Sometimes I wonder why we bother having full-time professional pundits. People who do something more useful for a living — NFL quarterbacks, for example — usually end up saying what needs to be said just as well as the hacks. Probably the most effective opinion-maker of the Trump era is a reality television star.
The latest example of a celebrity putting the columnist class to shame is Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr., better known to fans as T.I. The hip-hop star likely spoke for millions of decent Americans when he took to Instagram to protest the response to HBO's new film about Michael Jackson, who is being suspended indefinitely from radio stations around the world and even "pulled" from reruns of ancient Simpsons episodes:
Let this man speak for himself to defend his legacy. Don't just listen to one side and expect to find truth. Oh that's right ... Dead men can't speak. So what was the point again? Destroy another strong black historical LEGEND?!?! It's several examples of pedophilia in American History ... if y'all pulling up all our old shit ... we gotta examine ELVIS PRESLEY, HUGH HEPHNER, and a whole slew of others guilty of the same if not more!!! BUT WHY US all the time? There's an agenda to destroy OUR CULTURE. #KingsThoughts [T.I., sic throughout]
These are indeed thoughts worthy of a king, and a wise one at that. We don't need a new premium cable documentary to tell us that the guy who popularized "Hound Dog" was a pig or that the founder of Playboy was a low-grade pimp. The history of white rock artists sexually exploiting children is, well, the history of white rock artists. So why is nobody suggesting that Amazon should stop selling deluxe reissues of Exile on Main Street ("No I don't want your I.D. / And I've seen that you're so far from home / But it's no hanging matter / It's no capital crime") or posthumous David Bowie live albums? Why is the legacy of the most beloved black pop star of the last century, the only African-American entertainer who would ever loom as large in the popular imagination as Old Pops, something opinion writers can dispense with in an instant?
When white writers are pontificating about our supposed duty to erase the life and career of a black man, the only reasonable hermeneutic is one of suspicion. Behind the latest round of anti-Jackson outrage I hear the voice of Marcia Clark pursuing justice in good faith by insisting that the defendant should be convicted of a crime even where there is not enough evidence to convince a jury and that his exceptionally clever black lawyers are wicked men for doing their job. I also hear something uglier, the muttering of the world's Mark Fuhrmans, the boozy insistence that this you-know-what had it coming, and good riddance. I suspect that if polls were to be conducted tomorrow we would find opinion about Jackson split on racial lines as stark as those drawn around the O.J. Simpson trial. It's worth wondering why that might be the case.
I have so far refrained from discussing the recent allegations made against Jackson, in part because I have not yet seen the new film in which they have been made. It goes without saying, I hope, that if any of what his credible accusers say is true, he was a wicked man who ought to have paid the ultimate price for his crimes here on Earth. That is never going to happen. His sins, whatever they were, are now between him and his creator.
Jackson's most famous album is about being a monster. Those images of him transforming into one in front of our eyes are indelible. The impression that he gave us not only on Thriller but throughout his career was that long ago, in a past of almost mythic remoteness, he had been transformed into something inhuman. He spent much of his adulthood obsessing over Peter Pan, but to my mind his life recalls the myth of the changeling, the child taken and made a captive in replaced with something blasphemous. It is impossible to listen to "The Man in the Mirror" without recognizing the voice of a man in unimaginable pain trying his best to arrive at a firm purpose of amendment:
Whether that resolution actually prevented him from doing the wicked things of which he has been accused is now impossible to say. But we can recognize what we hear for what it is: broken music from a broken man. Lots of vicious people have made good art. Perhaps we are due soon for a bonfire of the vanities in which we consign the whole of late 20th-century mass culture to eternal flame. I sometimes think I would be willing to light the first match myself — but I certainly would not select Jackson for the kindling. There are many things we could afford to do away with before we lose him in an ill-thought-out fit of moral preening.