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Thoughts on "Michael Jackson"
Special Contribution
By Marcus Garvey
Michael Joseph Jackson (1958-2009)was an American recording artist, entertainer and businessman. The 7th child of the Jackson family, he made his debut as an entertainer in 1964 as a member of The Jackson Brothers (later renamed The Jackson 5). He then began a solo career in 1971. The successful career led to him being dubbed the "King of Pop" in subsequent years. Jackson's 1982 album Thriller remains the world's best-selling album of all time.

Shakespeare. Michelangelo. Picasso. Michael Jackson. He is on the short list. For a worthwhile musical analogy one has to go back to nineteenth century Germany. Thus May 7, 1824 on the one hand; November 30, 1982 on the other, bracket modern world music. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony premiered on the former; Michael Jackson released Thriller on the latter. No other context does Michael Jackson justice. The magnitude of his achievement commands such perspective. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. Michelangelo sculpted David. Michael Jackson mostly wrote, co-produced, and performed Thriller. Beethoven ever inspires the brotherhood of man. Michael Jackson - the culmination of that tragic crucible of untold pain and suffering that are the Negro spirituals cum jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, rock n roll and hip hop - sings the song of humanity. The photographer develops his negative film into colorful photography; triumphant man transmutes suffering into joy. Humanity found its redemptive voice in Michael Jackson's inimitable falsetto. Never have song and dance so joyously life-affirmed.

But that's only the purely musical standpoint. When we consider visual spectacle, which is to say the dramatic interest of Jackson's iconic trilogy of music videos: Billie Jean, Beat It, and Thriller, as well as his moonwalking performance of Billie Jean on Motown's 25th Anniversary special, we must again look to nineteenth century Germany for worthy comparison. For, ever since Richard Wagner composed The Ring of the Nibelung, only Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Lucas and Michael Jackson have rivaled his mythos. Jackson and Lucas employed Quincy Jones and John Williams, respectively, as musical instruments of their soulful and cinematic willpower. But whereas Wagner, Carroll, Tolkien and Lucas used fictional characters such as Siegfried, Alice, the Hobbits and the Oedipal dynamic of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, respectively, to captivate the world, Jackson did it purely on his own. He came (of age); he saw (the potential of MTV); he conquered (the world). He is the myth of myths of the twentieth century for his song and dance is mankind's kinetic Avatar except he's not of Hindu mythology he's the son of the Negro spirituals.

Art is a function of agony. Suffering is art's necessary condition. Great art is alchemy in that it transmutes suffering into joy, pain into wisdom, reaction into proaction, bitterness into gayety. Conflict is the thing. Thriller was centuries in the making. For soul music, which I define as "rhythmic self-affirmation despite the dehumanizing ‘Anti-Nigger Machine' better known as slavery and Jim Crow," reached its climax in the guise of Michael Jackson. As a matter of fact he single-handedly broke MTV's Jim Crow policy of refusal to play Black videos. He did not integrate MTV. He conquered MTV. Nor was it affirmative action. The genius of his music, the unprecedented production values of his music videos, forced their hand.

But these are sociological trifles in the grand scheme of the international phenomenon that is Michael Jackson. The apotheosis of soul music, the "King of Pop," is the poet laureate of mankind. You sneer of course if you think that real poetry is taught in post-graduate writing classes, published in literary magazines, and essayed in high school English classes; if you think that real poets laureate earn book awards, Nobel prizes and textbook anthologization. But your sneer won't register with the millions upon millions of people around the world who cry and laugh and sing-along to and dance to and swear by the Grammy award-winning people's poet.

Art is born of agony, the root of which is "agon" meaning "struggle, contest." In Black American context our great jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, rock n roll and hip hop musicians and poets have been our prot-agon-ists against the comprehensive ant-agon-ist Public Enemy named the "Anti-Nigger Machine." When Chuck D, PE's front man, arguably America's poet laureate from the vantage of hip hop, defined his genre as the "Black CNN," he spoke to soul music's overall purpose. Thing is, the magnitude of Michael Jackson transcends the American stage. Indeed, Thriller's leadoff song, Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', firmly establishes his international context. It pays homage to Alex Haley's Roots for its explicit synthesis of Black American rhythm n blues and Black African rhythm and syncopation, not to mention "Mama-se, mama-sa, mama-coo-sa." Michael Jackson here embraces his African heritage no less than did Alex Haley when he touched down on African soil in the climax of his saga. But Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' is even bigger than that. Through Alex Haley we embrace our African brothers. Through Michael Jackson we embrace humanity.

Human civilization, predominantly, is a Venn diagram of three overlapping ethnocentrisms: Eurocentrism, Orientalism, and Afrocentrism. Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' is Afrocentric, a sublime celebration of Black culture, nevertheless it exuberantly reaches out to humanity. Thus is Michael Jackson our cultural ambassador to the world-at-large. If there is one Black man who inhabits the epicenter of the world-historical Venn diagram, he does. Politically speaking I place Malcolm X there, as well as Marcus Garvey, but from a pure cultural standpoint, Michael Jackson is the lead singer for humanity from Afrocentric vantage. No song, save perhaps the Ode to Joy of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, is so life-affirming. I'm not sure that Beethoven is quite the fossil that Chuck Berry's Roll Over Beethoven suggests. But given the twentieth century's architectonic paradigm-shift to soul music, the dominant force of modern world culture, if I had to choose the official anthem of the United Nations I'd choose Wanna Be Startin' Somethin.'

Thriller's second track, Baby Be Mine, is a love song to be classed with The Girl Is Mine, P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing), and The Lady In My Life. I'm not a big fan of love songs; then again I'm not of the female half of humanity to whom these songs are directed. And when I say "humanity" I mean "HUMANITY." More than 100 million human beings have bought Thriller. Untold millions have been conceived to its ballads. Chicks dig the love angle. Michael Jackson, who performed for the whole of humanity not just my testosterone-driven half, understood that. Even Shakespeare, who we mostly remember for violent tragedies, wrote romantic comedies. Yet the peerless balladeer had a dark cutting edge. Michael Jackson used MTV to replace James Dean as American badass antihero number one.

Thus did Michael Jackson's triumvirate - Thriller, Beat It, and Billie Jean – command his immortal iconic status. If every institution is "the lengthened shadow of one man," as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, MTV, for at least two years (1983-4), was the lengthened shadow of Michael Jackson. Consider. Thriller, in terms of scale and ambition, is the undisputed masterpiece of the music video genre. MTV, for one, lists it as its number one video of all time. During its heyday they even played the 14-minute video twice an hour. For a time, "The Making of Thriller" was the biggest selling home video ever, of any genre. Thus Michael Jackson - more than Freddy Kruger or Jason - is arguably America's greatest horror villain, at least during the 80s. What horror film has been viewed more often and by more people than Thriller?

And Thriller, as a song, is Michael Jackson at his ironical best. It plays on the real reason men take their dates to horror movies. When woman gets scared who does she turn to for comfort? for emotional support? Man uses horror to make love out of womanly fear. After singing about "terror," "beasts," a "thing with forty eyes" and "night creatures," in the third and final verse Jackson lets us know what he's been up to all along. "Now is the time for you and I to cuddle close together/All through the night I'll save you from the terrors on the screen/I'll make you see that it's a Thriller, Thriller night/Cause I can thrill you more than any ghost would dare to try." Thrill her indeed.

Centralize – consolidate – expand. The imperial formula. Michael Jackson's Off The Wall consolidated his reign over soul music. If the king of Black music graces its album cover, the "King of Pop" reclines with a tiger cub on the cover of Thriller. Through Beat It Michael Jackson expanded his musical empire. By that song he conquered rock n roll. He reclaimed the legacy of soul music originated by Chuck Berry, exemplified by Jimi Hendrix. He used no less than Eddie Van Halen to remind the world that rock n roll is essentially soul music.

Beat It is a war anthem. It captures the essence of human conflict. It captures the zero-sum truth of human affairs. The music video, modeled after West Side Story, conveys an optimistic tone as Michael Jackson brings the rival gangs together through dance. But the song in itself is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, neither half-full nor half-empty. It simply tells the cold truth about the violent human condition as well as any song or poem that has ever been written. It epitomizes the "man vs. man" formula we learn in high school English class.

Billie Jean epitomizes "man vs. woman." Adam and Eve; Samson and Delilah; Ahab and Jezebel; Michael Jackson and Billie jean. For who are Eve, Delilah, Jezebel and Billie Jean if not bywords of the archetypal vixen called Lilith? Indeed "Lilith" is the original name for Adam's first wife. "Eve" is a euphemism. Michael Jackson's demoness-haunted masterpiece sings of the archetypal woman driven to destroy man. Quincy Jones was totally off base when he insisted that Michael change the song's name to "Not My Lover." He thought that people would confuse the song's namesake with Billie Jean King, the tennis player. But the song is elemental. Primordial. The collective unconscious knows that Billie Jean is but another name for Lilith. Jackson called Billie Jean a motor mouth in Wanna Be Startin' Somethin.' But it took this eponymous song to put the mysterious femme fatale in mythic perspective.

Ever since Billie Jean, the music video, dominated MTV back in 1983 and 1984, the jheri-curled fixed-nosed Black man with the black leather suit and the pink bow-tie has been the world's dominant icon. His Billie Jean performance on Motown's 25th Anniversary special is one of the magical moments of the twentieth century. For just as the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony "knock on the door of destiny," on March 25, 1983, Michael Jackson moonwalked through destiny. Few artists - among them Shakespeare directing Hamlet and Michelangelo sculpting David - have felt what Michael Jackson must have felt while performing Billie Jean. It is our privilege, as human beings, to sympathize with him through the encyclopedia of human emotion called Thriller.


Years ago I attended an Impressionist exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. As I walked through the entrance I saw a blindfolded man in a business suit trying to pin an ear on a poster of the self-portrait Van Gogh had painted shortly after he'd cut off his own ear. Instead of paying homage to the tragedy of Van Gogh, the museum had reduced him to a carnival attraction. They had modeled their "pin the ear on Van Gogh" after the pin-the-ear-on-the-donkey carnival game. That businessman didn't see agonized portraits of a tragic figure yet triumphant in his art. He didn't see the artist as conduit for all the storm and stress of the human condition. He saw a freakshow. Is that what he'd see if he were to see Sophocles' Oedipus trilogy, wherein Oedipus agonizingly claws out his own eyes? Does he now only see, in the transcendent artist of our time, "Wacko Jacko"?

Seldom has a human being been so lonely as Michael Jackson. He did bleach his skin and disfigure his lovely Black-is-beautiful face. After Thriller he lost his way. Earlier this week I watched his Stranger In Moscow music video from 1996. I marveled at the depth of emotion, that a man could express such pain through song. I wept like I haven't wept in years, for our fallen son of the Negro spirituals.


For, regarding Oedipus' clawed out eyes, Van Gogh's cut off ears, and Michael Jackson's plastic self-mutilation, one simply does not judge. One pities and fears.


Superman has his Fortress of Solitude. Michael Jackson was imprisoned by loneliness. His escape every once in a while, onto the stage and into the studio, is our privilege. We can only feel grateful that, despite his excruciating agony, Michael Jackson brought us such joy. Ultimately, there is only one word for the life of the man who brought us Off The Wall, Thriller, and songs such as Stranger In Moscow.


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