Like an Ethic: What I Learned from Michael Jackson

During the first 12 years of my life in Taiwan, I was hooked to the practice of “keeping up” with the latest in pop culture in Taiwan and abroad. Through my connection to extended family in the U.S., I was able to obtain nifty cultural artifacts such as Ghostbusters model kit, Strawberry Shortcake blanket, Batman board game, Garfield puzzle set, and New Kids on the Block book covers (only then to find that American textbooks are much larger than their Taiwanese counterparts). The internationalization Toys “R” Us allowed me a more immediate access to American pop culture. I remember asking my parents to take me to the newly built Toys “R” Us in Taipei so I could pick out the items on my birthday wish list. The tremendous selection of made-in-U.S.A. toys in the store was both fascinating and overwhelming.

One day, my uncle, who’s only 12 years older than me, said that he had gotten tickets to see Michael Jackson’s concert in the largest indoor sports arena in Taipei. Well-versed in American pop music because of MTV (my parents were among the first people to install cable television once it became legal in Taiwan in the late 1980s), I learned of Michael Jackson’s high status within the American music industry. I was thrilled to experience the real Michael Jackson live. With our inexpensive tickets, we sat way up high in the stadium among not-so-hardcore international fans of Michael. Witnessing Michael moon-walking across the multicolored stage in his white outfit, although not understanding the lyrics of all his songs, bewildered me.

The King of Pop wielded magic that night. Without understanding the context of American society–racial dynamics, gender relations, etc–I was overtaken by the performance power of Michael Jackson at the age of 9. It was mesmerizing, not like a Disney-sque fairy tale but more like a documentarian snapshot of the American life. Maybe it was the spectacular stage production, the screaming fans, or the astronomical performance venue, or some combination of these things, I remember it as a quintessential “American” experience. Maybe it was then that I became obsessed with live music performances. Maybe it was my first ethnomusicological moment.

After I moved to the US with my family, one of the first things I learned about was the entrenched racial tension between the American blacks and whites. Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” suggested that there could be a middle ground, or least it was cool to celebrate social harmony across racial divide. Michael’s playful, anti-binary ambiguity in gendered and racial terms compelled me like an ethic. This was my secret identification with MJ.

Like the whole rest of the world, I am mourning the passing of Michael Jackson. I choose not to talk about his life as a celebrity and judge him based on the highly mediated information regarding his biography. Instead I focus on the effects of his music, dance, and artistry as they resonate with my experiences as an Asian American individual and a music lover. Rest in peace, Michael.

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This entry was originally posted on June 26, 2009 on Yellowbuzz.

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