By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
When contacted by Sony Legacy last year to write the liner notes for the reissues of the Jacksons’ CDs Destiny and Triumph, as well as a new Greatest Hits collection, I felt two emotions: fear and excitement. This wouldn’t be me introducing an artist or new music to an audience. This was music with which I already had a deep, personal history but that a whole lot of folks knew far better than I. But somewhere in my mind the dozing fanboy was stirred and I thought of this as a chance to stitch a thread that would do some heavy-duty connecting: from the younger me who’d religiously watched the J5 Saturday-morning cartoon; to the young me who’d watched his diaper-clad toddler cousin, Lesley, bend at the waist to smack the floor with her palms for emphasis as she sang I-I-I wun-duuuuuh who’s lovin’ you; to the preadolescent me who’d been so dazzled by the Jackson (and Sister Sledge) concert in support of the Destiny CD that when I returned home and my mother asked how it was, I stuttered and grinned like a fool; to the teenage me who’d watch his sister wash dishes and sing along to “Bless His Soul,” “Push Me Away” and “That’s What You Get for Being Polite,” and be moved and a little frightened at her wistfulness as she sang; to the me who instantly got sick of “Beat It,” but could play “Rock With You” over and over, and over again.
I wanted to draw a thread from all of me to all of the Jacksons, and express something of what their music had meant to me. I’d never wanted to be Michael, or be anything like him; never imitated him in a mirror or “performed” him for family entertainment. But I’d closed my bedroom door, turned up the music and fallen in.
Excerpt from the Destiny notes:
“The Jacksons were the flowers of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Pride movement. Their exquisite, perfectly round afros and stylized street attire celebrated a proud, new aesthetic. Their stop-on-a-dime perfect choreography drew from the hottest moves of the day while simultaneously harkening back to black performing traditions gleaned from masters like Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown and the artists at the Jacksons’ first musical home, Motown. In their own relentlessly honed and perfected artistry, they paid homage to those who had come before them, while updating the blueprint for future generations. They were the carriers and embodiment of so many hopes, fantasies and dreams — cultural and political ambassadors just by virtue of their being: smart, talented, visionary, hard-working young black Americans, coming into their own after a decade of bloody struggle and sacrifice. The Jacksons seemed to be pointing not only black and white America but the world at large toward new possibilities of expression and being.”
Michael was blackness and maleness, soul music and pop culture, all forged pre-hip-hop, pre-Reagan, pre-crack, pre the implosion of short-lived civil rights–era idealism and hope. That’s an important point to help understand the thick strands of optimism, possibility, aesthetic and political vision that ran through his work. And that makes the darkness and paranoia that marbled so much of his later music all the more heartbreaking, especially as it roughly paralleled the shifting tenor of the times. He never lost his humanitarian streak or his belief in the overall goodness of humanity, but the evolution of his own relationship to the world and his feelings about how he was treated darkened noticeably.
The beauty and power of Michael Jackson, particularly in the first 30 or so years of his life, was that he was black. It’s important to stress and explain that because in this “post-race/post-black” moment, it’s become obvious that a lot of Negroes rushing to free themselves from the so-called shackles of blackness, aided by “colorblind” and “progressive” non-Negroes, don’t even know what blackness is: Working like a dog while mired in poverty in Gary, Indiana — endless rehearsals, mastering backbreaking craftsmanship, sweltering under the heat of a father’s dream deferred — all while aiming for a big time mapped out by sweat, hope and faith; that’s black. Not letting your lack of material comforts impede your forward motion; that’s black. Being rooted in the working-class/struggling-class vortex of innovation, perseverance and resilience that has birthed all the Negro musical r/evolutions in this country; that’s black. Building effortlessly on the past and setting a whole new bar for the future; blacker than black. Exercising the prerogative of organic genius by laying claim to shit that already exists and just making it your own; B-l-a-c-k. Mapping the template and setting the pace that will govern the globe; b-b-b-b-black. Coming of age amid proud shouts of “Black is beautiful” and effortlessly embodying the adage, but somehow getting infected with the centuries-old disease of white supremacy and internalized racism that will have you repeatedly take a knife to your natural-born beauty . that’s so very black. Being universal in your struggles and triumphs just by being you: black.
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