Ever since the news of Michael Jackson’s passing, two famous televised dances have revolved in my head. The first, near the end of the 1983 Motown 25 television special, blew my mind and millions of others: Michael Jackson materialized like an amalgam of Nureyev and Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, something out of a Max Fleischman cartoon and something not of this earth. His “Billy Jean” moves worked to integrate MTV, push hip hop into the mainstream, broaden the public space for weirdness and gender ambiguity, and teach the world to moonwalk (or try to). In other words, to transform popular culture
The other dance, 26 years later, was halting, even wooden—as different as could, but just as glamorous and, in its way, irresistible: Barack and Michelle Obama’s giggly turn at their inauguration ball, launching what still sometimes feels like a transformative presidency. Michael Jackson and Barack Obama are this country’s two foremost cultural ambassadors, its premiere international icons—in short, its greatest global pop stars, the two Americans who’ve most enthralled and inspired the world since, at the very least, John F. Kennedy. And Kennedy had to get shot to make it.
This is striking because Jackson and Obama seem so different as to be obverse twins. Jackson was a precocious talent frozen in time. Whipped and driven by an ambitious father, he spent the rest of his life trying to recapture the childhood he was denied, to simulate it on an extravagant scale, and finally to steal it from other children. Obama, loved and nurtured by his mother and grandmother as a child, continues growing through adulthood. Surrounded by elder statesmen, he often seems the only adult in the room. Jackson was shy, even terrified in company and only felt free to be himself on stage. Obama feels no need to perform; calm and confident, he can be himself, earnest and a bit stiff, on stage.
The comparisons challenge conventional wisdom about race and family. Who fared better, young Michael in his teeming, close-knit, nuclear family, with his all too present father, or young Barry, raised by a single mom and grandmother? Racially amorphous Obama later seeks out an embraces his black roots and joins the penultimate black church, Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s. Jackson, an icon of soul music from childhood, spends half his life trying to stop being black.
Obama is all purpose. Jackson, as gifted as Obama, was all pathology, elevated to an art form. But his pathology was not mere “eccentricity,” the vapid default tag. It was the pathology of pop culture generally—its conflation of childhood and adulthood, its contempt for the latter and glorification of a plastic fantastic simulation of the former, from the wink-wink antics of the Brat Pack to the preening, pleading proto-sexuality of Britney, Lindsay, and the rest, from preschool beauty-pageant contestants to little-boy-lost Elvis, whose mantle Jackson assumed and whose dancing and costumes he echoed.
It’s a particularly though not uniquely American pathology; other nations’ pop stars don’t seem to have such a hard time growing up. Maybe that’s why that gritty survivor Madonna had to escape to Britain. Marvin Gaye shook off his demons in Belgium, a country too small to have pop stars, then fell into the abyss when he returned here. Sid Vicious went over the edge in New York, not London.
Behind Michael Jackson stands an army of child stars, led by Judy Garland, who’ve been exalted, exploited, and finally consumed by the pop machine—and another army of children and parents clamoring to be next. But none of their arcs were as triumphant or as sad as his. And so Netherland will join Graceland and the White House among America’s most hallowed shrines. Barack Obama will be president for a few more years, then move on gracefully to the next stage. But Michael Jackson was cursed to be, and will forever remain, the King of Pop.