from SPEAK EASY:
June 25, 2010, 8:00 AM ET
Michael Jackson: One Year After His Death, Thrilling the World
By Nelson George
Michael Jackson in “Thriller” in 1983. I was in Beijing, China two weeks ago, a city that is hurtling toward world domination as quickly as its seven lane highways can take it. Like any American visitor I looked for signs of our pop culture in the center of capitalist communism. On the basketball courts I found Kobe Bryant and even Team USA jerseys. Facebook and Twitter are like ghostly presences, felt because of the very fact they are blocked. I spotted an ad for some movie featuring John Cusack and Asian actors at a bus stop.
In the hip 798 Art Zone there are cheeky t-shirts that feature Obamao, a mash-up of our President with Chairman Mao that either confirms the Tea Party’s worse fears or suggests the Chinese have a much cheekier sense of humor than the West give them credit for. But the most beautiful image of America I observed in Beijing was a lovely yellow and black poster featuring a smiling Michael Jackson with some Chinese characters underneath, which translated to “I look to heaven to fulfill its prophecy.”
I’m not sure what the poster makers mean by that, but its tone and image felt reverent, which is in keeping with how Michael Jackson was pretty much viewed around the world even before his demise a year ago today. While his career and reputation have been in domestic free fall since the mid-90s, Michael was still an respected entertainer in most of the world, a feeling that was certainly intensified by his death. Even before he had announced his fifty comeback shows in London, a weakly mounted jukebox musical called “Thriller” was selling out in that city’s West End. I went to see it in early 2009 and left more impressed with its multi-national audience than the onstage recreation of Jackson’s life.
It is here, in his home country, that death has truly served his reputation. While Jackson’s critics certainly are still out there, his fans have come out of the musical closet to re-assert their love of the man. The millions of people who were charmed by the Jackson Five, purchased “Thriller” and practiced his dance moves in front of bedroom mirrors have been liberated by his death to overlook the faults and celebrate the joy he inspired. No longer dispirited by scandalous new reports or put off by his kids wearing hoods in public, this silent majority of music lovers have given free reign to their delight by purchasing millions of dollars in CDs, merchandise and DVDs.
Michael Jackson in New York City in the 1970s. This is not simply old heads feeling nostalgic. Kids in the single digits have spend the past year hearing the music and seeing the dances, and are growing up with Jackson as a favorite alongside Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and what passes for pop in 2010. I’ve seen this phenomenon first hand and I’ve had numerous people tell me stories of sons and daughters, entranced by Jackson’s image in the wake of the video marathons his death engendered.
As the greatest artist of the now long-gone MTV music video era, it is quite apt that Jackson is now cultivating a new generation of fans via iPhone, iPad and other mobile devices. His music, clothes and moves are easily adaptable to the ways young people consume culture now. So while Michael’s body is gone, the sonic and visual testaments to his greatness will likely outlast his trials and, certainly, outlive all of us.
Nelson George is the author of “Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson.”