Remembering Michael Jackson: Refelections on a Musical, Cultural Legacy

Michael Jackson is dead. Many of us were heartbroken as the inevitable unfolded. I say inevitable because — in the last few years — each time that we saw the “King of Pop,” he appeared to be a shell of the icon who wowed the world not so long ago. We knew that something wasn’t quite right with the King, but like Jackson, we kept it moving in hopes of yet another return to the place he was most at home: the world stage.

Who can forget his performance on Motown 25 or the 1984 Grammys where other stars and icons were losing their minds over his presence? Grown men were crying. Who can forget his command of the stage and energetic performances that had not been witnessed previously, nor seen since? Many of us actually wince at Grammy performances by other artists now — because we grew up watching the greatest performer of all time doing his thing.

The stories people shared about Jackson upon learning of his death were amazingly similar: standing in front of the TV trying to mimic his moves; getting a Jackson 5 “45” as a first record or Off the Wall as a first full-length album; Michael Jackson buttons; pleading with parents for bright red, studded leather jackets; trying to moonwalk anywhere; rushing home to see the world premiere of the “Thriller” video; wearing one glove; and even doing the unthinkable — rocking a Jheri curl because he made even that foul-smelling mess of a hairstyle hot. Admit it. You had one too or wanted one, but had parents with enough sense not to let you do it. Michael Jackson kept changing the game — breaking records, raising the bar for everything including music, dance, videos and fashion — all the while becoming stranger by the minute.

Yes, this dude traveled with a monkey, a midget and America’s sweetheart in tow, and we still loved him. Why? Because his talent was undeniable and his ability to bring people together was unparalleled. I’m sure that many of you have experienced what happens when a Michael Jackson song is played, particularly from the Jackson 5, Off the Wall and Thriller eras. Everyone in the room knows the words, sings along and gets a pep in his or her step. This is before Michael Jackson died.

People like to pretend that Michael Jackson just got weird, but he was always different, which is why he stood out from his brothers. He started messing with his facial features in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and his skin color was not far behind. Mix that with his Neverland ranch, a proclivity for hanging out with children and buying things like the Elephant Man’s bones (or attempting to, at least), and it is pretty safe to say that he was a weirdo for a long time. But in spite of his weirdness and creepiness, he was “the man” on stage, and his energy, precision and enthusiasm for the craft is why we stayed in love with him.

He has been referred to as the “Jackie Robinson” of music videos because he forced MTV to play black artists. How ironic is it that all you see on MTV these days is black folks, but there was a time when we weren’t welcomed.

I thought it interesting that even in his death, MJ took over MTV. While BET (another Viacom company) went back to its regular programming after a day of pre-empting its schedule to salute Jackson, MTV continued its tribute to the King of Pop. MTV bowed down because they knew that Michael Jackson took their concept and brand to another level. How ironic is it that the person you rejected took your network to the next level in life and death? Now that’s gangsta.

Rick James and Prince battled with MTV about its refusal to include black artists before MJ, but it was Epic Records, Jackson’s label, that threatened to pull all of its artists from MTV if they did not play his music videos. If you remember, this is when MTV pretty much sucked, so there was no reason other than racism to be banning anyone. MTV relented and Jackson gave them music videos that remain classic, not because he’s dead, but because of what he did with them.

While most MTV music videos had low production values, followed traditional narrative structures and were experimental for no reason other than to be “different,” Jackson introduced the super narrative to the medium, along with special effects, self-reflexivity, intertextuality and choreography that has not yet been surpassed. He made music video an artistic endeavor by working with world-renowned directors like Martin Scorcese, John Landis and John Singleton. He was the first star to include other stars in his video. Hell, appearing next to Michael Jackson in a music video made you a star. Wesley Snipes anyone?

This is why many of us were heartbroken when we learned that Michael Jackson was gone. In spite of his self-destruction, strange behavior and alleged pedophilia, he was — bar none — the greatest entertainer that we had ever seen succeed in multiple media spaces, from childhood to death. Who can say that they remained relevant to multiple generations from age 5 until age 50? No one, except Michael Jackson.

Not Elvis. Not James Brown. Not The Beatles. Not The Rolling Stones. Not Prince. Just Michael.

Soon and very soon, he is going to see the real King — Jehovah, Allah or whoever. Here on Earth, he will forever remain in our hearts and minds and will always be the King of Pop.

This post originally appeared in Creative Loafing where Nsenga serves as cultural critic.


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