Michael Jackson, the 1970s version (pre-MTV, pre-surgery, pre-loss of hope, pre-spectacle)

So I am a little late (as usual) in commenting on the very sad death of Michael Jackson a couple of weeks ago. I never expected to write anything about it. What could I say about this that hasn’t already been said? What could his death/his tragic decline have to do with making and staying in trouble? Not much when you think about trouble as a positive, virtuous and potentially transformative attitude or set of practices. But, I do see a connection between Michael Jackson’s increasingly disturbing behavior and one common (and primarily negative) way of understanding trouble. For lack of a more clever way of putting it, Michael Jackson was troubled (in a worried, disturbed state) and his behavior/lifestyle/body/what he seemed to represent was troubling (worrisome, problematic, not quite right) to us.

There are all sorts of ways in which Jackson remains troubling to many of us–his family life, his behavior, his body–all raise questions for us: Just how many plastic surgeries can one body have? What kind of father could he possibly be? Why won’t he ever grow up? But, these questions don’t get at why I am (and have been for a while) troubled by Michael Jackson. For me, the most troubling set of questions revolve around this: What happened? What happened to him, and, more importantly, what has happened to us? What was lost when Michael went from a talented dancer and musician to a MTV spectacle and tabloid freak? And, what does this loss signify?

In their reflection on Jackson, k-punk laments the disturbing shift in Jackson (as musician, as person, as body, as image) from Off the Wall to Thriller. Jackson the wide-eyed, youthful, hopeful, happy, exuberant body in motion in the throes of disco-era Off the Wall becomes transformed (or distorted?) into the living dead, hyper-commodity, MTV staple, tabloid spectacle brought on by the enormous success of Thriller. While k-punk is disturbed by the juxtaposition of the images of Off-the-Wall Michael with Thriller Michael, there is an earlier image of Michael that has haunted me for several years now.

When I grow up, I’m gonna be happy and do what I like to do,
Like making noise and making faces and making friends like you.
And when we grow up, do you think we’ll see
That I’m still like you and you’re still like me?
I might be pretty; you might grow tall.
But we don’t have to change at all.
spoken: I don’t want to change, see, ’cause I still want to be your friend, forever and ever and ever and ever and ever.

In 1974 Jackson appeared on the ABC television special, Free to be…you and me. Singing with Roberta Flack on “When We Grow Up,” Jackson is sweet and funny and, most importantly, full of life and hope. For me, this song captures the (perhaps naive) hope and promise that some (but definitely not all) 1970s social justice movements against racism and sexism often exuded. When I watch Free to be…you and me I am always amazed at its hopeful and anti-cynical belief that anything was possible, that the freedom to be and love and do what you want was waiting for all of us if we just worked together as “Brothers and Sisters.”

Many may argue that this belief in the possibilities of a better (read: more just, more “free”) world is too naive and uncritical. Indeed, the hope represented in this special and in Jackson’s song with Flack do seem a bit too pollyannaish and ignore-ant (yes, I just made up my own word: to ignore + to be unaware = ignore-ant) of the real things that get in the way of a better present and future. But, is this the only way to think of hope and possibility? Can we be hopeful and troubled/troubling/willing to trouble at the same time? For me, one of the real tragedies that Jackson’s shift from 1974 Michael (the year I was born) to 2009 Michael is the replacement of all hope and possibility with ironic distance and cynicism. Is it really an either/or situation here? Must we either have uncritical and naive hope or realistic and thoughtful cynicism? Can’t we be both hopeful and critical, aware of injustice but still willing to believe that better futures are possible? And, is the progression of our lives (much like Jackson’s) a gradual move from hopefulness to hopelessness, from innocence to bitterness or freakishness?

What other visions of hope can we imagine/express/believe in? The prophetic pragmatism and tragic-comic hope of Cornel West or the visionary pragmatism of Patricia Hill Collins are good places to start…

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