I’m told that when I was very young, I was a Michael Jackson fan. I don’t really remember that actual phase, but I remember being told about it going back quite a ways, so I tend to believe it. I followed that up with a country music phase, and that I do remember. (It is long, long gone).
Aside from being told that I had kittens over the moon dance, my first memory of having anything to do with the King of Pop comes from middle school. I spent gym classes hanging out with a girl named Robin. We weren’t friends, we didn’t interact at all except in gym class, but we were the two people nobody else would interact with, and since we didn’t mind each other we teamed up. This was around the time the first accusations of child molestation were coming out. Other kids in the gym class were making jokes about the weird ex-superstar and his kiddy diddling habits. I was ignoring them. Robin was getting upset.
“He didn’t do that,” she says. “He’s too awesome. He wouldn’t need to do that.” At this point in my life I wouldn’t know Billy Jean from Jean Genie and was inclined to smirk. But, only person willing to talk to me, so I held back.
“I don’t know. He has gotten weird. I mean, he started off black and now look at him.” I’m reasonably certain he did diddle little boys, and so I figure walking her through it gently is the best way to help her cope.
“What?” she says.
“All the plastic surgery he’s had. Look at him.”
“He’s not black!” she says, getting very upset now.
“Not anymore, no,” says I. As this is all I know first hand about Michael Jackson, that once he was pretty good looking and now he looks like a, pasty, ratty wierdo, I’m confused about the controversy.
“He was never black. How could you say that about him? He’s white. He’s always been white.”
It turns out that her mother had a cassette tape with all the big hits on it, but not the case. They didn’t have a TV. We were so far out in the middle of nowhere that you wouldn’t see pop culture without TV. She heard a voice that didn’t sound black, so her idol was white. And he’d always been white. It would be just awful of a black man was responsible for this little cassette that was the only thing she had in common with her mother.
That was my first glimmer of understanding about all the weirdness surrounding Michael Jackson. A crazy super-star breaking social rules is too common and expected to analyze. But a black man with an unmarked voice, with so much talent that race barriers evaporate for him, who looks in the mirror and wants to see a face that matches his success, that’s worth thought from a middle schooler.
And now all I have to say is that twenty years ago, death would have been a tragedy. Now, I think it’s just a tardy release. But I still don’t actually know anything about the King of Pop, so let’s take that for what it’s worth.