The Awfully Big Adventure by Paul Morley review – how (not) to think about Michael Jackson | Books

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Paul Morley, ex-NME writer, sometime musician and cantankerous TV talking head, no doubt didn’t plan for his masterwork on Michael Jackson to appear shortly after Leaving Neverland, the documentary in which, via the devastating testimony of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the King of Pop is shown as an arch manipulator, sexual predator and paedophile. If he had, The Awfully Big Adventure would, you imagine, be an entirely different book. Certainly, in other circumstances the 10th anniversary of Jackson’s death would make him ripe for cultural re-examination, but, right now, it’s hard enough to imagine shell-shocked viewers casually putting Thriller on the stereo, much less picking up a book that aims to deconstruct Jackson’s life and death. For this, Morley cannot be blamed.

His writing is another matter, though. Famed for his lofty ideas and studiously baroque prose, his distinct style of musical analysis is undoubtedly an acquired taste. Where most music writers strive to achieve a coherent narrative and clear analysis of artists and their place in the world, Morley works to an entirely different set of rules. His last book, The Age of Bowie, was a comparative rush-job, written and published within six months of its subject’s death in 2016. This book is an expanded version of an essay that appeared in an arts journal named Loops shortly after Jackson’s death, though the author has had a full decade in which to flesh it out and construct an argument. Alas, the gift of time has brought little in the way of clarity. To put it simply – and simple really isn’t in Morley’s repertoire – there are moments here where, despite repeated readings, I haven’t a clue what he’s on about.

The book opens with Morley considering his position as a critic called on to comment on the loss of an icon, and how, as a writer formerly responsible “for the shape and content” of culture’s “past, present and future”, he is “there to help the wounded collective gather for a shared moment of heartbreak”. Seesawing between indignation and relief, he reflects on the diminished status of the “once-unassailable authority of the self-certified expert, with their grand claims, obscure knowledge and arcane explanations”, and wonders if he has anything worthwhile to say at all. He wonders, too, who or what killed Jackson – was it his lifestyle or was it all of us “who consume and are consumed by popular culture … watching his life sloppily, nastily end, after what seemed a few years of cliffhanging close calls, from whatever vantage point we adopted”.

Morley offers less a breakdown of Jackson’s cultural significance than a series of quasi-philosophical questions about culture and celebrity. His book is, essentially, one long argument with himself. At every opportunity he inserts himself into the story, battling with his own love/hate relationship with Jackson and agonising over his role as an all-knowing sage called on to contextualise the world’s grief. He wrestles with the dichotomy that was Jackson, the strutting genius who created magic in the studio with Quincy Jones and who was briefly ranked alongside Elvis and the Beatles; and the overblown, paranoid husk we knew later on. He compares the young Jackson famously denied a childhood and the malfunctioning adult desperately trying to claw it back; the performer of “irresistible fast-moving, finger-snapping pop delights” such as “ABC” and the man behind simpering, pious ballads such as “Ben”. “Could I cope with talking about, say, the beautiful … brilliant Michael Jackson of the Jackson 5 in the post-hippy ’70s, without considering the disfigured, haunted and arrogant Michael Jackson of the early 21st century?” he puffs, to which the obvious answer is: “Yes, Paul, of course you can.”

You can stop to admire a finely turned sentence, such as when, in reflecting on Jackson’s dancing, Morley notes that he moved “so far inside and outside his own body, using his feet to communicate with us about the miracle of light, and time, it seemed like he’d flown in from another universe, and landed in such a way that his feet were yet to hit the ground.” These articulations of the seemingly indescribable are where Morley excels. In narrative terms, however, there is little shape or structure. With the exception of some fairly straightforward passages about the making of the albums Off the Wall and Thriller, the book is largely made up of winding thoughts, fractured reflections and the same questions asked over and over. Regular syntax doesn’t figure; there are sentences here that go on for over a page.

At random intervals Morley riffs on Google search terms starting with “Michael Jackson …” And so, for instance, we get: “Michael Jackson smiles like a lizard”; “Michael Jackson is eaten by Free Willy”; “Michael Jackson is set to a melody as lost and forlorn as an orphaned boy”. In the end, he posits that there are multiple Jacksons from whom we can pick according to whatever suits us, and comes to the realisation that, at the time of his death “there was no exact truth, perhaps, because there were too many near truths … everything about him was a construct built out of lies, rumours, publicity, hints, avoidance, revelation and perversity”.

This would have rung true at the time of writing, but in the wake of Leaving Neverland, the narrative has changed. At this moment, of all his incarnations it’s Jackson the abuser that looms largest. The current question is no longer how we should look at his cultural contribution but whether we should engage with it at all. He was once merely an artist with problems, now he is a “problematic” artist, to be filed alongside Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby, and, going back further, Gauguin, Wagner and Caravaggio.

The Awfully Big Adventure is published by Faber (£10). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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