x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Michael Jackson: the soundtrack of a generation

If the fascination with celebrity reflects a longing to escape from the mundane then in Michael Jackson this was reflected back in his own unfulfilled longing: "what I wanted more than anything was to be ordinary," he once wrote. "May Allah be with you Michael, always," Jermaine Jackson said on Thursday, while announcing the death of his brother. His remark rekindled speculation that the pop icon had in the last months of his life converted to Islam.

If the fascination with celebrity reflects a longing to escape from the mundane then in Michael Jackson this was reflected back in his own unfulfilled longing: "what I wanted more than anything was to be ordinary," he once wrote. "May Allah be with you Michael, always," Jermaine Jackson said on Thursday, while announcing the death of his brother. His remark rekindled speculation that the pop icon had in the last months of his life converted to Islam. With those words, "Michael's association with Islam and Muslims - wanted or not - was made eternal," wrote Zahed Amanullah in an obituary at altmuslim. Ali Eteraz looked into the question of whether the singer had converted to Islam and found a mixture of fact and fiction but no evidence that the claim was true. "In the Muslim world Jackson was very well received and never lost his iconic stature. He was so loved that rumours of his conversion to Islam had been in existence for countless years. (I heard them in Pakistan when I was growing up there in the 80's). "These rumours probably began as a case of Muslim wishful thinking - which I previously analysed and refer to as Muslamism - whereby every famous person, from Shakespeare, to Napoleon, to Will Smith, to Jackson, is turned into a Muslim. (Recently the wish seems to be stronger if the individual happens to be black). "All these rumours probably gained steam sometime after 1989 when Jermaine Jackson, Michael's brother, reportedly converted to Islam. He has spoken at length on the subject. "They became more insistent when after his acquittal for child molestation charges Michael left the United States and settled in the ... Gulf through the support of the Bahraini royal family - who paid his millions of dollars in legal fees and entered into a failed business venture with him." The Syrian journalist, Sami Moubayed, wrote in The Washington Post: "To young teenagers growing up in the Arab world [in the 1980s], there were three cherished pop idols to those aged 13 and above: Madonna, George Michael, and Michael Jackson. With the passing of time, Madonna became too outrageous for the Arab East and George Michael sunk into obscurity. The only name that was constantly in the news was Jackson. As teenagers, we learned to moonwalk, sported red leather jackets like the one he wore in Thriller, and danced to his music at private parties - long before nightclubs had invaded the night life of Damascus. "We brought ourselves to believe that Michael Jackson 'liked' the Arab World because he wore a jacket that 'looked Arabic' in We are the World. He reportedly had a fling with Brooke Shields in the 1980s - a woman who was adored by young people throughout the Middle East, and a poster of them walking the red carpet into the Oscars soon became a must in the bedrooms of young teenagers. "Then suddenly, a baseless rumour ripped throughout the Arab world, saying that Michael Jackson hated the Arabs, and had hostile feelings towards Muslims. This affected the popularity of Michael in the Arab world, and coincided with career setbacks for the King of Pop, which made him literally disappear from news, until the early 1990s. Then, ugly stories of the artist began to surface in the international press, with story after another, of improper sexual behaviour with minors. That had a very negative affect on his image, and probably explains why very little was said about him on the day of his death, in the Arab world. Strangely, his tour of Dubai, temporary residence in Bahrain, and friendship with Saudi billionaire Prince Walid Bin Talal, did little to polish his shattered image in the eyes of Arab media." The Saudi commentator, Faisal J Abbas, wrote at The Huffington Post: "On Facebook, my school colleague Fahad, who now lives in the US, mentioned that he is remembering when he used to practice the Moonwalk in front of the mirror as a kid, while Sami - a friend who left us years ago to go study and work in the US, but now is back in Saudi Arabia, immediately began posting clips of his favourite music videos, such as Smooth Criminal and Bad. "However, just as I was wondering if I could find any negative comments regarding the incident, a friend of mine called me from Dubai complaining about all the hype Jackson's death is getting; he is arguing that the man wasn't a Princess Diana socially, or even a Bob Marley musically. Nevertheless, he uses a statement which I immediately recognised as the 'punch line' I was looking for, he said: 'Despite everything, I have to admit that Michael Jackson's music was the soundtrack of our generation's life'. "Perhaps this video of a young Yemeni dancing to Billie Jean in a way that mixes the local fighting techniques of using a 'Khangar' (tradtional Yemeni dagger) with the twists and turns of the King of Pop, would demonstrate just how much this man has managed to rock the desert." In Foreign Policy, Hua Hsu said: "The reason Michael mattered - continues to matter - is because he was one of the first truly international stars. Not just transatlantic, not just big in Japan: He was global. The obvious effect was economic. Michael opened markets around the world; he made the world safe for MTV (after first making MTV safe for nonwhite performers, it should be said). He sold records and sold-out tours everywhere. He was, by most accounts, a gracious guest and a kind ambassador. "Most importantly, in this moment before communication was instant and cheap, Michael was one of the most powerful access points to American culture from abroad - his star didn't tarnish at the same rate elsewhere. Perhaps it was the wonder and magic of his music or the subversive hue of his skin that exempted him from accusations of cultural imperialism. "Michael belonged to the world - in part ... because America gave him up. Perhaps it was a vision of American possibility. Perhaps it was that he represented no discernible politics (unless we were to take the Black Panther imagery of Black or White literally) other than a deep, abiding, and occasionally intense commitment to the children. It was probably the music. "In a recent piece in Foreign Policy on the future of 'globalisation,' Editor in Chief Moisés Naím pointed out that globalisation is much more than just an economic condition. The current crisis will not dull our pursuit for information and style. Globalisation is also a celebration of the unpredictable porosity of borders, the shock flow of information across lands far and wide. It is Michael Jackson selling records - but it is also a stall in Malaysia selling bootlegged Michael Jackson tapes and T-shirts (which, I might add, were way cooler than the American T-shirt designs). It is a flea market in South Africa where they sell framed illustrations of Michael Jackson and Jesus. It is a generation, scattered across continents, that remembers a world tour. It is '#michaeljackson' neck and neck with '#IranElection' on Twitter."

pwoodward@thenational.ae