The question for most of us was: “How did he die?” Some asked, “How old was he?” But no one asked, “Who is he?”
My twelve-year-old son did mistake Jackson for a basketball player, but he then explained to me in fluent English: Of course I know of him, I just can’t remember what he did.
Not all Chinese liked pop music, not all those who liked pop liked rock, and not all Chinese rock fans appreciated Jackson’s iconic dance steps. In fact, there are many Chinese who know Jackson as the “King of Pop,” yet have not listened to any of his songs, not even a segment of one.
But everyone knew of him. They knew of the prodigious start to his glamorous career, his numerous plastic surgeries, the accusations that he was a pedophile, his surrogate child and his multimillion-dollar donations. They knew him as a black man that conquered the world.
In this dazzling world, Jackson epitomized entertainment, but he was certainly not the most influential. He was merely a singer that made lots of money, who never stepped outside the realm of entertainment. There were European film stars who fought in WWII, combating fascism on the front lines, whose doings far exceeded the expectations of a performer - similar turnarounds didn’t happen with Jackson.
But to be known by the Chinese public does go beyond the influence of an entertainer. Jackson was in the right place at the right time.
Jackson became a cult figure, opening up a window to the world for the Chinese. Elvis Presley didn’t have this impact; the Chinese didn’t learn from him that plastic surgery could be addictive. Madonna didn’t have this impact; the Chinese media was already full of bizarre legal battles when she fought cases for her adopted children. Even the popularity of the Beatles cannot compare to the might of this single man.
Born in 1958, Jackson rose to fame in the 80’s and continued to dominate the entertainment industry and the media for the next 30 years. This timeline coincidentally mirrors every social phenomenon in China, from its reform in 1979 to its economic prosperity.
When China argued over flared pants, Jackson wore his wacky costumes; when we regarded men with long hair as otherworldly, Jackson showed off his shoulder-length hair. When rock music symbolized the Chinese counter culture, Jackson was going wild onstage. When the Chinese “openly discussed” taboo subjects, Jackson was the focus media attention over allegations of child molestation. When the Chinese slowly understood why lawyers are such an important part of society, Jackson escaped conviction with the help of one. When charity functions gradually became a part of China, Jackson was already dispersing his wealth.
When China has finally become desensitized to the bizarreness of society, when gossip became an obligatory but unimportant part of the media, Jackson’s death gave us one final shock.
China opened up to the world during Jackson’s popularity. And after his death, the world will gradually get used to the fact that the most stirring military, political and economic news will all be inexplicably linked to China.
The fact that China is leading the world cannot be brushed aside. Chinese overseas can no longer flaunt the “beauty of the outside world.” They have slowly started to realize that the real fun, entertainment and luxury are found in China.
As Michael Jackson fades out of sight, my twelve-year-old son still hasn’t worked out his profession.