Friday, June 26, 2009

Global Pop: Finding Michael Jackson in Albania

By RJ Eskow

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This article originally ran in Huffington Post on June 26, 2009.)


Here's a small Michael Jackson story to place upon on the pile, one that illustrates the global reach and power of pop music.

Albania existed in totalitarian isolation from the rest of Europe for four decades. It broke with the Soviet Union during Kruschev's de-Stalinization reforms because its dictator, Enver Hoxha, liked Stalinism. Its only ally from that point forward was Maoist China, but even that relationship was severed after the fall of the Gang of Four and the death of Mao. It was illegal to even own a car there.

Like North Korea today, Albania was a closed country that allowed almost no foreigners in and let even fewer citizens out. Even listening to foreign media broadcasts was a crime. I arrived there in 1991 as one of the first wave of outside consultants sent there to help with reforms. People had already made improvised "cars" by welding windows onto the fronts of tractors. Saudi Arabian Wahhabi evangelists had already installed a loudspeaker and a muezzin at the local mosque, which had been unused for forty years. Although the government sent me to help with health care financing, it quickly became clear that they needed food and medical supplies far more urgently than they needed economic restructuring.

My host and translator was a warm and gracious physician who had learned his English by covertly listening to the BBC. He had been turned in once by a neighbor who heard the sound of English-language radio, and had spent a terrified day at secret police headquarters before being set free with a warning. The day I left for home I asked him what I could send him as a gift.

"Connie Francis records," he said. (Connie Francis, for those of you who don't remember, was a star from the pre-Beatles era whose big hits were "Lipstick On Your Collar" and "Where the Boys Are." )

Pop music's traces were faintly discernible elsewhere in the garrison country, too. When we walked into Tirana's only 'restaurant' - a barely-converted garage filled with card tables, folding chairs, and aid workers from everywhere in the world - Garth Brooks' voice was coming out of a boom box. And at a high-level diplomatic meeting some Albanians spoke of their country's best-known folk singer, saying that public use of English was so heavily forbidden that he had been given two years in prison for singing "Let It Be" at a folk festival.

"The last guy I heard singing it back home," I told them, "should have gotten five." They laughed - fortunately.

And when we went to see some remote medical clinics in the Sar Mountains, our car was stopped in remote villages by crowds curious to see a Westerner face-to-face. On one rock-filled road we were waved down by a gang of slightly-scary teenagers with dirty faces and rocks in their hands. When they saw me, the tallest boy -- evidently the leader -- reached into his pocket, pulled out a single glove, and put it on. He tossed back the lock of hair that fell across his forehead, in a gesture common to tough kids everywhere. There was a moment of silence. Then ...

"Michael Jackson!" they screamed. "Michael Jackson!" They kept talking as the doctor translated. "They want to know if you know Michael," he said. I didn't. They let us pass.

I won't claim that Michael Jackson overthrew Albanian Communism. He never met Enver Hoxha in epic battle, although that picture on the cover of the History album made it look as if he had. I was in Prague when Vaclav Havel tried to make Frank Zappa a minister in his government, but I wouldn't say pop music overthrew Communism there, either. I'll say this, though: it didn't hurt.

Was Michael Jackson the first global pop star? Crowds in India mourned the death of country crooner Jim Reeves in 1964. And it took me a while to realize that the singer on an old African record called "Chimiraja," accompanied only by a loosely tuned guitar and someone banging on a Coke bottle, was actually singing about "Jimmie Rodgers," the "Singing Brakeman" of country music.

Jimmie Rodgers died in 1933.

Popular music has always been global. But Michael Jackson became a worldwide star in the first era to have satellite communications. People didn't just hear his music. They saw him. They experienced him - or at least an aspect of him. Michael Jackson broke barriers of race, language, and nationality. His private behavior had a strong impact on some people. But his music reached billions, and it did some good in the world.

In whatever court he may yet face, even if it's only the court of public opinion, surely that counts for something.


RJ Eskow is president of Health Knowledge Systems in Los Angeles, CA.

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