The words to Nina Simone’s song Young, Gifted and Black could have been written especially for the Jackson Five. When the group’s first single, I Want You Back, smashed its way to the top of the pop charts in 1969 the brothers seemed to some to epitomise the desire for black pride that emerged out of the movement for civil rights.
The Jacksons combined street credibility – a kind of ghetto chic derived from their working class upbringing in Indiana – with wholesome respectability. They dressed sharp, but not so sharp they couldn’t be copied, and the group wore their hair in the “natural” Afro style.
Their carefully choreographed dance moves were designed to enhance their boy-next-door appeal, rather than their sexuality. And right from the beginning it was 10 year old Michael who was the star of the show.
Within two years the Jacksons had their own cartoon show, a string of teenage magazines that were devoted to them, and every record they released sold in the millions.
This was a “family operation” that spoke to millions who longed to see black people in the driving seat, having success, and making some money too.
A decade later and Michael was at the top of career. His 1982 Thriller is the biggest selling album of all time. It transformed popular music, and the music video in particular.
Kids everywhere rushed to imitate his style – his renewed popularity transcended lines of race that even the Jackson Five had failed to cross.
But though Michael’s new incarnation was often theatrically darker than the old, the popular association of him with “black pride” underwent a transformation.
At the time when the gains of the civil rights movement were most under threat – and the slogan of “black is beautiful” in retreat – Michael’s repeated skin grafts and plastic surgery seemed to many to represent a man desperate to become white.
Some commentators put this self‑mutilation down to his distorted personality. Early fame made him loath his reflection and sent him on a quest for unrealisable beauty, they say.
Others insist the surgery represents nothing more than an extension of his changing stage wardrobe.
These shallow assertions skip over the way that racism continues to shape ideas of beauty where lighter skin tones are still presented as the ideal. And they overlook the possibility that Michael wanted to transform himself into a man who was both black and white.
If that was the case, there is more than echo of it in the story of Tamla Motown, the record label that helped create him.
Founded in 1959 in Detroit, Motown nestled in a black working class district in the north of the city and over a period of years drew in hundreds of local youngsters and turned them into stars.
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, The Temptations, The Isley Brothers, and The Four Tops – together they became musical phenomenon that shook the US and helped smash the musical colour bar.
Almost everything about Motown was black. Label boss Berry Gordy is black, as were the majority of his artists. The key song writing teams were black, the house band was black, even the secretaries and accountants were black.
The one thing that wasn’t exclusively black was the audience, and this is a point that Gordy well understood.
He decided that Motown’s slogan should be “the sound of young America” and that for maximum impact, and the biggest bucks, it was imperative that his acts should “cross over” and sell records to both black and white teenagers.
To this end every artist was put through the most rigorous tutoring to ensure that they carried the message that black was respectable and win the widest possible audience.
Typically album covers depicted male groups in crisp shirts and wearing suits, while women wore fine dresses and had their hair relaxed in a “European style”.
Gordy even arranged elocution lessons for his key acts to ensure that any trace of a ghetto accent was replaced with pronunciation more acceptable to the white-run television stations.
In short, Motown wanted its artists to be black – but not in a way that would frighten whites. For Gordy, racism in the music industry made this a necessity – and in order to challenge it, first of all you had to circumvent it.
Gordy knew he’d struck gold when he signed the Jackson brothers to Motown and quickly set about creating a marketing strategy for them.
The story was put about that Diana Ross, the label’s most successful “cross over” artist, had discovered the boys and was determined to see them prosper.
With the burgeoning movement for black power and opposition to the Vietnam War at their height, many at Motown were straining at the leash, demanding they be allowed to record songs that reflected the popular mood. Some, like Marvin Gaye, got their way.
But in the Jackson Five the ever conservative Gordy saw a chance for some thing much safer. The brothers could be sold as cheeky, but respectable – they could play “bubble-gum soul”.
Fitting with the times, they were allowed to be “black”, but only within narrow confines. One of the tragedies of this story is that after he’d left Motown in the mid-1970s – a time when he had the most control of his career and his image – the movement that championed black pride was in terminal decline.
So racism, and seemingly contradictory responses to it, surrounded Michael from his earliest years. Is it really so surprising that they came to be reflected in his very being?