Michael Jackson and the American imagination
(AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy, File)
Just months after our President proved that you can be born black in America and achieve the highest heights, the life of Michael Jackson offers a very different narrative: he is someone whose cultural legacy shaped his success, but did not provide a path to inner peace.
Michael Jackson seemed crushed under a weight of identity: black, man, star, brother, father and son. Add philanthropist, media-victim and manipulator, accused pederast, primate owner, fashionista and dancer. Owner of, and now perhaps a returnee to, Neverland.
Back in 2003, I wrote a piece asking what happened to the brownskinned boy who stole my heart and those of girls my age across the world. Why did he shed his color, and the sincerity of his smile?
As people gathered today on Twitter to share stories, sift the real news from the fake, and mourn, I saw reporter Lisa Ling post, “RIP Michael Jackson, My First Boyfriend.” I felt the same way. It wasn’t just a childhood crush. Over time, I felt like I was one of millions of people who wanted Michael Jackson to succeed. MTV at first refused to play his videos because black artists, no matter how successful, didn’t fit their idea of their format. Of course Michael, with the help of Quincy Jones, went on to become the King of Pop and the king of music video.
In the intro to Thriller, Michael says “I’m not like other guys” and “I’m different”… and then proceeds to transmogrify into a werewolf. Pop culture literature from “Twilight” to “Harry Potter” has taken feelings of alienation and packaged them for wide consumption. Michael was one of the first masters of our modern era to do that well.
But what he could not seem to do is seize control of his own transformation and find his own center as a man, not just a creator. After all, the trope of successful transformation is that the hero becomes something else, but can return to his or her human emotions if not human form.
John Landis, the director of “Thriller,” has called Jackson a “tragic figure.” And that brings me, personally, back to race. Race added a very specific prism to the failed transformation of Michael Jackson. His plastic surgery bordered on pathology and racial caricature. His need for the spotlight brought him, arguably, into clashes with both the law and public opinion. I am thinking specifically of the charges of his treatment of children… others, and his own.
Would he have felt freer to pursue his own alternative identity if we had not also wanted him to be what he could not seem to be… an adult black man who provided fodder for the fantasies we cherished when he was a child?
In the prelude to the Thriller video, Michael Jackson speaks to the black, bobbysox-wearing girl who is his love interest and says, “You know I like you… And I hope you like me the way I like you.” Sigh.
We always loved you, Michael. I hope you found peace in just being you, whoever you were, and despite what we all wanted you to be.
Farai Chideya is a multimedia journalist whose new novel, “Kiss the Sky,” follows a black rock star struggling with fame.