It is extraordinarily difficult to impersonate, mimic, or pay entirely reverent homage to Michael Jackson without coming across like you’re making fun of him. His myriad vocal tics—every caaah, every oooohhh, every shamoe—only get funnier the more accurately you replicate them; even his dance moves (the brisk high kicks, the violent spins, the ankle-snapping toe stands) radiate an uncomfortable perversity when performed by mere mortals. This is especially true when it comes to the Crotch Grab. Oh, yes.
Consider Malak, a young, robust lad onstage last Wednesday at the Apollo’s weekly Amateur Night, his red jacket sublimely redolent of classic MJTV, brashly blasting through a fabulous choreographed medley, his moves, his attitude, his entire physical composition morphing effortlessly as the soundtrack shifts from “Can You Feel It” to “Bad” (his body fluid and nearly boneless) to “The Love You Save” (choppier and more childlike, expertly campy as he juts out his neck like the funkiest chicken imaginable) to “Thriller” to “Billie Jean,” whereupon he, wait a minute, oh, god, what is he doing? He’s grabbing his crotch, that’s what, with rather excessive verve and enthusiasm, clinging the way Rambo would cling to the skids of a helicopter, except with a jolting tug-of-war motion, as if his crotch were grabbing back. We are simultaneously elated and aghast. The struggle goes on for 30 seconds and might as well be an hour; any minute now, the cops will arrive and arrest either him or everyone in the crowd who’s watching him. “He grabbed his own butt,” Capone, our cuddly/surly emcee, notes afterward, dissolving into giggles. The kid is very clearly MJ’s son.
Tonight’s fete is billed as a special tribute to Michael Jackson—and why not, given the airtime granted to Al Sharpton’s thunderous eulogy 24 hours earlier and the rubbernecking crowds still gathered outside, snapping up T-shirts, posters, buttons, and bootleg CDs and signing the hanging plastic sheets that serve as his makeshift memorial. Actual King of Pop content hovers around the 30 percent mark, to the crowd’s only occasional chagrin. We begin with a brief dance contest, an internationally flavored Moonwalk symposium mercifully not won by the French guy who shakes his ass ostentatiously or the smiley Japanese lass who just stands there, dumbstruck. A gospel-flamethrowing Amateur Night ringer named Zaccheus tears into “Who’s Lovin’ You,” penned by Smokey Robinson, made famous by the Jackson Five, and belted out by Michael himself on this very stage at an Amateur Night in 1967. (Twenty years later, a 13-year-old Lauryn Hill gave the exuberantly maudlin tune a shot, fighting off an initial wave of audience jeers. YouTube never lies.) Better still are two non-competition dance medleys, one by house impersonator/executioner C.P. Lacey (“Black and White” era, i.e., practically white, his grasp of MJ’s ghoulish alien-mime phase terrifyingly vivid) and a fantastic full-career retrospective from young dance troupe Rhythm City, their zombie “Thriller” dance (Shoo! Shoo! Shoo!) an ecstatic highlight. Now, we’re just elated.
These interludes liven up what is otherwise Amateur Night standard operating procedure, starting with the Stars of Tomorrow appetizer (really young kids whom you’re not allowed to boo), wherein another dance crew rides an all-Beyoncé routine to a rather suspicious ostensibly-based-on-crowd-volume victory over two young ladies in churchly white who wrestle Kirk Franklin’s “Lean on Me” to the ground. (“My nieces got robbed!” growls a woman in the crowd afterward.) And then, the main event, booing very much encouraged: Two choruses of an attempted murder perpetrated against Alicia Keys’s “No One” is plenty.
As with Lauryn, most performers are booed instantly—a default reflex action, guilty until proven innocent—and many never recover, flailing haplessly until the siren blares and C.P. scoots out, dressed as a tapdancing cop, musketeer (prop: sword), Indian chief (prop: battle axe), doctor, etc., to chase the chumps offstage. The Jamaican-baiting standup-comic duo lasts maybe 30 seconds longer than the blustery gospel rapper, who is roundly ridiculed and suffers the further indignity of being hounded offstage by C.P in his “randy Scoutmaster” outfit.
Needless to say, this is all riotously entertaining. But we’re still poised on the knifepoint between MJ obsession and MJ exhaustion, listing more toward the former, so after a few dud contestants in a row, a restless, imperious chant starts up: “Michael! Michael! Michael! Michael!” There is really only one way to placate us: Do the Moonwalk. The one weapon in his canon that carries not a whiff of unease or perceived insincerity, a crowd-pleaser on an intergalactic scale, the pinnacle of physical-movement-as-pure-emotional-delight. Every time some capable dancer does it tonight, the audience joy is palpable, combustible. (Friday night in Cleveland, during the special MJ tribute and fireworks display following the Indians game, Slider, a purple-hued mascot of undetermined species and purpose, uses it to trigger the exact same rush of euphoria.) Last week’s crush of “There’ll Never Be Another Like Him” eulogies (some quoting Lester Bangs’s “There’ll Never Be Another Like Him” lamentation for Elvis) might seem melodramatic and cynical, but really: When will one onstage action by one human being deliver such a reliable rush again? Will any of us live to see it? And why didn’t every booed, doomed Amateur Night contestant just bust out the Moonwalk at the first sign of trouble? Is it not the all-time greatest Break Glass in Case of Emergency maneuver? No, in the end, only Malak the Serial Crotch-Grabber breaks it out. The Amateur Night victor is also chosen via crowd noise, with nothing ostensible about it this time. You’ll never guess who won.