by Michael Long, Author of Beautiful Monsters: Imagining the Classic in Musical Media (2008)

Like plenty of others, I wondered what shape Michael Jackson’s memorial service in the Staples Center would ultimately take. One thing I was sure of was that it would almost certainly feature a big-moment performance of “Smile.” (It did. See video below to watch the performance.) The musical icon of Jackson’s last phase, and one of the songs featured on Neverland’s carousel, “Smile” reflects what I described in my book as Jackson’s engagement with musical aphorism and his idiosyncratic perspective on music history.

Proverbs and morals were often woven into the lyrics of girl and boy group songs of the 1960s. Jackson’s family background, especially his mother’s churchy spirituality, fed his creative sensibility too. Michael, though, would eventually take sermonizing to his own place, a characteristic register, fitting it with particular styles of vocalizing and musical arrangements.

By the time of his notorious interview with Martin Bashir these performance decisions had bled over into Jackson’s public rhetoric, especially during conversations about children. Peter Pan or not, Jackson in his forties had formulated a mature and highly stylized oratorical mode. It reflected a thoroughly integrated but essentially mass-mediated program of ethics and moral argument. In the days immediately following Jackson’s death, I began to get a better sense of how he might have reached this stage of self-presentation.

A theme that ran through televised and printed interviews with acquaintances immediately following his death was Michael Jackson’s extraordinary memory for acoustical and visual detail, his ability to pull from a memory inventory virtually every gesture from records, film, and television. That memory served him as a resource for improvisation. For example, confronted with questions about the appropriateness of sharing his bed with young friends, Jackson told Bashir that this is how he was taught, concluding: “It’s love, love…that’s what the world needs now.”

Hal David’s lyric was delivered in this case as a semi-rhythmic proverb, a rhetorical trope ornamenting a sermon on love linked to a sort of general political critique. The citation could have been retrieved from any corner of his musical memory — from the pure pop of Jackie DeShannon’s original 1965 hit to the gospel-inflected cover by the Sweet Inspirations. But they were romantic fluff; they didn’t preach the message. Michael, the boy eternally teetering at the edge of manhood, was probably channeling Detroit DJ Tom Clay’s 1971 remix of “What the World Needs Now,” released on Motown’s Mo-west label. It was quasi-cinematic, opening with a dramatic dialogue on race: a boy is questioned by an adult man about the meaning of words (“segregation,” “bigotry,” “hatred”) which the child (touchingly) cannot pronounce correctly. Speeches by the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. are intercut with two pop refrains: Dion’s 1968 explicit musical sermon “Abraham, Martin, and John,” and DeShannon’s “What the World Needs Now.” Clay’s version turned “What the World Needs Now” into part of a screenplay, featuring a man-boy tutorial on civil rights and prejudice.

Young Michael fully merged with his own mediated persona in 1978, when he appeared as the proverb-spouting Scarecrow in the film version of The Wiz. Lifelong father figure Quincy Jones had coached him (and taught him how to pronounce “Socrates”). Their friendship goes back to the early 1970s, though, around the same time Jackson met another male role model, Bill Cosby, who appeared with the Jackson 5 in ABC’s Goin’ Back to Indiana in 1971. The following year Cosby made a feature film, Man and Boy (with music supervision by Jones). He played a nineteenth-century African-American cowboy, Caleb Revers, who – according to the intertitle appearing on screen right after the opening credits – had “acquired 14 acres of land upon which he intended to build his life.”

That text yields to the first shot: the cabin’s bedroom at dawn. Caleb’s pre-adolescent son Billy sleeps between his parents in the bed they share. For most of the film, though, Caleb and Billy travel together on their own, battling racial prejudice and ignorance. Man and Boy, released during Jackson’s critical tween years, likely impressed itself on his memory as a cinematic life model. Jackson’s rural Neverland ranch (its style seemingly out of synch with his edgy pop persona) was perhaps a recreation of Caleb’s cabin, blown out to Californian proportions of a century later. Dedicated to the love and education of pre-adolescents (Caleb Revers’s first lecture to a confused Billy is on God, love, and sex), Neverland was not just Peter Pan’s Island of Lost Boys. It was a cinematic fantasy of the old West: a place where hatred, bigotry, and prejudice might be overcome, or at least temporarily drowned out, by the faithful recitation of Sunday School scripture and the power of a finely-crafted soundtrack.

Watch the Trailer for Man and Boy: