Am I the only person in the world not moved by or concerned with the death of Michael Jackson? Like all bereavements my heart goes out to his family and close friends.
But — a “genius”? “The greatest entertainer of all time”?
Why am I writing this article at all?
I believe it is important, especially for the young, to understand the true meaning of greatness and to appreciate the real essence of “genius.” This may sound like a sacrilege but, as I write, millions of youngsters are breakdancing to Jackson tunes and evidently thinking this is the be-all and end-all of life’s expectations. If I had a young child now I would want him or her to read books, go to orchestra concerts, and be exposed to selective media under my — and my partner’s — supervision. Whether or not the stars I am about to venerate grew up in such a rarefied atmosphere is debatable, but after hearing Al Sharpton’s pronouncements I would like to reflect on what true greatness entails.
The Rev. Sharpton said this week that Michael Jackson broke down a barrier: he made it acceptable for black entertainers to rise to the top in a white world. What is Al Sharpton talking about? In my parents’ generation (they were born during World War I) the most beloved acts were black: the Inkspots, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Paul Robeson. Yes, entertainers of color encountered fierce prejudice and the monstrous “whites only” policies of the Deep South, but they were also loved by millions of white fans around the United States and the world. For heaven’s sake, Al, African-American actress Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar for Gone with the Wind in 1939.
In my generation black entertainers dominated the music, film, and theater world. Ray Charles, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Dionne Warwick, and Stevie Wonder are world-class. Several commentators have been attributing to Michael Jackson the honor of being “the greatest entertainer of the century.” With the greatest of respect to his memory, he was not. Period.
Great entertainers were versatile people of talent who were consummate performers; their accessible music, films, and theatrical performances inspired audiences to joy in times of hardship and encouraged young people to study dance, opera, theater, and music. Great entertainers?
My list is topped by Judy Garland. Aside from being an electrifying singer, her performance as a Holocaust survivor in Judgment at Nuremberg is indelibly etched on my memory bank. From her performance as Dorothy in the legendary The Wizard of Oz, with its lyrics by the brilliant Yip Harburg, to her stunning appearances at the Palladium, Garland was a great entertainer. Like Jackson, her personal life was marred by drugs and emotional traumas. The similarity ends there. The vast legacy of her glorious music and acting talent will endure for generations.