Michael Jackson’s life and death raise a number of issues that socialists should be interested in.
Abuse: Jackson’s father Joe physically and psychologically abused him while a child. As the manager of the Jackson 5, the band Michael and his brothers were in as children, Joe relentlessly forced them to pursue fame. He would punish the children with whippings. Michael would claim in later life that he had no childhood and that in his youth he would often vomit on seeing his father.
Michael was twice publicly accused of child sexual abuse, One trial was settled for $22 million and at the other trial he was acquitted.
His behaviour with children was certainly highly inappropriate. He admitted to sleeping with children in his bed. One mental health professional who examined Jackson claimed rather than being a paedophile he had become a regressed ten year old.
We cannot know for sure whether he did molest children. His money allowed him to buy off one case and get the best lawyers in the other case. However it is clear that his childhood had deeply scarred him and was responsible for his strange behaviour towards children as an adult.
Race: The Jackson 5 broke down some huge barriers for black people. They were the first successful black boy band. This meant that they were the first black artists to have their posters pinned to lots of young people’s walls. There was a syndicated cartoon based on the band. Today, there are not a lot black faces in syndicated cartoons. There were even less in the 1970s.
Later, as a solo artist, Jackson would also break down barriers. With the release of the Thriller album and the associated singles and videos, Jackson became the first black artist regularly played on MTV.
MTV at that point, in the early 80s, was critical in publicising artists. The channel claimed that they did not have a racist policy but simply focussed on “rock” acts. “Rock” acts were exclusively white.
On the release of Thriller, Jackson, strongly supported by his record label CBS, broke through that barrier. The president of CBS apparently threatened to stop any of the company’s artists’ videos appearing on MTV and to go public with his claims of racism.
This was enough to persuade the channel to start running the Billie Jean video, the reaction to which ensured that the colour bar was broken forever.
None of the above is the fighting working-class anti-racism that we in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty espouse, but it is very important. It is perhaps hard now, when black artists’ videos and publicity are widespread, to understand the scale and significance of these achievements.
The issue of race with Jackson is not an uncomplicated one, though. Michael clearly had a great deal of plastic surgery which made his face appear less “black”. It has also been claimed that Jackson bleached his skin — although he denied that, claiming it was to do with his treatment for vitiligo and lupus.
On the re-release of his solo albums Jackson had the photos doctored to look more in line with his current appearance than the originals did. Jackson always claimed to be proud to be a black American. However his obvious discomfort with his own looks suggested something different.
In his song “They don’t care about us”, Jackson also suggested at the least insensitivity about anti-semitism with the lyric “jew me, sue me”.
Celebrity: Michael Jackson was the most famous man on the planet in the 1980s. He was a huge star but a recluse. The media generated and fed off thousands of stories of him.
The reaction to his death has been massively overblown. In a world of 24-hour news and celebrity culture, we have been bombarded with Jackson for a fortnight. He was a great singer and dancer, he made some important advances for black people, but he was a deeply disturbed and disturbing individual.
That his music is selling in such great quantities after his death raises interesting questions. Who is buying it? It is not as though people didn’t know about Michael Jackson before he died, it’s not as though they didn’t know his music. If they liked it they could have bought at any point. Why wait until he has died? Why the rush after he has died? If you hadn’t bought it up until now, it is not going to disappear in the next few years either.
Some of the people buying it now must already own it, why are they buying it again now? The need to be part of something, to feel a belonging, to exclude that emptiness that modern alienated life creates.
Jackson was seemingly bankrupt at the end of his life having spent billions trying to fill the voids in his life. Millions of people seem to buying his back-catalogue to try to do the same in theirs.
I personally find it heart-breaking to see the pictures of the young Michael either in the Jackson 5 or solo, a beautiful boy/young man who could dance and sing like no other. As socialists we must try to create a world that first and foremost protects children from abusem whether that be from family members or people outside the family, a society that doesn’t mutilate talent like Michael’s, a world where there are no more fights to be had against racism and discrimination, where young people grow up happy and confident in how they look.
A world that celebrates talent but has no truck with the vacuous merry go-round of celebrity.
Whilst we fight for that better world some of us will take time out to enjoy Michael Jackson’s music. Some of it really was very good.