisfies most of the fans; but we also get a Jackson Five segment, and later hits like “They Don’t Care About Us ” “Man in The Mirror,” and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”  He sings each song as if it’s new, as if he’s listening for its (re)birth right then in the moment; and yet still aware, distinctly, of the fans.  “I want it to sound like how they hear it,” he says.  “If it works on the album, that’s how I want it.”

The choreography belongs of course to MJ, and in no other realm is it clearer who’s in charge. Before the final round of dance auditions, Ortega tells prospects that “dancers in a Michael Jackson show are an extension of Michael Jackson.”  Writes David Edelstein in his review: “And they do seem projections of his will: He dictates every beat to his dancers, musicians and crew.”   We recognize the dance moves, and we can’t believe how good they (still) are. His dancers, half his age at least, seem to bring the muscular pump of hip-hop with them into their movement (how could they not), but it’s still MJ’s crackle and pop that electrifies the stage.

For decades, we’ve seen dancers imitate the moves that have become as familiar as any ballroom standard; but when Michael does them—yes, 50 years old, and  fallen from grace, so they’ve told us—we are reminded of the crucial, dare I say spiritual difference between imitation and original.  When Michael Jackson is center stage, his “extensions” following his lead, it’s not merely entertainment, or even art; it’s phenomenon.  Watching him move again, all these years later – with such precision, and emanating the thrusting, gyrating “goo” and “ooze” exhorted upon the auditioning dancers – is like the very confirmation of one’s true sight; we were there, we were not deluded, we were not imagining things.  The emperor’s clothes are real and they are fabulous. It’s all deeply, healingly of a piece, witch-hunting sexuality police be damned. This is Michael Jackson.

And this, I suppose, is the takeaway.  Michael Jackson was real until the day of his death, despite the media’s honing in on drug dosages and Neverland.  For all the emotional and psychological damage he may have suffered and projected, something in him remained whole, thriving, larger than life.  Something elemental and tangible, evidenced in his creative process, his movement, even his temperament—all of which is on display in This is It in a way (we ambivalently recognize) most of us may never have been able to witness had Jackson lived to make his comeback.

It’s not that the data disappears in a poof.  The day after I saw This Is It, I read through a detailed MJ bio at that enumerated the blow-by-blow of his maudlin man-child exploits, perplexing creative detours (those final minutes of the “Black or White” video indeed disturbing), and somewhat creepy Messiah complex. I took it all in, weighing it together with what I had just seen and experienced (and remembered), and was certainly tempted to go the route of cynicism and disappointment: corporate packaging for mass consumption, MJ just another artist qua commodity, even/especially in death.  Silly schoolgirl me, eating it all up, like so many mindless consumers the debt-ridden Jackson Estate must be counting on.

Indeed, if This Is It were a film that Jackson himself had creatively controlled, that cynic’s myth—of irredeemable darkness and degeneracy—may well have supplanted the original myth of genius.  In this sense, Jackson was possibly his own worst enemy, feeding media distortions with prismatic fun-house refractions he couldn’t somehow escape or manage. But This Is It, ultimately more honest in its accidental conception than any hyper-crafted concert movie could have been, makes a welcome argument of which Jackson himself may have approved: trust your instinct, trust your sight… let it all bathe in the moonlight.

Surprise Me!