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Remembering Michael Jackson: The service is a thriller

It's poignant. It's wrenching. But most of all, it's so very Michael.

July 08, 2009|Ann Powers POP MUSIC CRITIC

In the days after his death, Michael Jackson's mother reportedly worried that if her son's funeral was too long delayed, his soul might wander the earth. In a more secular sense, that is exactly what has been happening. Remembering Jackson -- debating his legacy, listening to his music, trying to make sense of his life -- has become the world's favorite activity. The shape of Jackson's shadow grows only more complicated as these thoughts and memories accrue.

Tuesday's public memorial at Staples Center could have performed the function such events often do, channeling all the different stories into one narrative, helping make the emotions that Jackson's death has generated feel neater and easier to digest.

Instead, the service (or was it a concert? Or a political event?) operated on several levels at once. Yet its two hours of music and eulogies made for many poignant and even wrenching moments, its incongruities adding up to the only reasonable response to an artistic giant whose meanings were always multiple and often contradictory.

Focus for a minute on just one musical offering: the rendition of "Smile" by Michael Jackson's eldest brother, Jermaine. Following a bravely personal remembrance by Brooke Shields, Michael's friend and fellow former child star, Jermaine took the stage wearing one silver glove and a red rose to sing this simple tune, which was cowritten by Charlie Chaplin and served as the theme for his much-beloved film "Modern Times."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 09, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Jermaine Jackson: An article and photo caption on the Michael Jackson memorial service in Wednesday's Calendar said Jermaine Jackson was Michael Jackson's oldest brother. Jackie Jackson is the eldest.

Where to start in interpreting what happened in the four or so minutes while Jermaine Jackson sang?

There was the personal pathos of the older brother, whose own youthful success was so dramatically eclipsed by his sibling's, and who in recent days has told the media that he wishes he had died instead of Michael, singing in a voice eerily reminiscent of the one now lost. Jermaine nearly broke down near the end, right after the line, "What's the use in crying"; the fans' applause lifted him back up.

Then there was the song itself, a gentle admonition to cancel negative emotions behind a careful mask -- a particularly loaded message in light of the history of African American music, with its roots in the tangled history of blackface minstrelsy. Michael Jackson was hardly the first black pop star to deploy an often unreadable smile: one thinks of Louis Armstrong, and of that earlier crossover star, Nat King Cole, who similarly broke down barriers but was sometimes criticized for being too assimilationist.

Jermaine Jackson held his arms outstretched for much of the song, his gesture mirroring an image of Michael on the screens above him. It seemed like he was bearing a burden as well as celebrating a triumph. None of the memorial's other musical performances were as rich in subtext as this one, but each was its own kind of maze that the singers had to negotiate.

Mariah Carey and her frequent duet partner, Trey Lorenz, were the first to try, giving a gentle spin to "I'll Be There," which was a hit for her as well as for the Jackson 5. Lorenz nearly toppled the song by coming on too strong, but Carey steered it back toward a tender reading, perfect for raising the much longed-for spirit of the young Michael, full of promise and innocence.

Gospel reminder

Backed by the Andrae Crouch Singers -- another resonant choice to perform, since Crouch is one of gospel's most famous "crossover" modernizers -- Lionel Richie sang "Jesus Is Love" with his finger pointed skyward and as much grit as he could muster in his voice. This was one of many times that the memorial went back to church, reminding the fans in attendance that this was a service, not simply a concert.

The gospel elements also reinforced the connection between Jackson's career and the civil rights movement made in speeches by several political leaders, including two of Martin Luther King Jr.'s children, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

"He outsang the cynics, he outdanced his doubters, he outperformed the pessimists," said Sharpton of Jackson, making a strong contribution to the fascinating process of Jackson's posthumous rehabilitation as an African American hero.

One would have expected Jennifer Hudson's role in the memorial to also serve this purpose.

After all, the mighty-voiced ingenue has been christened the New Aretha Franklin by many, a singer with enough gravity and guts to serve history's needs.

Singing "Will You Be There," Jackson's most gospel-inspired song, in an angelic white dress, Hudson fulfilled that position. But again, it got complicated. Surrounded by the dancers who would have appeared onstage with Jackson during his comeback "This Is It" tour, she kept her composure while enduring some serious showbiz choreography. The image reminded those present that Jackson was a Hollywood child, as well as an inner-city baby -- and that Oscar winner and former "American Idol" contestant Hudson is also a product of those twin legacies.

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