Flutterby™! : Who the Hell is Michael Jackson?

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Who the Hell is Michael Jackson?

2009-07-06 06:29:15.173481+00 by ebradway 14 comments

For some reason, comments are turned off in Dan's original post about Michael Jackson... So I'll just comment out here in the open. It took me a few days to figure out why Dan's comment bothered me.

It must be nice to have lived such a privileged childhood to have avoided African-American culture in the 70s and early 80s to not have recognized who Michael Jackson was. And it must be nice to continue such a privileged existence not to understand the significance of what Michael Jackson achieved. Now that we have a person of African descent in the Whitehouse, it's easy to dismiss the gains made by other black Americans.

Michael Jackson achieved a level of fame and fortune largely denied African Americans. He did so by creating music that crossed racial boundaries. He also used his wealth to purchase the Apple Records catalog. Think about what that might mean to African Americans - that this young black guy can own the creative output of some of the most heralded white performers.

It's also easy to vilify the man. It's hard to imagine what his world was like - growing up performing under an abusive father. He, likely, was always trying to recover his childhood that was sacrificed to his own success. Maybe, in that sense, Michael Jackson and Dan have something in common - unusual childhoods. Dan's childhood perpetuates a sense of privilege. Michael Jackson's childhood perpetuated a need to find, perhaps, the chance at innocence that Dan experienced.

Maybe Dan should do some due diligence and try to answer his question himself: "Who the Hell is Michael Jackson?"

[ related topics: Children and growing up Music Dan's Life Sociology Race Archival ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2009-07-06 15:28:31.818535+00 by: Dan Lyke

The comment box disappears after a while unless you're logged in. If you go to User Info, log in, and then go back to that entry the comment box will be there. Helps prevent spammy drive-by commenting on old messages.

This weekend we went down to Fresno, and on the way down listened to a good portion of Dreams from my Father[Wiki]. On Sunday afternoon we were in a part of Fresno where it felt like a good idea for me to stay with the car (with our traveling stuff inside and my bike on top) while Charlene went to run her errand, half a block over there was a memorial for Michael Jackson. I only heard snippets, carried when the wind was blowing the right way, but I was surprised to hear a memorial for a guy who hadn't been part of the culture for two decades, and unsurprised to hear that though the performer's voices were younger, the speaker's voices were all my age or older.

So, yeah, I didn't and don't get many of the issues with African American identity and how Michael Jackson spoke to them.

Through 7th grade I knew two kids of African descent on their father's side (their mother was a Scot, their father had died, I believe in the revolution that created Zaire), brothers, both of them spoke an English that was indistinguishable from my own, and we went to a school that was nestled in a small town with a farm in upstate New York, way far out of the mainstream. In high school, a public school in Connecticut, I met a few more people with dark skin, some of them had African accents, some Carribbean, but no, none of them were a part of black American culture.

I remember in high school, my parents had friends, one of whom was white and had met his wife while in the Peace Corps in Botswana. They had two sons, younger than me, who would occasionally turn on the jive, and I'm pretty sure I asked them why they'd adopt the affectations of failure.

So when I finally moved to Chattanooga, and a guy on a corner hollered "hey, can you give me a boost?" and I answered "sure, hop in", thinking he needed a lift a few blocks up. It took me a while to figure out that he wasn't trying to get somewhere, he was trying to get himself in a situation where he could talk with a white guy so he could fence some stolen electronics. The only poverty I'd known was that "poor but proud" rural with a little 1970s hippy, and the only real exposure I'd had to poor urban black America was sometime in grade school when my mom and grandfather took me to the circus at Madison Square Garden, watching a couple of punks try to shake down a guy on the subway.

By the time Michael Jackson made his rise there'd been plenty of black performers with crossover audiences. I could quote you most of Cosby's routines. I knew who Gregory Hines was. I'd certainly been exposed to Motown. None had made the business decisions he'd made, none of them were superstars of the scale that Jackson was largely because he was part of that first generation to leverage MTV and the stadium show, part of the same culture as Madonna, which I also didn't understand. I don't know if I was aware at the time that he did it that Jackson bought Apple, but even now I see that as largely a business decision that his later years show to be something done by others in his life, maybe his dad, maybe he had a good manager (I'm told that such things aren't completely mythical).

I don't have a particular problem with Michael Jackson's later troubles. I'm fully prepared to accept that his relationship with children was more an attempt to relive a childhood that he never had than anything sexual.

But if we're going to celebrate great American performers and entertainers of African descent of that era who also happened to be good in business and investment, I'll celebrate Bill Cosby or the various sports stars of that era, the beginning of the endorsement mega deals, before I'll feel anything but a quiet pity for a sad figure who was pushed into insanity and an early grave. And who achieved his success by dancing for the white man, rather than for himself.

Heck, celebrate some of his siblings who managed to have their careers without the public insanity. I remember hanging out with a redneck whitewater paddling friend of mine, the one who, upon seeing a car decked out with under-side neon effects and those funky colored vanes on the windshield wipers that were popular for a short time remarked "God, I hope no one of my race is driving that car". My friend may have been one or two generations removed from the white hood, but on a drive to a river once, he talked about a Janet Jackson concert he went to that did wonders for his cross-racial tolerance.

So, yes, I understand intellectually why Michael Jackson was popular, I may even go back and watch The Whiz[Wiki](which I've never seen), but he wasn't one who contributed to racial understanding from my Caucasian USAnian experience nearly as much as others of his era and before, and surely we can encourage African Americans to find heroes who didn't descend into insanity and use their early successes to finance self-destruction through self-mutilation.

#Comment Re: made: 2009-07-06 16:32:21.681828+00 by: ebradway

And surely we can encourage African Americans to find heroes...

In other words, you don't approve of the heroes chosen by African Americans and you feel it's your responsibility to help them make better choices?

Cosby is a another good example of an African American pioneer in entertainment. He was the first black man to have a leading role in a TV series (I Spy) but it's telling that you recall him first as a comedian. It's been noted that entertainers from groups actively discriminated against are only first accepted for comedic value. Look at the role of homosexuals in most modern TV and films - it's usually as the source or butt of jokes.

Sure you know who Gregory Hines was, growing up in Connecticut you probably heard about the black Broadway performer. But his talent was known outside of Broadway until he was caste in a comedy by Mel Brooks in 1981. He started on Broadway in 1954.

Madonna is a good parallel to Jackson - both were able to keep a good head for business during the explosion in popular music that MTV was part of in the early 1980s. It would be interesting to explore the differences and similarities there. It might help resolve how much race was a factor and how much Jackson's lack of a real childhood drove the choices he'd make. From the surface, to me it looks like Madonna just has a better head for business - but race and up- bringing can have a significant impact on business choices. Madonna's father was an Italian immigrant and automotive design engineer. She likely lived a fairly idyllic upper-middle-class white American childhood with all the privilege that entails.

I just head a story on NPR about Jackson buying the ATV music catalog. Evidently, Jackson learned about buying recording rights as a business move from Paul McCartney. NPR actually has a recording of Jackson and Paul McCartney discussing it.

#Comment Re: made: 2009-07-06 16:56:22.266417+00 by: Dan Lyke

In other words, you don't approve of the heroes chosen by African Americans and you feel it's your responsibility to help them make better choices?

Yep. I think its part of being a basic decent human being to celebrate choices that empower individuals and give them options. I dismiss cultural relativism when it celebrates self-destruction. I think its reasonable to point out to kids, no matter whose they are, that the guy buying Colt 45 at the liquor store probably isn't accomplishing all the dreams he had when he was a kid.

In listening to Dreams from My Father[Wiki], it occurs to me that one of the problems that happened in the '80s, as blacks could move into white neighborhoods, is that those who could flee the ghettos and assimilate into mainstream American culture did, dividing what had been a mixed culture into those who could achieve, and those who didn't. Sure, kids out of college who wanted to change the world went back into the slums to try to fix things, but the people who could legitimately lay down the law on a kid when that kids parents wouldn't moved to the 'burbs, leaving a lack of moral authority. With the lack of those leaders, adults who had the respect of other adults and therefore the community, the kids took over.

So if we're going to remember who the hell Michael Jackson is, we need to point out that despite Paul McCartney's good advice, and Jackson's willingness to piss off McCartney in pursuit of money, Jackson pissed it all away and died unhappy and in debt.

So though he's got a sister who has managed to manage some similarly hefty investments and keep a lucrative career going, we celebrate the man known mostly for his mental illness and going broke in a big way.

Yeah, of African ancestry or not, I think that's the wrong set of values to be celebrating.

#Comment Re: Who the Hell is Michael Jackson? made: 2009-07-06 17:22:39.820787+00 by: TrevorM

I doubt if I'm the first to point to the parallel between two strange entities, the dead Michael Jackson and the dead Diana, Princess of Wales. Both are primarily a product of public obsession with damaged and disfunctional celebrity, as stoked up by 'the Media'. Neither of them were really in the first league in their significance in society until they acquired the 'dead' prefix. All this fawning has a lot to do with people's need for reassurance that they're personally OK, because even their idols have feet of clay (and maybe also have various other anatomical bits made of silicon, titanium, whatever).

Try listing historically important African Americans - you'll get a huge list, full of outstanding musicians and entertainers. MJ looks like a little child against so many of them (so, a result there, Jacko).

But I'm just a white Brit, so what do I know?

#Comment Re: made: 2009-07-06 17:45:54.433413+00 by: ebradway

Two more conceits:

You associate Michael Jackson with "the guy buying Colt 45". I'm not sure anything Jackson did encouraged malt liquor consumption. In fact, Jackson wasn't a user of recreational intoxicants. He was a life-long strict vegetarian. He was very private and many of the details of his life were cast by tabloids as eccentricities. Turns out the guy had some pretty scary health conditions - both physical and emotional.

"Those who could flee the ghettos and assimilate into mainstream American culture did" assumes that what you call "mainstream American culture" is inherently better. That everyone should abandon their own culture - or what they are able to assemble as a culture - for white-bread America. Part of Jackson's appeal was that he gave the recently assimilated African Americans music that was also palatable to their white friends. Ironically, my thesis is that it's your (or your parents') fleeing from the ghetto of mainstream American culture that put you in a position to ask "Who the Hell is Michael Jackson?" and to continue to misconstrue his significance.

Jackson's music was the background theme for the early 80s. Anyone who lived in contact with mainstream American culture during the early 80s associates that music with simultaneous events in their life. For me, unfortunately, I associate his music with miserable experiences as an introverted pre-teen at school dances or my mother's Jazzercise music. I was (and still am) much more of a Queen fan. But, or many others, the music might evoke their first kiss... high school graduation... maybe a wedding reception... all wrapped up in parachute pants and Member's Only jackets.

And that begs another comparison: Michael Jackson vs. Freddie Mercury...

#Comment Re: made: 2009-07-06 18:45:49.002285+00 by: Dan Lyke

TrevorM, to Eric's points, it is easy for those of us who thought Michael Jackson sang repetitive chick music (and in so categorizing avoided getting laid in high school, ah sweet regret) to dismiss him, but the man was the Garth Brooks of his day: he sold a metric assload of albums, and his appeal did cross cultural boundaries.

That he hadn't done anything for two decades shouldn't place his early accomplishments on the same "wrong place wrong time" plane as Diana.

Eric, there was never a "Freddy Mercury and Bubbles" sculpture in the SFMOMA. Which may cut to the heart of my discontent with the current trend to Michael Jackson hagiography: even at his prime a good bit of Michael Jackson's popularity was a "laugh at the mentally ill freak" thing. Freddy had his pathologies, but Queen rocked despite them, not because of them.

Interesting point about "mainstream American culture", because I guess some of my disdain for Jackson comes from my seeing his role as some of the shallowest portions of that. And as you know, I've spent a good portion of my adult life trying to understand and fit into the portions of tha I missed as a child.

#Comment Re: made: 2009-07-06 19:11:15.141338+00 by: ebradway

Freddy had his pathologies, but Queen rocked despite them, not because of them.

That's funny. I just had a long conversation with another friend about narcissism. Queen rocked, in large part, because of Freddie Mercury's pathological narcissism (we are the champions, theme from Flash Gordon, etc).

I've spent a good portion of my adult life trying to understand and fit into the portions of that I missed as a child.

So you have something in common with Michael Jackson!

#Comment Re: made: 2009-07-06 22:13:00.422726+00 by: Dan Lyke

Yabbut, Freddie wasn't famous because of his bathhouse exploits, and though I've clearly admitted to being culturally clueless I only learned of whatever struggles with his original culture he may have had a decade and a half after his death. Sure, his pathos showed up in his music, but he wasn't showing up in the tabloids with a chimpanzee in order to sell more records and stay famous.

But now you've got me wondering about what Freddie Mercury's collaboration with Michael Jackson sounds like...

Perhaps that goes to some of my discounting of Jackson, though: Michael Jackson was a performance artist, not so much a musician, a spectacular dancer who took music that other people wrote and arranged and played and incorporated that into his stage shows. Freddie Mercury was a musician first. "Bad" was clearly an attempt to pander to what Jackson thought the public was looking for, in Freddie Mercury's last interviews he was talking about musical directions and experiments he was exploring with other musicians.

On any commonalities I may have with Michael Jackson, maybe it's just that we share similar struggles, but I carry some disdain because despite my relative lack of money I haven't flipped out and gone completely over the edge.

#Comment Re: made: 2009-07-07 03:33:37.94861+00 by: TheSHAD0W

But now you've got me wondering about what Freddie Mercury's collaboration with Michael Jackson sounds like...

Very, very high-pitched.

#Comment Re: made: 2009-07-07 10:38:35.923417+00 by: DaveP

[...] the guy buying Colt 45 at the liquor store probably isn't accomplishing all the dreams he had when he was a kid.

You mean I'm not living up to my potential? Again? [yawn]

I'll repeat my earlier comment about MJ - the real loss was when his talent died nearly 20 years ago. But then I also recall digging many of his Jackson 5 work more than his MTV stuff, but also having "Thriller" catch my attention as soon as Vincent Price started speaking.

#Comment Re: made: 2009-07-07 13:51:39.741165+00 by: jeff

Personal dynamics aside, the zenith of MJ for me was his Thriller album, and associated music/videos in the late eighties. It was mostly all downhill from there.

#Comment Re: made: 2009-07-07 13:53:31.742884+00 by: topspin

I find it sad that MJ didn't take as his mentor Quincy Jones, who had PLENTY to do with Michael's rise to mega-superstar status.

I gotta wonder if Jones saw parallels in Jackson to Sinatra, another megastar he produced records for who couldn't keep his personal life on the rails sometimes?

The reality is our culture is screwy in who it lionizes and a pioneering, ultra-talented, tremendously creative African-American like Quincy Jones won't be touted as widely as EITHER MJ (Jackson or Jordan) as a role model and his passing will probably receive about 1/1000th of the press Jackson's passing is receiving.

Oh yeah, but Q can't dunk from the foul line or moonwalk so the guy will never amount to anything, I suppose.

#Comment Re: made: 2009-07-07 20:18:10.052461+00 by: Dan Lyke

City of Los Angeles appeals to donations from Michael Jackson fans to reimburse costs from the funeral. Uh. Yeah. So pop star dies. Music becomes popular again. City takes taxpayer money to make his estate worth even more.

Make one right cynical, it might.

#Comment Why Dan is racially offensive made: 2009-07-08 10:00:52.639015+00 by: palewhale

Dan, tens of millions of white people admired George W. Bush, and considered him a great leader. If you even dared to think differently, I will make bitter remarks about how privileged you were. If I hassle you about it and you respond by suggesting that there are other people worthier of our (white folks') admiration, you are obviously an anti-white racist for disagreeing with us. You are also racist if you suggest that by now some of the tens of millions of white people who *still* greatly admire Bush have become imaginary or fictional.

Also, if you don't like the same bands that I like, or you don't even know who they are, you are inferior to me, by the wonderful white logic supported by millions of obnoxious white teenagers and ex-teenagers even today.

By the way, if you don't know enough about the music of the greatest country & western musicians who at some time or other crossed over from country & western to become at some time in the 1970s or 1980s seemingly inescapable in shopping malls, you are obviously an anti-white racist. If you mention any black C&W musicians, I will sing La La LA and cover my ears.