Icons pass and we’re left speechless. Their passing hits home particularly hard when they’re not much older than we are. Things become existential real quick.
Perhaps it is because I came of age in the 80s that I’ll always feel like Michael Jackson was my age. I was aware of Off the Wall, but it was Thriller that held me along with everyone else in the collective imagination. Hit after hit. In fact, of the nine songs on the album, seven were released as singles. It’s hard to think of another album that stayed with us so long and constantly felt fresh.
I guess I took it for granted that the greatest entertainer in the world was a Black man. I wasn’t the kid who wanted to do all the dance moves. Anyone who knows me, knows I’ve got a basic two-step and that’s about it. I also wasn’t begging my parents for red leather jackets. I mean, they were everywhere: The zippers, the epaulets, the sleeves bunched up. Even then, I knew enough to know that Michael was the one person who could pull off that look. And the high-water pants? Believe me, I wasn’t trying to draw any more attention to my nerdiness. But I was proud that HE could pull it off.
Some have noted, most recently both the Rev. Al Sharpton and filmmaker Ralph Richardson, that before there was Barack Obama, there was Michael, the global face of America. A Black man was global pop culture. My wife told me of how, during the she spent time in Kenya, it was in a Nairobi disco that she saw how hard Africans danced to “Beat It”. And if you’re wondering if, at the time of his death, he was still the King of Pop, look at how people all over the world are gathering to remember him, to sing his songs, and to mourn communally.
And I can only wonder what effect Michael’s creativity and force of nature had on other areas of cultural production, particularly within the Black community. For example, I think the Black film renaissance of the 80s could be attributed to him? Not directly, mind you, but come on: Remember, his videos weren’t just videos. They were short films, with incredibly high production value. There was an aesthetic in those videos that harkened back to the classicism of an Astaire or Fosse. In Michael Jackson, particularly his dance, you saw Blackness and American-ness as one. Talk about firing our collective imagination! Mix in the pride that African Americans felt from him and you’ve got Michael to thank for a whole lot of inspiration.
But he’s gone. Inexplicably, even. And we’re left with this hole that won’t be filled in our lifetimes. At his worst, he was a caricature. But at his best—and we all hoped that his best days were still ahead of him—he showed the world that artistic and creative excellence could come in the form of a Black man from Gary, Indiana.
That’s a powerful legacy.