Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Does the American (White) Press Get Michael? Did It Ever?

As the memorial services come to an end and the reality of Michael Jackson’s untimely death sets in, many black folks have expressed both concern and in some cases, outrage over the mainstream media’s coverage of the demise of the incomparable rock and soul entertainer. The unprecedented displays of remorse and anguish from the entire world seem to be somewhat at odds with the tenor of the reports emanating from the American broadcast networks. (For a sense of how the world is responding, check out the British Broadcasting Corp)

While international correspondents shared the feelings of adoration from fans in distant lands, I simply shook my head as one music journalist from a cable service here stated, “if you had asked someone two years ago what they thought of Michael, they would have probably talked about his weirdness.” Another American reported suggested that if Michael had decided to start his tour in the U.S., it probably would not have sold out. A segment of white media community in America just didn’t get. They never really did.

The difference in reporting on Michael between black and white reporters was almost palpable. If you could just read the reports, with no visuals or vocals, discerning the race of the writer might not be too difficult. It seemed as though white reporters in this country invariably would 1) invoke the name of Elvis Presley, 2) pay inordinate attention to Michael’s scandals and 3) be rather miserly with respect to bestowing superlatives on the superstar (never seemed to want to use the term genius). Black reporters and media outlets and many devotees in the rest of the world lauded Michael for his supreme talent and unparalleled achievements. In the larger scheme of things the coverage is emblematic of the schism between white and black America, and in fact, the schism between white (male) America and much of the rest of the world.

The deal is the mainstream press was never too fond of Michael (it’s been lukewarm to black American music, particularly over the last 30-40 years). The reason being mainstream journalism has been transfixed with elevating white artists and their music in the eyes of public.
This isn’t a new phenomenon but it is an odd one because it is both obvious and at the same time subtle. Since approximately the mid-seventies, white rock and roll has been in decline and in search of a new “king”. Remember, the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s had been brutal for the white rock movement. The Beatles, Joplin, the Doors, Hendrix (don’t have time to explain), Cream to name the most prominent had either died or disbanded.

At the same time, the thriving black music movement of the 60s exploded in the 70s. The building blocks of rock and roll – jazz, blues and gospel – evolved, permutated and then coalesced into a magnificent array of sounds that literally lifted an industry. Whether it was jazz rock or fusion, Southern soul, singer-songwriting, group vocalizing, reggae or straight up funk, the music that reflected the breadth of the global black experience had experienced unprecedented critical and popular success.

However, the white corporate music media, by the mid to late 70s, found this situation untenable. Two attempts by the journalistic cabal to hype a new voice, sound or direction for rock and roll failed miserably. The super public relations stunt – placing Bruce Springsteen on covers of both TIME and Newsweek (in 1975) and anointing him as “the future of rock and roll” – and then embracing and promoting of punk rock as the new, significant movement in rock and roll did not catch on with the public or musicians.

The 80s begin, rap and hip-hop are gaining momentum with youth of all races everywhere and then to top it off, Michael follows his hugely popular Off The Wall album with Thriller. Game, set, match. If Mike had been white, the press would have appointed him the new king of rock and roll.

This is the 80s. Ron Reagan and a country desperate for nostalgia. Without a white music king to prop up, they ignore black music – witness MTV. It’s incredible to think that in the early 80s a music broadcast network would attempt such a punk-ass, Jim Crow move but they did. (Also interesting that no one really discusses the importance of this.) For too many music industry Negroes of the era, go along to get along and make as much money as possible were the orders of the day, so one didn’t hear much protest from them.

Michael was never too political. He wanted his just due: acknowledgement of his greatness. He had earned it. But this was and is America, and no matter what he did to establish himself as entertainment royalty – change his appearance, marry the white king’s daughter, buy the Beatles music catalogue – it only made the mainstream press more antagonistic.

So when the accusations of pedophilia surfaced, the media was anxious to destroy and discredit him. His crime wasn’t his love of children, it was challenging the myth of white supremacy.
They say God works in mysterious ways. Black radio and its audience in general has been the target of significant criticism the past two decades. And understandably so. The once great institution that was black broadcasting used to be a clarion for the struggles freedom riders and fighters carried on in the streets of America. They played the anthems that informed us about our common bonds of liberation with South Africa and Central America and black radio helped articulate our demands to commemorate those who died for our freedom.

But whatever you think about us - the black entertainment community and its followers - there was something about this incredible, genius of a performer, Michael Joseph Jackson, that moved us to say enough – we will speak for Michael. We will tell you of his greatness, of his legacy, of his life. We will let you know what he meant to us and what is to be said and remembered about him. And it was damnedest thing, the rest of the world was right there with us.
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