It’s hard to be black or white about Michael Jackson. He is sometimes portrayed as a musical icon, sometimes a bad taste late night television host punchline. Love him or hate him, there is no escaping the catchy tunes, the impact he has had on multiple generations.
Back in the 1980s, before we ever thought to question his lifestyle, he still sat uncomfortably in my cultural landscape. Inflated hyperbole like “the king of pop” and performance choices such as the constant crotch grabbing and those ridiculous white socks made me uncomfortable. I knew he was extremely popular but any admiration for his work was always accompanied by a sense of embarrassment at how over the top Michael Jackson was. Thriller was a masterful and cinematic video clip, but somehow as a kid I also instinctively knew it was much cooler to publicly declare a preference for Dire Straits.
Even as the young child I was during the height of MJ mania, I could sense there was something weird about him. Why did he speak so high pitched? And what was with the chimpanzee?
And yet, there was no denying Man in the Mirror was pure brilliance. Even today, it is one of my favourite songs of all time.
When Michael came back into vogue with the Dangerous album in 1991 and then History after that, I felt even more conflicted. By now I was on the verge of young adulthood. I had a respectable musical playlist in my CD stand that included bands such as U2 and The Cure. I didn’t know what to make of a song about race relations sung by someone who had literally changed skin colour and clearly reconstructed his entire face. And as a left leaning creative arts student, I could not process the hubris of a man who would fantasise about being a dictator.
But so many of Michael’s songs from this time somehow made their way into my Discman. Jam, Remember the Time, They Don’t Really Care About Us. They were anthems, calling a generation to follow their aspiring leader. While the Black & White song itself was a saccharine, disingenuous and overtly commercial tune, the images of Macaulay Culkin turning up his speakers to defiantly blow his parents away were a powerful appeal to the young to embrace new ways of thinking about music and life.
In 2009 Michael Jackson suddenly died and I watched the gurney being wheeled away on the television. It felt like it took several months for us to find out what had really happened to him. Trust MJ to die in weird, headline grabbing circumstances.
Fast forward five years and I was introducing my own kids to music. Michael Jackson inevitably featured heavily in their musical education. Returning to the songs and watching his concerts online reminded me of the incredible staying power of his creative genius. Youthful insecurities cast aside, I was now thrilled that my kids took so quickly to his back catalogue and we all became obsessed with trying to accomplish the moonwalk.
We went on a family holiday to Vegas. My husband and I forked out for the exorbitant hotel babysitter and very good seats to the Michael Jackson ONE show at Mandalay Bay. It was a visual spectacle of neon glow-in-the-dark costumes, trapeze artists swinging from the roof, performers dancing up walls and acrobating across the stage in the way only Cirque du Soleil can legitimately pull off. There was even a hologram of the King of Pop himself performing. It was such an amazing sensory assault and so on-point for how one would imagine MJ would have evolved that we considered paying again to take the children.
I’m glad we saw that show when we did, because what to do today with a Michael Jackson tribute? Do we now have to find a jetpack for the fingerless gloves, sequined crop jackets and those songs — Bad, Blame it on the Boogie, Billie Jean — and banish them to Neverland?
Whenever I come across a Michael Jackson song or reference today, the internal conflict of my youth returns but now it is much more than just a mild discomfort. Am I supposed to turn the radio off? Do I tell my kids to stop trying to do the lean? Do we pretend now that History never happened?
Does boycotting his legacy make a difference? Does it matter if you’re black or white?