The King Is Dead; Long Live the King

Obviously, the idea of pop culture and, more specifically, pop stardom has been on my mind as of late. I've also been thinking a lot lately about the cultural significance of Michael Jackson, but let me step aside for a second.

When talking about Michael Jackson, I have no choice but to divide his life into three, distinct phases. There's the first phase, when he was the cute kid who lead the Jackson5. There's the second phase, when he was the most dominant musical force of the 80's. And, sadly, there's the third phase, when he became the circus sideshow and possible predator that has caused the news of his death to carry so much baggage.

Again, you have to wonder what would have happened had Jackson disappeared in the early 90's.

Perhaps the single most important thing that Michael Jackson ever did was to break the pop music color barrier. For those who don't remember, non-white musicians were ostensibly treated as separate but equal on MTV before Jackson came along and MTV, at the time, was the cutting edge of the music world. Radio stations were just as bad. If you weren't white, it meant your music would only get played on R&B and soul stations. The idea of a black pop star was completely foreign and, to be honest, fought against for years and years.

Look at it this way: is Elvis really more appealing and/or less frightening than any of the musicians whose music he "covered" (I say that with tongue in cheek)? Of course not, particularly in an age before gangsta rap. Mainstream America was just afraid of black people, and more so black men than women.

So how did Michael Jackson break that barrier? Or, how did he manage to do it when so many other talented artists did not?

Well, Jackson was unique. Aside from his enormous talent, he had been introduced to the American consciousness as a cute little kid, about as non-threatening as anyone could imagine. He and his brothers sang catchy, rather insubstantial songs about love. There was hardly any edge to the Jackson 5 at all, save for their clinically insane father. Mainstream America could feel comfortable with the Jackson 5, which meant they felt comfortable with Michael Jackson.

When Jackson launched his solo career, he was given the benefit of the doubt, which is more than most black musicians were given at that time. He already had an image in place, one that appealed even to people who still harbored racist feelings. They felt like they knew him and, on top of that, they found him both completely non-threatening and, in many ways, completely non-sexual. He was a thin, small, asexual performer, and that made it easier for mainstream America to accept him.

Jackson was the exact right person at the exact right time to break that barrier. And he became a huge pop star as a result...

...not unlike a certain current Commander In Chief.

I'll refrain from my usual Barack Obama diatribe (I was a supporter from before he even announced he was running, so I'm very clearly biased), but he was also uniquely positioned to be the first non-white president of the United States.

On one hand, there's the specific time when Obama was elected. Never has there been a moment in this country's history when it was so ready to take a chance on something new. I felt bad for Hillary Clinton (to a certain extent), but I knew that Obama had to win NOW. Four years from now the country will have shifted again and people won't be quite so willing to change the paradigm. In that respect, Obama, like Jackson, has a heavy weight on his shoulders.

Then there's the fact that Obama's mother was white and he was raised by his white grandparents. I was always fascinated by that aspect of his story and how certain segments of the population grasped on to it, some literally claiming that it was okay to vote for him because he was "half-white." Entire sections of this country justified their vote because Obama wasn't from an entirely African family something that, to this day, blows my mind. But it was the simple fact that this justification existed for them that allowed them to cast their votes, and, in variably, helped Obama win.

The irony, of course, is that Obama didn't walk around with a sign that said "my mom is white" when he was growing up; he would have been discriminated against just the same.

Again, though, Obama was uniquely positioned to break that barrier, just as Jackson had been. And the hope, of course, is that a flood of talented, non-white people will be able to follow him, just as the case was for Jackson.

And I think that's why the world couldn't hold the two of them at once. The GOP may use it against him, but Obama IS a rock star. Even now, months after his election, I see bumper stickers, comic books, and posters with Obama on them. I wore my Obama t-shirt just the other day, and I see other people doing the same thing. Because that merchandise isn't just about one election, it's about an entire movement.

Michael Jackson changed both the culture of America and the pop culture of America, but eventually his moment passed. Obama has done much the same thing. Let's hope Obama's influence lasts as long and has the same impact.

Two years after Elvis died, Michael Jackson released his first solo album. Perhaps we can look at it as the first "King" passing along the torch to the next, and in some ways making amends for what he had done to earn that title. And just as the passing of that torch expanded our culture, the transition of the "King of Pop" to America's first rock star president will hopefully have an even greater impact, both on the U.S., and the world.