Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Michael Jackson’s death at age 50 parallels Elvis Presley’s death in 1977, at age 43. By the time both performers died, they were walking punch lines, symbols of the coddled celebrity’s dissipated lifestyle. But each was the premier entertainer of his time, and each shaped history. It is not stretching to credit Michael Jackson as one of the trailblazers for Barack Obama, himself just three years younger than Jackson.
Long after Michael Jackson’s degeneration and demise are forgotten, his important role bridging the gap between American blacks and whites will be remembered. Jackson used his celebrity to blur the lines between black and white, as well as between gay and straight. Jackson grew up in the public eye as the soprano of the Motown powerhouse, the Jackson Five. The group sold over 100 million records and inspired a Saturday morning cartoon. Starting in the 1970s Jackson thrived as a solo artist too.
For those of us, like Obama, born toward the end of the baby boom in 1961, Michael Jackson was not just a phenomenon but our phenomenon. In the 1970s, during a time of Watergate corruption and Arab oil-induced gas lines, of humiliation in Vietnam and aggression by the Soviets, here was someone our age, living the American dream. That the most famous person of our generation – until Obama – was a poor black kid from Gary, Indiana, reaffirmed America’s promise during a decade of disillusion. That gift of hope to millions early in Michael Jackson’s career trumps his own pathetic ambivalence about his racial identity and his tragic ending, coming cinematically during the dawning of the age of Obama.
Jackson was a great dancer and a superb businessman. He choreographed the release of his 1982 album “Thriller” to undermine what the Washington Post called “the cultural apartheid of MTV and pop radio.” Rock and roll had become resegregated since the days of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. MTV was overwhelmingly white. On radio, “Rock and roll” was usually white; “R and B,” rhythm and blues, usually black. For three weeks running in October 1982, and for the first time since the pre-rock and roll era, no black singers made the top 20 charts.
Defying pigeonholing, Jackson’s enticing rhythms had great “crossover” appeal. Still, to ford the gap when marketing “Thriller,” Jackson first released “This Girl is Mine,” a playful duet with the Beatle great Paul McCartney. This pairing created “a Trojan horse to force white radio’s hand,” Steve Greenberg, the president of S-Curve Records, later explained. Jackson paved the way for other “crossover” hits including Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money.”
Building “Michaelmania,” Jackson would market the usual T-shirts, posters and buttons, a million-dollar memoir – at the age of 25 – edited by Jacqueline Onassis, and an 11-inch doll, with Jackson in the “Thriller” outfit easily posed in his more famous dance steps.
“Thriller” was the fastest selling album ever, selling 40 million copies. “Michael Jackson is mass culture, not pop culture – he appeals to everyone,” said a radio program director. “This kind of performer comes once in a generation.” In 1984 alone, Jackson earned $30 million from record sales and another $50 million from tie-ins.
In typical 1980s style, “Thriller’s” marketing included a $1.1 million-dollar, 13-minute video. In one of the era’s most culturally powerful and technically sophisticated images, Jackson morphed into a monster. Here was an American icon, transforming himself from an inspiring symbol of how far a black man could go into the hateful stereotype of the black man as monster, as sexual predator.
Nevertheless, this inversion somehow helped seep some of the poisons from American society. This was especially true because – although it is hard to remember it now – Michael Jackson was incredibly likable then. In fact, Jackson was a central figure in one of the 1980s’ biggest do-good projects, helping to write “We Are the World.”
In December 1984 Bob Geldof of “The Boomtown Rats,” had organized some British stars to fight famine in Ethiopia by singing “Do They Know Its Christmas?” They sold 3 million copies and raised $11 million. In the United States, the singer Harry Belafonte assembled some black musicians to raise money for Africa. A producer, Ken Kragen, broadened the project, calling it “Live Aid.”
On January 28, 1985, the night of the American Music Awards, Quincy Jones produced a song Jackson wrote with Lionel Ritchie. “We are the world, we are the children, We are the ones who make a brighter day so let’s start giving” the chorus belted out, which also included Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Bette Midler, and 5 more Jacksons.
“We are the World” sold millions and won top Grammy awards. The popular video challenged viewers to identify the famous in a rhythmically bobbing sea of famous faces, and charmed viewers with the seemingly spontaneous, “private” glances, handclasps, and hugs these pop music demigods exchanged with the cameras rolling.
That July, 1985, “Live Aid” built on this megawatt munificence, with pop greats performing in London and in Philadelphia for sixteen hours, attracting 1.9 billion viewers from 152 countries. “I’m glad to be helping the hungry and having a good time” 22-year-old Kim Kates of Philadelphia told a reporter. The initiative inspired many imitators, including Willie Nelson’s “Farm Aid” and “Hands Across America,” a Coca Cola-sponsored venture raising money for America’s homeless by enlisting 5 million people, including Bill Cosby, Kenny Rogers and other celebrities, to create a human chain coast-to-coast.
Alas, by 1985 Jackson was already on his way to becoming an object of pity and disgust. As he approached his 30th birthday, he still seemed frozen in childhood. His friendships with older women, especially Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Ross, along with his smooth skin and high-pitched voice, generated this sense of sexual ambiguity. “I'm not like other guys,” Jackson told his girlfriend in Thriller. “'I mean I'm different.” Beyond the androgyny, Michael Jackson seemed to be getting “whiter” -- his skin was getting lighter, his nose getting smaller. By 1987, many in the record business wondered, “What’s that guy done to his face!”
Even more impressive was what Jackson had done to the record business – which was booming – and to race relations – which were improving. Jackson, like all entertainers, rode a wave, himself benefiting from various historical phenomena including the Civil Rights Movement and the Sexual Revolution. Still, the King of Pop made his mark.
Adapted and updated from Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
Barack Obama wants to synthesize, reconcile, heal. The son of a white Kansan mother and a black Kenyan father, he attended Harvard Law School during the Critical Legal Studies revolution, whose slogan “law is politics,” taught that law, like all human constructs, is mutable, and can be tailored to changing agendas. In his historic 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, Obama represented the red-white-and-blue American fording the overplayed red-blue and historic black-white divides. In reading Obama’s second book – written with his eye on the White House – Joe Klein of Time magazine counted “no fewer than 50 instances of excruciatingly judicious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-handedness.” “I had to reconcile a lot of different threads growing up--race, class,” Obama told Klein. “For example, I was going to a fancy prep school, and my mother was on food stamps while she was getting her Ph.D.” Klein continued: “Obama believes his inability to fit neatly into any group or category explains his relentless efforts to understand and reconcile opposing views. But the tendency is so pronounced that it almost seems an obsessive-compulsive tic.”
Obama was in full “on-the-one-on-the-other-hand” mode in Cairo. Facts and ethics were putty in his hands as he constructed an “I’m ok, you’re ok, because we all are sinners” kind of world. Rejecting the “cycle of suspicion and discord” he sought a relationship between the United States and Muslims “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.” The speech took a series of flash points and extinguished them by balancing them out: Muslim “extremists” murdered Americans but America overstepped in response. America undermined Iran in the 1950s, and Iran responded harshly since the 1970s. Back and forth, back and forth, went Obama’s seesaw of history.
Similarly, Jews suffered persecution in Europe, especially during the Holocaust, but “[o]n the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people … have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” When discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict, Obama articulated his approach to history and diplomacy: “It is easy to point fingers,” he preached.… But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states….”
Obama’s Cairo speech paralleled his crucial March 18, 2008 speech, in Philadelphia, on race in America. At the time, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s unpatriotic ravings threatened Obama’s campaign. As the son of a black father and a white mother, acknowledging pain on both sides, Obama reconciled – or triangulated, as we used to say in Bill Clinton’s day. Obama said he could “no more disown” Wright, his spiritual mentor, “than I can my white grandmother,” who occasionally “uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.” Fans swooned, praising Obama’s evenhandedness; critics muttered that to get elected Obama would even run over his own grandmother.
Obama’s approach worked in Philadelphia – and charmed many Muslims in Cairo. This morally-blind accounting makes for bad history but it might make for effective diplomacy. It reduces tensions, and breaks through previous impenetrable barriers. But whether it can solve intractable problems, or overcome the evils that do exist, remains to be seen.
If Obama demonstrates the love-thy-neighbor touch of Jesus, Bibi Netanyahu is often consumed by the wrath of Jeremiah. Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech was less fiery than usual. But his argument was suffused with a tragic sense of history. Trained at MIT’s empiricist schools of architecture and business in the 1970s, raised by an historian father steeped in the tragedy of the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492, still mourning his brother killed by terrorists in 1976, Netanyahu feels the pain of yesterday warning us against the perils of today.
Rejecting Obama’s distorted view that Israel rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, Netanyahu reversed it saying, “if the state of Israel would have been established earlier, the Holocaust would not have occurred.” To Obama, because both Jews and Palestinian have been powerless, both merit saving. To Netanyahu, Jews’ “tragic history of powerlessness explains why the Jewish people need a sovereign power of self-defense.”
Netanyahu bristled at Obama’s deconstructionist refusal to point fingers. The “simple truth is that the root of the conflict was, and remains, the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own, in their historic homeland,” Netanyahu insisted. After chronicling Israel’s attempts at peace and Palestinian rejectionism, Netanyhau used history to rebut Obama’s recipe of land for peace. Unfortunately, “every withdrawal was met with massive waves of terror, by suicide bombers and thousands of missiles…. The claim that territorial withdrawals will bring peace with the Palestinians… has up till now not stood the test of reality.”
Two “truths” are colliding. Without letting go, as Obama advocates, there will never be peace; without remembering, as Netanyahu insists, unrealistic and dangerous pipedreams will proliferate. The Harvard philosopher George Santayana’s quip that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it has become cliché. Obama risks making that mistake. Despite his tremendous efforts, President Bill Clinton could not get Yasir Arafat to make the necessary compromises, on the Palestinian side. Instead, Clinton presided over the start of the terror wave that killed a thousand Israelis, and now haunts most Israelis as they yearn for peace. Do Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, or Clinton’s former aide and Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel ever remind the incumbent president about that debacle? But Santayana’s aphorism needs a qualifier: those who are imprisoned by the past are imprisoned. That is Netanyahu’s risk. Great statesmen seize the moment in the present to evolve from the past toward a better future. Whether Netanyahu or Obama can achieve such greatness remains to be seen.