With the passing of Michael Jackson, I am 12 years old again and rediscovering the subversiveness of living authentically.
Now, Michael Jackson is not a “John Lennon.” He never used his celebrity status to aid controversial causes like ending a war or freeing political prisoners. He never had a corrupt US president attempt to deport him for his politics. He never wrote a revolutionary song like “Imagine.” Instead, he spent more time bleaching his skin and under the surgical knife, rather than on the picket line. He has been accused of sexually molesting children and carelessness with his own child, rather than taking time off to be a stay-at-home father. His altruism has usually stayed within the safe boundaries of charity (although, I am little unsure how to categorize his desire to buy the deceased body of the “Elephant Man”).
Yet, I gave up a night’s sleep to turn up the volume along with the masses in listening to the endless musical tributes to the “King of Pop.”
Throughout Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and the other vast populated regions in cyberspace, its citizens detail childhood memories of failed attempts to moonwalk, popping and dancing to his tunes, or feeling the joy, innocence, and inspiration of his beats and sounds. Everybody is back to being a child again. For me, it is about returning to a time of living in the moment. At age 12, we moved from a small largely white New Jersey town to initially live in a predominantly Latino/a urban area in Los Angeles.
My younger brother and I would walk to the nearby record store “Discolandia.” I knew little Spanish so I would only understand Michael Jackson’s “Bille Jean,” which they religiously played. When that familiar one-two keyboard sound filled the air, our heads would nod in rhythm with the other young heads in the store. Eventually, some kids broke out in dances imitating Jackson’s moves and we would hold one hand out in the air in honor of the one-gloved wonder. However, the song was also very bittersweet for me because it was one of the last music videos I watched before leaving Jersey. At night, whenever the video would come on, I would miss my old friends and quietly cry with the bedroom door closed.
For me and many others, Michael Jackson and his music were very much part of our cultural landscape growing up, regardless of our musical tastes. It is tied to a time when we were able to fully experience both suffering and joy without intrusion and to live authentically.
This is especially relevant for today. The most devastating result of the current economic crisis is not job loss or declining workplace conditions but the atomization and destruction of community and theft of dignity. Dignity finds substance when we are able to adhere to our values of hard work and individual initiative. When those values lose meaning in a changing economy, the despair is much more profound and community crumbles. We yearn for a better way to relate to our world beyond left and right partisanship.
Many of us chose to remember Michael Jackson, not solely for his talent as a performer but out of a desire to remember what it feels like to be a human again. To feel part of a community again. Even when we acknowledge his flaws, we are recognizing that the painful process of growth always involves some loss. If anything, for those who are politically engaged, his passing instructs us that his music is not some “opiate for the masses” but that we have yet to learn how to touch the hearts of the everyday person on a global scale.
I am not an ardent fan of the music of Michael Jackson, but I appreciate shared smiles and tears and the power of simulating walking on a moon across the Apollo stage.