Music

Michael Jackson: A Thriller in His Own Right

Courtney Young

The pulse of the world has skipped a beat. The world is in a state of shock -- you, the indomitable Michael Jackson, is dead.

Dear Michael,

I am wrought with emotion at the sobering knowledge that you are no longer here. Had you any idea how your death would impact the world? On June 25, 2009, your passing almost succeeded in crashing the Internet, suspending social media mechanisms like Twitter in the process. In excess of 1.6 million people logged into a random lottery system in hopes to garner one of the 20,000 tickets needed to gain access into your memorial service. Your face graces the cover of virtually every major (and minor) international periodical, newspaper, and news program for almost two weeks. The pulse of the world has skipped a beat. The world is in a state of shock -- you, the indomitable Michael Jackson, is dead.

Much has been written and reported about you from your impact on an impressively diverse and large demographic to your physical transformations to your massive debts and legal troubles stemming from allegations of pedophilia to the fate of your children. From cartoon strips to pop culture critiques to esoteric academic musings, you are captivating the global imagination. As a child of the 80s, you were unequivocally the model for many of my own dalliances with choreography and dance expression. More importantly, it’s your role as the seminal figure in the integration of African American musicality into the global pop culture stratosphere that bears a seismic weight.

Before the international frenzy that Barack Obama commanded following his historic presidential campaign and win, you were the global face of Black exceptionalism and achievement. It is impossible to be an even casual consumer of popular music today and not bear witness to the modeling, remixing, modification, and even plagiarism of your dance moves, innovative music videos, and sense of style and reinvention. It’s difficult to imagine what the cultural productions of artists such as Usher, Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, Beyonce, and a score of others would look like had you never existed. Sandwiched in between heavyweights such as Motown’s Barry Gordy and Quincy Jones, I suspect your brilliance was grounded through the tutelage of these two musical legends. Drawing upon the rich history of African American music and performance, you respected and studied the oeuvre of musicians such as Diana Ross, James Brown, the Nicholas Brothers, Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dionne Warwick and -- as true geniuses do -- reinvented yourself amidst this tradition, electrifying the world with his catalog of rhythmic adroitness and musical theatrics.

But before you, pop music was a largely segregated art form. Prior to you, mainstream television music channels such as MTV did not air videos by Black artists. Upon the massive success of Thriller, your fame was undeniable, making you the first major crossover global pop star, defying the barriers that race presented for so many artists before him. The sheer demand for Jackson was so great that MTV had no choice but to showcase Thriller. And the rest is history. Never before has an artist touched every race, age, class, sexual orientation, and nationality in the way that you did. Moreover, you played a transformative role in shaping ideas of African American music and performance to a global audience in a way never before achieved by any other artist. You turned the world on its head, singlehandedly.

It is not lost on me that this year, America celebrated two native sons, welcoming the inauguration of Barack Obama and saying farewell to you; in the span of six months, the world has born witness to the birth and death of two Black superstars that have shaped the global idea of Blackness -- specifically, Black masculinity, Black vocality, and Black expression. Both of you have destabilized popular notions of Black masculinity, in favor of a definition, that takes great stock in empathy, humanism, service, and a strong work ethic. In your passing, the world is losing a pioneer and cultural icon.

Though not without your own controversies, no other pop star has brought together such a diverse palate of humanity through musical performance. Is there another human being alive whose death would carry the same weight as yours? Oprah? Barack? Stevie? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that your passing has caused me to undergo a period of reflection of Michael the musician, Michael the man, and Michael the cultural icon. You were such an incredibly complicated and simultaneously deeply empathic human being, and your meteoric rise and superstar status has taught me more about stardom, influence, and humanity than any other pop culture icon. You have definitely influenced my development as a consumer and critic of popular culture.

Perhaps, now you can rest and find the peace you so desperately sought throughout your lifetime. This is my wish for Michael, a thriller in your own right, rest in peace...

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