Michael Jackson: Imperfect Icon
Michael Jackson was not a political artist. Yet his determination to treat people with AIDS respectfully made him more than a pop star.
This is a big world, with many remote corners where America is known only as a distant and different land. But Michael Jackson touched almost all of them.
The music star's death Thursday, at age 50 after suffering an apparent cardiac arrest is an international event. And we ought to recognize why that is so.
For all the eccentric – and ultimately unsettling – behavior that would see the "king of pop" ridiculed as the "king of weird" –-or worse-- Jackson was for a significant part of the 1980s and 1990s as much or more the face of America as Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton.
"He brought human beings together across the barriers of race and class and gender," explained Michael Eric Dyson, the author and commentator who is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University. "He projected into the world (the genius and strength) of African-American culture."
The better part of a quarter century before Barack Obama was credited with remaking America's global image, Michael Jackson presented the United States as a country where an African-American kid from Gary, Indiana, could on the basis of remarkable talent and drive -- as well as a musicologist's understanding of the soul and R&B traditions -- become fabulously successful, fabulously influential and fabulously wealthy.
"For all his tragic flaws as a human being, Jackson could legitimately be seen as the greatest entertainer of his generation," argues Richard Williams, the former head of head of artists and repertoire at Island Records who went on to become a savvy cultural commentator for Britain's Guardian newspaper.
One did not need to revere Jackson or his music to recognize that at a particular point in this country's long and complicated history of wrestling with its better angels and uglier demons, the singer projected to the world the sense and the promise of a multicultural and tolerant United States. Hip-hop empresario Russell Simmons summed it up: "Michael Jackson was my generation's most iconic cultural hero."
For a time, on the basis of the enormous popularity of his Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad albums, he was not just a dominant figure in popular music. He was the dominant figure in popular music. Inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – as a solo artist and as a member of the Jackson 5 -- he earned 13 Grammy Awards and 13 number one singles as a solo performer -- achieving worldwide sales in excess of 750 million albums.
The key word is "worldwide."
Jackson's 1991 hit "Black or White" charted at number one in the Australia , Austria, Belgium, Cuba, Denmark, Finland, France, Israel, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the Unites Kingdom, Zimbabwe and, of course, the United States.
"Black or White" was an angry song with an anti-racist message that was reinforced by a video digitally enhanced to show Jackson smashing windows with graffiti reading "KKK Rules" and "No More Wetbacks." The ubiquitous video featured the singer dancing with Africans, Asians, Native Americans, southern Asians and Russians.
Jackson was not an expressly political artist -- he told Ebony magazine in 1992 that "I never get into politics." Yet, because of his immense celebrity in the 1980s and early 1990s, his determination to treat people with AIDs respectfully (like that of Princess Diana and Elizabeth Taylor) took on significance that was both political and cultural. That commitment was most on display, following the death of Ryan White, when Jackson used public appearances – particularly one at Bill Clinton's inaugural gala -- to plead for more funding of HIV/AIDS research and care.
Jackson's charities were many: programs for refugees and the victims of violence such as Warchild, the "We Are the World" project and his own Heal the World Foundation, as well as the the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, the Red Cross, UNESCO and for many years the United Negro College Fund.
His stumbles, especially in recent years, were disturbing, at times horrifying. There was about this desperate manchild more than a hint of the tragic and self-destructive.
The tragedy and the trials will be remembered, for a time.
But, as with Elvis Presley and so many brilliant artists whose lives ended after their stars had been tarnished, it will be the iconic influence – an influence stretching across boundaries of race, class, gender and nationality -- that is most remembered when we speak of Michael Jackson, and the ultimately most significant.
© 2009 The Nation