Reactions to the Michael Jackson Verdict
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
And now for a closer look at the verdict's potential impact on Michael Jackson's legacy, we're joined by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author and political analyst. He's published a series of articles called Celebrity, Sex and Race: Lessons in The Jackson Trial. Also with us, Warren Zane, the vice president of education and public programs for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.
Thank you both for joining us and, Earl, let me go straight to you. Let's talk first about the short term for Michael Jackson. What does this verdict do for his credibility? Is it totally salvaged, or does he still have work to do?
Mr. EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON (Author): Well, he's going to need an image remake, there's no question about that. We have to go back to the O.J. Simpson trial. As you well know, in the Simpson trial he was acquitted of all charges of murder, and at the same time in the court of public opinion, many, many people, certainly millions of Americans, still saw--thought that Simpson got away with literally murder in this case. So there was a taint. There was a cloud, and that really never lifted from O.J., so now we fast-forward 10 years to Michael Jackson. Yes, I think rightly it was a great verdict, certainly a correct verdict, and now that Michael's been found innocent in a court of law by a jury, the question is, in the court of public opinion will he really be able to now kind of lift that taint, lift that cloud and really resume what had really been a moribund political and musical career for Michael Jackson.
I say political because Michael Jackson, despite what many people say or think, has always been very, very kind of closed, to an extent, but sometimes open, making references to race, in making comments that have kind of brought black people--given the subtle message to black folk, `I'm still one of you,' even though many African-Americans think he isn't. So we'll have to wait and see. There are a lot of variables there.
CHIDEYA: All right. Well, let me turn to Warren Zane from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Rock stars and controversy have always gone hand in hand. You can think of everything from, you know, folks marrying their cousin. You got Jerry Lee Lewis and on and on and on. Has Michael Jackson crossed some kind of line where he is no longer going to be able to rehabilitate his image? How far can rock stars go in being bad boys and bad girls?
Mr. WARREN ZANE (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum): Well, I think the fan response to this situation has been remarkable, and it certainly suggests that the work will not be tainted by what happened in the courtroom, and I think it's appropriate that it was the man being judged, not the man's creative output. I think he's--you can't take away the musical history and the impact it had on people.
CHIDEYA: Now as someone who's a curator of rock 'n' roll, if you had to encounter, say, a space alien and tell them why Michael Jackson was such a musical innovator, what would you tell that person from outer space?
Mr. ZANE: Well, I think he took a lot of great R&B traditions and brought them into a pop arena. He's not the only one to have done that but certainly on the scale that he did it, he was a man apart. But also as we enter into the video era, Michael Jackson was, you know, pushing on the video form, seeing where it could go. I'm mentioning a few things. I think there are a lot of points to make about his relevance. But also in a nation where, if you look at the presidents, they all appear to be white males. If you look at entertainment, you see people coming from the margins having a voice in the mainstream. That in and of itself is extremely important, and I hope we don't lose our sense of the importance of it.
CHIDEYA: Earl, let me turn back to you. You said something I found very interesting just a second ago. You said that Michael Jackson was political. He sends messages about race through his music. At the same time, he seems to have a very troubled or complicated view of how race plays out in his own life. He sings a song, "It doesn't matter if you're Black or White," but he's had some very notable plastic surgeries to make him look more Caucasian. Is this a man who is a role model for the black community?
Mr. HUTCHINSON: Well, he hasn't been projected, certainly, as a role model in the African-American community. But remember that's not always a criteria about how a person is perceived by certainly larger society and also African-Americans, too. Even though you didn't see a major presence in Santa Maria on the part of African-Americans cheerleading Michael on, nonetheless there was still the sense that Michael was being victimized. Yes, we know about his eccentricities, we know about his bizarreness, we know about his past history. But at the same time, you know, Michael still has had a long tradition in our community basically of being on the cutting edge of, you know, creativity in the musical arena and much of that has been black music.
So as a result of that, you know Michael mi--there's been an identification to an extent with Michael through his music and through his artistry, and also there's a sense, when we come back to the criminal justice system, that Michael's troubles within the system are at least in part brought on because Michael is still, despite what many think, still an African-American. So I think that was on the table. I think that resonated with certainly many blacks, and I think it still does.
CHIDEYA: Let me just follow up on that, though, you know, because Michael Jackson obviously has considerable resources to fight any kind of criminal case against him. There are many African-Americans who may have the need for recourse in the court system who are never going to have that kind of profile. Does it really further the idea of African-Americans in the justice system to look at Michael Jackson as a key example?
Mr. HUTCHINSON: Well, certainly we always have the parallel with O.J. Simpson. Any time you have an African-American in the criminal justice system, the same rules apply. The intensity of the prosecution is always going to be much greater against an African-American. Doesn't make any difference about their wealth and fame and notoriety. The second thing, there's always going to be the presumption of guilt. I mean, that's eternal when you look at the criminal justice system and African-Americans. The difference, though, is, with a Simpson or a Michael Jackson, yes, you're absolutely correct. They do have the wealth. They do have the resources to get an A-one, topflight legal defense team and challenge, challenge, challenge every step of the way the prosecution. As you well know, the ordinary African-American, the average guy on the street, the average Jane out there, can come nowhere close to that. That's why you see one million African-Americans in prisons and jails today, and you don't see wealthy African-Americans, routinely, though, in prisons and jails.
CHIDEYA: All right. Let me turn to Warren; last word. What should Michael Jackson do now? He's 46 years old. He has made and spent millions and millions of dollars. Should he sort of fade away into retirement as the King of Pop, or should he forge a new musical direction and try to get back out there?
Mr. ZANE: To me, it all comes down to the songs. I mean, if he has the impetus to be out there writing and producing, then he should certainly follow that. As a musical individual, he's given us a lot, and in all likelihood will continue to do so. So I think it would be an unfortunate case if he simply retreated. If he was feeling a pull to make more recordings, hopefully he'll follow that and we'll, you know, continue to do our best to not judge the music when we're setting out to judge the man, because if we do judge the art when we're attempting to judge the man, it might be time to start clearing out the museums, too.
CHIDEYA: All right. We're going to have to leave it there.
Warren Zane is the vice president of education and public programs for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. Earl Ofari Hutchinson is political analyst and author of a series of articles called Celebrity, Sex and Race: Lessons in The Jackson Trial.
Thank you both for joining us.
Mr. HUTCHINSON: Thank you.
Mr. ZANE: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.