So I was planning to resist this whole Michael Jackson sobfest. And here I am putting up my second MJ post in two days. I still have deeply ambivalent feelings about him. Sure, his songs played through my childhood and young adulthood, although I wasn’t a super fan. I even went so far yesterday as to reclaim him from Generation X to his rightful place with those of us sandwiched between the Xers and the Baby Boomers, Generation Jones. But I also firmly believe that he was a pedophile who did some deeply inappropriate things with kids then weaseled out of a conviction using his money, his sycophants and his famous friends. I’m usually willing to overlook celebrity foibles in the face of incredible talent, but child molestation is just one of those lines that shouldn’t be crossed and can’t be forgiven.
But I find I can’t get Michael Jackson out of my head. And looking back, I think he had a much bigger impact on my life than I’ve given him credit for.
The most significant impact Michael Jackson had for me — and a lot of White people my age — was by blurring some color lines we grew up with. Sure he was the Jackie Robinson of MTV, a talent so big he couldn’t be shut out of the venue. But I’m thinking even before that.
One of my elementary schools was segregated in all but name. Now before you think I was in school before Brown versus the Board of Education, let me enlighten some of my younger readers. Segregation lasted long after Martin Luther King and not just in the Deep South. There were still riots in Boston in the Seventies over the bussing of inner city (read Black) kids into Southie (a bastion of White working class Irish). In my leafy Maryland suburban elementary school in the Sixties, the possibility that the school board would have to go beyond saying they were desegregated and, you know, actually let Black kids in, was the trigger for foam-flecked rantings and ravings at the PTA meetings.
I remember finding out that my best friend’s mother was running around the neighborhood trying to get a newly relocated Black family’s kids banned from our school. Her reasoning was that, according to my friend (who didn’t understand the words any more than I did) “Black boys rape White girls”. Now this Black family wasn’t headed by Stokely Carmichael or Willie Horton. The father was a college graduate, a military officer and serving in the Pentagon as my father was.
Yet when my friends and I discussed the pending desegregation (which I don’t think we did all that much), I think we were mostly excited. Even if we didn’t articulate it, I think we were expecting a busload of Michael Jacksons to show up. You know, cool kids with sunny smiles who could teach us great dance moves to Rockin’ Robin (Remember we were White. We couldn’t dance.)
I’m not saying that radical intergenerational perception shift made much of an immediate difference. And I don’t want to take anything way from Dr. King and the untold many who fought and even died for Civil Rights. But I think every major point of cultural evolution must also need such a moment. That point when the oppressors suddenly find out their kids are identifying — or at least think favorably of — the people they’ve been trying to keep down. Nothing can ever be the same after that.
I’m giving Michael Jackson much of the credit. To my contemporaries, Diana Ross, the Shirelles and the Ronettes were too exotic and too grown up. But Michael was just our age. And he looked like someone who would be the Coolest Kid in School. I’m not even sure we thought of him as Black (although he was back when he burst onto the scene with Motown in the late Sixties.) His music and dance moves spoke to us White kids, maybe even more than the scrubbed-clean Osmonds. (Although I will admit to being one of the few who says Donny Osmond’s talents are underestimated.)
Nope, I’m giving Michael Jackson credit where credit is due. I’m busy downloading his songs to my iPod and I’m reassessing his place in my life. So Rest in Peace Michael Jackson. I was appalled by what you became, but I’m learning to love you again for what you once were.
ADDENDUM: Here’s one way I want to remember Michael Jackson. As a great little kid who had all the talent and all the dance moves, even way back in 1972 when we were both barely in our teens.
Here’s another revealing moment, this time from the 1988 Grammy Awards. Michael, with few pyrotechnics, costumes or special effects, shows that he didn’t need any of it. His talent could stand on its own. It’s also nice that he’s included a full Gospel choir as a shout-out to his musical and cultural heritage. And in that great old Gospel tradition, he’s calling for us, and himself, to do something bigger than we think we’re capable of.