Michael Jackson in London in 2009
Tim Whitby/Getty Images

Seven years after his death, Michael Jackson continues to elude and astonish us. But we now know this was how he intended it. Spike Lee’s recent documentary about Jackson’s early years features a letter Jackson wrote in 1979, at age 21. He had just released Off the Wall and was on the Destiny tour with his brothers, an experience that only strengthened his resolve to shed like a chrysalis “the kid who sang ‘ABC’ and ‘I Want You Back’” and emerge as “a new incredible actor, singer, dancer that will shock the world.”

“I will do no interviews,” he wrote. “I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer. … I will study and look back on the whole world of entertainment and perfect it, take it steps further from where the greatest left off.”

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There is so much to say about this that we may as well start with the obvious: “masterer.” The neologism doubles down on mastery, as if to “master” one’s craft were too modest an aim. A master conquers one domain, whereas a “masterer” presumably dominates several, mastering mastery itself. Of course, Jackson’s outsize ambition would need its own outsize word.

Lee’s film spotlights the work ambition required and, in so doing, rejects the myth of black artists as “naturals.” A far cry from the child prodigy who simply cashed in on his God-given talent, Jackson painstakingly nurtured his gifts. Kobe Bryant says that Jackson told him he would dance until he could no longer move; Valerie Simpson and Quincy Jones both describe his desire to learn everything about the art and industry of music, whether at Motown or on the set of The Wiz, where he stood “at attention” and memorized everyone’s part.

Part of his aesthetic was to expose that work, emitting the grunts and hollers that the black vocal tradition has long announced instead of masking. But his genius was to master and merge the athleticism of the “hardest-working man in show business,” James Brown, whom he idolized, with the grace of Fred Astaire, the Nicholas Brothers and Diana Ross. With Jackson, you got both the sweat of the brow and the tips of the toes, the grunts and the “woos” sent up like fireworks. That’s why the moonwalk is his signature move: You know it’s hard, but it looks effortless.

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In this way, however, his art was not unlike American puritanism, which glorifies hard work as the key to success while maintaining a scrupulous silence about overwork. For Jackson, the task of staying musically current and socially responsive while managing global celebrity and infamy—he was constantly featured in tabloid accounts such as the one that circulated this week, about his alleged “stockpile” of child pornography—was too much. His face was the first sign, its surgical modifications betraying the excess of “work” performed not by but on him. His spectacular performing body kept a secret that his immobile face revealed: This is what it looks like to be overworked.

Whatever his feelings about his black face, he was a tireless student of black music, which gave him many ways to “work through” pain and myriad styles to master. “Will You Be There” takes refuge in gospel—churchy ad libs, modulations, allusion to the River Jordan—while reappropriating the gospel choir then in vogue among white artists like George Michael ("Father Figure") and Madonna ("Like a Prayer"). Jackson’s song wasn’t “like a prayer”; its outro was a prayer. "They Don’t Care About Us" presses hard-driving funk into the service of global black rage and resistance. In case anyone missed the song’s racial component, Jackson enlisted Spike Lee, who had just filmed Malcolm X, to direct not one, but two videos for it.

But Jackson’s last studio album was different. He invested four years and $30 million into Invincible, recording 50 tracks, from which he selected 16, and hiring an army of co-writers and producers that included Rodney Jerkins, Teddy Riley, Babyface and Marsha Ambrosius. But the album was as chill as an artist with “no chill” could be.

While it proved that Jackson could master hip-hop soul, it also presented a vibrant review of his work across three decades as the hardest-working magician in show business. Here’s a defiant address to the haters in the tradition of "Leave Me Alone" ("Unbreakable"); here’s a song about femme fatales like "Billie Jean" and "Dirty Diana" ("Heartbreaker"); a paean to childhood innocence like "Heal the World" ("The Lost Children"); and a quiet-storm neo-soul ballad, "Butterflies," that was his most sensual love song since "Human Nature."

"You Rock My World" was the highlight, with its swirling synths and elastic dance beat. Even the opening skit was fun. Chris Tucker bets Jackson “Never-never-land” that he can’t get a fine woman, recalling the easy black male camaraderie in the video for "Jam," where Jackson misses jump shots while Michael Jordan tries to dance. Just as the "Thriller" video had combined multiple horror subgenres (teen werewolf, zombie apocalypse), the video for "Rock My World" rolled about five classic M.J. videos into one.

Wearing a dark suit, red shirt and a fedora that covered his distracting face, Jackson danced through a dimly lit, mob-run club in a grown-and-sexy version of "The Way You Make Me Feel"—more mating dance with a beautiful woman (Kishaya Dudley) than stalker’s pursuit of her. Here, too, was the gangster conceit of "Smooth Criminal"; the crew of professional dancers that Jackson had made a staple of the music video since the ’80s; and a storyline, as in "Beat It" and "Remember the Time," in which Jackson and his friends danced for their lives. Did he deploy these devices like a tried-and-true formula for success? You bet. But he also seemed to be having more fun than he’d had in years—voguing down a hallway, dancing on a bar, his movements more fluid than fierce.

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The story doesn’t end there. Sony/Epic would do little to promote Invisible, giving its handful of singles a limited release and declining to fund a world tour—decisions that led Jackson to call label president Tommy Mottola a “devilish” racist who was intent on suppressing black artists.

The baby-over-the-balcony scandal was a few years away, as were the molestation trial and other allegations that would follow Jackson to and beyond his grave. In this context, it’s good to remember the time when he knew he was so bad that he had nothing to master but himself.

Emily J. Lordi’s book Donny Hathaway Live will be published by Bloomsbury in the fall of 2016. She is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature. 

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