Breaking gender rules in black music

In the last seven days much has been said about the life and legacy of Michael Jackson. But what has been left unsaid about the King of Pop may say more about our society then it does about the artist himself.

As one of the last post-Soul post-Civil Rights era crooners, Jackson, like Luther Vandross and Prince, came of age during the androgynous 80’s, and as result personified a much more nuanced and complex view of gender then the current state of black music allows. This was particularly striking at the BET Awards – a show dedicated to Michael Jackson, the arbiter of heal-the-world love songs, yet filled with black male artists whose repertoire is mostly hypersexual and hypermasculine.

Michael Jackson made so-called “effeminacy” acceptable. He made it possible to be a black man openly concerned with romantic and agape love.

However, Jackson is rarely, if ever, given credit for his courageousness on this score. It is often forgotten that while black music in America was limiting its scope with nationalist songs like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, Jackson continued to realize commercial success with machismo-absent ballads such as “Man in the Mirror”.

This would not be possible today. A song like “Man in the Mirror” sung by a black male would have very little chance of being a commercial success today. Not because the song would not be any good, but because the new, more macho, modus operandi of black music in America would not allow a black man to sing that song – one that is positive, self-reflective and thoughtful – and achieve any commercial viability. Those types of artist now get relegated to the neo-soul category, if any, and they don’t move many units.

As the death of Michael Jackson continues to occupy our collective imagination, we find his image in the media continually remolded into something far smaller then the man we knew while he was alive – a drug addict, a troubled soul, a depressed man.Never the man we knew to break gender stereotypes and make us all forget that those stereotypes even existed. Never the man that reminded us that black musical genius could be broader and more courageous. Not that King of Pop.

That Michael we have yet to discuss.

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