This took a little long, and maybe everyone’s tired of reading these MJ think pieces, but I actually wanted to think before I wrote. I’ve listed favorite songs, etc, elsewhere on my site. I’d like to talk about what Michael represented to popular culture.
When I think about Michael, I think about Sammy Davis Jr. When I first came to Los Angeles, I noticed portraits of Sammy Davis Jr in the homes of new jack black superstars. Since these mansions needed way more art on their walls than what actually made it up, I was struck that Sammy made the cut. Why would these irreverent young men hold Sammy in such high regard? After all, in my household, that picture of Sammy hugging Nixon kinda killed him in our eyes. His whole persona was too eager to please in our hardcore eyes. But if comics and actors I respected held him in such high regard, I knew I needed to reassess Sammy.
Sammy Davis Jr. was a genius all-around performer, just like Michael. Great dancer, fine singer, solid acting career…just an all-around showman from childhood. But most importantly, he lived to please people. He would do whatever it took to entertain anyone. That willpower drove him to be a great tap dancer, to be success in so many artistic endeavors, and it also drove him to endure and overcome the racial hostility. His suffering built a bridge for all black entertainers to cross.
I see Michael the same way. He truly wanted the entire world to love him. Think about actually trying to make EVERYONE like you. Can you imagine just trying to get everyone at work to like you? To achieve this impossible goal, Michael blurred his gender, his race…whatever it took to make everyone love him. While always grounded in soul music, he stretched musical genres to connect the same way. That’s why he was obsessed with breaking records. It wasn’t just about creating good art – he wanted his art to affect the most people.
I’m saying this to condone what he did, or to rationalize the psychology that led to those decision, but simply acknowledging that Michael Jackson gave his all, and everyone – every artist, every fan – is better off for what he did. He integrated MTV, and really the entire music industry by dominating it. He married Elvis’ daughter. He became the King of Pop.
Whenever a black man achieves that kind of success, it drives some white people crazy. You see it in certain reactions to Barack Obama, and you see it when some commentators disrespect Michael Jackson and his body isn’t even in the ground yet. I don’t know what happened in his personal life. And while I’m as fascinated as anyone else, I know enough to know I don’t know a damn thing. Over the weeks and months, maybe a fuller image that approximates the truth will assemble as people talk about the man, his process and his lifestyle. But I know enough not to talk about what I don’t know first hand.
I was fortunate enough to meet Michael up close and personal on several occasions. I’ve had music producers play me original mixes of his music and unreleased tracks. Some of them would have changed the game and it’s a shame Michael didn’t believe in them.
I don’t care how cool you think you are and how many jokes you may have cracked about him – when you meet Michael Jackson you are hyped. In person, he’s taller than you would imagine, and of course shy as everyone says. But you know there’s a lot going on that he’s not saying.
Mike was a few years older than me. I grew up with the girls in our elementary school debating on which of the Jackson Five was the cutest. In one our first family trips to New York, my brothers and I were sitting in a hotel lobby, and a black mother asked us if we were the Jackson Five. It was a thrill to be mistaken for them! In college we debated the relative merits of OFF THE WALL and THRILLER. I lamented his post-Thriller career, even though he continued to make great music until the end. Like the rest of America I am fascinated as the mysteries of his life continue to unfold and compound. His grip on popular culture continues to hold. Long live the king.
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