The radio is blasting Michael Jackson features. All of them end with the same note, that he was planning a “comeback tour.” It appears he had to leave to come back, as befits a figure whose early dive into the oceanic adoration of celebrity turned his life inside out.
I find myself thinking this morning of the concept of “transcending race,” a strange and knotty idea. To begin with, race doesn’t inhere in the person: there aren’t any objective tests to scientifically assign us to races, because race is a social category, not a biological one. As more people undergo genetic analysis, they find their heritages far more mixed than the application of our current categories would suggest. I’ve had an evidently WASP friend write to say, “Apparently, I’m Jewish,” an apparently African American friend report the presence of more European than African ancestors. Geneticists tell us that there is far more variation among members of these racial categories than between groups. So “transcending race” really means confounding the social categories that exist in our minds, such that they no longer overdetermine others’ response to ourselves.
When used in relation to President Obama, this notion suggests a figure who has somehow severed the connection to aspects of otherness—in his case, Blackness—deemed threatening by non-Black players in our national racial opera. In his persona, the barriers between racial categories have become so permeable they almost might not exist: regardless of complexion and heritage, millions of Americans find they can love, admire and invest him with their hopes. Most of the fear that has so long animated racial stereotypes slides off him without getting snagged in the cracks of our collective inability to see each other truly and connect deeply. In the space thus created, love flows.
Michael Jackson wanted this, and to a remarkable extent, on a stage as global as President Obama’s, he got it. But because his path was the opposite of Obama’s, he lost it too, provoking public repulsion and derision almost equal to the adoration he had once taken in with each breath.
As anticipated, I find frequents reasons to disagree with this or that policy position or action of President Obama, the elected official—although overall, I remain deeply grateful that he is president and want to support all that is positive in his administration. But without reservation, I continue to admire and appreciate his essence as a human being, the way it animates and connects to his public purpose. His strategy is beautiful: he has taken on the supremely simple yet astoundingly difficult task of bringing one’s life into alignment with one’s essence, so that people perceive (sometimes without knowing it) the shining, integral energy of a whole person, and want to move toward him. This is the strongest and deepest type of leadership, seldom seen.
In contrast, Michael Jackson tried to bring his body and spirit in line with a fantasy image of perfect beauty and acceptability. He attempted to “transcend race” by surgically and cosmetically altering the signifiers of race present in his body. By the time adoration had turned to repugnance, he had somehow removed himself from nearly every category that allows us to sort human beings into our comfort zones: race, gender, age—sometimes he seemed most real as a cartoon, transcending humanity altogether. I cannot begin to imagine the torments of self-selected mutilation and recovery, the King Midas-like isolation of Neverland, the uncertain, unsettling efforts to manufacture family, the living nightmare that—surely—no amount of lavish amusement could dissipate.
So much of the early commentary on Michael Jackson’s death focuses on complicity: because popular adoration was conditioned on his remaining the object of so much ambiguous and undifferentiated desire, “we” the people were the prime movers in his suffering and ought to be feeling guilt and regret.
This is a knotty idea too. Inside it is coiled the silly but popular idea that the commercial cultural industries are shaped by consumers, that Hollywood et al are just neutral vehicles, passively giving us what we want. This large assertion conceals a partial truth, in the sense that if people didn’t want to consume enough of what the consumer cultural industries produce, they’d go broke. But in fact, many failed recordings, films, games, and other cultural artifacts are manufactured for every one that succeeds even in recouping its costs. The consumer cultural industries are flinging product out there in the hope that blind luck with cause some of it to stick. This is akin to my taking you to a birthday dinner and ordering the entire menu so that in the end, I can say, “See! I knew what you wanted.”
What those industries’ operators have surmised is that, at least temporarily, they increase their chances of profit by repeating, in amplified form, whatever succeeded before. If one male-bonding comedy does boffo box office with a melange of bachelor parties, binge-drinking and barfing, the next one will broaden the comedy and amp up the gross-out factor until a few iterations down the road, market research suggests the tide has turned to neo-Westerns. What drives this is the blunt instrument of Hollywood’s appetite for profit twinned with its willingness to stimulate any appetite likely to lead to a purchase, not some canny ability to decode our collective desire.
But neither Michael Jackson nor those who also profited from his music invented the notion that the way to “transcend race” was to remove its signs from his body by any means necessary. A life isn’t a lesson, but if we learn something from his sad end, I hope it is this: that the lingering legacy of racial oppression, the fear and hatred lodged in the corners of our hearts, has the power to distort lives and societies, and that transcending isn’t even conceivable unless we acknowledge and face right into it first.
I’m old enough to remember when “Little Stevie Wonder” popped onto the scene with his remarkable harmonica solo in “Fingertips,” a number one hit in 1963, when Michael Jackson was five years old. People love child stars, in part because the purity of our devotion is mostly free of sexual desire, replaced by admiration for early achievement, the shining light of unsullied talent, the sweetness of a piping voice and unformed face suffused with the pleasure of creation. Perhaps early influences or inbuilt resilience enabled Stevie Wonder to inhabit and express his essence without falling prey to the distortions that seized Michael Jackson. Who can claim to fully understand another human being’s path?
Michael Jackson, 1958-2009, rest in peace. May his memory be a healing for us all. Listen to his sweet spirit now, in this 1960 Smokey Robinson song, “Who’s Lovin’ You,” recorded by the Jackson 5 in 1969.