Video: Michael Jackson Dance Break
DEFINING AN ART FORM-Michael Jackson’s video for the title track of Thriller set a standard for music videos that hasn’t been matched, since.
Special To W.E. A.L.L. B.E. News
By Byron Lee
He is the music icon of his generation, responsible for what is, to this day, the top-selling album (of original work) in recording history. His fashion and dance moves influence current day chart-toppers such as Usher, Justin Timberlake, and Chris Brown. His legacy, however, has been tainted by eccentric behavior and legal tribulations worthy of a circus. For this issue of Limelight, we will begin looking at the career of Michael Jackson and the controversy surrounding him.
OUR OWN SUPERSTARS-The Jackson 5, (clockwise from center, Michael, Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, and Marlon) were the first black teen group to crossover in a major way.
Michael Joseph Jackson was born in August 29, 1958, in Gary, Indiana, the seventh of nine children sired in the union of steelworker Joseph and office worker Katherine. Music was a major part of the child's home life. Joe, who once played the guitar in a R&B group called the Falcons, would play for his children, while Katherine would sing folk songs. Joe seemed to want his children to obtain the success that he never had. He started building a group around brothers Jermaine, Tito, and Jackie. When he was four years old, Michael joined his brothers, playing the congas and singing background vocals. His affection for James Brown, his ability to pick up dance moves quickly, and his youth soon made him a natural focal point for the group. He became the front man, sharing lead vocals with Jermaine, a year later.
Not all was smiles and sunshine. By many accounts, Joe was an ill-tempered disciplinarian who would have his children play anywhere, even gentleman's clubs, if he thought it would bring money and/or recognition to the family. Joe's dictatorial ways, Katherine's Jehovah's Witness faith, and the increasing pressures that came with being the breadwinner for the family made for an extremely unhappy childhood, a fact that would be, by Michael's own admission, the driving force behind many of his adult actions.
Led by Michael, the group made a name for itself, touring through Indiana. A win at a state competition, courtesy of their version of The Temptation's "My Girl," expanded their fanbase to other states. R&B legends Sam & Dave took notice and got them a performance at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater, where the group came to the attention of Gladys Knight. Bobby Taylor (of the Vancouvers) also became a fan, during the time that the Jacksons opened for his group in Chicago. It would be Taylor who would get them a meeting at Motown. The group's performance of James Brown’s “I Got The Feeling” was taped and shown to Motown head Barry Gordy in Los Angeles. Gordy, who initially bristled at Gladys Knight's recommendation, saw the potential in the group, signed them immediately, and eventually moved them to Los Angeles. (The idea that Diana Ross discovered The Jackson 5 is an ingenious bit of fiction, one of the first instances of a record label using an established star to "put over" an up-and-coming talent.)
IN THE SPOTLIGHT-A 13-year old Michael on the cover for the pressing for his first solo single, “Got To Be There.”
Motown released the group's debut album, Diana Ross Presents the Jackson Five in 1969 and, recording songs written by a solid staple known as "The Corporation," The Jackson 5 became the first group to have their first four singles ("I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save," and "I'll Be There") reach number one. Michael had his first hit without his brothers in 1971 with "Got To Be There." He gained even more attention for himself in 1972 with "Ben," a tender ballad from the film of the same name. (The song received an Oscar Nomination).
The Jacksons are important not only for what they meant musically, but for what they meant culturally. They were the first black teen act to crossover in a major way. (Barry Gordy flooded the market place with merchandise to exploit this fact.) They had their own animated show from 1971 to 1973 and, for a year, their own variety show on CBS, the first variety show hosted by a black family. (Their act became so popular that a white teen act, The Osmonds, were accused of blatantly ripping off their soul sound (in exchange for the barbershop sound the Osmonds had been using) in an effort to boost record sales.)
The momentum would eventually stall. Although the Jacksons found success with the Hal David-penned songs "Dancing Machine" and "Looking Through The Windows," their career, along with Michael's solo efforts, began to flounder.
IN CONTROL-1978’s “Destiny,” which featured the Jackson’s biggest post-Motown hits, to date, found them finally singing their own songs and playing their own instruments.
Feeling stagnant, the group decided to sever their ties to Motown Records, in 1975. The group (minus Jermaine, who stayed at Motown and was replaced by Randy) signed to CBS Records, billing themselves as The Jacksons (Motown owned The Jackson 5 name.). To begin their tenure at their new label, they were paired with famed Philly Soul songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Although the partnership produced the 1976 hit "Enjoy Yourself," the boys, who eventually moved to CBS's Epic imprint, yearned to sing their own songs, while playing their own instruments.
After releasing two albums, the label acquiesenced. The result was 1978's Destiny. The album showed Michael (co-writing with Randy) flexing his skill as a songwriter. The songs "Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)" and "Blame It On the Boogie" became major hits, with the former selling two million copies, and the album itself going platinum.
Seeking to capitalize on Michael's fame, the film world came calling. Jackson was cast at The Scarecrow (to Diana Ross's Dorothy) in The Wiz, a 1978 filming of the musical retelling of "The Wizard of Oz." Although the film was widely panned, "Ease on Down the Road," Jackson's duet with Ross, remains a favorite to this day.
For Off The Wall album cover THE SOLO ACT-The success of the disco-flavored “Off The Wall” established him as a legitimate performer, away from his brothers.
On the set on The Wiz, Jackson met composer Quincy Jones, who produced the film's music. Jones was impressed with the hand Jackson showed in guiding the recording of Destiny and thought that the two would make a good team. The duo, along with Rod Temperton (of Heatwave fame) recorded Off The Wall, which provided Jackson the transition from band member to adult solo act. The 1979 release featured the joyous, enhanced disco of the title track, "Rock With You" and "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough," along with the heartbreaking "She's Out Of My Life" and the laidback chestnut "I Can't Help It," a song sampled by so many artists (including Mary J. Blige and De La Soul) that you probably recognize it, even if you can't name the source material. The album went on to sell 20 million copies, worldwide.
Since Michael had attained so much success on his own, many fans assumed that he wouldn't return to the Jackson clan. However, he rejoined his brothers to release Triumph, another stellar collection, which boasted the goose-bump inducting "Can You Feel It?" in 1980. After touring behind Triumph, Jackson reteamed with Jones to record a follow up to Off The Wall
THE ICON-1982’s “Thriller” has sold more than 25 million copies, to date, and continues to run neck-and-neck with The Eagles' “Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975” as the highest selling album of all time.
The importance of Thriller, released in December of 1982, cannot be overstated. This album reset the bar for what a successful album was. Nearly every song had its own chance to shine as a single: the pop duet "The Girl in Mine" (with Paul McCartney), the funky "PYT (Pretty Young Thing)", the aggressive "Beat It" (featuring a guitar-shredding solo from Eddie Van Halen), the edgy, pulsating "Billie Jean" and the yearning ballad "Human Nature." The video for the title track, with its narrative, special effects, iconic voice-over work (courtesy of the late Vincent Price), and ensemble dancing set the standard for the art form. (In fact, the videos for the singles by Thriller helped a struggling music video network, MTV, become a household name, ironic given the network's initial reluctance--stated directly by VJ Mark Goodman, in an interview with David Bowie--to showcase black performers.)
The influence of Jackson's visual presentation was further seen by the popularity of V-shaped, red leather jackets (like the one Jackson wore, in the Thriller video) and shiny white gloves (like the ones Jackson sported, in concert). The icing on the cake was Jackson's May 1983 performance of "Billie Jean" at the Motown 25th Anniversary special, where he glided backwards along the floor, debuting his version of the Moonwalk. Thriller, an album showcasing a black performer, has sold more than 25 million copies to date and continues to run neck-and-neck with The Eagles' Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975 as the highest selling album of all time.
For Victory album cover FAREWELL-1984’s “Victory” album, and its accompanying blockbuster tour, marked the end of Michael Jackson’s stint as lead singer of The Jacksons.
Even after becoming an icon, Jackson remained loyal to his brothers, releasing the Victory album, in 1984 and staging a blockbuster tour in support of it. (He resigned as lead singer of The Jacksons, at the conclusion of the tour.) A year later, he would co-write (with Lionel Richie) the star-studded USA for Africa anthem "We Are The World."
Like a point guard hitting every shot, Jackson could do no wrong. It would not be long, however, until his life offstage would rival, and eventually surpass, his professional accomplishments.
Even as he basked in the success of “Thriller,” murmurs started to be heard about Michael Jackson’s personal life. Some people ridiculed his soft speaking voice, his chimpanzee sidekick Bubbles, the kindred spirit he seemed to find in children (In late 1988, he bought land in California and opened Neverland Ranch, a large amusement park at which some children would stay for days on end.), and his fascination with the elephant man's bones. Some rumors went so far as to suggest that Jackson slept in a sensory deprivation tank to slow the effects of aging. (It’s since been discovered that Jackson’s handlers planted some of the false stories, thereby playing a role in sparking the tabloid firestorm (and its accompanying catchphrase—“Wacko Jacko”) that would prove to be unstoppable.)
THE LEGEND AND THE LEADER-Michael Jackson at the White House, in 1984.
Most of this speculation was, ultimately, light-hearted in nature, with many people in Jackson's own community feeling as though it was exactly these attributes (those both real and fabricated) that made him acceptable, i.e. non-threatening, to the white community. (Eddie Murphy itched this feeling in stone in his classic 1987 stand-up comedy film Eddie Murphy RAW, in which he espoused his belief that Jackson was the only black man who could take avowed virgin Brooke Shields to the Grammys, which Jackson did, in 1984.)
During his time between albums, Jackson’s skin tone became noticeably lighter. Jackson would only admit to having cosmetic surgery on his nose. This revelation itself was telling because, as a child, one of Joseph Jackson's more hurtful torments was calling young Michael "nose." Some began to wonder, however, if Michael was trying to transcend more than his painful past.
DISAPPOINTMENT?: “Bad” sold eight million copies in the United States and was the first album to spawn five number one singles, but people couldn’t resist comparing it to “Thriller.”
When it came time to record a follow-up to “Thriller,” Jackson reunited with Quincy Jones. A then-unprecedented media blitz (which included a TV special, home video, and book) was used to promote the finished product, entitled Bad.
A STAR ON THE RISE: Kennett, MO native Sheryl Crow got her start singing backup vocals on the “Bad” tour.
The video for the title track followed the blueprint of the legendary video from his previous album. The notoriety of the director (Martin Scorsese--John Landis directed "Thriller") and the amount of ensemble dancing--including the iconic use of a windblower--were kicked up a notch. The enthusiastic response to the video set the stage for the performance for the album as a whole. The LP was, like “Thriller,” a hit machine, spawning the tender duet “I Just Can't Stop Loving You” (with Siedah Garrett), the infectious "The Way You Make Me Feel," the introspective "Man In The Mirror", the romantic "Librarian Girl", the hard-rocking "Dirty Diana," the uptempo "Another Part Of Me," and the tour de force "Smooth Criminal" (the video for the latter featuring the latest addition to Jackson's dance arsenal, the jaw-dropping lean move). The “Bad” tour, which featured backup vocals from up-and-coming Kennett, Missouri native Sheryl Crow, was also a tremendous success.
Although “Bad,” by any estimation, was a blockbuster, its sales were will under those of “Thriller.” Whether feeling a personal failing, or dogged by media reports labeling “Bad” as a disappointment, Jackson seemed driven to restore any luster lost, real or imagined.
GETTING ITS DUE: People are only now starting to recognize “Dangerous” as a solid album.
Updating his sound was part of his strategy, so Jackson parted ways, creatively, at least, with Quincy Jones, and teamed up with New Jack swing pioneer Teddy Riley, to record his next album. The result, Dangerous, was released in 1991. To promote the record, MTV promoted the premiere of the video for the first single, “Black or White” around the clock.
MUDDLED MESSAGE: The video for “Black or White” ended up offending as much as it enlightened.
The song didn’t disappoint. Anchored by a bright guitar figure, “Black or White” was an uplifting manifesto that hoped for a post-racial society. The video for it, which featured friend and child actor Macaulay Culkin, was equally joyous, for the most part, and utilized cutting edge morphing technology.
It is this fact that made the final portion of the world premiere clip even more baffling. In an abrupt change in tone, Jackson appeared dancing in an alley, rubbing his midsection and throwing objects through car windows. Although Jackson claimed to have been voicing the same anti-racism message found in the rest of the clip, only in a different way, the execution of the sentiments proved more puzzling and off-putting than enlightening. (Jackson issued an apology, and future airings of the extended version of the video digitally added epithets to the car windows to make the message clearer.)
(Some people pointed out that the vocal mannerisms and suggestive dance moves, which were on full display during the unsettling parts of the “Black or White” video, first started to appear on the “Bad” album. This fact seemed to support the belief that Jackson needed someone like Quincy Jones to act as a sort of artistic harness to focus him and filter out his more awkward ideas.)
“Dangerous” spent four weeks on top of the Billboard charts, spawning additional hits in the blissful “Remember The Time,” the anthemic “Will You Be There?,” the sensual “In The Closet,” and the anguished “Who Is It?” Yet its worldwide sales were only slightly better than those of “Bad.” Even more problematic for Jackson, in the long term, was the advent of more aggressive music, perfectly symbolized by the dethroning of “Dangerous” from the top of the charts by “Nevermind,” the second album from groundbreaking angst rockers Nirvana. The popularity of moody rock, along with the eventual dominance of the more visceral forms of rap music, left Jackson’s brand of pop showmanship out of sync with trendy music fans. (Now divorced from this context, “Dangerous” has gone on to be viewed as a vastly underrated album.)
While promoting “Dangerous,” Jackson experienced a few notable moments in his life. He delivered an outstanding performance at Super Bowl XXVII (The first time in the game’s history that ratings went up for the halftime show.). He also went on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to reveal that his loss of pigment was due to a condition known as vitiligo, an affliction which also makes sunlight very dangerous to the suffer. Furthermore, Jackson would be one of the first celebrities to use his star power to fight for HIV/AIDS education/prevention.
Jackson’s philanthropic efforts would soon take a backseat to more pressing issues. In 1993, Jackson was accused of child molestation by one of the children who had stayed at Neverland Ranch. These claims, in some minds, validated the dark presumptions some had made about the superstar. They also ignited a media frenzy that made household names of some cable news stations, tabloids, and entertainment news programs.
An investigation would be launched, and, in response to the alleged victim’s detailed account, both Neverland Ranch and Jackson himself would be intimately searched. (In late 1993, Jackson would provide what would prove to be the beginning of an archive of awkward moments when he pleaded his innocence via satellite, giving what many felt was an excessively graphic account of his cavity search.) In early 1994, the matter was settled out of court, with a rumored multi-million dollar payment to the accuser that included assurances that the child would not testify. Although Jackson’s legal team took pains to note that the settlement admitted no wrong doing, many onlookers viewed the payment as an admission of guilt.
THE KING AND THE PRINCESS: Michael Jackson with his then-wife Lisa Marie Presley.
(During this tumultuous time, Jackson was consoled by Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of the anointed King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. Presley was greatly concerned with the noticeable toll the allegations were taking on Jackson, especially Jackson’s prescription drug abuse. The two grew closer during the scandal and created headlines worldwide when they announced their marriage in 1994. Presley seemed to balance Jackson out, her feisty demeanor complimenting Jackson’s meekness. (The companionship was short-lived. The two would divorce, amicably, in 1996.))
THE WRONG KIND OF HIS-TORY: Jackson’s album “HIStory” became noteworthy for the anger expressed on it and the outrage it provoked.
His legal matters behind him, Jackson focused on promoting his new album, HIStory Past, Present and Future, Book I. In this endeavor, Jackson found another set of problems. In addition to being turned off by the bloated title, many people found the marketing campaign for the album, which featured throngs of people gathering around a gigantic statue of Jackson, to reek of hubris at best and idolatry at worst.
For pic with Janet: SUPERSTARS UNITE: Jackson performed with his sister Janet on “Scream,” the first single from the “HIStory” album.
Others were further taken aback, when news regarding the album’s packaging was released. The album would be a two-disc set, the first disc being a greatest hits collection, with the second disc consisting of original songs. While this decision was most likely two-fold (to boost profits generated by the album and to distract people from Jackson’s legal troubles by reminding them why they loved Jackson in the first place), many found this approach to be both foolish (Most fans of Jackson already had the hits in question.) and greedy (Instead of being sold at a reduced price, the collection was priced normally, a fact that eventually, and dubiously, earned “HIStory” the title of Michael Jackson’s highest grossing album).
The first single from the set of new songs was a heavily hyped duet with sister, and fellow superstar, Janet Jackson, entitled “Scream.” The expensive, high gloss, black & white video for the single featured the siblings venting their frustrations in a futuristic setting using various angst ridden poses. While the video garnered much acclaim, the slightly dissonant song had little long term resonance. The anger in the song reflected the overall feeling of HIStory, which was the first Michael Jackson album to contain profanity. Undoubtedly wounded by the public’s reaction to the allegations made against him, Jackson lashed out, even going so far as to make analogous references to the persecution of Christ. (Jackson followed through on these lyrics with his performance at the 1996 Brit Awards, where he surrounded himself with children in a scene which looked to be patterned after Jesus’s interactions with the young.)
Matters only got worse when Jackson released “They Don’t Care About Us” as a single. Many found some of the lyrics to the song to be anti-Semitic. (Jackson’s critics pointed out that the video for the single was directed by Spike Lee, someone who had dealt with similar accusations, during his career.) The offending words were censored in subsequent pressings of the album. (Given all the anger on the album, it should be no surprise that the biggest hit from the collection was the straight-ahead love balled “You Are Not Alone.”)
While touring the world in support of “HIStory,” Jackson fell in love with nurse Debbie Rowe, whom he met soon after he was diagnosed with vitiligo. He married Rowe in the fall of 1996, when she became pregnant with the couple’s first child, Michael Junior Jackson, known as Prince. (Their son was born in February 1997. Jackson and Rowe also sired a daughter, Paris Katherine Michael Jackson, born in April of 1998. The couple divorced in 1999, with Rowe giving Jackson full custody of the kids.)
During the six years between “HIStory” and Michael Jackson’s next album, a youth explosion would occur in the music industry, with artists such as Usher, Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and N’SYNC, all of whom were greatly influenced by Jackson’s music, dancing, and overall style, rising to chart dominance. This issue, along with more sizable concerns, would weigh on Michael’s shoulders in the next few years.
HARDLY: Despite receiving solid reviews, sells of Jackson’s 2001 album “Invincible” stalled, due to lack of promotion, selling only 2 million copies.
At the beginning of the 2000's, Michael Jackson was ready to re-enter the music world. To do so, he enlisted the aid of producer Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, who had produced many contemporary R&B hits, having his biggest success with "The Boy Is Mine" a duet featuring Monica and Brandy. The result was 2001's Invincible, an album many critics found to be enjoyable, but too long and ballad-heavy.
A more immediate concern to Jackson, however, was whether the album would be heard by many people. Jackson had told Sony, before the release of Invincible, that the album would be his last one with the label. His concern was two fold. First, he had been waiting for control of his master recordings to be given to him and was angry when he found out that the moment of transition was much later than he thought it would be (Adding insult to injury, he found out that the lawyer who was representing him in this matter who also working with the record company). Secondly, he was worried that Sony had been planning to make him fork over his half of the interest in songs that the two sides owned together. (In 1985, Jackson purchased a collection of songs by other artists (including some by The Beatles) collectively known as Northern Songs, eventually sharing the interest in the songs with Sony). Jackson thought that sabotaging his career would be Sony's means to that end.
When Jackson made his announcement, Sony head Tommy Mottola greatly downscaled the plans to promote the album. The only video made for the album was for the song “You Rock My World.” The song was pleasant enough, and the video featured appearances from Chris Tucker and Marlon Brando, but the song was the not the lead single that Jackson wanted. (Tellingly, the song "Butterflies," which garnered a significant following on urban radio, was not granted a video.)
Jackson responded by publicly calling Mottola a racist and saying that Jackson had heard Mottola use racial epithets toward other black performers. Some people supported Jackson, partially out of loyalty, but also seemingly out of a sense of catharsis in seeing a performer address, albeit indirectly, the plight of black performers in the recording industry. Others, however, saw Jackson ’s outcry as purely self-serving in nature, the hypocritical ranting of a fading star, bitter that an industry known for cut-throat tactics had finally turned that aggression towards him.
Jackson hoped to use his stardom for good, as he had in the past, in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11. He felt that a philanthropic endeavor was needed to bring aid to those affected and wrote the song "What More can I Give?,” arranging celebrities to sing on the track, "We Are The World" style. However, even when Jackson had his heart in the right place, things seem to go awry. It was revealed that the producer behind the project, Marc Schaffel, had a past in adult film. Both MTV and Sony promptly dropped any plans to promote the project. (Jackson has maintained that his dispute Sony was the main factor in the abandonment of the project.)
SLEIGHT OF HAND: It was revealed that, in the making of “Living With Michael Jackson,” journalist Martin Bashir used editing and narration to paint a unfaltering picture of the icon.
Perhaps out of a desire to stay in the spotlight after the evaporation of Invincible, Jackson conceded to friend Uri Geller’s urging to take part in an no-holds-barred documentary on the star, to be made by BBC journalist Martin Bashir. Jackson did so, and Bashir and a camera crew met with him once in 2002 and again in 2003. The result was Living With Michael Jackson, which aired in early 2003.
Living with Michael Jackson showcased Jackson's genuine concern for sick children. It also recorded him making embarrassingly resonant statements about "sharing [his] bed," spending ridiculous sums of money in shopping sprees, and nicknaming his third child Prince Michael Jackson II, born to an unnamed mother in 2002, "Blanket." The show climaxed in an interview in which Bashir (whose narration sometimes crossed the line into sarcasm) seemingly toyed with his fragile subject.
The day after it aired, in the United States, the show was the talk of the nation, yet it had the complete opposite effect that Jackson's handlers wanted it to have. Many viewers found that their view of Jackson, mainly that he was so sheltered by his fame that his perception of normality was warped beyond repair, to be confirmed. A follow-up special, made by Jackson's own production team, revealed that Bashir knowingly chose some of the more controversial and scandalous incidents for the BBC broadcast, at times blatantly taking quotes out of context. Unfortunately, the corrective special received only a portion of the numbers its predecessor earned.
Things got much worse for Jackson, when, later on, that year, one of the children prominently featured in the documentary accused Jackson of child molestation. Charges were filed, and a trial commenced, two years later.
SECOND CIRCUS: Many could not believe it, when a second round of child abuse allegations surfaced.
The trial, the covering of which was highlighted by awkward, laugh-out loud reenactments on E! Entertainment Television, featured testimony from celebrities such as Macaulay Culkin. It was Jackson's behavior, as always, that stole the show. He once showed up to court wearing pajama bottoms, and, on another day, performed an impromptu dance, on top of a car. At the end of the five month trial, Jackson was acquitted of all charges. (During this time, Jackson's ex-wife Debbie Rowe filed a petition for reinstatement of parental rights. The two parties eventually agreed to share custody of their children.).
FOR THE FANS: Michael Jackson dancing on top of a car, during a break in his 2005 trial.
Aside from the heavy speculation he received from a second round of child molestation allegations, there were smaller incidents that, if they were committed by anyone else, would have been briefly acknowledged, then forgotten. However, since they were part of the freak show that had replaced music as Jackson's "act," they were endlessly reported (The time he accepted an award at the 2003 MTV Video awards that wasn't really an award and the dangling, impulsive though it might of been, of his youngest child over a balcony, being the most notable examples.).
Jackson also found troubles with his finances. Concerns first arose when he closed Neverland Ranch in 2006. It was later revealed that action was being taken against him for delinquency of payments on a $270 million loan put on his music publishing assets. (He eventually agreed to a refinancing deal offered through Sony, the details of which were never disclosed.) Many people were puzzled by his plight, since he was reportedly taking in upwards of 75 million a year from song royalties. Then, again, other people were not surprised, given the lavish lifestyle that Jackson had been living in for several years, one punctuated by the kinds of shopping sprees documented in the BBC production. (Fortunes for Jackson have recently improved. He entered into another music purchasing deal with Sony, in 2007, this one acquiring Famous Music, LLC, thereby giving him rights to songs by artists such as Eminem and Shakira. Furthermore, Neverland Ranch was saved from foreclosure, at the last minute, by a real estate investment firm.)
THE OLD RAZZLE DAZZLE: Due to his past, photos of Jackson in a wheelchair created cynicism from some.
Public concern for Michael Jackson shifted to his health, in early August of this year, when pictures of Jackson being pushed around in a wheelchair in Las Vegas, with his face covered in a veil, circulated around the internet. Some people expressed concern for Jackson's health, while others, grown cynical by the sideshow aspect of Jackson's persona, figured that, with rumors of a comeback growing louder, that the photos were merely a publicity stunt generated to ensure an uplifting story, down-the-road, when Jackson made a "miraculous" recovery, in time to promote any new material. (The cynicism may be valid. Sure enough, in early-September, photos were posted on the heavily- trafficked celebrity news site perezhilton.com of Jackson, again, with veil, walking freely through a bookstore, in Las Vegas. Furthermore, in wake of Jackson's disapproval of the Living With Michael Jackson documentary, many tabloid reporters claimed that it was Jackson, himself (or his handlers) who manufactured many of the outrageous stories that were published, in the first years, post-Thriller, and that it was only when the coverage exceeded Jackson's grasp that the superstar started to complain.)
ONE OF US: Despite his eccentricities, Michael continues to have our support. Some of us, however, have begun to question that allegiance.
Jackson's connection with his fans was also, to a certain extent, weakening. His troubles caused a division in his community, between those who rallied to Jackson's defense and other longtime fans who, even though they were not sure that Jackson was guilty of pedophilia, thought that he was, at the very least, someone who was sorely in need of a reality check.
NO PRISONERS: Comedian Katt Williams showed no restraint in condemning Michael Jackson. He also voiced feelings many people had.
At no place was this conflict more pronounced than in the ultimate societal barometer, pop culture. Chris Rock, in his 2004 stand-up performance Never Scared, gave his reasons for relinquishing his fandom, or, as he called it "turning in [his] glove," telling the icon to get it together and "go to Banana Republic to get [himself] a decent suit." Red hot funnyman Katt Williams took a much more aggressive approach in 2006's The Pimp Chronicles Pt. 1. In a set-ending rant, delivered to a tellingly mixed response, Williams railed against Jackson's romantic past, or lack thereof, questioned both the paternity of Jackson's children and his diagnosis of vitiligo, and speculated as to the reason why everything in Jackson's home was geared toward children. (It should be pointed out that, as mean-spirited as some found the rant to be, Williams was acknowledging feelings that many people in our community had.)
Despite his eccentricities, Michael continues to have our support. In this light, the meaning of Jackson's ascension cannot be overstated. When one person from our community makes it, we feel that we all make it. We are on a first-name basis with a lot of our stars (Marvin, Gerald, Aretha, Whitney, Eddie, Will). It is as if they are a part of our family. Therefore, there is both a sense of pride in them and a need to protect them. (This need was perhaps best reflected in a decision made by BET, a network that regularly runs programming that some find to be offensive, removing Eminem's video for his 2004 single "Just Lose It" (off of the Encore album) from its rotation. The video played off of the public's obsession with the star's behavior (at one point, the rapper, playing Jackson, searched for his nose on a dance floor) to such a degree that Jackson publicly expressed his displeasure.)
OFFENSIVE?: BET pulled Eminem’s video for “Just Lose It,” which made light of Michael Jackson, saying that the clip was disrespectful.
Perhaps it is for this reason that many of us continue to support Michael. We still long for the Michael who wore the purple hat, while singing "Who's Loving You?," and the man who made red leather jackets and rhinestone-studded white gloves the thing to wear.
We want that Michael back.
That Michael is gone.
The show, however, goes on.
Epilogue-Originally published in July, 2009
What the world has lost, indeed.
When I received news that one of the greatest entertainers the world has seen was no longer with us, I was deeply saddened, but resigned to the inevitability. In recent years, Michael had looked gaunt and weak, and an addiction to prescription medication had been widely reported.
Thinking of Jackson in this state caused the fan in me to revert, like other fans have, to the afroed youngster who sang his heart out and led his family to stardom and the pop idol whose collaborations with other visionaries shot him into the stratosphere. The sense of pride I feel when I watch iconic performances from concerts, videos, talk shows and variety programs is irrepressible.
These moments remind me of what Michael's success meant, and means, to my community: to see one of our own become one of the most revered entertainers in the world gave us hope that our situation, both personally and collectively, could improve. (Improve it did. Jackson's success, along with that of Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy, opened doors for many other blacks in entertainment and, arguably, those outside of it, as well.) This feeling is compounded by the fact that our stars are like family to us. We're on a first name basis with many of them--Marvin, Aretha, Smokey, Donny, Gerald, Whitney, Bobby, etc. We are also a very protective people, a fact shaped by both our history and by the mainstream's tendency, still, to judge the transgressions of people of color more harshly than those of the majority. We are angered by the giggling, sarcastic reporting of Michael's death in some outlets, and we have chosen to focus on his status as record-breaking performer and philanthropist, so that the rest of the country does not forget it.
This phenomenon balances out the equally limited aforementioned viewpoint of people who have all too eagerly directed the public's attention toward Jackson's life offstage: the fading complexion, the surgical mask photo ops, the frivolous spending, the manner in which his children were sired and his over-the-top methods in protecting said progeny from the spotlight. The man this group sees is strictly the man who was, at the very least, guilty of both horrible decision making and of willfully surrounding himself with people who wouldn't seriously challenge him, either out of misguided affection, fandom, or greed. (Oddly enough, these same people have suddenly been rendered vocal upon his death.)
The reality is that all aspects of Jackson's life must be considered. Both Jackson's journey and Jackson himself, like the art he created, were complex. Therefore, they do not reconcile themselves to mere reaction. They require emotional distance to take it all in.
It is this point that, I believe, is reflected in the piece I wrote, a year ago. My only remaining sentiment is one provided to me by a loved one: the hope that Michael Joseph Jackson has the peace in death that eluded him in life.
Rest In Peace, Michael.