In honor of Michael Jackson, we’re raiding our archives. Here’s Guy Trebay on the inscrutable and surgically air-brushed creature Jackson had become in 1987. It ran alongside a Greg Tate piece on the same subject.
The Boy Can’t Help It
September 22, 1987
There’s no longer any question that Michael Jackson is America’s preeminent geek. Even New Yorkers, who traditionally give a lot of latitude to the strange, can’t seem to get over the inscrutable and surgically airbrushed creature Jackson’s become. It appeared that, in the weeks following release of Bad and his primetime video, all you heard people talking about on radio, on the subways, and the streets was the sad gnome with the Porcelana complexion, the dated dance steps, and a terminal case of Jheri curl.
“I think Michael went too far in the white direction,” said John Hightower, portaging his Peugeot to work last week on the subway. Hightower and some fellow bike messengers were wedged into the last car of the IRT #6.
“Jackson had some kind of face peel,” Hightower added. “They had it in the News.”
“You mean,” asked a dark-skinned companion, “I’m that color inside?”
“To get that, man,” Hightower replied. “They’d have to peel you to the bone.”
The damn-with-faint-praise consensus on the subway that morning was that Jackson’s video was dramatic but too Hollywood, despite the New York locations, and that the song was okay though not remotely bad.
“And another thing,” said Hightower, “it should have been starring another person. Michael just looked too much like a woman to strut around like a homeboy in chains.”
As the Def Jam rap groups promoted the Madison Square Garden finale of their nationwide tour, Whodini’s Jalil Hutchins had one message for Michael Jackson fans. “We just want to say,” Hutchins admonished the WBLS audience one Tuesday afternoon, “you got to stop wearing those gloves and those leg wraps and those greasy looking curls because YOU LOOK LIKE A BUNCH OF JERKS.”
Hutchins and the members of Stetsasonic were in the studio giving a chaotic interview, when Jackson’s album came up. “We really don’t like to dis another artist,” said a member of Stetsasonic, before the rappers launched into a capella version of Jackson’s song in lisping falsetto. When DJ Bugsy dropped the needle on Whodini’s new tune, “Be Yourself.”
“You know the part I couldn’t look at was when Michael kept grabbing at his nonexistent crotch.” Jackson’s gender and virility were the topics during a break in rehearsal of Travis Preston’s Paradise Bound, Part II, a boom-box-and-chorus piece created for the Bandshell in Central Park. Sitting in the hot sunshine on Wednesday, some cast members couldn’t keep their minds on the performance. They were debating whether Michael and his sister Janet Jackson had ever been seen together at one time.
“I don’t think he exists,” said a singer. “I think he’s her. Or she’s him in drag.”
“Oh, no,” said Christine Satchell, a young actress from the Bronx. “That’s Michael. He just wears a lot of makeup.”
“That’s the problem, said another actor, “he’s jumping around singing, ‘I’m Bad,’ and then they breaks and Michael asks, ‘Can I borrow your mascara?'”
Everyone agreed director Martin Scorsese should have hired an actor for Jackson’s part.
“Like who?” a bystander asked.
“Oh, anybody,” said the singer, “just so he looked like a man.”
On television, Jackson provided comics with a weeklong gift of nasty riffs. Mining the limitless trove of Jackson’s peccadilloes, the funnyman cracked wise about the singer’s pet chimpanzee, the special language he invented to talk to his menagerie, and the life-sized mannequin of Elizabeth Taylor that he reputedly dresses every day. Jackson has become a monologist’s dream. Jay Leno scored the capper with a joke involving Jackson’s unsuccessful bid to purchase the Elephant Man’s remains. During his nightly stint, Leno broke up the Tonight Show millions with news that the Elephant Man’s descendants had made a counteroffer for the purchase of Jackson’s original nose.
Jackson hysteria attained a memorable plateau with the People and Rolling Stone covers, but a more lasting contribution to schlock journalism was the Daily News’s takeout entitled “Wizard of Odd.” On the second day of that three-part series, the newspaper included now notorious before and after pictures of Jackson’s transformations under the knife. With arrowed captions readers got to follow the surgical reduction of Michael’s upper lip, his nose, his lower eyelid, the addition of cheekbone implants, and the artfully cleft chin.
“People think he’s a big mystery,” said midtown news vendor Dalaedeet Singh. “Like Howard Hughes. When he’s on the cover of a magazine, we sell out very quickly.”
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the new album, at least not in Thriller terms. Bad’s initial sales surge leveled off swiftly after its August 31 release. “Under three million,” said one spokesman for Epic Records. “In excess of three million,” another claimed.
“Eh,” said Phil McGowan, soul music salesclerk at Tower’s flagship store on lower Broadway. As Bad blared from speakers mounted beneath a stupendous cutout of Jackson, McGowan said, “It’s selling okay, but a funny thing happened. The Michael came in and we got a new shipment of Prince at the same time.” He motioned to eight boxes of unsold Jackson. “Prince sold out in a couple hours. Michael’s still kind of sitting in the stacks.”