What Did Michael Jackson Do?
By Wil Forbis
This is a question that's been bouncing around in my head since before Jackson died. I mean, I get it, he sang and he danced. But a lot of people sing and dance and they don't turn into Michael Jackson. Did he sing particularly well? Did he dance particularly well?
To be honest, Jacksoan never really blew me away with his vocals -- sure, he seemed very competent, but again, a lot of people sing well and they don't turn into pop sensations. As for dancing, I'm largely na´ve to the art form and find it hard to tell the mediocre from spectacular. Last night I was talking to a friend of mine who dances, and he voiced the opinion that Jackson was not only a phenomenal dancer, but an amazing choreographer --- an inventor of dance.
Okay... so he was a great dancer and a commendable singer... does that explain his pop superstar status?
I think not, my friends, I think not.
During the conversation I had last night, we came up with a few insights to explain the marvel that was Michael Jackson. But before I get into them, I want to capture a thought I think is important for context. A couple days ago I was reading a post on Andrew Sullivan's blog, and a person being quoted, a Pakistani man, mentioned how much Michael Jackson was loved in his country, to the degree that there was a rumor going around that Jackson had converted to Islam. These people --- Pakistani Moslems --- wanted to believe Michael Jackson was one of them.
And what struck me last night is that Jackson could almost pass for Pakistani... or an Indian... or an Arab or a Filipino etc. Even before he bleached his skin, his ethnicity was ethereal. He was black of course, but he wasn't black the way Wesley Snipes is black. And I think that explains part of Jackson's universal appeal --- people of many different races could believe he was one of them.
There's another way the Jackson persona seemed almost borderless. His androgyny. Was he straight? Maybe. Was he gay? Maybe. Was he a transsexual? Maybe. Frankly, if they did the autopsy and discovered that Michael Jackson had been a woman* the whole time, I wouldn't be that surprised. Jackson not only crossed the boundaries of race, but of both sexuality and gender.
* A reader, responding to an earlier version of this post, e-mailed me with an intriguing thought: was Michael Jackson a castrati?
That said, had a less talented mulatto transsexual come to fruition in the 80s, I don't think they would have been nearly as successful. There's one other component of the Michael Jackson success story.
You simply can't underestimate the impact of that album, that song, and most importantly, the video.
Let me tell you a story.
Years ago --- whenever Thriller came out -- I was walking with my mom one evening through a shopping center in Honolulu, Hawaii called Ward Warehouse. We had just had dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory and most of the stores were closed. We happened to walk past a television store and, as we passed it, one of the televisions in the display window, as if sensing our presence, came to life. It immediately launched into the long version of the classic "Thriller" video. There was no television in my home, so neither me or my mom knew what a music video was. But we were transfixed, baffled and totally entertained by what we saw. My mom, who had little interest in popular music, bought the album within a week.
And as I think back on that video, I realize how bold it was. At the time, Jackson had no reason to believe MTV would play any of his videos, and yet that video completely stretched the boundaries of what a music video -- an art form then in its infancy --- could be. Remember: the music portion of the video is preceded by a long narrative section, then later in the video, the music comes to a halt to create space for Vincent Price's classic spoken word section. The music and the visual and the narrative are combined into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
And the concept of the video...! In an era of music largely interested in modern perceptions of romantic sophistication (think Duran Duran or Sheena Easton), "Thriller" was totally retro, totally childish. It was a paean to the interests of young, male nerds: zombies and girls (in that order.)
We talk about "cultural moments" as rather vague, ethereal abstracts where a society and its art, prompted by some event or evolution, suddenly veers onto a new course. It's probably impossible to consolidate a cultural moment into one consumable product, but "Thriller" comes close. That was the moment when an eternally adolescent black dude of deficient masculinity became the King of Pop.
You can ask, "but what did this actually change?" That's a question that's almost impossible to answer. But on some subtle level it changed how black people interacted with white people, how gay people related to straights, how women related to men, and how other countries viewed America. Not always for the better, but more for the better than worse. To give one concrete example -- I suspect that in high schools across the land, teenage thugs who were contemplating kicking the ass of some wispy kid in the theater program had to reorient their notions of "cool" and allow that maybe that kid was alright.
The truth is, I'm not even a very big fan of Jackson's music though I think "Thriller" is one of the great albums of the 20th century. And, within a few years of "Thriller's" release, Jackson imploded on almost every conceivable level --- personally, physically, artistically. But I don't think you have to like the music or like the man to concede the impact he had on American, nay, world culture. And that that impact dripped down to affect our day-to-day lives.
Wil Forbis is a
well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending
chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the
world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy,
he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.
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