[8 July 2009]
Exaltation as a result of observation, rather than direct participation, happens so rarely that it typically results in theological speculation on divine intervention from those that feel it. One YouTube comment on a Michael Jackson video reads “God wouldn’t put that much talent in a child molester.” Although it is difficult for many people to go that far in their analysis of the King of Pop, it is equally tough to dismiss the overwhelming sense of mystery that emerges when witnessing natural, untrained creative and performative genius on the scale of Michael Jackson.
Elvis Presley started shaking violently and shouting the blues standard “That’s All Right” (his first hit) ecstatically and erratically by himself when the recording devices were shut off in Sun Studios. The rest is history. At the age of 10, Michael Jackson possessed more vocal strength, emotional understanding of melody, and charisma than most performers ever grasp for a single moment during their careers. He was never formally coached.
Stories of unbelievable human triumph like these capture the imaginations of millions of people not only because they are staggeringly brilliant, but also because they reaffirm essential aspects of human dignity. In a paradoxical way, people who watch Michael Jackson moonwalk know they could never emulate that level of greatness, but they also feel as if they may be able to stake claim to their own moment of greatness, perhaps smaller, but no less important in their own lives. After all, Jackson was merely human, and a deeply troubled one at that. His ability to be habitually amazing simultaneously presents a priceless contradiction that expresses both the limits and potential of all those who admired him.
I have never been much of a Michael Jackson fan. I have written a book on Bruce Springsteen, and have been moved to tears at several Neil Young concerts. My musical tastes can be mostly gained from that information. However, I, like most contemporary music listeners, cannot deny the utter genius of Michael Jackson. It is impossible to not be emotionally elevated by “Man in the Mirror” or physically possessed by “Billie Jean” and “The Way You Make Me Feel”. Skeptics of those songs’s sustaining power need to look no further than a dance club filled with twenty-somethings (including myself) who hit the floor in mass whenever the DJ plays a few seconds of a Jackson hit.
Despite my limited enthusiasm for Jackson’s music, I became increasingly shaken by the announcement of his untimely and unfortunate death, and the reality that an odd man whose reputation was tarnished by a series of accusations, was no longer in the living world. It was for this reason that a friend and I took a drive, not far from my home, to Gary, Indiana, to visit the childhood home of Michael Jackson, just a few hours after the sad news reverberated through every media outlet.
The scene was both expected and unnerving: hundreds of people gathered on a tiny lawn in one of the poorest cities in the Midwest—some in tears, and some dancing to “Don’t Stop Til’ You Get Enough” blasting from a boom box. An iPod was inadequate for this community meeting, as people wanted to listen together according to group appreciation, not listen alone according to personal preference. Only a 1980s technological innovation would fit the bill for people’s mourning of a miserable death and celebration of a remarkable life.
While creeping emotions confused me, many other people were already expressing criticism over how, in the moment of Jackson’s death, fans and the press were allowing his musical achievements to overcome his possible moral shortcomings. Unlike Elvis, who was equally talented, equally isolated, and almost equally weird, Jackson was not merely self-destructive. Even though he was never convicted of a crime, it is possible that he harmed other people, including children. One cannot help but wonder how that possibility becomes secondary, far off in the distance, to Jackson’s musical genius when summing up his life.
A flippant answer about degradation of morals or an emotionally illiterate, Alan Bloom-like quip regarding of the “decline of civilization” is not satisfactory. The only resonant approach to this difficult question must wrestle with the spiritual and psychological implications of what happens when the world loses excellence. There is a spiritual value to greatness that cannot be measured, simply because it cannot be precisely understood. Profound excellence, which not only unsettles and uplifts people, but also brings them together around a common cultural reference and shared experience, emphasizes the triumph that is inherent in humanity, and reinforces the beauty and terror of human agency. All people hold the tools of their own deliverance and destruction. Mysterious genius contained by people like Jackson may mystify, but at its best, it also encourages people to utilize those tools by colorfully displaying their potential rewards. It celebrates life at its most basic and meaningful.
This is the very nature of inspiration. Americans suffer from a tragic deficit of inspiration. Its marketplace, business-run culture encourages obsession with a profit-utility ethic and lifestyle that eschews the artistic, spiritual, and communal aspects of living, which are essential for a balanced life. The market-dictated society, with its technologically enhanced pillars of convenience, flashy trends, and gimmickry, also devalues and diminishes anything that strives for cultural and imaginative longevity. America has lost common points of gathering and reference it once had in icons like Sinatra, Elvis, and Jackson. Even if giants are no longer visible, their shadows are still cast wide and deep, and people still yearn for them, along with the inspiration they often bring.
President Obama, as a candidate, tapped into this overwhelming desire for a figure of gigantic ability and charisma. Hillary Clinton was more experienced and had a political platform that was, for the most part, indistinguishable from Obama’s. She was impressive, but Obama was inspirational. He possessed the rare gift to affirm life for his supporters, which the campaign sloganeered as “hope”, and the strange capability to connect people with their sense of exaltation.
Barack Obama is no longer an inspiring candidate, but the chief executive of American power. Broken campaign promises and hesitance to enact the “change” he promised shows that the politics of inspiration only go so far, and that he must be held just as accountable to a standard no different from the one used to judge a President as ungifted and uninspiring as George W. Bush.
Michael Jackson, on the other hand, has already “made the change” he sung about in “Man in the Mirror”. His executive orders of cultural power will be realized for generations to come as evidence that in music and culture, the politics of inspiration is the artist’s most special and rare gift to the public.