Due to his unexpected and much too early death, many words will be written this week about Michael Jackson. Too many, some say, but I don't personally buy the notion that such coverage is a distraction from more important and more pressing matters. Not to minimize those other matters, but death is important too. And so is art. These two things, like few others, bring people together, the former in their shared humanity, the latter in their appreciation of beauty.
Michael Jackson did that. He brought people together, even those who otherwise had little in common. And when we sit down to reminisce as we watch his old videos and listen to his old LPs, we are not so much distracting ourselves from more important matters as mourning his death and celebrating his incredible artistic brilliance. And if we can't find time to do things such as these, then perhaps we ought to reexamine the whole concept of "important."
To be sure, Jackson was a flawed individual. Even though he was acquitted of the one serious charge, the accusations of impropriety are part of his legacy, as are his multiple plastic-surgeries and his reclusive personality. And it's true, also, that there were reports of strained relations, both with his siblings and with the larger African American community. But such things are better left to future historians and biographers. There will be ample time to speak ill of the dead. This week is for the ways he made all our lives richer, particularly those of us who identify as progressives.
In all honesty, I never considered myself one of them. I never attended a concert and only owned one album: Thriller, of course. I mention this to underscore Jackson's appeal, which extended to casual observers, even I suspect to loyal Prince fans. Today "cross-over" artists (Black artists who appeal to white audiences) are standard fare, but though he was hardly the first (there was Chuck Berry and Sammy Davis Jr, and much of Motown, as well as Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor), Michael Jackson, along with Michael Jordan, redefined expectations and rewrote the entire concept back in the mid-1980s.
As I write this, a vocal minority of the progressive community, bemoans mass media's "non-stop coverage". Apparently, celebrating the artistry is not sufficient. But Jackson was always more than just an artist to progressives. In many ways, he was also our champion. Maybe the lyrics seem outdated by contemporary standards, but in the mid-1980s when Jackson made his mark, "multiculturalism" and "political correctness" were not yet part of the cultural Zeitgeist and interracial romance was still taboo. To that generation, Jackson said "It Don't Matter If You're Black Or White" and implored it to look in the mirror, stop pretending to not see others' needs, and make a change to make the world a better place (see Man in the Mirror video below).
And as the world around him changed, so did Jackson's progressive message. In the 1995 "They Don't Care About Us", gone are the feel good music and lyrics. The music is hip hop and the new message unapologetically militant (see video below).
Jackson's lyrics were so militant in fact that he was forced to defend them against public charges of anti-Semitism by The New York Times on June 15, 1996, just days before the album's release" (see Wikipedia entry).
The lyrics in question were "Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/ Kick me, kike me, don't you black or white me." Jackson denied the charges and insisted, to the contrary, that
"The song in fact is about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man. I am not the one who was attacking. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them. I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted." (Wikipedia).