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Michael Jackson: crossing over

About the author

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between North Africa and France. KA Dilday is currently planning a New York office for openDemocracy.

Was Michael Jackson the most famous man on the planet? The British former child actor, Mark Lester, claimed that in one of the many encomiums offered following the news of his death on 25 June 2009. So many people tried to verify the news of Jackson's death in the hours after the news broke that Google thought it was under attack from a computer virus generating multiple searches of the same name.

As I sit down to write about Michael Jackson, I realise that I don't love any of his songs. They're poppy, and as evidenced by its name, pop music has a brief life. It was his aura, his longevity in the business, his influence on the entertainment styles of so many musicians and his permeation of cultural life.

KA Dilday is a writer and editor living in New York
Among KA Dilday's many articles in openDemocracy:

"The freedom trail" (4 August 2005)
"Judith Miller's race: the unasked question" (26 October 2005)
"France seeks a world voice" (8 December 2005)
"Europe's forked tongues" (16 February 2006)
"The labour of others" (6 April 2006)
"The writer and politics: Peter Handke's choice" (14 June 2006)
"Zidane and France: the rules of the game" (19 July 2006)
"Barack Obama, Moroccan Ali, and me" (5 February 2007)
"Iraqis adrift" (19 February 2007)
"Sister in spirit: Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel" (6 March 2007)
"The Darfur conundrum" (3 April 2007)
"The discomfort of strangers" (24 April 2007)
"A girl, a knife, and Hawa Gréou" (30 May 2007)
"Morocco outside in" (14 June 2007)
"The Copenhagen syndrome" (29 June 2007)
"Nadia Yassine's journey" (2 August 2007)
"Morocco's illusory democracy" (21 September 2007)
"Defenders of the nation" (17 October 2007)
"Intelligence, inequality and race" (7 October 2007)
"Language, immigration and citizenship" (4 December 2007)
"The gaze of strangers: Morocco, male love and modernity" (30 January 2008

Talking with my husband about the music he listened to at Eton, the elite 400-year-old British boys boarding-school, I couldn't really believe that he'd never hear of Luther Vandross before he left the school in the mid-1980s. Someone must have been in tune to black music, the cool kids, the rebels. No, he said, maybe reggae, but the rebels listened to punk. This was in the mid-1980s. But later we were discussing race at Eton, and he mentioned the one black student in his year, a boy of Nigerian origin.

"He was popular", my husband said. "He could moonwalk." There is, was, no place that does not see him: Michael Jackson showing up, to great success at Eton.

Why did he matter so much to so many people? Why do so many people know his name, his kabuki mask of a face? Of course Jackson was talented. He wasn't a musical star manufactured by synthesizers, voice mixers and memorisation of someone else's carefully choreographed dance routines. One only has to watch the footage of him as a young boy dancing and singing to know that he was born with his gift.

This was the undeniable core even when he was at his most bizarre - as in the infamous documentary about his cartoonish later days. When Michael Jackson pauses for a moment to dance - you remember that he isn't just a freak, he's an entertainment phenomenon and was for nearly four decades.

Americans of Jackson's age and a decade or so behind him, grew up with him, watching him go from the spinning and whirling boy with the crackling falsetto, to the rubber-band man with the tremulous tenor.

When I was a little girl in the late 1970s, my parents used to plunk my sister and me in front of The Jackson Five television show. Back then Michael Jackson still had his original nose, he still had an Afro, he still had dark brown skin. I was about 7 years old and my parents were happy to be able to show us a variety show about black people on a major news network - back then there weren't that many of those.

I'm not sure they would have been so eager to do the same had we been born a decade later, because with the 1980s came Michael Jackson's bizarre physical transformation - lightened skin, the manufactured Caucasoid nose, the straightened hair. There were always excuses: vitiligo, breathing problems (though none for the hair; his first attempt, the Jheri curl, was just emblematic of a unfortunate fashion), but it all seemed to add up to one thing. Even though his unique gifts were born of black American culture, one of the most famous, successful and talented black men on the planet wanted to be white.

There it was for all the world to see, and all the world did see, the deep psychosis in the mind of this most famous black American, emblematic as Frantz Fanon asserted, of a troubling mental affliction found in black people everywhere. He was strange and screwed up in the way many people who become famous at a young age are. (I don't have much to say about the accusations of paedophilia other than that, given his descent into madness it wasn't a surprising accusation, yet after a long, intense trial, he was acquitted.) Could black people really be proud of him? But they - we - were.

Musicians and sports figures have always sat atop the power hierarchy among black Americans because these were the crossover routes open to them in the days of legal racism and segregation. Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, Muhammad Ali, Aretha Franklin, Hazel Scott, they enabled and lent their fame to men like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.. And even some like Michael Jackson who weren't political were breaking social and cultural barriers. MTV, the most significant cultural development of the 1980s, didn't play many videos by black musicians until Thriller came along when under pressure from musicians and Jackson's record label, they put the video for the song Billie Jean in heavy rotation. And the next decade's children all over the country had the same experience I had in the 1970s when The Jackson Five variety show first aired.

But black American politicians no longer need entertainers to disseminate their message. While Michael Jackson may have been the most famous man on the planet in the 1980s and 1990s, in the 2000s, he was supplanted by Barack Obama. Tens of millions of people have gathered all around the world just to catch a glimpse of Barack Obama, just as they did with Michael Jackson. And Obama doesn't even sing or dance.

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