How Jackson healed America Performer used his celebrity to blur the lines between black and white
By Gil Troy, History News Network, 6-25-09 – Montreal Gazette, 6-27-09
Michael Jackson’s death at age 50 parallels Elvis Presley’s death in 1977, at age 43. By the time both performers died, they were walking punch lines, symbols of the coddled celebrity’s dissipated lifestyle. But each was the premier entertainer of his time, and each shaped history. It is not stretching to credit Michael Jackson as one of the trailblazers for Barack Obama, himself just three years younger than Jackson.
Long after Michael Jackson’s tragic ending is forgotten, his important role bridging the gap between American blacks and whites will be remembered. Jackson used his celebrity to blur the lines between black and white, as well as between gay and straight. Jackson grew up in the public eye as the soprano of the Motown powerhouse, the Jackson Five. The group sold over 100 million records and inspired a Saturday morning cartoon. In the 1970s Jackson thrived as a solo artist too.
For those of us, like Obama, born toward the end of the baby boom in 1961, Michael Jackson was not just a phenomenon but our phenomenon. In the 1970s, amid Watergate corruption and Arab oil-induced gas lines, humiliation in Vietnam and aggression by the Soviets, here was someone our age, living the American dream. That our generation’s most famous person – until Obama – was a poor black kid from Gary, Indiana, reaffirmed America’s promise during a
decade of disillusion. That gift of hope to millions early in Michael
Jackson’s career trumps his own pathetic ambivalence about his racial
identity and his tragic ending, coming cinematically as the age of Obama began.
Jackson was a great dancer and a superb businessman. He choreographed the release of his 1982 album “Thriller” to undermine what the Washington Post called “the cultural apartheid of MTV and pop radio.” Rock and roll had become resegregated since the days of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. MTV was overwhelmingly white. On radio, “Rock and roll” was usually white; “R and B,” rhythm and blues, usually black. For three weeks running in October 1982, and for the first time since the pre-rock and roll era, no black singers made the top 20 charts.
Defying pigeonholing, Jackson’s enticing rhythms had great “crossover” appeal. Still, to ford the gap when marketing “Thriller,” Jackson first released “This Girl is Mine,” a playful duet with the Beatle great Paul McCartney. This pairing created “a Trojan horse to force white radio’s hand,” Steve Greenberg, the president of S-Curve Records, later explained. Jackson paved the way for other “crossover” hits including Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money.”
Building “Michaelmania,” Jackson would market the usual T-shirts, posters and buttons, a million-dollar memoir – at the age of 25 – edited by Jacqueline Onassis, and an 11-inch doll, with Jackson in the “Thriller” outfit easily posed in his more famous dance steps.
“Thriller” was the fastest selling album ever, selling 40 million copies. “Michael Jackson is mass culture, not pop culture – he appeals to everyone,” said a radio program director. “This kind of performer comes once in a generation.” In 1984 alone, Jackson earned $30 million from record sales and another $50 million from tie-ins.
In typical 1980s style, “Thriller’s” marketing included a $1.1 million-dollar, 13-minute video. In one of the era’s most culturally powerful and technically sophisticated images, Jackson morphed into a monster. Here was an American icon, transforming himself from an inspiring symbol of how far a black man could go into the hateful stereotype of the black man as monster, as sexual predator.
Nevertheless, this inversion somehow helped seep some of the poisons from American society. This was especially true because – although it is hard to remember it now – Michael Jackson was incredibly likable then. In fact, Jackson was a central figure in one of the 1980s’ biggest do-good projects, helping to write “We Are the World.”
In December 1984 Bob Geldof of “The Boomtown Rats,” had organized some British stars to fight famine in Ethiopia by singing “Do They Know Its Christmas?” They sold 3 million copies and raised $11 million. In the United States, the singer Harry Belafonte assembled some black musicians to raise money for Africa. A producer, Ken Kragen, broadened the project, calling it “Live Aid.”
On January 28, 1985, the night of the American Music Awards, Quincy Jones produced a song Jackson wrote with Lionel Ritchie. “We are the world, we are the children, We are the ones who make a brighter day so let’s start giving” the chorus belted out, which also included Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Bette Midler, and 5 more Jacksons.
“We are the World” sold millions and won top Grammy awards. The popular video challenged viewers to identify the famous in a rhythmically bobbing sea of famous faces, and charmed viewers with the seemingly spontaneous, “private” glances, handclasps, and hugs these pop music demigods exchanged with the cameras rolling.
That July, 1985, “Live Aid” built on this megawatt munificence, with pop greats performing in London and in Philadelphia for sixteen hours, attracting 1.9 billion viewers from 152 countries. “I’m glad to be helping the hungry and having a good time” 22-year-old Kim Kates of Philadelphia told a reporter. The initiative inspired many imitators, including Willie Nelson’s “Farm Aid” and “Hands Across America,” a Coca Cola-sponsored venture raising money for America’s homeless by enlisting 5 million people, including Bill Cosby, Kenny Rogers and other celebrities, to create a human chain coast-to-coast.
Alas, by 1985 Jackson was already on his way to becoming an object of pity and disgust. As he approached his 30th birthday, he still seemed frozen in childhood. His friendships with older women, especially Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Ross, along with his smooth skin and high-pitched voice, generated this sense of sexual ambiguity. “I’m not like other guys,” Jackson told his girlfriend in Thriller. “’I mean I’m different.” Beyond the androgyny, Michael Jackson seemed to be getting “whiter” — his skin was getting lighter, his nose getting smaller. By 1987, many in the record business wondered, “What’s that guy done to his face!”
Even more impressive was what Jackson had done to the record business – which was booming – and to race relations – which were improving. Jackson, like all entertainers, rode a wave, himself benefiting from various historical phenomena including the Civil Rights Movement and the Sexual Revolution. Still, the King of Pop made his mark.
Adapted and updated from Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).