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29 June 2009
Michael Jackson as cultural artifact

The world loves eccentricity in its artistic geniuses, but usually only to a point. The people whose creative offerings trigger the greatest ripples in popular culture are generally those innovative enough to create something new and noticeable, but not so far outside the norm so as to be utterly divorced from the culture’s own fashions and tendencies. But Michael Jackson, for large portions of his career, was a cultural outsider/insider without equal, whose every public act balanced—often with considerable danger—between utter cultural (and human) disconnect, and truly prescient and resonant cultural performances.

In general I like to think I don’t share the mainstream culture’s full hunger for celebrity tragedies; indeed, several times over the past 15 years or so, when Michael Jackson was in the news, I’d follow events as if under duress, a little sad that so much cultural energy was expended around one person’s obvious wounds, flaws, and deeply odd proclivities. What was the big deal about him again? But then, invariably, I would see a clip of Michael performing and the scales would fall from my eyes. Oh yes, that’s why. The same has been true after his death: reading the articles and reports and status-updates, I felt a little disconnected, till I finally clicked through to YouTube to watch that live performance of Billie Jean. Oh yes indeed.

Can a person be a cultural artifact? On the one hand it seems a bit of an affront to their, well, personhood, to treat the artist, however culturally prolific, as the artifact itself. Still, if the case can be made, surely Michael Jackson’s public life (and it was most of his life) is an argument for it. And, perhaps, a warning against it.

So, we ask with more than the usual amount of fear and trembling, what did Michael Jackson make of the world? What did the world make of him?

—Nate Barksdale

1. What did Michael Jackson assume about the way the world is?

MJ assumed this world is what you make of it with enough hard work and vision.

Firstperson i

It was a dark and unforgiving place.

Stephen

People love you as long as you perform perfectly and keep them coming back for more.

—Christy
2. What did Michael Jackson assume about the way the world should be?

It should be a safe place for kids, and adults who want to remain kids all their life. A place free from the abuse of a domineering father. Witness “Neverland”.

Stephen

peace, love, understanding, and enough money to buy your happiness

—Christy
3. What did Michael Jackson make possible?

Anti-gravity, with the moonwalk.

Mark Petersen

Vincent Price’s comeback.

Stephen

An African-American as the biggest celebrity in mostly-white American pop culture.

—Christy

Michael Jackson made possible a giant entertainment machine that eventually outstripped it’s own gears. So highly produced, promoted, rehearsed and executed that it could neither sustain itself nor create something more resonant and meaningful in a new iteration. So a stripped down grunge band from Seattle knocked Dangerous off the top of the charts. For Lessons from Michael Jackson, Nirvana, UnChristian and A Faith and Culture Devotional see http://www.culture.com

Lael Arrington

make that http://www.culturedevo.com

Lael Arrington
4. What did Michael Jackson make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

Objectivity concerning him and his life. His seclusion and larger-than-lifeness, his transition from cute child to disturbing man, his lawsuits, their outcomes, and so on. He is one of the strangest superstars in modern history.

Charles Churchill
5. What new culture has been created in response?

The questions above are so difficult, because The Gloved One had so many stages in his career: the singing/dancing child prodigy (“ABC”), the pop revolutionary and #1 music star in the world (“Thriller,” “Beat It”), the fading superstar past his prime (“Black or White”), the lurch into the bizarre, sad, and terrifying, the years of reclusiveness…but this question is easy, I think.  OK, here’s hoping this isn’t hyperbole: every piece of pop music in the world created since 1982 has been influenced by Michael Jackson. With Michael, could we have had Madonna, NKOTB, Boyz II Men, Maryah, Britney, or Justin Timberlake?

But one could go even further: without Michael breaking down the color barrier on MTV, could we have had the crossover hits of Run DMC, Public Enemy, and the Fresh Prince (and Will Smith’s ensuing career)? Or the explosion of popularity of rap and hip hop among white teens? 

He even influenced rock, though in a very different way. The “boy band” vocal trend of the early ‘90s was a direct descendent of Jackson’s style; the grunge sound of Nirvana et al. was a rebuke of that style. So, in a significant way, the entire American rock scene of the past 15-20 years started as a reaction AGAINST Jackson’s style and influence.

Micheal Hickerson