Suggesting that Jackson was the greatest entertainer of the century ignores the achievements of Barbra Streisand, who at the height of her career excelled as a singer, actress, composer, and film director. I judge a great entertainer according to the imagery their work has generated. One of the most moving stories of the past century is Yentl, based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s tale of a young woman who breaks out of the strictures of Orthodox Judaism. It is a story that should inspire young women today, most particularly those in Muslim countries, and is relevant to the current debate on the burqa in France. Did Michael Jackson ever create a film as memorable as Yentl, in which Streisand also starred and which she also directed? She is a genius and ranks with Leonard Bernstein in awesome talent and impact on the young. Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts generated a host of children from deprived backgrounds whose lives were enriched by their love for classical music and who — at a time when classical music has suffered a decline in popularity — pursued careers in opera, ballet, concert performance, and musicology.
Legendary, heart-stopping performers of the century? What about Maria Callas? God rest Michael Jackson’s soul but to me it is a sacrilege to rank his limited range alongside the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, and Gene Kelly. These men could act, dance, and sing; their ability to thrill an audience anywhere in the world was and is matched only by Ethel Merman, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Shirley Bassey, and Diana Ross.
I go back to my original complaint: it is wrong and divisive for young blacks to be told by Al Sharpton that their race was shunned by white people until Michael Jackson arrived on the scene. In my childhood one of the greatest opera singers of that era was Leontyne Price; other outstanding black opera stars included Grace Bumbry — possibly the most electrifying “Carmen” of all time — Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle. Marian Anderson was a legend before I was born.
It troubles me that there is a mass international hysteria about Michael Jackson. He did indeed give extraordinary support to charities but his denial of his black identity, his bizarre personal life, and his attitude towards children — revealed in the Martin Bashir interview — do not, in my estimation, constitute a role model. Like Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley, he was worn out by his thirtieth year and pushed into drug-taking and unnatural work patterns by money-mad managers. Sadly it is a manifestation of manic celebrity culture that small children are being brought to Jackson shrines worldwide as their young parents weep over a deeply flawed man who, in the end, gave far less to his people than real icons: Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Marian Anderson.
Michael, rest in peace and may you find solace in the company of true African-Americans in the realm of the beyond.