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The two lives of Michael Jackson

Do me a favor. Go on YouTube and find the footage of Michael Jackson singing “Who’s Lovin’ You” on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He is eleven years old. It is one of his first times on national television. In the intro, he looks and sounds like . . . well, like an eleven-year-old with a decent ability to ham it up. He does a jokey spoken preamble about how kids can understand the blues, too, because he once fell in love with a girl in the sandbox, toasted their love during “milk break,” and broke up during finger painting. Halfway through, he forgets his lines and freezes, looking back at his older brothers for help. It’s an alarmingly vulnerable moment, one only possible in the era of live television. You feel bad for him. It suddenly doesn’t seem right that a kid should be made to perform live in front of an entire country. Yet he somehow finds his way back and stumbles through.

When the music starts, we see something else entirely. The first note he sings is as confident, sure, and purposeful as any adult could ever be. He transforms from nervous child at a talent show into timeless embodiment of longing. Not only does he sing exactly on key but he appears to sing from the very bottom of his heart. He stares into the camera, shakes his head, and blinks back tears in perfect imitation of a sixties soul man. And it feels, for a moment, as though there are two different beings here. One is a child—a smart kid, to be sure, and cute, but not more special than any other child. He is subject to the same laws of life—pain, age, confusion, fear—as we all are. The other being seems to be a spirit of sorts, one who knows only the truest expression of human feeling. And this spirit appears to have randomly inhabited the body of this particular mortal kid. In so doing, it has sentenced him to a lifetime of indescribable enchantment and consummate suffering.

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