Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Indiana's Own(?) Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson was a Hoosier. But Indiana didn’t always know what to make of him.

I remember loving the Jackson 5 as a kid. My sisters and me had 45s of “ABC,” and “I’ll Be There.” But when I saved my lawn mowing money to buy a Jackson 5 album, I was disappointed to discover that there were only a couple good songs on it. Having carefully slit the album cover’s plastic wrap, I put the record back in and taped up the slit, then wrapped it and gave it to my sister, Jama for Christmas.

Though disappointed in that album, I recall a tinge of pride when the Jackson 5 put out a song called, “Going Back to Indiana.” In those days, seemed like nobody and nothing famous came from Indiana.

As my musical taste evolved toward folk-rock through my teens and college years, I grew disdainful of soul music and its groups of singers in matching suits dancing in unison. When Michael Jackson went solo and released “Off The Wall,” I was intrigued by the production quality of, “Rock With You,” but my bias prevented me from listening closely. When “Thriller” came out in 1982, again I dismissed Jackson.

But that summer, driving in the car, I heard the song, “Human Nature,” and was dumbstruck. “Damn,” I thought to myself, “this guy is brilliant.” I went back and opened my mind to “Billie Jean,” and it’s relentless, surging bass-line. It is pure pop perfection.

Before that summer, Michael Jackson was just famous, but after that summer, he gained Elvis-like/Beatle-like fame. The kind of fame that destroys people.

Even for all his stage bravado in those heady days, Jackson had a very Hoosier kind of reaction to fame. Think Larry Bird. Think James Dean. Regardless of how he performed on stage, Jackson couldn’t overcome that Hoosier quality of self-deprecation when the performance was over.

Sure, Larry Bird posed for the posters and did the TV commercials, but watch his personal behavior in interviews. He all but apologizes for his success. In the off-screen shots of James Dean, you could see the demurring body language that said, “Awe shucks, don’t make such a big fuss over me.” Never mind he was pursuing and winning rolls with Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson. And my son, Cal just saw Seymour native, John Mellencamp last weekend in Dayton, doing a show with legends Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. Mellencamp makes his home to Indiana. Why doesn’t he live on the beach in Malibu? Why not a house in London? It’s the Hoosier in him.

Watch shots of Jackson in interviews or just walking down the street, away from his manufactured, near comic roll of pop royalty, you get the sense that just like those other Hoosier men, with hard work and startling talent he’d found fame, but still didn’t quite know what to do with it.

Compare this to Madonna from Michigan or Muhammad Ali from Kentucky. Even when Madonna was off the stage, even when Ali was out of the ring, they both grabbed fame by the throat and knew exactly what to do with a camera in their face and the microphone at their mouths. Though Jackson was full of grand flourishes and public stunts, turn off the music and pull him off the stage, and he inerviewed like, well, a soft-spoken Hoosier.

But as his fame grew and his behavior grew ever more strange, his home state didn’t quite know what to make of him.

When newspapers and local TV newscasts do stories about Ernie Pyle, James Whitcomb Riley, well-known Indiana songwriter John Hiatt, or any other famous Hoosiers, they say, “Indiana’s own [insert name here].” But they rarely described Jackson that way.

World-renowned Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut got similar treatment. While big city intellectuals applauded Vonnegut’s often-absurd characters, flourishes of science fiction combined with magical realism, and blistering social commentary, many in his home state were left scratching their heads. People were proud of the notoriety, but would keep the hometown-boy-made-good at arms length just the same; “Somethin’s just not right about that boy.”

And there was something not quite right about Jackson. Though he claimed not to have had plastic surgery, he clearly had way too much, and it all seemed aimed at transforming him from a handsome black man into some Hollywood/Madison Avenue notion of the handsome white man. Cleft chin, pointed nose, lightened skin. It didn’t work. From a distance, it read like self-hatred.

Combine that with multiple accusations of child molestation, and well, many here simply avoided calling Michael Jackson, “Indiana’s own,” even though his album “Thriller” sold better than any Elvis or Beatles album.

And so with his death come all the absurd biases accumulated during his remarkable journey from a gritty industrial town in the northwest of Indiana to our radios, TVs, movie screens and supermarket tabloids. Those who deified him ignore his apparent and troubling flaws. And those who demonize him ignore his remarkable talent, rolling their eyes at the fawning and extended TV dramatization of the aftermath of his death.

As is so often the case with the death of cultural icons, how we react to Jackson’s passing perhaps says as much about us it does about him.

How will Indiana remember it’s Hoosier-boy-made-good? My guess is many Hoosiers will gladly re-gift him to Los Angeles with the same conflicted disappointment that led me to re-gift that Jackson 5 album to my sister.

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