It was an amazing night, with recession, war, torture and politics put on hold as people all over the world turned out for Michael Jackson. Even conservative CNN news anchor Wolf Blitzer turned to mush before our eyes as he confirmed news of the artist's shocking death and remembered how "we all grew up with Jackson and his music."
Anybody who thought the King of Pop had been dethroned by criminal allegations and financial disaster had to think again. All over the world, young people who weren't even born when MJ unleashed those first dance moves had gathered in the streets to play his music and tell the news crews how they grew up with the late star-- how personally they took his life and death and art.
As one who grew up with Elvis Presley, and came out with Elton John, and grows old with Lady Gaga, I've got Jackson looming big in my own lifeline. Like many of us, I've wondered. Was he gay or transgendered? Some of us have tried to claim him. But Jackson was never one who could be nailed down with an orientation or gender label...or any label, for that matter.
As one of Jackson's business associates said in last night's interviews, "With Michael Jackson, you never knew for sure."
Yet onstage and in music videos, MJ gave us ongoing glimpses of his inner world. He was the shapeshifter -- now this, now that, in the blink of an eye. "Beat It" had him looking quasi-macho and trying to deal with tough guys. But "In the Closet" had him looking just like a young tomboy dyke as he romanced a lipstick lesbian. For that song, I found his choice of title interesting. And I always had the feeling that the teen girlfriend Jackson pursued through so many songs was really that elusive female side of himself that he finally decided to reveal through cosmetic surgeries. Yet establishing himself as a father of three children kept one moon-walking foot firmly in the camp of men.
Michael's music had several messages with a powerful appeal for older children and teens. One -- the battle to figure out who you really are. Two -- the battle with all those adult powers that try to take control of your life and crush you. Three, the battle against violence, to protect the weak and vulnerable among those you love. Those are powerful messages with young people all around the world, and I think they explain a lot about Jackson's enduring appeal with four generations of fans -- even those fans who are now older adults themselves. Burning teenage questions have their own habit of shapeshifting -- coming back in a new incarnation, when adults find they have to struggle to further re-define their old definitions.
Jackson's messages come stunningly clear in "Thriller," that most popular and influential music video of all time. It starts out by spoofing B horror movies, then suddenly veers into a hair-raising exploration of how to deal with terror by transforming yourself into the terror. The teen kid promises to protect the girlfriend from the fiendish undead who corner them. But is he a fiend himself? That moment when the zombies fall into a machine-perfect pop-and-lock chorus number with Jackson is a turning point in the modern history of music and dance. Is he? Isn't he? At the end, as the fiends crawl back into their graves and the teen hero walks her home, he gives us a fiendish grin over his shoulder, and the viewer is in on the secret -- for now, anyway.
In short, Jackson's career one of those cases where impact and image are amped by leaving the definition in the eye of the beholder.
As that career got mired ever deeper in issues around debt, health problems and allegations of sex offenses, the volcanic fire and anger of his earlier performances began to wane. Before our eyes, he changed into a tired old lady...yet he still seemed to have a hold on that gentle kid who sang "We Are the World." A low point in his image timeline was that moment during the 2005 trial in Santa Barbara, when he arrived late in pajama bottoms, looking uncombed and ill.
A few months ago, as Jackson announced his final "This Is It" concert series in London, it seemed hard to believe that he could re-light enough of that old fire, day after day, to get through a contract commitment for 50 appearances. But fans believed him -- and rushed to spend $85 million on a ticket sell-out. Days before his death, Michael was actually rehearsing at Staples Center in L.A.
For the moment, the media world is upside down. Yesterday Google and other major websites crashed with the Jackson search overload. Farrah Fawcett's death and the "Bruno" premiere got pushed into the crawl on the bottom of the TV screen, along with the Gov. Sanford scandal, the Iraq war, the Iran revolution, global warming, and President Obama's ongoing efforts at "change."
In a couple of days, "news" will be back to "normal." Meanwhile, investigation of Jackson's death, along with custody battles over his children and lawsuits over the aborted concert series, will surely drag out the drama for weeks, even months. No doubt Fred Phelps will picket Jackson's funeral and try to convince us that Michael is dancing with the demons in Hell.
Meanwhile, losses suffered by the concert promoters will surely be made up by new music sales. "Thriller" is back at #1 on the iTunes chart, and other Jackson albums have crashed the top 40 as well. The fans are speaking loud and clear.
Good night, sweet prince...or princess...whichever you are...were...are. Or maybe it's good morning, since your music will go on thrilling millions of us for new generations to come.