Saturday, June 27, 2009

Remembering a Pop Icon

The sudden death of pop icon Michael Jackson was both a shock and expected. He is a controversial figure for sure, even his importance in pop music development was not without debate. Yet for a time, he was the face of America.

In the early nineties, when I was taking English classes for teaching assistants (TA) at the University of Toledo (Ohio), my mostly-Chinese fellow TAs shocked and dismayed my American teacher, by telling her that the only American musicians we could easily call to mind were Michael Jackson and Madonna. Of course, we also knew Lionel Richie (due to his hugely popular Say You, Say Me) and Paul Simon (courtesy of the movie The Graduate). We knew nothing about Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, or Bruce Springsteen.

We knew America through Madonna's bust and Michael Jackson's crotch. To the outside world, those crass yet truly iconic postures were what American "culture" was about, like it or not. Michael Jackson was a deeply flawed tragic figure. We knew nothing about his being a child star, his dark skin and Afro. We knew him as a freakish sexy animal, which was an act of rebellion in itself.

Of course, over the years, we, the new immigrants, learned more about America, and started to appreciate its complexity. Yet, who can replace the faces of Michael or Madonna? Ansel Adams, Richard Serra, Susan Sontag, John Updike, Renée Fleming, or Deborah Voigt? I think not.

For better or worse, Michael Jackson is America, and, for many, America is Michael Jackson.

One song I am sure that I knew then, and still does not sound dated is Billie Jean (YouTube Video).

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