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Culture and Education

Michael Jackson

James M. Vardaman
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Passing of an idol

Following the death of Michael Joseph Jackson on June 25, media flocked to report the widely varied responses of fans and detractors of the “King of Pop,” speculating on the circumstances of his death and reflecting on his professional and personal life. While there is no doubt that Jackson’s personal issues were serious and disturbing, there is also no doubt that his music had an enormous positive impact on pop culture and the popular imagination. His distinctive musical sound and vocal style influenced hip hop, pop and contemporary rhythm and blues across several generations, and his videos are often seen as making a major contribution to the success of MTV.

Beyond the color of skin

There is another way of measuring the impact of Jackson on the world at large, and that is his ability to cross over a number of boundaries, not just musical boundaries. The idealism offered by Martin Luther King, Jr., the dream of a future when people would be judged not by their skin color but by their character has proven difficult to achieve by political, legal and economic means. But there are other ways of overcoming the boundaries imposed by skin color.

When reflecting on the passing of Jackson, one cannot help thinking of other public cultural figures whose personal integrity and astounding talent helped paved the way for America’s “crossover” in the election of Barack Obama as president. Jackie Robinson, the first African-American hero in Major League Baseball, responded to enormous pressures and prejudice, including threats to his life, not in anger but with his indisputable skills on the baseball diamond. In more recent memory, Michael Jordan, the great hero of the National Basketball Association, brought an enormous number of fans, black and white, to the NBA with his astounding plays and never-give-in dedication to the game. What these two did was to overcome racial barriers indirectly, with impressive character and performance that led people to forget, even momentarily, that there was an issue of color. Each in his own way projected the strength and genius of African-Americans, disproving the notion that African-Americans were in any way inferior and serving as a role model—for people of any color.

A white musician also comes to mind. Elvis Presley, who adopted the musical styles of African-American musicians and who openly expressed respect for African-Americans, responded to criticisms of his borrowings and his attitudes by creating an entirely new style of music that borrowed freely from African-American and Anglo-American traditions. When Elvis’s first recording of an African-American blues song made such a hit that a local radio DJ rushed to get him on the air for an interview, the DJ casually asked him where he went to high school. In the age of black-white segregation, there were separate schools for blacks and whites, so this was an indirect way of letting the audience know that this was a young white man singing this African-American style of music. There would be other white singers in the 1950s borrowing the repertoire of the powerful, appealing African-American Blues, Rhythm and Blues, and Gospel, but Elvis was the first to make it a widespread phenomenon. He in a sense “crossed the barrier” of color by means of music, on records and on the radio, before he eventually did so on TV and in the movies. He was criticized as vulgar, as a “white black man” and as a traitor to his white race. He responded with great music.

Just as Jackie Robinson and Michael Jordan were role models and as Elvis Presley was a crossover sensation, Michael Jackson was a one-of-a-kind figure who broke entirely new ground. As youngest member of The Jackson 5 and later as a solo artist, he managed to break through boundaries on television. As one older white woman put it, her parents would not watch any other black music group on TV, but they did watch and enjoy The Jackson 5. Jackson’s contribution to multiracial acceptance came not from protest and demonstrations but from dazzling dance routines that made anyone want to get up and dance. Kids everywhere mimicked his dance routines and tried to master his signature Moonwalk.

The music and videos

Jackson’s influence also came from his lyrics. In “Man in the Mirror,” sounding like a musical version of the campaigning presidential candidate Barack Obama, Jackson sings that people can make a change, and that the change has to start within each of us, the person who we see when we look into a mirror. In “Black or White,” a song of protest against racism, he claims it makes no real difference whether one is black or white; people can still be brothers and sisters. The message of the companion video that was based on the song is even clearer. In it, he smashes windows upon which are reflected the letters “KKK” of the white-supremacist terrorist group Ku Klux Klan and a derogatory sign telling immigrants from Mexicans to go back home.

In “Heal the World” he borrows the Biblical reference to “turning swords into plowshares” in order to create a better world. This “better world” is not just for one race or one nation, but for the entire human race. We are all, he sings, brothers and sisters. In “Gone too Soon” he laments the passing of the young Ryan White, a child who died from AIDS, and the plight of all those who suffer from AIDS.

International crossover

With the tremendous popularity of his albums “Off the Wall” and “Thriller,” Jackson became not just one of the top figures in popular music. He was the top figure in pop music. He won 13 Grammy Awards and had 13 No. 1 singles as a solo artist, garnering international sales exceeding 750 million albums.

The significant term here is “international.” His 1991 hit “Black or White” took the No. 1 spot in 17 countries, from Austria to Norway to Zimbabwe, and of course the United States. On a much-anticipated visit to Africa, he visited Gabon where more than 100,000 people showed up to greet him.

Americans may have seen Jackson as a magnificent performer, whose private life involved suspicious behavior and excessive concern about physical appearance. But to the rest of the world, he was often the face of America, better known and more listened to than any other American of his day, including the successive occupants of the White House. Perhaps it is this kind of “crossover” that more should aspire to, a softer form of power, one that is cultural, musical, and, most important, inclusive.

James M. Vardaman
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Born in Tennessee in 1947, professor Vardaman earned an M.A. in Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii and is currently a professor on the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University.
Professor Vardaman specializes in the history and culture of the American South. His publications include: “American South: A Foreign Land within a Great Nation” [Amerika no Nambu: Taikoku no Uchinaru Ikyou] (Kodansha Gendai Shinsho), “The Deep South of the Heart” [Wagakokoro no Deiipu Sausu] (Kawade Shobo Shinsha) “The American South that Gave Birth to Rock and Roll” [Rokku wo Unda Amerika Nambu] (NHK Books), and “Racial Discrimination against African Americans and The Civil Rights Movement” [Kokujin Sabetsu to Amerika Kominken Undo] (Shueisha Shinsho).