Michael Jackson

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 ‘Black Tie Recommended’ 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 ‘80s, alongside Boy George, Annie Lennox, Prince, a funkily reinvigorated Grace Jones – 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.

54 thoughts on “Michael Jackson”

  1. This is one of the most insightful articles I’ve read thus far about just how important Michael Jackson was to those times — to those out there who still don’t get it. (Amusingly, at the time being into punk and reggae, I was one of those who viewed MJ as ‘too commercialized’, but still acknowledged the wow factor of getting goosebumps the first time hearing ‘Billie Jean’). And I think you’re spot on about Griel Marcus.

  2. This is a wonderful, thoughtful commemoration. And good lord, what a foul outburst from Greil Marcus. In the past I always found him mildly annoying, this was the first time I’d been forced to consider him actively offensive. With the recent news that Tom Frank is relaunching the Baffler, I’ve been reconsidering that journal’s place in American intellectual history–and I think Marcus is trafficking in exactly the kind of fatuous baby boomer delusions of cultural subversion that Frank et al arose to combat. And an especially racist rendition of the latter, on top of it all.

    Unrelated: the other thing I’ve been thinking about Jackson and his relation to the culture of postmodernity is that, even up to the time he died, he really was “King of Pop” in the same sense that Osman Ertegrul, an elderly man living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, is the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. That is, he represented the heir to a deposed lineage, a kind of mass-culture figure that can no longer exist.

  3. yes.

    also, this movement from utopian symbol to celebrity as performance of a dysphoric parody of the normative–this is exactly why I have been hoping someone like you or k-punk will take on the song I think people have been avoiding in the past few days: man in the mirror.

    yet, viz. it’s role in korine’s mister lonely, I think this song and its timing in history and in michael jackson’s life may actually be key–

    it’s after the normatively zombifying/alienizing process has been well under way as indicated so well by k-punk, but before the full market-stalinization of the commodified self as explicated by owen hatherley.

    (and in terms of his reception, at least in my vague remembrance, it got a fair amount of airplay in the next few years as the soviet union crumbled and apartheid fell. it seemed maybe to allow mainstream america some incomplete access to attempts to reengage with political struggles on a personal level. at least, I cannot separate it my mind from all of the ways that my parents and their friends reacted at least briefly to the 88/68 anniversary, etc.)

    anyway the song is a bitter, desperate search for an ethical self that can act in the face of its own metamorphosis (as discussed above) and context in the world. and as we know, this clearly finds no solution but dissolves into the meaningless compensatory platitudes of his most banal later work.

  4. I am interested to hear about Marcus. He always seemed to be writing about some elusive “coolness” that I never quite could get my hands around. It seems to have something to do with rambunctious people who can do or say whatever they want because all consequences are placed elsewhere, and then all consequences must be forestalled. This page suggests that Marcus’ racist view is deeply pernicious.

    I was receiving “The Believer” for a long time and they started publishing a Marcus column recently. I have since stopped receiving the mag, but this will help me reevaluate the value of that publication. I get the feeling that the discomfort I felt reading it may have been my conscience reacting to the magazine’s claim to be “about language” and thus transcendent. Perhaps that’s like white being “the standard color”.

  5. I’m struggling with the quality of Michael Jackson’s music. I can understand his cultural significance, and that people grew up with him, so it speak, but I’m having trouble finding something good about the music itself. I find it superficial and forgettable, and so I’m confused why people are calling him a “genius.” But I really like classical music and French chanson and have little interest in rock, pop, or pretty much anything else. But I’m hoping you or someone else can give me some insight here. The lyrics strike me as trivial, the music is really light, his strange gasps seem even disturbing to me, so what are so many people liking?

    Thanks for your responses,
    G

  6. Maybe you’re being unfair to Marcus – it’s clear he understands (and relates to) certain popcultural ‘moments’ better than others. As with many other people, the Pepsi/MTV 80s simply went over his head. Crying racism in defense in Jackson’s decay is just insulting to the vast majority of us who choose not to sell bullshit to the rubes while making our racial self-loathing the headline act.

    As a teenager in a black family at the time, by 1984 Jackson inspired nothing but revulsion. He created no ‘pleasure, hope or inspiration’ – he was (and is) an undead symbol of everything that was systematically taken away during the 80s (including much of the vitality which made black American music matter so much throughout the 20th century). ‘Afrofuturist’? If anything, I associate him with the ‘body horror’ cinema of the late 70s/early 80s (the theme of his greatest advert), more than music. The sycophancy of Farrakhan, Sharpton and Jackson (not least considering the ravages Reagan wrought on Black America) make it clear that the smell of enough money and publicity is enough to cancel out any notion of integrity.

    His ‘agency’ in all this is by-the-by – he was a corporate symbol like Ronald McDonald selling a ‘dream’ without content. His lyrics belie a fear and revulsion of sex (or indeed any human contact), and represent the increasingly repulsive hypocrisy of many 80s/90s superstars with their vague pleas for world peace and environmental responsibility (and i recall the rage for ‘whitening up’ amongst almost all non-hip-hop black performers in the mid-80s). He was a consolidator of power, publicity and money for its own sake; and ‘unified’ nothing but its worship. Sure, he made one or two nice disco albums, but so did a lot of people.

  7. Steve,

    I appreciate this post, particularly for how you link the production of MJ to an earlier history, beginning with the Beatles. I would extend that also to Bob Dylan, who while not a “rock star” in the early days, is notable for image-marketing strategies around the same time as the Beatles, even earlier, actually, that crossed over from folk to rock. I also appreciate the way you address racial divides here, and you imply class divisions which play into those, such as a privileged white position that doesn’t acknowledge the particular situation of African Americans regarding the middle class, as well as the differences between white and black consumption of images of MJ as well as the Pointer Sisters, etc. It’s always tempting for me to psychologize individuals in cultural contexts, and yet when it comes to stars, I need to refrain, because celebrity discourse, imagery, and conditions of production, as well as production, require it. You did a great job here articulating MJ’s cultural positioning with utter restraint when it comes to that. Beyond this, I wouldn’t blame the Situationists, however, for what their discourses have become. You write: “Situationism itself — not in spite 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.” Confronted with the steep rise of consumer commodities, advertising, and consumerism in France in the post-World War II period, they tried to intervene and make people aware of what they were participating in. This intervention still has validity today, particularly for students and others who don’t think about how thoroughly their lives, down to the most intimate details, are formed, from the “inside out,” by the workings of late capitalism and its flexibilities (customization, slivercasting, etc., which you mention above), which deserves a great deal of attention and analysis. That there is some “place” where this wouldn’t be the case isn’t the issue, though that is the first alternative students think of. In other words, I find Guy Debord especially to have utility today, and I think Todd Haynes did too, back in 1986 when he made Superstar, which to my mind is about how to make a movie in the society of the spectacle. That’s still a relevant discourse, if only as a starting point. What do you think about this?

  8. I agree on the analysis that Jackson was the victim of the race war in the U.S.
    Since the beauty norm has been the one of white especially north european like small and up nose. And Jackson totally fell for it thinking himself ugly because he didn’t fit into that norm.
    He stated in 2000s that he was never satisfied how he looked and avoided to see himself in the mirror…
    Well I don’t say that plastic surgery is bad or to blame cus some people become positive and happy about themselves after the surgery.
    I personally or probablly many people thought Jackson in 84 was quite attractive, handsome, sexy and more than average after nose job.
    But Jackson was never happy about himself and pursued more whiteness believing the whiter the beautier and the whiter the more being loved..
    He was a lonely kid who was too shy to have a serious girlfriend.
    Maybe because he thought he was too ugly to have a girl.
    I think his problem resided not only in the obsession in the whitess but also in the never-ending self-loathe.
    Usually plastic surgeons don’t operate the body dysphoric patients as they end up in disforming themselves. And instead they sent them to the phychologist to treat their mental state.
    Usually people like Jackson get treated and get back to the reality.
    But Jackson was a megastar with millions of dollars and could turn to any surgeons who were willing to operate on him for a fat cheque.
    And Jackson seemed really strong-willed person who doesn’t listen to warnings by running from the severe but sinsere realities.
    He was too weak to stand up to his distorted self-image without a help of operation.
    It was such a tragidy to see such a talented genius and sweet person couldn’t love the way he was.
    He was just fine the way he was.

  9. This is the best piece of work I have read about Michael Jackson since his passing. Jackson’s place in a social and historical context have not been explored to the extent that they should be. With regard to Jackson’s psychological state, it’s really anyone’s guess. Jackson never let anyone truly get close enough to ever delve into his psyche. Some devout research into Jackson’s refusal to conform to one specific gender or race is an avenue which would probably give the most insight into Jackson’s intention for himself as an individual and for the world as a whole.

  10. You wrote a fascinating analysis, better than I ever could and I have a degree in history. However, you fail to account for the fact that Michael Jackson had a severe anxiety/panic disorder, which he medicated heavily, and this may have factored into his thinking as much as race did. He may have also had a mild autism condition, such as Asperger Syndrome — the extreme shyness, the prodigious musical talent at a young age, the inability to accurately perceive the reality outside his immediate environment, the desire to strictly control every element of his environment, the compulsive need to control the appearance of his own body, the overattachment to the iconography of childhood, the compulsive collection of objects, and the highly developed feminine persona suggest this. This is a lot of speculation on my part, but I think it is something future historians will deal with extensively.

    I could write a lot more about Mr. Jackson as a force in and a product of race relations, but I’ll leave it at this.

  11. A fascinating article, to take a term already used by Charles M (but it’s the first that comes to mind). It’s one interesting reading of Jackson’s psychology and the psychology of his popularity, but I think it’s limited to view his transformation in purely or even primarily racial terms. And I don’t think Greil Marcus’ viewpoints are inherently racist; inevitably, his own fleeing from bourgeois conventions runs up against back culture’s aspirations towards such (generalized, but nonetheless somewhat accurate, and only racial by way of class differences in the cultures and economic statuses of “black” and “white” America – in other words, the bourgeois aspirations of black culture are due to the statistically greater poverty of blacks vs. whites, and the cultural memory of such – it really belongs to the lower classes in general, and hence Marcus could be eviscerated for classim before racism, if one is to eviscerate him for anything).

    To draw from Marcus’ comments a fully conscious racism, as you seem to indicate, does – I think – a disservice to the subtlety of your thought elsewhere and also to the ambiguity of Marcus’ position. It is tempting to call him a racist because it uses his own terminology against him – as a hipster he’s still bound by the vaguely leftist conventions of the counterculture and so such a charge can hit him where it hurts. But I think it’s misleading to do so, and unnecessarly inflammatory. If you feel he’s playing with fire, better not to play his game and get burned yourself. (I also have enjoyed Marcus’ writing in the past, and bear no particular ill will against him, but do have a weariness of the type of cultural stance he represents, so I see where your resentment stems from – just seems that you may be stepping into his hyperbolic trap).

    I will also respond here to k-punk, since he seems to disallow posting on his blog. I have an attachment to the album Bad because, as someone who is now 25 and hence was 4 or 5 in the late 80s, it was through this music that I discovered Jackson and became a fan. Already by the time of Dangerous I was struck by second thoughts that seemed to have hit his older fans in the Bad era (or even by Thriller, as is the case with k-punk). So for sentimental and nostalgic reasons I have a vested interest in defending it from charges of being the dead end (or past the dead end) of Jackson’s talent and charisma. Looking at it now from a historical perspective, it seems undoubtedly to be at the very least the beginning of the end – Michael is inescapably lighter-skinned and more feminized than he was in Thriller, his offstage antics already distracting from the music, and the music itself quite removed from any traditional notions of “authenticity.” K-punk points out the utter strangeness of Jackson’s sexual aggressiveness in The Way You Make Me Feel and I agree, but at the same time the song itself – and even Jackson’s desperate attempts at normalization (as a horny hetero) – remain somewhat moving – perhaps because there’s something desperate about it.

    The production is so upbeat, yet there’s something relentlessly aggressive and assertive – or struggling to be agressive and to assert – in Jackson’s vocal. Listening to the song the other day, it was the first time I felt genuinely sad since the announcement of his death…somehow it seemed to crystallize what we’d lost, and what he lost. I think today Bad can retain some interest for standing at the crossroads. Here the Wacko Jacko and the King of Pop met, with the former receiving the baton from the latter and never really looking back. By Dangerous, it was an awful strain to pretend that Jackson’s iconic status surpassed his weirdness, and the stunts of seducing Egyptian princesses, gyrating with Naomi Campbell, and shooting hoops with the other Michael J. only serve to emphasize the weirdness, which within a year or two would come to completely dominate the public image of the singer.

    In Bad, that aspect is there, but so is the pop-culture icon whose status and excitement supersedes such concerns, and the buried poignancy of the super-polished pop is perhaps in the feeling that things are beginning to slip out of hand, that though the worst is yet to come, a line has been crossed and there is no return. It may best represent Jackson’s ability to inhabit a polished, plastic sonic – and visual (though this was increasingly undercut by his own deviations from acceptability) – universe and yet convey a raw, unnerving emotionalism; here Pop has the power usually found in rock and folk and other more consciously “authentic” forms. This perhaps – aside from his glorious ability to move – was his greatest talent.

  12. Charles M! Wow…you just might have something there. I have an autistic 17 year old son, so I’m very familiar with the disorder. My son is autistic though, and does not have Asperger’s syndrome. However, I do believe that the attachments to “things” (such as his recent obsession with the Wicked Witch painting) could truly be attributed to Asperger’s. My son is obsessed with movies so I can truly relate to your perspective. You might think about writing about that extensively. Great point.

  13. Pinocchio Theory, too many pain killers given because the doctor couldn’t cure the cause are evidence of how inadequate our society is. I once scoffed at Michaels apearence. even making a joke or two. However, what Michael said about having feelings and it not being right to call someone names makes real sense.

    Michael never intentionally hurt anyone except himself. Then too, he tried to show love for everyone the only way he knew how. This is probably why his family and friends, which are growing in number every day, are willing to support him.

    Who can help Michael now – me a person who didn’t connect with his music and his image, one who has been more right wing and supporter of Rush Limbaw ? Probably nbot, but I would be the first to say if Michael came back today, we would stand a better chance of correcting any disagreement with his culture, because the channel he provided would be in tact.

    I would be the first to go so far as to take a tooth out of Michaels dead body just to try to preserve it for the family as a piece of possibly recoverable D N A , so in the future some technology may be able to bring him back. It would then be so nice to hear him say “thank you for having faith”.

    Then again, probably no body will read this anyway. But I feel better for having said it. And I know Michael felt better for having danced what he truley believed too.

  14. Very good objective analysis, to add, my theory is that, Michael wouldn’t be who he is right now without all the controversy surrounding his life.

    I think he was fully aware of what he had to do to be recognised on a global scale, and he convinced himself that he had to become white to achieve that. If you look at the latter statement from today’s context you would think it’s ridiculus but as you so rightly mentioned, the state of world confusion and racial division which still existed to some extent in the 1980’s (which coincided with when Michael started to get “whiter”) was significant enough for one to make such an assumption.

    Take an even broader view and look at the way Michael paid so much attention to detail and wanted everything to be perfect for his concerts, videos, and everything else about his life. The shrewdness of his negotiations with Sony for record deals and savvy business skills for acquiring such assets as half the Beatles song catalog. Do you really think that if someone is smart enough to pay that much attention to detail, they wouldnt do the same for other aspects in their life. Michael knew exactly what sold, he knew the controversy he generated would ensure relentless media attention. Add the fact that he was a Jehovah’s witness, he could let the world think whatever it wanted to think, as long as he knew what he was doing.

    Aside from that, I go around youtube and still see people dissing him and having no respect whatsoever, i mean, no one can control that, that’s statistics for you.

    In any event, whoever disrespects him is just a lost number in this world and will be forgotten, whereas Michael will be remembered and celebrated forever. No one who has achieved less than what Michael has in his short life has the right to judge him.

    Thank you for everything Michael, you are an inspiration and your music is at the centre of memories that will never be forgotten. Rest in peace.

  15. Ed McMahon is a more interesting figure to me, and I think has more lessons for the left right and middle. I wrote about him as a counterweight on my blog today. Stop on by!

  16. I’m not a fanatic admirer of MJ but I have always been a fan of his work – choreography and music – the MoonWalk. I would say that I grew up listening to his music. Although, some of the lyrics of his songs may not have any significance (i.e. classical music, etc of that genre) – he was a “genius” of his own era. Why questioned it? If you don’t get it – than don’t. Why do artist create music anyway? Some songs just does not need to make any sense whatsoever. Heal the world, We are the World, Earth Song – these songs are inspirational. He definitely “Rock My World”!

    Rock music is just noise makers. Rap is just words in tunes yet these artists/musicians strive to make it in the music industry and its’ genres. Music is just music – art what-have-you. It’s very individual and everyone has an opinion, ideas, different interests – let it be.

    Scandalous media exploitation has caused artist such as MJ to be ridiculed, tarnished his name – for what reason? I don’t get it. He had a talent, craftsmanship that nobody had, I stress fully that NO ONE could have ever achieve what MJ had achieved – people were envious.

    If any of MJ’s haters or critics could emulate the “King of Pop” himself – please oh please – don’t just talk the talk or walk the walk. Everyone wants to be critic and yet no one wants to take the challenge or responsibilities.

    MJ has given hope to those who needed it and the only way he could express himself is thru his music. If those who are not a fan of MJ – than you will never ever get his music. No amount of explanation or definition could express the type of music MJ had produced in the past 30 years of his existence. So, yeah he was and always will be a genius in his own way. He is only human built in his own uniqueness. He has reached out globally especially in a third world country – where I come from, his fan base is equivalent to the population of the country. That’s how magnificent MJ was (and will be) to us here.

    I have been following most of the blogs and news about MJ. I just want to remember him for his music and performance. I belief most of his fans as well. Love the music and love what he had made us feel. Eternal Rest grant onto him – let the perpetual light shine upon him, may his soul rest in Peace.

  17. Here’s a letter I got in my ebox this morning about Michael Jackson’s purported anti-Semitism:

    Michael Jackson, Anti-Semite
    Back in November 2005, Jackson was caught on tape in a voicemail to one of his former business managers calling Jews “leeches”.
    While much of the world mourns the untimely death of the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson, it is worth recalling one of Mr. Jackson’s more unfortunate qualities: he was an anti-Semite.

    In case you think I am making this up, allow me to refresh your memory.

    Back in November 2005, Jackson was caught on tape in a voicemail to one of his former business managers calling Jews “leeches”. The tapes were played on ABC’s Good Morning Am erica program, and Jackson was heard saying, “They suck…they’re like leeches. It’s a conspiracy. The Jews do it on purpose.”

    And in 1995, Jackson provoked a firestorm of protest when he released an album called HIStory containing a song entitled “They don’t care about us” which had the following lyrics: “Jew me, sue me” and “Kick me, kike me”. He subsequently promised to re-record the song and delete the offending lyrics.

    But then, in February 1996, Jackson nonetheless released a video of the song in which he had re-instated the brazenly anti-Semitic remarks.

    So before you go shedding a tear in Michael Jackson’s memory, take a moment and consider the hate that he spewed against Jews, both in private and in public.

    And then maybe you’ll consider saving those tears for someone far more deserving.

    Like Ed MacMahon [I added this last line].

  18. This analysis leaves out a few important cosmetic elemenst: Jackon’s vitiligo and lupus, Jackon’s insecurities of his nose (rooted deeply in his struggles with his father). I doubt one could respectably paint such wide strokes with race without the endless list of personal issues that he was plagued by.

  19. Kirby – considering your crazy crypto-racist Mccarthyite blog (yeah -the president’s black! Get over it! It’s not a commie conspiracy!), maybe your credentials against ‘hate-spewing’ are somewhat dubious.

    To most everyone commentating – there seems to be a vague theme that only black people were interested in black music before ‘Thriller’ was released. Bullshit of course – a cursory look at the pop charts for the previous forty years makes it clear ‘we’ didn’t need a hyper-marketed mutant to ‘cross over’. Maybe this is why he’s so ‘canonised’ – he’s the ‘black’ performer for people who don’t really like blacks. From ‘Thriller’ onwards, he probably made the most anaemic versions of all the Afro-American styles that he fed upon.

    And to blame his obvious mental illness on race relations is just offensive. There are millions who have suffered racism far more severely – and never became so obscenely rich either – but it seems that these days only the wealthy and famous can truly ‘suffer’. But then again, this blog does seem to attract a lot of right-wing cranks…

  20. Figurative use of the term leech has historically been associated with physicians and it generally makes no difference if they’re Jewish, Catholic, WASP, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or even surrealistically Lutheran, the description is probably more apt now than it ever was.

  21. Here’s some ways in which Wedge was not thinking logically: he says my blog is McCarthyite. On what basis does he say this? Even if it is, it’s an ad hominem argument to say that nevertheless anything else I say might be invalid.

    This is also known as the genetic fallacy — the origin of an idea determines its character. “The VW Beetle is evil because it was originally designed by Adolf Hitler.”

    Then I am called a McCarthyite. If McCarthy managed to ban communists from a few universities, using his status as a senator to also blacklist writers who take a communist viewpoint from Hollywood, in what way have I attempted to do that? Communists come to my blog all the time, and I never try to ban them. I try to reason with them. Heck, most of my best friends are communists. This is an example of “moral equivalence,” in which the arguer attempts to make an equation between the minor misdeeds which in this case he misperceives with actual atrocities.

    If “right-wingers” come to this blog it may be because they sense an open-mindedness on the part of the blogger. Few actual thinking people want to speak only to the people that think exactly like they do, because then it isn’t actually thinking, it’s just slapping one another on the back. This is a bit boring, and kind of lazy. I think many people come here because the blog is stylistically well-written, and the blogger puts some energy into writing well. It’s fun to read. And there is no monopoly on the comments box, as there is at many bloggers’ sites.

    Hasty generalizations characterize the thinking of much of the left at this point I suppose because it is rewarded. Turning someone into a strawman — you are a McCarthyite — therefore you are bad, you are a racist because you don’t like the black president, this is a right-wing blog because people I don’t completely agree with sometimes write on this site.

    Sloppy false dichotomies, irrelevant oversimplifications, false dichotomies, no sense of humor.

    A neat book to work through, which should be some kind of prerequisite to blog commenting, would be Connie Missimer’s Good Arguments. Try it, Wedge. You’ll like it, and maybe you’ll move up to pink belt. Here’s another site, if you haven’t got money — think carefully through ad populum:

    http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/

  22. Maybe you should consult your main main Luther on his ideas about Jews:

    http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/Luther_on_Jews.html

    But hey – at least he wasn’t one of those communist academics, pro-French liberals, or indeed a successful non-white politician, that you seem to shit your pants over so much. Believe me, we don’t really see any commie elite ruling the U.S. from here in socialist surrendering Europe.

    Maybe I’m quick to judge, but then if you could write a coherent sentence I could actually work out what you’re saying.

    Say hi to those Minutemen buddies of yours.

  23. There is a more direct relationship between the Beatles and Michael Jackson than noted here–Michael Jackson purchased much of the Beatles’ catalogue sometime in the 1980’s and successfully mined it for commercial gain, much to the dismay of many a Beatle fan for whom there remained a sentimental attachment to the music which Jackson himself had overcome.

    There was also a Jackson-McCartney collaboration resulting in the hit single “Say,Say,Say”… The friendship between McCartney and Jackson appears to have soured when Jackson outbid McCartney for McCartney’s own music. The significance of this may be overblown to me–Jackson valued something more than friendship with McCartney and I don’t really see how Jackson can escape some responsibility for this decision.

    I tend to see Jackson as the victim of having the power to be anything but a victim but still becoming a kind of ultimate victim and as I think this could also become our own destiny if we allow it, I will not celebrate Jackson on any level, even the innocent and pure level of his dance,music.

  24. Wedge, you’ve just used three more examples of ad hominem argument.

    And Apnea added another. Calling someone a troll is a perfect example of ad hominem argument. It’s even in the definition of a troll:

    “Application of the term troll is highly subjective. Some readers may characterize a post as trolling, while others may regard the same post as a legitimate contribution to the discussion, even if controversial. The term is often used as an ad hominem strategy to discredit an opposing position by attacking its proponent.”

    I don’t know if the Jewish remarks that Jackson made are relevant to understanding him, or to taking him out of the purely victim scenario, so that he’s no longer a canonical victim, but I like to think it might at least qualify his canonicity as a saint of victimization.

    Being one of the richest men in the world might also cast doubt on his credentials for canonization within victim studies.

    Medicine can be poison (derrida), it can put you to sleep for a little while, or for a little long while. Let us pray for him!

  25. I have just published an article on my blog, RedGenesBlueGenes.com
    about Michael Jackson which is about the absolute diametrical opposite of this post.

    I must concur with fellow doubters G and Wedge. Some people, strangely, take Jackson seriously as a great musician; some of these people are able to express themselves at great length in pomo-lingo, as in the above post. I am not of those people, I come from a tribe that listens to music differently (I think we listen more carefully and honestly). Moreover, I think the Jackson phenomenon represents the ultimate in conformity, a slavish trotting along with the herd even by those who obviously consider themselves above it.

    G apparently is troubled by the thought that a musician’s fame should be somehow related to the quality of the music. Don’t be troubled, G, you are in the midst of a media stampede and the herd is acting irrationally. The first thing to do, when speaking of a musician, is to listen to the music. G is right that the music is mediocre pop music, no better or worse than that produced by 20 or 30 other famous performers of the pop era (I shudder at the thought of the media and blogging frenzy when Britney dies).

    When Marvin Gaye died, I felt a sense of personal loss for the songs he had yet to sing. With Michael Jackson, it’s more like watching a long-suffering patient come to the end of a terminal illness; you feel compassion rather than loss.

    Wedge is also correct that Pinocchio seems to have forgotten about these kinds of music called “jazz,” “blues” and “hip-hop” — all of which affected American culture much more deeply and profoundly than the glitzy funk-disco of “Thriller”. Moreover, Wedge gets it right that Jackson’s resurgent Thriller-based popularity coincided with a nadir of American culture.

    The importance of Jackson’s life is that it represents a beautifully “Bad” example — Michael warns precisely of the dangers of too much success, America’s most prevalent disease. Americans are too rich and too fat, use too much energy, spend too much money, drink too much sugary coffee, drink too much alcohol, watch too much TV, and it does not make us happier.

    Michael Jackson tried to use money and surgery to resist aging and mortality. He was the ultimate Anti-Buddha, a man who fled wisdom by seeking ever more exquisite forms of indulgence and craving.
    The man who refused to grow up become a Black Dorian Gray. Except, of course, that to call Michael “black” is to stretch the concept of ethnicity to its breaking point. Michael was about as black as Liz Taylor, his closest pal.

    American culture can be understood as a confluence of herds. Large events get all the herds moving in the same direction. The key characteristic of herds is that they are irrational — but that doesn’t mean they don’t think. They often think too much, like the author of this post, who clearly drinks too much coffee or takes too much Adderall. However, the thinking of crowds is subject to the principle of “motivated reasoning” — we rationalize our sentiments.

    These rationalizations can be conducted in pomo-lingo or in the vernacular, but they can all be reduced to the grunting and flatulence of the passing herd.

    All I can say at this point is: wow, what a large and gassy herd. Just about the biggest I’ve ever seen.

  26. Guillermo –
    You hit the nail on the head with post-modernist approaches to people like Jackson. Po-mo takes what is trashy, oppressive and saturated (via deliberate marketing strategies) and attaches semi-mystical ‘social significance’ to what is basically oversold bullshit. It invites us to think of what’s already there as old or insignificant, and everything ‘new’ as worthy of our undivided attention. The only essential truth to the post-modern condition is that you can sell any old crap (even crap as powerful or dangerous as politicians, medical procedures and religions) to enough people if you have the means of production, distribution and advertising.

    Jackson was in the right place at the right time – ie. the early 80s when a song couldn’t just be a song, a film just a film etc. but an ‘event’ that demanded to be seen as something so much more. His marketing strategy and racial self-loathing had a devastating impact on Afro-American music (and popular culture in general) which it still hasn’t recovered from (as devasating as Star Wars and E.T. were on American cinema).

    It all about the Benjamins.

  27. “Here singularrization, or what Deleuze and Guattari call a ‘line of flight,’ becomes indistinguishable from hyperbolic normativization. ”

    This is where I locate the theoretical danger in this post.

    The technical and critical terminology of line of flight and normativization which serves precisely to make distinctions and articulations within poorly analyzed composites such as Jacksonism, is used, in the case of Jackson, as if indistinguishable.

    Jackson as man-child, male-female, black-white does appear as normativization which is also singular. If line of flight and normativization were in any case indistinguishable maybe Jackson is something like what this would be…But are they? If line of flight and normativization are compatible in any case, what use are they as critical concepts?

  28. Michael Jackson was mentally ill. Come on. That much is clear. Although one could argue what constitutes mental illness. I have a child who is the same age that Michael jackson was when he started performing at clubs with strippers in them, touring and playing willy nilly at three in the morning at his father’s whim. I have a six year old boy and I am telling you- getting a kid off of his regular bedtime schedule is enough to make a little kid crazy. Seriously. I cannot imagine beating my child and beating other people in front of him. I cannot imagine taking my little boy on the road and making him sing and dance when he should be sleeping. No matter howmuch money he got.
    I was an adult child actor in LA. That is I was an adult how played teens. LA is the most spiritually pedophiliac place I have ever experienced. Case in point, I got a gig as a series regular on a Nickelodeon show. In order to solidify my casting, I was asked by the producers to come to the fitting dressed more “sexily”. I slapped on a wonder bra under a tiny little halter top that showed off my bare, belly buttoned mid drift. I was supposed to be playing fifteen. They really wanted real young kids because of the “authenticitiy” but I also think they wanted to exploit children. The camera man would be really disgusting to a young actress who is working on Nickelodeon. Not anything overt but a running narrative about how beautiful she was as he was filming her. Me too- but I was well over eighteen. (No one knew that however)
    WHO KNOWS what Michael went through on the road. I believe his father sexually molested him as well. LaToya recanted her book, but victims of incest often do recant their stories.
    I believe he might have been a bit of a transsexual or, as one theorist put it, that he wanted to become Peter Pan- a cartoon character. I also believe he had vitiligo. When my son was a baby, I was stressed out a great deal. He developed severe eczema that seemed to let up as my stress let up. I believe that diseases are emotional, spiritual and psychological in origin. I believe on a very deep subconscious level, Michael wanted to “jump out of his skin”. His body obliged. And then he had the money to carry out transform himself from the object of self hatred to the image of the most rescued, fawned over dainty heroine in the world- the white woman. The white woman gets to be vulnerable, she gets to be rescued. Or, he was becoming Peter Pan.
    His racial self loathing was instigated by his father’s racial self loathing. Black people, lets not forget, are the descendants of slaves. We learned some pretty f-ed up child rearing techniques in slave days and many of us pass those techniques down from generation to generation. It’s so hard for people to understand that. “Slavery’s over” but many of our ancestors did not become emancipated and then take parenting classes! Or get therapy! (We probably need it- collective, slavery survival therapy).
    Michael Jackson was objectified and turned into a commodity by the age of six. Come on, people! Why can’t anyone just face this? Why are we beating around the bush with all this other crap? He was a special, talented, beautiful child who was immediately used like a dancing slave by his father, his mother, the record industry and we consumers.
    And once again, I’m a mom. You don’t do that to kids. A million dollars or a trillion dollars cannot compensate for turning childhood into anything less than a process to honor the child’s growth into adulthood. Imagine your little blond Joey or Janie out on the road at midnight hoofing it up for strangers who may or may not perv out on them as soon as you’re not looking. They might have fun, but if I let my kid stay up all night eating pizza for five days in a row and nothing else, he will get sick. He might have fun, but he’ll sure as hell get sick. He will get sick psychologically, emotionally and physically. Come on.
    When I was a kid, my familial issues didn’t affect me either. My fathers absence did not hurt my grades or my cuteness and charm. Everybody thought I was well adjusted- till I started dating. Then all hell broke loose. I mean, I had to look at the fear I felt around men and the abandonment till I actually became physically ill myself. Of course, I had therapy and books and yoga and all that crap to work through it. To identify it. I was too poor to simply do odd things to myself, to buy my way out of my challenges, to escape. I could barely afford therapy, but I got it. I was in a community in New York that supported that kind of self exploration. I know analysis was for “crazy” people in certain communities. Would the Jackson family ever have supported Michael as a teenager? Probably not, and he was probably not showing symptoms then – too busy being the provider.
    Michaels childhood caught up with him like it does everyone else. He was not educated, never had college to break away and mature away from his family-leaving his family meant prying, stalking and weirdness on the part of people who would have otherwise “normalized” him. All of his crap caught up to him, and the money allowed the madness to go unchecked.
    I went to a predominantly white college in Vermont, and the expectations there were interesting. People thought that I might be into drugs and knew all the rap songs. Nothing too overt, most of my own close friends were pretty cool and decent. I naturally repelled anyone who thought I was “cooler” than I was. I am saying that I walked into a world with expectations and a certain degree of “benign racism.” I can only imagine those expectations multiplied for a celebrity. I was sensitive to any kind of bizarre expectations and so imagine that sensitivitiy and those expectations multiplied a thousand times.
    I would be thrown, as a young person, into temporary crisis. Should I be doing drugs and shaking, shaking, shaking it on the dance floor? Should I be more into rap? Should I speak in ebonics? I mean- should I? I felt inauthentic and lame for a very long time. But if Idid do or experience or enjoy something identifiably black that felt out of place as well. (my politics for instnaceIdentity as a young person is fragile. Most everyone I know was deprssed or bulimic or anorexic or suicidal as a teenager. I know people whose parents couldn’t deal with it, who became insane right along with their crazy teenager. And thus the teens insanity solidified into adult dysfunction.
    If Jackson’s parents were absent, stupid, cruel, abusive and exploitive-what chance did he have?
    And yet- yet- he pumped it out for as long as he could. Billy Jean is an eery, fascinating and haunting song. Michale still danced with his soul on fire, he still watched, albeit from behind a glass wall, what little black kids were doing in the ghetto- that’s where he got the moonwalk. He tried for as long as he could- to stay true to the soul that infused him as a child. Thriller was an innovation and Michael was phenomenon. It makes me sad.

  29. The other thing I wanted to add is that- our stars are our pantheon of gods. They provide us with archetypal myths by which to work out common human traumas. Perhaps, years from now, in addition to the Oedipal Complex and the Peter Pan Syndrome, there will be the Michael Jackson Disroder, where in a gifted young person is commodified to the point of insanity by his community and dies an early death in a spinning, shymmying, moon walking attempt to recover a sense of self.

  30. Brothel Poet is right that Michael was mentally ill. Consequently, the appropriate feelings upon his death should be ones of compassion rather than adulation. Unless of course you adore mental illness. Which, apparently, America does. This is deep cultural pathology, ripe for further analysis.

    The Jungian point is also well-taken — our stars are society’s examples-in-chief; we derive wisdom from their catastrophes as well as from their victories; their lives are personified metaphors for the dilemmas and existential anguish which characterize any generation.

    I don’t agree completely agree with the point about parent-hood. Having had 2 kids myself and having read Judith Rich Harris, I am not convinced that bad parenting has much influence, nor good parenting either. Americans over-parent, not realizing how much is beyond their control. Outright child abuse is obviously a different case, and probably has something to do with Michael’s case. I do agree, though, that child star status is in itself dangerous psychically. A lot of us know former athletic and musical prodigies who have turned out unhappily.

    I think young black Americans sometimes mistake the alienation of youth for a black experience whereas it is a universal experience. You have to live abroad in a few cultures to realize that cultural marginalization is now, paradoxically, a universal experience.

  31. Moreover, I think the Jackson phenomenon represents the ultimate in conformity, a slavish trotting along with the herd even by those who obviously consider themselves above it.

    It’s an interesting statement because I do think the utilization of music for individual differentiation is an aberration. It’s also not how it is used as a medium of collective identification. However, if you mind to explain what differentiates someone from a “herd” ( which is mostly a statistical phenomenon IMO ) and how you intend to establish a substantial value hierarchy I will be attentive. I believe you will fail to resurrect the modernist program and establish it against the odds of “pomo lingo” but we will see.

  32. Hi Steven,

    I read this with great interest and agreement, as back in 2003 I gave a conference paper that aimed to open up some of the tangled issues surrounding Michael Jackson – race, gender, sexuality – using his non-verbal vocalisations as an entry point.

    His death brought many of these same ideas back, and so I’ve published an edited version online.

  33. I read with fascination what Brothel Poet wrote. That’s all I wanted to say! Her thinking came out of her own experience, instead of out of a theory, so it felt more grounded than a lot of the comments here. Thanks, Brothel Poet! Get thee to a nunnery!

  34. Here’s the thing – I think the difference in time is crucial. The fact that merchandise bought in the 60s and (part of) the 70s was bought, and merchandise in the 80s was bought on credit makes a huge difference.

    To avoid that is…it’s like David Denby hating Fight Club because he’d never had a shit job, because he wasn’t part of the generation that liked it. And he never asked himself what was the experience of the people who liked it that differed from his – he just dismissed it.

    Art reflects (pardon the cliche) the condition of people’s lives. It’s a way of understanding the lives of the people who like it. Refusing to look at it that way – no-one can stop you, but it’s…well. It just shows what you can afford.

  35. I’m really appalled by the lack of coverage of Michael Jackson’s death. I think everyone should start writing blog essays about him to give him the attention he deserved. Also he’s clearly a great subject from which relevant lessons can be drawn for the rest of us.

  36. University of California
    Call For Presenters

    The Center for Race & Gender is organizing “Michael Jackson: Critical
    Reflection on a Life & a Phenomenon,” a Fall 2009 symposium spotlighting
    critical race and sexuality studies on the life and cultural phenomenon of
    Michael Jackson. We invite presentations on the following possible
    topics:

    * pop culture, art, the meaning of “genius”
    * race, family, & and loyalty
    * celebrity, spectacle, media
    * child abuse, trauma, criminal justice
    * race, gender, and the politics of body transformation
    * disability
    * public grief
    * anti-black racism and the media
    * sexualities and asexualities
    * class struggle and “rags to riches” narratives
    * other related topics

    Please contact Alisa at abierria@berkeley.edu or 510.643.4245 by August
    14th if you are interested in presenting at this symposium. Please
    provide a brief abstract of your proposed presentation as well as contact
    info. Thanks!


    Center for Race and Gender
    University of California, Berkeley
    642 Barrows Hall
    Berkeley, CA 94720-1074

    Tel: 510.643.8488
    Fax: 510.642.9810
    centerrg@berkeley.edu
    http://crg.berkeley.edu

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *