This week marked the occasion of what would have been Michael Jackson’s 60th birthday. It was a day long marked on the calendars of fans across the world, and in the countdown to August 29th, 2018-with diverse celebrations spanning from Las Vegas, Nevada to Brooklyn, New York to all corners of the globe-the excitement was palpable.
Unfortunately for this particular fan (yours truly) Michael Jackson’s 60th birthday, which fell in the middle of the week, passed as just another day of work in the classroom. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t quietly reflecting and celebrating in my own way. As I periodically checked into my social media accounts, I was heartened to see no less than three MJ-related hashtags trending worldwide, simultaneously. Truly, the world still loves Michael Jackson, and always will. As the week of celebrations played out, many thoughts crossed my mind and I wanted to share a few here, for what they’re worth, both good and bad.
When Michael Jackson was born in the late summer of 1958, he officially joined what many consider to be “The Holy Trinity of Pop” who all made their world debuts in that particular summer. Prince was born first, on June 7, 1958. Madonna arrived a few weeks later, on August 16, 1958, and only a little less than two weeks later, baby Michael arrived to complete the triptych. It has always kind of boggled my mind that these three icons, who collectively would change the face of pop music and popular culture in the 80’s, were born in such close proximity. Clearly, in the summer of 1958, God was already planning the pop cultural zeitgeist that would be the 1980’s. But even though Michael may have been the youngest and last arrival of the three, his life path was already set to make him the one that was predestined to lead the way. Chronologically, he was the last of the trio to arrive, but he was the first to be thrust into the world’s spotlight. While both Madonna and Prince were going through the rites of a normal childhood, Michael was already singing and performing by age five. By the age of ten, he would be a Motown recording star. And from age eleven to the day he died at fifty, an internationally known legend. It was he-the youngest born-who would actually inspire and help create the path that Madonna and Prince followed. Michael Jackson may have been the last one of this particular pop trinity to be born, but he was already a veteran of show business and a very old soul by the time his fellow “summer of ’58” birthmates had caught up to him.
That came at a high cost. During the time of his drug rehab stint in 1993, Elton John was quoted as saying that Michael was “damaged.” Even though I have always been outspoken against attempts to publicly psychoanalyze Michael, this quote has never been one that put me on the defensive. Was Michael damaged? Absolutely. How could he not be? How could anyone thrust into the world of entertainment and performing at such a young age not be damaged? I don’t know of any child stars, living or dead, who have not been damaged individuals. Michael knew this as well as anyone, which was also why he formed such close alliances and friendships with other child stars throughout his life (both former and current). He recognized the kindred spirit of these individuals who had suffered through the same things he had endured.
But conversely, Michael Jackson was born to be a performer, and as much pain and damage as he may have suffered, I honestly don’t think there was anything else he ever wanted to do differently, or could have done better. (Indeed, I’ve tried to imagine other occupations he might have pursued, but it is virtually impossible to imagine Michael Jackson as anywhere but on stage). Living the life of a performer, a pop icon, was something that Michael would have an intense love/hate relationship with for the rest of his life.
In an interview once, Katherine Jackson said of her son, “I think about my son every day, and how his life turned out.” That statement always struck me because when Katherine said “how his life turned out” you could tell by the sad expression on her face and pained tone of her voice that she was NOT thinking of the fame, or the glory, or the big houses and millions of records sold. She was thinking, instead, about all the crap he went through and the high price he paid to achieve those things-including, at the end, his own life.
Thus, I can’t ever celebrate Michael’s life or legacy without remembering, to some extent, the sacrifice he made to bring his gifts to the world. It came at the expense of any kind of normalcy his life might have otherwise had. Imagine a life in which Michael Joseph Jackson might have quietly and uneventfully come of age in Gary, Indiana, working in a steel mill, perhaps, and marrying some local girl. Could we imagine him buying a small, modest house-perhaps one not unlike the one he grew up in, in a neighborhood not too far removed from Jackson Street? Could we imagine him becoming a father at a much earlier age (because he would not have been detained from this ambition by a rigorous life of recording, touring, and focusing on a career) so that he would have actually raised his family by middle age, rather than just starting it? Could we imagine him as a grandfather at fifty, instead of the father of small children? Could we really imagine him walking idly out in his slippers to get the morning paper? Would Michael Jackson have been happier living that life? It’s one of the great “What if” mysteries, as we’ll never know. The thing about most adult performers is that they go into their profession by choice. Child stars like Michael do not necessarily get that choice. Even if we can argue that there are children who already exhibit a love of performing, singing or dancing, it doesn’t mean they have the adult capacity to make those kinds of life defining choices for themselves. Michael was a kid who loved the attention of being in the spotlight; he knew he loved singing and dancing and the way people reacted to him when he did it. I don’t doubt the stories that he actively begged to be part of the Jackson Five. And it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Michael, at age five-with his cunning show business intuition already coming into blossom-didn’t intentionally plan his recital of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” as a way to finally convince Joe and Katherine that he had the chops to front the group.
But at age five, he could not have had the adult capacity to see past those moments of initial gratification to understand what he was really committing himself to-an entire childhood essentially sacrificed. No, make no mistake, that choice was made for him.
Even so, Michael could have clearly chosen a different path as an adult. By the time he was twenty-one, he had made enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life. He could have chosen to drop out of show business. He could have gone on to college. He could have taken the quiet path of least resistance, satisfied with the fame he had achieved as a member of the most influential boy band of all time.
Instead, he made Off The Wall and Thriller. The rest is history.
I was reflecting on all of this when I saw the mural advertising Spike Lee’s Brooklyn birthday block party, and I think it is the reason I fell in love with this mural.
It beautifully depicts what we might call the “Two Halves” of Michael, the innocent and bubbly child merging with the shattered and disillusioned-but still beautifully strong; still invincible-man. It also reminded me that those who truly love and “get” Michael Jackson are the ones who fully embrace who he was and what he represented at all stages of his life. His “changing appearance”-as the media has always loved to dub it-was not so much a reflection of some body dysmorphic disorder (the most popular ongoing theory) as it was simply the morphing of one shell into another. While the world often applauded the artistic daring of artists like David Bowie, Madonna, Prince and others for constantly reinventing themselves, it seemed that the world often wanted to keep Michael forever frozen in time, always either the eternal, cherub boy with an Afro singing “ABC” or the young man with the jheri curl and single white glove, moonwalking across our TV screens to “Billie Jean.” Not for Michael the artistic luxury and indulgence of reinvention. He was part of our nostalgia, collectively representing the memories of a generation. Perhaps it would be fairer to say Michael was allowed at least one major transformation. His chrysalis from an awkward teen phase into the megastar, hungry-eyed phenomenon that was Michael at the height of the Thriller era was nothing less than spectacular. To this day, I can still remember how he dropped every jaw of my generation, all of us who assumed he was just this has-been kid who dropped off the radar when The Jackson Five had their last hit. How many times do child stars really get a second chance to become adult superstars? Michael truly beat every odd on that one, and in so doing, instantaneously became an icon of not one, but two distinct generations, in the early 1970’s helping to establish Blacks in mainstream pop radio, and in the 1980’s, leading the way to break Black artists into the MTV era.
Michael’s 60th birthday also brought on another sentiment, as well. I was feeling nostalgic thinking of the good times I have had at some of Michael’s past birthday celebrations in Gary, Indiana. Every year, there is always a big block party around the family house on Jackson Street, and up until this year, members of the Jackson family including Michael’s kids and mother Katherine, have taken part in this annual celebration. To my knowledge (and someone may feel free to correct me if I am wrong) but I do not believe any of the family visited Gary at all this year. Instead, the focal point of Michael’s birthday celebration seems to have shifted to the glitzier allure of Las Vegas. While I’m sure the Diamond celebration was lovely-and I do want to make it out to see the One show at some point- I can’t help but feel a bit sad to see the spotlight shifting away from the city that the family has always called “home.” Don’t get me wrong. I realize that Michael himself spent very little time in Gary, only returning (I believe) a couple of times throughout his entire adult hood. For him, there may not have even been that much in the way of personal attachment to the town. After all, the family had left and moved to California by the time he was ten years old, and most of his formative memories would have been in the Encino community where the family settled. His memories of Gary would have been, at best, the sporadic memories of a very young child. But I think that is an important and vital part of what makes any trip to Gary special for me. For me, when I stand in front of the Jackson house and gaze at the side bedroom window that I know was his- where he often stared out in wonder at the Christmas lights of their neighbors- or when I walk the back alley where he and his brothers used to race their go carts, or the abandoned field behind Garrett Elementary school where he would have played, I am reminded that this was the last vestige of Michael’s innocence; the last time when he would truly know what it was like to be a normal child doing normal child things.
Vids Like These Exploit The “Urban Decay” Reputation of Gary-Fairly or Not
As a tourist destination, of course, it would probably be an understatement to say that Gary leaves a lot to be desired. The town certainly has its own beauty (including those breathtaking old Gothic Revival churches) but anyone who comes into Gary expecting five star hotels and restaurants is certainly going to be in for a letdown. The town’s economic decline, as well as its reputation (undeserved, I think) as one of the most crime ridden cities in America has not exactly made it a tourist mecca for Jackson fans, and those who do come often consider it as some sort of daring venture; a challenge on a par with “Survival.” Most are content to grab a few, quick pics in front of the Jackson house and be on their way, back to the safety of their air conditioned vehicles and out of “that neighborhood.”
Indeed, many of the comments and reviews left from “fans” who have visited the house seem to sadly bear this out. Here are a few typical reviews that were left on the TripAdvisor website:
You can drive through a neighborhood of closed and dilapidated buildings to see this little house that is not open to the public. Whatever monument used to be in the yard is gone now. The town of Gary has disintegrated into a slum area. You can’t even find out the story of the Jackson family here. Run away!-Melodycthomas
Area was so bad and run down with broken windows caved in roofs burnt out houses and burnt down buildings broken windows abandoned houses galore and a few sketchy people milling around that we turned around before getting to the dead end destination afraid to go further. We Decided to take a second run at it from a different street only to find exactly the same thing with abandon cars more burnt out houses run down houses a motorcycle went by A couple of slow cars and a few people about very very sketchy. Turned around a second time as we were coming up to the dead end again where the house is. Shocking how this is how the town honours those who have done so much for them. Very disappointing-berrypocket
Well don’t expect much. The entire house is gated from the public. You can drive by, stop and take a picture by the gates…but that’s it. Don’t think you’re going to peer into the house or even touch the door (lol). The property has been well maintained (especially compared to other homes in Gary). I guess its okay to just say…you saw the house where the Jackson’s grew up…right????-NickiNi
Granted, I am cherry picking a handful of the worst reviews (most of them are pretty decent and written by fans who understand that going to the Jackson house kind of is what it is) but these were the ones that leaped out at me and made me feel both sad and a little angry that some seem to have such an apparent sense of entitlement about visiting Michael’s childhood home and town. Michael Jackson’s life began as a poor Black child living in Gary, Indiana. What exactly are some of these people expecting when they come to visit-Graceland, for crying out loud? And come to think of it, even though Elvis’s birth home in Tupelo is just as small and humble as Michael’s childhood home in Gary, you don’t see half the number of complaints about “the neighborhood” or “I would visit the Presley house but I’m afraid of getting mugged in that neighborhood” or “If you visit the Elvis Presley birth house, don’t go alone.” Yes, I’ve heard variants of all these comments through the years leveled at the Jackson house and its neighborhood, and just about every time I have ever visited Gary, despite the fact that in my personal experience, I have never been treated less than warmly and cordially by the local residents. At worst, some of the old folks of the neighborhood may sit on their porches and stare at you curiously-or maybe pay you no mind at all, seeing as how most of them have gotten used to all of the traffic of the curious coming through. Yes, it is a poor community, but that is all the more reason why it needs to be appreciated, for we cannot begin to appreciate what Michael Jackson accomplished in his life without acknowledging where he came from, and in so doing, understanding the obstacles he and his family had to overcome. To appreciate Michael’s legacy, we have to understand and appreciate where he came from. When we see the hospital where he drew his first breath as a crumbling ruin, or his childhood playing field overgrown with weeds and abandoned, or his childhood home-well tended but so, so tiny, only then can we appreciate the magnitude of what this man achieved with his life. The various states of decay in which one may find these monuments of Michael’s childhood, however, only serve to remind us of the ephemeral and transitory nature of life and indeed existence itself. For me, they are bittersweet reminders that Michael himself has long transcended these very places and the boundaries they represented-he had already done so in life, and death has only added another, final layer.
Throughout the last decade, various organizations in and around Gary have tried to host annual conventions and other events to celebrate Michael’s birthday and to draw tourism to Michael’s birth town, but invariably, all seem to have eventually petered out, while annual fanventions continue to flourish in big city meccas like London and Vegas. Eventually, even the last remaining fanvention in Gary had shifted its locale to the more “tourist friendly” Chicago. And with the passing of Joe, who had remained a consistent Jackson presence and supporter of keeping the Jackson legacy alive in Gary, it seems the last of what has already become a very fragile tie may have been broken. I hope time proves me wrong.
Lastly, to think of Michael being sixty years old is certainly a mortality wake-up reminder. Wow, wasn’t it just yesterday that I remember music critics writing lines such as, “These young performers like Michael Jackson…” Where does the time go? When you realize that the guy whose poster you hung on your bedroom wall as a teenager has now officially joined the ranks of the sexagenarians, it definitely has a way of putting things in perspective.
Wait a minute, did I say sexagenerian? Well, you know if he’d lived he would still be the one putting the “sex” in sexagenarian! Yeah, I had to go there.
Happy 60th, Michael. We still love you more!