07.03.07

The 4th of July and Michael Jackson

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:55 pm by Benjamin Ross

The 4th of July is the one time a year when us Americans can dress up in red, white, and blue, and drink beer and light fireworks as we sing off-key versions The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Its a day to eat bar-b-que, have block parties, and above all, celebrate. The reason for all the celebration, in theory, is to commemorate our Independence, and to be proud of being American. But what does it mean to be proud to be an American? Living in China, I often come across tiny moments which answer this question. The most recent of these came from an unexpected source.

Last weekend I was enjoying an evening with friends in a private room at a karaoke bar. After several hours of Chinese pop songs, one of my friends selected Michael Jackson’s Thriller to be played on the hi-fi. Unlike most Chinese karaoke videos, the Thriller video is the uncut version of the original.

As the first scene began with Michael proposing to his girlfriend, the normally raucous atmosphere of the karaoke room toned down to a curious movie watching mode. My friends’ eyes remained peeled to the screen as Michael morphed into a werewolf and chased his girlfriend through the woods. The frightened look in their eyes was suddenly spun around as the scene flashes to Michael and his girlfriend eating popcorn in the movie theater. Everybody in the room had been engaged, scared, shocked, and humored, and were now settling into the fact that this was not just a typical karaoke video.

As Michael danced down the street, heads bopped up and down to the bass notes of that famous Thriller instrumental loop. When the music faded and zombies emerged from tombs and man-holes, the girls began to squirm in their seats. As Michael danced with the zombies, the atmosphere reverted back to that of a karaoke room. Shots of beer were consumed, snacks were munched, and the group chitter chattered amongst each other.

The party atmosphere was broken once again when Michael’s girlfriend runs home only to find the zombies breaking into her living room. As the zombified Michael emerged, looks of fright and anxiety graced my friends’ faces one more time, only to be promptly swifted away as Michael reaches in to grab his girlfriend and then suddenly wakes her up from a dream. As Michael turned around and faced the camera with his glowing eyes, the karaoke crowd clapped with delight.

One of the girls turned to me, “Wow, I had no idea he was so handsome back then. He is really strange now.”

Michael Jackson was handsome in 1983. But it was not just his physical appearance. Michael could sing. He could dance. He had the red leather jacket. And his teaming with producer Quincy Jones and a skilled team of directors, actors, musicians, and choreographers, produced a 13 minute clip of pure genius. Watching the Thriller video in a karaoke room in Fuzhou in 2007, it is still every bit as fresh as it was when I saw it for the first time when I was only 4 years old. It’s a work of art, which has proven to cross not only borders of time but those of culture.

During the next song another one of my friends in the room turned to me, and referring to the Thriller video said “That was really incredible. There has never been anything done like this in China.”

Because of various factors, social, economical, political, demographical, and some purely coincidental, the United Sates is an environment where this kind of creative innovation has thrived for 400 years. As the world’s largest fondue pot of ethnic mixing, American culture has produced some of the world’s most profound innovations, personalities, and works of art from the last 400 years. From Thomas Edison to Bill Gates, from Huckleberry Finn to Homer Simpson, and from the Model T to Gmail, the cumulative achievements of American culture should make us all proud.

The Fourth of July is not only a time to celebrate our independence, but also a time to appreciate the achievements which have occurred since our independence. This Wednesday take a short break from the beer and bar-b-que to re-watch the Thriller video. Or read a few chapters from The Grapes of Wrath. Download a copy of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Pop in a CD of Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, or Elvis Presley. Use an iPod. Watch The Simpsons. Listen to one of George Carlin’s stand up routines. Reread the American constitution. Rent The Godfather, or eat General Tso’s chicken.

If anybody asks why you are proud to be an American, you will have a list of reasons to give them. And then you can return to the beer, bratwursts, and acapella renditions of This Land is Your Land.

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