Why He's a Thriller

Michael Jackson's songs, steps and sexy aura set a flashy beat for the decade

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That would require, as a visa, a disbelief willingly and perhaps perpetually suspended, a wariness of outsiders (Jackson has not given a print interview in more than a year), a capacity for gentleness, and a tolerance for fantasy that might tax the average adult imagination. Jackson lives at home in Encino, Calif., with his mother, father and two youngest sisters. He supervised the recent redesigning of the sprawling Tudor house, and the result is a cross between a vest-pocket Disneyland and Citizen Kane's Xanadu in suburbia (see following story). The menagerie, the soda fountain, the screening room are dream toys of childhood and the diversions of Southern California show-business affluence, all awash in the pastels of perennial boyhood. He takes trips to the Disney parks as to a shrine. He has spoken often about doing a movie musical of Peter Pan. The parallels are as obvious as they are misleading.

A good friend is right when he suggests that, ultimately, "Michael's appeal is universal less because of his music than because of who he is." Jackson has been in show business for most of his childhood and all of his adult life—there are those who argue persuasively that he has had no adult life—and, with a few other tricks, he has mastered the techniques of fusing his life with what is thought to be his image. This results in some arresting and deeply intriguing paradoxes: the thin young man, with bones as fragile as the veins in an autumn leaf, suddenly igniting on the downbeat and burning his way through to the hot, angry heart of Billie Jean; the boy who has an uncanny sense of what his audience wants and how to go about the hard and profitable business of giving it to them; the gentle, slightly self-mocking teen-ager in Thriller ("I've got somethin' I want to tell ya...I'm not like other guys") who turns into one of the grisliest werewolves in screen history and enjoys the transformation the way another adolescent might heat up on a first heavy date.

Many observers find in the ascendancy of Michael Jackson the ultimate personification of the androgynous rock star. His high-flying tenor makes him sound like the lead in some funked-up boys choir, even as the sexual dynamism irradiating from the arch of his dancing body challenges Government standards for a nuclear meltdown. His lithe frame, five-fathom eyes, long lashes might be threatening if Jackson gave, even for a second, the impression that he is obtainable. But the audience's sense of his sensuality becomes quite deliberately tangled with the mirror image of his life: the good boy, the God-fearing Jehovah's Witness, the adamant vegetarian, the resolute non-indulger in smoke, strong drink or dope of any land, the impossibly insulated innocent. Undeniably sexy. Absolutely safe. Eroticism at arm's length.

Michael puts a sliding scale of value on distance. Director Sidney Lumet, with whom Jackson was staying when he starred in The Wiz, recalls that his teenage daughters once had some friends over and one asked Michael to sing. "O.K.," Michael said affably. "But cover your eyes." "I think he was embarrassed by the closeness of the situation," Lumet says, "but his desire not to be rude or hurt her led him to say yes."

But there are also different lands of occasions, when distance distorts. Jackson's enforced isolation is partly show-biz savvy and partly an attempt to preserve intact the fabric of his fantasy life. Inevitably, there are breaches. "You know, everybody thinks you're gay," Vocal Coach Seth Riggs told him one day during a break in a vocal lesson. "I know," Jackson laughed. "The other day a big, tall, blond, nice-looking fellow came up to me and said, 'Gee, Michael, I think you're wonderful. I sure would like to go to bed with you.' I looked at him and said, 'When's the last time you read the Bible? You know you really should read it because there is some real information in there about homosexuality.' The guy says, 'I guess if I'd been a girl, it would have been different.' And I said, 'No, there are some very direct words on that in the Bible too.'"

Misunderstandings like this can be compounded by the gutter press (MICHAEL JACKSON—MORE OF HIS INTIMATE SECRETS; MICHAEL'S AGONIZING TUG OF LOVE) and by the putative inside-track show-biz gossip. Jackson wants a sex-change operation; Jackson has gone under the knife for extensive plastic surgery; Jackson has been shot full of female hormones to keep his face pretty and his voice soaring high. "Not true," says Riggs. "I'm his voice teacher, and I'd know. He started out with a high voice, and I've taken it even higher. He can sing low—down to a basso low C—but he prefers to sing as high as he does because pop tenors have more range to create style." The power of gossip is such that it has penetrated the iron gates that surround the Jackson never-never land out in Encino. It takes no effort of imagination to calculate what talk like that must do to a proud father and a mother who is a devout churchwoman. In addition to his door-to-door field service, which, according to his mother, "he does twice a week maybe for an hour or two," Michael attends meetings at a Kingdom Hall four tunes a week. On Sundays, he fasts.

See the top 10 Michael Jackson moments.

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