During the past week, the public reaction to the death of Michael Jackson as reflected both in our media and the media in countries throughout the world drives home a cultural phenomenon in our country that I have observed for years: The African-American "experience," as expressed in language, dance, fashion, sports, literature and music comprises much of the fuel that ignites the engine of popular culture in the United States. The domestic and international outpouring of multi-racial, intergenerational public response to the death of Michael is an indication of just how powerful that engine can be.
Predictably, the King of Pop's death eclipsed the interest of much of the media in the saga of South Carolina Governor Sanford, but also the passing of other celebrities like Farrah Fawcett and Karl Malden. The reason is simple: Jackson's fame was at a stratospherically higher level.
Eleven thousand tickets have been allocated for a public memorial service at the LA Staples Center. Within ninety minutes following the announcement of the service there were four million hits on the internet. More than a million and a half people registered online to qualify for this paltry pool of tickets. And although they are non-transferable, capitalism finds its way in: tickets to attend the service have been bid as high as $10,000 on eBay.
This is the calculus of superstar status.
Jackson's level of fame could only have been possible in a relatively slender band of time -- the period between the post-Civil Rights acceptance of black music by mainstream America and that pre-internet era when there were relatively few broadcast options ruling mass media. The vast posthumous public acclaim of Jackson can best be seen in this "Twitter age" of the instant mass transmission of individual information. Every person with a laptop or a smart phone can tell the whole world exactly what Thriller or Bad meant to them. These communication technology innovations facilitated the election of our first African-American president of the United States.
Ironically, however, this is the same "narrowcasting" environment that will prevent the likes of Jackson's kind of success from ever coming along again. Audiences are far too splintered to fall in line -- and in love -- en masse with a single recording artist today the way they could for Michael Jackson in the eighties and nineties. The times when you walked along a street and heard the same album drifting out of bars, clothing boutiques and record stores is gone.
Yet those same individuals fractured into a thousand different pop culture directions have coalesced over the last week into one massive fan base to let the world know how much Michael meant to them.
The transmission of Michael Jackson's music and dance in his heyday may have been facilitated by nationwide and international radio play rotation and MTV broadcasts, More importantly, he was the racial and ethnic crossover beneficiary of the struggle, leadership and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" and other African-American cultural touchstones raised the consciousness of black and white people on the issue of race. They and Dr. King challenged us to think not about a black America or a white America, but, as President Barack Obama has said, a "United States of America."
Reverend Al Sharpton got it right. Yes -- before Tiger Woods, Ophra Winfrey, Michael Jordan, and Barack Obama, Michael Jackson was the first major African-American "idol" to be embraced by a majority of whites and blacks in America.
All the more a pity that Michael approached his heritage in such an oblique way.
The legendary performer James Brown shouted in song, "I'm Black and I'm Proud!" One wonders if Michael Jackson, in his later years, really felt he was either of those. He was torn and tormented by the color of his skin, facial features and hair. He seemed to want to "shed" his "blackness" and assume the features of a new, less black, more white persona.
The English philosopher Joseph Campbell has described the classic "hero's journey" in literature. It is not the individual person that determines or defines a "hero," it is the journey that shapes the hero. A hero can be flawed but still a hero. Moreover, not all "heroes" are victorious. A "failed" journey can even be a "heroic" one. Some stories can end nobly without ending happily.
Much of America and the world honor Jackson as a "flawed hero" of their or their children's generation. They have taken all of Michael's imperfections -- real and imagined -- into account and have embraced him as a reflection of their own sense of joy and peace, and the irrelevance of race and color. Even the instances of alleged sexual abuse of boys and millions of dollars in out of court settlements wasn't enough to staunch the affection the world at large has for Michael. In the end, it seems he represented hope, inspiration and the celebration of life, however unorthodox his own life may have been.
We will forever be indebted to Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, and to producer Quincy Jones for helping the expression of the genius that was Michael Jackson. Let's just not forget that their talents were only part of the perfect storm that lead to such a celebrated legacy.