As Michael Jackson once put it, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.
When news broke that MJ had gone to that great oxygen chamber in the sky — God bless his polyurethane soul — I couldn’t help but think back.
A week later, I still can’t stop laughing at the absurdity of a Michael Jackson look-alike contest in my hometown of Jefferson, Iowa, circa 1984.
You see, Jefferson, Iowa, is 98 percent white.
And that’s according to the 2000 census. Seven whole people identified themselves as “black or African-American.”
In 1984, aside from the Vietnamese family who lived by the park, I’d wager to say Jefferson was even whiter than 98 percent.
But when a phenomenon like Michael Jackson comes along — as it does maybe once a generation — it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.
Like holding a Beatles look-alike contest in Botswana in 1964, we in Jefferson were only too happy to celebrate all things Michael at our town festival in 1984.
It didn’t matter that none of us really looked like the Michael on the “Thriller” cover or in the “Beat It” video or in the Pepsi commercial.
It came down to the way the music made you feel.
When the needle dug into “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the way I felt on South Olive Street in Jefferson was no different than how you felt on South Yellow Springs Street in Springfield.
So why couldn’t we have a Michael Jackson look-alike contest?
The music made us feel like we could credibly pull it off.
Throw on a white glove and some shades and — OK, who am I kidding? — we probably looked pretty stupid.
But while I don’t exactly listen to Jackson’s music anymore, I still cherish that time.
Everybody deserves to live through a bona-fide cultural moment at least once and, for me, that was it.
My parents had the Beatles.
Beatlemania, of course, ended with John Lennon’s proclamation that they were more popular than Jesus.
By the time they went off to meditate in India a couple of years later, the Beatles had gotten too weird for most of America.
Like a stray spark during a Pepsi commercial, the Michael Jackson moment was destined to crash and burn, too.
Soon enough, kids on the playground were telling stories of chimps and llamas.
Soon after that came the jokes about his sexuality.
And this was all way before he started hanging out with the kid from “Home Alone.”
Michael Jackson turned uncool about as fast as he became cool, and I was left holding “We Are the World” on 45 and the Jacksons’ “Victory” album on cassette.
But just as the Beatles leveled the cultural landscape, I can’t help but wonder if Jackson did the same for a little town encased on all sides by unending farm fields.
While he was indeed the first black artist to break onto MTV — a feat I was clueless about until much later — his music introduced us to a world that wasn’t quite as homogeneous as ours.
But in the end, I have to agree with MJ, God bless his polypropylene soul.
It really doesn’t matter if you’re black or white — but the reality is, it does seriously help when entering a Michael Jackson look-alike contest.
The kid who won was, no kidding, half-black.
In Jefferson, Iowa, in 1984, that was close enough.