Sunday, 21 April 2013

Indiana - Death, Kingdom Hall and the Jackson 5

Probably the state's most famous export, the Jacksons have gained global recognition in a way that might have seemed unimaginable for a family from Gary, Indiana.  No matter where I go in the world, when I say my name is 'Michael', most people immediately say 'Jackson', which shows how much of a global phenomenon Michael Jackson was, as he dominated the pop industry in the late 20th century and became an even much bigger star than his talented siblings in the Jackson 5.

Michael Jackson through his brother's eyes

It's a massive topic to undertake and there is so much information out there, that I thought it would be best to concentrate on the biography Michael: Through a Brother's Eyes (2011) by Jermaine Jackson.  There's something really beautiful when families sing together and, likewise, I wanted to hear about Michael Jackson from someone who knew him best in their early years, growing up in Indiana.

I must put my hand up at this point and say that I wasn't a massive fan of Michael's music - I enjoyed it, as most of the world did, but I never bought any of his albums and I wouldn't really be listening to his music now, if it wasn't for the fact that I've been researching for this blog.  A lot of his work and the music of the Jackson 5 is really familiar to me and, I must admit, it's been nice to take a trip down memory lane and rediscover some of their classic tracks. 

There has been so much negative publicity about Michael, that it was refreshing to read an account of his life that was written by someone who really loved him.  Of course, I understand that Jermaine's story is less likely to be objective but, in some ways that doesn't matter, as it balanced off all the negative publicity I've read about Michael over the years in the press.

Peter Pan or Paedophile?

That Michael Jackson loved children is very well-known and accusations of paedophilia overshadowed the latter part of his life.  On one hand, he could be seen as a Peter Pan-type character, who lost his childhood to the demands of celebrity and being in the public eye - he compensated in later life, by building a paradise for children at his ranch in Neverland and he literally became the boy who never grew up.  One the other hand, he violated expected standards of American society in relation to his conduct with children, especially children who came from vulnerable families and weren't related to him. 

Sharing a bed with a child who isn't your own child is definitely unacceptable in Western culture, although this might seem less unusual in other cultures around the world.  Like it or not, we now live in the shadow of a more innocent age, when adult/child contact was freer, but also abused by many sexually repressed adults, such as celibate priests.  If Michael Jackson's contact with children was innocent, then it still transcended the accepted norms of a society that views such contact with suspicion.

Guilty until proven innocent?

By coincidence, during the time I was researching this blog post, I saw a very interesting Danish film called Jagten (The Hunt) (2012), dir. Thomas Vinterberg.  The movie deals with a teaching assistant who is wrongly accused of sexually abusing a young girl who is in his care.  It highlights how quick we are to judge and what a nightmare it is to be wrongly accused of such a serious crime. 

It's almost too easy to believe that Michael Jackson behaved inappropriately with children - people judged him (or were prejudiced against him) because of his eccentric personality and odd behaviour - but what if he was innocent, then how wrong would that judgement/prejudice be?  My personal take on it is that he cleared his name in court and we should respect this judgement. 

Thriller, Kingdom Hall and the American obsession with death

There are so many aspects to the Michael Jackson story that I could write about but, in the interests of a succint and readable blog post, I want to concentrate on one other aspect of Michael Jackson's life that fascinated me.  Before I started my research, I didn't know that the Jacksons were raised in a fairly strict Jehovah's Witness household.  Religious beliefs had a really strong influence on the lives of Michael, Jermaine and the other Jackson siblings, whether they ultimately rejected their religious upbringing or not.

I had the pleasure of re-watching Thriller (1983) after so many years - I remember first seeing it on MTV when I was a child and, I think it's fair to say that this video changed the pop industry forever, as well as influencing the development of modern dance. 

It's shocking to realise that it's already 30 years since the video was released and amazing that it still feels incredibly 'fresh', despite the technological developments in video and film production that have happened since then.  I think it was the most expensive pop video ever produced at that time, costing half a million dollars and being directed by John Landis of American Werewolf in London fame.  If, like me, you haven't seen this video in years, then do yourself a favour and click on the embedded YouTube video!

The video displeased the elders at Kingdom Hall, so Michael put a disclaimer at the beginning to assure fans that he wasn't endorsing belief in the occult.  Like so many things in Michael's life though, you can't help wondering what his real motivation was.  He certainly seems to have been fascinated by the 'dark side' and troubled characters (eg. Billy Jean which was based on a stalker and Smooth Criminal which is believed to have been inspired by the gruesome murders of the 'Night Stalker', Richard Ramirez). 

We think of Michael and the Jackson 5 as being African-American performers and that's certainly how they were first 'sold' to the US public, however, their heritage is more complex than that and I was really interested to learn that the Jacksons also traced some ancestry back to the Choctaw and Blackfoot tribes.  It's a heritage they were proud of.  Jermaine describes how, during their camping trips to Wisconsin as children, they would walk along the Indian trails. 

The more I learn about the United States, the more I sense a national obsession with death.  As I watched the ghouls rising out of the graveyard in Thriller, I couldn't help but imagine the souls of millions of native Americans who were killed in the name of Manifest Destiny (see my previous blog post on this subject).  Perhaps Michael's treatment of the occult and death were guided by some sort of ancestral memory, which conflicted with the religion he inherited from his parents?

There is so much more that I could write about Michael and the Jackson 5, but I'll stop there for now and leave you with one last video from YouTube which shows Michael's first performance of 'the Robot dance' - a hint of what would come in later years, it shocked contemporary audiences, when he first performed this on the Carol Burnett show in 1974. 


All of the videos are taken from YouTube.

The first is one of my favourite Jackson 5 songs, Can you feel it?  It's so upbeat and optimistic and I also loved the 1998 remix by the Italian dance group Tamperer featuring Maya, which reminds me of driving from Omagh and Derry.

Black or White (1991) is one of my favourite Michael Jackson songs, with another great video from John Landis. 

The third video is Thriller (1983) and the fourth is a recording of Dancing Machine from the Carol Burnett show in 1974. 

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