Friday, July 3, 2009

Critical reflections on Michael Jackson, popular culture and beauty...

(NOTE: last night Dianne and I celebrated my birthday - lots of GREAT French food and wine - and then we went dancing at a new place. They were dedicating much of the evening's music to Michael Jackson. As noted elsewhere, we've missed dancing so... it was a groove. When we posted our happiness on the local cultural pittsfield message board, however, a whole slew of negative comments started spewing forth about "honoring a pedophile" or "celebrating his death." What follows is my reflection on all of this - and more. If you read it, you will notice parts that have been culled from other recent postings. Sorry for the duplication, but it seemed important to pull it all together into one essay. Blessings to you all.)

Over the past week there has been a great deal written and said about the legacy of Michael Jackson as both an artist and a person. Given the paradoxical nature of this particular performer, it is not surprising that the commentary has tended towards the excessive, confused, gratuitous or shallow. Those who were enriched by Michael Jackson’s art – and I would argue that he was an authentic artist within popular culture – have often neglected to wrestle with his profoundly wounded and often troubling behavior.

Simultaneously, those who either denigrate popular culture or are repulsed by his anguished and sometimes destructive acts have elected to celebrate the “freak show” aspects of Michael Jackson’s existence as if they were the totality of the man. My perspective, however, seeks to embrace both the shadow and the light of this complicated performing artist.

My spiritual tradition teaches that people of faith and good will should search for “unity in the essentials, appreciate diversity in the nonessentials and practice charity in all things.” And that is how I have come to look upon the sadly beautiful, enormously creative and often tragically ugly reality of Michael Jackson.

When I heard the news of Jackson’s death, I was sitting at a local pub sharing dinner with a friend. We were discussing the spiritual connections we have discerned in a host of popular music when CNN announced that “the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, had just died.” Immediately I was struck with a sense of conflicting truths about this wounded genius: he was a troubled and brilliant musician who deepened the formula for crossover success first employed by his mentor, Berry Gordy, Jr., the founder of Motown Music. He was a true “genre-bender” who brought together rock and soul, funk and jazz and gospel in ways that expanded his audience beyond any cultural or racial niche. Indeed, he was the Jackie Robinson of popular music.

At the same time I was struck by a sense that over his long career Michael Jackson had become frightening to me. Who was this racial chameleon who was no longer Black or White – young or old – male or even female? And what about the alleged child abuse scandals? Deeper still, however, was a part of me that recognized that while he was broken, he was beautiful, too. My deepest feeling was that at last Michael might be at peace – a peace he had rarely known in this life.

After dinner I was reminded of other complicated pop geniuses who were often beloved and maligned over the course of their all too public existence. I thought of Elvis whose death I heard about while driving one afternoon from San Francisco to the Tehachapi Mountains just outside of Bakersfield, CA. The radio said that Elvis had been found dead in his shower. It was August 16, 1977 - my first daughter was less than a year old - and we were leaving the Farm Workers Union to complete undergraduate school on the way to seminary. I had always loved Elvis - and love him still - from the hip, sexy outcast of the 50s to the fat, sad old clown of his later years. My mother turned me on to "the King" and we used to go to all his movies at the drive-in. I still do a mean impression of the early Elvis because he was so real and revolutionary. As Bono of U2 said so well: this dude was the embodiment of the Civil Rights movement way before the 60s. He was black and white, male and female, sex and religion and hope all rolled into one confused Southern gospel boy who was deep fried and FILLED with soul.

I was in college and saddened when Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin “offed” themselves with drugs and self-absorption – what a waste – but I was knocked on my ass and unable to breathe or think when John Lennon was gunned down in New York City. By this time I was a second year seminary student at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. My dentist was right across the street from the Dakota where a troubled young man with a gun, shot one of my life-long heroes on the way into his home. I couldn't move when I heard the news - John helped me experience Pentecost the night he sang "Twist and Shout" on the Ed Sullivan Show - and I have loved his music and madness ever since.

Weeping in my seminary apartment with two little girls, my oldest friend, Ross, called me and we wept together. He had helped me learn guitar after confirmation class each Wednesday during ninth grade. We formed a band together and sang out our hearts and souls together all through high school. And when we went our separate ways after graduation we still kept in touch through the Beatles. So when John Lennon was assassinated there wasn't another person alive I wanted to talk to. I still give thanks to God that he called me that day.

There were other shocking rock and roll deaths – Frank Zappa, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Duane Allman, Roy Orbison, Marvin Gaye, Kurt Cobain, Jerry Garcia, and James Brown - they were all dear to my heart, too. But Michael Jackson’s death strikes a different chord. I would never have said that I was a fan even though I loved to dance to his songs.

And I have come to appreciate the way he wove tradition into innovation - a genre bender – who clearly knew his music and roots. In what is my favorite song, “Man in the Mirror,” he brings a little gospel, a lot of confession, a bunch of funk and state of the art pop/street groove all together at the same time. What’s more, it is a song infused with a message of humility, hope and solidarity. It is a much better song than "We Are the World," a tune whose spirit I embrace, but grow tired of its overly earnest piety. But I never tire of "Man in the Mirror." It still brings tears of joy and compassion to my eyes even now. There is a little James Brown and Motown here, a little Beatles and a lot of gospel and an incredible fusion of street hip and tenderness.

So first it is important to recall that Michael Jackson was a gifted musical artist. We may argue about the depth and magnitude of his artistry, but we should begin with his music rather than his wounds. Second, I think it is wise to recall that through his music, Michael Jackson advanced the cause of civil rights for all people.

Not unlike Jackie Robinson in sports, this man broke barriers, records and expectations. Sadly too many Anglos don't even consider this fact - people of privilege rarely do - but it is undeniable. Social progress and tolerance takes many shapes and the road to freedom has been constructed with a variety of strange allies: Elvis and Chuck Berry, Motown and the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Marvin Gaye in addition to Dr. King, Rosa Parks, peace activists and those of the women’s and men’s movement. As a few keen observes have noted, the television work of both Bill Cosby in the 1980s and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” in this era, have contributed to the social transformation we continue to experience in the United States. Michael Jackson made a huge contribution to tolerance and racial harmony.

Third, when the artistic and social contributions of Michael Jackson are minimized, all too often his critics appear trapped in an outdated dichotomy between high and low culture. This false divide overlooks and denigrates the role that beauty and truth play in popular music. People of good will may disagree over style, but it is best not to be disagreeable over substance. Thomas More once observed that our deepest truths “can only be expressed aesthetically: in story, picture, film, dance and music." Jackson understood this from the inside out; he was a broken soul searching for a way to create beauty out of his wound. In this he is no different from poets, painters or other great composers who take the raw reality of their lives and help us all discover a bit of light and truth within the darkness.

That many miss this when it comes to Michael Jackson strikes me as part of the all too real racial and class divide that still plagues the United States. It is far easier to obsess on – and misinterpret – some of the public tragedies and poor decisions that continue to surround Jackson in death as in life. Take, for example, how some want to diminish his legacy by branding him a pedophile.

Let’s be clear: Jackson engaged in some odd, troubling and even questionable behavior. I am very uncomfortable with certain aspects of his private life that have become all too public. But we must also be fair: none of us are without fault when it comes to the shadows and corners of our private lives. And Jackson was never convicted of any wrong doing.

Yes, in one proceeding he chose to settle out of court; as a public figure, it was simply the path of least resistance. And in the second case brought against him – in which evidence from the first case was used for conviction in a highly questionable legal judgment – he was still acquitted on all counts. As some of the jurors – parents and grandparents among them – observed: there was simply no credible evidence against Michael Jackson and a world of avarice driving his accusers.

In the end, the best that can be said for his private life is that this wounded man/child not only lived in a fantasy world, but increasingly lived in ways that were not always healthy or grounded. Equally true is that Jackson made horrendous, foolish and sometimes destructive decisions concerning those he employed or helped; while he seemed to possess an uncanny business acumen – making the most of MTV in the early days or purchasing the Beatles’ catalogue – it is painfully obvious that this wisdom often escaped his personal world. And his quest for reinvention? From the Neverland mansion and facial reconstructions to the altering the color of his skin, it remains totally bewildering. Nevertheless, his oddities and pain, his confusion and stupidity, the carnival of scandal that followed him in life and death, is not the totality of this artist.

When we look at the fullness of this man, the challenge is to go beyond the obvious and discover the blessing within the wounds - the eagle inside the egg - the presence of God amidst some of our ugliest humanity. Thomas Moore has written: “The arts have the power to awaken the dormant soul, and there can be no doubt that the chief malady in our time is sleeping soul sickness. When you sit and listen to music or watch a play or follow a dance, your active life goes into eclipse and your soul life takes wing. Mercury, the spirit of art, self-expression, language, and form, brings soul to situations that are otherwise considered only practical.”

Michael Jackson tapped into that soul-awakening energy that is sacred. We trivialize his gifts whenever we obsess on only his pain and excesses. What’s more, we miss the deeper blessing that any death offers: the chance to look within and discern how we might embrace life more dearly in the days that remain. Like Jackson sang perhaps what we should do now is “start with the man in the mirror… and asking him (or her) to make a change.”
CREDITS: + "Loss" -; +"The Sense of Loss" -antogwon -; + "Hope" - Luxxxx - - "The hope for what you hide" - zombieplayhouse


SGF said...

You see the soul in the MJ saga and clearly do not suffer from Moore's definition of "Sleeping Soul Sickness! No writer has ever soared more for me when it comes to the arts and spirtuality. When people think in only practical tones, they become simplistic in there thinking and in their being as well. I am grateful for your voice in my community and beyond!

RJ said...

thank you, dear man, as it is a deep spiritual commitment to fight sleeping soul sickness! so we keep searching and loving and sometimes we even get it right! blessings to you always...

don-E Merson said...

My thoughts on MJ was that I really loved some of his music and think it shows a high level of intergrity. When you are an artist at his level and a top notch songwriter, you can escape into a world where you only do "your" songs. What strikes me as he still searched for a song like "Man and the Mirror", I don't think a lot of artists who dominate the landscape are willing to humble themselves to do other's songs. I can't really image Gene Simmons doing the same, getting at that level most people lose perspective in that arena. That MJ would hire a strong producer like Quincy Jones and include other people's songs show that he was an "A" level person and seeked to include other top people to make his vision to be top notch. He always sought the highest level of intergrity in his music and never backed away from the meaning whether it is "man in the mirror" or "Billy Jean" etc. Micheal was a wounded individual like all of us. As L. Cohen notes it is the "cracks in us that let in the light", MJ was a person who let his cracks, and he was quite wounded,stay open to show us an extraordinary light.

RJ said...

that's pretty much how I see it, too, brother. I am grateful for your insights. Keep them coming...

Anonymous said...

The best summation of this tragedy yet.


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