In the News
A Geek’s View of Michael Jackson
Death by Numbers
“My boyfriend is obsessed with Michael Jackson,” admits a new friend over a cup of coffee. It’s just a few days after Jackson’s media-grabbing memorial and the coverage -today it’s the troubling notion that he may have been murdered; tomorrow it will be Nancy Pelosi‘s decision to put the kibosh on a resolution to honor the fallen showman – shows no sign of letting up.
But this boyfriend, a computational linguist, isn’t gripped by any headlines. He’s been fanatically studying the hundreds of YouTube videos that show concert footage of Jackson performing medleys of his greatest hits. According to the boyfriend, who essentially teaches computers how to understand language, Jackson, in video after video after video, never varies in melody, in step, or in every well-placed crotch grab.
Although I have met her boyfriend only once, and just briefly, I can still imagine him, hunched forward in front of his computer, watching endless performances of The Love You Save, plotting time progressions and finger snaps on a massive spreadsheet. The experience of Jackson’s life contained somewhere along that gracefully curving axis.
“At 44 seconds, Jackson always does a quick head tilt,” says my friend, delivering her boyfriend’s findings. “And at one minute and ten seconds, he always turns to the right and yells, ‘Come on!'”
In watching these programmed sequences, her boyfriend is searching for answers. Every replication is a clue, he’s convinced, a cipher into Jackson’s eternal moonwalk, a rational application to an irrationally lived life.
Is it so odd to try and make sense out of something unknowable by searching for deeper meanings in patterns and repetitions? It’s human nature to seek comfort in taxonomy. It’s why, on the heels of Jackson’s death, queries went out on Peter Shankman’s Help A Reporter Out asking for experts to speak on “The Science of 3,” and why The Washington Post ran its own story on celebrities dying in threes.
What I’ve been discovering myself, in reading the daily musings of people who have been writing or talking about Jackson – did he reject his race, was he duped into those London gigs, is he an icon or merely an idol-is this: Maybe my friend’s boyfriend has it right. It’s easier to analyze the numbers rather than the summation. The only problem is, after spending hours compiling and computing his dance data, he still hasn’t cracked the code.
Cathy Alter is a DC-based writer and author. Her articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in local and national newspapers and magazines including The Washington Post, Washingtonian, Self, and McSweeney’s. Her book, Virgin Territory: Stories from the Road to Womanhood was released in 2004 and her memoir, Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over was released in July 2008 and is now available in paperback.