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Michael Jackson in Bad 25
Michael Jackson in Bad 25

Michael Jackson changed America

As much as he changed himself.


William Carlos Williams famously began his poem "To Elsie" with the line "The pure products of America go crazy." He was writing about the existential condition of being an American, during the Roaring '20s, but he could have just as easily been referring to Michael Jackson, or for that matter, Jackson's fellow pop-cultural regent, Elvis Presley.

Elvis died 32 years ago this summer, in August of 1977, and as it happens, I was in Memphis the week after his death. The flood of humanity that poured into town to pay tribute was truly astounding. Crowds streamed through Forest Hill Cemetery on Elvis Presley Boulevard, where he'd been interred next to his beloved mother (until an attempted grave robbery forced the relocation of his body to the grounds of Graceland just a few months later). That mansion is famously surrounded by high stone walls which to this day bear graffitied encomiums to Elvis, but I remember that in the days just after his death, the tributes were written in hundreds of shades of lipstick. "You are now in the bosom of Jesus" was a typical sentiment.

Today, similar gatherings for Michael are happening all over the world, which speaks not only of the global nature of contemporary popular cultural—a transformation that Jackson himself ushered in—but also to the fact that the Gloved One wasn't wedded to a particular place the way Elvis was to the Deep South. Born in Gary Indiana, Michael grew up essentially in the offices and recording studios of Motown Records, and of course, on tour with his brothers in the Jackson 5. It's worth noting that Elvis's sense of his own roots didn't save him from the demons of fame, which similarly drove Michael to decline and an early grave, but I'd argue that more than belonging to the world or to America, both men in a strange way belong to each other. I don't mean in terms of Michael's evident obsession with Elvis (he married the guy's daughter, after all), but rather in the way that each serves as a bookend for a crucial period of race relations in this country—when popular culture, as much as legislation, helped to finally dismantle the legacy of the Civil War and Jim Crow.

A tall claim? Perhaps, but consider that it was Elvis who opened the floodgates of black culture to white Americans, notwithstanding the charges that he was, in the elegant formulation of Chuck D, a "racist sucker" who had simply exploited the fruits of African-American genius. As for Michael, well, his contribution to overcoming racial division is more complicated to divine because, in effect, he engaged in a form of reverse engineering. Take for example the opening scene of the video for "Thriller," in which Jackson and a black actress are playing ’50s teenagers in a car that runs out of gas at night in the middle of nowhere. Forgetting the strange psychological mishegas that ensues—a preamble to hot teen sex devolves into a monster movie—what's interesting is that the pair are playing clean-cut white kids, with Michael in a varsity jacket and the girl in a poodle skirt. Leveraging, as it were, the role reversal of minstrelsy against itself, Michael was indulging in a bit of semiotic jujitsu. Unfortunately, he would later take the idea a little to far and a little too much to heart: That's one explanation, at least, for the years of plastic surgery and skin lightening that followed.

As bizarre as his behavior was, Michael's role as pop icon certainly helped pave the way for the postracial society many hope we're living in now, with an African-American occupying the Oval Office. In this respect, Michael was conscious of his effect on race in a way that Elvis could not be. (Leaving aside the latter's bleeding-heart anthem "In the Ghetto.") In what was Michael's last memorable hit, 1991's "Black or White," he argued for dispensing with all racial distinctions. It's important to remember that in the late ’80s and into the ’90s, America was still very much embroiled in its racial psychosis, beginning with the first President Bush's Willie Horton ads, continuing through the Rodney King beatings and the L.A. riots, and culminating, finally, with the O.J. trial. Michael's E.T. act was arguably an attempt to levitate above the strife, but the rest of the country was not yet ready to follow. His critics became only more emboldened, and his fans only more confused. In 1993, during televised ceremonies for an award being given to Michael as Entertainer of the Year, Wesley Snipes began a tribute by having to explain: "People are always asking what planet Michael is on...but if you're black you know exactly what planet Michael is from."

That's true, but only up to a point. Consciously or not, Michael did finish what Elvis had started, and America is, if not entirely free of racism, a better place. But life in this country is still, in William Carlos Williams's formulation, pretty insane. It permits the freedom to experience the highest of highs and lowest of lows—as both the King and the King of Pop knew well.

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