Michael Jackson and the collective imagination

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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.

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  • http://profile.typepad.com/leonwynter Leon Wynter

    Rob-
    Thanks so much for the humble, efficient and value added way you cover our our deep need to examine who we are and how we came to be over the decades that coincide with Michael Jackson’s life and career.

    His death at this moment calls for more than examination; an interrogation seems in order. Thanks for the list of notable pieces by respected writers on this in your other post. Yet, you’ll notice, even the remarkable Nelson George hasn’t yet figured out what really needs to be said. Most folks haven’t spent enough time evaluating their own feelings–from where they were when the first partied to XXXX, to what it was like covering him, etc.

    Few have gotten farther that the questions about the surgeries–the self- hatred issue, or the child molestation charges. But I think there’s not that much needs to be done on the latter except to say “tragic, sick and probably criminal.”
    And of the former, I’m sorry, but cosmetic surgery is still just the surface, still cosmetic, no pun intended.

    The thing that must be addressed is what Jamie Foxx shouted out (I hear) was that Michael was “us” and Michael was “ours”. That is the rub, because we know that really wasn’t true.

    Look out for something soon on The American Race on this.

    Peace!

  • Rosa

    I think Michael is like a “test” for all of us. Are we human enough to transcend whatever is that we don’t understand in him? I can say hey, get it: he had dysmorphic disorder and vitiligo but people can’t digest those concepts, they need to judge. And forget the acussations, enough is enough, this has been greed + lynching. And then, well, Michael was a incredible sensitive soul – that’s why such a great artist. A unique creature, universal. And black. Case closed.