ARMOND WHITE'S PRESENTATION AT NYU'S 'REMEMBERING MICHAEL JACKSON' PANEL, SEPTEMBER 17, 2009
(pictures of the event below)
"What is the problem with Michael Jackson?" asked an Iraqi insurgent in the process of torturing Marky Mark Wahlberg (of all people) in the 1999 film Three Kings.
Answer: It is the Motown Problem: The devaluing of popular art—as when POTUS belittled Jackson as merely "an entertainer." But Jackson was an artist—with all the seriousness that appellation implies.
The Motown Problem is that black artistry (complicated human artistry) is casually disrespected as something glib, or trying-to-be-white artistry. It’s a class and status problem that even exists today.
Let’s briefly look back at how Michael Jackson exemplified Motown artistry in the substance of his earliest Motown hits:
I Want You Back—A kid’s moan expressively imitates an older person’s heartache, but in its closing strains, heartache and joy combined.
ABC—Bubble-gum pop, yet it’s ecstatic.
The Love You Save—Enunciates the discourse of loving, of personal recovery, or intimate and social communion. The mention Isaac Newton, Benjamin Frankliln, Alexander Graham Bell, Christopher Columbus—acknowledges school lessons, facts of kids receiving Western indoctrination/education and applying it to their personal lives. A crucial tenet of Motown’s Civil Rights Era progressive, upwardly mobile agenda.
I’ll Be There—Bring salvation back. Togetherness, it’s all I’m after.
Never Can Say Goodbye—Older regret and longing in kiddie voice ("piercing me right through the core"). It’s powerful. Whether or not the 12-year-old knows what it means, every listener does.
More than any other Motown artist, it was Michael who most successfully translated Motown’s integrationist ethic. The company’s motto: "The Sound of Young America" sounds like what Jay-Z, in the post-WWII, post Brown vs. Board of Education era, would call a "hustle." But it had a purpose—not a hustle, a mission: How to speak to America by enjoining it and becoming it. Claiming it.
Motown was not a gut bucket, deep-south sound—and the ‘60s designation of "Soul Music" was not detached from the genuine, personal expression one hears in Motown. Motown was a sound with the colors of Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series in it. That means it had down home rhythm and twang, but Northern pronunciation, vocabulary and diction. It achieves a great American articulation. For the generations who stressed education and advancement, this Motown language and Motown ethic was success itself. Apart from whatever monetary benefits accrued.
In "The Love You Save" Michael demonstrated that he could command the eternal entreaties of pop discourse—terms that are interchangeable whether discussing love or politics. These are terms pop artists must learn to master. And for R&B artists particularly, the Love/Save terms must also describe spiritual aspiration.
This Motown idiom became Michael Jackson’s language—especially as it matured into the complicated expression of his adult pop songs recorded to address a fractious political and cultural era. It’s at the heart of "Black or White" in the assertions of fearlessness and brotherhood that should not have surprised any Motown adept but should have echoed the Civil Rights Era ethics.
Yet, MJ’s most complex enunciations occurred in the stressful hiphop era, when ideas of Blackness had been tortured into rancor and stereotype. I detail this in the Keep Moving chapter on the Black or White music video:
Raised in the Motown ethic of assimilate-and-accommodate, Michael Jackson means it when he preaches brotherhood in "Black or White." Integration and racial unity are indispensable tenets for his philosophy for showbiz success partly because of the practical need for Black artist to work with white musicians, technicians, and buisness people, partly because Jackson, no doubt, believes in it. Jackson ain’t just whislin’ Dixie, to use an old phrase—in fact, he gives racial unity a modern emphasis, adding a new, shocking sincerity, to the politics of crossover.
To misunderstand MJ’s "problem" meant misunderstanding Motown because in so many inarguable ways—statistical, artistic and emotional—he had become its greatest ambassador, its greatest success story. His success spread out from obvious global recognition to a more universal acceptance of black artistry—black feelings and anxieties and aspiration.
In the very personal music that MJ made after leaving Motown the complications of translating African American experience into universal thought and language were ever-present. Now, the Michael Jackson problem is: Who is willing to see it? Who is willing to appreciate it?
Students & more lined up for the NYU Panel Discussion -- "Remembering Michael Jackson" -- featuring, among others, Spike Lee and Armond White (author of Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles):
As the attendees entered and took their seats, a projected image of MJ set the tone:
Spike Lee shared his recollections having worked with Michael Jackson on both versions of the They Don't Care About Us videos, while also opening up about his own personal MJ Renaissance in the wake of the King of Pop's passing:
A Q&A after the individual presentations gave Armond White the opportunity to defend Michael Jackson's unheralded later work, which he analyzes in detail in Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles:
This picture captures the dynamic on stage: