Of all the different tributes pouring in from around the world on the death of Michael Jackson, P. Diddy’s remark moved me deeply. Discussing Michael Jackson’s legacy on the hip-hop generation, and already producing a musical tribute called Better on the Other Side, P. Diddy noted that Michael Jackson’s music, videos, and dance moves helped him to “see the beat” and that Michael Jackson “made me believe in magic.”
I’m struck by that image: of music as something magical. I remember getting that magical feeling the first time I had a chance to watch MTV on the cable TV at my babysitter’s house when I was around 9 or 10 years old. I didn’t have regular cable at my own home, so this was definitely a treat, and as an only child, I was able to watch my very first music video in the company of my babysitter’s six children, two of whom were around my age and who became my regular playmates. We were all just in complete awe when we saw Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean air on MTV. Without realizing the racial breakthrough Michael made on a TV station like MTV, which up until that time focused almost exclusively on rock music, we were just glued to the TV set and imagined that we were watching a magician in his high-water pants and saddle shoes, whose every step and touch shed light and made the world a better place. Every dance move seemed mind-blowingly out of this world. And keep in mind this was even before he unleashed his moonwalk onto the world!
This pop icon was no mere regular guy. He was already legend. And it didn’t matter, after watching that video, whether we understood the lyrics to the song. With “Billie Jean,” we not only heard the song, we saw the song. And, yes, I and my playmates and everyone else of my generation believed in magic.
Little did I know that, 25 years later, I would experience magic again on my TV set. This time, the spectacle was far more subtle but just as deeply moving. A cute and sweet kid by the name of David Archuleta sang a song from my childhood, Bryan Adams’ “Heaven,” so that I could “understand” the song and hear it for the first time. And boy, did I ever!
So, what is it about these two artists, who conjure up for me a deep love and appreciation for music? I’m hesitant to simply fall back on easy comparisons between the two – both are child prodigies, both have dominant fathers, both come from religious faiths that tend to take doctrine quite literally, both are sensitive souls who have a habit of displaying the peace sign, and both have maniacal fans. David is already on record expressing how much Michael Jackson has been a huge musical influence on him, and such statements make me love David all the more, as well as deeply respect that we’ve got something in common despite the fact that we represent different generations.
For me, what really connects these two artists is their profound knowledge of music’s power. So much so that, when they perform, they create something magical. No one will ever match Michael Jackson’s sheer power in articulating a dance move or pantomime, or in creating a visual image in a music video that contributes to his iconic status. But, in David’s own way, he understands that power but communicates it differently and almost exclusively through The Voice. A key difference between the two is that Michael Jackson was very much aware of his superstar status and knew how to market that image. And I really want to acknowledge that about the man because I’m starting to get frustrated by so many reports that reduce him to a “victim.” Come on now. Michael Jackson was the consummate showman, the ultimate magician whose magic was music. Every song, every record, every album, every music video, every concert, yes even every tabloid story, was part of his magic trick. He performed to the nth degree, and such self-awareness of his public image – to me – indicates that he was willing to create enough of a wall of mystery to protect that personal side of the “Just Michael” persona most of us never got a glimpse of.
David’s celebrity is very different in this high-tech world of constant information since he has allowed his fans to witness “Just David,” but who is “Just Michael” behind the facade of masks (including the restructured face surgeries), a Neverland estate, a chimpanzee pet called Bubbles, and a mass collection of various freak objects? Tell me that’s not the ultimate magician working hard at camouflaging “Just Michael” from the rest of the world. If he wanted to protect that personal side of himself, then I can respect that. Which means that we’ve got the public side of Michael to enjoy, and enjoy we did! Does this mean that Michael wasn’t a deeply flawed man who may have overdosed on drugs or pushed himself too far or was plagued with self-esteem issues? No, it doesn’t, but I’d like to accord him some agency in the path he has chosen while trying to survive as a mega star and global icon.
James Baldwin, who died in 1987 before he witnessed the demise of Michael Jackson, once said this of him at the height of his popularity: “The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of carnivorous success.” The ultimate tragedy about Michael Jackson, to me, is not that he was a possible victim of drugs, of enabling friends, of insanity, or of childhood traumas. As the consummate magician, he played a trick on himself and, in Houdini fashion, got so caught up in one of his “great escape” acts, he couldn’t quite disentangle himself. Somewhere, he confused the public Michael for “Just Michael” and lost sight of who he really was. In the end, this private person got sacrificed for the larger-than-life figure, and that is what we’re left with: the magic heard in “I’ll Be There” or “Billie Jean” or “Man in the Mirror” or “Thriller.”
I grieve for the man who got sacrificed on the altar of celebrity, but with great sacrifice comes something greater than oneself: a legend, a King of Pop, a cultural phenomenon, and that is what we can celebrate today. As a fan of another potentially great artist, I may need to ask myself: do I want “Just David” who plays to crowds of devoted fans in intimate venues, or do I want “Just David” to live up to his full potential as David the Next Superstar? Will David the Superstar become the ultimate magician in which “Just David” gets lost in a disappearing act? Or will he master the dangerous trick of living two distinct lives – one in front of the world, the other behind the scenes?
More than trying to answer these questions, I think I want the magic of music to continue. David may not need to put on an elaborate magic show to help us feel how magical music can be. And, perhaps with Michael Jackson’s passing – and with him the passing of an era of 20th-century superstar culture – we may need our stars to be less superhuman and more regular, despite the inclination of David’s fans to place halos over his head. What I have learned about the world’s sorrow and joy in the wake of the news of Michael’s passing is how music is the one language humanity responds to. I saw it on the streets of Harlem and the streets of London.
Michael Jackson, in his 50 years on earth, made us feel the magic of music and for that, I think it’s worth getting a reprieve from news reports of economic recession, wars, bombings, and political protests. For it is music – more than political speeches and more than bombs – that sustains our humanity. A musician may not start a revolution, but he gives it the heart and soul to keep the people moving.
Anyone in the past 24 hours who still feels that the death of a great musician should not top world news reports is someone whose heart has figuratively stopped beating. Our music-magicians may need to perform the ultimate trick of reviving the hearts of many a cynic and realist. I have faith in David’s abilities.