Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Rethinking Michael

Yesterday’s memorial service for Michael Jackson at the Staples Center in LA, most of which I’ve seen by now, took me by surprise – in what it said, literally and symbolically, and how it made me feel – emotionally, spiritually and politically.

Ever since Jackson’s death on June 25th at the age of 50 (apparently from cardiac arrest with some still-foggy details about drugs and negligence yet to be clarified), the mainstream media have been having a blood feast, with All-Michael-All-the-Time coverage that has been alternately honoring, exploiting, condemning and celebrating this genuinely unique entertainer and human being.

As the weeks passed and the constant Jackson coverage began to divide into two distinct categories – celebrity worship and celebrity trash – I started to get pissed off. Health care was on the Congressional table, the President went to Russia, the election in Iran turned into Tiananmen Square, Sarah Palin went underground, Al Franken finally won the title, unemployment rose to near-Depression levels, a few other significant people died, and a dozen other vital issues were on the line, including increased carnage in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet with only brief interruptions, Michael Jackson’s death was still the Top Story. It all began to feel more outrageous than usual, because we’re living in Post Economic Collapse America and we don’t have the time or the luxury to engage in this kind of tear-jerker tabloid media when real crisis, tragedy, and social/political phenomena are all around us.

But now I'm wondering if, crappy media notwithstanding, we needed this Princess Diana-style catharsis to re-awaken our sense of what's really important, particularly in this period of great social re-evaluation of our core values. And watching the memorial, I found myself (a) periodically bursting into tears and (b) having a series of epiphanies about social activism, race, and gender issues.

For starters, the always-controversial but increasingly salient Rev. Al Sharpton spoke powerfully and at length, and made important points I hadn’t really thought of before about the way Michael Jackson’s popularity and achievement significantly paved the way to success for many other black people in all spheres of endeavor, public and private. I had never thought of Jackson as a social/racial trailblazer, but he was.

Then at one point, Sharpton addressed Jackson’s children directly and said “There was nothing strange about your Daddy; what was strange was the way he was treated.” I balked at that at first, thinking, why can’t we honor him and still acknowledge that he was indeed an odd duck? But as the tribute continued and numerous photos/videos of Jackson illustrated the program, I began to think about his physical appearance in a new way.

According to which rumor mill you listen to, Michael was gay; no, he really was straight; no, he actually was a pervert who got off on kids; no, he was truly a case of arrested sexual development and more asexual than anything else. The make-up, the plastic surgery, the skin-lightening, the crotch-grabbing as an integral part of his dance style, the weird outfits, the glove, the masks: what did it amount to, what did it mean?

I don’t know, and I don’t know if the public at large will ever know. But I do know that it bears noting that it’s only in relatively recent years that the LGB community has acknowledged, accepted and championed the “T” population in their ranks, the transsexuals. I’m not saying Michael Jackson was a transsexual or even a transvestite (although, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, “not that there’s anything wrong with that…”). But I do think that one might consider that he was a “trans-gender” person in a literal sense, that he sought, creatively and perhaps personally, to literally transcend gender, to be neither and both in an effort, maybe conscious, maybe not, to be a person with no particular (or particularly clear) sexual identity in order to embody/personify humanity as a whole. Was he really that “deep”? Who knows? But now, in supposedly more-enlightened, educated, and broadminded 2009, might it not be time to re-examine his persona/appearance and consider him as original, ahead of his time, legitimate on his own terms, and purposeful?

Purposeful to what end? To spread a message of universal love and an acceptance/celebration of our one-ness. I should explain at this point that I was working full-time in entertainment p.r. when We Are the World was created and released – and as such I was cynical and dismissive of it as both a musical and social/political endeavor. I thought it was musically banal and I knew more than I needed to about why some celebrities were, and others were not, invited to “leave their egos at the door” for that mass super-star recording. Now, I think it’s entirely possible that Jackson was the only one who even tried to genuinely make his own fame secondary to a message he truly believed in. But at the time, who knew?

People in New York have been leaving floral tributes to Jackson on the John Lennon “Imagine” mandala in Central Park. Lennon’s song Imagine defined the credo of a generation and stands as an eternal anthem for the unity of humankind in every way, shape and form. Especially now, as a part of his legacy, can/will Jackson’s We Are the World and Heal the World, among some of his other songs, have the same power? Indeed, was Michael Jackson unfairly not recognized as the John Lennon of his genre? I loved Lennon and enjoyed much of his music, but Imagine, despite its impact and extant symbolism, ain’t Cole Porter in the category of sophisticated songwriting, it doesn't even have the raw melodic edge and poetry of Bob Dylan. It’s John Lennon at his sweet, hopeful, somewhat-naïve, and really rather "pop" best. So really, what’s the difference, since their message and the level of their celebrity were the same: love is all we need? And if there is no difference, isn’t that culturally and socially important – and heartening?

Which brings us back to race and politics, and leaves us at spirituality. There was a lot of God-talk at yesterday’s memorial, much of it specifically Christian, but with continual, deliberate efforts to be religiously inclusive. Surely this irritated the anti-religionists among us, but it seems Michael Jackson was a deeply and sincerely Christian man, and his belief in the importance of spirituality in any and all of its forms was apparently a central part of his creative message, as well as his personal ideals. To be honest, I hadn’t picked up on that years ago in the midst of all his sequined moon walking, but maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. The very diverse crowd of thousands at the Staples Center yesterday certainly were, and I think that’s a good thing.

So, what I'm thinking now is that between the impact of Michael Jackson’s life, work, philanthropy, gender-defiance and death, along with the impact of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and now his presidency, White America is seeing more black people who are not poor, ignorant, or stereotypically dangerous, than it ever has before. It is also witnessing a blending of races and an aspect of racial transcendence (there’s that “trans” word again) that it either feared or never imagined would come to be - but one way or another, some people are starting to think differently in racially-positive ways.

And the rest of the world – a world of many colors – is watching. A lot of the world is mourning Michael Jackson as much as it is celebrating Barack Obama (who, not incidentally, is now heading for Africa). In some important respects, it’s a whole new ballgame. Which is a good reason to rethink who, what, why and how Michael Jackson was and may continue to be a powerful reinforcement of some very interesting change and understanding, currently in progress.

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