"Who do you believe, me or your own eyes?"
-- Groucho Marx
If my friends are any indication, this country is divided into three camps -- those who think Michael Jackson was a genius, those who think he was a pervert and the rest of us who think he may have been both.
For nearly three decades Jackson asked us, his fans, to suspend belief and believe him instead of our own senses. He swore to us that he hadn't had any plastic surgery, that relationships with boys who slept with him in his bed were all platonic, that he wasn't intent on erasing his African-American heritage, that his obviously Caucasian children were his genetic offspring, that it was acceptable even heroic for him to intentionally bring three human beings into the world without a mother, and that he didn't really mean some of the weird things he was singing about. And we believed him. And those of us who enjoyed his songs and can, to this day, sing along to every line of his amazing repertoire like "Rock With You," "Don't Stop 'Til you Get Enough," "Billie Jean," "Thriller" and others are complicit not only in what he did to himself, but what he did to us: getting us to give tacit approval to things we'd never approve of our neighbors doing.
Jackson was clearly an amazing entertainer, probably the greatest dancer of all time, a very good singer and a decent songwriter. While attention is always on "Thriller" because of its enormous sales, I'd make the case that "Off the Wall" is his strongest record of all, skillfully weaving elements of pop, disco, and R&B to create a masterful collection of songs that still sound fresh today.
Most of Jackson's songs like "Rock With You," "You Are Not Alone" and "She's Out of My Life" were relatively innocent and harmless, but others, were more troubling. The most troubling thing about "Thriller" wasn't so much with the lyrics or even the dancing corpses, but Michael's weird double-cross of his pretend girlfriend at the end. When he looked over his shoulder at us, the audience, and asked for our complicity in whatever creepy thing he had planned for his date after tricking her into believing he wasn't what she thought he was, he also tricked us into doing something we were trained by a million stories not to do: suppress our honorable instincts to save the damsel in distress and instead laugh at her predicament.
But considering the child-rape charges that would later dog him, perhaps nothing in Jackson's musical repertoire is as troubling as his hit 1992 song "In the Closet," which sounds like an amalgamation of every threateningly cheesy line that a million sexual predators have used on their victims: "whatever we say -- or do --we'll make a vow to keep it in the closet." And in case you missed what the song was about Jackson would add, later in the track: "if it's aching, you have to rub it."
Psychologists could have a field day with that line, but we, his audience, just giggled along, this time slightly uncomfortably and chalked it up to his "just being Michael," and shelled out more money for him to indulge his real-life fantasies and eccentricities.
But then facade came crashing down. We have the British journalist Martin Bashir, a devout Christian, and a sort of Ahab/Ken Starr figure in the Michael Jackson saga, to thank/blame for Michael Jackson's ultimate downfall, for while Michael managed to seduce us and get us to believe him over our own senses, Bashir, with his quietly understated moral indignation, refused to drink the Kool-Aid and shocked our senses by luring Jackson into confessing things that could simply no longer be ignored by any people who claimed to be civilized.
Unlike every other half-wit journalist who had let Jackson answer questions with obvious untruths, Bashir pressed the singer and refused to accept answers that defied logic and his own eyes and ears and the result was, said one Jackson confidante, that his boss never fully recovered from the devastating blow that was Bashir's piece, and that the day it aired, and not June 25, 2009, was the true date of Michael Jackson's death.
Michael Jackson is gone and the man and his songs alternately entertain and haunt us. As sophisticated music fans, we should be able to both separate the personality from the work, and in some cases the music from the lyrics, but his death is a good time for us to step back from both the man and his work and remind ourselves of our values: that the damsel in distress deserves our help instead of our winks at her captor, that while we all generally cherish a right to privacy, we are suspicious of those who in an attempt to "rub" an "ache," demand an oath of silence, that middle-aged men shouldn't share a bed with random children, that children shouldn't be intentionally brought into the world bereft of one parent and that an African-American heritage and the features that accompany it are to be celebrated and not erased at the hands of a plastic surgeon.
Mark Joseph is a record producer, editor of Bullypulpit.com and author of "Faith, God & Rock 'n' Roll"