THE misty black-and-white clip has been opening most of the televisual retrospectives for the last few nights, and to me it's the alpha and omega of Micheal Jackson. We're somewhere in the mid-sixties, and someone's on their knees with a camera in a murky Motown audition room. The band's cropped off at the chest, and all the universe is looking at this motion-blur of a boy.
Increasingly these days, we might well ask that question of ourselves. Of course, we can place Micheal Jackson in any list of epochal superlatives – as one part of the holy trinity of the great, transformative post-war performers of the 20th century, along with Sinatra and Elvis; or as the all-time zenith of the music industry, both commercially and culturally; or as one of the keystones in the bridge that bent its arc across history to enable a black American president; and on and on.
But I think it's more elemental than that. In one sense, Jackson in his heyday was the greatest American exemplar of the work ethic. The energy he brought to his neo-motown (think of the backing track of 'Bille Jean' itself: never did an industrial pounding sound so seductive, so compelling) mapped the very forcefulness of American power. Its total success marked our identification with that power, too. Another time - and maybe, hopefully, a different America.
In short: we don't bury our own brokenness, the proliferating divisions in our own souls, along with Jackson in his grave.