Michael Jackson: A tale of two moonwalks (and a ‘Thank You’ from the Ayatollahs)

While Apollo astronauts conquered the Moon, Michael Jackson took over the Earth...

While Apollo astronauts conquered the Moon, Michael Jackson took over the Earth...

What a pity that Michael Jackson missed the 40th anniversary of the first Apollo moonwalk by only a few weeks.

He was only 10 when Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong took that historic first lunar step on July 20, 1969 and was probably among the 500 million people — the largest TV audience the world had known at that time — who watched it live. Fourteen years later, Jackson would invent his own kind of ‘moonwalk’.

First performed for his song ‘Billie Jean’ on a U.S. TV show in March 1983, Jackson’s dance technique that gives the illusion of the dancer stepping forward while actually moving backward gained worldwide popularity and became his signature move.

Like that historic ‘moonwalk’ 40 years ago, Jackson’s untimely death on June 25, 2009 created ripples that was felt worldwide. News of his sudden death crashed some news or social networking websites, and stalled others. Even the mighty Google, now the world’s largest media operation, slowed down; Google News was inaccessible for a while.

This is the opening of my latest op ed essay, inspired by the media and public reactions to Michael Jackson’s sudden death. Titled ‘King of Pop Moonwalks to Online Immortality’, it has just been published by the Asian Media Forum website.

I must admit that I’m more a fan of the original Apollo moonwalk than Michael’s version. I was three and a half years when the first Moon landing happened, which remains my earliest childhood memory that can be traced to a specific date.

Moonwalking all over the news - Cartoon © 2009 Creators Syndicate

Moonwalking all over the news - Cartoon © 2009 Creators Syndicate

All the same, as an observer of media and popular culture trends, I have always been interested in the Michael Jackson phenomenon. The crux of my new essay is captured in this para: “He was not the world’s first mega-star — in the zenith of their careers, the Beatles and Elvis Presley were similar globalised cultural icons. But two waves of communication technology, arriving in quick succession, propelled Jackson to unprecedented heights in popular culture: satellite television and the Internet.”

I look back at how these twin technologies transformed far-away Jackson into a local icon across Asia. I also recall a 2001 documentary named Michael Jackson Comes to Manikganj. Directed by Indian journalist Nupur Basu, it probed how far and wide satellite television was influencing and impacting culture, society and even politics of South Asia. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed on the film, along with nearly two dozen other South Asians.)

Read Nupur Basu’s own recent recollections of how she came across Michael Jackson in remote parts of South Asia, courtesy satellite TV.

The essay ends noting how Jackson could not quite ride the Internet wave the way he did the satellite TV wave. I share my thoughts on how the world’s online population — now over 1.5 billion people according to one estimate — reacted to the news that King of Pop was no more.

The news created a data tsunami of its own on the web, which incidentally – and half the world away – provided a much need respite for the Ayatollahs of Iran…Read the full essay and find out why!

Read earlier blog post: 26 June 2009: Michael Jackson (1958-2009): Mixed celebrity, entertainment and good causes

Star Trek: Advocating a world of equality, tolerance and compassion

Going where no trekkie has gone before?

Going where no trekkie has gone before?

I’m exactly as old as Star Trek: we were both born a few months apart in 1966 (I’m older by seven months). But because we grew up on opposite sides of planet Earth in the pre-Internet era, our worlds didn’t collide until we were both well into our teens. From then on, I’ve been a Trekkie/Trekker since.

I can’t wait to see the latest (11th) Star Trek movie that opened on 8 May 2009. It’s an ‘origins’ movie – a chronicle of the early days of Captain James T. Kirk and his fellow USS Enterprise crew members. Read plot on Wikipedia.

Our world was very different when the one-time US Army pilot, screenwriter and TV producer Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, the original series. It started airing on the US network NBC in September 1966. The Space Age was less than a decade old, and only a few men (and a couple of women) had made short trips to near Earth orbit. The great Space Race was in full swing, and NASA was spearheading the largest peace-time operation in history, aimed at landing men on the Moon and getting them safely back before the decade was out.

Star Trek, in contrast, offered ambition and hope. Every week at the appointed time, the United Star Ship Enterprise and its intrepid crew took viewers roaming around the universe. The stories appealed as much for insights into the infinite possibilities (and combinations) of life, technology, compassion and power at a cosmic scale, as for its glimpses of the near-Utopian human society in the 23rd century.

As Manohla Dargis, said this week reviewing the latest Star Trek movie (2009) in The New York Times: “Initially aired in 1966, Star Trek was a utopian fantasy of the first order, a vision of the enlightened future in which whites, blacks, Asians and one pokerfaced Vulcan are united by their exploratory mission (“to boldly go”), a prime directive (do no harm) and the occasional dust up.”

According to Dargis, the enduring appeal of Star Trek and the global cult following it inspired is “a testament to television’s power as myth-maker, as a source for some of the fundamental stories we tell about ourselves, who we are and where we came from.”

Star Trek Original SeriesAnd, we might add, where we are headed. The show was unique, for its time, for its portrayal of diversity and unity among the wider cast of characters. As the Wikipedia notes: “The show was unique, for its time, for its portrayal of diversity and unity among the wider cast of characters. As the Wikipedia notes: “At a time when there were few non-white or foreign roles in American television dramas, Roddenberry created a multi-ethnic crew for the Enterprise, including an African woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and—most notably—an alien, the half-Vulcan Spock. In the second season, reflecting the contemporaneous Cold War, Roddenberry added a Russian crew member. “

This utopian scenario needs to be contrasted with the prevailing reality of the American Space Programme. No American had ventured beyond near Earth orbit in 1966, and NASA was struggling to catch up with the Russians. Yet, by the time Star Trek original series finished its initial run in September 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin had returned safely and triumphantly from the Moon. In the event, the Apollo programme landed a dozen astronauts on the Moon, all of who returned safely – as did the astronauts of the disaster-stricken mission, Apollo XIII. Without exception, all of them were white and male.

The journey has only just begun...

The journey has only just begun...

It took many years for reality to catch up with Star Trek‘s vision, and then, only just. Although a Russian (Valentina Tereshkova) had become the first woman in space early on in 1963, it took the Americans another 20 years to have their first woman astronaut: Sally Ride, who traveled to Earth orbit on the Space Shuttle in June 1983. A few weeks later, in August that year, Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr., became the first black American astronaut. Multi-cultural crews did not become commonplace until the late 1990s, when the International Space Station became operational.

It wasn’t just racial equality and harmony that Star Trek advocated in its subtext. While bringing intellectually stimulating entertainment, it also celebrated values like compassion and tolerance. In the Cold War world locked into Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), Star Trek gently reminded viewers that mutual co-existence was a viable option…if only enough effort was invested in it.

As space visionary and science fiction grandmaster Sir Arthur C Clarke noted in a 40th anniversary tribute to the series in 2007: “Appearing at such a time in human history, Star Trek popularised much more than the vision of a space-faring civilisation. In episode after episode, it promoted the then unpopular ideals of tolerance for differing cultures and respect for life in all forms – without preaching, and always with a saving sense of humour.”

He then added, in characteristic style: “Over the years, the sophistication of storylines and special effects has certainly improved, but Star Trek retains its core values – still very much needed in our sadly divided and quarreling world.”

The Enterprise will be cruising the galaxy for centuries to come...

The Enterprise will be cruising the galaxy for centuries to come...