By Elwood Watson
Okay. I will confess that I was a huge Michael Jackson fan! From the time I was a teenager, I rabidly purchased all of his albums. To me, he was one of the greatest entertainers to live. To this very day, I still harbor that assessment. In fact, on the very evening of his passing I received a call from one of my sisters asking me how I was feeling. She knew how much I admired the king of pop. Truth be told, I was very saddened to hear of his death. As I saw it, he was so young, so vibrant and still had so much more to accomplish. Granted, his life history was far from serene, yet it certainly was nowhere near as “tragic” as some media pundits and entertainment correspondents argued.
I had followed the late Mr. Jackson from his days as a member of the Jackson Five when I was in elementary school (my older siblings were also huge fans as well) to his solo efforts with his superb albums “Off The Wall” and “Thriller.” By the time “Thriller” was released, I was in high school. If his record sales were an indication, I was obviously not alone in my fascination with Michael Jackson. “Off The Wall” went multiplatinum and made Jackson the first artist to have four songs in the top 10 FROM THE SAME ALBUM at one time! As if this was not significant enough, his “Thriller” album produced six No. 1 songs, sold 40 million copies, earned seven American music awards, eight Grammy awards and stayed on the charts for more than three years!
In addition in 1983, Jackson was credited for SINGLEHANDEDLY reviving the music industry! Think about it. Even if no other artist had released any album that year, Michael Jackson alone would have revived an industry which up until that time was in an economic funk! Such a record is phenomenal. No one, not even The Beatles accomplished such a feat.
It was because of Michael Jackson that MTV, which up until this time catered to a predominantly 18- to 30-year old White audience, slowly but surely began to give considerable airtime to Black artists like Prince, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston and others. By the early 1990s, MTV was playing Black artists with frantic frequency, even going so far as to have a daily show entitled MTV Raps. Most of us have heard the story of how MTV was initially resistant to playing Jackson’s videos but relented due to pressure from Walter Yetnikoff, then-president of CBS records who threatened to pull all of his artists from the music channel if they refused to comply with his demand. Whether such a narrative is valid or the stuff of urban legend, no one can dispute the fact that such a decision was a wise and lucrative one, both financially and globally for MTV.
In my opinion “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” and needless to say “Thriller,” were among the most innovative videos ever aired. Jackson’s famous moonwalk and phenomenal dancing prowess alone prompted mid-20th century dancing legend Fred Astaire to praise Jackson for his hoofing abilities. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, such racial inclusion and transformation of a White dominated industry was largely due to Michael Jackson.
Unfortunately, rather than focuses on such positive accomplishments such as his donating millions of dollars to various charities and altruistic efforts, there are those – mostly detractors – who seem more content to ruminate on what they see as the negative aspects of Jackson’s life. These are the playa haters who take perverse comfort in espousing everything that was suspect or controversial about Jackson. Examples of such retrograde allegations were:
– he was a self-hating Black man
– he was probably a pedophile
– he was a drug addict
– his marriages were a sham
– he was financially broke
and the list goes on and on.
For the record, to paraphrase USA TODAY columnist De Wayne Wickham, unlike many Black entertainers (and some White ones for that matter) who are very influential and have substantial multiracial followings, Jackson did not hesitate to confront the issue of race. This was evident in such songs as “Black or White” and “Heal the World.” This is stark contrast to many of his supposedly “pro super Black” critics who have no problem doing a number on Whites in private, but whose militant, rhetorically racially conscious backbones become spineless marshmallows when in the presence of certain Whites. The same can be said for many of Jackson’s White and other non-Black critics who would often turn a blind eye or even wink at the deviant, in some cases, pathological behavior of celebrities of their own ethnic group, but had no problems in denouncing Jackson as some “freak of nature.”
While Jackson did settle out of court a lawsuit alleging (I stress the word allege) child molestation, he did not admit to guilt. In his 2005 trial, he was acquitted of all charges by an all-White jury. Despite recent news accounts, all throughout his illustrious career, there was no hard evidence that Michael Jackson was a habitual user of drugs. In fact, it was because of his image as a drug free celebrity (which was almost an oxymoron in Hollywood during the 1980s and mid-1990s) that he was invited to the White House in 1984 by then-president Ronald Reagan to receive an award and to serve as a spokesperson for former first lady Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” to drugs campaign.
There were others who argued that in spite of his immense talents, his love life was non-existent and fraudulent as was evident in his divorces. It was very peculiar that such “know it alls” supposedly seemed to know more about the intimate details of Jackson’s private life than he did. Moreover, given a nation where the divorce rate is more than 50 percent (among Hollywood celebrities the percentage is much higher) Jackson was hardly an aberration. In fact, he was pretty consistent.
We were constantly induced with stories of financial incompetence and constant rumors of Jackson bordering on the brink of bankruptcy. Such stories became so commonplace that his accountants eventually decided to release press statements refuting such intense rumors. His purchase of the Beatles Catalog in the mid-1980s coupled with his merger with Sony music a few years ago no doubt nullified any debt he had. The amount that many fans all over the world ( I was one) spent purchasing CDs, videos, magazines and other Jackson merchandise over the past few weeks probably took care of any lingering “supposedly financial troubles” he had.
Could Michael Jackson have handled some of his public relations better than he did? Certainly. I do not think too many people would argue about this. To be sure, like a number of people, Michael Jackson was eccentric. However, being non-conformist is not a crime nor does it mean that he was all the retrograde things that many of his opponents made him out to be. Love him or hate him, there is no doubt that Michael Jackson was one of the most talented entertainers the world has ever seen and it will be a long time, perhaps never, that we may see the likes of him again. As the Rev. Al Sharpton said a few weeks ago at his memorial “Thank you, Michael.” I say rest in peace brother Jackson.
Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)