It’s impossible to say anything original about Michael Jackson, so I won’t even try. As a celebrity and a media presence, for so much of his life, he cannot be extricated from all the words and images and sounds that he generated, or that were (and still are being) generated about him. Just as we cannot separate his music and performance from his persona, from all the allegations and scandals and media frenzies of his later years, so we cannot separate the “real” Michael Jackson from everything that has been thought and written and spoken and speculated about him. So, I can’t write about him without quoting what other people have already written about him, both now just after his death, and over the years before.
At Jackson’s spectacular height, the time of Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982) and the subsequent television appearances and live tours, there really was nobody like him. He was a vision of ease and grace and energy, as a dancer and as a singer — but also with an undercurrent of sadness that was unusually knowing for one so young, and yet that did not sour into bitterness. Michael Jackson was a supernova; we loved him, we worshiped him, we found his appearances and performances almost godlike — and this “we” was probably one of the widest,most inclusive “we”s in the history of the world. I don’t see any reason to reject this, or ironically distance ourselves from this, or critique it in any way — although we should be aware of the social and historical contexts of this glory and this amazement. (I can’t write anything, in any case, that would match or even come close to k-punk’s post on “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” and “Billie Jean”).
But of course there was also everything that came after: Michael Jackson’s pain and pathology, and the sad spectacle that he made of himself — and that we all made of him as well. We learned about the horrors of his childhood, and uncomfortably glimpsed the more-than-eccentricities of his later years. None of this was unrelated to the genius of his best work; all of it belonged to the same economy of celebrity that formed his essence, and from which also he evidently so grievously suffered. But none of it could have simply been extrapolated from the pain of “Billie Jean” or the splendour of “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” and “Beat It.”
The moment of Thriller was an emotionally charged and extremely condensed one. Ronald Reagan was President; it was the dawn of the neoliberal (counter)revolution. We knew that something had ended, or had been lost; but we still had very little sense of what was going to replace it. I could not have imagined — nobody could have imagined — the hypercommodification and hyperfinancialization of the years since then; the reign of universal cynicism and marketing plans. The deep recession of the early 1980s followed the mixed expansions and losses of the 1970s; I forget who it was who (accurately) pointed out that the 1970s represented the democratization, or generalization (in wealthy countries like the United States at least) of what had been “counter-cultural” about the 1960s; what used to be “us vs them” had become common to everyone. Later decades’ sarcastic dismissals of the excesses and bad fashions of the 70s really testify only to our current utter lack of imagination. In 1982, in any case, we were only at the beginning of understanding how incomplete the projects of the previous decades were fated to remain. Punk had come and gone, an inspiring flash in the pan; and the disco wars had revealed how deeply racially troubled things continued to be — even if the Reagan Presidency was the beginning of one of those periodic efforts to deny the existence of these troubles altogether. The period was, as we now realize, one of great innovation on the fringes of popular music; but it was also one of a consolidation in which white-centric rock ‘n’ roll (including the music of all those interestingly innovative post-punks) lost its cultural relevance; it is no accident that the triumvirate of 1980s superstars, Micheal Jackson, Prince, and Madonna, all focused on dance-oriented musical forms that remained closer to its African American sources than rock had ever done. [I should perhaps also mention the fact that the release of Thriller coincides almost exactly with the midway point of my own life to date].
This is why I find Greil Marcus’ comments on Michael Jackson (found via k-punk) so utterly insufferable. Marcus is condescending and (at least borderline) racist, as he remarks (after grudginly conceding that the Jackson phenomenon was “an event in which pop music crosses political, economic, geographic and racial barriers”) that, whereas “performers as appealing and disturbing as Elvis Presley, the Beatles or the Sex Pistols” all “raise the possibility of living in a new way,” Michael Jackson did not. The Jackson phenomenon, Marcus claims, “was the first pop explosion not to be judged by the subjective quality of the response it provoked, but to be measured by the number of objective commercial exchanges it elicited.”
Even under the most charitable interpretation, this is pernicious nonsense. Elvis, the Beatles, and the Sex Pistols were every bit as much about marketing as Michael Jackson was. It was Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, who (as far as I am aware) first invented the whole concept of the commodity tie-in for pop music (Beatles lunchboxes, Beatles cartoons, etc.), and who created the feedback loop by means of which the hysteria of Beatles fandom redounded back upon the band itself and amplified its fame and reach (something that had never quite happened in the case of Sinatra fandom, Elvis fandom, etc.). As for the Sex Pistols, how can you ever extricate their rage from Malcolm McLaren’s marketing savvy? Greil Marcus makes rather too much of McLaren’s Situationist influence, and takes no account whatsoever of the fact that Situationism itself — not inspite of, but precisely on account of, its virulent critique of all forms of commodity culture — became one of the most commercially successful “memes” or “brands” of the late twentieth century.
What it really comes down to, of course, is race. Greil Marcus, as the quintessential white hipster, can only see cultural innovation and subversion when it it is performed by white people. Marcus celebrates the ways in which “the pop explosions of Elvis, the Beatles and the Sex Pistols had assaulted or subverted social values,” but denounces Michael Jackson’s pop explosion as “a version of the official social reality, generated from Washington D.C. as ideology, and from Madison Avenue as language … a glamorization of the new American fact that if you weren’t on top, you didn’t exist.” For Marcus, black people are evidently at best primitive, unconscious creators whose inventions can only take on meaning and become subversive when white people endow them with the critical self-consciousness that Marcus seems to think black people altogether lack. And at worst, black artists and performers are, for Marcus, puppets of the Pentagon and Madison Avenue, reinforcers of the very status quo that countercultural whites were struggling so hard to overthrow.
[A sidenote: we could consider here Marcus’ comments on Anita Baker and the Pointer Sisters, as unraveled here and here At the very least, African American aspirations to bourgeois respectibility, and the way this is often translated musically with a smooth, elegant style, need to be understood in the historical context of American racism and black people’s liberation struggles, rather than sneeringly dismissed as Marcus does when he snidely refers to the objectionable fact that The Pointer Sisters “gave concerts with â€˜Black Tie Recommendedâ€™ printed on the tickets.” It is sympotmatic that Marcus singles out black artists as ostensibly representing upper-class privilege. Not to mention that the Pointer Sisters were as much about “I’m about to lose control and I think I like it” as they were about smooth elegance].
All this might seem like raking over old coals; but the intersection between mass popularity and questions of race is still a central one for American culture (note: I am including the reception of British musicians like the Beatles in America as itself very much part of American culture). In the most important respects, the Beatles and Michael Jackson were very much alike, in that they both achieved a mass popularity that exceeded all bounds and crossed over many cultural divides. If we toss out (as we should) Marcus’ white mythology, then we might even say that Michael Jackson was the end of something, as much as he was the beginning of something else. Jackson’s celebrity, like that of the Beatles before him, and of Elvis before them, was only possible in an age of “mass culture” that no longer exists. In the time of Fordist mass production and mass marketing, cultural products were also mass marketed. This reached a new level of intensity when television replaced the movies and radio as the dominant mass medium. Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson are all figures of the period between the introduction of broadcast television and the introduction of multi-channeled cable television, home video players, and the Internet. The latter technologies, together with the general shift from standardized mass production to the regime of just-in-time flexible accumulation, with its endless array of customizable options, mean that no single celebrity figure can ever be as culturally dominant as Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson were. Recent debates, among music critics and on music blogs, between “rockists” and “popists” are ultimately sterile, because both sides fail to take sufficient account of our curent culture of niche marketing, “long tails,” customization, and “crowdsourcing,” not to mention that the advertising and commercial strategies initially deployed on a massive scale by figures like the Beatles and Jackson are now increasingly prevalent on the micro-level. They are no longer just imposed from above; rather, they saturate all our media and all our interactions, oozing up as they do from below. It used to be that you could accuse somebody (as Marcus liked to accuse black artists) of being a bourgeois sellout; but today, everyone without exception is a “bourgeois sellout,” because (in the age of “human capital” and self-entrepreneurship) being such is a minimum requirement for mere survival. Today, this is a structural condition of social existence, rather than a matter of personal integrity or choice.
So I think that everything Greil Marcus criticizes the Michael Jackson juggernaut for could be said with equal justice of Elvis and the Beatles as well (and also of the Sex Pistols, although their niche-marketing and publicity-through-scandal strategies were ahead of their time, and put them in a slightly different category). Of course, none of this would matter, really — it would just be another banal self-evidence of our everyday lives, alongside Ikea and Facebook and the iPhone — if it weren’t for the beauty and the genius of all of these artists’ performances, of their music and their self-presentation to their audiences, and their overall personas. That is to say, of their aesthetic singularities, or of what Bloch or Jameson would call their “utopian” dimension. The modulations of Michael’s voice, the sinuous movements of his dancing, the way that his musical arrangements took disco and r&b and gave them both a smoothness and a slightly alien sheen, so subtly that one could say with equal justice that the sharp edges of mournful or joyous black expression had been “mainstreamed,” or that the very “mainstream” itself had been alluringly or insidiously carried away, exposed to a strange metamorphosis, allowed to blossom into a new aestheticized state in which pop crassness had itself become a rare, almost Wildean, delicacy.
The point of a successful aesthetic singularity is that it crosses over directly into the form of the universal, without all those mediations that usually come between. Something is so absolutely unique (even when we can trace all the sources from which it arose) and so absolutely, achingly, joyously or heart-wrenchingly right, or just itself, that it becomes a kind of universal value. (In philosophical terms, this is what Kant was getting at with his insistence upon the universal communicability of an aesthetic judgment devoid of cognitive principles and rules; or what Badiou is getting at when he speaks of an event; or what Deleuze was getting in his account of what he called “counter-actualization”). There was a kind of crack or a rupture, something absolutely inimitable in the way it was inscribed in Michael Jackson’s own body, and proliferated throughout that body’s performance. But balanced on the edge in this way, always just short of collapse, it was something that resonated with “everybody” (and in Michael Jackson’s case, the empirical extent of this “everybody” was larger than it had ever been before, and larger, probably, than it will ever be again, at least in any future continuous with our present).
The utopia of Michael Jackson — the universality of his music, performance, and persona, his appeal to “everybody” — had to do precisely with its challenge to this history of race in America. Jackson was “the first black superstar of the post civil-rights era,” Gary Younge writes; he was the first to make a recognizably African American cultural expression (and this would refer to his body language and his demeanor, as much as to his music) available, in a way that was neither an exotic attraction for white people, nor watered-down (as so much white rock music arguably was) — and this precisely because it was addressed to “everybody” in a way that no previous black music, not even Motown, had been before. In its singularity, Jackson’s music constructed a new “universal,” one that was very much tied in with hopes for the end of American racism (hopes that were, of course, effectively dashed in subsequent decades, even as “everybody,” or at least white people, gave lip service to the idea that they had in fact been fulfilled). So that, as Younge says, “the Jackson I was raised with” was, for him as for so many black people in the English-speaking world, and beyond it, “not just an American pop star but a global icon; not just a individual but part of a family. A black family.” Or, as Greg Tate once put it, “black people cherished Thriller’s breakthrough as if it were their own battering ram [against] apartheid… It’s like Thriller was this generation’s answer to the Louis-Schmeling fight or something.” The cultural significance of this utopian triumph, this newly produced Truth, consisted precisely in the fact that it didn’t resonate just for black people, but for what I am calling “everybody” — or, let us say, for all the peoples of the world, except for those white hipsters for whom Greil Marcus speaks, who regarded the whole Jackson phenomenon (or should we say the whole racial liberation movement?) as somehow beneath them, and which they felt entitled to dismiss with contempt. Everybody aside from Marcus and his band of white hipsters intuitively understood that Michael Jackson “raise[d] the possibility of living in a new way” at least as much as Elvis, the Beatles, or the Sex Pistols ever did.
But of course, no utopia is entirely real, or entirely realizable. There’s a forbidden apple in every garden, a worm in every apple. The utopian moment of Michael Jackson’s glory was also the prototype for the determinedly non-utopian progression of black figures beloved by white America — Cosby, Oprah, Obama — whose success has provided an alibi for the continuation of what I can only call the “racism of everyday life in America” today. And of course, this was in large part a necessary consequence of the way that Jackson (no less than the Beatles, etc., but also, I would argue, no more) was marketed, commodified, financialized. The intensified commodification of all aspects of life in the last thirty years (to a degree, as I have already noted, that I couldn’t have imagined in 1979 or 1982) did indeed start at the moment of Jackson’s triumph (though I think that Marcus’ implicit association of it with Jackson’s blackness is unconscionable). And it did have to do with the fact that utopias are especially marketable in the neoliberal era. Without that flash of greatness and genius, that moment of aesthetic singularity, there would in fact be nothing for the marketers to market (not that such a lack would have stopped them; many successful marketing campaigns have been based on nothing at all). And the way that aesthetic singularity can resonate universally, the way that an entirely novel Truth can become a condition of fidelity, is itself a necessary condition for ubiquitous commodification as well. Michael Jackson both benefited from marketing as no pop celebrity had before him; and became its victim in a manner as gruesome as it was exemplary.
The tension of singularity and universalization, and its simultaneous inextricability from, and irreducibility to, the neoliberal competitive marketization and commodification of everything, was played out by Michael Jackson in the terms both of gender and of race. Let me talk about gender and sexuality first, since this is both what always stares everyone in the face when we think about Jackson’s last twenty years, and yet it is extraordinarily difficult to parse. Ernest Hardy insightfully remarks that, even at his height of success and popularity, Jackson “resonated so powerfully precisely because he upended and shimmered beyond gender convention. It seems especially noteworthy that he cemented his solo superstar status during the gender-bending / gender-fucking era of the early â€˜80s, alongside Boy George, Annie Lennox, Prince, a funkily reinvigorated Grace Jones â€“ though he was a seasoned old pro in comparison to all of them.” In his first hits as a pre-adolescent, right on through at least Off the Wall (released when he was 21), Jackson somehow seemed knowing beyond his ease, affectively in command of the cliches of normative male heterosexuality, without any of the all-too-common signs of overcommittment and anxiety about this. But as he grew older, the normative heterosexual mask became something that seemed, for him, increasingly hollow, and therefore increasingly desperately maintained as an obvious fiction. I am really just translating the common (and accurate) observation that Jackson seemed extraordinarily mature as a child and adolescent, yet seemed to flee more and more into the fiction of a pre-pubertal childhood innocence once he actually was an adult. We speak of narcissism, of Peter Pan syndrome, of the allegations of pedophilia, and so on. But it might be worth remembering, instead, how the other dominating artists of the 1980s (Madonna and Prince) also pushed sexual experimentation in certain non-normative ways; though arguably neither of them went as far as Michael did. I remember the moment (it must have been the late 1980s or early 1990s) when many people began to perceive Jackson as being a little too “weird” sexually, so that they no longer idolized him, no longer wanted to “become” him. Of course, this was all the result of hints and vague suggestions, nothing that Jackson himself ever overtly expressed; wasn’t there something here of the “dysphoria” that Poetix has been writing about? (although of course this always remains diffuse and diffidently expressed; it never takes the form of “militant dysphoria,” there are no signs of the recognition that “personal ‘dysfunction’ must be understood in the context of this system and its (naturalised) functions”, a recognition towards which Poetix seeks to move us). In a certain sense, Michael Jackson’s diffuse expression of sexuality, which so many people have found disturbing, because it doesn’t fit into any normative paradigm, is the “line of flight” along which he continued to singularize himself, to a point beyond which universalization was no longer possible. It has a sort of negative relation to the deployments of sexuality in American popular culture today, where an evident explicitness and overtness of expression are purchased at the price of an increasingly narrow and normative range within which such expression is permissible, or even thinkable. You can be as raunchy as you want to be, as long as you remain even closer to the pre-established stereotypes of masculinity and femininity than was required in the pre-“sexual liberation” times of the 1950s. Michael Jackson’s refusal, or inability, to give more than rote lip service to this requirement, is the aspect of his persona, or expression, that is least understood today, and that desperatley needs to be more fully explored.
At the same time, of course, Jackson’s “line of flight” played out racially as an endeavor to extirpate his own blackness, and to make himself white. K-punk notes how the first plastic surgery in the service of becoming-white had already taken place in between the release of Off the Wall and that of Thriller. By 1987, at the time of the release of Bad, the self-mutilation had already gone so far that Greg Tate could write that, “Jackson emerges a casualty of America’s ongoing race war — another Negro gone mad because his mirror reports that his face dos not conform to the Nordic ideal.” There’s a bitter irony to this, when you reflect that, as Tate put it, “back when [Jackson] wore the face he was born with, black folk thought he was the prettiest thing since sliced sushi.”
Jackson’s self-remaking can only be understood as a kind of Afrofuturist nightmare, a violent (to himself) leap into the posthuman. As Annalee Newitz puts it, Jackson “turned his body into a kind of science fiction story. He became an enhanced human, using plastic surgery and pharmaceuticals to change his face and seemingly his race as well. He became whiter than most white people, and his pale bandaged skin became his trademark.” Here singularrization, or what Deleuze and Guattari call a “line of flight,” becomes indistinguishable from hyperbolic normativization. Jackson sought to singularize himself by fleeing any indication of blackness (I mean this culturally, rather than just physiologically; in the sense that the physiology is fully real, but also an index of would-be transformations on all other levels of being as well). Jackson wanted to become generically normative: which is to say, in a white supremacist society he wanted to become white. But in doing so, he only became something even more singular: a kind of grotesque parody of whiteness, a zombiefied, living-dead simulation of whiteness. He became a figure like those of the first white people: the hideous forms created by the mad scientist Yacub in Nation of Islam legend (as recounted, among other places, in Amiri Baraka’s play A Black Mass, the musical accompaniment for which was provided by Sun Ra). Of course, the truth behind this sort of transformation is that “whiteness” (like any other normative, hegemonic formation) is a pure imposture and does not really exist; it can only be instantiated as a grotesque parody of itself. Only racists actually “believe in” whiteness as being anything more than a marker of privilege and control; and only someone as delirious and demented as Michael Jackson ultimately became, and as wounded by not being able to take its privileges for granted, would ever seek to achieve it in so literalistic a way.
There is an obvious psychological way to account for the misery and self-mutilation of Michael Jackson: it resulted, undoubtably, from the harshness of his childhood, in which he was driven, by his father and his family, to perform and to become a star so intensively, and from such an early age, that he never got to know any other sort of life. But such an interpretation, even if true, is inadequate to Jackson’s genius, to the way he created pleasure and hope and utopian aspirations in the lives of so many, and to the ways that his sufferings and his strangeness are quintessential expressions of American life and society in this neoliberal age.