Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson + Farrah Fawcett, RIP

Yesterday when I met C at his office so that we could head uptown to the Studio Museum in Harlem to catch Kalup Linzy in conversation and performance, he asked me if I'd heard about Michael Jackson's "heart attack." I hadn't; the only breaking news I'd seen online beyond the ongoing horrors in Iraq and the revelations of about GOP hypocrite #1000+ Governor Mark Sanford was the death of Farrah Fawcett, one of the icons of my childhood years, the blonde "Angel," whose smile and hair and way with charm and firearms on Charlie's Angels, a show that aired when I was in elementary school (beginning in 5th grade, to be exact), engraved the imaginaries of people all over the US and eventually the world. It's hard to believe that she was on the show for only one season; memory extends it to two or three. (None of her replacements every approached her star power, though I must confess that Jaclyn Smith was always my favorite Angel.) As obituaries will recite, she went on to star in TV movies that demonstrated the depth of her acting abilities, while remaining a cynosure of celebrity culture, with the attendant bursts of drama involving her partner, Ryan O'Neal and her son, right up to her death. C and I watched the unspeakably sad documentary about her final fight to cure the cancer that killed her; it was clear that despite her determination, the end was near. It was tough to watch, and as tough to consider that she's passed away.

A little after we arrived at the SMH, the Museum Store's attendant told us that Michael Jackson had died. Neither C nor I could believe it; to recite a commonplace, I still cannot. I could probably spend 20 blog posts on how Michael Jackson and his family have impacted my life, but I'll just touch on a few moments. First, I grew up listening to the Jackson 5 and one of the most vivid memories of childhood was singing their songs and practicing the routines of their dances in the basement of my grandparent's house with my cousins, spinning around to the record player crooning "ABC, as easy as 1-2-3" or "Stop! The love you save may be your own...." I remember not being allowed to see Ben, the movie about rats (which is probably rats don't terrify me today), but singing "Ben" the song and being carried up into a cloud by Michael Jackson's voice. If I think about truly exciting moments in my childhood, one of them would have to be going to see the Jackson Five in performance in St. Louis, when I was about 9 or so. I think I yelled and sang and wept with joy through the whole event. Then there was The Wiz, a critical and box-office failure that I have always secretly imagined was a touchstone for a generation of black gay men; Diana Ross (Stephanie Mills had been in the stage version) and Michael Jackson together, skipping around those immense, funky sets and reprising a story that had been the star vehicle for Judy Garland? In 8th grade, Michael Jackson's Off the Wall came out, and I developed a serious crush on him. I don't think I've ever gotten over what he did to his face and body--and yes, C and I watched the Oprah special where he not only claimed he had suffered from vitiligo, but pounded his chest and said, "I love black people, Oprah!" (Of course he had had his skin chemically peeled, his features altered by surgeons' hands, his hair sewn into place, but really, that wasn't the point anymore.) Those songs from Off the Wall marked his independence from his family, his personal and aesthetic autonomy, and the beginning of his individual superstardom, which would be approached, though never matched, by only one of his siblings, another of my favorites, Janet. Off the Wall was also one of the records I remember dying to buy, with my own saved up money, and I probably listened to the LP so many times that my parents, great music lovers both of them, probably were ready to holler. Thriller was the better album, more jam-packed with hits, but it appeared when I was moving beyond my Michael Jackson-love phase, and more into rock music, punk, and early hiphop, but I bought it and still can listen to the whole album, especially "Wanna Be Starting Something" or "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" or "Billy Jean," and barely stop myself from jumping up and dancing.

From that point onwards, I sort of took Michael Jackson as he came, though less rather than more: the high points were the records and some of the songs and videos, the low points the increasingly bizarre (to me) lives he created for himself, from his marriage to Lisa Marie Presley and public kiss with her (which still makes me cringe whenever I see it) to endless surgeries, to the up-and-down and then fading sales, to the pedophilic scandals, to the circumstances surrounding his three children (Prince Michael I, Paris Michael, and Prince Michael II a/k/a Blanket). I would be lying if I said that I wasn't riveted by some of this stuff; I watched the Martin Bashir documentary in horror, and snarked at Jackson's outrageousness while admitting that despite it all, I still loved his music and all the craziness he whipped up around himself. I was thinking just a few weeks ago that I probably wouldn't ever go see him perform again, as controversies raged around his upcoming tour, but now the question has been settled for me. All the obituaries will mention that he was one of the greatest performers of the modern era, an incomparable showman, a racial pioneer (in many ways), a figure of tremendous international influence, a great philanthropist, and a musician of almost inestimable talent, who knew how to create hits like most people breathe. Almost all contemporary American and international popular music bears his DNA. But he was also someone who shaped the inner lives and dreams of millions, including me, and for that I'll always be grateful.

Here's a brief video I took of the spontaneous celebration last night in front of the Apollo Theater in Harlem:


  1. Micheal Jackson was our Mozart, an exploited child prodigy who performed in the context of his time as no other performer had done before him. (Recall that Mozart also had a talented sister who was overshadowed by her brother.) His gift for melody and adventurous rhythms was unsurpassed. Most important for us was Jackson's ability to bring essential traits of black music into the dominant cultural stream, as Scott Joplin had done, decades ago, forever changing (and improving) popular music. Man in the Mirror is "secular" gospel, an amazingly intense song about repentance and (self) forgiveness and expiation that never once makes a specific religious reference, but is far more significant contemporary gospel statement than anything Kirk Franklin has accomplished. This is only one example of black musical genre enlarged and transported by Jackson to another level. He was a unique American genius. Think of him as Gershwin in reverse. And he is absolutely irreplacable. My heart is at half-staff and I start to cry when I see his videos on TV. It rather makes me think of the weekend JFK died. Something very precious has been taken from us without any warning.

  2. Michaels biggest accomplishment should be that he crossed over every race, age, sex, and color!! Everyone loved his music!!!

  3. I'm not sure about Michael as "our Mozart," since I don't even know if that comparison is commensurable, but he was a remarkable figure who used his talents and who was exploited by those around him, chiefly has family and the recording industry, as almost no one during his era was.

    C-Train, not everyone loved his music; did you see the news about the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and his priggish and, though blind to him, ironic note to the actor-president about "fawning" over Jackson? Well, millions of people did and do appreciate the beauty Michael Jackson, as a member of the Jackson 5 and as an artist in his own right, brought into this world.

  4. Hey J,

    Prince is our Mozart. Madonna is the true inheritor of Andy Warhol's idea of fame. But, MJ is someone who cannot be explained so easily.

    Michael Jackson was the mythical Benjamin Button who was broadcasted into our living rooms as a man-child, psychedelic, soul man of the late 1960's and aged into a colorless hermaphrodite. I know it sounds a little callous, but the fact that Americans -- especially many white Americans (from my point of view) -- do not talk about why Michael really wanted to lighten his skin, and decided to adopt white children and pass them off as his own, is more callous to me.

    I just wonder about the world outside of America. What does all this really mean to the non-American? Are we tone deaf to something Michael represented beyond race and color? Did he really become an everyman? A champion of children. A universal creature. Or, was his life a mess beyond repair? And did the constant teasing by his brothers and MJ being on the constant receiving end of Black America's machismo measuring stick freak us out so much that we are not asking ourselves how complicit were we in this boys creation? Every time I heard the sentence, "Michael is special.", a million questions came to my mind. Plus how many times did I hear that sentence use about me when I did not play basketball well or they said I danced like a girl?

    And yes J, THE WHIZ is gospel for me. I could watch it over and over. In fact, all that early 1980's footage of Diana and Mickie really turns on "a groove thang" in me.

  5. Littlemilk, I still ain't so sure about the MJ=Mozart equation, but okay. Warhol wanted to be a machine, which is not what MJ was after. Perhaps Peter Pan, or Tinkerbell, or Ariel, something sprightly and beyond the human, ultimately. I mean, he made his body a canvas for a kind of performance art whose roots still confound people. As I noted, he went on Oprah to defend himself, but really, did anyone not in denial believe him? Quincy Jones just called him out again on the racial issue, and so it goes.

    Did he really become an intersex person? Or a trans-person that we still haven't defined. I was thinking about him as a kind of queer icon; he didn't really become younger, though perhaps, as Reggie suggests, we're complicit in his bizarrerie, perhaps in freezing him in our various memories of him at earlier stages of his development. Didn't he develop in his own way? But wasn't it also very American? The lightening of the skin is a global issue; the adopting the white children (who then became his own) strikes me as very much in keeping with the social logic of this country. Only white children really matter, you know that. If when we were little and we had disappeared, who beyond our families and immediate communities would have cared? Isn't this still sadly the case?

    Globally I'm not sure what he represented, though I imagine he meant different things depending upon the local and national contexts. Think about all those Filipino convicts staging a mass performance of "Thriller." What's going on there? Certainly the music has a universal appeal, and the personae too. But were they the same?

    Special, funny. Hmmm. What about throwing "like a girl," or smacking one's lips, or switching. Doing any of these put one past the vale of special into...well, you know.

    The Wiz--a mess, but one I'm glad we can keep returning to.

  6. Ha! Good points. But, for the record I said Prince = Mozart. He is a composer. He is Baroque. He is a prodigy. In the 70's and '80's he was 'enfant terrible', saying the most candid and lewd things in his albums. Madonna = Warhol. She is the real factory, creating new pop stuffs every half decade.

    And on the plastic surgery tip, I will never understand why all the family went under the knife . . . or let me say I do. But all 9 children are beautiful. Especially Jackie. Phew!


    And on missing Black Children, I instantly thought of the Atlanta Child Murders, and the numerous posters of missing children in the Bronx I see on token booths coming home from work. Mostly young girls, sometimes boys, middle school age and older, gone. The fliers produced by family, not by the authorities.