Friday, June 26, 2009

The Unbearable Success of Michael Jackson

The first music recording that was given to me was William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water (Till the Well Runs Dry)," but the first music recordings that were bought for me were Diana Ross's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and Michael Jackson's "I'll Be There." I do not recall if I'd requested the Diana Ross and Jackson 5 songs or if they were surprises that went with the new record player, my first record player, which I received for a birthday. I listened to the Bell song, the first song I played, and which I still remember, but I loved "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "I'll Be There" and I love them still.

Michael Jackson was a singer, a songwriter, a producer, he was a businessman and a philanthropist--he was a great artist of popular music. It is hard not to be ambivalent about people who are great, as they are often strange: it is sometimes strangeness that compelled them to be great, and sometimes it is greatness that made them strange. I have not stopped liking Michael Jackson's music, the old or the new music; but, although I felt a measure of concern and sympathy, I had become ambivalent about Michael Jackson the man. The changes in his face and the constant rumours and scandals made him too strange to me--I accepted that he would be unpredictable, but unpredictability is not a quality I value in others.

Michael Jackson wanted transcendence, as many of us do. The idea of transcendence is a beautiful idea, an important and seductive idea, but it may be a false idea, a lie. Instead of a moment of connection and illumination, it may be only temporary forgetting of all the things that make us who we are--very particular human beings in this time and this place. No one can live in a place of forgetfulness always---without becoming mad or monstrous.

What it means to be black is perpetually discussed but rarely accurately described or honestly expressed. I would name W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry, and Toni Morrison, with a few others, as people who have come close to explaining and exploring what it means with authority and insight. As surprising as it may be to some, Michael Jackson expressed better than most what it means--it was in his voice, in the tenderness and rage that can be heard in many of his songs, in the ambition and terror that we could perceive in him and in his work. He was a man of tremendous pride, talent, and vulnerability. He was unique but he was also one of us. He was innocent--and there are many ways for the innocent to be broken in this world: and the most obvious is to become like the world, to change one's self to fit someone else's idea of value. Michael Jackson belonged to a tradition of blackness that was about both assimilation and self-improvement (and it can be hard sometimes to tell the difference between the two). I think it was James Baldwin who said that it is difficult to live with a bad reputation and that every black child is born with one. Indeed it is hard to live with people willing to believe the worst of you, even after you have given them the best. The meaning of what it means to be black may be changing (and evidence for that may be the election of the American president, Barack Hussein Obama, a man of intellect, masculinity and sensitivity, with private commitments rooted in love and public power founded on ethics); and it is sad to think that Michael Jackson will not live into that new time--although Jackson may have been, already, like too many of us, too much shaped by the past.

I love Michael Jackson and I love his music more--and I am sorry to say goodbye to him so soon: but I am glad that he is done with the trouble of this world, no more weeping, no more wailing, he is done with the trouble of this world.