Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Watching, Reading, Thinking, Feeling
"I believe that all art has as it's ultimate goal the union between the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine. I believe that to be the reason for the very existence of art." Michael Jackson in Oprah interview 1993. (watched by an American audience of 90 million, becoming the fourth most-viewed non-sport program in U.S. history)
"The reason Black folk never turned their backs on Michael is because we realized that he was merely acting out on his face what we collectively have been tempted to do in our souls: whitewash the memory and trace of our offending Blackness. We loved him because we knew that America rarely forgives a Black man his genius, and our greatest artists often pay the price for the acceptance of their gifts with tortured psyches, haunted spirits and troubled minds." Michael Eric Dyson in Ebony Magazine.
I read a lot of magazines. We get Ebony Magazine every month and I was really looking forward to their issue commemorating Michael Jackson. I love a lot of different singers and I probably listen to more singer-songwriters than I do to interpretive singers...but I love both traditions. Interpretive singers have their "writing" in how they perform a song. Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Bobby Darin, Judy Garland. I love these singers and I love hearing how they have interpreted songs. Michael Jackson is interesting in that he began interpreting songs and then became a singer-songwriter with some of his strongest work.
Last week Oprah had three amazing episodes, two of which were with interpretive singer Whitney Houston nicknamed "the voice" and one with a recalling of Oprah's 1993 interview with Michael Jackson. In 1993 I had tape recorded the interview with Jackson and lent it to many friends who had missed the program. Jackson used to intrigue everyone, even those who weren't his fans. The Oprah interview was absolutely compelling tv at the time. Seeing the ranch where Jackson lived, hearing him speak for an hour was almost unheard of at the time.
I've spent a lot of time quietly thinking about the Oprah/Houston interview, the Oprah/Jackson interview and going through my Ebony Magazine issue featuring Michael Jackson. I guess, I am one of the half dozen people in the world who doesn't believe...and never believed that Michael Jackson hurt children. It just never rang true to me. (In 1993, the father, Chandler, was tape-recorded discussing his intention to pursue charges, where he said, "If I go through with this, I win big-time. There's no way I lose. I will get everything I want and they will be destroyed forever ... Michael's career will be over". In the same conversation, when asked how this would affect his son, Chandler replied, "That's irrelevant to me...It will be a massacre if I don't get what I want. It's going to be bigger than all us put together...This man [Jackson] is going to be humiliated beyond belief...He will not sell one more record". The recorded conversation was a critical aspect of Jackson's defense against the upcoming allegation made against him.) (2003-2005:During the two years between the charges and the trial, Jackson reportedly became dependent on Demerol, and lost a lot of weight. The People v. Jackson began on January 31, 2005, in Santa Maria, California, and lasted five months, until the end of May. On June 13, 2005, Jackson was acquitted on all counts.)
I listen to a lot of music. No...all kinds of music and I love so many artists but maybe more than any other artist Michael Jackson has been a gridwork of the most emotions and emotional turmoil and inside feelings. Partly because of the innocence which I first loved him as a little kid, then the joy of dancing to his music as an adult...and then feeling the tragedy of a public lynching. In some ways famous pop culture icons are like our modern day Greek gods and goddesses which we follow somewhere in our subconscious. The allure of interviews like Houston's and Jackson's resonate for many of us as our stories and lessons too.
The video excerpt above is the real heavy part of the Oprah/Whitney interview. What I really enjoyed about this interview was that Whitney Houston was so settled into speaking and she didn't fake or seem to feel a shame about speaking of the "party lifestyle". I don't know how to articulate this feeling I had...but it felt as if Houston took complete responsibility for her drug use. She doesn't seem to be a victim and she has a refreshing sense of ownership. She is not filled with shame in the way that how so many addicts don't seem to get past the sense of shame. There is a moment which really blew my mind where Houston looks at Oprah so real, when Oprah doesn't understand how to smoke cocaine with weed. It's around 5:37 minutes of the interview. I loved this interview because I felt as if we have seen a huge cultural icon get out from under the psychic weight of fame. We never saw Michael Jackson from out of underneath that role or weight...but with Houston, it feels as if she found a way beyond the romantic notions of responsibility to fans and record companies. Oprah believes that "the voice" of Houston has a responsibility to be shared with the world. As much as I can understand why Oprah (and many others) believe such a concept...I don't believe it. I believe the tragedy narrative of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston is that their omnipresence, their fame, and their talent is what became their hurdle at being really freely alive. No one owns the imagination, not even the artist. Trying to own or legislate art is a death sentence to art-making.
I don't know...I can't put words to how fascinating the Houston and Jackson interviews were for me. But it's as if watching two different outcomes from the same kind of artistic potential. I can't help but imagine Billie Holiday, Judy Garland who also had substance abuse tangled into their popular culture narratives. Even though I wouldn't consider myself a fan of Whitney Houston...I found so much relief in seeing that she seems to have come out the other side of something.
In Ebony Magazine Michael Eric Dyson wrote the most wonderful tribute to Jackson which I'm going to post the whole thing here. I hope visitors enjoy this article as much as I did. I think Michael Eric Dyson is not only a great writer but an incredible mind.
Michael Jackson: Our Icon
by Michael Eric Dyson
Few would dispute that Michael Jackson was the greatest entertainer of all time. Even fewer would deny his genius as a recording artist and innovative dancer. But to suggest that Michael Jackson was a freedom fighter and civil rights trailblazer appears downright ludicrous. The idea grows on you, however, once you grapple with how Michael Jackson's art shredded racial boundaries and forged a path for Black artists who came after him.
Michael Jackson's art took shape in the crucible of Black struggle. The Jackson 5 was signed to Motown in 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The group's success helped to open the doors for a post-civil rights version of Black identity that exploded on wax with electrifying intensity, and onstage with mesmerizing appearances laced with strong Black pride. The Jackson 5 didn't have to preach; they performed Blackness in their very getup: five brown-skinned boys with big hair.
Michael, of course, was a chocolate, cherubic-faced genius with an Afro halo. He and his brothers helped to redeem the image of Black youth and, subsequently, Black masculinity, which had the style of the Black Panthers yet the broad appeal of Tony the Tiger. That's why the Jackson 5 got a groundbreaking Saturday morning cartoon series that helped to color the visually segregated American pop cultural imagination. The Jackson 5 became stars at a time when the Moynihan Report of 1965 had infamously touted the unraveling of the Black family. Their popularity on television and radio presented the image and sound of an intact Black family unit-no matter how troubled behind the scenes, since most families are imperfect.
Michael Jackson continued breaking down racial barriers and upholding the honor and dignity of Black art as a solo artist. Two years before Thriller was released, a publicist for a major music magazine refused Michael's request for a cover story, and Micahel easily predicted that one day magazines wary of placing Black faces on their covers because they wouldn't sell would beg him for the favor. And in 1983, his record company had to threaten to withhold other artist's videos from MTV if the channel didn't air the video for his landmark single, "Billie Jean." By getting his way, Jackson helped MTV pave its way with gold. He helped to brand the fledgling music video channel and give it a global identity. In essence, Michael Jackson had to beg MTV for the opportunity to make it wildly sucessful.
Long before such geniuses as Oprah or Obama, Michael Jackson was the ultimate crossover artist. He appealed to not only Blacks and Whites, but also to an international audience. Michael jackson's art was like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 set to killer beats. Even though rooted in Black experience, he felt it would be a crime to limit his music to one race, sex, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or nationality. Michael Jackson's art transcended every way that human beings have thought to separate themselves, and then healed those divisions, at least at the instant that we all shared his music as the globally understood grammar of hope. You didn't have to speak English to understand Michael Jackson; his language, as hokey as it sounds, was the language of joy and love.
But Michael Jackson always understood that Black art should never be ghettoized, that Black music should be as commercially ubiquitous as its artistic ambitions. Michael Jackson simply wanted to match the market with the morality of Black art and talent, and thus, give it global breathing room. Like Oprah and Obama after him, Michael Jackson wanted Black identity to be unlimited, to remain free of artificial divisions and false restrictions. Like theirs, his mantra was simple: Let the gift of Black identity bless and heal the world.
Michael Jackson captured the highest joys and deepest griefs of Black existence. He went further than any Black artist had before him in showing the globe how Black artists wrestle with the pain and complication of what it means to be human. Michael Jackson was deeply rooted in the rich soil of Black musical genius. As his face got whiter, his nose thinner and his features less recognizably Black, his music and art nevertheless owed an undeniable debt to his cultural roots.
Even Michael's very public grappling with the politics, seductions and rewards of Black self-doubt were instructive. The reason Black folk never turned their backs on Michael is because we realized that he was merely acting out on his face what we collectively have been tempted to do in our souls: whitewash the memory and trace of our offending Blackness. We loved him because we knew that America rarely forgives a Black man his genius, and our greatest artists often pay the price for acceptance of their gifts with tortured psyches, haunted spirits and troubled minds.
But we loved him so much because no matter where he was, he proved that the roots of Blackness are portable, that they can be planted in soil the world over-whether in Bahia or Birmingham-and still produce the sustaining fruits of joy and love. We loved him because he loved us as best he could with all that he had, and he never turned his back on the incredible music and culture that shaped him into the great artist he became.