“I didn’t want to leave this world without knowing who my descendant was. Thank you Michael!” Fred Astaire (shortly before his death)
“The only male singer who I’ve seen besides myself and who’s better than me — that is Michael Jackson.” Frank Sinatra
Michael Jackson died unexpectedly on Thursday, June 25. The suddenness of his death came as a source of shock to all.
Some have used the occasion to present a contemptibly narrow view of his personal struggles. But as the months and years roll by, it is the contribution of his musical genius that will be written permanently in the hearts and minds of people everywhere. Even now, the greatest of his peers have recognized him as one of the most gifted and accomplished musical artists of the last century.
Few artists have used their talents to uplift mankind as vigorously as Michael Jackson. Though lean in stature, he stood firmly against social and political forces that seek to diminish the integrity of the human spirit. He uplifted individuals struggling to be free. At the same time his voice spoke a message that went far beyond the rights of the individual. Michael reminded us that personal dignity and individual freedom can only be perfected in the warm embrace of human solidarity.
It was the human family that stood foremost in Michael’s mind. “We are the world,” he said. And against this backdrop, he challenged freedom-loving individuals to act heroically for the betterment of all. “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change,” he said.
Thus Michael Jackson was no spokesman for narcissism, despite the fact that he often sought refuge there. At bottom, his music was driven by the ancient dream of the brotherhood of man. He saw redemption in a bonding of all individuals in simple humanity. Human solidarity — Love — was for him the foundation of Justice and the meaning of Life!
Armed with this simple vision, Michael set about to dedicate his life to others. As a young boy, he burst onto the world’s stage like a bolt of lightening and, once there, he inspired youth, and the youthful, to act on behalf of justice and the human community. He created a powerful synergy with his audiences and through this confluence helped generate a moral force that over time would bring the world to a better place.
It is not commonly recognized how much Michael Jackson contributed to U.S public diplomacy during the last decade of the Cold War. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Michael’s music inspired young people in captive nations to take chances on behalf of freedom and democracy. With his dramatic style, he electrified youth and stirred them to unite in common purpose. In response, they rallied moral forces against fear and set about to challenge the ubiquitous brutality of totalitarian regimes. The collective energy Michael and other artists inspired became a critical factor in bringing about the political collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire. “We are the world!”
Surveys taken by the Voice of America during the 1980s demonstrate his appeal. Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, and Billy Joel were the preferred pop artists for VOA listeners behind the Iron Curtain. The music they provided offered a unique challenge to the fundamentals of Soviet totalitarianism — fear and isolation. It enabled listeners to dream of freedom and dignity, and it filled their hearts and minds with a practical determination to seek a brighter future.
But, among all American pop artists, it was Michael Jackson that towered above the rest. His popularity achieved the highest ranking by VOA listeners –more than 50% approval.
I recall myself and a friend crossing the border into East Berlin before the Wall was torn down. As my friend maneuvered our rented VW to the checkpoint, I pulled back the sunroof and rolled down the windows. Earlier I had cued a tape to play Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” As the guard approached, I hit the play button and turned the volume way up. The guard, who was carrying an automatic rifle, asked for our passports. Instead of responding directly, I said over the top of the music: “Do you like Michael Jackson?” He looked nervously at the guard house and then quickly nodded in approval. For a long moment, his face was covered with an unforgettable smile. But more than signaling his approval, the guard had broken military decorum.
Similarly, when we returned to the West through Austria, the guard stationed there responded to my question by first placing his machine gun on the ground. Then he grabbed my closest hand with both of his and said: “Yes, oh yes. Michael Jackson!” Not far away, hidden in a clump of bushes and trees, I saw the dark, sinister presence of Soviet tanks.
Michael’s creative imagination enabled him to craft a music of freedom, a music replete with a crisp defiance of injustice and unjust authority, a music deeply tinged with respect for the essential dignity of the human person. In a world whose temptations breed isolation and aloneness, Michael’s music gave voice to our common need for love, compassion, understanding, and mercy. It gave succor to those struggling to belong and unleashed a willfulness to labor against the forces of spiritual alienation. In a world dominated by fear, his music gave transcendent purpose and the hope of future redemption. In short, Michael’s artistry was an energy that inspired resistance against all forms of cultural and political repression. It was a music whose vitality cried out for a liberation of the human spirit.
Reflecting on the 1980s and early 1990s, one labors to imagine a more heroic episode in history’s hard march against tyranny. Liberty sprang up amidst a near bloodless convulsion, and took a daring but peaceful step forward. It was in the intensity of this revolutionary fervor that the artistry of Michael Jackson towered as a beacon of light for those struggling to be free.
In the YouTube video below, listen to Michael perform “The Man In The Mirror.” Hear his words. Watch the imagery. Reflect how deeply he pleads for each individual to dedicate their lives to the reconciling impulses of Justice and Love. In a world that continues to be much too cold and brittle, Michael Jackson has established himself a much-needed prophet for our age.