The Question We’d Most Like To Forget: What “IF?”

Over the years, LunaJo67 has been bringing us some amazing videos. Her tireless efforts have helped to build a volume of invaluable research in the never-ending quest to learn what really happened to Michael Jackson. However, this latest brings with it a lot of painful memories.

Although it is not something that most Michael Jackson fans like to dwell on, it remains perhaps one of the biggest “IF” questions that lurks in the backs of our minds. What “if” the verdict had gone down differently in 2005? What would have happened to Michael? What would his life have become?

Over the years I have seen two distinct schools of thought on this subject, not necessarily from fans but from the populace in general. And they can be pretty much summed up to either one of two possibilities: Either he would be alive today (the wisdom of thought being that prison life would have forced him to clean up his act and adhere to a strict regimen, one that did not include access to propofol and Dr. Murray, obviously) or he would have died even earlier than he did. Some believe he would have committed suicide in prison. Even some members of his own family have expressed this belief. Others believe that his spirit would have been so broken that he would have died; perhaps not an immediate suicide, but that eventually, refusing food and medical care, he would have fallen into a downward spiral-with the same end result. Worse yet, he would have been vulnerable to attacks from other inmates even if isolated.

Michael Was Stronger Than Many People Give Him Credit. But Could His Gentle Spirit Have Survived A 20+ Year Prison Sentence?
Michael Was Stronger Than Many People Give Him Credit. But Could His Gentle Spirit Have Survived A 20+ Year Prison Sentence?

I am of two minds on this. On the one hand, I believe that Michael Jackson was much tougher than people gave him credit for. He said that he had rhinoceros skin, and certainly he proved it throughout his life by how much he was able to endure. Even if wrongly convicted, I could see him using that opportunity to turn intensely inward, to grow closer, perhaps, in his faith to God. He might have even written some of his greatest work yet, for surely, the experience would have either fueled the kind of bitter anger that led to brilliant works like “They Don’t Care About Us” or to the kind of intensely raw self reflection of pieces like “Will You Be There.” However, the truth is more likely that the utter humiliation of being convicted and forever condemned in the public mind as a child molestor would have been too much. His whole life had been built on the adoration of the public and the everlasting quest for love. It was important for Michael that he be loved; it was, if anything, the single most driving force of his life. To be sure, I believe that his fans would have remained loyal to him even if he had been convicted. I believe that, even in the face of a conviction, most would have remained convinced that he had been unfairly railroaded. There would have been an outcry, for sure; an outcry against the injustice of the system. There would have been drives and petitions for appeals; there is a reason, after all, that Michael’s fans call themselves his “Soldiers of Love.”

Nevertheless, had those men and women of the jury failed to recognize the absurdity of the Arvizo claims and those ridiculously trumped-up charges by the DA, it would have become a very different world in which to be a Michael Jackson fan. Guilty or not, there’s just something about the idea of a conviction that carries the stench of officialness. Sure, any MJ fan can tell you that it’s been a difficult long haul, anyway, given that he was condemned in the court of public opinion with or without a conviction. But the reality is that the “Not Guilty” verdict did allow his reputation to rebound. Because of that verdict, even those who think he “might” have done it can never say with 100% certainty, and thus (at least in theory) Michael Jackson became granted a benefit of the doubt which has enabled his reputation-especially posthumously-to rebound and survive.

This would never have been the case had he been convicted. The taint of being a “convicted child molestor” and a “convicted felon” would have forever tarnished his name, and death would not have changed it. And while his old fans may have remained loyal, it is doubtful he would have gained new fans or that the reputation of his glory years would have sustained him into the new millennium. His music and short films would have all but disappeared from the public lexicon, rather than continuing to be discovered and cherished. To be sure, there is still a very disgruntled minority of the population who believe this should have been the fate of his legacy, and apparently are working tirelessly to that effect (to little avail, it might be added) but the fact is, it didn’t happen that way because he wasn’t convicted. And although some thrive on the idea of rewriting history (I suspect for their own presumed glory) the truth is that a jury of Michael Jackson’s peers agreed on that morning of June 13th, 2005, that the charges against him had not been proven. Michael Jackson was a free man. But rebuilding his life after such an ordeal would not be easy. In the end, some say the Arvizos and Tom Sneddon got what they wanted, anyway.  The cruel world that was salivating over the fate of Michael Jackson could not have known that he had only a little more than four years to live-God’s plan, ultimately, usurping the interests of a zealous prosecutor, a gold digging family and a media drunk on its own power.

I remember when this CNN clip originally aired in early June of 2005. Watching it now is a cruel reminder of just how badly the media was salivating over the prospect of a Michael Jackson conviction. It’s not the idea that the Santa Barbara county jail was already preparing for the possibility of a Michael Jackson conviction which is so irksome for me. After all, it makes sense that they would have already been putting a plan into place in the event of such a high profile conviction. They certainly wouldn’t have wanted to wait until the last minute-a sure recipe for chaos and disaster. However, were these preparations something that the public necessarily needed to see? It’s obvious that there were high stakes in the idea of a possible Michael Jackson conviction. The entire media conspiracy to convict Michael was based on one driving factor-ratings. They were already envisioning at least twenty years’ worth of never ending juicy gossip about Michael’s life behind prison bars, starting with this bit intended to tantalize audiences by providing their first glimpse of what Michael’s daily life would have been like.  These days, I can’t pass a tabloid stand on any given day without reading that “OJ is dying in prison” or that “OJ has turned gay in prison” or any number of other choice headlines, usually accompanied by jailhouse photos intended to make him look sadistic, psychotic, hideous, pathetic and ridiculous, or all five combined. Obviously, these stories sell. If they didn’t, the tabloids would cease printing them. This was the very profitable future they envisioned with a Michael Jackson conviction.

There was something else at stake, too. The media was not only salivating at the prospect of a Michael Jackson conviction, but in the whole idea of seeing Michael somehow stripped of an imagined hubris. Note how Jim Thomas and Dan Abrams practically gloat over the statement that no one will be “holding Mr. Jackson’s umbrella for him” or that no armbands would be allowed. As usual, these things were thought of as nothing more meaningful than the eccentricities of a spoiled pop star. I wonder if they would have felt any amount of shame if told that the umbrellas were to prevent Michael, a vitiligo sufferer, from getting a potentially fatal sunburn, or that his trademark armbands were said to represent the suffering of the children of the world. Somehow, I doubt it.

This same sense of “rubbing it in” is further emphasized by the need to broadcast that Michael would be denied bond, and that eventually his fate would be to be placed alongside hardened psychotic criminals in the California state prison system like Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan.

With such high stakes invested in a Michael Jackson conviction, is it any wonder that the media immediatly tucked tail and went quiet as a ghost town on the matter once the verdict was announced?

I remember those days well. In the aftermath of the June 13th verdict, there were several days’ worth of the predictable media outrage and backlashing over the verdict. And then…silence. I waited for at least one report that might say, “Congratulations, Michael, for surviving such an undeserving ordeal. What’s next for you?”

Instead, it was like the proverbial ostrich burying its head in the sand. Wow wasn’t than an embarrassment! Okay, let’s dust ourselves off. On to the next story!

These days, as Michael’s legacy is honored and celebrated, the horrific events of 2005 are becoming dimmer and more distant in memory. That’s good in one way. But in other ways, it’s also good to never forget. Just as with all dark chapters of any historical past, there is a need to move forward, but also a need to remember. In June of 2005, Michael’s fate hung in the hands of those twelve men and women of the jury. An innocent man’s life hung in the balance, and could have turned out very differently that day. There is no weakness in keeping that memory alive; the weakness is in allowing that fact to ever be forgotten.

Susan Fast’s “Dangerous”: A Review (Part 5) Utopia, Soul, and Coda

"Dangerous"-An Album That Took Us Through The Bowels of Hell To The Pinnacle of Heavenly Glimpse
“Dangerous”-An Album That Took Us Through The Bowels of Hell To The Pinnacle of Heavenly Glimpse

This post will mark my final installment of my discussion of Susan Fast’s Dangerous. I realize it has been a long stretch since I started this series in December, so it’s about time to wrap this discussion up and move on to other matters. However, these final chapters of the book contain some of Fast’s most interesting insights into the Dangerous album, and as such, deserve just as much attention as I have given to earlier segments of the book. First, let’s pick up where I left off with the discussion of “Utopia” and “Heal The World”:

UTOPIA:

“[Jackson’s] after something purer and better than the childish, rockist idea of pop rebellion. Jackson knows culture is more than that.”-Armond White, qtd in Fast (80). 

In my previous discussion, I had reflected on Fast’s quote of both “Heal The World” and “Black or White” as Michael’s “troubled vision of Utopia.”  Taken out of the context of the album, “Heal The World,” at least, seems to represent an idealistic view that utopia can be achieved. But within the context of the album, it seems to be merely a brief window of hope that is eclipsed as the album loops thematically back to its beginning.

On the Dangerous album, “Heal The World” serves as a respite in another significant way as well. According to Susan Fast, it is also the most conventionally “white” song on the album, which is doubly interesting when we consider its immediate juxtaposing  with “Black or White” (not to mention that, as Fast had already stated, this was squarely in the middle of what she deems as Michael’s “blackest” album). On an album where Michael seemed more acutely and politically conscious of his “blackness” than ever before, “Heal The World” emerges as an even stranger anomaly. Before this, his greatest and most inspirational “message” song had been “Man in the Mirror,” a song undeniably steeped in the roots of black gospel tradition-and which served as a true showcase for Michael’s skills as a gospel singer (even if, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he did not have a gospel background in the way that many successful mainstream black artists have had).

“…It’s one of the whitest sounding songs Jackson ever made. He was certainly capable of taking white forms and making them sound blacker, but he doesn’t do that here. The conventions that I’ve talked about all point in the direction of musical whiteness: the key (this isn’t a modal piece), the regularity-even musical squareness-the near absence of improvisation or call and response; there isn’t a blue note to be found. The timbre of Jackson’s voice. His uncharacteristically bland emotional palette also points to a particular idea of restraint and respectability in mainstream white pop music, a reflection of the desirability of these characteristics in middle class white culture. Indeed, even the little girl speaking at the beginning of the song sounds white.” (Fast 84-85). 

I had never really thought of “Heal The World” in terms of being a “white” song. But I realized that this seeming “blandness” which Fast refers to may have much to do with why “Heal The World” for me, personally, falls short of Michael’s other great message songs. I miss the powerful and soulful gospel improvisations of “Man in the Mirror,” for example, or the evocative call and response of “Earth Song” which never fails to send chills down my spine, no matter how many times I hear it. For a singer who was certainly capable of bringing so much raw power and intensity to a track, it really begs the question: Why did he not want this effect with “Heal The World?”

Clearly, “Heal The World” was never meant to be a song in the same category as either “Man in the Mirror” or “Earth Song” (and it would probably be fair to acknowledge that Michael also did not write “Man in the Mirror,”, either; still, one can’t deny that in performance, he certainly made the track his own). In both of those songs, Michael is putting himself at center stage as a kind of unheralded “messiah” or messenger of the piece. But the message of “Heal The World” is different; less about the messenger and more about the collective importance of the message. Fast goes on to note how Michael purposely puts himself in the background of the song, allowing the children to take center stage.

“Receding into the background of the song could be said to demonstrate the idea that unity and healing require selflessness: let the choir take the utopian moment by themselves; let the child’s voice take over near the end of the song. In fact, let Michael become the child, let his voice melt into that of the child’s, let him become as the child-another of his many physical transformations and perhaps the one he would have liked best. This too symbolically removes the child from the idea of futurity and strengthens the idea that adults become as children (as Christ suggested) to ‘solve the world’s problems.’ We could understand this song in those terms and it would still be revolutionary, wouldn’t it? It would still be a bold statement to make in the middle of a gritty and musically complex record.” (Fast 85).

On that note, this would be a good time to pause and go back, again, to “Man in the Mirror.” It seems this was not an entirely new concept to Michael because, just as he takes a backseat in “Heal The World” he also opted out of appearing in the “Man in the Mirror” video, an unusual endeavor considering that this was at the height of the video era and Michael was at the height of his solo superstardom. Instead, the official video featured a montage of world events (mostly depicting the suffering of the world) while also serving as a homage to  selfless heroes like Mother Theresa and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps for this reason, the original 1988 video of the song fell a bit off the radar for me, as it did for many fans (I have to admit, I am selfish: When I watch a Michael Jackson video, I want to see Michael). For this reason, also, the video received a fair amount of scathing criticism from critics who simply either didn’t get it or evidently didn’t buy it as a sincere message (the video, if not the song). Instead, Michael was accused of simply being too lazy to do a “decent” video for the song, while, sadly, the actual message of the song and its connection to those visual images-not surprisingly-sailed right over their heads. As always, Michael was caught in a “no win” when it came to reconciling his superstar status with a genuine desire to inspire world change. If he appeared to make it all about himself (as he was accused of doing in his “Earth Song” performances) he was labeled as an egocentric with a messiah complex; if he stepped back and took himself out of the picture completely, as he did with the “Man in the Mirror” video, he was accused of being lazy. Perhaps for this reason, the original 1988 video of the song has long been eclipsed by his many great  live performances of the song,including Wembley and, most notably, his powerful 1988 Grammy performance . So watching the original video again really gave me a fresh perspective.

Aside from the obvious fact that Michael isn’t in the video, my biggest beef with the video (a belief I had held fast to for many years) had been that the images seemed contrived, rendering the powerful message of the song to a kind of trope cliche’. Perhaps it was the nature of the times. In the 1980’s we had become almost numb to the images of starving children in Africa, violent montages of war images and clips of rioting from the Civil Rights era. By the late 80’s, there was nothing especially fresh or revolutionary in such images, and most of us sat through the entire five minutes or so thinking, “Okay, so…when is Michael going to appear?” Re-watching it again in its entirety, however, for the first time in many years, I was struck by the way that Michael-as early as 1988-was already touching on many of the world themes that he would return to again on both Dangerous and HIStory. Additionally, the images of the video are truly graphic. We are seeing live children reduced to a skeletal state. In one image, a child’s stomach is painfully and hideously bloated (the telltale sign of starvation). In another scene, a child has died and is covered by a blanket. The song’s message is rendered as even more powerful when one realizes how many times we sat watching this video on MTV in our comfy living rooms and actually having the gall to complain because Michael Jackson wasn’t performing in it! Talk about being “too blind to see!”

Granted, I don’t know how much artistic control Michael actually had over the video or the clips and images chosen, but considering that the montage featured most of his personal heroes, as well as motifs that we know he returned to time and again, I can only assume that he had to have played a crucial role in those decisions. One thing that struck me on re-watching the video is just how prominently images of the KKK are featured (a theme he returns to again in this “Utopia” section of Dangerous with “Black or White) as well as clips of Hitler and the Nazi imagery he would delve into in more depth some years later on HIStory. So it is clear that, even many years before Dangerous and HIStory, he was already focusing on racial issues as a major source of the world’s problems. Another prominent motif of the video is both as a celebration of the great peacemakers of the world, but also as a grim reminder of the price most of them paid. The references to John Lennon are especially interesting. Lennon was not a politician, but at the time, in the late 1980’s, he was probably the closest thing we had to a true messianic pop figure. It’s hard to say whether Michael was already envisioning himself among that rank, but clearly it was an ideal he wanted to aspire to.

Michael With Yoko and Sean Lennon
Michael With Yoko and Sean Lennon

However, taking himself completely out of the video (and thus completely off of center stage and, indeed, out of the picture) served the same function as it seems to do, again, on “Heal The World.” The careless dismissal of a few ignorant critics aside, ultimately we can view this as a selfless act that was purposely done so that the focus could be on the message. And, dovetailing off the discussion of both “Heal The World” and “The “Man in the Mirror” video, I don’t think we can put this in the same category as, say, the “Cry” video many years later, in which Michael’s non-involvement was simply due to his dispute with Sony (and which resulted in the all-time lamest MJ video ever, a sad capstone to a remarkable and innovative video career). I’m sure they must have been thinking, “Well, it worked okay for ‘Man in the Mirror.'” Yes, but…if we go back and look, it becomes clear that “Man in the Mirror” wasn’t just a random montage of images, nor was it a simplistic “Hands Across the World” message (“Cry” is actually a pretty amazing song, but the video was pure crap slapped together by Sony).

Michael Was Always Caught In A "No Win"...If He Put Himself Front and Center, He Was Being "Egocentric." If He Removed Himself Completely In Order To Make It About "The Message" He Was Accused Of Being Lazy.
Michael Was Always Caught In A “No Win”…If He Put Himself Front and Center, He Was Being “Egocentric.” If He Removed Himself Completely In Order To Make It About “The Message” He Was Accused Of Being Lazy.

So one might argue that at least part of Michael’s intent with “Heal The World” was similar, in that the idea was to make it as less about himself as possible, and to give it over to the world stage.

Right before Fast’s passage where she refers to “Heal The World” as Michael’s “whitest” song ever, she also says this, which I think goes far in answering the very question she herself poses-why does Michael seem to hold back so much on this track, giving such a restrained and utterly conventional delivery (when we know he is capable of so much more?):

“It’s significant that in his central utopian song on Dangerous, he recedes to the background, letting children and the chorus (the community) present the vision…” (Fast 84). 

The second track of the “Utopian” section is “Black or White.” While Fast gives the track as thorough and insightful an analysis here as all the others, I won’t dwell on it too much simply because “Black or White” is already a track I have discussed here at great length, and I don’t wish to sound like a broken record by repeating much of what I have already discussed about the track in previous blogs. So I will just hit on what I consider the high points of her analysis of the track as it applies to the overall concept of Dangerous. 

The most interesting to me was the discussion of “Black or White” as an example of musical code switching. This is especially worth noting on a track whose entire theme is centered on the idea of racial harmony as a utopian ideal (if not entirely a realistic ideal, considering the song and video’s already well known undercurrent of racial tension).

That “Black or White” boasts a very distinct Stones-like riff has long been noted, but did you know exactly which Stones song boasted the riff that later evolved into “Black or White?” It was a song called “Soul Survivor” from Exile on Main Street! You can hear it pretty clearly by about the 1:03 mark on this video, and by the end of the track, it is quite clearly the same riff-or at least close enough that the organic evolution of “Black or White” can certainly be traced back to it.

But before the rock purists start howling, let’s put this in check. It’s a known fact that the Stones, like most blues based hard rock acts, had been appropriating black music for years. (It may also be worth noting that the Stones, who are notoriously one of the most vigilant acts when it comes to taking action against younger artists ripping them off-even down to the most miniscule riff- never raised a stink about this one.  Perhaps they knew best to let sleeping dogs lie! This seems to have been a case quite similar to ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” whose riff borrows blatantly from the Stones’s “Shake Your Hips” which, in turn, was a cover of Slim Harpo’s 1966 version, which borrows heavily from a John Lee Hooker riff and…well, you get the idea.

As Fast states, this has more to do with “re-appropriation” than appropriation, and it was very purposeful on Michael’s part. But that’s far from the whole picture.

“In contrast, one of the two middle sections of ‘Black or White’ belong to rap. What’s perhaps less often noticed is that the bass line is indebted to funk, not rock; that the music played underneath the opening dialogue is MOR rock, and that the middle section borrows stylistically from metal. ” (Fast 86).

This fascinating discussion of “musical code shifting” goes on at some length. Among the more interesting was Fast’s analysis of how Michael, as a black man, appropriates the predominantly white genre of heavy metal music to showcase rage. By contrast, the rap section of the song-performed by the very white Bill Bottrell (who never intended that his version would be the ultimate version used on the album)-seems curiously watered down and almost purposefully corny, as if to emphasize that this is white rap in all its unadulterated cheesiness.

Clearly, a big question hovers over this artistic decision. Why? It wasn’t as if no black rappers were available to do the segment, and on an album where Michael had used black rappers to great effect on other tracks, such as “Jam” and “She Drives Me Wild,” why was this historical segment left, as Fast says, to the voice of the “oppressor?”

In The Video, At Least, It Was Meant To Be Cheesy...That Was Part Of Its Charm!
In The Video, At Least, It Was Meant To Be Cheesy…That Was Part Of Its Charm!

It is an interesting question that is really left for us to interpret. Fast notes that it may represent that “Jackson liked the idea of upsetting the generic apple cart” but if we look at the video (and consider that even at the recording stage Michael was surely thinking ahead to the video concept) we could, perhaps, put it down to nothing more than Michael’s famous (and sometimes infamous) sense of humor. That particular segment of the video is portrayed in a very tongue-in-cheek and humorous way, as the “white kid” Macaulay Culkin lip synchs the rap segment. It is clearly intended as a light hearted moment in the video, in which we see what Barbara Kauffmann has stated as Michael’s allusion to “Kid Power” and the kind of rainbow unity that “Kid Power” represents.  In the video, it is clearly intended to be funny and a bit cheeky when Culkin’s “rap” begins, a kind of brief respite from the video’s darker and more serious undertones (within the space of a few seconds, we go from “I ain’t scared of no sheets” and images of burning crosses, to white and black kids singing and dancing together on a street corner). Not only would much of the intended humor of that moment be lost if Culkin were lip synching to a black artist’s rap, it would even be, perhaps, outright insulting. Long before the era of Eminem, Kid Rock, and other artists who would bring white rap to the mainstream, this was the era in which Vanilla Ice had made white rap into a bad joke (though I have to confess, “Ice Ice Baby” was and is still a guilty pleasure of mine; white or black, that song was just too darn catchy to not be a hit!). The point, however, is that I think on some level this may have been Michael’s way of taking a little wink and jab at the ludicrousness of white rap. At the same time, however, the song’s bigger message seems to be not so much a melting pot effect (as Fast notes, this is not a seamless blending of musical styles, but one in which attention seems to be unduly drawn to the blend) so much as it is a statement about musical brotherhood and its myriad possibilities.

There is much more, including a detailed analysis of the “Black or White” video but again, it is mostly ground that has been covered before, so in the interest of time I am going to move forward to the “Soul” chapter. However, it is worth noting that, in quoting Elizabeth Chin, Fast puts Michael’s Panther Dance sequence into the same tradition as black dream ballet.

“Chin’s argument is that black performers often ‘refrain from exploring their own versions of escape and wish fulfillment, versions that are likely to be at odds with those imposed by dominant society.’ They entertain for the pleasure of white audiences, setting aside their own dreams, tempering their artistry, or shaping it to please the audience. One of the functions of the black dream ballet is to offer the black artist a space in which s/he can express and dream on their own terms. The ‘panther dance’ is such a moment for Jackson.” (Fast 93). 

Katherine Dunham’s dance sequence from Stormy Weather:

SOUL

“The quartet of songs that follow ‘Black or White’ trace a path of torturous personal struggle and quasi-redemption; for me, this ‘cluster’ forms the heart and soul of the record. There is a profound turning inward. No more moralizing about the state of the world, no soul man machismo, no fraught utopias, no children-well, at least not until later. No noise, either. The first three songs display unmitigated and unhinged loneliness, despair, and longing, for which there appears to be little remedy.” (Fast 108-109). 

This chapter opens with a curious, but relevant and important detour from the music as Fast analyzes the artwork of the Dangerous cover. For sure, Dangerous definitely boasts the most cryptic art work of any Michael Jackson album. It was the first album which didn’t feature Michael on the cover, at least not in a typical and recognizable form. Whereas past albums had always featured a typical “star” photograph, the Dangerous album featured only the intense, staring eyes of Michael from behind a mask. Of course, his eyes were such an iconic feature that no one could mistake whose eyes were peering from behind that mask. But why?

dangerous-album-cover

Even by the time of Bad it was apparent that Michael’s presentation-both of himself and his music-was changing. We can practically gauge where he was “at” in his solo career just by looking at the album covers. For Off the Wall he was clearly selling himself, as a fully grown and adult artist who was in control. “Joyful” and “exuberant” are adjectives often used to describe the Michael Jackson of the Off the Wall era and those descriptors are not wrong. On Thriller, it was still evident that Michael was selling and promoting Michael. The album cover is simple, gorgeous, and iconic. It needed no embellishment, of course, because the music sold itself. By the time of Bad, the cover still features Michael but there is a marked change. He isn’t smiling and joyful, as on Off The Wall, and although he wasn’t smiling on the Thriller cover either, it was still in most regards a very stereotypical artist portrait. The message of those albums was clear: They had a good looking package to promote, and it made sense to promote it.

But along comes Bad and now it is clear that Michael is going “artsy.” He’s dressed in black leather, and not only is he not smiling, but is wearing a tough, staring-you-down scowl. No longer exuding “exuberance” or “joy,” now Michael was “Bad” and wanted us to know it.

By The 1970's, Cryptic Album Covers Had Become A Rite of Passage For Most Artists. It Was A Sign Of Having Evolved From Commercial Artist To "High Art."
By The 1970’s, Cryptic Album Covers Had Become A Rite of Passage For Most Artists. It Was A Sign Of Having Evolved From Commercial Artist To “High Art.”

By the time of Dangerous, Michael could pretty much indulge in whatever cover art he chose, and no one was going to be stupid enough to argue against what he wanted. Clearly, as the pattern of rock cover art has shown throughout the decades, the more artistic the content, generally the more cryptic and artistic the cover art. By the mid 70’s, most artists who took themselves and their music seriously were eschewing the idea of cover photos altogether-or at least photos of themselves.  Never again would a Michael Jackson album boast a simple photo of the star. With Dangerous, Michael had entered the realm of artistic hipness.

But what exactly did the cover art mean? For sure, we can glean a lot of interesting clues about Michael’s intended arch with the album by viewing the cover. Though Fast’s analysis of the cover art is rather exhaustive, her entire analysis can probably best be summed up by these lines:

“It’s meant to be read left to right, beginning in paradise and ending in hell, with a mass of humanity in various states of suffering.” (Fast 98). 

Interesting. I am not quite sure that Dangerous exactly begins in paradise, but its arch is definitely a descent into both personal and global suffering.

Of the four tracks discussed in this section, I found the discussions of “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” most fascinating, at least in terms of forcing me to think about the tracks in new ways. Again, we get the very detailed breakdown of each segment of the track, but what I especially like is how Fast is always examining how each track fits into the bigger piece, that being the album’s overall concept.

Far From Being A Tender Love Ballad, "Give In To Me" Is A Song That Advocates Inflicting Pain For Pain; More Rape Than Seduction
Far From Being A Tender Love Ballad, “Give In To Me” Is A Song That Advocates Inflicting Pain For Pain; More Rape Than Seduction

Taken back to back, “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” are collectively the darkest relationship songs Michael ever recorded (although Fast offers a very interesting interpretation of “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” which may take both tracks far beyond the realm of being just songs about a love gone bad). Michael had written dark songs about relationships before, but these go several steps beyond those of his usual “femme fatale” repertoire. In these songs, he is going far beyond merely casting himself as either the spurned lover or the usual kind of self castigating that comes with doing penitence after committing a sin of the flesh (both of which had become common tropes for him by this point). In these songs, he represents a protagonist who has suffered to the point of brutal retaliation. Even if we take “Give In To Me” literally as a song about a relationship between the protagonist and a woman, it is no simple love song. And though Michael’s many legions of female fans may swoon at lines like, “Give it when I want it/Quench my desire/because I’m on fire,” a deeper reading into the song reveals its brutal nature. This is a man who wants to hurt and abuse the woman who has hurt and abused him. Let’s look at the lyrics in their entirety (emphasis are mine):

She Always Takes It With A Heart Of Stone
‘Cause All She Does Is Throw It Back To Me
I’ve Spent A Lifetime
Looking For Someone
Don’t Try To Understand Me
Just Simply Do The
Things I Say

Love Is A Feeling
Give It When I Want It
‘Cause I’m On Fire
Quench My Desire
Give It When I Want It
Talk To Me Woman
Give In To Me
Give In To Me

You Always Knew Just How To Make Me Cry
And Never Did I Ask You Questions Why
It Seems You Get Your Kicks From Hurting Me
Don’t Try To Understand Me
Because Your Words Just Aren’t Enough

Love Is A Feeling
Quench My Desire
Give It When I Want It
Takin’ Me Higher
Love Is A Woman
I Don’t Wanna Hear It
Give In To Me
Give In To Me

You And Your Friends
Were Laughing At Me In Town
But It’s Okay
And It’s Okay
You Wont Be Laughing Girl
When I’m Not Around
I’ll Be Okay
And I’ll, I’ll Not Find
Gotta, The Peace Of Mind No

Don’t Try To Tell Me
Because Your Words
Just Aren’t Enough

Love Is A Feeling
Quench My Desire
Give It When I Want It
Takin’ Me Higher
Talk To Me Woman
Love Is A Feeling
Give In To Me
Give In To Me
Give In To Me

Love Is A Feeling
I Don’t Wanna Hear It
Quench My Desire
Takin’ Me Higher
Tell It To The Preacher
Satisfy The Feeling
Give In To Me
Give In To Me

I Don’t Wanna
I Don’t Wanna
I Don’t Wanna
Hear It
Give It To The Fire
Talk To Me Woman
Quench My Desire
I Don’t Like A Lady
Talk To Me Baby
Give In To Me

Give In To The Fire
Give In To Me
Give In To Me
Give In To Me…

This is no tender seduction, but a desire to rape. He wants the satisfaction and feeling of sweet revenge that comes from having physical power over her; to subdue her to his will.  Sex is being used as a weapon. Of course, if we look back to many of the romance novels of an earlier time, long before the rise of feminism and political correctness, the “seduction by rape” had long been a popular and very romantic trope. It was ideally believed that women secretly loved and responded to such brutality; it was a way to “win” a woman when all else had failed. Hollywood films, from Rudolph Valentino’s The Shiek to the famous scene of Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett up the stairs in Gone With the Wind, played on this theme. Just prior to the climactic rape scene in 1926’s The Son of the Shiek, Valentino’s character sneers to his female captive, “I may not be the first victim, but by Allah, I’ll be the one you remember.”

In the case of Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler made his intentions very clear. He felt justified in the moment after suffering years of emotional abuse from Scarlett, who was still holding on to the idea that she loved Ashley Wilkes, and had added further insult to injury by banishing Rhett-her husband-from the bedroom. Rhett tolerates the abuse for a long time, but one night, in a drunken rage, decides he wants to “hurt her as she has hurt me” (he confesses later when he is sober and contrite over his actions). Strangely enough, the rape, a brutal action, nevertheless serves as an important turning point in their relationship. Scarlett actually enjoys it (but feels guilty about it) and desires afterwards to become close to her husband again; Rhett, on the other hand, becomes so consumed by guilt after that night that he pushes her even further away.

However disturbing it may seem by today’s standards, the idea that a woman could be submitted to a man’s will by sexual submission seemed to hold a romantic sway over public imagination. In popular culture, through songs, plays, books, and films, society seemed to condone rape as an acceptable means of breaking the will and spirit of a “difficult” woman. (Of course, the fact that women swooned over the idea of being “ravished” by handsome swashbucklers like Valentino and Gable certainly didn’t do anything to dissuade that idea!). This  similar desire to hurt and brutalize-to punish-through physical submission is also at the heart of “Give In To Me.” And again, just as in those earlier versions, it is somewhat difficult to actually appreciate the brutality that is being advocated when those words are being crooned by the very wounded but drop dead sexy Mr. Jackson! Of course, what we don’t know is whether the protagonist is actually committing the action in the song, or only fantasizing about it.

If we consider the track as a direct sequel to “Who Is It,” however, the protagonist’s torment is easy to understand, and as he slides deeper into his bitterness and personal despair, it becomes easier to understand how he might lash out in dangerous and unhealthy ways.

Fast puts “Give In To Me” squarely within the tradition of the metal power ballad, but with a decidable twist.  While the track maintains all of the surface conventions of the genre, she goes on to state:

“But his aim is to mock the conventions of the genre, to, in his deep disillusionment, to spit in the face of its treacly sentiments. The woman in his lyrics is brutal; she’s not a source of comfort; doesn’t represent ‘home,’ doesn’t teach him the wonders of romantic love, doesn’t tame his machismo or quench his desire. He’s done nothing wrong, it seems, has nothing for which to repent (one of the things that women certainly responded to in other examples of this genre). There’s heartache but no sentimentality. There’s longing, but for sex, not romance. His grief and anger cause him to lash out-this is not supposed to happen in a power ballad.” (Fast 114). 

As I was re-watching the “Give In To Me” video to refresh my memory for this piece, it occurred to me just how comfortably Michael seems to meld into the metal genre, and how seamlessly he blends in with the metal musicians around him. In fact, if one didn’t know better, it could easily be assumed that this was any typical, hair metal band of the day with Michael as its lead singer. And, except for a few very subtle spins and a quick, Michael-esque “frisking” of himself, he really plays the part straight here, toning down his usual, familiar Michael Jackson moves to literally become an almost different persona (in a way that feels even more authentic to me than on “Dirty Diana” from four years before). Of course, the decision to film the video as a straight performance piece, while certainly a beautiful performance to watch, serves the purpose of watering down the song’s actual storyline (perhaps making it a bit more palatable) with all inferences to rape reduced merely to a few, cliched’ erotic images of a couple whom we see fleetingly (capped off by climactic, pyrotechnic explosions at the end just in case we still haven’t “got” that this is all about sex!). The erotic but simmering, brooding hostility of the storyline is actually conveyed here through the sheer power of Michael’s body language and expressions-perhaps in the end a very smart move, allowing the song’s message to be conveyed metaphorically rather than literally.

I also enjoyed Fast’s analysis of both videos, and agree with many of her assessments. Back to back, both “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” present an unusually subdued Michael, which is perhaps in keeping with the darker tone of both videos. It was unusual to get a Michael Jackson video with no dancing; now we suddenly had two in succession! I agree that, as far as the great canon of Michael Jackson videos go, “Who Is It” is certainly among the weaker offerings. It’s not a bad video by any means; just rather bland coming from the artist who was known for his groundbreaking videos. What Fast laments in this chapter-a sentiment in which I heartily concur-is that it was a shame that one of Michael’s most outstanding tracks on Dangerous did not really get a video that was worthy of its stark power. Michael looks great in it, of course, but he doesn’t dance and, what’s more, the storyline seems vague and disjointed. Again, it’s not bad; it’s just that there is nothing about the video that really stands out from hundreds of other similar videos of this ilk. Yet, as I was watching it again, I did notice some really interesting touches. For example, notice how we are introduced to Michael (from the woman’s perspective) at the :042 mark. We only see a glimpse of an unmistakably identifiable pair of black loafers, white socks, and high water pants. Traditionally, any glimpse of Michael’s feet has always been symbolic of magic and dance. But here the sight takes on a more ominous meaning. From the woman’s perspective, it means trouble, as one foot ominously taps to the beat (indeed, the scene invokes the feeling of stumbling upon a hit man who is patiently waiting). Throughout, his understated performance beautifully captures the moral dilemma of a soul in torment, pushed to the brink:

But is it possible that these two tracks, taken in sequence, could represent something much more than romantic/sexual angst? Fast offers an interesting interpretation that puts both squarely in line with the metaphysical themes of this “Soul” section.

“‘Who Is It’ and ‘Give In To Me’ are only about love and betrayal by a woman on the surface; the lyrics are sufficiently vague to call the identity of Jackson’s subject into question; ‘she’ and ‘woman’ can be viewed both as literal and metaphorical, about intimate relationships or relationships with the divine (I take this cue from Bono, who’s often said that ‘she’ in his lyrics refers to the Holy Spirit). I’ve wondered, for instance, if the ‘she’ in ‘Who Is It,’ the ‘she’ by whom the protagonist has been betrayed, is meant to signify the earthly church, by which promises were made and broken. I’ve wondered if the burning desire felt in the chorus of ‘Give In To Me’ is like that love the medieval mystics felt for Christ, described by them in erotic language (burning desire was not an unusual metaphor) that tried to capture how powerfully they felt.” (Fast 110). 

Whatever One's Opinion Of The "Who Is It" Video, It Can't Be Denied That Michael's Beautifully Understated Performance Captures  The Intensity Of A Soul In Agony, Wrestling With Moral Dilemmas
Whatever One’s Opinion Of The “Who Is It” Video, It Can’t Be Denied That Michael’s Beautifully Understated Performance Captures The Intensity Of A Soul In Agony, Wrestling With Moral Dilemmas

As I was reading the above passage, I immediately thought of the myriad of examples of poets who have described their relationship with God in erotic terms. An obvious example is John Donne’s “The Good Morrow,” in which he awakes with God in his bed as his “trothed”:

The Good-Morrow

BY JOHN DONNE

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
I also thought immediately of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest who wrote his beautiful poems in secret and who often used erotic language to describe his relationship with God:

Let me be to Thee as the circling bird,
Or bat with tender and air-crisping wings
That shapes in half-light his departing rings,
From both of whom a changeless note is heard.

I have found my music in a common word,
Trying each pleasurable throat that sings
And every praised sequence of sweet strings,
And know infallibly which I preferred.
Let me be to Thee as the circling bird.

The authentic cadence was discovered late
Which ends those only strains that I approve,
And other science all gone out of date
And minor sweetness scarce made mention of:
I have found the dominant of my range and state —
Love, O my God, to call thee Love and Love.
Yes, other science all gone out of date
Love, O my God, to call thee Love and Love.

So let me be to Thee as the circling bird,
Or bat with tender and air-crisping wings
That shapes in half-light his departing rings,
From both of whom a changeless note is heard.
Let me be to Thee as the circling bird.-Gerard Manley Hopkins

And in “At the Wedding March” Hopkins, like Donne, uses the metaphor of marriage to describe his union with the divine:

God with honour hang your head,
Groom, and grace you, bride, your bed
With lissome scions, sweet scions,
Out of hallowed bodies bred.

 

Each be other’s comfort kind:
Déep, déeper than divined,
Divine charity, dear charity,
Fast you ever, fast bind.

 

Then let the March tread our ears:
I to him turn with tears
Who to wedlock, his wonder wedlock,
Déals tríumph and immortal years. -Gerard Manley Hopkins

And then, of course, there is Walt Whitman’s famous, erotic romp with the divine in Part 5 of “Song of Myself”:

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.-Walt Whitman
If God Can Be A Lover, Then How Does One React When The Relationship Has Been Betrayed? When It Has Gone South?
If God Can Be A Lover, Then How Does One React When The Relationship Has Been Betrayed? When It Has Gone South?

It would stand to reason that, if poets have been using erotic language and romantic metaphors to positively describe their relationships with God for over seven hundred years, that the same erotic language and romantic metaphors could be applied to the relationship in negative terms. If God can be a lover, then how does one react when the relationship has been betrayed? When it has seemingly gone south? While I am not sure that I entirely buy this interpretation as it applies to “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me,” it is admittedly very interesting food for thought, especially as these tracks serve to set the stage for Michael’s great spiritual set piece of the album, “Will You Be There.”who-is-it(30)-m-2

“Will You Be There” is in many ways the capstone piece of the album’s arch (from here, it begins its loop back to the coda section of the album). Taken together, “Will You Be There?” and “Keep The Faith”  represent the pinnacle pieces of this spiritual journey. If these songs are, as noted earlier, more about coping than overcoming, at least there is finally some resolution; some sense that the bitter struggle is at its end.

It Was The Moment When Despair Turned To Hope...Or Something Like It
It Was The Moment When Despair Turned To Hope…Or Something Like It

Fast notes that Michael’s quote from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at the beginning of “Will You Be There” “may be ‘audacious but it is not gratuitous.'”  The quoted words from Beethoven, inserted before Schiller’s poem, offer an interesting clue, according to Fast, into Michael’s artistic process and the very conscious decision to place “Will You Be There” at this juncture of the album:

“Oh Friends, not these sounds. Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones.” (Beethoven qtd in Fast 117). 

This is truly interesting when we consider the “sounds” that have preceded much of “Will You Be There” on the album, especially the two tracks immediately preceding it! “Not these sounds” implies an almost outright rejection; a refusal to accept what has gone before in search of perhaps a more enlightened; certainly a more joyful, path.

In an article on the schillerinstitute.org website, taken from a Fidelio article published in 1993, I also found this quote:

Beethoven had finally found exactly the right line of music to express the developmental possibilities of Schiller’s concept of joy. Like the folk-tune which he had earlier adapted for the great choral finale of Fidelio, the melody is one of the utmost “popular” simplicity. By using such simple material and weaving it into higher and higher orders of complexity spanning the entire universe of human thought and feeling, Beethoven unfolded the message of human redemption which is implicit throughout Schiller’s Ode to Joy, and carries us, together with the cherub at the climax of the finale, until we “stand before God.”

http://www.schillerinstitute.org/fid_91-96/931_Schiller_Ode.html

And note this line from the English translation of Schiller’s poem:

Fire drunken we are ent’ring
Heavenly, thy holy home!

Clearly, not only the entire composition of “Will You Be There” but its very purposeful placing at this precise juncture of Dangerous indicates that Michael had studied these pieces deeply. After all of the agony, the darkness, the soul searching, we seem to be entering the “holy home.” According to Fast, Michael reinforces this theme with the return of a black gospel choir-the Andrae Crouch singers-and a return to the black gospel roots that seemed, for all practical purposes, to have been abandoned on “Heal The World.” The return to these roots, after all of the experimentation with “the high art tradition” is no doubt symbolic, representing a spiritual homecoming of sorts. This homecoming is intensified, not only by the presence of the choir, but by Michael’s most dramatic use yet of modulation. Fast notes that the song rises dramatically “from D major, to E, to F# and, finally G# (A flat). That’s a lot of rising up. And that is where the song ends-we don’t come back to the beginning, we’ve landed, fully, in this new key, this new territory. Risen up to it.” (121).

The song ends with a spoken prayer. Fast notes that not only is it highly unusual to hear Michael speaking on a record. but that the prayer itself indicates that, despite the high spiritual plane the song has risen to, he still “has not yet found comfort.” It is, as Fast notes, an acknowledgement of the singer’s humanity. But more than that, it serves as an acknowledgment of both the frailty and violence of that humanity (a nod, perhaps, to where he has been at previous points in the journey?). Throughout the prayer, Michael speaks in a low voice that is much closer to his natural tone, without the affections of artifice (as Fast states, he also sings much of the song in this lower register) and as I have stated before, we know that this was Michael’s way of signaling to us a kind of earnestness. While Michael could, at times, be guilty of treacly sentimentality, something in the stark and honest power of this prayer defies the kind of cynical criticism often heaped on him, for example, for crying during “She’s Out of My Life” (personally, I believe the sob was genuine on the record, but that he later learned how to milk it for dramatic effect). But this moment in “Will You Be There” strikes a very genuine and honest chord; indeed, that genuine honesty is its power. By the time his voice cracks at the end, it feels truly earned because you know he has lived those words, and that the fear of both spiritual and personal abandonment is very real.

Fast also spends a good deal of time analyzing the visual performance of “Will You Be There.” This piece became essential to Michael’s live performances during the Dangerous tour, as it represented his transition from the machismo persona of the show’s first half to the more spiritual/angelic and “feminine” persona of the second half. This persona seemed to signify the idea of spiritual awakening.

If Michael had chosen to end the Dangerous album here, with the spiritual zenith reached by “Will You Be There” and “Keep The Faith” that arch alone would have rendered Dangerous as a powerful spiritual journey. But instead, on an album that has been filled with unpredictable twists and turns, we do not end on this high. Instead, the artist plunges us back into the despair of loss and, finally, brings the journey full circle back to “noise.” Why is that? The answers, of course, are not clearcut, nor are they intended to be. But as she has done throughout the book, Susan Fast gives some very thought provoking insights that can, at least, help to decipher part of the question.

CODA

As discussed previously, “Will You Be There” and “Keep The Faith” do not so much offer true resolution as simply a ray of hope. If we have to endure terrible things in this life, it’s at least good to know that we’re not fighting alone. However, that doesn’t mean the fight is necessarily over, let alone won. In quoting Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” Michael reminded us that this was a respite so that we might partake in “more pleasing and more joyful” sounds. This is essentially the high art equivalent of Monty Python’s famous line, “And now for something completely different!” The tracks bring our thirst ravaged bodies to the trough to drink, but just when we are falsely lulled into a sense of Edenic security, we are gently (with “Gone Too Soon”) and, finally, rudely (with the title track “Dangerous”) brought back to the reality of a spiritual abyss.

Fast equates “Gone Too Soon” to a kind of surrender, and listening to it with her analysis fresh in my mind, I understand where she’s coming from. If “Gone Too Soon” seems to get a little short shrifted when compared to the vast amount of time spent on discussing other tracks in this book, there may be good reason. Just as the simplest poems can sometimes be the most challenging to analyze (due to the fact that their very simplicity and straightforwardness renders the very idea of analysis absurd) “Gone Too Soon” doesn’t seem to offer much beyond what it is on the surface-a simple and beautiful lament to the idea of loss. But what exactly is the loss? Because the song became early on almost synonymous with Ryan White (due to the video which featured him) it may be difficult now to separate that association to look for additional layers of meaning.

Michael and Ryan White
Michael and Ryan White

Its very laidback quality, however, may offer the most telling clues as to why it was placed chronologically after the very upbeat “Keep The Faith” and just prior to what Fast describes as “the sharp left turn” of the closing, final track. Just as Michael often sang in his lowest and/or grittiest ranges when his emotions were most raw and intense, he tended to sing at his most conventionally sweet (as he does here) when the purpose is to convey either acceptance, surrender, or a feeling of being at peace (which naturally comes both with acceptance and surrender). For example, Fast equates Michael’s vocal performance on “Gone Too Soon” to “She’s Out of My Life.” If we think back to “She’s Out of My Life” and the emotional state of the protagonist in that song, we recall that he, too, had arrived at a state of both acceptance and resignation. He is not fighting the fact that his lover is out of his life; he has accepted it, however begrudgingly, and however much it hurts. He is also using the song as an honest reflection of himself and his own actions-the things that led to her being out of his life.

In that same vein, “Gone Too Soon” has the same feeling of resigned acceptance; acceptance of what cannot be changed. Death is as inevitable as the rising moon; as the coming of night. In the context of Dangerous and all that has gone before, it could also represent an acceptance of spiritual death as well. At the very least, it is, as Fast suggests, a kind of “letting go.” As morbid as it sounds, the song conjures up a feeling of the kind of peaceful resolve that comes with greeting death after the agony and struggle of the fight, or the kind of eerily peaceful resolve that a person contemplating suicide often feels once the struggle of that decision has been made. The song is bittersweet in the sense that there is no comforting hint at a life beyond, in Heaven,something that even the most morbid hymns and Appalachian death odes almost always offered, with the idea being that even as we shake off our mortal coil, there is another home and another existence awaiting us, one where the hope of being reunited again can at least sustain us. But “Gone Too Soon” offers a much more secular, and perhaps, realistic view of death-we are born, we live here on earth for a brief while, and then we’re simply gone.

If this track was meant to end the main narrative of the record, as Fast theorizes, then it is indeed a downer. In a spiritual journey that has taken us through the bowels of hell to the pinnacle of a heavenly glimpse, we end it all with neither hope nor despair, but simply…surrender.

But surrender to what? To an inevitable and indifferent fate, in the best Darwinism fashion? To the darkness that has consumed us? To a world gone mad?

The title track returns us abruptly to the chaotic, industrialized world of “Noise” that opens the album. In taking this turn, Michael ends Dangerous on an upbeat note-with what is perhaps one of his greatest “femme fatale” songs-but at what cost?

“Musically, the reappearance of noise and a heavy, industrialized groove signals a return to the fight, to disruption, to agitation of the status quo; his breath is part of the noise-growling, grunting, sharp exhalations of breath. Who needs words to convey the idea that you’re out to create trouble?” 

So perhaps, on that note, Dangerous does not so much end with apathy and surrender, as with a return to the fight. Another possible interpretation (if I may be excused my venturing out on a limb here): Perhaps, having come through all of the darkness and spiritual soul searching of the album’s second half, he is now more empowered to face the fight? This would seem to nullify the message of “Gone Too Soon” but, by the same token, this is an album, as already noted, full of unexpected twists and abrupt left turns. Perhaps, like Prometheus, he has returned with the power of fire. That would indeed be quite “Dangerous!”

I have only one small complaint with this section of Fast’s book (yes, this is still a review, in case you’ve forgotten!). She refers to the segment of Michael’s live MTV performance when the line is heard “You know you want me” as Michael himself speaking in a “gender ambiguous voice.” Surely Fast should be able to recognize the voice of Michael’s own sister Janet! I’m sure there isn’t much to be read into the use of the line; it was most likely a little joke between the two of them, and again, an example of Michael’s sometimes cheeky sense of humor.

After coming through 133 pages of analysis, we are left with a lot to chew on regarding what was, at the time, Michael’s most politically and musically ambitious album to date (and some still argue as to whether HIStory truly eclipsed it). The album is, as Fast states, “a monumental album” which revealed Michael Jackson “as a fully mature artist, no longer content with commercial success, ready to launch himself into the minefields of contemporary politics and subjectivities.” (132).

This was clearly a new Michael that had emerged in 1991-angrier, hungrier, hornier, and more dangerous than ever before. But also, one who was willing to bear his wounds openly and honestly for all to witness. It could not have been an easy journey to live, much less to write and record. And for sure, it is not necessarily an easy journey for the listener, even with all of its upbeat moments. But it stands, without doubt, as an artistic triumph. Is it Michael’s greatest album? That would certainly be up for debate. But for sure, it has stood the test of time as one the best album of the 1990’s decade, and its official recognition as such is long overdue.  I applaud Susan Fast again for this momentous undertaking. This is not just an important book for fans, but an important book for anyone who has a serious interest in understanding how and why this album may have more to teach us now, nearly a quarter of a century after its release, than it did in 1991.

Michael’s Boys: A Month of Milestones

blanket and princeI had to take a sidetrack from discussing the Susan Fast book and Dangerous to acknowledge this as a month of milestones for Michael’s two boys. Prince turned 18 today, and just a little over a week from now, Blanket will be turning 13.

prince-and-blanket

There are a couple of things that can make me feel really old-well, maybe three. One is realizing that grunge music is now “classic rock.” Another is anytime I happen past a supermarket tabloid to see Prince William and Kate with baby George. Goodness, it seems like only yesterday that those same tabloid covers were filled with pics of William as a swaddling baby in Diana’s arms!

And the third thing…realizing that Michael Jackson’s firstborn is now an adult! And yes, just like with William, it seems like only yesterday that we were hearing the news that Michael was a father-to-be.

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Michael’s three kids have been through a lot since that tragic day almost six years ago when they lost the center of their world, but they have weathered the toughest of those storms and have emerged all the stronger for it.  Now, the day that so many fans have longed to see has arrived. Prince is a legal adult, and from this day forward, will be taking the reigns as his own man. Finally, at least some of those never ceasing concerns over the children’s welfare can finally be laid to rest. Prince can now take charge of his decisions and, I am sure, will continue to look out for his younger siblings’s best interests.

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As Prince embarks on the road to adulthood, his baby brother Blanket will soon be reaching a milestone of his own: On February 21, he becomes a teenager. Since Michael was apparently so very much into planned parenting, and rarely did anything by happenstance (it seems he was as much of a perfectionist about parenting as he was with everything else in his life) one can’t help but wonder if he planned it this way on purpose, so that as his eldest embarked upon the throne of adulthood, he could help lead his little brother across that troublesome threshold of teenhood. For sure, becoming a teenager can be the most exciting time in a child’s life. But it also comes with its share of problems. In Blanket’s case, I can’t think of any better support system than what he has in his two siblings, Prince and Paris.

blanket14

Of Course, As We All Know, Blanket Has Already Been Perfecting His Teenage Angst Scowl For Years!
Of Course, As We All Know, Blanket Has Already Been Perfecting His Teenage Angst Scowl For Years, LOL!

Lastly, I cannot feel completely right to rejoice in these milestones for Michael’s children while knowing that, as of this writing, Bobbi Kristina Brown is still fighting for her life. But for the grace of God, Paris could have ended up in a similar fate in 2013, and I am thankful every day that Michael’s beautiful baby girl is still with us. People tend to forget that it’s a tough life for celebrity children, and especially those who have lost their parents far too young. Imagine trying to grieve, and at the same time working your way through all the up’s and down’s of adolescence, beneath the constant, unforgiving glare of the spotlight!

Recent Photo Of Paris: Still Beautiful; Still Surviving
Recent Photo Of Paris: Still Beautiful; Still Surviving

We can be thankful that all three of Michael’s beautiful children have made it through that storm. That isn’t to say that troubles and dark times won’t lie ahead. But every milestone reached is another notch carved, a reminder that love and strong family ties can help to heal all wounds.

Sketch Of Prince Testifying At His Father's Death Trial. It's Not An Easy Life For The Young Children Of Deceased Celebrities. Money Doesn't Replace A Parent's Love.
Sketch Of Prince Testifying At His Father’s Death Trial. It’s Not An Easy Life For The Young Children Of Deceased Celebrities. Money Doesn’t Replace A Parent’s Love.

Here’s wishing a very happy birthday month to Michael’s two beautiful, young men (I can’t say “boys” anymore!) and a warm embrace to all three. We love you, PP&B!

pp&b

Susan Fast’s “Dangerous”: A Review (Part 4-Utopia)

Superbowl Time Always Brings A Resurgence Of Interest In Michael's Legendary Superbowl Performance-And No Discussion Of It Can Be Complete Without Acknowledging That Astounding Finale Performance of "Heal The World"
Superbowl Time Always Brings A Resurgence Of Interest In Michael’s Legendary Superbowl Performance-And No Discussion Of It Can Be Complete Without Acknowledging That Astounding Finale Performance of “Heal The World”

“Black dreams are not about utopia-how could they be?” (Elizabeth Chin qtd in Fast).

UTOPIA

Since it has been so very long since my last post, and because all of the attention to this weekend’s Superbowl has (as it inevitably does this time of year) brought a resurgence of interest in Michael Jackson’s legendary Superbowl performance, this seemed an especially timely opportunity to turn the discussion to another of Michael’s most endearing yet often most maligned and misunderstood tracks-“Heal The World.” After all, no discussion of Michael’s 1993 Superbowl performance can be complete without also remembering that jaw dropping finale. And the fact that all of this Superbowl timeliness just happens to also coincide with my review of Susan Fast’s “Utopia” chapter from Dangerous is, well, too good and too convenient to pass up. So even though the post is not “as” complete as I would like it to be at this time,  which will no doubt necessitate extending it to another post, I would at least like to get the topic rolling without further ado.

So, after six tracks of some of the hardest hitting, angriest, sexiest, and street savvy songs of Michael’s career, the pendulum abruptly takes a far right swing with “Heal The World.” Such an abrupt shift of tone, mood, and subject matter is exactly the very thing that led many critics, as well as a lot of fans, to label Dangerous as an uneven album. But this was a trend that Michael would continue to pursue-almost with a vengeance, it seemed-on every subsequent album thereafter. Since this seemed such a purposeful pattern, perhaps it is high time we stopped being so quick to rush to judgment (assuming this was all merely part of some ego-driven desire to stuff an album with everything but the kitchen sink) and take a closer look at the album’s overall concept; the master’s design, if you will.

Fast refers to “Heal The World” as the beginning of Michael’s “Utopia” segment of Dangerous. Whereas the album’s first six tracks hit like a harsh, brazen dose of reality, this track is a throwback to escapism, or what Fast refers to as a utopic desire for a better way. It is escapism in the sense that it is presenting an ideal, rather than “what is.” And this is true regardless of whether we are talking Michael Jackson’s “Heal The World” or John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I choose those two songs to juxtapose in particular because, while critics often praise the Lennon composition, Michael’s “Heal The World” has traditionally been derided as nothing more than sentimental pap. Yet they are both espousing the same idealistic and escapist view, asking the listener to envision what “could be” if we all worked together to make it so. In fact, I would go one better and say that Michael’s composition actually has the upper hand, since he is advocating real action (even if albeit non-specific action) rather than merely daydreaming, or “imagining” that better world.

heal the worldBut this goes right back to the point Fast is making, or at least the point that dominates much of this chapter’s opening. While critics often lambasted Michael’s music as serving no artistic purpose other than “escapism” they seem to have been conveniently forgetting just how deeply rooted those ideals of utopic escapism are in both pop culture and, indeed, our human psyche. The artificial divide between art and entertainment as an “either/or” (that it must provide either escapism on the one hand, or have a social conscious on the other, and that both must be somehow mutually exclusive) is, perhaps, the very barrier that Michael most sought to eradicate-and which, for that effort, he was most unforgiven. That the desire to be swept away to a “better place” is a basic fundamental human drive, perhaps one that is vitally necessary to our mental and spiritual health, is something Michael definitely recognized.

“Where would be without a dance, a song?”-Michael Jackson, Harlem speech, 2001

Of course, it’s not that I don’t entirely “get” why some critics may have had a hard time warming up to “Heal The World.” It’s straightforward earnestness and even simplistic (though purposely simplistic) structure immediatly put it at odds with a very jaded and cynical culture, and as Joe Vogel and other music critics have already pointed out, the 90’s in general was not a time openly receptive to earnest messages. Personally, I prefer the much darker, baroque, and dystopian vision of “Earth Song.” However, perhaps in keeping with the vision that Michael had for Dangerous, it becomes easier to understand why “Heal The World” ultimately became the album’s centerpiece, and not “Earth Song” which would eventually find its home on the much darker themed HIStory album instead.

I often find it somewhat puzzling, in both a sad and ironic kind of way, that as a Michael Jackson fan my probably least two favorite compositions by him are the ones he seemed most personally proud of-“Childhood” and “Heal The World.” As a critical music fan, I know that Michael composed songs that were far superior to these, both lyrically and musically, so sometimes it’s hard to fathom why Michael seemed to view these as superior to all the rest.

In that regard, Susan Fast and I are very much on the same page as she writes in this passage:

“…Jackson claimed in an internet chat with his fans in 2001 that if he could only perform one of his songs for the rest of his life, this [“Heal The World”] would be it. And the trouble is, it doesn’t sound like an ironic statement. Really, out of all the astonishingly good music, this takes pride of place? My take is that ‘Heal The World’ serves as an important thematic pivot point on Dangerous, moving the listener from the wordly, noisy complications of the opening tracks into a somewhat troubling vision of utopia.” (Fast 77-78). 

But Michael did seem to feel that these kinds of songs came closest to capturing the essence of who he was, and that is no small thing to overlook. “Heal The World,” if anything, most represented Michael’s ideal of himself and of the world-the best of what both could be.  It makes sense, then, that if he could only perform one song for the rest of his life, which would he prefer? Something that took him to some very dark and troubled place, or something that reminded him of everything he most yearned for, and that could likewise empower others to strive for a perfect world? Given the option of only one song to perform for eternity, would you prefer bliss or torment?

Michael's Social Commentary Songs Represented The Best of Himself-The Ideals He Strove For In Himself, And Us
Michael’s Social Commentary Songs Represented The Best of Himself-The Ideals He Strove For In Himself, And Us

It reminds me of a very enlightening debate I once read between a Michael Jackson critic and a fan. The critic was going on and on about how, in his view, Michael was a hypocrite who didn’t exactly walk his talk. He went on about how Neverland was basically a carbon footprint on the land; how many resources were actually used in shooting the “Earth Song” video, how Michael was whisked around the world on private jets, and so forth. In other words, he didn’t exactly give up the superstar lifestyle to become a farmer grubbing in the dirt (but then again, could we not apply the same argument to all the celebrities who are involved in environmental causes?). Anyway, the fan managed to come back with a very good point, that while it may be easy to beat Michael up for his very human flaws (which, perhaps, sometimes did conflict with his idealistic, utopian views) what ultimately matters is not what Michael did or didn’t do. It was the ideals he set for himself-and the idealistic vision he strove to achieve for humanity-that defines who he was, and why he remains so universally loved, with millions of fans all over the world striving to live by his example. It’s not because he was perfect, or expected/demanded perfection in us, but rather, because he showed us the best in ourselves and what we are capable of being.

This was the message I took from his piece “That One In The Mirror,” in which he seems to recognize that the “one” in the mirror doesn’t always live up to his ideals. It is actually one of my favorite pieces by him because I think it is one of his most brutally honest:

“Wishing wouldn’t make it so-I knew that. When I woke up the next morning, that one in the mirror looked confused. ‘Maybe it’s hopeless,’ he whispered. Then a sly look came into his eyes, and he shrugged. ‘But you and I will survive. At least we are doing all right.'”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from “That One In The Mirror.”

As the piece progresses, he acknowledges a kind of separate detachment from himself and the image in the mirror. One feels the problems that are “out there”; the other merely “sees” the problems that are “out there” but doesn’t wish to acknowledge them.

“That one in the mirror winced and squirmed. He hadn’t thought so much about love. Seeing “problems” was much easier, because love means complete self-honesty. Ouch!”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from “That One in the Mirror.”

Here Michael seems to be facing and acknowledging multiple truths about himself. One seems to be a recognition that he has, perhaps, been more caught up in a faceless ideal-“I’m going to heal the world”-rather than honestly addressing his own needs for love, nurturing, and fulfillment. (You know the old adage: You can’t help others until you can help yourself. This seems to be a variation of that theme). Also, it appears to be an honest admonition of taking up causes, perhaps, for the wrong reasons, because it’s the “trendy” thing to do, perhaps, or enhances his own image. But that is only one side of the duality, as he is examining two halves of himself-one is an image that is being looked at from within; the other, an image that is being looked at from without. One acknowledges that what he feels for the world-its pain, its suffering, is all too real.

“He’ll get along. But I don’t feel that way. Those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ not really. I feel them inside me. A child crying in Ethiopia, a sea gull struggling pathetically in an oil spill, a mountain gorilla being mercilessly hunted,a teenage soldier trembling with terror when he hears planes fly over: Aren’t these happening in me when I see and hear about them?”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from “That One in the Mirror.”

B8dfVv1IIAENWXsEventually, in the poem, the image and the man merge as one. This, too, of course, is a representation of an ideal. The reality is that, as human beings, it is a day to day struggle to live to our fullest potential, or even to those ideals we set for ourselves. But I think what we have to keep in mind is that this ideal is sincerely who Michael wanted to be; what he strove to be, and, ultimately, wanted to be remembered as-not as some deity, saint, or martyr; not as some perfect man who healed the world with a song and a dance (and a few generous checks), but as a human being who dug deep within, who suffered much and sacrificed much, to give the world the best part of himself, even if he occasionally fell short.

But to return to the topic of “Heal The World,” the Dangerous album and Fast’s book, it is interesting that she chooses to refer to the tracks analyzed in this chapter (“Heal The World” and “Black or White”) as Michael’s “somewhat troubling vision of utopia.” Within the larger context of the album, however, this description makes sense. These tracks are placed squarely at the center of the album, a jarring and disconcerting shift (especially “Heal The World”) from the six tracks that have gone before, and only a momentary respite before we are plunged again into soulful despair with “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” and the album’s coda which takes us back to the beginning. And, as we know, even the somewhat beguiling optimism of “Black or White” turns into a kind of false utopia, as it seems to acknowledge that racial harmony is really only an ideal (the catchy chorus aside, we know that by the time we get to the KKK references that this is no song about merely joining hands and singing “Kumbaya” but rather, a brutally honest statement about the ugly realities that will never allow this ideal to be fully realized).

Fast is probably correct, then, that “Heal The World” is meant to serve as both transition and respite. It is a momentary break from the world’s ugliness and reality, and also a momentary break from the more mundane and selfish concerns that have dominated much of the album-including love and sex, though one could certainly argue that even those themes could be utopic as well (for they are still representing a kind of escapism to some ideal place or state of being, at least in the “desire” songs that dominate much of the album’s first half).

Nevertheless, this transition represents the pattern, or motif, that will dominate most of Michael’s albums and all of his live performances thereafter, where the fun and good times eventually gives way to the serious, and where hard-bitten, human and personal emotions like anger and lust transcend to concern for the planet and humanity in general.

However, it is interesting that on Dangerous, at least, this transcendence is fleetingly brief. In performance, Michael often capped with “Heal The World” and “Man In The Mirror,” the tracks working together to create a kind of ultimate pinnacle for the audience, so that in the end, the concert becomes a truly uplifting and transitory experience. On record, however, Michael chose not to make “Heal The World” its closing track, but rather a song squarely in the middle. This would indicate that the intended arc of the Dangerous album is not one that is intended to take listeners to that pinnacle (as in the case of the live performances) but, rather, to offer it to them only as a kind of teasing interlude-a temporary oasis of hope in a world otherwise gone mad.

A pattern Fast establishes throughout her book is to begin every chapter with an appropriate quote. For this chapter, she chose the Elizabeth Chin quote which does seem fitting when we consider why Michael’s utopian segment of Dangerous also happens to be its shortest segment. After all, when John Lennon urged us to “Imagine” he had never lived a day in a black man’s shoes. Michael had-his entire life, in fact, and therein lies a crucial difference between the two artists that cannot be ignored, no matter how much modern scholars and revisionists may try to equate them. On Dangerous, at least, there emerges a somewhat disconcerting realization that any concept of “healing the world” may be a temporary and fleeting ideal, at best. It also raises an interesting question: Could it be that the pairing of “Heal The World” and “Black or White” are actually much more pessimistic representations of utopia than have been presumed?

To even raise the question is problematic because it seems that “Heal The World” is a track operating on two distinct levels of meaning-one as a separate track unto itself, and the other it may have as part of the overall context of the album and the album’s concept.  A lot may depend, ultimately, on how one interprets the remaining tracks that follow “Heal The World.” However, with perhaps the exception of “Keep the Faith.” the remaining tracks, rather than offering the easy transcendence of having found “a better way,” instead plunge us back to the depths of individual despair. Even “Keep The Faith” seems to be a message about holding on and “keeping the faith” that things may turn out better, rather than expressing any idealistic belief that they are better or likely to be better. In both “Keep The Faith” and “Will You Be There” the theme seems to be more about coping than, as we say, “rising above.” Faith can indeed help us to cope with suffering; to become stronger so that the suffering doesn’t pull us under.  But faith, in and of itself,  can’t “fix” what the problem is.

The Tracks That Follow "Heal The World" Seem To Hammer Home One Essential Point-Faith Can Help One To Cope, But It Cannot "Fix" The Problem.
The Tracks That Follow “Heal The World” Seem To Hammer Home One Essential Point-Faith Can Help One To Cope, But It Cannot “Fix” The Problem.

So where does that leave us in regard to “Heal The World?” This is an interesting question that I will continue to delve into in the next installment.

Susan Fast’s “Dangerous”: A Review (Part 3-“Desire”)

in the closet“The first time that noise gives way on Dangerous is at the beginning of ‘In the Closet;’ the calm doesn’t last for long…” (Fast 49).

Indeed, “In the Closet” was such a groundbreaking video for Michael Jackson, in so many ways, that it almost deserves its own chapter within any discussion of Dangerous. And it is now virtually impossible to separate the erotic, visual imagery of the video from the track. However, if we step into a time machine and turn the clock back to November of 1991, when many fans and listeners would have first heard the track after rushing out to buy Dangerous, there was as yet no visual imagery to connect with the song. But even without the well known images of Michael and supermodel Naomi Campbell frolicking in the desert,  the composition alone is enough to set an undeniable tone of eroticism.  Fast describes the track’s somewhat beguiling, soft opening as a foray into the “feminine,” which then gives way to the industrialized, hard beat, creating the tension and juxtaposition of these forces (the masculinity of the industrial beat and feminism of the spoken sections)that will dominate the track. I find it interesting that she references the song’s distinct Middle Eastern feel. I, too, have often noted that the track has a unique, Middle Eastern vibe.  In timbre, it has the feel of an Arabian Beledi number (in common lay terms, that is belly dance!). Such a beat, in and of itself, is more than enough to set a thematic tone of erotic desire. (On more than one occasion, I have heard “In the Closet” referred to as the ultimate lap dance number!). Add to that the element of a forbidden romance, and the dark tension that compels the track is bound to start sizzling.

Although there is nothing really ambiguous about the track, the video, combined with all the usual questions about Michael Jackson and sex, created a lot of speculation, not the least of the controversies stemming from the track’s title.

“People were understandably puzzled by Jackson’s use of the expression ‘in the closet’ to characterize a straight relationship and one has to admit that this is tantalizingly confusing, more so because in a way, this is a kind of ‘coming out’ song for Jackson even as he’s talking, ambiguously, about keeping things in the closet-coming out, that is, as interested not only in romance but sex, as a willing, even aggressive participant, not betrayed by and fearful of some femme fatale and, unbelievably to some, as straight.” (Fast 51-52).

Michael "in the closet"...literally!
Michael “in the closet”…literally!

I have often thought that people tried to read too much into the title, especially in trying to equate it to what is only a relatively recent definition of the phrase. The term as used to define a gay person hiding his/her sexual identity has been in use since the 1960’s, according to most etymology sources of the phrase, but the term “in the closet” as used simply in the sense of hiding a dark secret-any dark secret-dates back at least to the 19th century. According to most sources I have checked, the phrase most likely has roots in the even older phrase “skeletons in the closet” which usually refers to some dark, hidden secret or source of shame that a person keeps hidden. Michael is clearly (at least judging by the song’s lyrics and video concept) using the phrase in its original context, to mean a shameful thing that must be kept hidden away. Fast notes that in the video his character wears a wedding ring, which would indicate that he is a married man trying to avoid the temptations of an exotic seductress. Thus, the thing that is “in the closet” is his adultery. Not exactly a deep story line to figure out, although we have to assume that Michael was surely aware of the phrase’s more current meaning and perhaps, thus, intentionally played up that ambiguity. (This would have been in keeping with Madonna’s alleged concept of the song, which would have involved her and Michael role playing as an androgynous couple in drag! And although it may sound ludicrous in theory, this wasn’t too far removed from the concept he would actually use a few years later with his sister Janet in the “Scream” video).

In this 1992 clip on the making of “In the Closet” Naomi Campbell gives Cindy Crawford a pretty straightforward explanation of exactly what the song’s title means:

Although “In the Closet” certainly wasn’t Michael’s first foray into portraying himself as blatantly sexual in a video, it may indeed mark the first time that we see him in what appears to be, on screen, a fully developed, adult, erotic relationship. Remember that even in “The Way You Make Me Feel,” his steamy cat-and-mouse chase with Tatiana ends with a hug. A lot of us were going, WTF? All of that trouble for a frickin’ hug? Whatever one can say about Michael’s romp with Naomi Campbell in “In the Closet,” we can pretty much safely say that these characters are not going to end things with a hug. In fact, at one particularly steamy point in the video, there is even a moment of implied oral sex! If you never noticed it before, watch closely at the 4:53 mark. Clearly, we are to believe that Campbell’s character was up to something “down there” as the camera follows her body on its slow, sensual shimmy upward, and we can probably safely say she wasn’t admiring his boots.  (A bit of this shot is also briefly inserted at an earlier point in the video, around 2:37. But at 4:53, when everything stops and slows down to nothing but the sound of that clock ticking, is where it gets really extended, and really sexy!).

We Just Knew Things Were Not Going To End With A Hug...Not THIS Time!
We Just Knew Things Were Not Going To End With A Hug…Not THIS Time!

The entire track is built around a series of intermittent moments of building tension and release. “Frustrated desire” and/or “unfulfilled desire” are phrases often used for describing Michael Jackson’s more erotic numbers. Here there is still that element to some degree, because he doesn’t want to “go there” and is fighting it. In that regard, I do not entirely agree with Fast as I see “In the Closet” as being not terribly different from other songs in the Jackson femme fatale category. He is still trying to resist an illicit relationship that he doesn’t want to be in, or at least that he clearly recognizes as wrong. That he’s clearly on the losing side of this battle is no big surprise, either; in the past, it was usually clear that the “Billie Jeans” and “Dirty Dianas” of his repertoire had the upper hand. We always got the sense that, being a man and a vulnerable creature of flesh and blood he was going to give in. But then that moment of “giving in” would be followed by the inevitable “forty days and forty nights” of self-castigation. (I would actually cite “Give In To Me” as perhaps the best example where Michael breaks the lust-followed-by-self castigation cycle, a “desire” track that Fast discusses in depth a bit later in the book).

But perhaps what does differentiate “In the Closet” is the degree of fulfillment as opposed to thwarted desire. Both the music and Michael’s vocal performance leave little doubt that we are meant to interpret this as a fully consummated relationship.

“The chorus collapses twice just, it seems, as it’s about to take off-aborted attempts at fulfillment, joy, release. The third time the music of the chorus takes flight and is allowed to develop, to ‘simmer.’ Jackson’s repeated ad libs culminate in his trademark ‘hee hee’ signifying here in a profoundly different way than it ever has before-as surrender, capitulation, and fulfillment: usually this vocal gesture comes as a sharp interjection, all bravado, control, affirmation of the music’s energy and power. Here, it rounds out his series of ad libs, using his last bit of breath: a haunting, the release of a former, younger self…” (Fast 51).

In her analysis of the video, Fast again aptly deconstructs a lot of the shortsighted nonsense that, for too long, has been the accepted critical narrative, both of this video and most all others that have featured Michael interacting either erotically or romantically with female leads. She is lead at one point to raise the question, in almost perplexed exasperation: “Were we watching the same film?”

Indeed, there is nothing remotely “awkward” about the pairing of Michael and Naomi Campbell. They seemed to have had a natural chemistry that Herb Ritts was able to capitalize on via his beautiful cinematography (and I will have much more discussion of Ritts and his particular influence in just a bit). Campbell was said to have been flirting quite blatantly with Michael throughout the shoot. In the clip posted above, she admitted she wanted to kiss him. And if one story was to be believed, she was willing to take it much further than that!

Back in 2010, I did a post on this video shoot in which I related a story that had been passed down from Michael’s makeup artist Karen Faye. Since those posts are a bit difficult to access directly now, I will reprint that particular part of the post below:

From Allforloveblog, July 3, 2010:
It may have only lasted for as long as the video cameras were rolling, but the chemistry we saw between Michael and Naomi Campbell in 1992’s steamy “In The Closet”-definitely one of the sexiest romps to ever be captured on camera-was very real. At least, we know from Naomi’s end that she would have liked to have carried it “beyond” the cameras. Michael was somewhat more evasive on the subject, but if you observe the photos and body language from the video shoot-well, let’s just put it this way: He obviously wasn’t hating it.

The video conjures up every reason why average people love to hate celebrities. Imagine getting paid big bucks just to romp around in an exotic desert setting with a half-clothed Naomi Campbell, or Michael Jackson at the peak of his sexiest era,and with a bod more ripped than we’d ever been privileged to see before!

It was the one time that Michael actually hit the gym for a video shoot, as well as the studio, and the results were…ooh lala stunning. And with his hair pulled back completely from his gorgeous, chiseled face, we finally got to see some of those fine Native American features that normally our eyes were never drawn to. No wonder Naomi was sprung! And according to Michael, the primitive desert heat was “exciting.” Yes. Especially when you have Naomi sashaying around in that little white skirt!

Well, there’s a funny story I heard that I’m going to relate to you, and no, I cannot verify it with a link-sorry. Just trust me on this. I heard it from a reliable source, and there has been some debate as to whether the story was true or exaggerated. But regardless of whether you believe it or not, the story is hilarious. It goes like this:

Michael comes off the set of In The Closet and into the makeup trailer. He seems very agitated; a little embarrassed and upset. Karen Faye asks what’s wrong.

“Naomi,” Michael says. “She keeps talking dirty to me.”

Karen: “Tell her to stop.”

Michael: “She won’t.”

Karen: “Tell her again.” She goes on to tell him he has to be more aggressive and forceful.

A little while later, Michael is back again. Still upset with Naomi. “She won’t stop. She keeps talking dirty.”

Karen: ‘Well what exactly is it she’s saying?”

Michael: “I can’t tell you. It’s too bad to say.”

At this point (again, I’m merely repeating the story as it was told) Karen is almost amused and making a joke of it. She tells Michael he’s a big boy and should be able to handle the situation. “Tell her to stop doing it.” Sometime later, Michael is back again, still complaining about Naomi and her “nasty” talk. Again, Karen asks what exactly is it that she’s saying. Finally badgered into confessing, Michael looks very embarrassed and says, “She said she wants to suck my dick.”

Karen: “Well you tell her I said she can’t.”

Personally, I don’t know what to make of the story. It’s funny, but I have a hard time buying that Michael would have been too awkward and naive to handle the situation himself. Nor do I particularly buy that he would have been that offended at the idea of  being talked dirty to by a woman (I frankly don’t know many men who would be). It is possible that, with his sense of humor, he enjoyed the prospect of pitting the women against each other, just to watch the cat fur fly! In all of the “making of” videos, his body language with Naomi seems very relaxed, playful, and naturally flirtatious-not exactly the body language of someone who is feeling sexually harassed. But whatever the case-whether it was mutual attraction or one fueled by unrequited tensions, the chemistry between them was very real, and very palpable on camera. 

It is also interesting to note that in the video clip I originally posted with that piece, the reporter who was covering the shoot had absolutely no qualms and no reservations about stating it as Michael’s “sexiest video ever.”

“Michael is generating more heat than the desert sun in his sexiest video ever…”-Media reporter covering the “In the Closet” shoot.

Fast also credits much of the video’s eroticism to the vision of director Herb Ritts. Stylistically, “In the Closet” bore similarities to other sexy videos Ritts had directed, including Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.”

Since Fast devotes a good deal of space to discussing the role of Herb Ritts’s vision and his contribution to the shoot, the discussion here likewise cannot be complete without it. Ritts not only specialized in erotic visual imagery, but seemed to have a knack for bringing out a special kind of sensuality in his male subjects. It may be worth noting that many of Michael’s most alluring videos and photo shoots through the years were either those done by women, or by gay male photographers, so it may not be entirely surprising that Ritts, a gay man, was able to bring to the table an especial awareness of Michael’s erotic appeal.in the closet2

It was Ritt’s vision, after all, that dominated much of the video’s storyline and imagery, including the new, exotic look that Michael sported for the shoot (the pulled back hair; the wife beater t-shirt; jeans and boots instead of the usual floods and loafers).

However, regardless of how much of the video’s vision may be credited to Ritts, there is one thing that remained a constant pattern throughout Michael’s career, and that was the fact that whenever he had a serious point to make, or really wanted to call attention to himself, things always went down. That probably sounds confusing right now. But allow me to explain. Most of Michael’s career and public persona was built around the idea of things that were high-the voice, for prime example, and the pants for another. So over the years, we started to learn that when Michael wanted to get serious-that is, when there was a serious point to be made, or when he wished to break away from his characteristic mold-things came down. The voice would drop several octaves, to a deeper and more natural tone. The pant hems came down. His hair, often worn tied back during performances, was allowed to fall loose during numbers that required a special kind of of kinetic, flowing energy (a kind of Samson-like effect).

In between takes, the flood pants and loafers came back out, lol!
In between takes, the flood pants and loafers came back out, lol!

So for “In the Closet” the pants came down (figuratively, at least!). Though his hair remained tied back, the braid was a definite departure from any previous look, and as already noted, since he knew this video was going to call for his body to be exposed as it never had been before, he actually hit the gym and beefed up a bit (not overly doing it, but just enough to give his pecs some real definition). Indeed, the whole idea, as articulated by Herb Ritts, was one of redefining himself once again. Fast refers to Ritt’s desire, for this video shoot, to remove Michael from all of his usual trappings of “dandyism.” But whether this was mostly Ritts’s concept is really beside the point. The fact is, Michael would never have gone along with these choices if he hadn’t felt right doing them (just as he outright rejected Madonna’s concept for the video!) so he must have felt that it was a vision and an image that encapsulated what he wanted to do with the song.

But Fast dips into controversial territory again (as she acknowledges) when she ponders on the “Oriental fantasy” aspect of the video. While many fans appreciated what seemed as Michael’s celebration and embracing of the black woman (all of the love interests portrayed in his videos from Dangerous are black women; Naomi Campbell in “In the Closet”; supermodel Iman in “Remember the Time”) Fast raises the idea that perhaps the casting of these women had as much to do with the desire to exploit the idea of exotic “otherness,” especially given the fact that Michael, by this time, was so “white” in appearance as to give the false impression that he could easily pass for a Caucasian male. Personally, I never bought into the idea that Michael Jackson ever looked “white.” Even during the eras when his vitiligo was most evident-if one didn’t know he had a skin disease-he looked, at the very least, biracial. As the disease progressed, he began to take on a kind of albino, pigment-less appearance. Other African-Americans who have completely lost skin pigment due to vitiligo have a similar appearance, whereby their features remain distinctly African-American even though the skin no longer has the distinguishing pigment that defines one as “black.”

A Sexy Black Couple...Or Something Else? Shots Such As This DID Seem To Emphasize The Stark Contrast Between Their Skin Tones, Raising The Possibility of ITC As An "Orientalist Fantasy."
A Sexy Black Couple…Or Something Else? Shots Such As This DID Seem To Emphasize The Stark Contrast Between Their Skin Tones, Raising The Possibility of ITC As An “Orientalist Fantasy.”

Even though much of “In the Closet” was in sepia, it is apparent that Michael wasn’t exactly pale. Indeed, just as with so many factors of his appearance in this video, it seemed some lengths had been taken to make him look even healthier and more buffed than usual, and it actually looks like he is sporting a suntan (makeup, of course, could have achieved this effect; people with universal vitiligo cannot tan, as prolonged sun exposure can be deadly). Still, I “get” what Fast is saying in the sense that Michael and Naomi could certainly appear as an interracial couple, with Michael’s appearance as closer to Hispanic than African-American, and paired, of course, against the contrast of the very exotically dark Naomi Campbell.

“Often in Orientalist fantasies it’s the dark-skinned woman who’s exoticized, who’s portrayed as some kind of ‘forbidden fruit,’ and Naomi Campbell is so dark next to Jackson that he might be thought of as racially other to her, a potentially controversial idea, I know, given that Jackson’s increasingly lighter skin led to him sometimes being called a ‘race traitor.’ I don’t mean to buy into those narratives here: only that there appears to be, on the level of skin color, a substantial racial difference between Jackson and Campbell, and that Campbell is treated as a hypersexualized ‘exotic’ woman in a way that plays right into the stereotypes.” (Fast 53).

This is similar to the debate that has often been raised with discussions of the “Remember The Time” video, where it is believed by some that Michael intentionally set himself up, surrounding himself with an all-black cast, in order to further emphasize the contrast of his “otherness.” And, in fact, Fast does touch on this later in the chapter when the discussion turns from “In the Closet” to “Remember The Time” although her discussion of Michael’s “otherness” and the contrast of himself against the other cast members, particularly the other males in the cast, goes far beyond simple issues of race or appearance. I love her theory of Michael as a trickster figure in the video, which I would agree with (like a real life Bugs Bunny, he manages to outwit his adversaries even though far outnumbered and outbrawned; but also, like the best trickster figures, he is not entirely guiltless, and his adversaries not entirely unjustified in their pursuit-after all, he has flaunted his affair with the queen, as well as her attraction for him, and has rubbed it in the king’s face-yet like the best tricksters, he is so wily, charismatic, and endearing that we are rooting for him, rather than his justified pursuers. Indeed, cultural trickster figures such as Africa’s Esu are discussed at length in conjunction with this video).

"Leave It To Michael Jackson To Reclaim A REGAL African Past"-Susan Fast
“Leave It To Michael Jackson To Reclaim A REGAL African Past”-Susan Fast

 

According to Fast, Michael’s intentional “otherness” in the video (the contrasting of himself against the cast and, especially, other male cast members) may have more to do with class differences.

“Even in this setting, Jackson challenges class power through his clothing from the moment we see him: the gold metal plate across his chest is called a gorgerine, worn by the Pharoahs of Egypt as a marker of their regal status. Jackson also sports a formal starched kilt worn by noblemen and officials in ancient Egypt. The other entertainers aren’t dressed in this fancy garb…” (Fast 60).

However, as Fast goes on to note, what Jackson ultimately pulls off is a hybrid style that combines ancient Egyptian regalness with modern 90’s hipness, connecting the ancient, royal history of blacks in Egypt to himself in the present.  “Leave it to Michael Jackson to reclaim a regal African past.” (Fast 60).

It made perfect sense, of course, that Michael should go to some lengths to set himself apart from the other cast members of the video. After all, he was the star of the piece, and as such, the concept was naturally to keep him as the center of attention. The choices of hairstyle, makeup, and wardrobe were all intended to emphasize a sense of his “otherness” as compared to the other male cast members, who of course are portrayed as more traditionally “masculine.” Yet the “feminism” that his character invokes is undeniably a source of appeal. The queen desires him above all others, even her own husband.

My Personal Favorite RTT Moment...Breaking Into That Impish, "Trickster" Grin As His Pursuers Overtake Him
My Personal Favorite RTT Moment…Breaking Into That Impish, “Trickster” Grin As His Pursuers Overtake Him

Fast delves into yet another controversial aspect of Michael’s aesthetic (as well as part of his appeal for many) with the topic of gender ambiguity and how Michael actually used the blurring of traditional gender lines to great effect. While this is often a hotbed topic among fans, it is nevertheless a topic that bears discussion because, for starters, it goes to the very heart of what has already been acknowledged as one of the most complex issues of Michael Jackson’s sex symbol status-why critics and the media so often resisted it; why fans embraced it. According to Fast, Michael became a master of how to blend both the masculine and feminine.  I have excerpted below a few of her quotes that best illuminate this discussion:

“During the Dangerous era, Jackson started wearing his hair longer and more loosely curled. The jheri curl had morphed into several strands that hung over his eyes and reached his chin. It’s during this time that he also first straightens, rather than relaxes, his hair…As he ages, from Dangerous onward, his face becomes increasingly ‘feminized,’ exaggerated through the use of heavy make-up, including heavy eyeliner, mascara, and various shades of lipstick…(Fast 55-56).

However, in quoting Meredith Jones and others, Fast goes on to state that Jackson’s modus operandi, if you will, had little to do with any “trans” tendencies which we as a society might normally associate with a male who goes the route of increasingly feminizing his appearance. Rather, she states, Jackson seemed more interested in combining feminine and masculine traits to create a kind of ambiguous middle ground between them.

“This analytical specificity begins to get at how Jackson’s intriguing performance of gender really works: the features don’t ‘add up’ to one gender or another, nor can they be be ‘reconciled.’ Markers of masculinity do not disappear. In fact, these characteristics, particularly the square jaw-line and cleft chin, became more pronounced as he aged, perhaps through procedures, perhaps through fluctuating weight, or perhaps, again, simply through the natural process of aging.” (Fast 56).

In quoting Judith Peraino, she arrives at perhaps the most apt phrase to describe it: “Coming out into the middle.” (58).

But the discussion of Jackson’s “gender ambiguity” cannot end with his face alone. It incorporates many other factors-his body, wardrobe choices, etc. And this is where the lines often became even more blurred.

“His body was slight, without developed muscles, but straight, angular, and strong-not a feminine thing about it, including the way he moved, right down to his walk…” (Fast 56).

This is followed by a discussion of some of his onstage wardrobe choices, particularly the Dangerous-era gold fencing shirt, purposely designed to draw “attention to his bulging groin.” (56-57).

The First Half Of The Dangerous Tour Concerts Emphasized The "Masculine"
The First Half Of The Dangerous Tour Concerts Emphasized The “Masculine”

What Fast is discussing in this section is a phenomenon similar to one I discussed a few years ago in analyzing the concept of Michael’s live performances. It was during the Dangerous era that Michael seemed to solidify the concept for his live performances which often began with the “masculine” (he would come on tough, as a persona who was very masculine, angular, and hard, with military-esque trappings) and, over the course of the performance, would evolve to a more feeling, flowing, ethereal “feminine” persona (a transition that, like the Dangerous album’s concept, usually transpired with the performance of “Heal the World,” “Will You Be There” and the other spiritual “message” songs). Michael’s onstage persona during the first half of his Dangerous tour performances was always somewhat distant and cold; he would often wear a perpetual sneer. The moves are often blatantly sexual (a lot of crotch grabbing, etc). By the time the metamorphosis is complete, he is smiling, interacting with children onstage;the fencing shirt replaced by a flowing white shirt that accentuates his ethereal quality. His dance moves have become fluid and graceful, rather than angular and hard.

Michael's Onstage Transformation From The Dangerous Tour Onward Emphasized A Shift From The "Masculine" Persona At The Beginning, To A More Graceful, Flowing "Feminine" Persona
Michael’s Onstage Transformation From The Dangerous Tour Onward Emphasized A Shift From The “Masculine” Persona At The Beginning, To A More Graceful, Flowing “Feminine” Persona

It is interesting that this metamorphosis in his live performances (which would also carry over to the HIStory tour as well) mirrored the similar transformation that takes place on the album, as the initial industrialized, new jack swing tracks (“Noise”) eventually give way to what Fast describes as the album’s “Utopia” and “Soul” sections.

These discussions may be better served in the next posts that will look at those chapters in more detail. However, it may help to illuminate some of the reasons why the purposeful blending of masculinity and femininity became so important to Michael’s aesthetic. Fans often get defensive about any insinuation of Michael as anything less than 100% masculine, but sometimes I think for the wrong reasons (often, such defensiveness is simply a kneejerk response to years of defensive conditioning that have been wrought by the media’s attempt to somehow “emasculate” Michael or to cast him into the realm of “weird otherness”). What Fast does is to go beyond the mere simplifications of either approach. For sure, there can be no honest dialog of Michael Jackson-much less an honest appreciation of his art and his place in the cultural pantheon-without acknowledging that he did challenge conventional ideas of masculinity. And we also cannot deny that, for some, at least, this made him both a source of controversy and, as someone who-whether intentionally or unintentionally-challenged those norms, perhaps a source of discomfort.

"He Didn't Like The Line Drawn Between What's Allowed For Men And What's Allowed For Women"-Karen Faye, Qtd in "Dangerous" by Susan Fast
“He Didn’t Like The Line Drawn Between What’s Allowed For Men And What’s Allowed For Women”-Karen Faye, Qtd in “Dangerous” by Susan Fast

According to Karen Faye, Michael’s longtime makeup artist, Michael believed that a man should be entitled as much as a woman to be able to use his face as a canvas; to reinvent himself, and to have the same freedom to experiment with different looks and, yes, to use makeup to enhance features or play them down, just as women do, to present a more beautiful or attractive face to the world. He reportedly loved women’s perfumes, preferring them over the often harsh masculine scents packaged and commericialized for men. But the important factor that underlies these preferences is a desire for sexual equality in cosmetic preferences (which we might reasonably assume would spill over to other areas as well). So in that regard, we might say such choices had nothing to do with wanting to be  a woman or to be “transgender” (as some falsely surmised) so much as simply being a liberated man who felt that being “pretty” should not be the exclusive right of women. Certainly we could argue as to whether a preference for pink lipstick makes one any less “masculine” than a woman who prefers wearing slacks to dresses makes her any less “feminine.” But I think it is naive to assume that Michael made these choices with no idea that he was going against the grain of cultural norms of masculinity. In making such purposeful aesthetic choices-which he had to have known as surely as he knew that wearing straightened hair, makeup and a gold gorgerine would set him apart from the other males in “Remember The Time”) he was clearly intending to draw attention to himself as someone who was testing cultural boundaries and limits in terms of gender norms.

One reason why it is important to honestly address these matters is because we have to consider not only the fans’ perception of Michael Jackson, but also how he is still perceived culturally at large-and how the public often distorted their perceived ideas of Michael and gender. For example, I have told the story before of a male friend of mine who was convinced that Michael Jackson wore womens’ clothes. I asked him where he got such a ridiculous notion-if anything, Michael’s public style, including his vast array of military jackets, were the epitome of “masculine.” He continued to argue lamely that Michael wore women’s blouses. So I put him up for a challenge. If he could produce one photo of Michael wearing a woman’s blouse (that was authentic and not photoshopped!)  I would concede he was right; if not, he would have to concede to me. After going through literally hundreds of photos on the internet, he had to reluctantly concede that I was right. His idea of Michael as a “cross dresser” had come about due to a distorted kind of cultural perception, based on both media stereotypes and misconceptions of Michael’s gender ambiguity.

There Was Nothing "Gender Ambiguous" About His Dress
There Was Nothing “Gender Ambiguous” About His Dress

This example underscores the importance of examining how Michael both challenged and defied these cultural norms and expectations-in surprising ways. Fast wisely sidesteps the temptation to draw any definitive theories or conclusions about Michael’s aesthetic choices, especially in regard to whatever “statement” he was making, intentionally or otherwise. Her theories are steeped neither in fan adulation nor the kind of critical disdain/dismissal of many earlier critics and scholars; thus, she is able to bring a refreshing honesty and candor to these discussions, successfully bridging the admiration of a fan with the objective perspective of a cultural scholar and critic.

The only thing that really bothers me in this discussion is that, while she refers many times to the controversy of Michael’s “lightened” skin color, she always seems to lump it in with his other cosmetic choices, I am not sure if this is an attempt to simply avoid the whole “did he or didn’t he have vitiligo” issue, or if, indeed, Fast even believes he had vitiligo. I am not sure of her position on this, since she never states it explicitly (indeed, the word “vitiligo” is never mentioned once in conjunction with these discussions) and I find this omission problematic, as it could leave the uninformed reader with the opinion that Michael simply controlled/manipulated his skin color change as he did so many other aspects of his appearance. The reason it is problematic and inexcusable is because the issue of whether he had the disease is, as stated in my previous post,  no longer up for debate. But while the autopsy results should have definitively settled the debate, there still remains in some circles, apparently, a lingering and disturbing notion that he must have, somehow, induced his own vitiligo through some chemical means-which, again, would go back to the notion of some cosmetic desire to appear lighter-a desire that tragically, ended up with a horribly botched result. I need not enumerate that there is still a very large faction who simply can’t put the notion to rest that Michael either did not have vitiligo, or if he did, that he must have somehow brought it on himself.

While Fast never states that she believes those rumors, she never exactly denies them, either, and in so doing, leaves that door open for interpretation and speculation. Like I said, I don’t know whether Fast believes he had vitiligo. I have not yet had an opportunity to personally ask her that question, and do not know if she has addressed it elsewhere. It would be interesting to know. But I think it would be important to any honest discussion of Michael’s appearance to at least acknowledge the existence of this disease; otherwise, it is leaving a bit of a skewered perception of his appearance changes, assuming that all of them stemmed purely from personal or artistic choice.

However, that isn’t to say I do not believe that, once he realized the disease’s inevitable course, that he purposely reworked a new aesthetic for himself based on the new possibilities that this “look” now opened for him. Indeed, it’s naive to assume that Michael Jackson wasn’t acutely aware that he was within a “new skin,” so to speak-and how that would affect the world’s view of him, for better or worse.  This is a subject that has also been addressed in some depth by Willa Stillwater and Susan Woodward, author of “Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics.” In a recent blog post on the “Dancing With the Elephant” website, Woodward used a 1995 photo from the shoot for the “Earth Song” single sleeve, which she cites as “reminiscent of Italian Renaissance portraits,” as an example, using both the terms “ethereal” and (quoting Willa Stillwater from “M Poetica”) “luminous” to describe his mid 90’s persona.

https://dancingwiththeelephant.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/michael-jacksons-otherness-and-power/

As Woodward describes this quality in the post, it is a kind of transcendence “of the bonds of gender, time, and maybe even human flesh.” Below are a couple of other pics that are apparently from that same photo shoot. They both would appear to strengthen the theory that Michael was indeed going for an intentionally “ethereal” and “luminous” appearance that often characterized Italian Renaissance art:

earth song11

earth song13

Typical Italian Renaissance Portrait, "Child Crowned With Flowers," Circa 1466-1516
Typical Italian Renaissance Portrait, “Child Crowned With Flowers,” Circa 1466-1516

To quote those who knew him best and/or those fortunate enough to have met him, his appearance post vitiligo was not really “white”-certainly not Caucasian-but rather, the appearance of someone who was translucent. This description makes sense. After all, vitiligo destroys the cells that produce melanin. leaving the victim, in effect, “colorless.” Did Michael, perhaps, come to view his new, “colorless” body as a kind of blank canvas, one on which he could now reinvent himself in ways that would never have been imaginable to him before?

Portraits Like This-A Favorite Of Mine, BTW-Often Portrayed Him During His Post Vitiligo Era As Both Ethereal and "Angelicized." For Sure, They Heightened The Idea of "Gender Ambiguity"
Portraits Like This-A Favorite Of Mine, BTW-Often Portrayed Him During His Post Vitiligo Era As Both Ethereal and “Angelicized.” For Sure, They Heightened The Idea of “Gender Ambiguity” In Ways Not Entirely Coincidental

These are all ideas that Michael would have never been able to discuss openly in the press, without inviting undue controversy and having his words misquoted or taken out of context (as inevitably, they always were) and so, again, it is largely left up to us to interpret. It is no secret that, culturally, he still identified himself as a black American. The disease didn’t change who he was or his racial identity. It would also be naive to think that he welcomed the havoc the disease wracked on his life and personal appearance, all in the name of “art.”  The disease left most of his body horribly splotched, a condition he was so self conscious of that he spent most of his remaining years wearing clothing that concealed his body. He couldn’t enjoy simple pleasures, such as a day of swimming at the beach. But it is well within the realm of possibility that, in learning to adopt, he found ways to make the idea of being, literally, a black man inside a colorless body, work for him.

By The Time Of "They Don't Care About Us" An Even Angrier And More Defiant Michael Seemed Finally Willing To Show The World That There Was Nothing "Pretty" About The Disease That Had Turned Him "White"
By The Time Of “They Don’t Care About Us” An Even Angrier And More Defiant Michael Seemed Finally Willing To Show The World That There Was Nothing “Pretty” Or Ethereal or “Angelic” About The Disease That Had Turned Him “White.” For The First Time, He Allowed His Splotched Body To Appear In Its “Untouched” State For A Video Shoot.

they don't care about us2

Rather than dwelling on himself as a “victim” he chose another path, presenting an image of metamorphosis rather than of victimhood. PR wise, the decision may have been questionable. But it also enabled him to maintain the illusory aura that was such an important element of his appeal. Had he chosen the more outspoken path-allowing the public to see his blotched body; doing the talk show circuit on TV about being a vitiligo sufferer, etc-he might have won more public sympathy, but the price for that was in putting the spotlight squarely on HIM as a public figure with a disease, rather than as an artist. It was not a role he felt comfortable with, nor one he felt particularly obligated to perform.

But whatever conclusions can be drawn about Michael’s use of style, cosmetics, performance, etc in blurring gender lines, no such discussion would be complete without also considering the traditions that he was a part of. In many fan discussions, it has often been noted that it wasn’t an issue of whether Michael was “masculine” but that his was a masculinity out of step with the current times. There is, of course, a lot of observational truth in those statements and Michael was hardly the first or last male artist to circumvent the stringent defines of masculinity that have been in place, in Western culture, at least, since the Victorian era. Prior to the Victorian era, it was not at all unusual for men to wear long, flowing hair, makeup, and clothing that might be considered highly feminized by today’s standards (ruffled shirts and lace, etc). The fop, or the dandy, became a highly romanticized figure, and then as now, it was not at all unusual for women to be attracted to these men. It was only during the Victorian era that the rigid lines between what could or could not be properly considered as “masculine” became drawn (not coincidentally, these lines became more rigidly drawn as Western society’s homophobia increased).These Victorian ideals prevailed into much of the twentieth century, with no real challenge until the 1960’s and 70’s (though even in the 1920’s and earlier, movie idols such as Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr, began to challenge these notions and to revive the concept of dandyism, and writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, hardly the most masculine looking of dudes, nevertheless made women swoon and was embraced for his “feminine sensibilities.” However, by the 1930’s, the macho man was back in vogue-“virile” leading men like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Humphrey Bogart defined masculinity, and it would be many decades before the rock era, again, challenged these notions).  But though we have seen some considerable loosening of these ideals, even in the twenty-first century any full throwbacks to those earlier eras of “dandyism” have been mostly confined to artists. In the music world, particularly, male performers caught on early that the most guaranteed way to drive women wild was to…well, employ some feminine wiles.

Speaking of the historical context of the “dandy” figure and how male artists have used “feminine” sexuality to enhance their own appeal, here is an interesting clip that I ran across on Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors-who, of course, was as famous for his drop dead gorgeous looks and legendary sex appeal as for his music. In this documentary, chronicling Morrison’s final 24 hours, note what Steve Harris, former VP of Elektra Records, says at the 6:03 mark:

“Jim had this love for movies, and so he would emulate Greta Garbo, he had the look in his eyes of Marlene Dietrich staring you down, shaking his hair and his head like Marilyn Monroe did. He had those masculine traits with the feminine wiles, that’s what made Jim unique.”

It is interesting that when Harris mentions all of the models of sexuality that Morrison emulated for his “unique” persona, every one just happens to be a famous female performer of the past. And yet Morrison’s status as a heterosexual sex symbol and rock god who drove women wild has never been questioned.

Perhaps Morrison was, as Harris states, “unique” for the time. That as part of his self styled image (and indeed it was self styled, for The Doors early on had no PR team) he chose to emulate and combine traits of glamorous women probably had much to do with the fact that, until then, there hadn’t really been much in the way of sexual male role models-that is, without pretty much circumventing the last century (which Morrison did) and returning to models of ancient classicism. Similar to what Michael would do two decades later, Morrison was incorporating elements of feminism to create, if not exactly a morphology, at the very least a new kind of masculine ideal. As the 60’s gave way to the 70’s, we saw many rockers such as David Bowie, Marc Bolan, and others carrying this new brand of androgynous “dandyism” to even further lengths.

So why, then, did this similar brand of gender morphology become so upsetting-or perhaps more threatening-to some when it was Michael Jackson? There are many theories, but most scholars and cultural analysts are in agreement that it was, perhaps, the combination of both racism and homophobia (“homophobic” in the sense that any male who is perceived as overly sexualized in a traditionally non-masculine way is deemed threatening) that made Michael Jackson such a potent combination for many.

“To this extent it [dandyism] might also involve the appropriation of traits of femininity as a form of rebellion. This is in part what glam rockers were doing in the 1970’s; both Kobena Mercer and Michele Wallace made a comparison between their gender play and Jackson’s and noted that while it seemed alright for the likes of Bowie, it was, apparently ‘intolerable’ for a black man to experiment with gender and sexuality in this way.” (Fast 65).

However, this may be an overly simplified approach. It would fall short, for example, in explaining why Prince-the perfect 80’s embodiment of “dandyism” if ever there was one-still did not raise as much controversy as Michael, but instead, was given pretty much the same artistic pass as Bowie and others. As has been discussed here before, much of it may have had more to do with the general acceptance of avant-garde artists as opposed to “pop” or mainstream artists. We had watched Michael grow up as a beloved child star and as a member of the wholesome Jackson family act; therefore, his actions were always going to invite more scrutiny, and tongues were bound to wag when “little Michael” came out wearing lipstick and eye liner and grabbing his crotch. Most adult artists have the luxury of being able to evolve quietly, behind the scenes, for years before unleashing their persona on the world stage. Michael was never afforded that luxury. His artistic evolvement, just as with everything else in his life, had to be carried out within the metaphoric fish bowl of his existence.

Also, I don’t think we can entirely separate Michael from the context of his time. If there was ever a ripe time for “dandyism” in popular music, it was the 1980’s, the era in which Boy George became an international superstar, Duran Duran was the leading boy act of the day, and hardcore rockers like Motley Crue wore more eyeliner and lipstick than their female groupies. By the time Michael entered his metal/power ballad phase with “Dirty Diana”-replete with tumbling hair past his shoulders, open white shirt rippling in the wind machine, tight spandex pants, and more eyeliner than Apollonia-he was as much a product of his time and era as an innovator-indeed, so much so that “Dirty Diana,” in particular, is often cited as a parody of typical metal hair band videos of the day, which may be true.

We Had Never Seen A Display Of Male Auto Eroticism Quite Like This
We Had Never Seen A Display Of Male Auto Eroticism Quite Like This

If so, this may also go far in explaining at least “some” of Michael’s overly sexualized antics during the Panther Dance segment of the “Black or White” video. Fast also spends a considerable length of time analyzing this segment, for no discussion of Michael and sex (or his sexual persona, at least) can be complete without it. Unlike the eroticism of “In the Closet” or even “Remember The Time,” where he is at least interacting with a partner in a traditionally erotic sense, this segment is pure auto eroticism-and not only that, but pure auto eroticism that seems to come from totally out of left field (given that the song’s content has nothing to do with sex!). Looking back in hindsight, long before we had two decades’ worth of critical analysis of the “Black or White” video-including all of the various theories regarding the symbolism of the emasculated black male, etc-it’s easy to see why so many viewers at the time were genuinely confused (that is, when they weren’t brushing it off as Michael “simply being Michael” and, as usual, doing whatever it took to generate controversy). Michael said in his press statement, released within the hour of the controversial broadcast, that he was only attempting to “interpret the animalistic instincts of the black panther into a dance.” Clearly, the panther’s mating ritual must have been part of that interpretation!panther dance3

However, the whole idea of “gender morphology” becomes interesting when looking at the controversy this segment aroused. In essence, Michael was not doing anything that was any more auto erotic in nature than what many female “video vixens” had already been doing in music videos for years at that point. Indeed, Tawny Kitean’s famous romp on the hood of a Jaguar XJ was every bit as sexual, but as always, women have had far more leeway-certainly far more freedom-in the realm of sexual self expression. For a woman to caress her body in a sensual manner was considered sexy. For a man to do it was just…well, for many at the time, awkward and weird.

80's Video Vixens Like Tawny Kitean Made Auto Eroticism The Norm...But Not For Guys. Michael's "Panther Dance" Broke Down That Barrier.
80’s Video Vixens Like Tawny Kitean Made Auto Eroticism The Norm…But Not For Guys. Michael’s “Panther Dance” Broke Down That Barrier.

To Michael’s credit, he was at least able to pull it off far more successfully than poor Billy Squirer, whose disastrous romp in pink sheets in the “Rock Me Tonight” video cost him a legion of male fans and proved such a career setback that he never fully recovered! Perhaps the major difference was that Squirer, who had built a solid reputation as a typical, macho rocker in an already sexist genre, had never tapped into the traits of femininity that would enable him to get away with such a display. Although there are a lot of misguided theories about the intent of the “Rock Me Tonight” video, I have always believed that the concept was simply a misguided PR attempt to make Squirer appeal to female fans. They, perhaps, forgot one major factor: To successfully pull off male auto eroticism in a video, a male performer HAS to be able to embrace a certain amount of femininity, and to be able to do so naturally and comfortably. It can’t be something that is faked.

Hence, Billy Squirer failed miserably; Michael Jackson succeeded spectacularly, controversy notwithstanding.

In analyzing this segment, Fast hits on something that explains both why the segment worked, and why it invited so much controversy:

“In the ‘panther dance’ the crotch grab becomes a rub-sometimes he only uses his middle finger, and he rubs his hand down his chest into his groin too. All this rubbing, if we have to bring things down to their conventional binaries, is much more associated with female masturbation, less with jerking off…” (Fast 57-58).

Precisely why I love this book is for these moments when Fast nails concepts that I have often found myself struggling with for years, trying to pinpoint exactly why something I had seen Michael do a hundred times either unsettled, disturbed, tantalized, or aroused me-sometimes all in one fell swoop. I was not alone in that department, for across the globe, millions of women (and I would imagine many male fans as well) were reacting to those gestures the same way. The excessive “body rubbing” was something I had noticed, but had never thought to articulate it in the way that Fast does here, although I had long noted that what Michael does in the “Black or White” video certainly goes well beyond his (by then) usual crotch grab. This was something else, less stylized, more “in your face” and certainly more explicitly erotic than anything he had done thus far. But I think Fast hits on exactly what I found so simultaneously unsettling and arousing about this segment-it’s not just that these are explicitly auto erotic sexual gestures, but explicitly feminized sexual gestures. In the final segments of the sequence, just before morphing into a panther again, there is more of the kind of sensual, feminized auto eroticism that Fast refers to-he rubs both hands from chest to groin while throwing back his head in sensual ecstasy, a pose long associated with images of female orgasm.panther dance2

Again, I think what we can take from this sequence is that Michael may not have been so much about pushing gender lines as simply a liberator for the rights of a man to be able to express himself as a sexual being, apart from the repressions of conventional male sexuality. When we look at how women responded intuitively to Michael’s sexually suggestive onstage moves (the caressing of his chest; the suggestive finger wag, the hip thrusts, etc) it was because his female fans genuinely believed he was conveying how “he liked it done” and would do, in turn, to them. The simulations sparked fertile imaginations; yes, it was at least part showmanship but, like the best performers, Michael was literally making love to all of us in those moments-and leaving precious little to our imaginations.  Just as actors can cry on cue, we nevertheless know that in order to cry on cue, they must be able to connect with something that triggers that emotion. Sometimes it’s a memory; sometimes they are simply so involved in the role and the storyline that the situation has become real for them. Tears can’t be faked. Thus, even though an actor may be crying “on cue” the performance stems from a very real human emotion-a trigger. In much the same way, Michael’s onstage sexual “performances” had to have at least been some extension of his ability to tap into his own sexual feelings, whether invoked by the music or the crowd’s energy. We responded because we knew he was tapping into those triggers, and it couldn’t be faked. It’s difficult to imagine why a generation of critics found this such a difficult concept to comprehend. Like Morrison (who, in quoting Willie Dixon, aptly summed up the whole phenomenon: “The men don’t know, but the little girls understand”) and the entire legacy of hyper sexualized male performers who had learned to emulate/incorporate female eroticism to maximum effect, Michael had learned intuitively what women respond to, which for us (if we are honest with ourselves) often has more to do with an inherent, genetic attraction to our sensual, seductive, feminine selves than to the “brute strength” of traditional masculinity. Even the most casual internet search will justify this claim, for if you type in “why women love effeminate men” the hits are mind boggling, as article after article will attempt to explain, in some way, or to arrive at some answer, of why this strong mirror attraction for the feminine exists-even in women who are, by all definition, “straight.”

Fast does an excellent job of exploring how Michael Jackson both fit into the long tradition of “dandyism” and, also, in many ways, defied it. The history of black dandyism, in particular, is illuminated quite well, with Fast discussing how Michael in many ways fit the historical prototype of the “Pinkster king,” an African American man who would be elected to a prestigious position and allowed to emulate the dress (and all other pomp and circumstance) of a white elected official. The discussion of Michael’s “syncretic” style of dress and its historical context is, alone, one of the most fascinating passages in the chapter. My male friend whom I referred to earlier in this post would have done well by reading the following passage:

“Hard fabrics were used. The jackets were always short to the waist to meet his form-fitting pants…the broad chest tapering to the waist in a classic V shape is characteristic of a classically normative male form and signifies male strength; his ‘effiminacy,’ with very few exceptions, did not extend to his dress.” (Fast 67).

The “Desire” chapter focuses on many aspects of Michael, sex, and gender. In exploring all of these controversial issues, she offers no hardcore theories or “answers” but manages to successfully examine Michael’s sexual persona both within its historical context and in looking at why these have become such hot button topics, both in the past and present. Their relevance, of course, is due to the fact that the first six tracks of Dangerous (as well as their accompanying videos) solidified the adult image of Michael Jackson as both “soul man” and as a newly liberated, libidinous performer who was exploring his adult sexuality in ways he had never dared to before.

But the temptations of the flesh, as it turned out, was only one facet of Dangerous‘s many moods. In the next installment, I will look at “Utopia” and, finally, rounding the series out, I will explore what Fast has to say about Dangerous and “Soul.”

Susan Fast’s “Dangerous”: A Review (Pt 2-Desire)

 

1465149_585973018141813_673964419_nDesire:

“Michael Jackson’s diffuse expression of sexuality, which so many people found disturbing, because it doesn’t fit into any normative paradigm, is the ‘line of flight’ along which he continued to singularize himself…[It] is the aspect of his persona, or expression, that is least understood today, and that desperately needs to be more fully explored.”-(Steven Shapiro qtd in Fast 42).

Now I am getting into perhaps one of the most controversial; certainly most interesting chapters of “Dangerous” and that is her chapter titled “Desire.” The reason I say “controversial” is because I know already, from the various heated debates we have had here on some of these very topics, that many of these are hotbed issues among MJ fans and critics alike.  There is nothing new, of course, in the ever ongoing debates of Michael’s appearance (or more aptly, the reasons why it kept changing) or the issues of his sexuality. Susan Fast certainly offers some interesting perspectives on these topics. As I have stated before, some I agree with and some I question; that doesn’t make anyone “right” or “wrong” but only goes to show that  many of Michael’s aesthetic choices regarding his image and appearance (both the things he controlled consciously as well as those, such as his skin color, that he had no control over) are open for many varied forms of interpretation, and perhaps always will be since Michael himself was rarely forthright on these matters. In other words, there is nowhere you are going to find an interview in which Michael explicitly states, in black and white, “This is the statement I wanted to make when I…” so much of his intent has been left for fans, critics, and scholars to unravel.

However, the chapter opens with a topic that certainly no fans will dispute-Michael Jackson was undeniably one sexy mutha, but in one of the greatest and most inexplicable twists in pop music history, there arose a critical paradigm of Michael Jackson as anything but sexual, as it seemed an entire generation of critics sought to emasculate him by whatever means necessary. However, Fast’s theories delve much deeper beyond this seemingly and illogically simple explanation, even examining some of the reasons Jackson himself helped contribute to this rather blurring and confusing paradigm of himself as a “man-child”-one who was a teaser at best, but perhaps had intentionally set himself up to be a non threat (and why this was a necessity, at least in the early days of his solo career, for both his career and survival in the business).

The Annie Leibovitz Photos For "Vanity Fair" Showcased The New, Hyper Sexual Michael Jackson. He Seemed To Have Gotten Well Past Some Of His Early Shyness and Inhibitions About Being Viewed As An "Object."
The Annie Leibovitz Photos For “Vanity Fair” Showcased The New, Hyper Sexual Michael Jackson. He Seemed To Have Gotten Well Past His Early Shyness and Inhibitions About Being Viewed As An “Object.”

The reason this is an important topic to discuss in terms of Dangerous is because this was the first album in which Michael, on a serious level, really attempted to shake loose and transcend that “non threatening” image (hence the title, perhaps?). Bad had given us many hints, of course, of a “badder” and tougher Michael. But “Dirty Diana” notwithstanding, a lot of Bad still came across as a bit of over the top posturing, like a child calling attention to himself-“Look how grown up and bad ass I am”-but who, at the end of the day, still goes home to mom and dad. And this is not a far off analogy, because though Michael certainly was flexing both his wings and his muscles on Bad in ways he never had before, in the end he was still living at home with mom and dad, quite literally, and in the studio was still under the tutelage of his “father figure” Quincy Jones.

But the Dangerous era was understandably confusing to loyal fans who had grown up with Michael throughout his Jackson 5, Jacksons and Quincy Jones-era solo career. When the videos for the Bad album started playing on MTV, we noticed that Michael was looking considerably lighter than he had in the past, but for all intents and purposes, he still looked “black.” It became an unspoken consensus that Michael must be “doing something” but we didn’t know what, and because the music was so good, we frankly didn’t really care. But then, with Dangerous and the premier of the “Black or White” video-of all the ironies-we got our first taste of a completely, pale “white” Michael Jackson. (However, it is interesting that in the scene where he rips his shirt and the Royal Arms Hotel sign comes crashing down, the lighting actually makes him appear quite dark in this segment; whether this was an intentional effect I do not know, but have always wondered). And remember that an official explanation for this seeming “transformation” was still almost two years down the road (an explanation that would be mocked and disbelieved even when it came, but for the moment, let’s stay in 1991 and the mindset of the time). The reactions at the time were as varied and complex as reactions of anything relating to Michael Jackson have always been, from enchantment and awe (“I thought he must be magic!” came one memorable quote from a male fan looking back on his childhood reaction to “white” Michael) to bafflement (“what the heck IS up with him?”) to outright hostility (“how dare he?” and “who does he think he is!”).

That Michael Jackson Had Vitiligo Is No Longer Up For Debate. What DOES Remain Debatable, However, Is To What Extent His Appearance Changes Were Aesthetic Choices
That Michael Jackson Had Vitiligo Is No Longer Up For Debate. What DOES Remain Debatable, However, Is To What Extent His Other Appearance Changes Were Aesthetic Choices-Or Even If The Disease Itself Somehow Became Accepted As Part of the New “Aesthetic.”

Discussing Michael Jackson’s changes in appearance on any kind of aesthetic level is always a touchy subject because the situation simply can’t be discussed without his changing skin color being an inescapable part of it. And once that subject comes into the equation, it raises many other deeper, controversial issues-ones that have certainly been well debated here, as elsewhere. After all, we certainly aren’t talking mere cosmetic changes here. Many artists routinely change their appearance and image from album to album via conventional means such as hairstyles, makeup, and wardrobe (although Michael certainly played a pioneering role in freeing the male artist to express himself via those avenues as well). But a complete change of skin color can hardly be equated to a change of hair style! This wasn’t a mere cosmetic change, but (for many) a seismic shift in identity. The fact that the issue is still debated at all, over twenty years after the explanation was given, speaks of just how deeply this change resonated with the public, and still does.  That Michael Jackson had vitiligo was confirmed in his autopsy. That is a fact that is not up for debate. Therefore, the ongoing speculations about it, including some of the very questions that Fast raises of if, why, or how he applied this transformation to his art (in ways perhaps both conscious and subconscious) are inevitably going to be questions that invoke their share of controversy.

But before wading too deep into those waters, let’s get back to the discussion of desire. Susan Fast kicks off this chapter by raising the very question that I addressed in one of my most popular blog posts: “Why I Love The Mature Face of Michael.”

http://www.allforloveblog.com/?p=5924

Fast’s discovery of Michael, both post vitiligo and post cosmetic surgery, as someone who was still invoking “desire” on a mass level echoes my own similar journey. She describes going on Youtube, and being fascinated to see so many fan videos devoted to the celebration of Michael’s mature “hotness.” She concludes that this is not a phenomenon unique to any one demographic, either, but rather, one that seems to be consistent among female fans from all cultures. It is not, of course, the idea of so many fans from so many diverse cultures, ages, races, and backgrounds finding one man so desirable that is the big mystery, but rather, the fact that it is such a persistent view and such a polar opposite view to the image of Michael Jackson that was being sold by the mass media.

“With all the talk of how Jackson ‘destroyed’ his face and became a monster in his later years, often described as ‘an inevitable tragedy to pity and mourn,’ it’s interesting to contemplate this very different discourse. What do these fans find so sexy, so beautiful, when pretty much all we hear from the media is that he was a freak? Some critics have admitted that Jackson ‘[irradiated] sexual dynamism in his performances, but then they’ve knocked the wind out of that claim by determining that it was all show and no action: ‘He might be threatening if Jackson gave, even for a second, the impression that he is obtainable,’ wrote Jay Cocks in 1984. Since when did the obtainability of pop stars have anything to do with them as threatening to society’s mores?” (Fast 43-44).

For the next several paragraphs, Fast goes on to point out and deconstruct many of these ridiculous critical theories. She demonstrates aptly how all of these theories, stretching from the early 80’s when Michael’s solo star first began to rise to the present, when taken as a whole, go well beyond the limits of the absurd and all seem to have one basic element in common-to somehow deny Michael’s sexual presence as a performer (even worse, perhaps, to strip it from him as a human being) or to somehow deflate its power.

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The reasons for this are obvious in some ways (blatant racism, no doubt, being the biggest factor) but more troublingly elusive in others. Michael Jackson was hardly the first male black superstar to appeal to women of many races and ethnicities, but he may well have been the first in which so many unique factors-his power, influence, commercial success, and cultural status-combined to create the perfect storm. The words of Jay Cocks, as quoted in Fast’s book, may be worth a deeper examination. He purposely chose the word “threatening” and as quickly did double duty to deflate its meaning when paired in the same sentence with Michael Jackson and sex. Cocks wrote the words quoted by Fast in 1984, which means this was at least a good three years before Michael had even officially performed his first crotch grab on TV, let alone any of the hyped up sexual moves of the Bad tour (and which would become even more blatant by the Dangerous tour). It was long before the era of any controversies surrounding Michael, or talks about plastic surgery (a subject that wouldn’t really become a source of controversy for Michael until later in the decade) or before serious questions of sexuality/gender issues were raised. Yet already, it seems, he was being viewed as someone who was clearly threatening and challenging acceptable sexual norms. Otherwise, why the need to protest so much?

Michael Jackson as I recall him from this early 80’s phase was still very much within the realm of what Fast defines as the “soul man” persona. The early 1980’s was still a time when white girls such as myself, especially those of us living in the Deep South, could still not be entirely open about finding a black performer sexy. When I look back on it now, I find it amusing that I always felt the need to qualify any comment I made about Michael Jackson and “hotness” with the preface, “I could really go for him if I was black girl.” But it was the Deep South, thirty years ago, and social norms dictated what we could or could not find “sexy”-at least, not without being branded a slut or worse. (That the idea of interracial mixing was still a quite sensitive subject in the 70’s and early 80’s  was not unique to the South, however. In 1972 when Michael appeared as a guest on the popular show “The Dating Game” they made sure that all three of the “batchelorettes” he picked from were African-American; in 1982, an innocent song like “The Girl Is Mine” could still incite controversy because  it featured a black man and a white man arguing over the same girl). Yet I cannot recall, either among myself or my peers, any sort of condescension about Michael’s sexiness or any doubt regarding its authenticity. Perhaps as teenagers we simply weren’t analyzing things that deeply, but for sure, questions of whether Michael’s sexiness was “real” or “feigned” never entered the equation. Which would appear to indicate that none of these ideas of Michael’s “feigned” sexuality were coming from its most rudimentary grassroots level-that is, the actual fans and the kids who were buying his music. So if it wasn’t coming from us-the kids, the giggly suburban white girls who were secretly buying Thriller over parental objections and ogling at the cover, or the black girls who, of course, were still loving him and finding him as “fine”as they always had-then where did it come from, and why?

I Don't Think His Adult Image Was EVER Exactly "Boy Next Door." He Had Always Known How To Mix Innocence And Sex.
I Don’t Think His Adult Image Was EVER Exactly “Boy Next Door.” He Had Always Known How To Mix Innocence And Sex.

By the mid 1980’s, there had already been a major shift of perception. Michael was still the biggest pop star on the planet, but it had become fashionable by then to poke gentle fun at his masculinity and to tease anyone who openly declared themselves a Michael Jackson fan. Had the campaign to “desexualize” Michael Jackson taken its toll? Had it resulted in its desired effect? I remember quite vividly that by the time the “In The Closet” video premiered, I just found the whole thing kind of weird and awkward. (Weirdly enough, I now find it one of his most erotic and appealing videos). So when I look back on my reaction to it in 1992, versus my reaction to it today, it is clearly obvious to me that it wasn’t that I really found the video awkward; it was what I had become conditioned to thinking about Michael in terms of sex appeal and eroticism. If you hear something repeated often enough, it’s bound to rub off on you. So when I trace the full arc of my appreciation for Michael’s sexiness, it is interesting that I can pinpoint it to two very distinct eras- the era when I was still too young and naive to care about what critics thought  and, likewise after I became mature and aware enough to no longer care.

Fast explores all of these questions in depth, and arrives at some startling insights:

“…[D]enying it [his sexuality] and his masculinity, as well as his maturity, which terms like the omnipresent ‘man-child’ do, demanding reconciliation between his on- and off-stage performances of sexuality and concluding that he became grotesque and therefore undesirable through plastic surgery, works to contain his complex gendered and sexualized self and to police the boundaries of what can be considered desirable, sexy, and masculine. It erases the beautiful conundrum. But it also makes him safer” (Fast 46).

Now, why all of this talk about Michael and sex and/or love and romance is important to a discussion of Dangerous is because those initial six tracks on Dangerous not only represent some of his most politically conscious and “black” music to date, but also his most adult erotic. Again, it’s not that we hadn’t had sexy tracks from Michael before. Long before Dangerous, he had definitely proven beyond doubt-if this was his intent-that he was all grown up and not innocent little Michael anymore (although given the very grown up material he was given to sing even as a child, I am not sure we can ever pinpoint a time when he was allowed to be “innocent little Michael.”).  But again, what Fast is arguing is the very purposeful impact that is created by the tight grouping of these tracks. She also makes the very convincing argument that, perhaps for the first time, Michael is targeting these songs at a very specific age group-not children; not older listeners, but to red blooded adults (like himself, we can presume) who are caught up in the tumultuous prime of adult lust, love, romance and all that they imply.

“…It’s a full-on assault of all things sensual, sexual, and romantic like we haven’t seen from him before. While so much of his songs appeal across generations, these songs break away from that; the adult sentiments don’t, significantly for Jackson, speak to children, or perhaps to older fans (like my 87-year-old neighbor, who listens to Jackson’s music all the time, but only through the Bad album, not later work). All in all, these songs suggest that love is complicated and cruel-he’s chasing it (her), but can’t quite get it; he had it, but it slips away; he’s git it-he’s got it bad-but it needs to be hidden. These songs are as much about desires of the flesh as those of the heart…(then, following a passage in which she acknowledges some of his earlier explorations into these territories)…”[B]ut the songs on Dangerous feel more personal, more in the moment, more about a guy who’s wrestling with his libido and his heart. And unlike those earlier femme fatale songs, or songs about romantic love, Jackson is a willing partner, turned on, if never quite getting what he wants or needs. Isn’t that how the most powerful love songs go?” (Fast 46-47).

It is at this point that Fast introduces the concept of this new direction as Michael asserting “soul man masculinity” (a term originally coined by Mark Anthony Neal).   In her words, she describes the term as it applies to Jackson as “a version of gritty masculinity that maintained gender ambivalence and that was not, on the whole, violent or misogynistic.” (Fast 47).

But if “soul man masculinity” was a response to the cultural emasculation of the black male, why did Michael so strongly feel the need to reassert it now, at this time?  Fast raises one of many interesting, if albeit controversial theories put forth in this chapter when she hints that Michael himself (or his PR?) may have been at least partly responsible for the earlier sanitizing and de-sexualization of his image that would ultimately prove so difficult to overcome.

The theory seems ridiculous unless one takes into consideration the long, complex history of race relations, especially in the United States, and how deeply ingrained was the stereotype of the overly sexualized black male, who in turn was often viewed (by whites) as a threat. Up until at least the 1950’s, all black male entertainers who had achieved any degree of crossover or mainstream success had been those who were thoroughly “sanitized” (i.e, “sexless) and deemed “safe.” Performers like Louie Armstrong and Sammy Davis, Sr. were hardly going to upset the status quo (or threaten the masculinity of the white male); the black male musician was going to be for the most part either the grinning fat guy blowing brass in the band, or the jovial tap dancer (ala’ Bill Bojangles) or the seasoned blues man. There were, of course, always exceptions (the flamboyant, suave, and outrageous Cab Calloway comes to mind as perhaps the earliest example of “soul man masculinity” before the rock era) but in general, it is not until the 1950’s and the rise of performers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry that we first see truly sexualized male black performers who proved that a male black performer could be overtly sexual and, yes, could (heaven forbid!) attract your white daughters. (And yes, I include Little Richard here because then, as now, androgyny usually only added to the appeal of the taboo and the forbidden. Anyone who doesn’t think that boy was getting his fair share of “tutti fruitti” from all sides is sadly deluded).

Cab Calloway, Perhaps One Of The Earliest Examples Of "Soul Man Masculinity" Before The Rock Era
Cab Calloway, Perhaps One Of The Earliest Examples Of “Soul Man Masculinity” Before The Rock Era

Just as quickly, they made sure to get Elvis on the market. The reasoning was not too hard to figure. He may have been just as sexualized, just as “dirty” and controversial, and most parents still weren’t particularly thrilled about it, but by jove, at least he was white.  In that regard, his brand of “threat” was at least somewhat more palatable.

And we don’t even have to begin to enumerate what actually happened to successful male black performers whose sexual appeal crossed racial boundaries. It is a long and already well documented, sad history.  And the double standard ensured that a black artist would always be under the microscope of scrutiny, and would always be persecuted twice as hard, and punished twice as much, for any perceived act of sexual deviance. Thus, Elvis could move a 14-year-old girl into his home and Southern society (oh heck, let’s just say American society) barely blinked an eye; Chuck Berry could allegedly transport a 14-year-old girl across a state line and be sentenced to prison.

Where Fast is going with this is to raise the question of whether Michael may have, at least in the earlier phase of his career, purposely presented himself to be as asexual and non-threatening as possible in order to appeal to a broader audience, knowing as he must have that the only way to achieve the kind of huge mainstream, crossover success he craved would be to make himself appear as “safe” as possible. This would have entailed purposely playing down stereotypes of male black artists and presenting a pure, almost “Disney-fied” image (my phrase) in order to court those masses. Just how intentional or conscious this campaign was-if indeed it was a campaign at all-is a matter of debate. And a lot of it, no doubt, was a carryover from his Jackson 5/Motown days, where he had already been thoroughly groomed and had built a successful foundation on being a wholesome act. I don’t think that it was ever Michael’s intention to alienate his original audience; rather, it seemed to me that he was always seeking to widen his audience by maintaining a certain level of what was expected of him (or what he knew his old fans already loved about him) while at the same time constantly pushing the envelope and taking just enough risks to gain new fans.  If indeed we can liken it to a campaign, it was a cleverly subtle one; he never gave the appearance of a leopard changing its spots overnight, but rather, took it by degrees, a few steps at a time, until by the end of his career he had amassed a following so huge that he could indulge himself artistically in most any direction he chose, and would still be guaranteed universal adulation and mass record sales. However, that Michael was desperately seeking crossover, mainstream success is not a debatable point; it is fact. He stated himself that it was the main motivating factor behind his desire to create Thriller, an album that, from the very beginning, he vowed would not be ignored at the Grammy’s as he felt Off the Wall had undeservedly been. So the question must be raised: If Michael was keenly aware, as he must have been, of what it took to gain that kind of commercial, mainstream acceptance as a black performer in the late 70’s and early 80’s, did he seek to make himself-or at least his public image-as “safe” and “non threatening” to that audience as possible?

That Michael Jackson was religious; had been raised in a religious home, and would have been taught (at least in theory) that sex before marriage was wrong was no act. But that these beliefs were perhaps “amped up” in a way to make him appear as a “good, safe, wholesome boy” also seemed part of a carefully calculated plan to eliminate part of the risk factor he presented. It might be worth mentioning that at the same time that Michael’s early solo career was taking off, there were artists like Rick James who personified the “pimp” stereotype and certainly were perceived as sexual; Prince, also, was an up and comer whose album cover for Dirty Mind featured him nearly nude in bikini briefs and an overcoat-an image that was not only blatantly sexual, but also one that was already blatantly blurring gender lines. But at the time, acts like James and Prince were still quite marginalized. It was one thing to court a daring, exotic, or controversial image if one was a marginalized artist appealing to a certain demographic; quite another if one’s ambition was to be the biggest selling artist of all time. (Of course, Prince would go on to become a mega crossover star in his own right by mid decade, but arguably, that success may have owed a lot to Michael having already paved that path).

To illustrate the point that African-Americans never totally bought into Michael’s “wholesome” image Fast refers to a funny but scalpel sharp joke made by Eddie Murphy in the 80’s.

“…[Michael] went on television and said, ‘I don’t have sex because of my religious beliefs’ and the public believed it. Brothers were like ‘get the fuck out of here’ and white people going, ‘That Michael’s a special kind of guy, he’s good, clean, and wholesome…” (Eddie Murphy qtd in Fast 48).

The upshot, according to Murphy, was that by the time of the 1984 Grammy’s, Michael could waltz down the red carpet with Brooke Shields on his arm and “nobody white said shit.”

For sure, it must have felt like quite a triumph after having been snubbed as a date for Tatum O’Neal at The Wiz premier back in 1978 because her manager had said she “shouldn’t be seen with a n*gg*r”!

With Brooke Shields At The 1984 Grammy's
With Brooke Shields At The 1984 Grammy’s

But if this was all a purposeful strategy-and if it did in some ways help him achieve his goal-it was nevertheless a strategy that he as quickly began to dismantle, taking more and more risks both with his image and with his art, until by the premier of the “Black or White” video in 1991 he was smashing car windows and (more or less) simulating masturbation in our living rooms. All, it might be added, while kids everywhere watched and still proclaimed “I love Michael; he’s the best!”

The conundrum that was Michael Jackson, if not born in that moment, was certainly solidified.

In the next installment: Going even deeper into “the closet”…and into “Desire!”

Susan Fast’s “Dangerous”: A Review (Part 1)

I've Been Waiting For The Perfect Occasion To Showcase This Adorable, Rare "Dangerous" Era Photo!
I’ve Been Waiting For The Perfect Occasion To Showcase This Adorable, Rare “Dangerous” Era Photo!

 

“1991’s Dangerous announced the end of Jackson’s innocence and the command of a complicated, conflicted sensibility.”-Armond White.

This quote from Armond White kicks off the introduction to Susan Fast’s Dangerous, the most recent addition to Bloomsbury’s 331/3 music series.

dangerous book coverSince its publication last September, a lot of people have been asking for my thoughts on the book. I will just start off by saying, hands down, this is probably the most comprehensive volume we are ever likely to get on Michael Jackson’s fourth solo studio album, an album that marked a watershed moment in Michael’s artistic maturity and post-Quincy Jones partnership.  If you are one of those prone to believing that Michael’s artistic peak was Thriller or Bad, this book will definitely make you rethink your views. And even if you are one of those who are already well aware that Dangerous marked not the end, but the beginning of a whole new epoch for Michael Jackson-one that would see him delve into much deeper, darker, and yes, sexier depths than ever before-you will still have much to learn from this book. It definitely gave me a lot of new insight into the album, although some of Ms. Fast’s views are bound to spark some controversy among fans and critics.

As always when I do book reviews, I will offer not only my reactions to the book but, also, at times, will use the author’s views as a springboard to discuss some of my own opinions on these topics.  In other words, those who have been following me for any length of time know that a book review here is as much apt to become an in-depth dialog between myself and the author’s views. So if you just want to know whether the book is worth buying, I will cut straight to the chase for you and say, unequivocally, yes. And if that’s all you want to know, get thee straight to Amazon. But if you are truly interested in a round table dialog about this book and its subject, you’re in the right place.

First off, I can’t discuss this book without discussing the very worthy series that it is a part of. Since 2003, Bloomsbury’s 333 series has been dedicated to the serious academic analysis of the most important and influential music albums of the rock era. That this is a field in which Michael Jackson’s music remains woefully underrated is something Fast discusses in the introduction, but as we know, that is changing and will continue to change in the years and decades ahead. For years, the common narrative among music journalists has been that Michael Jackson’s artistic output peaked with Thriller critically, and perhaps Bad commercially.  Although Dangerous received mostly positive reviews upon release and was a mammoth best seller, remaining on the charts for over two years,  it didn’t take long for the album’s reputation to become engulfed in a kind of music critic amnesia, the same one that plagued most of his post-Bad work (the fact that HIStory, a #1 and Grammy nominated album that produced two hit singles stateside as well as his UK chart-topping “Earth Song” is also conveniently overlooked). When these albums were acknowledged at all, it was often only to lambast them as self-indulgent works-“whiny,” “paranoid,” etc became favorite descriptive monikers. It wasn’t, of course,  that these opinions were entirely without some merit. Michael’s albums from the 90’s on did become increasingly long, often uneven, and with an increasing diversity of styles that often left critics more confused than enlightened. Sometimes this came down to too many producers, too many guest stars, too many collaborators, and an ego-driven star who, yes, felt every note of every track was too important to cut (and,conversely, it was this same drive for perfection that often led to some questionable decisions about what was ultimately left out).

But it also came down to something else. Michael’s 90’s work simply became less “fun”-and that was a bit too much for those who could forgive him most anything as long as he gave us catchy dance grooves. Now he was making artistic statements, and not even the kind of generic, feel good philanthropy of “We Are The World” or “Man In The Mirror.” Instead, he was addressing heads-on issues of racism, poverty, the AIDS epidemic, and other things that many felt should be politely swept under the rug-or at least sublimated to a catchy groove. Michael’s ’90’s work also became by turns both more militant and more intensely personal and introspective-after all, this was the era that saw him become a victim of cruel allegations and a relentless witch hunt, and in which he explored the depths of a soul that had been somewhat cast adrift, for he was still in many ways dealing with his break from the Jehovah Witness faith and coming to terms with what that break meant for him spiritually. This was the era in which he would experience, in short succession, first time marriage, divorce, and fatherhood. In short, Michael Jackson in the 90’s had grown into adulthood. Whatever vestiges of innocence that had given his 80’s image its boyish charm was long gone, replaced by a new sensibility, one that was by turns both politically mature and more self aware than ever before. It made sense that he was evolving on his life path, so his music should evolve with him. Yet it has taken over twenty years for critics to gain the perspective needed to finally start recasting Michael’s 90’s and 2000’s work in a new light.

"Dangerous"-An Era Of Increased Introspection and Political Awareness
“Dangerous”-An Era Of Increased Introspection and Political Awareness

Susan Fast’s book is an important step in that direction. But what I got most out of it was a newfound appreciation for the deliberate chronology and cohesive concept of the album. If you’re one of those Jackson fans who, like me, have often found some of his later albums a bit “all over the place” it is quite enlightening to learn how much of this was actually intentional, as Michael’s 90’s work became less about creating albums full of hit singles, and more about creating concept albums.  This may be a new revelation for many Jackson fans. For years, most of us have been thoroughly indoctrinated into Michael’s oft-circulated quote that he believed every song on an album should be a potential hit single. The idea of Michael Jackson as a serious musician creating “concept” albums may thus seem foreign to some, but by taking this approach, latter albums like Dangerous, HIStory, and Invincible can definitely be appreciated in a new light. In short, Fast describes Dangerous as an album with a fully realized arc, and once that concept is understood, the sequencing of the tracks makes far more sense.

“…Far removed from the gleaming Off The Wall, the concise brilliance of Thriller, and the clean, theatrical synth-pop of Bad, Dangerous is messy, industrial, excessive on every level. Like HIStory and Invincible, it doesn’t want to stop: the songs are long, there are so many of them, listening leaves Jackson’s guts all over the speakers, yours all over the room. Not that I’m particularly interested in taming any of this wondrous music, but it all makes more sense if it’s thought of as a concept album. Alan Light criticizes the running order, commenting that ‘the sequencing of Dangerous often clusters similar songs in bunches when a more varied presentation would have been stronger,’ but the ‘clusters’ give us a compelling arc and delineate a number of themes Jackson wants to explore.” (Fast 11).

Fast then proceeds to use that arc as the outline for her book. The chapters follow the sequencing of Dangerous‘s arc, of which she has conveniently divided into five sections-Noise, Desire, Utopia, Soul, and Coda. Likewise, I will break down each section of the book by these same labels.

NOISE:

“Press play on your copy of Dangerous and you enter Michael Jackson’s decade of noisy music-making…” (Fast 17).

This chapter is devoted to the album’s initial six tracks, although there will be some back and forth bleeding and overlapping among the sections (especially since many of the tracks will also be discussed at length in “Desire.”). As Fast states, Dangerous begins with the sound of breaking glass, and it is not until the roughly mid section of the album, beginning with “Heal The World”) that we will have any respite from this sensory overload of sound.

Although Fast expends a good deal of effort in analyzing the reasons for all the noise, it might be worth remembering that the 90’s in general was a musically noisy decade. It was the era of the big, industrialized beat. Janet’s Rhythm Nation 1814 likewise kicks off with a cacophony of clangings and what sounds like military gunfire; Nine Inch Nails’s The Downward Spiral starts off with what sounds like heavy, thudding footsteps, increasing to a frenetic march-like gait before exploding into a fusillade of distorted sound, giving its opening track “Mr. Self Destruct” a feeling of being lost in a machine driven age.

And indeed, that seemed to have been much of the calculated reasoning behind the industrialized sound that drove much of the early 90’s. It was the idea that we were becoming products of a militant and industrialized society; the over production of these tracks, especially in regards to non musical sounds, was a part of that dehumanizing process. This was not an entirely new concept. For sure, most of the psychedelic music of the 60’s also relied heavily on its ability to assault the senses with often distorted sound. But the major difference was that the music of the psychedelic era was still relying on mostly musical sounds to achieve this effect. When we listened to Jimi Hendrix creating his sonic “sound paintings” they could sometimes sound other worldly, but we never lost sight of the fact that we were listening to an instrument. The emphasis on non musical, or “object” sounds was indeed a phenomenon unique to the 90’s. And, as Fast notes, hip hop itself would emerge as a musical art form in which “noise” takes front and center.

Michael did tend to follow trends as much as create them (for example, I believe his track “Morphine” owes a heavy debt to industrial bands like Nine Inch Nails)but it does seem that from the very opening of “Jam” there is a a purposeful shift in musical direction. And it goes without saying that Dangerous, an album released very early in the decade, would have had a monumental impact on albums that followed, including The Downward Spiral.

jamBy this time, Michael had established a pattern of kicking off his albums with aggressive. upbeat songs, from his joyous and spontaneous “Ow!” of “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” to the tight funk of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” to the street smart taunting of “Bad.” But “Jam,” while similar to its predecessors as an uptempo dance track, clearly has a darker and more troubled edge. His vocals are noticeably lower, and he sings in a tormented voice about his generation-the baby boomers-coming of age and “working it out.” Fast analyzes this as Michael’s statement that his baby boom generation, far from having solved the world’s problems (as they idealistically thought they would do in the 60’s) are actually responsible for much of the state the world is in.

By the way, I love her analysis of Michael’s singing style on this track.  Calling his vocals here “wounded” and “terrified” she states:

“…The melody is like a run-on sentence and it sounds as if Jackson won’t have enough breath to get through it-sometimes he just barely makes it to the end of a phrase. And although the rhythm of this melody is made up of straight eighth notes (no swingin’), they’re all sung ahead of the beat, like he can’t wait, he’s in too much of a rush, or maybe even panic, to stay in synch with the music. Adding to the tension is the fact that there’s very little bottom end in the verses-it feels like we’re in suspension.” (Fast 39).

This is the kind of passage where Fast excels most, and throughout the book she painstakingly analyzes Michael’s vocal performances on every track of the album in similar fashion. It serves to remind me that there hasn’t been nearly enough serious and critical attention paid to Michael’s vocal prowess, and how he was able to use his voice as the ultimate instrument.

The back to back analysis of “Jam” and “Why You Wanna Trip On Me” is a passage that I found particularly insightful (for sure, I will never listen to “Jam” quite the same way again). For starters, I never really considered the idea of Dangerous as Michael’s most “black” album (ironic considering the album dropped at a time when Michael was becoming increasingly stigmatized for not being “black enough”). But on hindsight, this is a remarkably accurate conclusion. Both stylistically and in subject matter, Michael was closer to his James Brown roots on those first few tracks of Dangerous than he had, perhaps, been on all of Thriller and Bad combined.  Part of this is steeped in the far more politically conscious, anti-neoliberalism  of these tracks (which Fast exhaustively analyzes, and in far more depth than I can touch on here) but it’s more than that: It’s in the bottom heavy sound of these tracks, and their visceral assault. There is no pop sheen to these tracks; they are straight up, raw r&b and funk, and as stated previously, it’s an assault that doesn’t let up until “Heal The World” even if, albeit, “Remember The Time” does at least slow the pace a little, allowing for a breather. But even that track is unarguably Michael’s most “black” love song since “The Lady in My Life” on Thriller. Case in point: Today, when most of Michael’s 90’s output is largely ignored on most oldies AOR stations, “Remember The Time” remains a staple on many old school urban/r&b stations (and where it is also not unusual to hear “Scream” and “You Are Not Alone” in heavy rotation). This raises an interesting point. Were Michael’s black fans connecting more with him during this era-a time when he was routinely being castigated by white critics for having “sold out” his black identity? If recent events are any indication-as millions of protesters across the country have embraced Michael’s militant 1996 track “They Don’t Care About Us” and, to a lesser but no less notable extent, “Black or White” as official theme songs-this would seem to be the case. Although it may be only slightly off topic, the recent words of Baltimore Sun writer D.B. Anderson are worth pondering in this context:

On Twitter, #TheyDontCareAboutUs is a hashtag. In Ferguson, they blasted the Michael Jackson song through car windows. In New York City and Berkeley last weekend, it was sung and performed by protesters. And In Baltimore, there was a magical moment when the Morgan State University choir answered protests with a rendition of Jackson’s “Heal The World.”

The price has already been paid, but the check was never cashed. Maybe we just need to finally listen to Michael Jackson.”-D.B. Anderson

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-messenger-king-20141209-story.html

By his own admission, Michael had felt so humiliated by the Grammy snub of Off the Wall that he vowed to make his next album something that could not be ignored-something so huge that it would not matter to anyone if he was black or white, In that spirit, Michael’s classic album Thriller was born, and ultimately followed up with Bad which comprised mostly the same formula for success. Perhaps, having proved his point with Thriller and Bad, he no longer felt the need to “prove” himself. In other words, he was Michael Jackson; he didn’t have to kiss butt anymore if he chose not to. Not that he ever had, but if anything, Dangerous does mark the era of Jackson’s independence-and a whole reaffirming of a black identity that  narrow sighted critics would continue to deny him for years to come. 130411012913-01-michael-jackson93-0411-story-top

Further elaborating on the “Jam” vocal, Fast states in rounding out her “Noise” chapter:

“This is decidedly not the voice of a ‘man-child,’ as people liked to (condescendingly) call Jackson, nor is it the voice of someone who ‘wanted to be white.’ It’s the voice of an adult man who understood and was deeply connected to his black musical roots.’ Given his upbringing among r&b greats like Brown and Jackie Wilson, he always had a tendency to ‘go raw,’ as Nelson George has expressed it, but this tendency grew more pronounced in his later works, starting here; there’s less and less of that pristine, conventionally beautiful tenor and more grit and roughness. More blackness. More noise. More danger.” (Fast 41).

Indeed, those initial six tracks of Dangerous could almost stand alone as an album in and of itself (at the very least, an EP) and it would have been Michael’s most cohesive album since Off the Wall. Another six tracks or so in the vein of “Jam,” “Why You Wanna Trip On Me,” “In the Closet,” etc and Michael could have easily had the greatest and certainly most pure funk/r&b album of his career. But rather than being content to go that route,  Michael clearly had a different vision for this album, one in which in which the mini segments (of which the tightly knit r&b funk of those first six tracks is merely the first of several such unified segments) become part of a greater whole. As powerful, jolting, and sexually charged as those first six tracks are, they are simply one movement of a much bigger symphony-and really, as I have discovered, that is the best way to approach any understanding of Michael Jackson’s later albums. A symphony is often comprised of many separate “movements” within the piece, each movement often having little to do (or seemingly little to do) with the main composition, until everything ties together at the end.  We have to trust that the composer is taking us where he wants us to go.  Fast’s book is, to my knowledge, the first serious attempt to analyze the compositional journey that is Dangerous and to put it in its proper perspective.

In Part 2, I will take on Fast’s “Desire” chapter and some of the book’s more controversial aspects. Although I love the book. obviously, there are points I disagree on, and some conclusions she draws that I question, so this should get interesting. The series will round out with discussions of “Utopia,” “Soul,” and “Coda” respectively.

 

More Pieces of Michael Sold To The Highest Bidder

The Video Features Some Of The Most Intense Few Moments of Gazing Into Those Soulful, Brown Eyes One Is Ever Likely To Encounter...But This Was No Photo Shoot!
The Video Features Some Of The Most Intense Few Moments of Gazing Into Those Soulful, Brown Eyes One Is Ever Likely To Encounter…But This Was No Photo Shoot!

I mentioned in my previous post that there were a couple of developments this week that I wanted to comment on. Aside from the new “South Park” episode, the other matter of concern is the recent surfacing-and auctioning off-of these adorable and priceless Christmas home movies. Although the video here is labeled 1993/1996 I am pretty certain that is in error. Michael’s 1993 Christmas was well documented in an earlier video that has been circulated ever since 2003, when it was first shown as part of the special Michael Jackson’s Private Home Movies (the famous Elizabeth Taylor “squirt gun” Christmas, notable for being Michael’s first celebration of Christmas.). Other dates for this vid point to Christmas of 1996, which is probably more accurate given Michael’s appearance (he appears thinner than in the ’93 video, and his makeup heavier) and the age of the Cascio children here. (UPDATE: Please see the discussion of the dates in the comments. In light of the timeline, and the fact that Michael did celebrate Christmas in December of ’93 with the Cascios-the earlier celebration with Elizabeth Taylor was in January of ’93-the ’93 date given for this video is most likely accurate).

I know there has been quite a bit of Cascio bashing since these movies surfaced and were put up for auction. I don’t know if they were behind it, and I would rather not get into the judging of it. I don’t know the circumstances of how these movies were put up for auction, but I do know that once again it is saddening to think that so many pieces of Michael are just being scattered to the winds. It also raises another issue: Why do so many of Michael’s friends and relatives have a dollar value on everything they have of him, even down to something as trivial as private home movies? Does EVERYTHING have to be sold?

http://www.gottahaverockandroll.com/michael_jackson_s_never_before_seen_home_movies_fr-lot14759.aspx

Then, there is the whole “invasion of privacy” controversy. As with so many things of this nature, fans will delight in viewing them (and yes, Michael IS absolutely at his most adorable here) and yet will feel guilty for watching them. Because we know they weren’t really meant for our eyes, there is a kind of voyeuristic thrill and guilt at the same time. But just as with bootleg outtakes or anything else that is “leaked” to the public, once it’s “out there” it’s already in the public domain.  These have made it to Youtube and have gone viral within the fan community.  The video itself is harmless enough-it’s just Michael goofing around with friends; certainly no more personal in nature than similar clips he had already allowed the public to see. Yet, for a man who had so little in the way of a private life, it does feel in some ways like a little part of him-something he had kept for himself-is once again being exploited for public consumption.

Nevertheless, I can’t deny there is a certain fascination in viewing them, and trust me, I know fans are viewing them. Part of what makes them interesting is that they DO offer a rare glimpse of a completely candid and casual Michael. Even the clips he selected for Private Home Movies were all carefully chosen to preserve an “image”-we saw what he wanted us to see. And yet it is interesting that what we see here is nothing different. This reinforces the fact that Michael was far more honest and open in his public persona than many detractors give him credit for, preferring to believe that Michael put on an “act” for his fans. Yet what we see here is that the very private and candid Michael Jackson, behind closed doors, was no different from the public persona so many of us adored.  And for the Cascios, who by this time had already known Michael for over twelve years, there was no pretense. So in other words, this is about as “real” as it gets. So we get Michael wandering around in white flannel, striped pj’s, humming songs, discussing dinner, trying out his new camera and taking what is already being described in the media as perhaps the first mirror “selfie” in history :

WATCH: Did Michael Jackson take the first ever mirror selfie in 1993?

Thursday, December 04, 2014 – 04:22 PM

A never before seen Michael Jackson Christmas video has emerged from the Michael Jackson personal archives.

The video begins on Christmas Eve, 1993, with Michael and friends opening presents in Neverland.

The rest of the video shows them touring Neverland, taking rides, in the game room, playing with the animals and taking the first ever mirror selfie?

This takes Man in the Mirror to a whole new level.

This colour home movie is not available to watch in full but we are lucky enough to catch these two shorts clips that were either shot by Frank Cascio or Michael Jackson himself.

The video is to be auctioned on gottahaverockandroll.com tomorrow – and it already has one bid of $5,000.

A collector’s item indeed.

http://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/entertainment/watch-did-michael-jackson-take-the-first-ever-mirror-selfie-in-1993-653439.html

“I’m not a narcissist,” he jokes, with a perfectly straight poker face as he stands in front of the mirror to “test” the camera by getting a shot of himself.  This moment alone may well be worth the seven thousand dollar price tag that someone eventually forked over for this rare treasure. The footage beautifully captures Michael at the height of his adorable 90’s “sprite” phase. When I first began seeing the screencaps from these videos surfacing on my Twitter timeline and elsewhere, I thought, “My god, where did these absolutely stunning shots come from!”  Well, it didn’t take long to find out.  Those moments, starting around 4:17 and leading up to his “Something’s weird here” comment are, hands down, some of the most amazing views into those soulful brown eyes ever captured on film.  Perhaps Michael really was his own best photographer!

This Composite Captures Some Of The Best Poses From Michael's "Selfie" Photo Shoot. "I'm Not A Narcissist"-No, But You Sure Were Adorable!
This Composite Captures Some Of The Best Poses From Michael’s “Selfie” Photo Shoot. “I’m Not A Narcissist”-No, But You Sure Were Adorable!

Something else interesting that was learned from this clip: It was a myth that Michael never listened to anything but classical music at Neverland! At one point, we can very clearly hear Yes’s 1983 hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart” blasting at rather full volume!

There’s nothing earth shattering here, and certainly nothing of the usual juicy, scandalous nature that the media loves when it comes to celebrity private home videos: This isn’t Michael’s and Lisa’s leaked honeymoon video, for crying out loud (though I don’t suppose fans would exactly hate that, either, if such a thing were to surface, lol) nor does it contain anything so embarrassingly humiliating as drunkenly eating a cheeseburger off the floor (poor ol’ David Hasselhoff, still gotta feel kind of sorry for him over that one!).  For what it is, it is simply a very sweet moment captured on film, of Michael indulging in something that in 1996 was still a novelty to him-celebrating Christmas. But for all that is is a very sweet moment, it was all the same,a private one, which brings me back to where this began.

For seven thousand, three hundred and twenty-one dollars, someone has purchased yet another piece of Michael’s private memories, and along with it, another tiny part of his soul.

How much, honestly, is left?

 

Michael Jackson’s Hologram Is On The Loose: Another “South Park” MJ Parody and My Thoughts On It

He Seemed Harmless and Fun Enough At Last May's Billboard Awards. But What If "Virtual Mike" Escaped And Was Running Loose In The World? That Is The Premise Of The Latest "South Park" Episode!
He Seemed Harmless and Fun Enough At Last May’s Billboard Awards. But What If “Virtual Mike” Escaped And Was Running Loose In The World? That Is The Premise Of The Latest “South Park” Episode!

While I am hard at work on my review of the Susan Fast book Dangerous  there have been some interesting late developments that are worth at least a mention. Not the least is the fact that “South Park” has once again done a Michael Jackson parody episode, only this time it is actually “Virtual Mikey” who is the object of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s sharp, satiric pen.  The ninth episode of Season 18, this is a two-parter that is scheduled to conclude next week.

Are The Words "Starring Michael Jackson's Hologram" A Phrase We'll Have To Get Used To Hearing?
Are The Words “Starring Michael Jackson’s Hologram” A Phrase We’ll Have To Get Used To Hearing?

This is not the first time that Parker and Stone have done an MJ themed episode. While Michael Jackson has been fodder for these types of shows for many years-often with cringeworthy results (I despise the “Family Guy” ones, for example)-“South Park” to its credit has at least had some of the more intelligent spoofs. Granted, they still poke fun at many aspects of Michael’s “tabloid caricature” eccentricities, which may rub more sensitive fans the wrong way. But over eighteen seasons, “South Park” has a long and established history of satirizing celebrities. In fact, it has become almost a code of honor within the industry that you are really nobody until “South Park” has taken a stab at you-at least once. The fact is, no celebrity, great or small, is immune to the “South Park” treatment. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are actually Michael Jackson fans (so I’ve been told, at least) so perhaps it is not surprising that their MJ parodies are always balanced and sometimes surprisingly sharp and insightful, even as they do, of course, poke fun at him for all the usual comedic reasons that have been comedic fodder for at least the last quarter century.

Granted, if you are the type of fan who takes offense to any MJ-related humor or mocking of him, these episodes are not for you. “South Park” has not survived eighteen years as a result of being scared to offend. But what is often interesting about the “South Park” parodies-and what I think makes them a definite cut above similar parodies we have seen on shows like Seth McFarlane’s “Family Guy”-is the larger context of the episodes’ social commentaries. Ultimately, there is always an underlying message about the state of our culture and our often tabloid-driven relationship with celebrities, which sometimes says more about “us” than about them. While the show never pussyfoots around a celebrity’s controversies, the storylines are usually serving more as a mirror that reflects our own foibles in allowing the media to shape our views.

2004's "The Jeffersons" Episode Had Michael Living "Incognito" In South Park Under The Alias "Mr. Jefferson." An at times surprisingly sweet episode, this scene featured an interesting parallel with Michael's real life, as he attempts to bond with a "real family."
2004’s “The Jeffersons” Episode Had Michael Living “Incognito” In South Park Under The Alias “Mr. Jefferson.” An at times surprisingly sweet episode, this scene featured an interesting parallel with Michael’s real life, as he attempts to bond with a “real family.”

The first MJ themed “South Park” episode, “The Jeffersons,” aired in 2004 at the height of the Martin Bashir fallout and Arvizo allegations. At a time when MJ bashing was at its height and the witch hunt mentality of the media was in full swing, the “Mr. Jefferson” episode, as it came to be called, was a surprisingly balanced spoof that argued for the fact that “Mr. Jefferson” was merely eccentric and misunderstood, but not guilty of any crime.  So who were the perpetrators here? As it turned out, the episode made a case of greedy parents with their hands out for money, and an over zealous Park County police investigator named Harrison Yates who contacts Santa Barbara Police and learns of a plan to drive a wealthy African-American man out of the community (sound familiar?) because he is “wealthier than we are.”  Of course, there are some tasteless, crude “nose jokes” and things of that nature-“Mr. Jefferson’s” noted eccentricities are not spared-but the bigger context is that the show clearly depicts Michael’s caricature as a framed man. It’s a bit Frankenstein-ish in its approach, where “Mr. Jefferson” is depicted somewhat as the beastly but gentle and misunderstood creature. This, in essence, is simply replacing one paradigm with another which might be as equally erroneous and harmful (either way, it is reducing a very complex man and human being to a caricature) but at the time, it was, at least, quite progressive in putting forth the idea that there were certainly many more facets to the allegations than what was meeting the public eye. (For the record, there was no statement of what Michael thought of the episode. It would have been nice to know what he thought of it. I don’t imagine he would have liked it, particularly, since it hit on some areas that I know were sore points for him. However, it was 2004 and Michael, as we know, had much more pressing issues of concern than a silly TV parody).

Another classic MJ themed “South Park” moment: Chef does “Thriller!”

Fast forward five years, and the second MJ themed “South Park” which aired in October, 2009. This episode was intended as a take on the unusual blitz of celebrity deaths that occurred in such rapid succession that year, and this time Michael, like the other dead celebrities, appears as his ghost. Although it was weaker than the Mr. Jefferson episode (and the whole idea of Michael wanting to come back as a little white girl was just tacky) it had its moments where the usual Stone-Parker humor was right on point. For example, the best scene was when all of the newly departed celebs are on board a plane, waiting for the take-off that will lift them to Heaven and out of Purgatory. Michael is conspicuously absent. “What’s the hold up?” demands a very irate Ed MacMahon. It is explained that they are all waiting on Mr. Jackson, who is apparently being held up in getting his bags checked. “Mr. Jackson has a lot of baggage,” it is explained. At the end of the episode, Michael’s spirit has been released-presumably to find the freedom and peace in the afterlife that he never had on earth.

But now, fast forward another five years, and Michael is back-this time as a constructed hologram. The episode is, of course, spoofing the now famous MJ hologram performance at last May’s Billboard Awards. Actually, to clarify, this episode is spoofing a lot of things. The episode actually has two, distinct parallel plots, one that is spoofing Youtube game bloggers, and another that is making a very razor sharp statement about the current status of the music industry, in which all pop stars seem to be manufactured fakes, or are talentless bimbos who win acclaim not by their music but how well they can twerk onstage (or rub their clits, apparently) and that the great, truly unique and talented idols of the past are now manufactured for profit via hologram technology. (“Tupac,” as his hologram self, is also resurrected for the episode).

For my purposes here, I’m not going to focus too much on the whole gamer/blogging plot, though there is a thematic connection. The connection is that something which was once genuine and “cool” has been lost, replaced by a much inferior activity. Kids don’t actually play video games anymore; instead, they would rather spend hours on the internet watching someone COMMENT on playing video games. The irony and its obvious connect to what has happened to music today, thus, isn’t too far of a stretch. In one scene, Kyle notices dust accumulating on the TV. As he wipes the dust away, the thought occurs to him: “The living room is dying!” Yes, it seems a lot of things are dying, replaced by commodities and gimmicks. The great irony is that in the 1980’s, when artists like Michael and Whitney and Prince were at their peak, we thought the music industry had become too commercialized and real music was dying even then. We hadn’t seen nothing yet, as the absolute nadir of pop music was still a few decades away.

In what is apparently a continuation of a plot gag that has been running throughout the season, the pop star Lorde is not really a teenage girl at all, but rather, Stan’s father Randy, who at the bequest of a greedy manager has been faking it all along, making people believe that he is actually the teenage pop star. The ruse has worked quite well until…well, now he has to perform live at a “Women in Rock” concert. The concert also features Nicky Minaj, Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea-and Michael Jackson’s hologram, who is supposed to perform onstage with Iggy. When it’s revealed that “Lorde” can’t even carry a tune, “she” is immediatly booed offstage. Out of desperation, “she” resorts to the cheap tactics of Iggy, Miley, and the others, and performs an outrageous “clit rubbing” onstage (of course, what makes this scene so hilarious is in knowing it is actually Stan’s dad Randy who is going to these ridiculous lengths!).

In all the chaos over Lorde’s “clit rubbing” Michael Jackson’s hologram escapes! Proclaiming that he’s now “free,” he (or it?) spins, moonwalks, hee-hee’s and shamone’s all the way across the parking lot and into the wild blue yonder.

Being cornered and backed into "fight or flee" mode was a common theme in many of Michael's works, including this shootout scene from "Moonwalker."
Being cornered and backed into “fight or flee” mode was a common theme in many of Michael’s works, including this shootout scene from “Moonwalker.”

So what ensues when suddenly you have a runaway celebrity hologram on the loose? Well, apparently, we will have to wait until next week to get the full answer. All we know right now is that music execs, deciding that the only effective way to capture a hologram is with a hologram, have now resurrected “Tupac” to chase down runaway Mike. “Virtual Mike” is last seen on a bus, where after a conversation with an elderly passenger that engages in a bit of double entendre hinting at the allegations (I wish they wouldn’t always feel the need to “go there” but I suppose it’s unavoidable) we learn that “Virtual Mike” has some unfinished business to tend to. Judging from the evil look in his eyes, we can only hope that maybe it involves Sony, Conrad Murray, Diane Dimond, Martin Bashir or, who knows, maybe all of the above! But…guess we’ll have to wait until next week to find out.

Will Tupac's Hologram Be Able To Capture Michael's Hologram-Or Will They End Up Joining Forces? Guess We'll Have To Wait To Find Out!
Will Tupac’s Hologram Be Able To Capture Michael’s Hologram-Or Will They End Up Joining Forces? Guess We’ll Have To Wait To Find Out!

Aside from the fact that Matt Stone and Trey Parker seem to think that the only memorable line Michael Jackson ever uttered is “That’s ignorant” (the joke wears really thin after the umpteenth time) I “get” what they’re trying to say. And, for sure, the comedic potential of a virtual Michael Jackson who is now free to wreck havoc on his enemies-as well as perhaps the music industry itself-is brilliant. One wonders if Michael Jackson and Tupac Shakur’s virtual versions of themselves will end up teaming together against the greedy vultures who have singlehandedly ruined the music industry. If it happens, this would surely be an ending in true “South Park” style!

On a deeper symbolic level, the idea of an escaped Michael Jackson fits perfectly with the whole thematic idea of Xscape. “You want me/come and get me” Michael taunts, barely audibly, in the track’s fade out. Even Michael himself, no doubt, might have gotten a chuckle out of the idea of his virtualized image-meant to be a “slave to the rhythm” for the corporation-actually living out his ultimate fantasy of escaping and putting it to them. When the hologram was first revealed, a common assumption was that here was a true, bona fide puppet for execs to continue milking his brand-even better, for this was a “virtual reality” Michael Jackson who could be completely controlled, who would sing and dance on command and otherwise never cause any problems or raise any demands. In other words, all one had to do was pull his strings, or wind him up (whatever the analogous equivalent of how a hologram is brought to life); he would dance and sing for you, then no more worries. After all, he isn’t human and will never cause any of the headaches that, gosh, our dear beloved human Michael must have sometimes caused them.

The entire episode isn’t available for embedding (copyright infringement and all that!) but here’s a clip from the episode:

Although the crude jokes are to be expected (it’s “South Park,” after all, where nothing is sacred) I think that Trey Parker and Matt Stone “get” Michael Jackson on a far more important, crucial level. While we can laugh at some of Michael’s performance tics, eccentricities, and tendencies sometimes towards the grandiose (and all of these, at some point, have been the butt of “South Park” satire) Michael is most often portrayed, ultimately, as a victim of fame, of greedy execs, and of the media that drove its relentless vendetta against him.  If one thinks for a moment that this is all just some writer’s fantasy, listen again to the lyrics of Xscape, Leave Me Alone, and oh, about a dozen other tracks I could name.  This was the life that Michael lived for over forty-five of his fifty years. Indeed, a predominant, recurring theme of the MJ “South Park” parodies is the idea of Michael Jackson finally being “released” from the metaphoric prison of his existence, and they have played on this theme in many and various ways, from the persecuted and incognito “Mr. Jefferson” to the earthbound spirit of “Dead Celebrities” and, finally, as his own imprisoned “virtual self” in this latest and most recent episode.  In the case of the latter two, it has been some bit of unfinished business or unfulfilled desire that holds him bound, and only by finally accomplishing these final objectives does he find release. In the “Dead Celebrities” episode, the humor of this supposed objective (that he wanted to compete in a little girls’ beauty pageant) is patently ridiculous, but its very absurdity is analogous to the idea of someone who has been trapped in a world since childhood where, presumably, he was never allowed freedom of choice; where no one ever bothered to ask him what he wanted to do with his life.  So it turns out, after all the accolades and the millions of records sold and all the awards won and women fainting at sight of him and dining with dignitaries and zipping around the world on private jets, it turns out all he ever really wanted out of life was a silly trophy for competing in a kids’ pageant. As silly as it sounds, it’s not totally out of character for Michael, either. After all, he spent a lifetime compensating for the simple joys of childhood. So in the end, when his ghost is proudly holding his trophy on the plane, yes, it’s absurd but there is a kind of bittersweet triumph in it, as well. Michael Jackson, so the message goes, finally got something that he wanted-not what his family wanted, or what Sony wanted, or what the world wanted. The implication is that, no matter how absurd, silly, or trivial, he has finally gotten to do something just for Michael.

south park10

 

And, to further add to the relevant timeliness of the current episode, yesterday’s release of the 2015 Grammy nominations have further fueled the speculations of pundits everywhere that the music industry truly is experiencing its own Gotterdammerung. There are few, if any, genuine artists left. We live in an era where the ability to twerk is valued far more than the ability to dance or sing; where being a trending topic on Twitter is more valued as a gauge of artistic success than sales, where auto tuning has replaced vocals and where even the great uniqueness of past pop icons are now reduced to the gimmicky of hologram technology.

I have a feeling that, from Heaven or wherever he is looking down, Michael just might be cheering on his virtual self and its current victory! But what is in store for Virtual Mike? Will he be able to carry out his plan, or will he be captured and forced back into a life of corporate slavery?

Gosh, this reminds me of why I detest two part episodes!

Well, rest assured that whatever mayhem “Virtual Mike” unleashes, we won’t be able to blame it on Michael. After all, he’s in Heaven. So whatever happens, it’s not him-it’s his hologram! Remember when Michael said, years ago, that he would love to be invisible just once so he could slap the paparazzi off those silly motor scooters they drive? Hmmmm…now imagine a world where Michael is finally free, and whatever happens…”Oops, it wasn’t me! Musta been my hologram!”

"It Wasn't Me...Musta Been My Hologram!"
“It Wasn’t Me…Musta Been My Hologram!”

 

UPDATE 12/12/14: Part 2 of the “South Park” hologram episode aired 12/10. Although as it turned out, Michael’s hologram was hardly the centerpiece of the episode (and, in fact, many celebrities and celebrity holograms were spoofed) it turned out to be a quite satisfying conclusion. As predicted, Michael’s and Tupac’s holograms did end up working together, after an initial confrontation at Stan’s house in which the two hologram icons realized that as black men, they had to work together. The episode touched on many relevant, current events, with both Michael and Tupac’s holograms ending up in a stand-off with white cops surrounding Stan’s house. They debate at one point whether Michael’s hologram is actually a black man since “we couldn’t put a choke hold on him.” Michael’s hologram was supposed to be the featured star of a cheesy Christmas TV special (featuring many celebrity holograms), one in which he would play Peter Pan. They mention that this is the segment of their show that has the biggest response on Twitter.  But rather than going back to play Peter Pan, Michael is persuaded that a stand has to be made to save the music industry. Tupac and Michael’s holograms return together to the studio with guns, and Michael gets the shot that brings down the evil music mogul, putting a (most thankful and welcome) end to this sad spectacle.

Other celebrities that were spoofed in this episode included Kurt Cobain, Elvis, Robin Williams, Taylor Swift, and Bill Cosby (I would imagine a recent add to take advantage of the current headlines while the iron was hot).

Some interesting things of note: I liked that this episode gave Michael the heroic ending, allowing him to be the one who fires the fatal shot that saves the day. Even if teamed up with a famous “thug” rapper like Tupac, it seems only fitting that the final stand that saves music should be made by The King of Pop.  Secondly, it may be worth noting that while Bill Cosby’s character is portrayed as being guilty of his crimes (he is obviously trying to come on strong to Taylor Swift, and puts a drug in her drink) Michael’s hologram repeatedly asserts the reminder that his crimes were only “alleged” ones. Of course, as I have said before, the fact that this response is supposed to be somehow humorous (repeating in an effeminate voice that the accusations are “ignorant” ad nauseam) deflects the denial-and another running gag is that the hologram is always too quick to assume he is being accused even when it is supposedly just an “innocent” conversation.  However, another way to interpret the hair trigger responses is that they are conditioned responses that have come about as a result of being hounded and persecuted. In this episode, there is a clear connect to the earlier “The Jeffersons” episode. When the cops come into the station with Michael’s hologram in handcuffs, they say that they found him snooping around “the old Jefferson place.” Since we know that “Mr. Jefferson” was really supposed to be Michael, this means that the hologram’s unfinished business referred to in Part 1 involved returning home, even though this had been the earlier scene of his persecution. Now, with the increased attention of white police brutality against black men, Michael’s hologram is being subjected to even harsher treatment, the white cops presumably having been made even angrier by the fact that their choke hold was unsuccessful. Then, while Michael’s hologram is still in handcuffs, Tupac’s hologram enters the police station. After many incredulous jokes about a “black guy walking into a police station” they start to fire on him. Of course, since “Tupac” isn’t really Tupac but a hologram, the bullets go right through him.

I cringed when I first heard the rumor that Part 2 would consist of Michael’s hologram playing Peter Pan on a TV special. That would have been every bit as incredibly lame as the spoof promo for the show suggested. I am glad that, as it turned out, Virtual Michael never had any intention of taking part in that lame production, a decision that had apparently been made for him and for which he never had a say (then again, he’s supposed to be a hologram, right?). It seems somehow fitting that, in the end, Virtual Mike gets not only the last laugh, but the heroic honor of taking down the man responsible for this corruption.

While I don’t think there is any danger of “Happy Holograms” going down as a classic “South Park” episode it was, for this MJ fan, at least, a pretty fitting end.

 

The Current Conspiracy and…The Australian Connection? Part 3

When We Ask "Who Really Wanted To Destroy Michael Jackson" There Are Always Two Names That Will Crop Up At The Root Of It All-Victor Gutierrez and Diane Dimond!
When We Ask “Who Really Wanted To Destroy Michael Jackson” There Are Always Two Names That Will Crop Up At The Root Of It All-Victor Gutierrez and Diane Dimond!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There have certainly been a lot of interesting developments since I last posted in this series. In an interesting coincidence (perhaps?) it was shortly after the last post in this series that one of the two main MJ hater sites that I reported on in that piece has completely disappeared off the face of the internet. What they may be a harbinger of, if anything, I do not know, but somehow I doubt that these very obsessed and persistent individuals have laid down their arms and given up the ghost that easily. Most likely, it simply means that they have figured ways to become much more subversive in their campaign. I would suspect that whatever happened to my adversary’s blog, “she” has most likely simply closed shop in order to merge the ranks. The Topix faction has been surprisingly mum on this sudden and abrupt silencing of their Queen B leader. But no matter. At least for now, there is one less available hub for the hatists and their propaganda.

What else is new? Well, we have the defection and sudden turnabout face of Alan Duke, a former respected CNN journalist who had always been noted for his fair and balanced coverage on all aspects of Michael Jackson. During the AEG trial, Alan Duke’s updates were always an oasis of reasonableness in a sea of biased gutter reporting. Now, for whatever unfathomable reason, he has hitched up with “the Aussie conspirator” incarnate, Dylan Howard. Which just goes to prove a theory I’ve long held to, which is that the integrity of any journalist is really no more believable than the fake on-air personas that radio dj’s adopt. I mean, have you ever noticed how your favorite radio personality will suddenly shift personas completely once they go to another station? So your favorite cool dj whom you thought loved all the same punk bands as you is suddenly over at the local country or AOR station, and voile’, they have a new on-air name and a whole, new on-air persona to match! Sometimes they even change their voices. It’s all a part of shedding that old skin so that, like a chameleon, they can now blend right into the new environment. When I was younger and cared more about stuff like that, I always took such defections quite seriously-and sometimes personally. It felt like a kind of betrayal. Of course, as we get older we get a lot more more blase’ about these things. In the case of those defector dj’s, for example, we start to realize that these people aren’t in the business for the love of music. It’s a job to them. And like any job, they go where the money is and where the opportunity for advancement presents itself. If that means changing their whole identity and ditching the loyal following they may have amassed, so be it. The way most of them will justify their actions is that they may lose a few followers but they will gain new ones. That’s how the game is played. Alan Duke has proven that journalists really do not operate much differently. For many, their integrity and loyalty depends on which side their bread is buttered. So now that Duke has hooked up with Dylan Howard, suddenly “Jackson” has become “Jacko” and Wade Robson is no longer even an alleged victim, but a “victim” who is being “silenced” by Jackson estate lawyers (if one of Duke’s more recent headlines is to be believed).

Last but not least, as reported in the previous post, Tom Sneddon passed away on November 1. But we can be rest assured that his death will hardly be the closing of a dark and ugly chapter, much as it would be nice to think so. Instead, what we are bound to see-and indeed it is already happening!-is that Sneddon’s death is only going to reinforce the bitter determination of those who counted themselves among his friends, and for whom Sneddon was a personal hero. This is the faction that now, more than ever, are pinning their hopes of ultimate vindication on two individuals who have recently been coerced into the family fold-Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck.

Which brings us to Diane Dimond, who used the occasion of her friend’s death to take a needless and tasteless dig at Michael Jackson and his fans. I have been patiently watching and analyzing this woman’s words and actions for the past five years. There was a time, very early on, when I gave her some benefit of the doubt. She is just a journalist, I thought, and her job isn’t to be Michael Jackson’s fan. A journalist is entitled to have their biases (the title, after all, doesn’t mean that we aren’t still human, although true journalists do nevertheless have an obligation to keep their personal biases out of their reporting). I was even almost fooled by her charade in reporting the Rodney Allen story (pretending to be the undercover journalist with integrity who unearthed a potential scam against Michael Jackson, when in reality she merely used that angle to cover her own ass when the “lead” she investigated turned out to be a gigantic hoax that nearly cost her job with “Hard Copy” who had footed much of the bill for her obsessive wild goose chase to Canada!). But after wading through much evidence over the years, it has slowly dawned on me that Diane Dimond’s role in all of this (i.e, what happened to Michael Jackson and is continuing to happen) is much more complex than what first meets the eye. Is Diane Dimond merely an objective reporter-as she would have us believe-or is her role in the Michael Jackson allegations-both past and present- a much more substantive and sinister one?

A huge part of the objective of this series has been an attempt to get to the bottom of who is really behind the allegations-and why. If Michael Jackson didn’t molest any kids-and there remains to this day no substantive proof or evidence of such claims-then who stood to gain by creating such allegations?

As I have explained before, I chose to subtitle this series “The Australian Connection” due to some curious coincidences that, while I have yet to fully connect the dots, are nevertheless quite intriguing. Wade Robson (Jackson’s current accuser), Dylan Howard of Radar Online (the only web source and media outlet that continues to act as a direct mouthpiece for Robson and his lawyers), the MJFacts website (responsible for perpetuating much of the internet flaming against Jackson and spread of inaccurate information), and at least one “insider” for the Wade Robson support page, all have ties to Australia. This could all be coincidence, of course. But one thing I have noted is that, time and again, the web of individuals who have worked in concert to either plant or perpetuate these stories (the “fan flamers,” so to speak) is surprisingly small and close knit.

These Birds Of A Feather Have Been Flocking Together...For Over 20 Years!
These Birds Of A Feather Have Been Flocking Together…For Over 20 Years!

And if we look past “the current conspiracy” to where it all began, two names in particular have been consistently intertwined from the beginning-Victor Gutierrez and Diane Dimond. From that hub, we have the whole satellite connection of other names-Paul Baressi and Maureen Orth, on down to  Sneddon  and Zonen, on down to the ring of disgruntled ex-employees befriended by Gutierrez and Dimond, and then on down to the actual accusers (all of whom appear to have been coerced in some way after coming into contact with either Gutierrez or Dimond, or both). I have little doubt that both are continuing to play a very pro-active role in current events.  Dimond, especially, who has never been known for her subtlety (or professional demeanor, for that manner) continues to give the game away in ways that she probably doesn’t even realize.  In other words, hot heads and weaklings are fairly easy to catch in their own trap. Diane Dimond’s hypocrisy and changing of facts to suit her own agenda has been called out more than a few times in mainstream media (a good case in point being when she jumped the gun in defending the fake FBI story and her friend Paul Baressi, only to have to embarrasingly retract in the light of overwhelming evidence that the story was a hoax-of which she was well aware all along!). In a now famous email to Susan Etok, whom she ingratiated herself with under the false pretense of a being a Michael Jackson “supporter” in order to gain an interview, she made a blatantly false claim that over twenty boys testified to having been molested by Michael at his trial. This was a blatant lie, purposely intended to pull the wool over the eyes of Susan Etok and unsuspecting readers who would not think to actually investigate the truth. There were, in fact, only five such witnesses who testified at Michael’s trial in 2005, and that is if we count Gavin Arvizo himself.  Of those five, three of them-Macaulay Culkin, Brett Barnes and Wade Robson-denied vehemently any wrongdoing on Jackson’s part. Jason Francia, heavily coached by his mother Blanca Francia, was the only one who claimed anything in the way of inappropriate behavior, but was reportedly such an unconvincing witness that he was laughed off the stand. That left only Jordan Chandler, who refused to testify and never even appeared.  So all in all, a total of five testimonies, and three out of those five claiming adamantly that nothing happened-a far cry from Diane Dimond’s claim of “twenty crying victims.” And in the same email, as she has at various times in the past, Diane Dimond made vague and dubious claims about phantom victims and these alleged dozens of distraught families who have supposedly cried on her shoulder (literally, she would have us believe) about being afraid to press charges.

Email in which Diane Dimond BLATANTLY LIES to Susan Etok about witnesses at Michael Jackson trial:

“I met Diane Dimond for the first time last week and found her to be intelligent, funny, down-to-earth and very open-minded. ”

Letter from Diane:

Are you telling people that I now think Michael Jackson was completely innocent of the child molestation charges?

I keep getting these random e-mails informing me of such.

Please tell me it isn’t so. Because, Susan, I don’t believe that. It was nice meeting you and I know you love your departed friend but I’ve covered this story since 1993. I’ve sat with damaged children and crying parents too many times, parents too scared to press charges for fear of the media onslaught. I’ve talked with police officers and seen sworn statements they’ve gathered. I sat in the nearly 5 month long trial and watched 20-something young men take the stand and tearfully describe what happened to them at Michael Jackson’s hand. Forget the outcome of the trial – where three jurors later said they were coerced into their acquittal vote and wish they could take it back. It cannot be that ALL these people are lying and Michael is just a victim of his own celebrity.

Please. Don’t speak for me on this very, very delicate and important issue. As you said – your friend was a drug addict. I’m here to tell you he was an addict for years. He was not a person in charge of his behavior. I know it’s hard to hear but he was also addicted to little boys – and that’s a fact – just as sure as he was addicted to alcohol and drugs.

I wish you all the best in your endeavors.

Diane Dimond

http://www.michaeljackson.com/us/node/239141

I have seen this statement before from Diane Dimond, and for me it really raises a troubling and disturbing question: Who the heck are these alleged, nameless families, and (presuming they even exist!) why on earth would they seek out Diane Dimond? You would think that if someone thought their child had been molested, they would go to the police. And if not to the police, at least an attorney. A psychologist. Something. Why would a sleazy, ex-“Hard Copy” tabloid reporter be their go-to person? If they were too afraid to press charges (as per the excuse that Dimond always uses) would not they have just as much to fear by going to the media?

It is clearly obvious, based on Dimond’s own track record and the way she operates, that if she has had any such conversations at all (which is debatable) it is very clear that she sought these people out, rather than the other way around. That is the only viable explanation of why they would be talking to her in the first place. But with nothing to go on but the word of a woman who has already been exposed time and again as an outright liar at worst and exaggerator at best, there is simply no way to authenticate these stories one way or the other.

Diane Dimond Uses The Occasion Of Her Friend’s Death As Just Another Excuse To Take An Unnecessary Stab At Michael Jackson!

Santa Barbara District AttorneyTom Sneddon has lost a year long battle with cancer. His wife Pam and many of their 9 children were at his side. 
In my opinion, we lost a man of integrity. Sneddon was an Army veteran, public servant for more than 3 decades, started his county’s first Sexual Assault Response Team and dedicated his life to helping victims try to get justice.
When word of his death was officially announced by his family ill-informed “haters” — fanatics who worship at the alter of Michael Jackson and never forgave Sneddon for prosecuting Jackson on child molestation charges — came out in droves to say the ugliest things. 
They are childish and ill-informed. Sneddon was the ONLY person who had the courage to do the right thing even though law enforcement knew for years about Mr. Jackson and his misbehavior with young boys. 
A testament to the facts is this: Five young men have now come forward to claim they were molested at the hands of Michael Joseph Jackson when they were young boys. Five. Five. I’m betting there are more. 
RIP, Tom Sneddon. Go with God.

What was the point of the above? Clearly, even on the day of Sneddon’s passing, Diane couldn’t shake Michael Jackson off the brain!

I have written extensively about Guiterrez and his motivations for beginning his aggressive, one-man campaign in the mid 1980’s to “out” Michael Jackson as a pedophile. But how did Gutierrez come to be so inextricably linked with Diane Dimond, and what was her motivation for becoming so doggedly involved with this man and his campaign? How did this Chilean reporter become a “mentor” for Diane Dimond?

Awhile back, a reader sent me an email with a link to a rather explosive video, an expose’ on the relationship between Diane Dimond and Victor Gutierrez . Since the view count on this video is still relatively low, I have to assume that a lot of fans still don’t know about it. This is an absolute “Must Watch” for anyone who cares about what happened to Michael Jackson in 1993, in 2003, and is continuing into 2014. The English translation is a little rough in spots, but bear with it. It’s well worth the effort.

Even if Michael Jackson fans are already familiar with much of this background info, it is still quite chilling when you see laid out the connection of these individuals and their motivations, stretching back over at least two decades or more. A couple of things that really stand out to me from the video: 1. How Diane Dimond willingly went along with a scam to create and report false evidence against Michael Jackson (the phantom tape that was alleged to show him molesting his nephew Jeremy) with only the word of Victor Gutierrez as a source! At the time, she falsely stated that the investigation into Michael Jackson was being re-opened, as a means of intimidating Margaret Maldonada Jackson under false pretenses! This goes far beyond the role of a reporter or journalist; this is someone actually taking a pro-active stance to create a story and evidence. Even more disturbing is that after learning the truth about Rodney Allen and his pedophile ring in Canada, she completely turns a blind eye to it, never bothering to follow up on what was obviously a far more frightening-and real!-case than the Michael Jackson story. Apparently, she was quite  content to let a real molestor off the hook when it turned out his name wasn’t Michael Jackson. To my knowledge, there was no attempt made by Diane Dimond to follow up on the case of a man whom she obviously knew was pimping teenage boys on the streets of Toronto. According to the clip and Dimond’s parting words, Rodney Allen’s case was left to the police to unravel. But if Diane Dimond was, as she self proclaims, so interested in justice for child abuse perpetrators, why didn’t she continue to obsessively investigate what was obviously a disgusting and frightening situation going on in Canada? Clearly, her obsession remained Michael Jackson, and Michael Jackson only. In fact, throughout that segment something interesting emerges: We see not only Diane Dimond, but the entire production team of Hard Copy carrying out the role of investigators and district attorneys-in other words, carrying out the work that normally would be handled by police and investigators in cases like this.

At 22:40, something is noted that has also been called out before by many fans who noticed this when Dimond’s Skype interview on Michael Jackson’s death first aired. On her wall, at her home, hangs iconic photos of Michael Jackson from the Panther Dance sequence of “Black or White.” Why does this woman, who professes so much animosity towards Michael Jackson and clearly believes he was a pedophile, surround herself with his images?

 

This image from Diane Dimond's Home-Clearly Showing Photos Of MJ Decking Her Walls-Made Quite A Splash When This Image Went Virale
This image from Diane Dimond’s Home-Clearly Showing Photos Of MJ Decking Her Walls-Made Quite A Splash When This Image Went Viral

Well, to back up to something I said in the last post of this series, when examining the psychology of Michael Jackson haters, I said that there is a fine line between love and hate: they are really just polar extremes of the same emotion, both of which are born out of the same passion. I, too, have many iconic photos of Michael Jackson on my wall. Those photos help provide inspiration, from a place of love, when I sit down to write about him. It would not be too big of a stretch to imagine that Diane Dimond, likewise, uses images of Michael to inspire, only in her case it is the opposite. Just as millions of us MJ fans keep images of Michael nearby to inspire and uplift us, Diane Dimond clearly keeps those images close by to inspire her in the opposite direction. It reeks of a strange, very bizarre, and very sad admiration/hatred for Michael Jackson that has become her obsession, and has been for over twenty years. Think on this: Many journalists covered the Michael Jackson story at the time. Most have long since moved on. A journalist’s job, after all, is to cover the latest stories-not to obsess incessantly over one story and one subject, to the point that it has dominated the last two decades of their life.

ETA: This passage from a NY Post article confirms it. Note what Dimond says here (thank you, Susan, for the link!):

“I did it not because I ‘m obsessed with Michael Jackson,but because I wanted the reminder that that was the one story that I hadn ‘t finished,” Dimond says.. “I wonder what Jackson would think if he knew that I had it.”

http://nypost.com/2005/02/13/jacksons-shadow-a-confidential-report-led-to-the-story-of-diane-dimonds-career/

The headline of the story is quite revealing. The Michael Jackson story was indeed “the story of her career” and, according to her, it remains the story that was never finished because it didn’t have the outcome she wanted. It is also clearly BS that she considered herself still “in the middle” in 2005. This was the same year that she published “Be Careful Who You Love” so clearly she already had her mind made up on the case.

Interestingly enough, one of the most common things that haters of Michael Jackson love to insist is that they are not “haters.” I read a lot of their propaganda. I read it to understand both their mindset and the tactics that they use to manipulate. They will insist that they are “reasonable” people but this is far from the truth. I know people in everyday life who are skeptical of Michael’s innocence. I do not label those people as “haters.” Why? Because clearly, even though they have their beliefs, they are people who have actual lives and do not devote themselves 24-7 to the subject. Clearly, anyone who is so obsessed as to create websites, organize followers, and who spends countless hours on the internet stalking fansites and trolling any pro or anti article about Michael Jackson on the internet is clearly not a “reasonable” person but a person who is clearly mentally disturbed and fixated on hate. Thus, I use the term correctly.

As a celebrity who was constantly hounded by the press and by false stories, Michael Jackson had to deal with many devious and shady reporters. But both Victor Gutierrez and Diane Dimond have the dubious honor of being the only journalists Michael Jackson ever brought a lawsuit against-and won. As the video mentions, Tom Sneddon went above and beyond to write a letter that would prevent Diane Dimond from being charged in the case. Gutirrez was ordered to pay 2.7 million in damages, but avoided the court order by returning to Chile. Michael appealed the decision to exempt Dimond from the charges. The 2.7 million he was awarded was far short of the $50 million in damages he had sought. As it turned out, Michael never received a penny from either of them.

Michael Jackson Sues ‘Hard Copy’ Reporter and Radio Talk Show

January 13, 1995|SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three days after a “Hard Copy” report alleged that Michael Jackson was videotaped in an illicit sexual encounter, the pop star filed a $50-million lawsuit against the tabloid television show’s reporter and a radio talk show that aired her assertions.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleges that “Hard Copy” correspondent Diane Dimond slandered Jackson with a false and unsubstantiated report, and compounded the injury by repeating the allegations on KABC-AM radio.

The suit also alleges that Dimond falsely reported that authorities had renewed their investigation of child molestation against Jackson.

The suit–which also names “Hard Copy” producer Stephen Doran, Paramount Pictures Corp. and KABC talk show hosts Roger Barkley and Ken Minyard–stems from a Jan. 9 episode of “Hard Copy” and an appearance on Barkley and Minyard’s show that morning.

Jackson’s lawyer, Howard Weitzman, said the show was based on British tabloid reports published last weekend and on a claim made by Victor Gutierrez, a self-proclaimed biographer of Jackson who is also named in the suit.

http://articles.latimes.com/1995-01-13/local/me-19724_1_michael-jackson

Dimond may not be an Aussie, but it is clear from recent events and headlines that she is much more than just a side player in current events. If nothing else, she definitely has a reputation among anyone who wishes to bring allegations against Michael Jackson, as someone who will lend a sympathetic ear and as a convenient gatekeeper to the media on the one hand, and authorities on the other, via her long standing friendship with Tom Sneddon. But her history reveals something far more disturbing, and that is her willingness to take a pro-active stance in these accusations. Far more than merely reporting events as they unfold, she has been a key player in shaping those events, and I believe has had some hand in coercing certain players to come forward. A trait that many haters share in common is a tendency to badger young men who were known to be close friends of Michael Jackson. In some cases, the bullying and harassing has been so bad that some have had to go into hiding. She has been, and remains, one of the key instigators of Michael Jackson’s downfall.

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