Yesterday—Thursday, July 26th—Michael Jackson suddenly passed away. The world lost a spectacular artist, a creative genius, and a cultural icon that captured the spirit of the pre-9/11 era defined by a youthful faith in global peace even as we struggled to emerge from the antithetical cold war paranoia. He was theatrical, bigger than life, outlandish, complex, sensitive, unique, and adored by many but he always remained a lonely character masked in dazzling golds and silvers, sequined gloves, and plastic surgery transformations. He was at once immediately and intimately accessible through the heartfelt music that entreated us to change the world and to make it a better place starting with that woman or man in the mirror, and yet elusive as he shifted into increasingly ethereal-like forms and cultural identities over the years. We were never sure what was underneath that mask. Maybe that is what made him curiously omnipresent yet the true invisible man, a character so mercurial that like water, he could shape his fluid form to the labels and containers we enclosed him. Although he may not have been comfortable in his own skin, he transcended racial divides artistically to unite the world in a shared wonder for the music that invited us to move beyond a concern for the microcosm of our individual nation to the condition of a global world.
Like many others, I felt the urge to dig up MJ's music and reconnect with the crystal-beaded, pixie-dust magic and idealism of the '80s that his music reflected. I downloaded Michael Jackson's songs from iTunes and after consuming a chocolate-almond-coated coconut cream popsicle, danced off the calories to MJ's greatest hits. His songs were the soundtrack to the children of the '80s. I was one of those children enchanted by his idealistic lyrics and entertaining themes. I fondly recall being a third grader dancing to "Beat It", "Thriller", and "Billie Jean" with my friend Claire at her slumber parties.
According to MJ in an interview to ABC News many years ago, he confessed that the song that was the most "autobiographical" was his song "Have You Seen My Childhood?" The most poignant and perhaps insightful segment on his Peter-Pan-like behavior and retreat into Neverland was when he described wistfully how he would look out the window and see children playing carefree on the playgrounds while his father forced him to study and then rehearse all day. He wondered where his childhood went and perhaps, as he grew older and more bizarre to the public, he transformed into a child who believed he was merely interacting with other children as peers.
The song that most defined the idealism of the '80s was "We are the World"... I was a child of that era of hope and believed through global collaboration, anything is possible. MJ co-wrote that song and he inspired a world to care about Ethiopia. He introduced that place on the map to me as a third-grader and sparked a lifetime interest in making a difference in the world. I think other children of the '80s may have felt that way, too. On a global scale, I believe that not only did he influence a new generation of musical pop artists, but also artists of all stripes and colors to make the world a better place through their art.
It's also during these times when an cultural icon dies that I contemplate the creation and endurance of icons. What does our choice for icons at a certain era say about the values we hold as a society? If a cultural icon is adopted worldwide, is this not an indication that there are universal dreams, aspirations, and struggles that unite and are shared across the world? If that icon proves to have an enduring legacy, what are those timeless values that transcend generations? As I survey the flood of worldwide sympathy for Michael Jackson, an icon most never knew personally, I think of why his death has touched so many of us profoundly and why we weep for what we perceive to be the end of an era. What defines an era culturally and how is it that one individual can come to represent an era? Is it the intensity of the media coverage of an image or icon that gives that icon a life of its own? In the American neo-local society, we may not see family members for months perhaps even years, yet for decades, MJ was a constant fixture in our public media consumption like a distant yet intriguing uncle, cousin, or nephew we watched from afar. It seems that Fred Roger (creator of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood) understood the power of icons and that even t.v. personalities who appear in children's daily lives could offer children a sense of security and love if they could rely on the perceived permanence of that family icon in their lives. When Princess Diana the most photographed woman in the world passed away suddenly, the world grieved for a woman they never knew personally, but became the embodiment of the good, ordinary women we knew in unhappy marriages—our mothers, our sisters, our friends, ourselves—who never had the opportunity to self-actualize but were there daily for their children. We watched Princess Diana transform from a woman with a charmed life some envied to a woman with an all-to-human life we later could relate.
Like the the People's Princess, the King of Pop held us spellbound in an admiration for his superhuman talents and a stardom that was recognized worldwide to the heights that many of us can only fantasize achieving, yet he attracted our sympathy for his human suffering as he overcame the shadows of his humble roots with an overbearing father to become a superstar through his extraordinary efforts and gifts. His success was the professional fulfillment of the American dream that a world could envy and share. In his song "We are the World", MJ entreated us to view ourselves as citizens of the world even within the context of the "me" generation. He revealed a spirit of generosity we wanted to perceive in ourselves. Michael Jackson was not the man in the mirror; he was the mirror capturing the shape of our imagination, and what we saw through the mirror was our own reflection.
Adieu, Moonwalker, you danced to your own beat with your graceful light steps and rocked the world. Yes, your "We are the World" continues to echo in the hearts of many even if your own voice is silenced and your steps are stilled.