One thing you can’t fault Ta-Nehisi Coates for is lacking controversial opinions. Today the Atlantic published his take on Kanye West which also leans heavily on Michael Jackson or, more precisely, on Coates’ view of Michael Jackson. As Coates sees it, Jackson was a supremely gifted black artist who wanted to be white. But the climax of the piece comes as Coates describes attending a show at Madison Square Garden in 2001 where Jackson performed Billie Jean. During that performance, Coates claims he saw Jackson transcend his own desire to be white and connect with a history of oppression that defines America:
Jackson cranked up “Billie Jean” and I felt it too. For when I saw Michael Jackson glide across the stage that night at Madison Square Garden, mere days before the Twin Towers fell, I did not imagine him so much walking on the moon, as walking on water. And the moonwalk was the least of things. He whipped his mop of hair and, cuffing the mic, stomped with the drums, spun, grabbed the air. I was astounded. There was the matter of his face, which took me back to the self-hatred of the ’80s, but this seemed not to matter because I was watching a miracle—a man had been born to a people who controlled absolutely nothing, and yet had achieved absolute control over the thing that always mattered most—his body.
And then the song climaxed. He screamed and all the music fell away, save one solitary drum, and boneless Michael seemed to break away, until it was just him and that “Billie Jean” beat, carnal, ancestral. He rolled his shoulders, snaked to the ground, and then backed up, pop-locked, seemed to slow time itself, and I saw him pull away from his body, from the ravished face, which wanted to be white, and all that remained was the soul of him, the gift given onto him, carried in the drum.
I like to think I thought of Zora while watching Jackson. But if not, I am thinking of her now:
It was said, “He will serve us better if we bring him from Africa naked and thing-less.” So the bukra reasoned. They tore away his clothes so that Cuffy might bring nothing away, but Cuffy seized his drum and hid it in his skin under the skull bones. The shin-bones he bore openly, for he thought, “Who shall rob me of shin-bones when they see no drum?” So he laughed with cunning and said, “I, who am borne away, to become an orphan, carry my parents with me. For rhythm is she not my mother, and Drama is her man?” So he groaned aloud in the ships and hid his drum and laughed.
There is no separating the laughter from the groans, the drum from the slave ships, the tearing away of clothes, the being borne away, from the cunning need to hide all that made you human. And this is why the gift of black music, of black art, is unlike any other in America, because it is not simply a matter of singular talent, or even of tradition, or lineage, but of something more grand and monstrous. When Jackson sang and danced, when West samples or rhymes, they are tapping into a power formed under all the killing, all the beatings, all the rape and plunder that made America.
This seems overwrought to put it mildly. Jackson was a tremendously talented dancer and performer. As teens my sister and I spent hours in the hallway of our house, which had a wood floor, trying to replicate a few of his moves, with limited success. I respect his talent. But you can watch Jackson’s 2001 performance of Billie Jean for yourself (see below) and see there’s no magical transformation at the end. He doesn’t become the embodiment of black art/human suffering. All of that is happening in Ta-Nehisi Coates head. In fact, it didn’t even happen at the time Coates originally saw the performance, it’s happening now, hence Coates’ admission “I like to think I thought of Zora while watching Jackson. But if not, I am thinking of her now.”
In fact, there’s something worth noting about this whole romantic idea of Jackson and the drumbeat. Jackson himself told Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates that he’d taken that beat from one of their songs. Now, to be fair, Hall and Oates were basically white soul artists (and good ones) so there’s still a connection to black music and black artists. But the idea that the beat of Billie Jean leads straight back to a true black experience doesn’t really hold up when what it actually leads to is this.
So what’s the point of all this? I think it’s that the ability to dance to a catchy beat isn’t something owned by a race. Talent and musical inspiration don’t work like that in the real world. They get passed around and people of different backgrounds add a little something, not just from their race but from themselves. Artists, in particular, seem to understand that art and music can transcend those lines of color and creed in ways that politics and history show we often don’t manage to do. I don’t think Michael Jackson would have agreed with Coates that you can’t separate “the laughter from the groans.” After all, at the same 2001 concert at which Jackson performed Billie Jean, he also performed “Black or White,” a song with the lyric “I’ve seen the bright get duller I’m not going to spend my life being a color.”