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Music

In Defense of Michael

Josephine Zohny

Since becoming one of the country first black superstars, Michael Jackson has been perpetually found guilty in the court of public opinion, convicted of disappointing and confounding white America. Now that he's accused of serious and specific crimes, is his music on trial as well?

I am a Michael Jackson fan. I have no qualms about it. I love his music, I love his dancing. Hell, I even love those gold, glittery shin guards he's so taken with wearing for special occasions. But I am a young fan -- by the time I knew who Michael Jackson was, it was the late eighties. He'd already been pegged as bizarre by the world press so virtually nothing that's gone on with him since then has shocked me. A lot of people born in the '80s grew up embracing that Michael Jackson, the one who has come to be synonymous with virtually everything stigmatizing and lurid. However strange, even that Michael Jackson was acceptable -- at least until the child-molestation accusations started coming out.

When the first scandal broke, it gave people a legitimate reason to dislike Michael Jackson, one a little meatier than weirdness. It gave an excuse to question his once unquestionable talent, though it's somewhat ludicrous to think that an immense talent like his would conveniently cease to exist exactly when public opinion shifted. The case in 1993 where he was sued for -- but never charged with -- sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy apparently gave the public permission to view him less as a human being and more like a lemming they delighted in watching hurl itself off a cliff. Michael Jackson's detractors say he has brought this derision on himself, but it was the media who chose to let the allegations define Michael Jackson, not his work. Michael Jackson didn't suddenly become irrelevant musically when accused.

Despite the fact his postThriller albums were large sellers and met with general critical acclaim at the time, received opinion today tends to extol the virtues of only Off the Wall and Thriller, crediting Quincy Jones's magic for their appeal. (Never mind that Jones was also involved in 1987's Bad.) What may have been the real catalyst for Jackson's "downfall" began to take shape in 1986, when Jackson acquired the ATV catalog, including the publishing rights to more than 150 Beatles songs, for a reported $47.5 million. Later he merged ATV with Sony's publishing catalog, creating a music-publishing business worth close to $1 billion. With these moves, Jackson became more than just a simple song-and-dance man. He became one of the most powerful men in the music industry.

Criticism was immediate. He "stole" the catalog from Paul McCartney. He desecrated the Beatles' precious songs by licensing them for commercials. Around this time, the epithet "Wacko Jacko" emerged. Were those same critics all over Sir Paul when he purchased the music-publishing rights of other artists? No, he was praised for his business acumen. But Michael Jackson's purchase of the ATV catalog marked one of the first times a black person (since Jackson's own mentor, Motown's Berry Gordy) became a force to be reckoned with in the music industry and, consequently, the business world.

And indeed, the catalog remains the crux of much speculation, with hopeful detractors constructing elaborate stories with Jackson teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, the loss of the precious catalog imminent: He borrowed $200 million from a Saudi prince to pay off his debts. He's going to lose the catalog. No, wait, he borrowed the $200 million from Sony. Wait -- they're denying it? Well, then, he borrowed it from Bank of America. Any day now, I swear to you, he'll lose the catalog. Sources? Of course I have my sources. Jackson's maid's former neighbor's uncle's cousin's second husband told me so.

Well, it's been eighteen years and Jackson still owns the catalog and yet this unfounded speculation persists. Does McCartney face the same speculation, even though the catalogs he owns include the work of many black artists? Of course not. McCartney lives lavishly without a raised eyebrow or a snicker about his financial savvy. But because Michael Jackson bought the Beatles, he has all the snickering Sams in their efficiency apartments eager for his financial ruin.

Why such different treatment of the two artists? Arguably, race comes into play. Jackson has been accused of playing the race card during this current situation, as well as during his very public falling out with former Sony Music chair, Tommy Mottola. It could be argued that those who scrutinize Jackson's business practices more exactingly than those of comparable whites, feel the need to undermine this particular defense. Media pundits and commentators -- everybody from the ladies of The View to Bill O'Reilly to Rolling Stone's resident "voice of all things black", Toure, tried to strip him of his professional accomplishments, and now they're attempting to strip him of his race. (though admittedly "Black Man" is now written prominently on his now famous mug shot).

If the media derision Jackson faces had no racial component, one would expect him to still earn his critical due from the mainstream, much the way other alleged pedophile Roman Polanski has been able to do. If it wasn't about race, Jackson's bail wouldn't have been set at $3 million while accused murderer Phil Spector's was set at a comparably paltry $1 million. Apologists for Santa Barbara County argue that bail was set in accordance to Jackson's wealth, to ensure that a significant proportion of his money would be at risk if he skipped town. But, wait -- isn't he supposed to be going broke? Make up your minds, already!

The fact is Michael Jackson's persona will always be inextricably connected to America's feelings about race: at best, color-blind transcendence, at worst, self-loathing. Because Jackson has been a star since childhood, society seems to believe that they own him, and when he overstepped the bounds of what society thought he should be in terms of power, they felt it was their duty to cut him back to size. The man who integrated MTV was loved when he merely sang and danced as society wanted him to, when he posed no threat, when he looked the way any non-threatening black man "should" look. In 1993, Michael Jackson was arguably the biggest international star in the world, reaching people of every color and creed, crushing sales records on a global level left and right with his hugely successful Dangerous tour and his internationally televised record-breaking interview with Oprah Winfrey and his philanthropic effort, the Heal the World foundation. But he was also markedly different looking than he was when the beloved Thriller album came out, and he was coming off the heels of signing his near-billion-dollar deal with Sony.

And then the first molestation allegations came out. But is the eerie loneliness demonstrated in "Stranger in Moscow" (from 1995's HIStory album) any less beautiful because it came after the first allegations? Are the intricately orchestrated minor-key strings and driving rhythm line in "Who Is It" (from 1991's Dangerous) not compelling and gut-wrenching because the song was recorded after Jackson's "descent into madness?" Is the funky deliciousness of "You Rock My World" (on 2001's Invincible) lost because the Michael who sang it bore only a slight physical resemblance to the man on the cover of Thriller? I, for one, can't buy that, but most of the public apparently has, since all of Jackson's musical efforts seem to be derided and ridiculed regardless of merit.

It may be that the idea of a black man, especially one who refuses to conform to virtually any societal norms and expectations, having such a profound effect is profoundly scary to some. In his 1997 song, "Is It Scary" Jackson promises "If you want to see eccentric oddities, I'll be grotesque before your eyes" and indeed, in that simple line Jackson made an important social comment -- in terms of public perception, he is whatever people want him to be. Perhaps subconsciously, Jackson's eccentricities were a way of saying "f--- you" to those he felt were boxing him into what the polite society deemed acceptable for a black man. But in destroying the restraints put upon him, these deviations from the norm -- his business ventures, his plastic-surgery transformations, his marriages to famous daughters of deceased pop icons -- also made the atmosphere ripe for anyone to believe just about anything about him. This in turn allowed the child molestation allegations (both past and present) to serve so readily as ammunition to destroy the dynasty that he began creating back when he was just a little boy in Gary, Indiana.

Now, following a grand jury indictment, Michael Jackson readies himself to stand trial on several counts of child molestation, administering an intoxicating agent, and conspiracy. It begins a process in which the whole world will find out more about Michael Jackson than it ever thought it would, and it will be very surprised, I suspect, regardless of its current opinions of him. If our system of jurisprudence is effective, then and only then will any of us know this particular truth about Michael Jackson. But iother truths will remain untouched. In the meantime, I'm not going to put away my copies of Dangerous and HIStory, and I'm not going to forget all that Michael Jackson has meant to so many people, not only in terms of his enormous talent, but also his ability to give of himself to help others with his equally enormous wealth and to break down racial barriers in the entertainment and business worlds. No matter the outcome of his journey through the judicial system -- and despite what many would have us believe -- he has always been and will always be more than just these charges.

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