Ace February 2003, Affrilachia column, by Frank X Walker
The King of Pop
by Frank X Walker
I can’t say I fully understand the power dynamics that govern celebrities, groupies, or their oftentimes odd behaviors. I am almost sure that I don’t participate or encourage it, well at least not anymore, especially after being totally dismissed by Spike Lee, who I naively believed would remember me just because I sat directly across from him at dinner with a few other students and we had a spirited, but engaging conversation about SEC basketball. He left Lexington with my Kinko’s bound collection of poems and an original hand-carved Malcolm X head, which he claimed he planned to hang in his home office. A few months later I ran into him at his 40 Acres and a Mule booth at the National Black Expo in New York City and he claimed he didn’t remember even visiting Kentucky. I was so wounded I couldn’t even find the courage to ask him if he remembered asking Chester Grundy to get him basketball tickets on the sideline with then UK coach Rick Pitino. Of course I’d love to know what really happened to my art.
Maybe I take things way too personally, but it was probably that one bad celebrity encounter that has made me pass up autograph opportunities with Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King, Alex Haley, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Lawrence Fishburne, Maya Angelou, and many others. It might also explain my near obsessive desire to save ticket stubs. I’m pretty sure I have the stubs of every movie, Broadway show, music concert, and significant sporting event I’ve attended in the last 20 years. Recent news and television events have forced me to reconsider which jewel in my collection I prize the most: a lower arena seat to see Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls square off against the Indiana Pacers in Market Square Arena on Friday, Nov. 28, 1997, or Row A seats to the Jackson Five’s Victory Tour.
Jordan’s almost perfect exit in this year’s NBA All-Star game had closed the competition until the recent flood of television specials that splattered Jackson’s life, tabloid style, in the middle of America’s current preoccupation with “reality TV.”
What the recent documentaries couldn’t show were images of my sisters (Wanda, Debra, Brenda) as pre-teens fighting over the monthly Michael Jackson posters in Right On! Magazine. There is no footage of them arguing about which of them would be Mrs. Jackson when they grew up, or of mama threatening to rip the posters off the wall if they didn’t stop all that fuss over a piece of paper. One of my sisters loved Michael so much that she felt she had no other choice but to leave the store with the only copy of his latest 45 without paying because “it might not have been there when she returned with the money.” She couldn’t make mama understand that it wasn’t the same as shoplifting.
As an undergraduate at UK and one of the few in my circle with cable, I entertained 27 “friends” in my living room in a space designed for maybe 10, for the much-hyped world premier of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. The first, second, third, and even tenth time that long night, it did not disappoint. And more importantly it opened the doors for artists of color on MTV and redefined the importance of the music video forever.
To say we’re all fans, doesn’t come close to describing the impact Michael Jackson has had on my family over the years. Between the 10 of us, we own at least two copies of every album, 45, and CD he’s ever made. Given the choice we’d take the big beautiful nose and lion-sized afro on the original version over today’s caricature of himself. I recognize that his attempts to “upgrade” himself with cosmetic surgery, his Peter Pan persona, and accusations of pedophilia have made him an easy target, but I think as fans we have to also accept our role in contributing to the madness. And I pray the worst of it is not true.
When I purchased my row A seats for the Knoxville concert I wasn’t aware that I would be sitting in the first row in the end zone and that the stage would be in the opposite end zone and thousands of Michaelholics would be in better seats on the 100-yard plus field between us. But thanks to the giant screen above the stage and well-orchestrated cinematography, I had a chance to understand the biblical warning regarding golden idols when Michael took off his glasses and turned and looked into the camera. When his eyes filled the giant screen the entire stadium was instantly transformed into a bowl of teary-eyed electric eels and many of the true zealots down front were passing out and being carted off because they were so overwhelmed with emotion. That moment received at least a 15-minute standing ovation and they hadn’t even sung a word.
When the music finally started we were treated to a nostalgic trip that included a J5 medley that included “ABC,” “Rockin’ Robin,” and of course my favorite “I’ll Be There,” but the majesty of the event eclipsed even itself when the brothers exited and Michael stormed through his greatest hits that included “Ben,” “Billy Jean,” “Beat It,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and finally “Thriller.” I’m sure I never surrendered my laidback unexcitable persona, but for some reason the next day my hands were sore and I was very very hoarse from simply “expressing my appreciation” for the things that happened on stage that night.
I’m only a poet, so I will never know what its like to have millions of people hanging on my every word and move. And that’s a good thing given my potential to pick my nose in public. Most of us enjoy our anonymity and can’t imagine having that freedom taken away, yet by participating in the worshipping of others we take away some of their freedoms. This is not the column you were not meant to read. Its just one man’s opinion that the hidden costs that come with being high profile athletes, artists, entertainers, or political figures seem to be deserved of at least a degree or two of oddness, as long as it doesn’t harm others, especially children. Okay maybe not political figures, although the “entertainment” they have provided lately seems to be drawing record crowds too.