As millions of fans celebrate Michael Jackson’s life and music, the prevailing sentiment seems to be: “He may have been an infantilized self-hating BDD suffering megalomaniacal dope fiend, but he was our infantilized self-hating BDD suffering megalomaniacal dope fiend.”
I’ve done my best to ignore the disingenuous tributes from people and institutions that clearly didn’t give a shit about him when he was alive. But, like a lot of people, I’ve responded by listening to his songs—in my case, songs that normally don’t make it into the rotation.
Two, in particular, stand out. The first is “Heaven Can Wait” from Invincible, his last studio album. The second is “Childhood” from History.
“Heaven Can Wait” proved (along with “Butterflies”) that Jackson could still make brilliant music late into his career, albeit in spurts. “Heaven Can Wait” is ostensibly about how Jackson is so in love that he’d forgo eternal paradise to be with his love on earth. It soon becomes apparent, though, that the song is really about the singer’s own jealousy: he has to be with his “baby girl” because he wouldn’t be able to stand seeing someone else with her. The second verse is somewhat creepy, but very appropriate for a man as thoroughly obsessed with himself as Jackson was.
“Childhood” stands out for a different reason: despite how delusional and sheltered Jackson seemed to be, he was fully aware of his situation. In the ballad, Jackson explicitly echoes the obvious pop psychology the rest of us applied to his life, singing, “It's been my fate to compensate, for the childhood I've never known.” He waxes whimsical about pirates and other such juvenilia in the same whispery voice he used in this bizarre video footage of him singing about Peter Pan. “Childhood” is saccharine and manipulative, but sincere. It’s strange that so many people, myself included, completely ignored this song. It had a video and everything.
The saddest thing about this song isn't Jackson's actual explanation for his "eccentricities" (he didn't get to have a childhood), but that he felt compelled to explain himself at all, that he desperately needed our acceptance.