The Michael Jackson Chronicals
By Armond White

Moving Forward: An Introduction

   Writing during the crux of Michael Jackson's career gave me the chance to scrutinize a cultural phenomenon at the movement it reached a peak of popular attention and the depths of public censure. Post-Thriller, the mainstream media attempted to topple Jackson's showbiz eminence which it had helped build- a circular process satisfying animal bloodlust and political resentment. It was a power struggle.

   The power struggle continues following Jackson's death on June 25, 2009. Past arguments about Jackson's significance were reignited, as if to finally grant or withhold respect and recognition. As Jackson painfully learned, his fans were also confronted with music, film and TV industry machinations; compelled to recognize that there were forces of social approval and condemnation; obliged to understand in new ways the moral and social importance of art. This was also strangely exciting- suspenseful in its unpredictability about what Jackson and the media would do next. And it was perfectly suited to the mission of New York's Black-owned weekly newspaper The City Sun whose motto “Speaking Truth to Power” was guidepost to how I, as the paper's Arts Editor, could chronicle the extraordinary culture events of the '80s and '90s.

   Going back over these journalistic accounts reminded me that the MJ discussion, like the MJ mystique, has not changed. But many details had been forgotten and the good of journalism is that it preserves those minutiae and can bring back points that admirers internalize and that detractors dismiss. The TV-movie, The Jacksons: An American Legend (chapter 7) showed the kind of media sympathy not likely to happen again. The City Sun's annual Lists & Prizes (chapter 15) proves Jackson’s late-90's impact. Reviewing a Crispin Glover film in The New York Press helped recall the tremendous poignancy of “Ben” (chapter 17). My Jackson Pop internet interview (chapter 19) highlighted a Lincoln Center tribute before Michael's final agony.

   Jackson's career was a spectacle of continuous aspiration. As Rev. Al Sharpton noted at July 7 Memorial: “Michael Never Stopped!” Yes, he kept on moving. MJ's importance wasn't showbiz as usual, it moved through the ongoing issues of race, class, sex, law, spirituality and aesthetics. He had flaunted himself as a towering cultural figure, but he was also central- a global cultural flashpoint. That's why news media commentators were stopped in their bloodhound tracks by the undeniable outpouring of public affection and mourning. Standard media demeaning of a Black male icon was no longer acceptable; Jackson's art roused deep affection. Even P. Diddy told a CNN reporter: “We not go let y'all do this of him.” Not just black Americans but people around the world felt the same way- protective and loving.

   Those attributes are what inspired Teofilo Colon Jr and John Demetry, two of the sharpest and most passionate pop purveyors it's been my privilege to know, to encourage this compendium. Yet, in reviewing my Jackson pieces- longform essays, monumentary capsules, reviews and reflections that chronicle his creations and note the context of related works by others- I was forced to recall my own relationship to Jackson. It had changed from my customary critical scepticism to sincere awe. I wasn't the biggest fan of Thriller when it first appeared in 1982 ; it didn't fit in with my rockist criteria for album art. But Thriller won the world for its superlatively crafted program of single tracks; it was an album in music culture's original sense- a collation- while I was infatuated with the cohesive impudence of Prince's 1999. I hadn't appreciated that Jackson, already a showbiz veteran, reached new peak. Who knew what came next? Maya Angelou's Memorial poem, “We Had Him,” cogently stated: “Now we know we know nothing.” It is devastatingly apt for anyone who has experienced the pain of loss and bafflement about what lay beyond the veil, but it is humbling for a journalist.

   I was not prepared for the subtle revolution of Thriller. What you hear in the suave, propulsive funk of the title track is a commanding artist significantly, irrevocably changing the popular groove. Michael's spooky parody song went deep into pop lore. It unearthed underground funk- a specifically black musical sound- and engaged the common delight in horror film mythology. (Vincent Price's rap was as avant-garde as Blondie's “Rapture”.) What you saw in the globally admired music video certified this new vernacular, making it a keynote of 1980s postmodernism (as was the personalized West Side Story references in Beat It). The Thriller video wasn't great cinema- Stan Winston's zombie cosmetics were state-of-the-art but director John Landis merely replicated the blunt narrative of his 1981 An American Werewolf in London. It took Michael's dancing and his obvious enjoyment of horror film tropes to overdrive the under lit photography and sketchy, unappealing plot. He unexpectedly raised low art to high pop through sheer infectiousness. Each album track had a similar virtuoso effect. That's why Thriller has endless appeal. But time has shown, Thriller wasn't the culmination of Jackson's career as I thought at the time (and as his disengaged eulogizers now claim when pointing back to Off The Wall as his artistic peak). Rather, Thriller should be understood as a new beginning for international, multi-hued pop and for Michael as that epoch's ambassador- an exposed, vulnerable, undeniable world-class figure.

   As Thriller's singles impressed their excellence, undiminished even through endless repetition, the fact of Michael Jackson progressed- burnished beyond expectation, surpassing the cultural reign of Armstrong, Sinatra and Elvis. The fact that he sang pop (R&B, Soul, Rock, Ballads) put him outside the regular sphere of commendation. His professionalism was easier to grasp than his originality; Black artists always being taken for granted. But the choreographic grace and the vocal ingenuity remain astonishing. Thriller made Jackson the inspiration for the pop music styles of the subsequent quarter-century; his movements, video visions and vocalizing have not yet faded from the scene. Even I, a Jackson Five enthusiast, recognized it late. But I'm happy that these testaments are evidence the perception was not too late.

   The title Keep Moving comes from Michael's propulsive iterations in the Tony Moran remix of “History” that closes Blood on the Dance Floor. Perhaps Jackson's movements came too fast for the cultural gatekeepers, but then that's pop. Ready or not. Jackson's career arc from beloved child star to dazzling young adult to ever-perplexing world conqueror shows a restless imagination. He pushed the culture forward- challenging it- as he also challenged himself. His idiosyncratic nature proved puzzling and alluring, yet it also torments the status quo. Jackson's art was never intended to be controversial or difficult, and I tried to show in these articles that it wasn't- if one received it with open eyes, ears and heart.

   The crux of Jackson's career demonstrates how Black American artists out of necessary struggle against disrespect to persevere in both the creation of art and daily existence. Most of these articles were written during the period when Black discoursers became fashionable in the mainstream press, a snobbish contrast to the irrepressible outspokenness among the era's Black popular music artists-- altogether the biggest moment of black articulation since the Civil Rights Era. Jackson's own expressive development in this period deserves recognition for the way he responded to cultural and political through his own sensibility. His unique voice transformed into a more powerfully emotive instrument than what the President Of The United States belittled as an “entertainer”. Why should Jackson's sharp articulations not also inspire admiration? Recognizing this explains the sharp tone of the Scream essays where my critic's amazement met my citizen's exasperation. Through it all, I tried to tally the moral stability and good will that Jackson maintained in his complex art. I hope these essays put these controversies in proper perspective.