US: 12 Feb 2008
UK: 11 Feb 2008
Off the Wall
US: 10 Aug 1979
I love Michael Jackson. I would like to say that I appreciate his artistry, his mad song writing skills or his fantastic musical arrangements, all of which is certainly true. I would rather just say that I respect the sacrifices he and his family made for fame or fulfillingness’ first finale. For whatever reasons Joe and Katharine—sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson—did it, they discovered magic and/or cultivated it (most likely the latter with Tito!). If you have ever been to Gary, Indiana you can imagine that it takes a surreal level of blood, sweat and tears for anyone, let alone a black family, to rise up out of that place. Mind you, I have never visited Gary, yet have passed by that old industrial city several times. My folks would regularly drive that route up I-65 between Louisville and Kenosha, Wisconsin to visit family. On the bypass around Gary, all my aunt would ever say is “Oh, that’s not on our way”, in response to my pleas to at least drive by the Jackson’s home, or at least see how the city has acknowledged its undoubtedly most famous offspring—or at least the ones most relevant to me.
It was only years later that I understood that my folks just got in the habit of not stopping in any odd town along American highways, as a result of conditioning from segregation in the Jim and Jane Crow South—like so many of us, my folks hail from ‘Bama, hence real-life experiences with that chapter in American history are plentiful. It was forbidden and dangerous when they were younger to stop in unknown places. By my early teens, however, they had replaced aluminum-foil-wrapped fried chicken—no, not from that fast food chain, we fried our own and Colonel Sanders’, too—with a pit stop at Cracker Barrel. From the highway, Gary, Indiana looked mighty industrial, grey, dismal and virtually deserted. To me, Gary looked like one of those places that black people should avoid; it was clear that the Jackson family had more than a side order of We gotta get up out this place, behind some of those high “hee, hees”, snaps and slides across the floor.
Certainly, I do not condone Mr. Jackson’s (alleged) child-abuse or even child labor (Yes! Those boys were responsible for putting food on the huge Jackson table). From the looks of it, though, ol’ Joe was willing to do just about anything to get he and his family out of the poverty that ravaged Gary. Although I would like to proclaim a more noble adoration for Michael Jackson as an artist, I simply cannot. I love Michael Jackson, the pop icon, and would bear his children if, well:
1) I could bear children
2) He had not disfigured himself, chiseling away features, which he would then bequeath to our children, who would in turn similarly hate the way they looked, and want to disfigure themselves, too.
3) He hadn’t been accused of, well, indecent activity with minors. Word to the wise: If someone is known to be so vehemently, repeatedly accused of indecent activity with a minor, do not leave your child unattended with this person. This is poor parenting!!!
It is pretty unlikely that even if I were the authentic Billie Jean type, I would want to give birth to Michael Jackson’s offspring. Nevertheless, I adore Michael Jackson. I have always loved Michael. In school, I was afraid to let on that I adored him, and was left to dance to his music at home alone, mimicking him in the mirror or shower. At that time, there was no Wacko Jacko, he was just THE hottest pop star, and the most extreme gossip about Michael Jackson centered on his sexuality (Michael Jackson’s sexual?), a topic to which I did not even want to in any way link to myself, not even in the most remote instances.
Don’t Point Your Finger/Not Dangerous/This Is Our Planet/You’re One Of Us
In the seventh grade, Michael Jackson performed at the Kentucky Fairgrounds in Louisville. One of my cousins scored tickets for her, my mother and I. It was only my second concert in my whole life—the first being Stevie Wonder. My mother said that Songs in the Key of Life got us through my terrible twos, so I can imagine that my mother was going to thank Stevie. Thank you Stevie.
In 1987, $23 was a load of cash for us to blow on a concert, and I believe that this was the most expensive ticket to come to the Derby City to date. Folks in my family said that Michael was going to alienate his Black fan base by charging so much. Michael’s crossover cash flow, stemming even from the days of Berry Gordy’s concerted efforts at Motown, fully funded a filled fan base fully functional in reproducing stardom. Michael was at liberty to explore his stardom, as long as he emasculated himself and effaced his sexuality—like Peter Pan. From what I could see, Michael did quite fine.
Arriving at the fairgrounds, my mother got mad because my cousin was supposed to stand in a parking space near the entrance, but let someone bully her away; everybody was in a rush and fervor, so thrilling was the electricity in the air. Besides, there were far too few Handicap spaces for a venue of that size. It was crowded, and everybody and their mommas wanted to see Michael Jackson. Moreover, he was fabulous. Michael gave a full-out, high-energy concert, complete with J-5 hits from well before my time, and he dramatically fell to his knees and burst into tears during The Lady in my Life.
As soon as Michael touched the stage, the whole crowd jumped to their feet! I was worried that my mother would not be able to stand on her prosthesis for too long and would miss Michael, and have wasted her $23. I was determined to have fun enough for two. To my surprise, my momma and I stood on top of our seats, screaming at the top of our lungs, waving our arms, dancing and swaying for hours as Michael, his band, back-up singers and dancers worked it out on stage. There was even a part when the crowd held their cigarette lighters high in the air, making a sea of flames, in patronage to Michael Jackson. This was well before the modern age understanding of terrorism, so lighters and tobacco were encouraged. My mother, the ever-faithful smoker, held her Bic up, too. I love Michael Jackson.
There’s A Chance For Dancin’/All Night Long/There’s A Chance For Groovin’/And It Will Be Soothing/With A Song
Michael Jackson is strange. To be honest, I have never spoken with Michael Jackson, and have read very few words that he has written (save for the lyrics which he thankfully includes album notes). Consequently, I can only truthfully say that the rumors surrounding Michael Jackson are beyond bizarre. When I was a kid, knowing that I was somehow unlike the other kids in a way that they would not accept, I did not want to be associated with the sexually ambiguous icon that is still Michael Jackson. Yet, after MJ Kentucky ’87, I declared that I would fiercely defend Michael’s right to be himself, and that his distinctiveness was an asset to our people, and to our planet.
You wanna be startin’ somethin’…You’re a vegetable!
When the Thriller video came out, nobody I knew could get enough of it. I would like to thank MTV for rocking the full version of the groundbreaking Thriller mini-movie day and night for months after it’s debut. In my dance class, we learned the Thriller moves. Our Ballet and Jazz teacher was a flaming queen, and he taught us ‘Michael Jackson’. Thanks to this teacher’s boldness, I knew that when I grew up I could be strange and adore Michael Jackson so unapologetically as to teach his grooves to a room full of kids in the roughest block in the city. Though I could not put a name to this queerness then, I knew that my ability to be free-to-be me was somehow connected to Michael Jackson’s ability to be free-to-be as bizarre as he wanted to be and still have people respect his life’s work.
I believe in me/So you believe in you/Help me sing/Sing to the world/Sing it out loud
Michael Jackson has come up with a plethora of interesting lyrics through the years, which may be viewed as social commentary, see, for example: I’m starting with the man in the mirror; When the world is on your shoulder/Gotta straighten up your act and boogie down; or Did you ever stop to notice this crying Earth is weeping, sure,. What’s more, the real deal is that Thriller has one of the funkiest, riffs and bangingest beats in American musical composition, however bizarre the lyrics.
Yet, what I find to be the most valuable lesson brought to us all as a result of having Michael Jackson amongst us is that no person’s actions deserve the flagrant dehumanization to which we have subjected Michael Jackson, failing to understand that he was inappropriately exposed to sex while on tour with Joe and J5. Unsurprisingly, it seems, that the schizophrenia of his upbringing—a puritanical mother, a cheatin’/lyin’/beatin’ dad—mirror the American way for many. This perhaps further explains the sadistic pleasure the public seems to gain from Michael’s masochistic torture in media and tabloids. It is again the normative S&M in American sexuality. We tend towards Girls Gon’ Wild, Blacks on Blonds, Working Class Stiff, 8th Street Latinas, or whatever porn fetish we have for dealing with the reality of social inequality—anything outside the wealthy, law-abiding, God-fearing, white, heterosexual family. Each layer of privilege carries its own set of acceptable punishments for transgression. Many are just pleased as peas at the numerous police tazing videos on YouTube for their S&M pleasure. “Ah,” many user comments begin underneath the five-star ratings, “they deserved it.” We think everyone deserves punishment, including ourselves.
I respect Michael Jackson. I offer sincere prayers that no child falls prey anywhere in the world to any sexual abuse or misconduct at the hands of anyone, particularly an adult. Still, Michael Jackson affirmed for me that it was ok to be Black and strange and that our story was worth reflection upon, and sharing with the world. The price to live your life against the status quo is a great pressure, but the innocence of talent and the drive to excel pervades that family and is a living example for us all. Let that fool loose deep inside yo’ soul. Believe it or not, Michael’s music, despite his own real life angst and antics, was teaching us how to live. Life ain’t so bad at all/If you live it off the wall. Perhaps it is just a longing for the naivety of childhood, like Peter Pan: Before sex and even gender were so convoluted and eagerly rigid, and the world, apparently, less complicated for it.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.