Waking The Lion by Melanie Adams: Dancing In The Shadows

wakinglion_bannerBy Melanie Adams PhD

melanie new 1Every generation has their defining musical moment.  For some it was the introduction of Elvis and the pelvic swivel that made teenager girls scream.  For others it was the when the Beatles invaded America which also seemed to make a lot of young girls scream.  For me it was the 25th anniversary of Motown and the coming out of Michael Jackson.

Before anyone writes to me to explain that Michael Jackson was famous way before he moonwalked across our TVs I would have to agree.  Performing with his brothers, Michael Jackson was a child star like no other that had both the dance moves and the voice to move audiences of all ages.  What I’m talking about is that feeling you get when you know you are watching something special, something that is going to change an art form forever, something that will often be imitated, but never duplicated.  That was Michael Jackson on the evening of May 16, 1983.

I was nearing the end of 8th grade and didn’t really have a strong musical background or even identity.  My musical tastes mirrored those of my friends which included a lot of Pat Benatar, Joan Jett,  J. Geils Band, Billie Joel, and NJ staples like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi.  The only music I remember listening to that would be considered, “black music” was when I would sneak into my brother’s room (who left for college when I was in 5th grade) and play his Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, and Stevie Wonder albums.  My very first concert was an MTV Jams show in the Meadowlands with Paula Abdul, Was Not Was, and Milli Vanili.  Not exactly a stellar line up today, but back then, they all had top 40 hits.

But back to that fateful evening in 1983.  I remember sitting in front of the television in the family room.  My parents were not huge television viewers except for the news and 60 Minutes on Sunday so I could pretty much control what we watched.  Not sure why I wanted to watch the 25th anniversary of Motown, but there we were watching it.  I remember the Jackson 5 coming out and performing a medley of their songs.  And then they left the stage and just Michael came out.  He was wearing a black sequin jacket with what would become his signature white sparkle glove.  And then the first few notes of Billie Jean started to fill the television speakers and I sat transformed.  It was like time stood still as I watched him move across the stage and then do the moonwalk.  No sooner was he done and I was trying to moonwalk on the carpet in front of the television.  Though it lasted less than five minutes, Michael Jackson’s performance was a game changer that transformed both music and the new genre of music videos.

That following year, everyone at school was trying to not only moonwalk but had learned the Thriller dance in its entirety.   It seemed like almost every high school marching band in the NJ/NY/PA area decided to stage Thriller as their big halftime show and we were subjected to lots of White dance troupes in black tuxedo leotards and white gloves pretending to be zombies.  I am happy to report my own high school marching band went old school with Michael Jackson and instead did a percussion medley of Jackson Five tunes instead of giving into the Thriller frenzy.

I bring up Michael Jackson because I consider him one of the first musician who crossed over from being a Black musician to just a musician.  A musician that was able to go mainstream in such a way that he forced MTV to play videos by African American artists.  He set the gold standard for the creation of videos and created mini movies that still hold up today.  Like the 25th anniversary of Motown, I vividly remember my first viewing of the Thriller video.  It was on one of the late night video shows, not on MTV and I was getting in from an evening with my friends.  That first part of that video scarred me so much I almost didn’t’ make it to the dancing zombies, but I made it through. 

Based on interviews and behaviors, it appeared that Michael Jackson was very uncomfortable with his race and I contend that contributed to the issues in his life that caused his pre-mature death.  While being a child star is never easy, I am sure that growing up a Black child star was even worse.  The glare of the spotlight and the emphasis on models of European beauty standards and the impossible perfection demanded by the industry would cause most adults to crack under the pressure.

Regardless of what you think of Michael Jackson’s personal life, his musical talents and showmanship defined the music of the 1980’s and continues to influence generations of performers.  From Usher to Justin Timberlake to Chris Brown, they are all performing in the shadow of Michael Jackson.  A man whose shadow is neither black nor white, but a universal symbol of the power of music to bring people together.

Melanie Adams, Ph.D. is an educator who enjoys working with organizations tackling difficult community issues.  She is active in the community and serves on local boards addressing issues of diversity and educational equity.  She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia, her masters degree from the University of Vermont, and her doctorate degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.  Please contact her at madams@thelionsview.com for speaking engagements and consulting services.