Yesterday, Today, & FOREVER The King of Pop

In MJ’s Shadow

From June 30, 2009

ARMOND WHITE remembers Michael Jackson’s pop open-mindedness
by Armond White

Michael Jackson made the best cinema of 1991 with the music video
“Black or White,” which was easily superior to any short or
feature-length film released to the public that year. To find a
comparable example of visual montage, you have to go back to one of
Alain Resnais’ time-shifting études, the marriage scherzo in Citizen
Kane or the chase-trial fugue in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. I combine
musical and filmic values because “Black or White” ’s visionary
approach to egalitarianism—ending with a still-miraculous sequence of
genetic morphing and counter-balanced by a solo dance of frustration
and rage—was a singular feat: Its constant rhythm was accompanied by a
stacking-up of thrilling, provocative ideas.

The night “Black
or White” premiered on FOX was one of those memorable moments when
Michael Jackson brought the world together through his art. That
unification is, of course, MJ’s legacy. But not merely in a lovey-dovey
sense. MJ’s command of popular attention was always unexpected and
challenging. Each cultural/historical marker demonstrated his unique
sensibility, mostly superb taste (pardon his penchant for horror-film
tropes), his simple yet probing, agitating intellect and his seemingly
boundless talents: a great singer, songwriter, dancer and, in movie
terms, performer-as-auteur.

This career of milestones hasn’t
ended with Jackson’s death last week at age 50. Despite media vultures
striking new lows in their ongoing scavenger hunt, Jackson’s loss
started unprecedented Internet traffic that experts say diminished the
cyberspace and twittering exchanges about Iran’s recent election. His
personal incarnation of modern cultural and political change began with
11-year-old Michael’s first national television appearance on ABC’s The
Hollywood Palace, performing the still-astonishing “I Want You Back”
with his brothers in The Jackson Five. Child prodigies and splashy
debuts are commonplace in show business, so who could imagine what
Jackson’s brash, playful introduction augured?

extraordinary achievements that followed dwarfed the careers of stars
who attained greater esteem in single pursuits; MJ epitomized for all
the greater social benefits of liberated black American expression. As
MJ pushed R&B forward, adding to the emotional definition of
cultural consumers’ lives, it first seemed like showbiz as usual. The
records “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” exemplified
youth culture’s new energy and power. Then MJ confounded convention
with the startlingly poignant “Ben.” It was a strategic movie tie-in
theme (for the 1972 horror flick of the same name, a sequel to Willard)
the same year Diana Ross sought to infiltrate Hollywood with the biopic
Lady Sings the Blues. But MJ took his B-movie opportunity so seriously
that it quietly permeated the zeitgeist. People who don’t appreciate
“Ben” don’t really appreciate pop culture and remain clueless about MJ.
His tender, profound emotionality taught teenagers everywhere that they
could feel more deeply than they realized.   

Here’s the beauty
part: “Ben” wasn’t just for black fans (such as those who identified
with the Jackson Five’s “Mama’s Pearl”) but white listeners also
responded (and I know many of them), recognizing and assenting to MJ’s
heartfelt pledge. This is why, 25 years after “Ben,” when MJ publicized
himself as “The King of Pop,” the tagline stuck. It had been denied him
by the Elvis-worshipping racist media, but MJ snatched it from the
selfish claws of industry bias. Some scoffed but listeners and sharp
observers knew it was true.

Going beyond hubris, MJ made the
self-assertion that black artists were usually too modest (or
underfinanced) to dare. Since childhood, MJ gained an understanding of
how the record industry and the mainstream media work. He aimed for
cultural domination, achieved it then moonwalked across our
consciousness—strutting and gliding as if the crown was no heavier than
a bon vivant’s fedora. Little Michael started out singing about desire
with a profound sense of urgency. Both “Ben” and “I Want You Back”
offer the sense of immediacy special to great pop, holding witnesses in
an intense private moment. It is not ironic that these records
incarnate youth’s illusion of immortality. It’s a gift.

Most people have a favorite MJ song or performance that exemplifies the
ways we come to understand and share joy and sadness, celebration and
isolation. MJ mediated these things—as certified when the recent movies
13 Going On 30 and The Wackness paid tribute to MJ. Awareness of his
art is a natural part of the modern experience. MJ was such a fact of
life for the past 40 years that the newsmedia’s disrespect—as in
journos’ demeaning “Jacko”—deprives the world of appreciating the
wonder and depth of Jackson’s art. Critics readily grant hero status to
particular artists, but if Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain, P.J. Harvey and
Eminem are pop’s “geniuses” what word can adequately describe the
world-changing creativity, astounding craft and miraculous precision of
Jackson’s output? His personal issues don’t justify denying it.
Mainstream tastemakers find it difficult to accept the intellectual,
spiritual and aesthetic progress of MJ absorbing Fred Astaire, Gene
Kelly, Billy Eckstein, Sam Cooke, James Brown and Bob Fosse, continuing
their work and matching it in his own style.

There’s much
originality to reflect on: whether the race-defying polemic “Black or
White” or many innovative music-videos like “Scream,” “Bad” (Scorsese’s
best post-’70s film) and the redoubtable “Thriller,” which many people
admire and first showed MJ’s unique flair for combining popular
extravaganza with personal anxiety. Go back to 1971’s “I’ll Be There”
(its essence appears even in MJ’s late work). This early classic was
more than a love song: The youngster’s earnestness conveyed a cherubic
purity in the uncanny lyric, “You and I must make a pact/ We must bring
salvation back.” The religious evocation isn’t cloying; it recognizes
spiritual need in romantic ardor. The innocence of Jackson’s voice
confirms it as natural, basic. Jackson inherited the pop song tradition
like catechism; as a devout, he grew into his own sincere
articulation—as when echoing Billie Holiday in the “Ain’t Nobody’s
Business” refrain of 1988’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” yet updating
and owning it.

On the 1980 “Lovely One,” sung with his brothers,
the paean to mother Katherine Jackson becomes an ode to womanhood—the
romantic ideal. MJ doesn’t fatuously evade distinctions, but in pop’s
great emotional imperative, social boundaries dissolve in the funk and
ecstasy of singing, jamming. “Check out this feeling!” he exhorts to
all who will listen. The fact of feeling in his music, singing and
brotherly harmonies, proves the goodness of loving. Through the
vivified funk of “Lovely One,” Jackson demonstrates that
You-Must-Dance, rhythmic mastery that goes beyond intellectualizing.
Maybe it will never make sense to tight-asses. Pity is, they often have
tight souls.

Rev. Al Sharpton was right to remind people that,
before Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama benefited from mass
self-congratulation, Michael Jackson was a crucial figure contributing
to—encouraging—the liberal world’s enlightenment. As a product of the
Civil Rights Era, he was an invaluable inspirator of pop
open-mindedness. Part of MJ’s social uplift comes from his
determination to exceed the social and professional limits of the black
social pioneers who preceded him. His funky, elegant stage and studio
precision derives from the Northern industrial aspiration passed
forward to the Great Migration’s later generations. This remains
mysterious to many pop music scholars still stuck in the patronizing,
sentimental perception that uneducated, earthy Negroes are “authentic”
blacks. President Obama’s grudging condolence suggests that this
snobbery still exists in high places. As a Motown artist, MJ defied
that stereotype as a way of guaranteeing his own cultural achievement,
but it also laid a spiritual and material foundation for
success—acceptance and satisfaction—that lasts.

Inherent in all
the MJ trailblazing is belief—proof—that the Civil Rights Era-promises
of equality are realized in the open and creative expression of group
and individual feelings. Artists confide a special faith in their
public expression: that what they have to say will be heard and
understood. (“Beat It” changed more hearts than the Iowa Caucus.)
Through the audacity afforded by exceptional talent, this becomes more
than a hope and you can grasp it personally—whether or not anyone else
concurs—in “Ben,” “Billie Jean,” “You Are Not Alone” or, as in the
challenge posed by “Black or White”: “Don’t tell me you agree with me/
When I saw you kicking dirt in my eye.”

MJ had the audacity to
believe that he could also create that communication on a larger scale
in sincere anthems like “We Are the World,” “Earth Song” and “Man in
the Mirror.” It’s a wonder of pop art when you can’t really separate
the gravitas of an anthem from a love lyric. That flash of emotional
truth in MJ’s art makes it possible to set aside scandal. What genuine
artist has avoided it?

Last year’s pop wonder The Ting Tings
have eulogized MJ perfectly: “Michael Jackson, the Pop Giant. His
controversial life is now over. His great music will outlive us all.”
As the soulless media returns to its routine of hateful recrimination,
this cultural fact remains: We all live, dance and cry in Michael
Jackson’s shadow.

New York Press

Keep Moving  November 18, 2009

Michael Jackson may not have been a film star, but ARMOND WHITE explains his music videos as art


Liz Taylor was right in her now famous Tweet
about Michael Jackson’s This Is It. My Lincoln center program about MJ’s
music videos (Keep Moving: Michael Jackson’s Video Art at the Walter
Reade Theater, Nov. 22) was planned before This Is It, but it ought to confirm Dame
Liz’s enthusiasm. It’s designed to show film enthusiasts who wonder: “What
happened to the movie musical?” or “Why wasn’t Michael a film star?” Despite
race, class and puritanical obstacles, Jackson advanced the movie-musical genre
his own way—working with the best, trusting his instinct and raising the promo
film to an art form every time out.

taken-for-granted cinematic passion was
ahead of Hollywood in visualizing the complexities of sex (“In the
Closet”) race (“Black or White”), ecology (“Earth Song”) and that
aspect of our
cultural heritage that wrestles with mankind’s aggressive instincts
(“Smooth Criminal”). Put MJ in proper
context with Singin’ in the Rain, Shall We Dance and The Band Wagon
as serious expression, not trivial daydreaming. Too busy finger-sapping to
consider “The Way You Make Me Feel” ’s exploration of courtship ritual? In This
Is It
, MJ turns masculine drive into iconography that studies eroticism and
social custom—all of it beautifully sung and imaginatively choreographed.

MJ’s music video legacy shames contemporary
Hollywood’s inability to sustain the music video as an expression of mankind’s
dreams. He displayed rare understanding of how music and images can edify the
human condition. That’s why Liz’s all-out defense and confirmation matters. She
tweeted: “[This Is It] is the single most brilliant piece of filmmaking
I have ever seen. It cements forever Michael’s genius in every aspect of
creativity. To say he was a genius seems so little…I truly believe this film
should be nominated in every category conceivable.”

Liz, of course, is totally right. She challenges
the Motion Picture Academy and the upcoming parade of Oscarheads to see past
tabloid demonization to the significance of MJ’s art; to make right the
mainstream’s neglect of a great artist.

Get Armond White’s new book Keep Moving: The
Michael Jackson Chronicles

New York Press

"The Gloved One Is Not A Chump" – The City Sun, November 21, 1991

"…the triumphant image of Jackson held aloft by the Statue Of
Liberty (he strikes the pose of his BAD video), negating Barbra
Streisand’s narcissism in Funny Girl, announces a new level of
symbolism. As the image widens, Jackson is seen surrounded by the
Eiffel Tower, the Sphinx, the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis, Big Ben, and
other wonders of the world in a vivid fantasy collage. It’s obvious
that he is speaking to the world at large, but the less superficial
meaning of the image shows that he is equal to these wonders: equally
famous, equally legendary, equally ‘big’…"

Winner of the 1992 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award in Music Criticism/Journalism
Also seen in the book, "THE RESISTANCE: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook The World" by Armond White

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