The female elders tell us what to look out for. Staring straight ahead, they usher us past the Starlite Lounge, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, and whisk us across the street as soon as they see “one of them faggots” emerge from the neon-lit bar. This one—he’s brown-skinned, like nearly every one else in that neighborhood, and skinny—has a female friend in tow, for appearances must be kept up. And as the couple run off in search of another pack of cigarettes, the bar’s door closes slowly behind them, but not before we children hear, above the martini-fed laughter, a single voice, high and plaintive: Michael Jackson’s.

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson; drawing by John Springs

It’s 1972, and “Ben,” the fourteen-year-old star’s first solo hit, is everywhere. The title song for a film about a bullied boy and his love for a rat named Ben (together they train a legion of other rodents to kill the boy’s tormentors; eventually Ben helps kill his human companion), the mournful ballad quickly became Jackson’s early signature song—certainly among the queens at the Starlite, who ignore its Gothic context, and play it over and over again as a kind of anthem of queer longing. For it was evident by then that Michael Jackson was no mere child with a gift. Or, to put it more accurately, he was all child—an Ariel of the ghetto—whose appeal, certainly to the habitués of places like the Starlite, lay partly in his ability to find metaphors to speak about his difference, and theirs.


The Jackson Five were America’s first internationally recognized black adolescent boy band. They were as smooth as the Ink Spots, but there was a hint of wildness and pathos in Michael Jackson’s rough-boy soprano, which, with its Jackie Wilson– and James Brown–influenced yelps, managed to remain just this side of threatening. He never changed that potent formula, not even after he went solo, more or less permanently, in 1978 at the age of twenty. Early on, he recognized the power mainstream stardom held—a chance to defend himself and his mother from the violent ministrations of his father, Joe Jackson (who famously has justified his tough parenting, his whippings, as a catalyst for his children’s success), and to wrest from the world what most performers seek: a nonfractured mirroring.

After “Ben,” the metaphors Michael Jackson used to express his difference from his family became ever more elaborate and haunting: there was his brilliant turn as an especially insecure, effete, and, at times, masochistic scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s 1978 film version of the Broadway hit The Wiz. There was his appropriation of Garland’s later style—the sparkly black Judy-in-concert jacket—during the 1984 “Victory” tour, his last performances with his brothers, whose costuming made them look like intergalactic superheroes. And there were the songs he wrote for women—early idols like Diana Ross or his older sister, Rebbie—songs that expressed what he could never say about his own…

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