When Michael Jackson gave up the ghost recently, we may have witnessed an eerie embodiment of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. In both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel and in the Oscar-nominated film version starring Brad Pitt, Benjamin Button ages in reverse: Born a shriveled old man, he dies a newborn baby.
As an 11-year-old prodigy, Jackson burst into the public as a miniature adult, seemingly immune to small talk and child’s play. His singing erupted into a volcano of sound and buried his youth beneath an implausible, though irresistible sophistication. If he knew too much for his age, he may have also known too much for his own good.
Jackson’s art opened a window into emotions he couldn’t possibly have understood. As he got older, he repented of his precociousness and took refuge in a childlike persona that amused before it provoked pity and horror. By the time he died, Jackson was both loved and loathed by millions because he refused to grow up. To twist Fitzgerald’s words, Jackson proved that there are no second childhoods in America.
The truth may be that both his childhoods were imagined—the first one snuffed by the inspiring and imperious demands of his father; the second one carved from a sometimes dangerous nostalgia for the youth he largely missed. But in both, Michael Jackson changed America.
The Jackson 5 was signed to Motown Records in 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Their string of hits starting in 1969 helped to usher in a post-civil rights version of blackness that exploded on record with their electrifying performances and their fashionable expression of race pride. The Jackson 5 didn’t have to give speeches or attend rallies to certify their authentic blackness; the way they grew their hair and moved their bodies spelled love of their people in bold letters.
Michael was a chocolate, cherubic-faced genius with an Afro halo. He and his brothers offered an image of black masculinity that had all the style of the Black Panthers, but the broad appeal of Tony the Tiger, which is why their animated artistry helped to integrate Saturday morning television in the early ‘70s with their own cartoon series. Sure, it was bubble gum, but their Blow Pops were spiked.
Coming a little more than five years after the Moynihan report famously concluded in 1965 that the black family was in shambles, the Jackson 5 presented an intact unit whose image of togetherness was as revolutionary as what was happening in the courts and streets. Blacks and whites rode Michael Jackson’s vocal cords into the soft racial catechism of Motown universalism without protest or resistance.
As Michael grew older, his voice and face changed. He no longer belted out R&B tunes in a blues-drenched melisma. Instead, as a solo artist, Jackson spiced his undulating tenor with sonic hiccups, parenthetical yelps, falsetto sighs and melodic grunts, all akin to musical Tourette’s. Jackson created a set of pop songs that transformed American music and evaded the racial pigeon hole. Embellishing disco, fomenting funk and dabbling in light rock on his superb 1979 album Off the Wall, Jackson reached his commercial peak on 1982’s Thriller, the best-selling album of all time.
Jackson’s image was also undergoing rapid transformation: His Afro got relaxed and curled, then straightened, his nose got smaller and sharper, and his skin got lighter and whiter. But none of that spared his racial travail. In 1980, after a Rolling Stone magazine publicist declined Jackson’s request for a cover story, he fumed, “I’ve been told over and over that black people on the cover of magazines doesn’t sell copies … Just wait. Someday those magazines are going to be begging me for an interview. Maybe I’ll give them one. And maybe I won’t.”
In 1983, Jackson and his music label had to put the screws to MTV to air the video for his landmark single “Billie Jean,” opening the door for other black artists and giving the fledgling music channel cultural cache. Jackson essentially had to beg MTV for the opportunity to help make it rich and successful.
In the midst of his success, Jackson fought desperately to salvage the childhood he felt he never had. He eventually flaunted a penchant for sharing his bed with children, leading to accusations of molestation. Although he was legally cleared, Jackson failed to persuade millions of skeptics in the court of public opinion. He reshaped his face in his own image. Jackson grew to believe that he was too dark and that his nose was too broad. His relentless self-mutilation through reconstructive surgery was, in part, a bitter projection of the self-hatred that slices the black psyche. Although Jackson claimed to suffer from vitiligo, the disease that causes one to lose pigment, he may have sought to bleach his skin to rid his face of its offending blackness. Jackson deconstructed his African features and color; his face became a geography of distorted faces, a fleshly region of racial ideals invaded by spooky European traits that rendered him ethnically opaque.
What wasn’t difficult to see was the blackness and greatness of his music and the broad humanity of his globally popular brand of entertainment. Michael Jackson didn’t get from his father the nurture, love and unconditional affirmation he wanted in his first childhood. At times, he recklessly pursued them in his failed second childhood.
Still, he offered the world a glimpse of an extremely disciplined genius who was willing to share his gifts with millions of others because he couldn’t enjoy them himself. That may not qualify him for martyrdom, but it does make him a remarkable, if tortured soul who transformed his suffering into transcendent song and dance.
Michael Eric Dyson is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University.