THE TWO easiest media responses to the death of a public figure are reverence or ridicule, and Michael Jackson made both easy. A singer of breathtaking suppleness and soulfulness, one whose early work with the Jackson 5 the rock critic Dave Marsh called “the last great moment of soul as we knew it,” and a dancer who, as the film critic David Edelstein observed in a piece on CBS’s “Sunday Morning,” seemed intent on synthesizing the entire history of popular dance from Fred Astaire on, Jackson was one of the few performers who could truly amaze you. And as a reclusive, obviously troubled man whose talents were eclipsed by public eccentricities and allegations of private behavior that despite a not-guilty verdict in his 2002 child molestation trial most of us still believe, Jackson was, like Elvis, an active participant in creating an image of himself as freak.
That’s why my first reaction to hearing that he had suffered cardiac arrest and was expected to die was relief. He won’t, I thought, be able to do anything more to embarrass himself. We might even be able, once again, to be amazed by Michael Jackson.
The fact is that, in the collective imagination, where Jackson once reigned by popular acclamation, he had died a long time ago. As each successive album tried to outdo Thriller, and as each failed, as each new tabloid story broke, his living presence seemed an affront to the performer who had once captivated us.
Any death requires us to work, to remember, in Virginia Woolf’s dictum, that nothing is one thing. Most of the media coverage of Jackson’s death has gone into alternately worshipful or tabloid modes. Reporters have been content to sum up his accomplishments by endlessly repeating the phrase “the King of Pop,” unaware that it was a phrase Jackson invented for himself, ignoring the dark, paranoid currents that were visible even in the triumphs of “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.” And they have been content to address the wreckage of his life via thimble-deep psychoanalysis.
It seems odd to talk about the trivialization of Michael Jackson when for more than a week each new non-story related to his death has dominated cable news. But this every-channel, all-the-time coverage is less a measure of his importance than the latest manifestation of the instantaneous ability of celebrity culture to convert everything to commodity.
Even the people who are appalled by the sheer amount of coverage in some way agree with the tabloid cheapness of it. In the week since Jackson’s death, I’ve encountered plenty of people–most of them pop music fans, all of them white–who cannot believe that Jackson has any importance outside of the trash heap of celebrity culture.
That was the assumption of Benjamin Sarlin in a posting on the Daily Beast http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-06-26/will-michael-jackson-doom-iran/, in which he claimed that the continuing press coverage of Jackson’s death, Farrah Fawcett’s death and the Mark Sanford scandal would deflect attention from Iran and allow the mullahs to deploy increasingly brutal tactics. As the piece makes clear, it’s not simply the quantity of coverage Sarlin objects to–he believes the death of a pop star has no real place in legitimate news coverage.
With few exceptions, what’s missing in the press tributes that read like p.r. releases, and in the pro forma snarkiness epitomized by the Onion headline, “King of Pop Dead at Twelve,” is a reckoning of the immensity of Michael Jackson, the depth of the response he provoked, and the life of that response in our collective cultural memory. Like only two performers before him, Elvis and the Beatles, and like none who have followed, Jackson was at the center of a moment when a pop performer captured the consciousness and imagination of the world. As such, he became both the repository for, and the engine of, all kinds of hopes and fantasies and aspirations, all sorts of newly revealed possibilities.
Moments like these are, by nature, utopian. When the Beatles sang “love you every day, girl/eight days a week,” they made that phrase seem natural, as if the love they testified to—and the camaraderie and good feeling with which they expressed that love—was so boundless it could expand time. These moments are never solely about enormous popularity (Elton John never quite managed one), and they have not been generated by some of the greatest and most enduring rock-and-roll artists (Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Nirvana).
Michael Jackson’s utopian moment was brief. It began with the December 1982 release of Thriller, flew into hyperdrive with his spring 1983 appearance on the Motown Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Special, and was over just months later with the sad, sputtering end of the desultory tour that followed. Which is not to say that no good music or video performances followed, just that even at their best (“The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Smooth Criminal”) his songs lacked the sense of not just revelation but confirmation—the belief Elvis and the Beatles imparted that they were giving something that you had always hungered for, dreamed of, without quite realizing it.
But as the first, and still the only, black performer to have captured the world’s attention on so vast and so deep a scale, Jackson did something neither Elvis nor the Beatles had to do. And he did it during the Reagan years, the beginning of nearly three decades of racial, social, and economic divide. Michael Jackson’s music bridged an enormous chunk of black pop, from the late stages of classic soul to ’70s r&b to dance-oriented pop. No matter the obvious self-loathing at work in the skin bleaching, the plastic surgery that gave him the visage of a skeleton, no matter how grotesque his surgical reinvention, no matter how stiff his later music became, the pop styles he embraced were unapologetically black. And no performer who has done that before or since has ever appealed across racial, sexual, class, national boundaries to the extent Michael Jackson did.
For me, it has been impossible to listen to the jokes–as far as I’ve heard, made only by whites–feigning surprise that Michael Jackson was black; impossible to hear the attempts to claim him as a freeze-dried emblem of ’80s nostalgia; to encounter the unspoken message that this freak has no larger importance within the culture, and hear anything but the latest version of a very old story.
And it’s hard for me not to think of another black man who, like Jackson, finds himself at a place no black man ever has before: Barack Obama.
In his 1965 essay on Lyndon Johnson, “The Myth of the Flawed White Southerner,” Ralph Ellison said of the white intellectuals so inflamed by Vietnam they ignored Johnson’s heroic civil rights legislation, “I find it irritating that they seemed to assume that their interests were automatically mine, and that supposedly I and those of my background possess no interest that they, my friends and colleagues had any need to understand or respect.”
It’s Ellison’s essay I think of when I read the ire directed at Obama by his left critics–bloggers like Glenn Greenwald and David Sirota among the most persistent–the majority of whom are white. Of course, Obama has had black critics, Cornel West and Jesse Jackson among them. But it’s impossible to imagine any black critic of Obama mistaking his bad decisions for the full import of the man, forgetting for a moment the seismic change he represents in America.
Meanwhile, just like those rock fans who approach music as if they were English majors, looking for the significance in lyrics, there are disappointed and cynical white pundits who believe Obama, like any other president, should be judged by his decisions alone.
There is something in this of the equal playing field argument that has long animated right-wing arguments against affirmative action. Both are fantasies that assume everyone starts from the same place.
The fact is that Obama is not like any other president. As the first black man to hold the office, he is, as I believe Michael Jackson was, a repository for hopes and aspirations, and for the realization of possibilities that, before his election, were only fantasies.
I’m not saying Obama shouldn’t be criticized because he is black. He has been timid on gay rights (and his feet-dragging on gay marriage is appalling for a black man in whose lifetime interracial marriage was still illegal), he has not gone nearly far enough to reign in corporate greed in the face of the economic meltdown, and he has not reversed Bush edicts on secrecy. This Glenn Greenwald posting, from June 29, echoes much of the criticism of Obama: “That Obama is replicating the Bush/Cheney approach in these areas isn’t a by-product of some civil liberties extremist refusal to appreciate the joys of pragmatism or Leftist-purist dissatisfaction with all dogmatic imperfection.”
Do Greenwald, Sirota, et al, grasp that those who believe Obama stands for something beyond the sum of his decisions are not all blind Democratic loyalists or starry-eyed disciples? Judging politics by listing each action on a balance sheet to see how it adheres to the catechism, much of the left seems unable to comprehend the visionary aspect of politics. The vision that emerges from their journalism is the clichéd and puny view that politicians are finally members of the establishment representing the same small and powerful set of vested interests.
Were Ralph Ellison alive today, he would be able to simply repeat the lines he wrote in 1965. We are still dealing with a white left–secure in the belief of its unquestionable virtue, unshaken in the conviction that it is incapable of racist condescension–who believe that the people who have been their traditional allies can have no concerns different from theirs–and if they do, it is a case of misplaced priorities.
In 1984, when Ronald Reagan tried to co-opt “Born in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen countered by saying that he thought there were an awful lot of people whose dreams didn’t matter to Reagan. The reactions to both Michael Jackson’s death and Obama’s initial months seem to reveal that, still, for many white Americans, the dreams of black Americans simply don’t enter into their thinking.
If it seems naive to speak of politics or even popular music in terms of dreams, it seems to me even more naive not to recognize that, in both, what is often dismissed as symbol can be substance. The shallowness of the reaction to Michael Jackson’s death, as well as the policy wonk’s inability to conceive of Barack Obama in terms of the transformational potential he represents, shows not only a failure of imagination and want of empathy, it suggests an indifference to your fellow citizens who, for perhaps the first time, believe they have a place in the most visible areas of public life.
Charles Taylor is a contributor to the New York Times, Newsday, the New York Observer, the Nation, and other publications.