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Michael and Nudity? Examining Perceptions of Michael, Sexuality, and Exhibitionism

gorman2Yep, it seems just about every celebrity has “gone there” at some point, and Michael-for all his purported shyness-was no exception. When this semi nude photo from a 1987 Greg Gorman shoot surfaced recently, as part of Gorman’s recently opened exhibition in Germany, it caused quite a sensation in the MJ fan community, as well as some very polarizing reactions. Although most fans are always delighted with any images that celebrate Michael’s extraordinary beauty and sensuality, this one struck a bit of interesting discord, from accusations that it was a fake (it isn’t) to the arguments that Michael would never have posed for such a pic. Well, obviously he did, so there goes that argument. As to why it took this many years for the photo to surface, that may be another matter. It’s likely that Michael, who almost always demanded final say on these matters (and was as much of a noted perfectionist when it came to his looks and image as he was in regard to his music) wasn’t happy with the end product, and it may have been for much the same reason that he reportedly didn’t like the Bani shoots for the Invincible album.

Greg Gorman Posing At The Exhibition Where His Semi-nude of Michael Was Finally Displayed For The World To See.
Greg Gorman Posing At The Exhibition Where His Semi-nude of Michael Was Finally Displayed For The World To See.

Although I appreciate Michael’s physique as much as the next female fan, I am not overly fond of this photo, either. Maybe if it hadn’t been for the leg warmers (lol, whose idea were those, anyway!?) but the whole thing just smacks of 80’s cheesiness to me, like the models in those 80’s issues of Playgirl that I used to secretly buy and hide under my bed to keep my grandmother from finding them. Well, it was 1987, after all, and what fashion statement wasn’t complete in those days without leg warmers? However, I agree with the fans who have stated that Michael’s sensual appeal was probably much better captured in photographs such as those shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, Todd Gray, Lynn Goldsmith, and Herb Ritts (responsible for Michael’s smoldering “In The Closet” look). To that list, I think we could also add the sizzling Alan Watson pole shoots from 1999, which (even though fully clothed) were still some of the sexiest shots Michael ever did. Collectively, all of these photos indicate that “less” isn’t necessarily sexier .

Michael's Sizzling Vanity Fair photos, taken by Annie Leibovitz, proved that "less" isn't necessarily sexier.
Michael’s Sizzling Vanity Fair photos, taken by Annie Leibovitz, proved that “less” isn’t necessarily sexier.

Nevertheless, since Michael did pose (and we can presume willingly) for the Gorman shoot, as well as all the others mentioned here-and did have the audacity to wear those infamous gold pants onstage that left practically nothing to imagination, I think it may be high time to examine what these images and choices can really tell us about Michael-how he viewed himself and his body (both as a work of art and as a sexually deified “object”), his particular brand of exhibitionism (which no performer can exist without to some degree) and to what extent some of these choices may have reflected his own sexual liberation during this time.

There persists an almost puritanical myth about Michael, sex, and how he viewed his body, as well as the idea of being perceived as a sexual “object” (if you will, for lack of a better word). This myth is commonly perpetuated even among some elements of the fan base, which invites a lot of fascinating and seemingly contradictory dualities. While fans may ogle and “aww” over sexy photos of Michael, many will also still insist that he was a puritanical angel, shy to the point of awkwardness over his body, who was often repulsed by the behavior of sex crazed fans. This is an idea that has been reinforced by a well circulated quote from Boteach Schmuley’s book:

“No, that’s crazy, like some of these singers who put bulges in their pants, that’s crazy.  I don’t understand that.  That’s like disgusting to me when they do stuff like that.  That’s embarrassing.  I don’t want nobody to even look at me down….like looking for that.  That would just embarrass me so bad, oh God.”
 
“When I think about it, I would never say this on TV, but if I went on stage thinking about what goes through women’s heads, I would never go out on stage.  If I was suddenly to start thinking about what they were thinking about….sex, or what I look like naked, then, oh God, that would be so embarrassing.  I could never go out.  That’s so horrible.” -Excerpted from The Michael Jackson Tapes. 
This is an interesting quote, partly because (as were all these recorded conversations with Schmuley that eventually made their way into the book) it was a frank and off the cuff, private conversation never intended for public consumption-in other words, this wasn’t the usually very carefully guarded Michael protecting an “image.” But by the same token, his own words here seem to belie many of the choices he willingly made, and certainly the onstage image he consciously presented as a sexualized performer. True, as he states, Michael never resorted to any of those hideous, cheesy tricks like stuffing his pants with socks-well, according to rumor, anyway, there was no need to, as his own assets were said to be quite sufficient in that department (and given the solid consistency of those stories, we have to assume there must be some truth to them).
The Famous Gold Pants Didn't Lie!
The Famous Gold Pants Didn’t Lie!
But I always found Michael’s protestations of total innocence on the matter (especially during the HIStory tour when he was willingly wearing those gold pants every night) a curiously charming-and at times tauntingly cruel-tactic. Sort of like the girl who goes out in a mini skirt, tight sweater and high heels, but then protests, “I don’t like guys drooling over me; I don’t like drawing attention to myself.” You get the picture. Michael was sending us a lot of mixed messages and signals, but to what extent he did so intentionally-and how much may have been mere wishful projection on the part of fans-remains a debatable issue. My personal belief is that Michael was much too smart to not realize exactly what he was doing,  the effect he was having, and why. He had perfected the coy power of creating sexual tension among his fanbase-knowing when to give it, when to draw back, and how to perpetuate the frustrations of an entire generation who were obsessed with the idea of him as some desirable, but utterly unattainable object of lust-and, for that matter, as to just how “unattainable” he really was remains a likewise debatable issue. All male rock and pop stars have their share of “groupie stories”-those rumors, whispers, and urban legends that get passed down, first by word of mouth, and eventually sometimes, even archived on websites where these women often enjoy posting about their conquests-and occasional horror stories-from the “good old days.” Michael has had his share of those stories as well-many of which may be fan fics, but nevertheless, there is a certain consistency to their details that lends, for me, at least, a degree of credibility. If you are curious about that sort of thing, there is a new website, Michael’s Human Nature that has compiled and archived many of these groupie stories and urban legends about Michael. The blog’s author does provide a disclaimer warning that the stories should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, they are certainly entertaining to read! And while I am not automatically prone to believe every groupie story about Michael that is circulated, I do find that at least a few offer some interesting consistencies in their details (making it at least somewhat plausible that they are all describing the same man in bed, who would have indulged in a fairly consistent pattern of acts with each woman-for example, the tendency to be quite loud and vocal; an apparent attraction for soft masochism; the preference for “doggie style” and an express skill for cunninlingus (a definite plus in the groupie world, where the #1 complaint is usually about selfish male musicians who demand head while giving nothing in return) and a few have offered up some interesting details that have only been confirmed in very recent years since his passing (even though many of these stories have circulated for years) such as the lack of circumcision and the clutter of his Neverland bedroom.
As tantalizingly fun  as the subject may be, however, my intent here isn’t to go off on a tangent about Michael’s offstage conquests, casual or otherwise. However, neither is it a totally irrelevant topic if we’re going to discuss Michael in terms of nudity, sexuality, how he viewed his body, and more importantly, the frustratingly contradictory perceptions he created among fans and critics alike. I don’t have to tell you that few, if any performers, have ever had every nuance of their sexuality scrutinized and psychologized to the degree that Michael Jackson has, nor has any other  performer ever  been pegged so diversely as everything from asexual and virginal (if we believe the popular mainstream media trope) to downright horn dog (according to the stories of some acquaintances), and every stop in between. Do you ever just want to say, “Will the real Michael Jackson please stand up?” Where do we begin to strip away, to deconstruct and reconstruct these myths? And perhaps the bigger question: Do we want to? For those fans who are fiercely protective of their “Michael was a saint” image, these questions remain something of a troubling paradox. Often, unwittingly, they are playing right into the mainstream narrative, which is (I believe) far more malicious in its purpose. Think about who is really most responsible for creating the myths of Michael as an asexual or virginal man-child. It certainly didn’t come from his legion of female fans. It didn’t come from his loyal following among African-Americans. Where does it spring? Not surprisingly, from white male writers who, due to the fact that they have monopolized the entertainment and music media for decades, have pretty much called the shots. In J. Randy Taraborelli’s book The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, Taraborelli helped plant the myth of a performer whose offstage views on girls, sex and romance were oddly at variance with his public image and onstage persona, based largely on an interview he conducted with Michael in August of 1977-a time when Michael was all of nineteen.
“I think it’s fun that girls think I’m sexy…but I don’t think that about myself. It’s all just fantasy, really. I like to make my fans happy so I might pose or dance in a way that makes them think I’m romantic. But really I guess I’m not that way.”-Excerpted from The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story. 
 Michael further cemented this awkward, almost puritanical view of himself when he told Martin Bashir how he had “chickened out” of a romantic encounter with Tatum O’ Neal.  But while these kinds of quotes have often been circulated as “proof” that Michael must have been somehow either extremely backwards and puritanical in regard to sex, or else exhibiting some form of extreme sexual dysfunction, neither takes into account his age at the time of these reported events. For the most part, Michael made many of these statements as a teenager or, as in the case of the Tatum story, when looking back on a teenage event. If we compare those statements to some of the comments he made about girls as an even younger kid (say, about ten or so) a very different picture emerges, of an almost sexually precocious kid who giggled about women’s assets (“look at the hot cakes on her!” he would often joke when a well endowed girl walked past). These stories really do not sound unlike the adult Michael, who according to most friends, was openly flirtatious and usually didn’t miss an opportunity to comment on any t&a that caught his eye.
However, none of this is as totally inconsistent as it might sound. Michael evolved through many different stages in his life, from a cheerful and outgoing kid to a reticent, withdrawn, and seemingly troubled adolescent who became very self-conscious over his own growing body and the sometimes awkward changes that puberty wrought. Later, this extreme self consciousness would be exacerbated by some very real medical conditions, among them vitiligo and discoid lupus. But also, Michael reached a hard won maturity in his life, part of which was learning to accept and love his physical shell, what the poet Walt Whitman called “the body electric.” Whitman’s poem is rather long (as most of his works were) but I will quote here the part of the poem that I feel is most relevant to our discussion:
1
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
2
The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account,
That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.
The expression of the face balks account,
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side…
 It is certainly interesting to compare this poem to Michael’s own similarly themed poem “I Am Beautiful” which, like Whitman’s poem, can be interpreted to be as much about a newfound sense of liberation and acceptance of his physical body as it is a celebration of spiritual rebirth and awakening:
12178_2
 “I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Gorgeous
   God is for me, who can be
   against me?
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m a new person now
   Beautiful, knowing the
   secrets and Determined
   with fire to Move Mountains
   in all I do. Molding my own
   world.
   I’m Beautiful.
                                                                                        The old me is behind
                                                                                         I will march ahead anew”-
                                                                                         Michael Jackson.
I don’t think it is any coincidence that this poem was written within just a few years of the Gorman photo shoot, and also coincides with the entire, liberated awakening of self that seemed to permeate so much of his art and performance during that time. And much of this can be tied directly to his severing of ties with his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing and the gradual embracing of, what was for him, at least, much more liberated and enlightening creeds. For quite some time, the world had been aware that Michael was no longer the cute little boy who sang “ABC.” He had grown into an incredibly hot, sexy and sensual adult. But now, for the first time, he could freely indulge those fantasies without guilt (or at least without the oppressive fear of being defellowshipped).
It Was A Metaphoric Shedding Of His Old Skin; A Newfound Sense of Sexual Liberation
It Was A Metaphoric Shedding Of His Old Skin; A Newfound Sense of Sexual Liberation

To cut to the chase, I see much of what Michael was doing in this phase as a kind of metaphoric shedding of his old skin. And what better way to accomplish this-what better way to celebrate this newfound sense of self-then by posing nude (or nearly so, as the case may be).

Of course, this calls into question some of Michael’s other sometimes contradictory views and apparent double standards on sexuality and nudity (for example, some of his rather judgmental remarks about LaToya’s spread in Playboy). However, perhaps something to keep in perspective is that, while Michael obviously posed for the shoot, the photo was never made public during his lifetime. There must have been a reason for that, as well. And seeing as how Gorman is a photographer who takes great pride in his collection of celebrity photos that celebrate the male physique (and is now openly exhibiting this photo along with his celebrated semi-nudes of Keenau Reeves and others). I can pretty much guess that the decision to keep it hidden away must have been Michael’s, who probably had second thoughts about letting the photo go public.
However, my guess is that this reticence probably had more to do with dissatisfaction over the photo itself than any prurient reticence about his nudity. After all, we were going to be seeing a lot more of Michael in the very near future-literally, that is. So much so, in fact, that by the time of “You Are Not Alone” even many hardened critics were left blushing in awkward embarrassment. We might say that all of this seemed to stem from what became for Michael, during this era, an increasingly and overtly sexualized aspect of his performance. Whether it was the (for many critics at the time) puzzling mixture of auto eroticism, partial nudity  and violence that dominated the second half of the otherwise family friendly “Black or White” video, or the more romantic and classical eroticism of “You Are Not Alone” to the politically blatant exhibitionism of “They Don’t Care About Us” in which Michael finally allowed the world to see, for the first time, the ravages of vitiligo on his body (in all previous videos, any exposed area of his body had been heavily retouched and makeup used to conceal the splotchy effects of the disease). In each of these videos, his nudity or partial nudity was serving a very different purpose, but the one element in common is that, in each case, it was a purpose directly linked to that particular video’s aesthetic and artistic purpose. However, Michael’s tendency to combine eroticism and violence was certainly not lost on critics at the time, and even today it is an aspect of his art that many scholars, critics, and journalists tend to struggle uncomfortably with when attempting to interpret his work. To attempt to offer any such definitive interpretation would also, I think, be well beyond the scope of a single blog post. But it is certainly a relevant point in any discussion of Michael and nudity.
This Pic Cracked Me Up First Time I Ever Saw It! But On A More Serious Note, It Has Taken Us Nearly Two Hundred Years To Regain Our Comfort With Male Nudity...And For America That Comfort Is Still In Its Infancy
This Pic Cracked Me Up First Time I Ever Saw It! But On A More Serious Note, It Has Taken Us Nearly Two Hundred Years To Regain Our Comfort With Male Nudity…And For America That Comfort Is Still In Its Infancy
It may also be prurient to note that it was only with the ushering in of the Victorian era that male nudity became associated with feelings of repulsion and shame, or the with the sexist (and homophobic) view that only a female body was worthy of such adulation.  If we go back to the age of classical art in Greece or Rome, or to the art of the Renaissance, we see that the male body was often celebrated and glorified in art. But the Victorian era pretty much repressed any expression of sexuality at all, and by the time we emerged from that oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, homophobia had tainted the modern view of male sexuality. The pornography industry would become booming business, but it was a business that catered almost exclusively to the tastes of straight men, with women (straight or gay) and gay men being forced to seek obscure and underground alternatives to satisfy their own tastes.  The 1970’s and 80’s were a time in which both women and gay men began to openly assert their rights to “objectify” the male body in the same way that women’s bodies had been objectified for years. Along with this liberation came a proliferation of male sexuality and nudity, expressed both in the porn industry and in the arts, that had not been seen openly since the Renaissance days. In music, we saw the most blatant exploitation of this on MTV, which due to its visual appeal (at that time a novelty for the music industry) gave rise to a whole, new generation of objectified male sex symbols. This would include just about every hair metal band of the day, all of which routinely featured very pretty young males in heavy makeup who (as per the popular joke of the time, “all looked more like chicks than the groupies who pursued them”) and tight spandex pants intended to emphasize their (usually stuffed) bulging crotches. But it would also include the rise of “beefcake” performers like Bruce Springsteen (yes, he had been around for years, but had we ever really noticed just how tight his buns were in those jeans before the “Dancing in the Dark” video?). And to this category I would also add John Cougar Mellencamp’s blatantly sexualized solo dance in “Crumbling Down.”

Then there were the blatantly gender defying performers like Culture Club’s Boy George, and highly sexualized, “exotic” performers like Prince who would push those boundaries of male sexuality to their absolute limit.
And into this mix we have Michael Jackson, whom we had all watched grow up, but was now faced with the artistic dilemma of how to reinvent himself for this new, visual-oriented medium in which, male or female, sex appeal was the obvious driving factor.
Going back to the 1977 quote Michael reportedly said to Tarroborelli, I think Taraborelli may have have, indeed, missed a very important element of that quote in his rush to use it as some sort of proof that Michael had no interest in sex beyond the fantasy element of titillating his fans. “I think it’s fun that girls think I’m sexy” he had said, before adding that there was also a strong fantasy element to what he was doing-a fantasy element that he was fully willing to exploit. Even at nineteen, this does not sound like the words of a young man repulsed by being found sexy (at all!) but, rather, as one who found an element of thrill in it (even if it didn’t necessarily lead to any kind of consummation in the literal sense). Indeed, at the root of exhibitionism is the excitement and power one feels knowing that total strangers are being aroused by you. The word itself is a misunderstood term, often crudely defined merely as the act of exposing one’s genitals publicly for a sexual thrill. But in reality it is a much more complex term that encompasses many levels of both voyeurism and auto erotic fixation. It is a phenomenon known to many women and men in adult entertainment, who say it’s more than just the money that compels them to do what they do. It is also the empowerment and erotic thrill that comes with knowing they are being lusted after. And indeed, it is at the very heart of why sex has always been (and remains) at the forefront of many performers’ popular appeal-and why most of them so willingly exploit it.yana girl
So was Michael really the blushing man-child, shy to the point of awkwardness about his body? Different stories seem to both confirm and belie this myth. But as so many have pointed out, Michael did transform completely when onstage or in front of a camera. As Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, who witnessed his sizzling 2007 Ebony shoot, so aptly pointed out in their book Remember The Time,  he instantly transformed into “King of Pop mode” in front of a camera. And along with that transformation seemed to come an uncanny knack for turning on the “It” factor.
But this was the mature MJ who had presumably shed most of his youthful awkwardness and shyness. Supposedly.
However, an early story from photographer Lynn Goldsmith indicates that even at a very young age, Michael had no shyness about undressing for the camera (and, indeed, the youthful rooftop photos that resulted from that session are among some of his most sensual from this era). The emphasis in the below quote are mine:

Photographer Lynn Goldsmith worked for Michael for 8 years. Of this photoshoot with Michael Lynn says “We were in his hotel and it’s about 7’o clock, and that’s when the sun was setting and I said ‘You know Michael, up on the roof there’s m…agic light’ so he said ‘Magic light!’ so I said ‘Yeah, you wanna go up there?’ so he said ‘Yeah’ so we snuck out and and we went up to the roof and it was something that he did, Michael started taking his clothes off on the roof which I thought I would get into big trouble for, I mean, he didn’t completely undress but even just taking his shirt off, this is not, you know, a body builder and so you never really knew what he was thinking and that made photographing him very exciting, for me.”~Lynn Goldsmith Plum TV Interview. 1981 Boston

Below: Some of the tantalizing photos that came out of Lynn Goldsmith’s rooftop session and Michael’s impromptu “striptease“:

 

goldsmithgoldsmith2goldsmith3

Similar stories have been told by many other photographers who worked with Michael. Taken collectively, these stories do seem to undermine the popular narrative of Michael Jackson as someone who was awkwardly uncomfortable in his skin. Rather, they all point to just the opposite-that here was a young man who was completely comfortable in his skin, who was confident in his sexuality and the objectification of it, and didn’t seem to mind in the least who knew it-or who enjoyed it.

However, it also seems true that certain photographers could bring out this side of him better than others. This may not be surprising. Photography is, after all, a kind of art, and it takes a special kind of artist to really connect with his or her subject. Virtually every one who ever photographed Michael has commented on how photogenic he was, but there were a handful who seemed to really know how to tap into his inner eroticism and bring it to the forefront. And it may not be surprising that most of those photographers have been women or gay men, who seemed most innately able to capture the essence of Michael’s physical appeal.

Although the Gorman photo was never released in Michael’s lifetime, a much more familiar photo from Greg Gorman is the famous “tarantula photo” which features a profile view of Michael with a huge tarantula crawling across his face. He also shot the well known “face behind the lace veil” photo that Michael originally wanted as the cover of the Bad album.

gorman3

 

gorman4

Both photos exhibit a daring avante-garde appeal that was not common in many of the photos taken of Michael during this era, but which he would begin to experiment with much more brazen daring in the coming decades (with sometimes mixed results; while Michael seemed willing to experiment, his conservatism-and/or that of Sony’s- often won out, resulting in many intriguing photo shoots that were ultimately never used).

Alan Watson’s “pole dancer” shots for the Invincible album remain among my favorites, and some of these ultimately did end up being used for the album, though as with many photo shoots, what ended up being used was only a tiny fraction of what was actually shot. This site was one of the first to feature most of the entire photo shoot, and for years, it remained my most popular post (right up there with “Why I Love The Mature Face of Michael.”). But far from simply finding them visually appealing, I’ve often been intrigued at the idea of why Michael did them in the first place, and could there be any symbolic statement to be attached to them?

The Dance Pole Is Traditionally Associated With Sexual Objectification-But Usually of Women. Here Michael Uses It To Make A Flirty and Empowering Statement For Male Sexuality.
The Dance Pole Is Traditionally Associated With Sexual Objectification-But Usually of Women. Here Michael Uses It To Make A Flirty and Empowering Statement For Male Sexuality.

Maybe an artistic statement about where he was at in this point of his life, and how he viewed his body and sex symbol status? This was, after all, the era from about 1999-2001, a time when the tabloids had really jumped on the “Michael Jackson looks like a freak” bandwagon. But as with practically every project from the 90’s and 2000’s, there seemed to be a concentrated effort to present himself in interesting visual ways that defied such easy labels or categorizations. Indeed, the same man who even as a youth had exhibited confidence in what was then a much more traditional brand of sex appeal was also many steps ahead of the game in his maturity, acutely aware that his current sexual appeal was even edgier and treading far more “taboo” or “forbidden” territory, even as he also seemed to willingly embrace the label of becoming the “beast” we had visualized. The rather bizarre dichotomy of this phenomenon (why women continued to swoon over Michael Jackson and why, for many, he became even sexier in maturity, while the media and tabloid press denounced him as a “freak”) is a subject that has been well hashed out, and more thoroughly, by myself and many other writers elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point here except to say that it does add an interesting element to the Watson photos and others of this era like them. The dance pole, long the staple of female strippers and aerial performers (and only in more recent times becoming embraced by male strippers as well) has a long and erotic history, mostly for its phallic symbolic representation. Used for years as a symbol of objectifying the female body, it has also taken on a new status in recent times as a great equalizer for the objectivity of male and female sexuality, as well as an empowering symbol for both sexes who desire to exert control over their own objectification (for women, it can be a way of saying, “I enjoy being sexual and am the one in control” while for a man it can be a way of saying, “I am okay with being viewed as an object”-which in itself is also a powerful and liberating statement.

It is also interesting to look at how his depictions of himself, his body, and sexuality evolved in his short films and performances. We all know that the famous “crotch grab” became a well known part of his dance choreography, and the attempts to analyze what it might have possibly symbolized-if anything-could fill volumes. I have my own theories, which have been discussed in past posts, and indeed, just about every MJ critic and scholar has, at some point, added their own variations. Michael himself said it represented nothing more than a visceral reaction to the music (in an explanation reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s protestations that his controversial pelvic gyrations were just an innocent result of the music driving him). But if we go back and watch Elvis’s very blatant 1956 performance of “Hound Dog” on the Milton Berle show (before the performance was censored) we can see that this is no innocent, “aw shucks” act. Elvis was a smart cookie who knew exactly what he was doing-and the impact it would have.

Michael was essentially doing his own variant of this act, but as I had noted earlier, I think what became increasingly disturbing for many critics at the time was Michael’s apparent growing propensity for blending sexuality/eroticism with violence, largely because for them there was no apparent context in which to ground it. For many, this will instantly bring to mind the controversial Panther Dance sequence of “Black or White.”

It Was The Blending Of Eroticism and Violence That Many Critics Found Unsettling.
It Was The Blending Of Eroticism and Violence That Many Critics Found Unsettling.

In reading Steve Knopper’s The Genius of Michael Jackson (a book I will be reviewing in its entirety in a few weeks when I have finished it) I did come across this interesting passage, which I had not heard before:

“Landis struggled on the set to contain MJ’s sexual expression. At one point, as Michael reached into his crotch, Landis yelled “Cut!” and told Michael to knock it off-this was a family production. Michael defied the instruction, instead unzipping his fly and reaching his hand further into his crotch. Landis stopped filming again and said he was uncomfortable with the move. They asked choreographer Vince Paterson for his opinion; he agreed with Landis. But Michael insisted on calling Gallin, his manager. ‘Sandy was a screaming queen. A very flamboyant homosexual,’ Landis said. ‘Sandy Gallin comes to the set, looks at the playback, and he goes, ‘Do it, Michael! Do it! Do it!’ During the editing process later, Landis says he cut the most objectionable crotch-grabbing images and ‘what’s in the finished piece, I thought was fine.'”-Excerpted from The Genius of Michael Jackson by Steve Knopper, p. 196.

Whoa! Now just imagine…we know how hot, steamy and controversial were the shots that made it into the video! Imagine, then, what must have been on the cutting room floor!

Susan Fast has written that it may have been much more than just the video’s combination of sex and violence that made so many uncomfortable, but rather, the fact that Michael seemed to be indulging in an explicitly kind of feminized auto eroticism, territory that had been for the most part expressly forbidden for male performers (even though it was quite common for women to engage in various forms of auto eroticism in the videos of the day). Just as he had broken down so many barriers in other ways, Michael was also eradicating many of these sexist barriers (what was “ok” and socially acceptable for women to do in videos vs. what was “ok” for a man) and he wasn’t simply slowly eroding those barriers, but screaming until those walls came crashing down, as surely as The Royal Arms Hotel sign in the video. In a single video, Michael brazenly simulated masturbation in front of the camera; he ripped the shirt clean off his body and splashed, in slow motion, into a puddle of water, in as symbolic an act of shedding skin as could possibly be imagined, all while slinging wet strands of hair about his face and screaming like a wild animal…yeah, that was pretty hot and erotic, no doubt. With no mistake.

"Daybreat" by Maxine Parrish
“Daybreat” by Maxine Parrish

And even when Michael’s eroticism took a more romantic, classical turn, as in “You Are Not Alone” it was in many ways no less disconcerting. The concept of “You Are Not Alone” was taken from the painting “Daybreak” by Maxine Parrish, which featured two semi-nude female subjects in what appeared to be a classical Greek setting. I’ve always felt that the video was a kind of blatant answer to the critics who were dogging the MJ-LMP marriage as a fake; an attempt to show the world that this was a genuine, romantic relationship with real chemistry. (For the record, I never really understood all the critical dismissals of the video as “awkward”; Michael and Lisa’s scenes as they talk intimately and whisper seem to me charmingly endearing). If anything, this video would go down in history as the one in which Michael literally left nothing to imagination-yes, your eyes weren’t deceiving you; if you were watching closely, that really is a flash we get at the :18 mark, when the camera pans around his supine form to an above shot!

No, Ladies, Your Eyes Were Not Deceiving You!
No, Ladies, Your Eyes Were Not Deceiving You!

Yep, that cheesecloth was hiked up pretty high, and no, there was nothing underneath there except Michael as nature made him! That was a pretty brazen shot, and to this day, debate remains as to why it was left in. Was it an accident that was simply never edited out? Some fans just wink it and call it Michael’s “gift” to his fans. Whatever the case may be, it has kept many sharp sighted fans delighted and happily rewinding that pan shot (not to mention being the subject of many gifs) for two decades. What may be more interesting is what we don’t see in that shot-Michael’s bare feet, which remain discreetly hidden beneath a piece of draped cloth. It was said that, for whatever reason, it was the one part of his body he was most self conscious about displaying, which might also explain why the leg warmers and socks stayed on in the Gorman photo.

2e14c988badeb63a6e26e68ad11c56daAnd, just as with the “Black or White” film, there was apparently even more of Michael that didn’t make it into the final cut, according to an article that appeared in The New York Daily News prior to the video’s premier:

“The King of Pop came this close to becoming the King of Porn. Computer whizzes scrambled to digitally alter a shot in Michael Jackson’s new video that shows the superstar floating naked in water. According to the Los Angeles Times, producers panicked after they discovered the scene from the video “You Are Not Alone” shows just a little too much of the 36-year-old singer. The offending anatomy was cut from the shot via computer magic, the paper said. The video, produced to promote Jackson’s latest album, “HIStory,” is due to premiere at 9:30 tonight simultaneously on ABC, MTV and BET. With typical modesty, the 30-minute special is called “Michael Jackson changes HIStory”-Helen Reddy.

This era also marked an increasingly exhibitionistic trend in his live performances, with costumes that were (I firmly believe) purposely designed to draw attention to his assets. The leotard thong of the Dangerous tour and the legendary gold pants of the HIStory tour were obviously intended to have exactly the effect that they had. These costume choices were purposely body conscious; a blatant statement of virility that seemed to match the overly sexualized, aggressive personas that the costumes matched (note that his clothing would usually change over the course of the performance, from these overtly masculine pieces to softer, flowing shirts and less revealing pants as he segued into the philanthropic numbers that usually closed the sets out).

Certainly the surfacing of the Gorman photo, just as with all of these other examples, raises a lot of questions-most notably, how do we (or can we) reconcile these images to the same guy who assured us he was so shy and embarrassed about these matters, who said he would be terrorized if he thought about what “goes through women’s heads” when he is onstage. The answer is that, barring any kind of overly simplified “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” split personality theory, we really can’t. The only thing we can ascertain is that Michael Jackson-like most of us-was an incredibly complex individual and an even more incredibly complex artist, who was always evolving and always looking for ways to push the envelope further. He wasn’t afraid to take risks. Likewise, he was evolving in his own life, and I am convinced that many of these choices represented his personal journey toward freedom of sexual expression, acceptance of himself as a sexual being, and acceptance of his own, physical body as not only something beautiful, but as something that could be molded into great art.  It was a journey that encompassed both his own spiritual and physical awakening; a confidence that managed to bloom despite, or perhaps even as a result of, some very debilitating physical handicaps (vitiligo and discoid lupus). It was a personal metamorphosis that nevertheless. just like every single other aspect of his life, was played out on the world’s stage with all of us watching. And perhaps that, too, wasn’t entirely coincidental. Michael Jackson, following in the footsteps of every sex symbol before him (male or female) knew the power of sexual objectivity in selling his art. No doubt, he probably reaped at least some of the the benefits of exhibitionistic empowerment; after all, nothing is quite so titillating and intoxicating-and ultimately, perhaps, terrifying-as knowing that millions of people all over the world are fantasizing about you.

I think that, ultimately, Michael worked his way through all of these conflicted feelings in the only way he knew how-through his art.

On Jackson, Bowie, Artistic Reinvention and Other Passing Thoughts

Early Photo of Michael Posing With David Bowie
Early Photo of Michael and Other Jackson Family Members Posing With David Bowie In The 70’s

I had promised before Christmas that my next post would be on the recently surfaced Gorman photo. Rest assured that post is still coming, but as so often happens when I’m writing posts, events sometimes have a way of throwing me off track. I was almost 3/4’s of the way complete with that post when I heard the news of David Bowie’s passing. And although my blog is focused on Michael Jackson, I am a music lover and as such, certainly could not let the death of such an iconic figure go by without its obligatory tribute post. Although Michael and David Bowie were not close friends, their paths did cross, and certainly they had enough in common to merit some undeniable comparisons-both musical legends, of course; both of them innovators; both masters of the art of reinvention; both cultural agent provocateurs who utilized science fiction and fantasy in many of their personas.  In fact, even though I know this may come as a controversial statement to some, I think we could even make the argument that Bowie, at least in part, paved the way for Michael’s own adult superstardom, in which constant reinvention and the chameleon-like ability to transcend many genres became a central focus. In the last few days, a video of a 1983 MTV interview with David Bowie has been widely circulated among the MJ fan community, in which Bowie publicly called MTV out for not playing black artists. I watched this video again last night, and I have to say, it would have been downright amusing (had the whole situation not been so terribly real) to see how Mark Goodman visibly squirmed beneath Bowie’s direct fire of questioning. It was like watching the work of a brilliant attorney when he’s got a crumbling witness disintegrating under his thumb! Most revealing are Goodman’s answers, when he practically admits MTV’s fear of “frightening” kids in the Midwest who might, God forbid, see too many black faces on their TV screen.

This video, alone, is a relevant piece of evidence that proves how all too real Michael’s early struggles were as a black artist on the cusp of the MTV explosion, an artist who not only wanted to be on MTV (in heavy rotation) but who also wanted to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, and who dreamed of a day when he would be nominated for a Grammy in categories other than just “Best Male R&B” simply because that was his only real shot at winning.with david bowie2

There are, of course, those flashes and glimpses of times when their paths crossed. Shortly after Michael passed, as a way of paying tribute to him, a series of photos that showed Michael and David Bowie hanging out together backstage at the LA Forum in 1983 were published on CNN by a reporter whose cousin was working for Bowie during the “Let’s Dance” tour. It was even reported that they had danced together at Studio 54, when Michael supposedly taught David how to do “The Robot!”

 

Michael Looks To Be Taking Some Serious Advice From David
Michael Looks To Be Taking Some Serious Advice From David

 

When Legends Hang Out
When Legends Hang Out

Like Michael, Bowie’s career had roots going all the way back to the 60’s (even if, albeit, as an adult star his path was destined to be quite different). They both achieved mass fame in the early 1970’s, though their appeal was to very different audiences. And in a way, they both reinvented themselves in the 80’s to become leaders of the MTV generation. And this, too, is a reason why I think so many MJ fans likewise embraced Bowie to an extent. Even though he was approaching middle age by the time of the MTV era, the videos and music he made at that time were so fresh, and so innovative, that he still felt very much like a part of that generation. Those of us who remember fondly when “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” were in heavy rotation are also the same generation who remembers “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl” and my all time favorite, cheesy guilty pleasure-Bowie and Mick Jagger camping it up in “Dancing in the Streets.”

They Both Reinvented Themselves For The 80’s MTV Generation

beat itbowie

There were also some compelling coincidences. For example, Bowie starred as The Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, on Broadway. Michael, as we know, had a lifelong fascination with the life of Merrick and often considered his own life as being somewhat analogous of Merrick’s. And, of course, we can’t forget one other interesting way in which their paths crossed, when Iman-the Queen whose heart Michael stole in “Remember The Time”- became Bowie’s real life wife that very same year. I was just listening to “Under Pressure” and remembering how Michael also recorded some amazing and brilliant duets with Freddie Mercury. To think of all three of them now being gone is sad indeed. I’m sure if I put enough thought into it, I could come up with many more examples of ways in which their lives and careers intersected.

But you must forgive me if this post rambles a bit. Like many fans this week, I am sorting through a lot of feelings and reactions, both good and bad, positive and negative.

Michael Jackson was also an iconic figure whose death was huge, and impacted many. But after nearly seven years, the world has had time to process it. Since that time, we have lost a number of other iconic musical legends, including Whitney Houston and now Bowie (and for us grunge lovers, Scott Weiland’s untimely passing last December is still a fresh sting, even if albeit, perhaps, not a total shocker). I am sure, however, that the passing of David Bowie has probably been the only musician’s death to truly equal Michael’s in terms of global mourning and press coverage. There is still a measured difference, however, largely because Bowie’s appeal and impact was, for the most part, to a more esoteric and marginalized following, whereas Michael was The King of Pop, so beloved and instantly recognizable across the globe that even natives in the remotest areas of Africa know who he is (this is not hyperbole; it’s a proven fact!). I still do not think that Bowie’s death, tragic as it is, has quite struck the collective cultural nerve in the same way, but nevertheless, the outpouring of tributes are richly deserving of an artist who not only defined a generation, but also one who made it okay to be “different”; to be “other;” to be eccentric and even “weird.”

Both David Bowie and Michael Jackson Challenged The Status Quo Ideas of Normalcy vs. “Other”

david-bowie-aladdin-sane-1973arnobani_mjHowever, this is where it gets both interesting and sad (and sometimes, yes, frustratingly infuriating) to look at the differences in how the media has reacted to Bowie’s death in comparison to Michael’s. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t wish to turn this into another bitter “martyred Michael” post, as that is not my intent. I do find it interesting, however, to observe and interpret some of the reasons behind these perceived differences.

Whereas Bowie's Constantly Evolving (And Often Gender Defying) Looks Were Branded As Genius By The Rock Elitist Press...
Whereas Bowie’s Constantly Evolving (And Often Gender Defying) Looks Were Branded As Genius By The Rock Elitist Press…

Think about it this way for a moment: David Bowie dies, and the media praises both him and his ever changing looks and alter egos as “genius” and refers to it as “reinvention.” Michael Jackson did the same thing, constantly reinventing his image and appearance, but for that he was branded as “weird” (in a not complimentary kind of way) and “self hating.” It became clear to me long ago that Michael was simply following the same trajectory of Bowie and other avant-garde artists who have utilized their bodies and appearance as much as their musical talent, yet the media never seemed willing to grant him that respect or to even consider that, just maybe, far from being a self hating black man and a “whacko jacko” who had “mutilated” his face that maybe he really was making an artistic statement all along-and, if so, the ultimate last laugh was certainly on them!

...Jackson Was Often Branded As Merely "Weird" and "Eccentric" For The Same Chameleon-Like Qualities.
…Jackson Was Often Branded As Merely “Weird” and “Eccentric” For The Same Chameleon-Like Qualities.

Bowie certainly embraced the beauty of “Otherness” and certainly challenged the status quo’s notions of gender. One might argue that Michael did as well (thought to what extent he did so intentionally  remains, perhaps, debatable). Bowie openly proclaimed himself as bisexual in an era long before it became the fashionable thing for celebrities to do, though in a more recent interview, he claimed himself (perhaps ironically tongue in cheek) as a “closet heterosexual.” But in all of the outpouring of tributes and media commentaries this week, I have seen nothing but praise for Bowie’s genius. No snarky rants about his sexuality or “why he felt the need to keep changing his appearance” (guess “self hatred” doesn’t apply if you’re white and British!). And the few trolls who have commented on Bowie tribute articles have been quickly shot down by the majority of readers. By contrast, although we certainly saw the same outpouring of grief and media tributes in the wake of Michael’s passing, it always felt just ever so slightly tinged by a kind of backhanded snarkiness, especially from the likes of Rolling Stone and other media outlets and reporters who were too far steeped in their “rockist” attitudes to appreciate Michael’s genius or atristry. In the tributes to Michael, even the most well meaning, there were always the “buts”…far too many “buts.” “Gifted child star but troubled adult;” “Brilliant artist who gave us ‘Thriller’ and then spiraled downhill,” “Cute young guy but, sadly, evolved into ‘freakdom’.” And, too often, those were the “nice” ones. Then there were the just plain nasty and vile, such as Peter King and Diane Dimond spewing their vomit not even a week after Michael had turned cold. Barely two weeks after his passing, comedians like Joan Rivers and late night talk show hosts like Jimmy Fallon were already making jokes in poor taste (as compared to Fallon’s genuinely heartfelt tribute to Bowie). And even though Bowie’s biracial daughter with wife Iman looks every bit as “white” as Michael’s biracial children with wife Debbie Rowe, it can be rest assured that you will see no snarky references to her appearance in the media. I am quite certain there will be no embarrassing articles calling into question his daughter’s paternity. In fact, of all the biracial children who have been born of celebrity parents, none have had to endure the garbage that is constantly heaped on Michael’s children.

David Bowie’s Biracial Daughter Alexandria Zahra Jones (left) and Michael Jackson’s Biracial Daughter Paris Jackson (right). Despite Their Similar, Olive-Toned Complexions, We Can Reasonably Assume That Alexandria Will Never Be Subjected To The Cruel Hatred That Paris and Her Siblings Have Endured, Or The Tasteless and Endless Media Speculations About Her Parentage.

Alexandria Lexi Zahra Jonesparis

This isn’t, of course, meant in any way to cast aspersion on the tributes to David, who was certainly a great artist and, I believe, a great human being as well. He is certainly deserving of all the respectful accolades. So let me make that much clear. This isn’t about David. But it is  about media and cultural perceptions, and why it can be that one artist is universally praised for many of the same things that another artist was universally condemned for. Therefore, I thought it might be interesting to analyze some of the reasons for this discrepancy.

One factor, of course, is the obvious: Bowie, for all his eccentricities, was never charged with a heinous crime. Michael’s fans have always believed in his innocence, and those of us who have researched the accusations made against him believe in his innocence. As I have said before, the fact that Michael was acquitted is largely why his reputation and legacy has managed to not only survive, but thrive. But for many it remains a troubling question mark on his legacy-and, unfortunately, one that many in the media could not seem to let go of, even in death. Bowie, on the other hand, was never charged with any crime, but his life was very much the typical rock star life of excess and debauchery (at least in his younger years). Again, however, while the media seems willing to “forgive and forget” these things with most musician deaths, Michael, it seemed, was and remains judged by a harsher standard. Bowie died from cancer, so in a way, even his death (by media standards) was a perfectly respectable death. Thus, there will be none of the endless scandal, gossip, and circus atmosphere that surrounded Michael’s passing. Fans will not have to suffer the indignity of all the details of his death being splashed across two necessary, but sordid and embarrassing trials. In fact, almost every aspect of Michael’s death became fodder for a huge media circus, from its tragic circumstances to the endless speculation of causes and culprits; from the over the top memorial service (which in and of itself became a source of much media criticism) to the seemingly endless soap opera of where he would be laid to rest, as weeks and then months dragged on with no resolution and his body remained unburied, all of which only served to lend an even more ghoulish and macabre note to the already circus atmosphere of his death. Compare all of that to the simple dignity of Bowie’s death and quiet cremation in New York this week, and it only serves to drive home the fact that Michael-in death as in life-deserved so much more than what he got. But mainly, if I have to single out one thing that rankles the most, it would be that for the most part every obituary and tribute article to David Bowie has focused on what matters most-his art. Michael Jackson, as one of the most legendary, iconic, and influential artists of our generation, certainly deserved the same treatment-or again, should we say, much better than what he got (the crashing of the internet notwithstanding).  Michael did, of course, receive his share of many touching tributes to his artistic genius as well, but too often these paled in number compared to the usual gossip about trivial matters such as plastic surgery, skin bleaching, drug addiction and “who is really father to his kids” or, as mentioned, the never ending speculations about where and how “it all went wrong.” I think we can safely pin it all down to one important factor, which is that Bowie, for all his celebrity status, never really fell prey to the clutches of the tabloid press and the “cult of personality” in the way that Michael did.

There are at least two obvious factors for these differences in how Bowie and Jackson were regarded by the media-we might argue racism, for one. Or the fact that even after acquittal, Michael Jackson remained, for many, guilty in the court of public opinion, thereby seemingly providing a carte blanche excuse. However, it has to be something much deeper and even more troubling, for as most of us know-and have discussed here many times-the media backlash against Michael (as well as the conspiracy to “dethrone” his position in the industry) began long before any accusations were ever made.

And this is where the comparison gets interesting, because Michael Jackson and David Bowie were utilizing many of the same artistic means to similar ends. But again, whereas Bowie’s excesses and repertoire of ever changing “alter egos” was deemed as art, Michael Jackson was often branded in the same mainstream press as a pompous “egomaniac” or worse.

Here are just some casual observations I’ve made, which may help to get to the center of why the media has regarded them in such a very different light, even though they were certainly equals in terms of artistic genius and as agent provocateurs who forced us to confront and question many issues. But first, let’s start by examining their similar visions and even, perhaps, some of Bowie’s influences on Michael.

As early as the 1970’s, Bowie had already become renowned for his evolving looks and alter egos. Artists develop alter ego personas for a number of reasons, but the most obvious is that they allow for a clear distinction between fantasy and reality. In the same way that an actor can literally “become” someone else by slipping into a role, a performer with an alter ego can explore many facets of their personality (and of others’) without the kind of repercussions that might come from actually acting out such a persona as themselves. In doing so, they can become free to act out their darkest visions, fantasies, and impulses, or to indulge in dual personalities, but with a kind of measured safety net. After all, it’s just an act (the performer knows it; the audience knows it) and the alter ego can be left behind when the performer exits the stage. The alter ego can also allow the performer to adopt many different looks and styles, as each era of their career essentially becomes a different concept that is being enacted. Michael Jackson’s career was so long, and so diverse with his many different “looks” and styles, that fans refer to every stage of his career in terms of “eras.” We all know them, and understand that when fans refer to “Off The Wall” era it is very different from, say, “HIStory era.” With every new album, we witnessed a slightly different metamorphosis; a shedding of the old skin. David Bowie’s fans, also, speak of every stage of his career in terms of “eras.” We speak of “Major Tom era” or “Ziggy Stardust era,” “Thin White Duke” era or “Aladdin Zane era.” Each of these personas allowed Bowie as an artist the freedom to explore controversial and even taboo territory (such as androgynous sexuality in the 1970’s).

Bowie’s own explanations of some of his most famous “personalities” are revealing. In a 1974 interview with William S. Burroughs, Bowie explained the concept of Ziggy Stardust:

“The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. [The album was released three years ago.] Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock & roll band and the kids no longer want rock & roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. “All the Young Dudes” is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.”

“Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes “Starman,” which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is traveling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie the Infinite Fox.

Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist on our world. And they tear him to pieces onstage during the song “Rock and Roll Suicide.” As soon as Ziggy dies onstage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science-fiction fantasy of today and this is what literally blew my head off when I read Nova Express, which was written in 1961. Maybe we are the Rogers and Hammerstein of the Seventies, Bill!”

Bowie’s “Thin White Duke” was personified as a pure Aryian and Fascist, or the embodiment of Hitler as “an early rock star.” Bowie often described him as his darkest (and certainly least likable) alter ego. Bowie himself described “The Thin White Duke” as a “dangerous” persona who was a “nasty character indeed.”  This phase was undeniably the most controversial of Bowie’s career, and may be considered analogous to some aspects of Michael’s HIStory-era persona, particularly in the HIStory teaser film and “They Don’t Care About Us,” both of which were taken out of context and misconstrued by the media.

That Michael was becoming fascinated with the concept of artistic reinvention was evident as early as his 1979 manifesto, in which he stated:

“MJ will be my new name No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a tottally [sic]different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang “ABC,” [or]”I Want You Back. I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer [sic]. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.”

Although Michael’s development of characters and alter ego personas was less overtly obvious than Bowie’s, there can be little doubt that he was certainly creating many such fictional characters and alter extensions of himself throughout his career. The “Billie Jean” character, for example, was a very distinct persona steeped in the quirky pathos of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Michael’s love of miming. There was the gangster suave “Smooth Criminal,” the superhero “Captain EO,” the robotic and unfeeling alien who opened most of the “HIStory” concerts and the entire history of short films in which Michael often displayed transformation and/or the duality of conflicting personas (Preppie Daryl vs. Black Studded Leather Gang Leader in “Bad,” the Black Panther of “Black or White,” the royal trickster of “Remember the Time,” the quirky Maestro and uptight mayor of “Ghosts,” and, finally, “The Beast [we] visualized.” And, as with Bowie, with each new incarnation came a new look, often challenging and provoking status quo norms of masculinity and/or normalcy.

Michael, Like Bowie, Often Transformed Himself Into Many Fictional Characters, Such As The Alien Spaceman of the HIStory Tour
Michael, Like Bowie, Often Transformed Himself Into Many Fictional Characters, Such As The Alien Spaceman of the HIStory Tour

And really, when we think of Michael’s career in these terms, some of the more puzzling and often contradictory aspects of his onstage and offstage personality may begin to make more sense to us (for example, how he could be both the seemingly shy, blushing child-man and the sexually charged onstage presence he became).  However, Michael rarely discussed his art or his artistic vision publicly, and I think this reticence may be at least partly responsible for some of the misconceptions. Whereas Bowie often gave detailed interviews about his alter egos, Michael chose the path of mystique instead, preferring to let his music and performances speak for themselves. And, unfortunately, by the time he was ready to open up and talk about his art, he was met by a reluctant press who were always more  interested in discussing anything but his art. By then, Michael’s life and celebrity had become tabloid fodder. No one was really thinking of him as a serious artist, least of all the media.

David Bowie, too, became very much a part of the celebrity cult, but with a studied difference. There always seemed a clear distinction between David Bowie the celebrity vs.  David Bowie the artist. There was, in other words, a clear distinction between art and reality. No matter how “weird” or “androgynous” Ziggy Stardust might look; no matter how eccentric, dark or twisted the “Thin White Duke,” no one was really confusing those characters with their creator, David (Jones) Bowie.  With Michael, there was not always such a clearly defined distinction between the eccentricities of his art and the eccentricities of his reality. The media often ridiculed his choices of fashion, the makeup, his hairstyles, the surgical masks as all somehow indicative of either an extreme desire for attention or as being symptomatic of a psychological disorder or, at best, as a kind of unforgiving unwillingness to separate the fantasy of the “King of Pop image” from his own reality (even though he was, in many ways, simply carrying on an age-old tradition of show business mystique harkening back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, when great stars worked hard to develop an image and never allowed themselves to be seen in public looking “normal” or “ordinary”-after all, a star was not supposed to resemble your next door neighbor).

1997 Interview In Which Barbara Walters Criticizes Michael’s Fashion Statements as “Eccentric”

And it is this aspect that many, particularly the rockist elite who were most determined to bring him down, could not forgive. Back in 2010 when I ran a piece comparing Michael and Johnny Depp, and looking at some of the ways in which Michael’s persona had inspired Depp’s quirkier characters, I raised this same question: Why is Johnny Depp revered for playing the same eccentric, quirky characters that Michael was often condemned for being in real life? And again, it probably comes down to the same answer: Eccentricity is loved, adored, and celebrated when it is on the big screen, or conversely, on the stage. In other words, as long as it is within the realm of fantasy. It’s not so loved, or embraced, when it bleeds over into real life, when being “different” can even become a threat.The world knows that Johnny Depp is an actor who, at the end of the day, takes off the makeup and goes home to a relatively “normal” life. Michael, on the other hand, even after performing in the spotlight, went home to a place called Neverland-a place that, as far as the media was concerned, represented the height of eccentricity. Likewise David Bowie  lived the typical rock star fast life through much of the 70’s and 80’s before finally settling down to a kind of respectable domestic life in the 90’s. Part of Michael Jackson’s mystique, on the other hand, was that those lines between his onstage and offstage personas were often blurred. And he was perceived in some circles as a very real threat. In other words, there reached a point where the balance between showmanship and becoming a very real, unsettling threat to the status quo was not so easily or clearly defined. The public began to find Michael Jackson unsettling precisely because they did not longer know how to categorize him or how to separate those boundaries. The great irony in Michael’s case was that the very mystique he sought, in order to protect himself as a serious artist, was ultimately denied him. Instead, the sensationalist angle of his life took over (but to what extent we might blame Michael or the media for this remains a hotly debatable issue). David Bowie once said that the reason he abandoned Ziggy Stardust when he did was because he had taken that alter ego as far as he possibly could, and that to have continued as Ziggy would have turned both himself and the character into a cartoon caricature. The unfortunate downside for Michael might be that he never seemed as able-or perhaps was never allowed to be as able- to so blithely develop and then discard his alter extensions once the spotlight was turned off. 

David Bowie Said If He Had Not Abandoned Ziggy Stardust When He Did, He Would Have Quickly Become "A Caricature."
David Bowie Said If He Had Not Abandoned Ziggy Stardust When He Did, He Would Have Quickly Become “A Caricature.”

But perhaps the biggest factor may come down to simple demographics. Bowie’s roots were strongly entrenched in the avant-garde world of glam rock, where his brand of “Otherness” was considered the norm; even expected. Unlike Michael, whose roots instead were firmly  embedded in the glory days of Motown and where his fame had begun as a child star and as part of a popular and clean cut “boy band,” Bowie had the luxury of beginning his career as an adult with a clean slate. This gave him the kind of carte blanche needed to fully develop his adult artistic vision, in all of its “weird” glory. I believe that Michael, especially by the time he had emancipated himself from Quincy Jones in the early 90’s, really wanted to be an avante-garde artist on a par with Bowie, but the disadvantage he faced was that his reputation was already firmly established as The King of Pop. The world had watched him grow up, and therefore any and all attempts at self-reinvention or even artistic reinvention always seemed to be met with a kind of skepticism. His huge commercial success had become, in a way, his own downfall in moving forward, and it often seemed that no matter how brilliant his mature work might be, he was always doomed to be judged by a harsher standard by critics who simply didn’t “get it” and who seemed to want to refuse him the right to either grow up or change.

Michael Sometimes Seemed To Want To Be Every Kind of Artist, To Every One. He Succeeded More Than Most...But Not Without Cost.
Michael Sometimes Seemed To Want To Be Every Kind of Artist, To Every One. He Succeeded More Than Most…But Not Without Cost.

But part of the problem, too, is that Michael always desired to be the kind of artist who could be everything to everyone. The boldness of his vision was such that he truly believed he could reinvent himself as a cutting edge, avante-garde artist, one who would challenge and threaten the status quo, all while still selling millions of records and maintaining his role model image and loyal, global fanbase. And I have said many times before that the biggest testament to his star power was that he was able to successfully juggle this often unweildy balance as successfully as he did. However, achieving that balance could not come without some form of price, and in Michael’s case, I believe that price was paid by the fact that he would always forever be doomed to “prove himself” to critics-and to top his own achievements. At some point, Michael did become resigned to the price he had paid, becoming less the “superhero” of past incarnations and more the dark “beast” who reflected our fears and prejudices. Another price to be paid is that his most challenging work was always going to be either torn down or dismissed by a generation of critics who feared what the repercussions of taking him too seriously might entail. To cut to the simple chase, it was always going to be an easier path for a white British rocker to challenge our norms. It was never going to be as easy for a black American pop singer who had started out as a child singing “ABC.” But the one thing we have to remember is that David Bowie did courageously make a stand for black American musicians, using his platform to make the pop and rock world aware of its own racial injustices-and its own short sightedness. And when Bowie spoke, people listened.

There is at least one other parallel note to touch upon, and that is the immortality and metaphoric resurrection of both through their art. In what has become almost a cliche’ with celebrity/artist deaths, both Michael Jackson and David Bowie died just as they seemed on the verge of major “comebacks.” I use the term in quotes, however, because the truth is that neither had ever really gone away. But it is true that the “This Is It” concerts would have been Michael’s return to the stage after almost a decade, and Bowie’s “Blackstar” album was his first since 2013. Of course we now know that Bowie, who had been quietly and courageously battling his cancer for eighteen months, intended this album as his final farewell. That the “Lazarus” video, depicting an emaciated Bowie being resurrected from his death bed, just happened to be released on the day of Bowie’s death was either the most brilliant marketing strategy ever, or-depending on how one views these things-the most macabre and exploitative marketing strategy ever. However, since Bowie was apparently in complete control of this project all the way up to the last, what is most obvious is that Bowie planned perfectly how to make his own death his Last Great Production-and his final artistic statement to the world.

David Bowie’s “Lazarus”-A Good-Bye As Brilliant As It Is Heartbreaking

In Michael’s case, though he was not battling a terminal illness, there was nevertheless something eerily prophetic in the choice of “This Is It” as the title of his final curtain call-and which would lend even more macabre poignancy to the concert film that followed, which in its own way seemed to supplant the aborted live concerts as Michael’s own resurrection from the grave. MJ-mjs-this-is-it-24072928-1280-706 (1)

I have listened to “Lazarus,” as well as watched the video, many times this week, and more recently have listened to the entire “Blackstar” album. It is a haunting and brilliant work, although I know it will take many, many more listenings for all of its facets and nuances to reveal themselves,and before all the dots of its parting message can truly be connected for me. What I do know is that “Lazarus” is an achingly beautiful tribute to the immortality of the artistic spirit, which unfortunately must be pitted against the mortality of the physical body. And in that spirit I am reminded again of Michael’s own words, when he said “To escape death, I attempt to bind my soul to my work.”After viewing “Lazarus” my husband made the comment that he believed a celebrity death had finally managed to “upstage” Michael Jackson’s. This led to a quite interesting (and opinionated!) discussion. I said yes, but we have to remember that David Bowie had eighteen months in which to contemplate his mortality, and to prepare his farewell statement to the world. Michael didn’t have that luxury; he couldn’t have foreseen that his life was going to be cut short at fifty (although I do believe he had a strong premonition in his last months that the end was nearing). But after that conversation, I remembered something else-that Michael had, in fact, brilliantly and prophetically predicted his own demise, death, and eventual resurrection many years before, in the film “Ghosts” and its forerunner, “Is It Scary.” Of course. I have been writing on “Ghosts” for years-even lecturing on it-and yet, somehow, this most obvious parallel of all completely escaped me until being recalled in hindsight. Since there can be little doubt that Michael intended The Maestro character as an extension of himself (that which represented himself as “The Artist”) then the death scene of the character, when he literally crumbles to dust on the floor before the astonished villagers, is not only analogous to Michael’s own physical death twelve years later, but eerily prophesies what he perceives as the crucifixion of the artist. In both “Is It Scary” and “Ghosts” his character is, of course, miraculously resurrected, though in different ways-in “Is It Scary” his corpse is literally pieced back together by the children; the later version in “Ghosts” merely depicts his resurrection as a more mysterious result of the power of wishful thinking, though the implications are the same.  In both films, the idea of the artist as a kind of “Lazarus” figure who is both sacrificed because of his art, and resurrected as a result of its power to sustain his immortality, is a central theme. So in a way, it seems Michael did create his own version of “Lazarus,” even if, albeit, some twelve years prematurely.

In closing, I will simply add this parting thought. I am proud that my generation was blessed with so many unique geniuses and talents, and every time we lose another, the world grows a little dimmer and colder for their loss. Among the music world, I don’t think there are many more genuine stars of their ilk left. The world that created them has passed; we make do with lesser lights.

“Get the point? Good…Let’s Dance!”

 

 

“Spare Me the Din Of Your Songs”: Michael Jackson’s Complicated Relationship With Christmas

“Christmas is love; it’s a celebration of love. And I can’t imagine Christmas without Michael, or Michael without Christmas.”-Elizabeth Taylor

Every year, I enjoy revisiting this cute clip of Michael celebrating his first Christmas-as a 35-year-old adult. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, Christmas-that joyous holiday so many of us take for granted-was one of many that Michael was never allowed to celebrate as a child. When we think about how often Michael told us he never had a childhood, we usually interpret it to mean the hard work he was forced to do in show business. And that was a big part of it, for sure. But think about the child who is eventually old enough to realize that every house on his street is lit at a certain time of year-except for his, which remains in the dark. Or the child who is one day old enough to realize that, at a special time of year, all the other kids in the neighborhood get really cool presents to show off, but he never has any.

Jermaine Jackson’s book You Are Not Alone, Michael: Through a Brother’s Eyes contains a poignant passage describing what the Jackson children often felt in their tiny house on Jackson Street every Christmas:

“We observed all this from inside a home with no tree, no lights, no nothing. Our tiny house, on the corner of Jackson Street and 23rd Avenue, was the only one without decoration. We felt it was the only one in Gary, Indiana, but Mother assured us that, no, there were other homes and other Jehovah’s Witnesses who did not celebrate Christmas…But that knowledge did nothing to clear our confusion: we could see something that made us feel good, yet we were told it wasn’t good for us. Christmas wasn’t God’s will: it was commercialism. In the run-up to December 25 we felt as if we were witnessing an event to which we were not invited, and yet we still felt its forbidden spirit.

At our window, we viewed everything from a cold, gray world, looking into a shop where everything was alive, vibrant and sparkling with color; where children played in the street with their new toys, rode new bikes or pulled new sleds in the snow. We could only imagine what it was to know the joy we saw on their faces…I’ve read many times that Michael did not like Christmas, based on our family’s lack of celebration. This was not true. It had not been true since that moment as a four-year-old when he said, staring at the Whites’ house; ‘When I’m older, I’ll have lights. Lots of lights. It will be Christmas every day.'”-pp. 4-5.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly do not intend this to be a piece bashing Jehovah’s Witnesses, their beliefs or practices. I respect the right of all religions to worship as they see fit, and to practice the creeds and customs of their belief. Most Witnesses will deny vehemently that they are depriving their children of anything, let alone the joy of love or family. Rather than celebrating commercialized holidays like Christmas, Easter, or even birthdays, most Jehovah’s Witness families instead set aside certain, non declared days as a family member’s special day. But, just as with Jewish children and all children of families who practice minority religions that do not celebrate Christmas, there is always the sting of feeling “different.” For children raised in the Jehovah’s Witness faith, especially, their later adult lives inevitably follow one of two paths-either learning to embrace their difference as the price that must be paid for walking “the true path” or to rebel. There usually isn’t much in the way of in-between, but the fact that Michael Jackson-despite finally breaking away from the faith in 1987-remained conflicted throughout his life has much to do with understanding the adult he became.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that, despite all the hundreds of books that have been written purporting to get to the “truth” of who Michael Jackson was, no one can hope to seriously examine that question without taking a serious look at the impact of his upbringing in this religion, even if, as has often been pointed out, Katherine Jackson may not have been the strictest JW parent on the planet. But therein lies the seed of much of young Michael’s confusion-a confusion that I don’t think we can under estimate as a direct cause of much of the eventual perplexing dualities of Michael’s nature.

We Cannot Expect To understand Who Michael Was Until We Understand What He Was Raised To Believe.
We Cannot Expect To understand Who Michael Was Until We Understand What He Was Raised To Believe.

Imagine, for an instant, being a child raised in this religion in which every lived moment on Earth is merely preparation for Armageddon and in which there is no real concept of “Grace” as it is taught in other Christian denominations. (JW do believe in Jesus as the son of God, but they do not believe in the concept of the Trinity or that one can be “saved” through faith in Jesus alone).  Because JW do not believe in the concept of “Grace” but, rather, that one must strive to please Jehovah to be among the “saved” there is often a nagging feeling of guilt and uncertainty. What if my best isn’t “good enough” to please Jehovah? Witnesses who are active in the faith may deny this, of course, insisting that those who are strong in their faith have no such doubts. But the testament of many ex Witnesses (those who have converted to other faiths) tells a very different story. In Michael’s case, we can certainly see him tortured by these conflicted feelings of doubt throughout his youth. As Joe Vogel stated in his book  Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus, Michael would often “pore over doctrines” and would question church elders about doctrines he found “confusing or unfair.” And though his disassociation in 1987 may have liberated him artistically, it is somewhat more ambiguous as to whether he achieved the complete personal and spiritual liberation he so craved. Certainly the vestiges of having been raised as a JW remained with him for the rest of his life. When something has been a part of your identity and, indeed, your fundamental makeup for almost thirty years, that isn’t something that can be so blithely tossed aside.  Imagine being taught that all forms of celebration and holidays are a sin to Jehovah, and yet you are still being expected to record an album of Christmas carols because, well, that’s what the record company wants and Mother says it will be okay just this once-it’s only for money. Imagine you have a mother who teaches you devoutly that sex before marriage is wrong; that even thoughts of lust are wicked and wrong, and then you have a father who, as soon as Mother is out of sight and out of mind, is inviting women into his hotel room and sending groupies to yours and your brothers’ rooms, encouraging you that “this is what real men do.” Now imagine you witness the hypocrisy when your father returns home to your mother, kissing her up with lies: “Oh, baby, I missed you so much.” These are all things that Michael and his siblings have spoken of, first hand. Theirs’ was a childhood of constant conflict, between the devout teachings of Kingdom Hall and a life within the very wordly demands of show business-and between parents who were two very, very different people, walking two very different paths, yet trying to put on a united front for the world.

It is common knowledge that Michael, following in the eventual footsteps of all of his siblings except for Rebbie, broke away from the JW after many years of conflict and the constant struggle of attempting to reconcile his art with his religion. But what is not as well known is just how much spiritual conflict this decision threw him into. It was not a decision that came lightly, or without cost. And it is also, perhaps, difficult for the layperson to fathom the extent of just how much of a personal sacrifice this decision was for Michael. It came literally at cost of everything he had known. The following is excerpted from JWFacts.com:

In 1987, Michael disassociated himself from the Watchtower Society.

“At this same time, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ elders in Woodland Hills, California, began pressuring Michael again. They felt strongly that the recent publicity on the Witnesses was doing them great damage, and that it reflected poorly on the Witnesses, because Michael was so representative of the faith. Michael was becoming disenchanted with the church’s elders by this time, mostly because he didn’t wan to be told what to do. What’s more he couldn’t reconcile his lifestyle and career with the religion’s strict tenets. In truth, it’s almost impossible to be a Jehovah’s Witness and be an entertainer. Therefore, in the spring of 1987, Michael withdrew from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A letter from the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, sent as a press release, stated that the organization ‘no longer considers Michael Jackson to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.’ Gary Botting, author of The Orwellian World of Jehovah’s Witnesses and a Witness himself, said that leaving the religion is ‘worse than being disfellowshipped, or kicked out.” He observed, ‘if you wilfully reject God’s holy organization on earth, that’s the unforgivable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit.’

Michael’s decision to leave the church puzzled his mother, Katherine, and caused her great despair. Katherine wasn’t sure she knew her own son any longer. However, there was no discussing the spiritual matter with him – literally. As it is strictly prohibited for a Witness to discuss matters of faith with ex-members, even if they are family, Katherine says that she has never asked Michael what happened, and she says that she never intends to ask such questions. ‘I was not required to “shun” my son,’ she claimed, referring to rumours of that nature. ‘But we can’t talk about matters of faith any longer, which is a shame.'” Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness p.363

The publicity surrounding Michael’s disassociation promoted the Watchtower headquarters to send the following letter to the Body of elder’s and Circuit Overseers explaining how to reply to questions.

michael jackson letter to elders 1987

Even after Michael disassociated in 1987 he likely still suffered greatly from guilt, as he retained much of the Watchtower belief system. By disassociating, Michael now became part of the group that the Watchtower classifies as the AntiChrist and as such to be hated by Witnesses.

“Such ones willfully abandoning the Christian congregation thereby become part of the ‘antichrist.'” Watchtower 1985 Jul 15 p.31

“Our attitude toward apostates should be that of David, who declared: “Do I not hate those who are intensely hating you” Watchtower 1992 Jul 15 pp.12-13

Michael, moreso perhaps than any of his other siblings, had been devout in his beliefs and in his desire to please his mother by remaining true to her faith. Also, for someone as deeply spiritual and philanthropic as Michael to be thought of as some sort of “AntiChrist” to be “hated by Witnesses” would have to have been a galling thought indeed. Nor does there appear to be any one, satisfactory conclusion as to how he eventually resolved his spiritual crisis. It is one of those things where everyone who knew him seems to have their own steadfast belief, and if you ask twenty people, you may be apt to get twenty very different responses. If you read enough, you will hear everything from that he converted to Islam to, eventually, a JW again. Yet there is no evidence to bear any of this out. And indeed, it is not such a mystery, as Michael clearly spelled out most of his newfound spiritual beliefs in his 1992 book Dancing The Dream, as well as writing his way through most of his darkness and light in the hundreds of songs he continued to churn out throughout his mature years (yet, amazingly, his own words continue to be often the last resort that journalists turn to when attempting to “psychoanalyze” him). What is known with certainty is that Michael remained deeply spiritual throughout his life, was an avid reader of the Bible with a profound knowledge of it, and while no longer beholden to any particular creed or dogma, maintained a close relationship with God that did not appear to be celebrity lip service, but instead, welled from a deep and personal connection. It was a relationship that had been borne out of coming between those “clashing rocks” and which had withstood his own, personal storm.

Very recently, I was browsing through a copy of “The Watchtower,” the JW magazine that is often distributed and left lying about at various businesses (Michael himself used to peddle the magazine door to door). It was a long afternoon at the laundromat, and the issues were lying about in abundance-and, of course,  were free for the taking. I have had an avid interest in studying JW beliefs primarily because I know that understanding their beliefs is crucial to understanding the spiritual foundation that shaped young Michael’s life and the person he became (and of which, yes, even the conflicts play an essential role). Because the Christmas season was approaching, there was an article explaining why Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas and why they believe that Christmas is offensive to God. The article quoted heavily from the Hebrew prophet Amos and a Biblical verse in particular that Witnesses have taken to heart, believing it proves Jehovah’s ardent disapproval of music and celebration:

“Spare me the din of your songs;

And let me not hear the melodies 

Of your stringed instruments

Only let justice flow down like waters

And righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5: 23, 24). 

I was struck by the irony of those words-“Spare me the din of your songs/And let me not hear the melodies”-knowing that this would have been part of the early indoctrination of Michael Jackson, future King of Pop who, of course, would leave his indelible imprint of musical genius upon the world. But closer inspection of Hebrew scripture reveals that Amos’s words were not so much directed against music as against the idea of pagan ceremonies and all forms of pagan worship (which Witnesses, of course, believe includes the celebration of Christmas with all of its festivities, lights, singing and glittery razzmatazz ). This is further clarified in Amos 5:21:

So, hear the word that springs forth from the Holy Mountain:

‘I hate, I despise your festivals

And I take no pleasure in the aroma 

Of your solemn assemblies’

Indeed, from what I know from many Witnesses, worldy music is not necessarily forbidden, though the extent to which one may embrace it (as well as all other forms of popular entertainment) depend on the branch of the organization one belongs to, how strictly the elders enforce the “do’s” and “don’ts” of the religion, and the personal choice of the individual as to what they personally feel is displeasing to Jehovah. In that regard, Witnesses are actually a lot more tolerant than certain Christian denominations such as the Pentecosts (as I well know from the time when my mother, for God knows what reason, went through a phase where she decided to join a Pentecost church). This tolerance would have explained why Michael and his siblings were allowed to pursue musical careers without fear of apostasy, though it was a conflict that would become much more troublesome during the early years of Michael’s adult solo career, as his act became more grown up and, as an inevitable by-product, more overtly sexualized. Michael himself described the conflicted feelings he experienced as his JW beliefs began to clash both with his art and his own newfound awakening-an awakening that included the realization that not everything preached against by the JW are necessarily “bad”:

Schmuley Boteach: Do you think a hatred of pride is still a relic of your religious upbringing?

Michael Jackson: It hurt me a lot and it helped me a lot.

SB: How did it hurt you?

MJ:r… (long silence) When I did certain things in the past that I didn´t realized were against the religion and I was deprimanded for it, it almost destroyed me. Certain things that I did as an artist in my music I didn´t realized I was crossing a line with them and when they chastised me, it really hurt me. It almost destroyed me. My mother saw it.

SB: Their disapproval, their rejection?

MJ: When I did the Moonwalk for the first time, Motown 25, they told me that I doing burlesque dancing and it was dirty and I went for months and they said, “You can never dance like that again.” I said 90,9 percent of dancing is moving the waist. They said, “We don´t want you to do it.”  So I went around trying to dance for a long time without moving this part of my body. Then when I made Thriller with all the ghouls an ghosts, they said that it was demonic and part of the occult and that Brother Jackson can´t do it. I called my lawyer and was crying and I said: “Destroy the video, have it destroyed.” And because he went against my wishes, people have “Thriller” today. They made me feel so bad about it that I ordered people to destroy it.

SB: So you have seen two sides of religion, the loving side that teaches you not to like pride and humility, but you have also seen what you would described as mean-spiritedness and judgmentalism.

MJ: Because they can discriminate sometimes in wrong ways. I don´t think God meant it in that way. Like Halloween, I missed of Halloween for years and now I do it. It´s sweet to go from door-to-door and people give you candy. We need more of that in the world. It brings the world together.

Read more: http://www.truemichaeljackson.com/faith-religion-spiritualiy/

It is also a commonly held myth, as I have discovered, that the JW do not allow music or singing of any kind. This misconception stems from the fact that they do frown upon gospel music, as they believe that gospel music preaches a false religion. But that doesn’t mean that the JW are a religion devoid of song; in fact, I am just beginning to discover the rich wealth of music contained in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’s Song Book. Many of their songs can be heard on Youtube. I am including here a couple of my favorite examples (obviously, there are many more if one cares to look!).

Although for my personal taste I do not find the music as soul stirring as gospel, many of the songs, like these two, are nevertheless quite beautiful-not only beautiful, but filled with positive, inspiring messages that can certainly be relevant no matter what one’s personal religious belief may be. However,  as opposed to gospel music, which has strong roots in Africa and the black oral tradition, JW music is, by contrast, much more structured and chorale. When it comes to Christian music, it is about as “white” as it gets, which is interesting considering that if Michael did grow up singing any form of music at all in Kingdom Hall, it would have been songs very much like this (as opposed to the amazing gospel skills he would later showcase in songs like “Man in the Mirror” and “Earth Song.”). I do not know for certain if the Kingdom Hall the Jacksons attended in Gary, Indiana used the Song Book, but it seems quite certain that the Kingdom Hall Katherine has attended for many years in Northridge (and of which Michael attended quite faithfully at least up to as late as 1984) includes music, as evidenced by the fact that Paris Jackson was photographed holding a Song Book in hand in 2010 when the children accompanied their grandmother to Kingdom Hall.

2998=3-paris_jacksonAlthough this phase would be short lived (none of Michael’s three children, to my knowledge, have continued to be active JW; they were probably, at best, curious about the religion their father had been raised in, and of course, were seeking comfort in their immediate bereavement) it is interesting to note that Michael evidently had never “talked down” to them about his religious upbringing or actively discouraged them from taking part in it. I believe if he had, they probably would not have so willingly gone along with their grandmother’s wishes.

But even with the allowance of music (so long as it glorifies Jehovah), a quick glance at the website Truth Rundown reveals no less than 141 things that a JW cannot do. Here are just a few of the most interesting, as they pertain to Michael:

8.Contribute to the Presidential Campaign Fund on their tax return
9.Join the armed forces and defend their country
10.Say the Pledge of Allegiance
11.Salute the flag
12.Vote
13.Run for leadership in their organization. (JW’s are ‘appointed’ and invited to be leaders.)
14.Run for leadership in any organization 15.Take a stand for any political issue inside their organization
16.Take a stand on any political or ‘worldly’ issue outside of their organization
17.Campaign for a political candidate
18.Hold political office
19.Discuss politics

30lglc3All of the above would explain why Michael remained vehemently apolitical throughout most of his life (and also why he could be as at ease in accepting an award from Ronald Reagan as attending the Clinton inauguration). It goes even deeper, of course. A JW cannot engage in any form of patriotism as we know it. They cannot serve in the military, even in time of war. Veteran’s Day is among the long list of holidays that cannot be celebrated. In the eyes of the JW, all of these acts equate to the idea of putting wordly issues ahead of Jehovah. In recent weeks, I have joked that if Michael were alive, he might be more than a little torn over the current presidential race-after all, he counted both Donald Trump and Bill and Hillary Clinton among his friends. But although I believe his personal leanings were Democratic, he remained-publicly, at least-often frustratingly hard to pin down insofar as political stance. Michael-Jackson-Instagram-Donald-Trump

Conversely, however,  it can also help us to even better appreciate the courage it took for him to eventually become such an outspoken advocate for many causes, including human rights, minority rights, AIDS, and environmental activism (in itself something he could never have truly permitted himself to do as a JW). Yet his early upbringing, and the JW influence, would still go far in explaining why he could never be as overtly political as many of his celebrity peers.

And how about this one?

24.Wear military uniforms or clothing associated with war

Just imagine most any familiar photo, concert image, or dance choreography of Michael from the 80’s and 90’s and you can instantly see that Michael not only embraced the military style and look into his image and art, but did so with brazen defiance considering his background as a JW. Could all of the military style dancing and costumes have been intended as a direct affront to the elders? It’s interesting that we see him really beginning to embrace his “military phase” post-1987. However, the military jacket had already become an iconic part of his “look” as early as 1984.

Michael's Iconic Military Jackets: Innocent Fashion Statement, or Radical Rebellion?
Michael’s Iconic Military Jackets: Innocent Fashion Statement?
MJ-CTE-03 (1)
Or Radical Rebellion?

JW also do not believe in carrying guns or weapons, and it has been said that Michael’s “Smooth Criminal” video may, in fact, have been one of the final nails in the coffin leading to his disassociation.

Or how about this clincher?

35.Shop at the Salvation Army

Although I am speaking as a generalization, of course, it is known that JW do not support charitable organizations or the idea of giving to charity, believing that most charitable organizations are corrupt or have the potential to corrupt one spiritually. Judging from Michael’s legendary love of shopping for bargains at the Salvation Army-foisted no doubt by the fact that Katherine was a frequent shopper who clothed most of her large family thanks to Salvation Army hand-me-down’s-is a strong indicator that not all JW rules were strictly followed to the letter in the Jackson home. Again, we have to look at this example and say that if Michael (or any of the Jackson kids) grew up with mixed messages and signals about their religion, it’s certainly not something they can be faulted for.

And then there is this one, which Michael referenced in his conversation with Boteach above:

92.Do suggestive and immodest dancing in a public place

I’ve often said I don’t believe  it was any coincidence that the crotch grab became an iconic fixture of Michael’s dance routine right about the same time he stopped being a JW. And, needless to say, it doesn’t get anymore “public” than on the world’s stage!michael-jackson-king-of-pop-dance-moonwalk-14223020498_xlarge

Lastly, we can only imagine how Michael must have grappled with this one, knowing the mass hysteria and adulation he inspired:

135.Idolize any celebrity or love and admire them to excess

Most of the JW bans on holidays are understandable within the context of their beliefs. Many Christian denominations, for example, frown upon holidays like Halloween which are viewed as pagan rituals. But the JW ban on any form of holiday-including those like Christmas and Easter which are embraced by most Christian religions-is certainly more extremist than most. Even though Michael celebrated every Christmas post 1993, there are still some who insist it was more for the sake of his children, and in the interest of fellowship with his close friends, than for himself. Michael wanted his kids to experience all of the joyous occasions he had been denied as a child. Birthdays, Easter, Halloween, and, most of all, Christmas were celebrated openly and joyously in the Jackson household. But his makeup artist Karen Faye has stated that he would still often hide in the closet to wrap gifts, and that he never got over feeling awkward when wished a “Happy Birthday.”

Nevertheless, it seems evident that Michael eventually made his peace with Christmas, recognizing it as a season of love and giving-those very qualities which most epitomized everything he stood for in his life. Although he never again recorded another Christmas carol album following The Jackson 5 Christmas Album  in 1970, he did, perhaps, embody the Christmas spirit in many more lasting and permanent ways. His Christmas messages to the world, a (nearly-if-not-quite-annual) tradition begun in 1992, always emphasized positive messages to regions and people in need of hope. And in the latter videos, we see even more what Christmas was really all about for him.

But, of course, there was at least one other thing. Those lights; those beautiful lights…lots and lots of lights!

mj christmas tree

The Truth About Michael and Lip Syncing: A Rare Soundboard Recording May Hold The Key

 

Michael-Jackson-history-world-tour-1996-1997-38122915-640-462As a Michael Jackson fan and researcher, one issue I hear debated quite frequently, and sometimes passionately, is why Michael lip synced so many of his performances during the HIStory tour and later. I have heard everything from the put downs of his work ethic by detractors (and even some “fans”) who insist it was out of laziness, to the excuses by fans that it was due to health issues. Closely on the heels of the latter defense are those who say that it simply isn’t possible to dance and sing at the same time-at least, not on the kind of intense and sustained level that was expected of a Michael Jackson concert. And therein may lie at least some of the truth, but I think it is a little more complex than that. Certainly, Michael had both sang and danced live throughout most of his career, up through the Dangerous era, at least, when lip syncing began to become a more prominent and noticeable part of his act. But let’s not forget that, by the time of the HIStory tour, Michael was in his late thirties, and it simply wasn’t as easy to pull off this feat with the same kind of sustained energy and intensity that he had been able to do in years past.

I am not entirely ruling out the health issues, either. We know, for example, that he suffered from chronic bronchitis throughout much of the HIStory tour, rendering vocally demanding pieces like “Earth Song” near impossible to do live on a nightly basis.

However, one reason that the “he couldn’t dance and sing at the same time” argument doesn’t entirely hold up is because it still doesn’t explain why he would lip sync a ballad like “You Are Not Alone”-which required relatively little physical exertion-while going all out live on some higher intensity dance numbers like “Wanna Be Starting Something.”

On the flip side of this argument, however, the accusations of laziness simply do not jibe with everything we know about this man’s work ethic. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the very same people who will go on and on about how Michael was such a perfectionist with his art will still turn around and perpetuate the argument that Michael simply chose to lip sync out of laziness. We have all heard the stories of how he drove engineers and fellow musicians to frustration with his insistence on perfection, often performing take after take of a track, long past the point when most would have been satisfied and called it a wrap. We know it was not unusual for him to spend years polishing a track or an album to perfection.  The sheer number of outtakes, the hundreds of songs written for every album, the endless hours of slaving away in recording studios just to get one perfect note. the countless hours often spent alone and rehearsing (even to the extent of refusing invitations to parties and other leisure activities) are all testaments to an unquestionable work ethic. This was the same performer who even climbed back onstage to finish a performance after being slammed fifty feet to the ground when a bridge collapsed during a performance of “Earth Song.” It simply doesn’t make sense to think that the same artist who gave so much to his art; who extended such effort into every aspect of his craft, would then choose to conscionably  snooker the public and his fans just because he didn’t feel up to putting forth the effort of singing live on a nightly basis.14402276646e5f6d (1)

But if we can’t chalk it up to mere laziness, as some would love to do, and if excuses about health issues do not entirely satisfy, either, then might there be another, even more plausible explanation?

To answer that question, we have to go back to the accusation of laziness and examine the very root opposition to it. If indeed Michael was such a perfectionist, it makes sense that this same compulsive obsession with detail, perfectionism, and craftsmanship would carry over to his live performances. It may be no coincidence that we actually begin to see and hear more lip syncing infiltrating his live performances at the very same time that he embarked on his own artistic emancipation with Dangerous. And, just as this artistic emancipation begins with Dangerous and peaks with HIstory, so, also, do we begin to see a certain solidification of his live performances. Simply put, it may seem that the most logical explanation for the increased reliance on backup tracking during the HIStory tour had more to do with Michael’s obsession to deliver perfection and, also, in a sense, to use live performance as illusion. Let’s note, however, that there is a huge difference between illusion in performance vs. deception in performance.

In short, the simple truth is that Michael was obviously making no attempt to deceive anyone. If he had been, then the lip synced numbers wouldn’t have been nearly so obvious. (In short, do these people really think that Michael was stupid enough to think that his fans were that stupid? The same fans who knew every word, every note, every inflection and spontaneous “Hee hee” and “Woo hoo” of his records by heart? Gimme a break!). Also, as with many pop performers who routinely utilize dance as part of their live show, Michael had been relying on pre-recorded live backing tracks for years. A pre-recorded live backing track basically performs the same function, although because it isn’t as glaringly obvious, it doesn’t carry quite the same stigma as lip syncing to a studio track. But my point is that if Michael had wanted those songs to sound live (in a way that would truly fool any unsuspecting concert goer) he could have used pre-recorded live backing tracks and easily accomplished that feat.

But, again, we’re talking deception as opposed to illusion. Often when music fans think of lip syncing, they automatically conjure up images of Milli Vanilli or 50 Cent’s disastrous BET performance. Yet lip syncing, certainly  as a staple of “live” television performances, has been around for years. If you grew up with The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand, and all of the great musical variety shows of television’s golden era, you knew that no live performance could ever sound that much like the record. Clearly, all of those classic performances from TV-yes, even those early, much beloved Beatles performances-were lip synced. But what’s more, everyone knew it. There was no attempt being made to actively deceive. Rather, it was all about the illusion and a certain amount of suspended belief. In those days, when early technology made the logistics of capturing live performances on TV a near impossibility, lip syncing became the norm. And after such disastrous live incidents as Jim Morrison blurting out “higher” during an Ed Sullivan performance of “Light My Fire,” it was also a way of guaranteeing that there would be no unpleasant surprises during the performance to keep the censors busy. The reality was that such performances were for one purpose only, and that was promoting the single. We were also expected to simply enjoy, without question, seeing our favorite artists “up there” on the screen. Some years later, the music video industry operated on the same principle. Of course, we knew artists were lip syncing in their videos, even when they “appeared” to be performing live. Some of the best videos of the era were tongue-in-cheek spoofs like Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” which playfully and creatively acknowledged what everyone obviously knew-that all “performance” videos were simply cleverly crafted illusions of performers lip syncing their greatest hits.

Robert Palmer's "Addicted To Love" Playfully Satirized Video Lip Syncing
Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” Playfully Satirized Video Lip Syncing

But that was okay; videos were, after all, intended as promotional films, and no one was really expecting that they be performed live. When it comes to a show that fans have actually purchased money to see, however, it often becomes a different story.

But what many don’t realize is that there are essentially two schools of lip syncing, just as there are essentially two aesthetic schools of live music performance. There is, of course, lip syncing with intent to deceive, which is why acts like Milli Vanelli were rightfully brought down. In this case, we had two “artists” who never even sang a note on their studio recordings, let alone in live performance! At least, most acts are lip syncing to their own, recorded voices. In the case of Milli Vanelli, their entire act was a sham.

But while artists like Milli Vanelli are obvious exceptions, most live performances of rock and pop acts fall into one of the two aesthetics mentioned above. They are two aesthetics of performing art which are both very much grounded in the aesthetics of “rockism” on the one hand vs. “popism” on the other. And by the way, for a really great discussion on “rockism” I urge you to check out this post on the Dancing With the Elephant blog.

Rock purists, for example, believe that every concert performance should be a totally live experience. They will argue that this, after all, is what they are paying for. “Rockism” purists value the idea of a musician or singer who can deliver live, warts and all. And therein lies a huge difference. They don’t mind the warts; they embrace them (provided, of course, the musicians aren’t so wasted that they totally blow). For those who value the live aesthetic, believing that every concert should be a totally raw, stripped down, live experience, they don’t mind the occasional flat note; the scratchy rawness of a singer’s throat that is giving out from strained vocal chords; the occasional off note from the lead guitarist, or the excruciating feedback that comes because a musician has stepped too close to the amplifiers. These kinds of “hits and misses” are all part of the thrill of experiencing a live performance; the telltale signs that what one is getting is, indeed, “the real deal,” as purists like to say. Those who are steeped in the “rockism” school of live performance will say, quite earnestly, “If I wanted to hear it just like the album, then I would just stay home and listen to the record.”

And I agree, there is a certain logical validity to that idea. But then, what about those who will go to a concert and then actually complain because what they heard didn’t sound anything at all like the record? My husband has told me the story over and over of going to a Duran Duran concert back in the 80’s, and actually walking out because instead of hearing all of the great radio hits he expected to hear-“Union of the Snake,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Girls on Film,” etc-they only played forty-five minutes of “garbage I’d never heard.” Or the horrors of going to a Foreigner concert where, instead of hearing a pristine version of “Feels Like the First Time” he got, instead, a rather spacey Lou Gramm who improvised an endless variation of “Ooh baby” because he most likely couldn’t remember the lyrics (granted, this was right before his brain tumor was diagnosed).

In truth, most concert goers really want a balance between the perfection and familiarity of the studio recordings, and the risks and rawness that come with a live performance. Michael was keenly aware of the need for this balance in order to please most fans, and worked hard to achieve and perfect it-in fact, I daresay, harder than most. However, it’s important to note that Michael’s own aesthetic of live performance was not necessarily one grounded in rockism or its perpetuated belief that live performance exists simply as a means to itself. This brings us to the other school of live musical performance, which is the idea of performance as illusion and as spectacle.

In short, the main reason both schools are at odds is because the rockism aesthetic values the idea of live performance as a kind of purist art, whereas the school of illusion and spectacle places the premium on entertainment. It’s the difference between, say, going to an AC/DC concert, where all one expects is to get all sweaty moshing in the pit, and on the other hand, attending a David Copperfirld show, a Cirque du Soleil performance, or any other theatrical spectacle  where one knows that illusion, suspension of belief, and magic are going to be central aspects of the show. When looked at in this context, we see that neither aesthetic is “right” or “wrong”-they are simply two very different types of performances, intended to elicit a very different aesthetic experience for the audience. With the former, we don’t expect much more than a bunch of sweaty guys onstage, playing their instruments and giving a show. With the latter, however, we expect a certain element of sensory illusion and suspension of belief-in short, we want to be awed. In fact, the topic of how audience expectations vary from one type of performance to another is the subject of this very interesting article from Clyde Fitch.

It seems ironic then that Michael Jackson, an artist who was very much steeped in the aesthetic of live performance as a theatrical experience, is often most harshly judged and criticized by those who are steeped in the rockism aesthetic of live performance, and are thus judging him by a standard that he, himself, never exactly advocated. Just as with Prince, Madonna, and many other big name pop stars who evolved the stage performance into huge extravaganzas, Michael believed that the live concert was-or should be-a theatrical experience. Today, that tradition is continued with stars like Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and other heavily choreographed shows that rely on a clever mixture of live vocals and backing tracks, at strategic moments, to create an atmosphere that is more theatrical illusion than, strictly speaking, a concert of raw, live performance.  By the time of HIStory, Michael Jackson’s concerts had indeed become theatrical spectacles-he arrived in a spaceship, came out as an alien, rode on cherry pickers, had a stage setup replete with trap doors where he could disappear at will, or reemerge as some disguised alter ego. He used lighting and back drops to create shadow effects, and had begun to incorporate both visual and audio multi media effects, in which the entire performance often became a seamless blending between illusion and reality.

Michael Was Paving The Way For Theatrical Pop Performers Like Lady Gaga
Michael Was Paving The Way For Theatrical Pop Performers Like Lady Gaga

For such performances, where the visual becomes just as important as what is heard (in some cases, even moreso) the idea of a lip synced track was not viewed as some kind of sacrilege, but rather, an essential element of the full aesthetic experience of the performance, whereby the warm familiarity of the track could be usurped by the surprise element of the visual. This was especially important for tracks that were acting out a story or strong visual narrative onstage (the tracks most apt to be lip synced).  In short, the fact that the audience never heard a missed word of “You Are Not Alone” even when he was being jounced around by an exuberant YANA girl, or that they could clearly hear every word of “Earth Song” even when he was miles above their heads in a cherry picker, had nothing to do with deception, but everything to do with cleverly crafted illusion-and the willingness of the audience to suspend belief in favor of the spectacle.  It is no secret that Michael demanded and expected that when fans came to his shows, they would hear the same perfection and careful craftsmanship that he put into his studio recordings. “I want it to sound just like the record,” he famously quipped to Michael Bearden in This Is It, when he became somewhat irritated at being asked how he wanted his songs to sound. “Whatever the record’s doing, that’s what I want.”

"Whatever The Record's Doing, That's What I Want"-Michael Jackson
“Whatever The Record’s Doing, That’s What I Want”-Michael Jackson

The more I have studied Michael’s live concerts from this era, the more it has occurred to me that what he was essentially melding together was all part of a grand concept-or at least, his grand concept-of what a live musical performance should be. It was a unique concept but, nevertheless, one steeped in postmodern ideas of both visual and musical art. In literary postmodern art, concepts such as the pastiche, intertextuality, and temporal distortion were all changing the way stories were being told, and perceived. These concepts were likewise being carried over to other art forms, including both visual and musical. Let’s not forget that it was these postmodern concepts, after all, which gave us a whole new musical art form known as sampling, whereby the idea of building on something familiar (i.e, a familiar hook from a well known song) is used to create something entirely new. In the case of sampling, it’s usually a given that the artist isn’t attempting to pull anything over on the public-quite the contrary, they know that a familiar riff or hook is going to be instantly recognized. That familiarity becomes a kind of foundation or groundwork from which the artist then expands with a new vision. Modern sampling is very much the musical equivalent of pastiche, in which several styles may be blended to form a new, cohesive whole, and also intertextuality, in which a previous work is acknowledged and built into the new text. In live concert, Michael was using his own studio recordings in much the same way, to create a kind of visual and auditory temporal distortion. Rather than viewing the live concert as merely a string of performances tied together, Michael was creating a series of connective narratives, both visual and musically, in which the familiar studio recordings were very much an integral part of the process. Today, these types of theatrical narratives are often very much a part of the modern concert experience. We may rest assured that Michael’s incorporation of pre-recorded tracks into his performances had nothing to do with a slacker mentality, but rather, everything to do with being a visionary artist who was ushering in a whole new, postmodern concept of live performance.

But this still leaves a burning question. Just how much of these latter performances were, indeed, illusion and how much actual, live vocals? And is it possible to always tell? The answer may surprise you, Many make the mistake of simply trusting their ears to tell them when a performance is “live”; conversely, many rely on techniques for spotting a lip synced performance that are not always entirely accurate, either. The truth is that the engineers behind live performances are privy to many industry tricks of the trade. What the audience actually “hears” (via the soundboard output) can be manipulated many ways. “Live” vocals can be spliced with “studio” vocals, or even previously recorded “live” vocals, so that what we may get-rather than a purely live or purely lip synced performance-can, in fact, be a hybrid of both. A performer’s mike can be turned “off” or “on” at any given time throughout a performance-and, if turned “off” can be instantly turned “on” to allow a live vocal to take over from a tracked vocal.

Michael had, by the time of the HIStory tour, become a master of all the tricks and illusions of the trade. He knew when he needed to “save” his voice and when it was absolutely essential that he “sing out”; he knew what parts could safely be lip synced without loss of quality or integrity and what numbers-or what part of a number-absolutely had to be live. And I will stress again, this was not by any means the work of a slacker, but rather, the work of a perfectionist craftsman who knew, instinctively, how to give the best theatrical experience possible to an audience.

So...Which Performances Were Lip Synced, And Which Were Totally Live?
So…Which Performances Were Lip Synced, And Which Were Totally Live?

However, for those of us who are still, admittedly, more steeped in the purist tradition of rockism, I thought it would be interesting to take a hard look at some of Michael’s performances during the HIStory era and actually analyze how many were performed absolutely live. Again, the results may surprise.  It turns out that at least one well known  performance that has been generally thought of as a mostly lip synced performance was, in fact, completely and genuinely live-and we have the hard evidence to prove it! However, obtaining that “evidence” requires much more than just listening to the concerts or downloading videos of twenty year old performances off of Youtube. As I stated previously, it isn’t always a matter of trusting the ear, and certainly not of trusting the ear on  twenty year old audios that had already been filtered through the sound board output before even reaching the audience! No, this is the kind of evidence that requires going to the actual source, and these are extremely rare-the soundboard mixes! Only there can we get the “real” story of what was unfolding behind the microphone. And, as stated, the results will surprise many, and hopefully, will put to rest some long standing debates regarding Michael’s use of lip syncing vs. singing live. At any rate, the soundboard mix for one of Michael’s most well known late 90’s performances-the 1996 Brunei performance of “Earth Song”-not only provides those answers, but offers some interesting insights into the whole process.

Michael With The Sultan of Brunei's Family
Michael With The Sultan of Brunei’s Family

The private concert at Brunei in July of 1996 was performed for the Sultan and his family, but what many do not know is that the Sultan had specifically requested to hear Michael sing “Earth Song” live.  However, the video that eventually surfaced of that performance led many to believe that this was simply one more lip synced version of “Earth Song,” a less than pure hybrid, with  the improvised “Tell me what about it” ad lib at the end being the only true, undisputed “live” segment of the performance.

But did people really expect that Michael was going to insult the Sultan by giving a lip synced performance of a song he had specifically requested to hear live?  The soundboard audio of that performance certainly tells a different story! So then, why do so many people believe it is lip synced when they watch the version commonly available on Youtube? Those answers become more clear when the soundboard audio is thoroughly analyzed, and compared to the performance version on Youtube. It is the same performance, note for note. But the subtle differences between the soundboard audio (which is most likely what the Sultan heard) vs. what was filtered and pumped to the crowd are enough to cue us to some of the “tricks” of the trade.

My husband and I were fortunate enough to acquire this rare soundboard audio of Michael’s Brunei “Earth Song” performance about six years ago, right after Michael died. I remember my husband saying that this audio proves beyond a doubt that this performance of “Earth Song” was indeed live, and after listening to it a few times, I reached the same conclusion. The vocals here, even on the chorus, are much grittier and do not have the clear, pristine tone of his studio version. You can hear the occasional fluctuations in breath and volume, as he moves either too far back or to close in on the microphone. You can hear the occasional flatness of some of the notes. Also, there are  times when his voice dips into the lower registers of his vocal range, something he often did naturally when singing live, but which was usually “cleaned up” in final takes. But the real giveaway is during the shouted call-and-response breakdown, when the very real strain he was putting on his vocal chords is quite evident (not to mention, his enunciation of the lyrics during this segment are much more clearly audible than what we would normally hear in the studio version).

Over time, I had somewhat put these findings out of mind, although I would occasionally debate with some fans that the Brunei “Earth Song” vocals were indeed live, and not just the ad libs at the end. But since this audio was not exactly something I could just “link” to and prove the debate for once and all, it was not an easy debate to win. It wasn’t until recently, when I saw the issue of Michael’s lip syncing again being raised among some fans from opposing factions on social media, that it occurred to me to revisit the “Earth Song” Brunei soundboard mix and give it a fresh listen. Imagine my horror when I discovered that we no longer had the file! Thus began another earnest search to find it again, which was not easy after six years (much of the deluge of MJ bootleg and rare audio versions of performances that were available six years ago have since pretty much disappeared). It took a lot of work, but eventually we were able to track down another copy of this audio.

Here you can compare the soundboard audio side-by-side with the performance clip.

Brunei “Earth Song” Performance:

Brunei soundboard recording of Earth Song:

Of particular note is his pronunciation of words like “war,” which has a much deeper intonation here than on the studio version, where it is pronounced very pristinely. Notice, also, how much deeper and breathier is his pronunciation of the line, “Now I don’t know where we are.” As mentioned previously, the entire call-and-response section is much raspier than what we hear on the studio track, and certain phrases are far more clearly enunciated. Note, for example, how clearly the phrase “what about animals” is enunciated, as well as the following questions “What about elephants/Have we lost their trust?” None of these phrases are pronounced that clearly on the studio track. When he sings shortly after, “This is what I believe” we can hear from the slightly ragged enunciation of “believe” that his vocal chords are indeed being pushed to the max; he even sounds as though he could be experiencing a bit of “throat bleed” here, a common condition when singers are exerting their vocal chords beyond range for a sustained amount of time. Moving into the latter segment of this breakdown, there is also a different emphasis on the word “holy” when he sings the line “What about the holy land/torn apart by creed” and again, a much clearer pronunciation of the line “What about children dying?”

The only difference between what we hear here, on the soundboard audio, and what was actually pumped out to the crowd (the audio we “hear” on the video version) is that much of the raspiness has been cleaned up, especially during the call-and-response segment, but clearly, note for note, it is the same performance. It proves unequivocally that Michael absolutely did perform this piece 100% live, from start to finish. What we are hearing on the soundboard audio is exactly what was being picked up by Michael’s microphone!

And here is the real clincher, if you’re still not convinced. Since no one has ever disputed the authenticity of the live ad libs at the end, give a close listen to his “Tell me what about it” ad libs in both the soundboard and video versions. They sound exactly the same, don’t they? Now go back and compare them to, first, the call-and-response shouts heard on the video version, and then the call-and-response shouts of the soundboard version. Notice anything? On the soundboard version, the ad libbed segment is being sung in the exact same, raspy tone as what we just heard during the call-and-response segment. This was purely Michael, whose vocal chords had just come out of the grueling, near three minute ordeal of that breakdown segment. As he makes the transition from that segment to the ad libs, it is clearly the same voice! But when we listen to the video version, there is a clear shift which seems to occur right about the time of his series of shouted “woos” that bridge the close-out of the apocalyptic call-and-response section with the “Tell me what about it” ad libs. It is a very subtle shift, but it is this minor illusion  which, for many years, has led some to falsely believe that this was a hybrid performance. In other words, it would have been somewhere in here that the audio output was switched “on” so that what was pumped out to the crowd would have been the pure, live vocal. If all this sounds a bit confusing, think of it as the same process of water passing through a filter. It’s the same water coming out as going in, except that a lot of the impurities have been removed or “cleaned up.” What we learn from analyzing this performance is that Michael was not lip syncing. He was delivering a live vocal, at full capacity. But the backstage technology simply allowed some of the rougher aspects to be cleaned up and smoothed out.

It is certainly easy to understand why Michael uncharacteristically opted to have “Earth Song” be the closing song of this particular concert, another telltale sign that he intended this to be a purely live performance.

It also really serves to cast a whole, new light on many of Michael’s other 90’s era performances and beyond. There is no doubt that Michael did begin to rely on backing tracks quite extensively during the late 90’s (though I think I have been able to make a fairly good argument as to why). Although I believe that it was with the Dangerous and HIStory tours that Michael most closely fulfilled and solidified the concept of a Michael Jackson concert, it did sometimes seem that he had sacrificed the joyous spontaneity of early live performances in favor of a theatrical extravaganza that, over time (due to the proliferation of video and social media, which allowed for viewings and comparisons of multiple performances) became predictable; even a little formulaic. We could predict that he would ride the cherry picker during the climactic moment of Earth Song” (though we did get the occasional surprises, such as Jarvis Cocker’s impromptu mooning of the audience, or the impassioned Korean fan who leaped onto the cherry picker with Michael, or the awful bridge collapse in Munich); we knew that the “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” duet would segue inevitably into either “She’s Out of My Life” or “You Are Not Alone” and that a “random” girl who was not really random at all would be brought onstage for the obligatory dance-and-grope session; that a Jackson 5 medley would always culminate in a rousing performance of “I’ll Be There” (usually performed live, by the way) and that, inevitably, every show would end with “Man in the Mirror.” It was a well oiled machine that worked,and though there would occasionally be some slight variations and tweakings of the formula, it was clear that Michael knew what his fans expected and wanted. Michael’s performances were always, ultimately, a blend of audience expectation coupled with his own determined, driving need to deliver perfection.

It may be somewhat ironic, then, that many of his most acclaimed performances, from Motown 25 to the Brunei performance of “Earth Song” to the rehearsal clips from This Is It, are also some of his most stripped down and rawest. Give Michael Jackson his complete bag of tricks and wizardry, and yes, he could create magic. But when those things were most stripped away was where his true artistry shined.

If it proves anything, the soundboard audio of Michael’s “Earth Song” performance goes to show that he was still more than capable of delivering live, and what’s more, of delivering live at full capacity. It also proves beyond doubt that he may, in fact, have been performing live throughout the HIStory era much moreso than has often been credited to him, and that it may be high time we started analyzing a lot more of these performances beyond just the commonly available video versions.

The truth is in what the microphone “hears” and picks up. The sound board preserves it. In this case, it stands as indisputable evidence that at least one of Michael’s most heatedly debated 90’s performances was, in fact, a totally live vocal performance.

UPDATE: 11/27/15

To further test the theory, we synchronized the mp3 and video using Adobe Premier Probe CS6. The frame rates of the mp3 and youtube are slightly different, making it very difficult to synch the audio with the video for anything over 20 seconds – however it is possible to synch segments of the audio/video perfectly.  This could be done throughout the entire clip – but that would be cheating.  This difference also makes it fairly impossible for anybody to look at the video and compare it to the audio and say that he is lip syncing.  The dead giveaway is as subtle as three breaths. This is very early in both the video and audio, during the song’s first verse. There are three very audible intakes of breath, which the microphone picks up. The audio of those breaths synchronizes exactly with those moments in the clip when we can visibly see him do those breath intakes. What this tells us is that this recording is, indeed most likely a genuine microphone feed.

Our Work Isn’t In Vain!

sick childrenSometimes it is inspirational to be reminded that all of the hard work we do as bloggers isn’t in vain. The other day I received this very uplifting message from an MJ blogger in Greece, which I have, in turn, been given permission to share here in its translated version:

A special note to Michael Jackson fans and bloggers-MJ defenders

When MJacksonTruth started, in 2010, one of the first categories I added on my blog was “Army of love”. I was and still am part of this army but I hadn’t imagined that one day I would write what I started right now. What’s more, when I started, I had no idea how many blogs dedicated to our angel existed and I still don’t. But hey I’ve got news for you: we win. As I don’t know all the blogs dedicated, maybe another blogger had a previous experience and said “we win” too. In this case, simply add what I will say in the “win box”. But add it. Add it and spread it in order to continue.

Why did I say “we win”?

6 years after MJ left, the tabloids continue writing lies about him

Everything started more than a year ago. It was June 2014 when tabloids had gone crazy writing about FBI stating that there were files proving that MJ had given millions of dollars in order to close mouths. This sick content was reproduced in Greece as well. Journalists and unknown bloggers reproduced the lies without examining if that was true. What’s more, one of the journalists who reproduced the sick article gave a link which was supposed to redirect readers to FBI’s site at the exact section where these non existant files were supposed to be. However, the link redirected us to this journalist’s site’s main page!

As the author of MJacksonTruth, I did what every MJ fan would do and wrote a text based on evidence probably given by a fan or even a blogger. I have the impression that there’s a text (probably by MJ Justice or Allforlove but I’m not so sure). In my text, I didn’t state names (of the journalists) for obvious reasons but, with all the indications that I gave it was easy to find the who-is-who (like specific sentences which would lead readers to the journalists’ sites through googling). If I was in the position of these journalists, I’d be embarrassed. Apart from this, like many other fans from Greece, I let comments under these sick articles and I even sent emails giving them the link and my text which proved that their article was unreliable. But guess!

Journalists removed the fake article

A few days ago, as I was googling about MJ, I discovered that another established Greek journalist, had posted an article with the title “Michael Jackson fans got vindication: FBI stated officially through CNN that there were NO files proving that Michael Jackson had paid money to close mouths of boys etc”. What’s more, the text was taken fromMJacksonTruth and MJacksonTruth was stated in the end as source of the text with link redirecting readers to my blog.

Now is this a victory or not? To me it is. Think about it. MJacksonTruth is an amateur’s work. I’m not a journalist, I’m not a specialist. I’m a simple person like you. However, a specialised journalist consulted an amateur’s blog. To me, this equals a bow and I really hope that the next time a journalist reads another lie they will check its realibility. They know that, we, bloggers, exist and are ready to humiliate them and spoil their professional status by proving that some of the things they say are simply bullshit. They know that we can make them look “smaller” and that, when we do it, we do it by providing FACTS and reliable ARGUMENTS and that readers will see that.

My message

The reason why I decided to share this note is because all these years sometimes I asked my self if what I do in MJacksonTruth is worth doing. I mean sometimes I feel almost useless and I thought that maybe you feel the same. The incident that I stated above answered to my hesitations and this is why I wanted to share it with you. Don’t feel discouraged, continue writing and, yes, send your texts to journalists and to tabloids. It does have results. This way it is more possible that even tabloids will stop writing negative and inexistant things about Michael Jackson.

L.o.v.e.

MJacksonTruth is a Greek blog dedicated on the truth about Michael Jackson and exists since June 2010. In the beginning, it was small and little by little it started to grow. Now it has over 100 small or big articles, its own youtube channel and a Facebook page. And it goes on. Like it also in Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MichaelJacksonTruth/

Ps. I googled the famous sentence about «FBI blah blah blah» of the first  journalist I mentioned (not the one who gave the link to my blog) and I didn’t find it. On the contrary, google gave in the results the new article which stated the truth :)

https://mjacksontruth.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/michael-jackson-army-of-love-vindication-or-when-journalists-admit-their-mistakes-and-lies/

As stated above, the story of the fake FBI files and the phony $200 million allegedly paid out to silence a bunch of “phantom” victims was officially squelched and made toast in the mainstream media when CNN’s then reporter Alan Duke ran a story declaring the tabloid reports as bogus. The point is that there was nothing in Duke’s article that hadn’t already been common knowledge to MJ fans, researchers, and bloggers for years-it just took having the guts to put the facts that fans already knew into a mainstream publication, one that would have a much wider audience and, therefore, the impact needed to make a difference-namely, to embarrass the heck out of any publication still stupid enough to have this phony story in print by the following day.

We have seen time and again that the mainstream media is paying close attention to us. They follow us on Twitter; they keep tabs on what we discuss among ourselves-and what we print. Even if they don’t always take us as seriously as they should (or at least refuse to admit that they do) there is ample evidence that bloggers and social media in general have had an impact on the way news is reported. This is true in the MJ blogosphere, especially, as it has provided a challenging alternative to often inaccurate and misinformed mainstream reporting. Has it made a dent in the way the media presents stories on Michael Jackson, as opposed to say, twenty years ago when there was no internet to speak of (at least not on the scale as we know it today) or even ten years ago when social media was still more or less in its infancy? The answer is a decided ‘yes’ though, I might caution, a ‘yes’ with a small ‘y.’ For sure, sensational stories still drive the headlines and ratings, and there is still a tabloid industry all too willing to exploit the name Michael Jackson for profit. However, with perhaps the small exception of the usual U.K. rags and the likes of TMZ and RadarOnline (which Duke, sadly, defected to) there has been a detectable shift in the mainstream media’s treatment of Michael. And we can’t attribute all of it to merely the fact that he is dead, or that his passing brought about any sense of guilt. It did do that-for all of ten seconds, but then we also saw some truly vitriolic pieces surface in the weeks and months afterward, enough to satisfy that, indeed, death doesn’t stop the almighty beast that is the media.

Michael, Still Big News To The Media, But Not Like Before...And Maybe That's A Good Thing.
Michael, Still Big News To The Media, But Not Like Before…And Maybe That’s A GOOD Thing. It Means Some Of The Dust May Finally, At Long Last, Be Settling.

Then what did make that difference? We could look at a number of factors. Obviously, when Michael was alive, he was still considered fair game and fodder for the press. When someone dies, they cease to be as profitable because, firstly, they aren’t doing anything to create new scandals or gossip, and secondly, because there is a generally understood perception-even among the media, believe it or not- that death deserves some measure of respect. However, a celebrity of Michael Jackson’s stature can still have an incredibly lucrative posthumous media presence, simply because stories about them continue to sell, and to generate interest. For Michael, this was especially true in the early months after his passing, when the ongoing mystery of “what really happened” was guaranteed to continue generating media and tabloid profit. But after six years and two death trials, there isn’t much new to be added to that saga. His reputation as a great artist is solidified; pointless gossip about his cosmetic surgeries and sexuality are generally recognized and rightfully pinpointed as exercises in bad taste, and these days, most journalists are aware that any ill informed articles written about the allegations made against him are going to be publicly challenged by writers much better equipped to take them on. It is, indeed, a far cry from ten years ago when the mainstream media could put out most any kind of story they wanted to on Michael Jackson and basically get away with it, without fear of challenge or cross examination. Indeed, the heyday of “anything goes” in the mass media is long gone, and on some level, I think they recognize that. I don’t mean to imply that we’ve won the battle-far from it. If that were so, there would be no need for the Cadeflaw Initiative, of which Michael Jackson remains one of the most primary celebrity examples.

However, all I’m saying is that there has been progress, and that alone is reason enough to celebrate. No one ever said a mountain could be torn down overnight. But bloggers have indeed played a large part in this; the pro-active stance of fans who have said “no more bullsh_t” have played a part. My dream is that one day there won’t even be a need for the “vindication” aspect of this blog, or any other. We can simply celebrate the music, and the life.

As it should be.

Death of Arnold Klein Leaves Yet Another Gaping Hole in the MJ Saga

with arnie kleinThis weekend I was shocked, as I’m sure many of you were, to learn of the sudden death of Arnie Klein. I have, unfortunately, been quite swamped the last few weeks and haven’t had much time for blogging, but  I couldn’t simply allow this news to pass without issuing some kind of statement. After all, Klein was a near constant figure in Michael’s life for nearly thirty years. I’m not going to sugarcoat this obituary; however. We also know that, while Klein was one of Michael’s closest friends, he was also one of the most controversial people in his life. But regardless of how we view him-as friend, frenemy, betrayer, enabler, and a whole list of other adjectives-it can’t be denied that Klein was an intricate part of Michael Jackson’s life. And now, as with Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Dileo, Peter Lopez, and even nemesis like Evan Chandler and Tom Sneddon, he has joined the increasingly long list of friends, associates, and even enemies who have met their own demises (some tragically and untimely) since Michael’s passing.

The sad part for us is that, with the loss of every firsthand acquaintance, another piece of Michael’s story dies with them.

As any longtime reader of this blog knows, I never had an especially high opinion of Arnie Klein. He always seemed a little too eager to ride the coattails of his association with Michael Jackson (even though Michael was hardly his only celebrity client). This was a quote that came directly from Klein when he was interviewed by Mark Seal for “Vanity Fair”:

“I treat everyone in the world. Do you know what it is like to eat fried chicken in Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth? Michael [Jackson] opened every door.”-Arnold Klein, excerpted from “The Doctor Will Sue You Now” by Mark Seal.

He was one who could always be counted on to sell a story to the tabloids (and equally notorious for back pedaling when certain stories blew up in his face). He was, by turns, a man who often betrayed his patient confidentiality, and yet maintained many confidences, some of which I’m sure he carried to his own grave. He infuriated many with his often cryptic hints that he “could” be the biological father of Prince and Paris, including Paris herself who, at one point, reportedly declared that she never wanted to see Klein again. Yet he always maintained a fierce stance, when probed on the issue by the media,that Michael was the children’s father and that was that.

Among The Most Unforgiving of Klein's Stunts-At Least in the Eyes of Fans-Was Teaming Up With Jason Pfieffer To Sell The Story That Michael and Jason Were Lovers. Klein Later Recanted His Own Involvement In The Story.
Among The Most Unforgiving of Klein’s Stunts-At Least in the Eyes of Fans-Was Teaming Up With Jason Pfieffer To Sell The Story That Michael and Jason Were Lovers. Klein Later Recanted His Own Involvement In The Story.

Throughout the decades, he was a larger than life, flamboyant, blustery,and often controversial player in the Michael Jackson saga. As with Conrad Murray, his relationship with Michael often blurred the lines between professional and personal (again raising the oft-debated issue as to whether doctors and patients should also be “friends”) but, for almost three decades, Michael continued to trust Klein and to consider him a friend. He was among those few individuals whom Michael often said he could count on one hand-that is, the people he felt had truly stuck by him. He was certainly there for Michael during his struggles with the diagnosis of vitiligo; it was Klein who helped him to cope and live with the disease. It was Klein who hooked Michael up with Debbie Rowe, which in turn led to the one thing which probably saved him the most-the birth of his children.

Arnie and Debbie Clowning Around In The Office. Meeting The Two Of Them Would Change Michael's Destiny-For The Better And The Worst
Arnie and Debbie Clowning Around In The Office. Meeting The Two Of Them Would Change Michael’s Destiny-For The Better And The Worst

But there was a dark side to their friendship, as well. Klein’s reputation was seedy, to say the least, and during the homicide investigation of Michael’s death, Klein’s office was raided on numerous occasions. Many witness accounts, revealed during both the Murray and AEG trials, state that Michael almost always left Klein’s office in an incapacitated state, even after very routine procedures. Then, there was that whole sordid episode with Jason Pfeiffer in 2010, which incidentally turned out exactly  as I predicted it would in an early post on the story:

One thing’s for sure: Klein has a shady past, and has proven that he’s not above doing some very underhanded things. He has also allowed his employees and acquaintances to lie about Michael in the past. And he has also contradicted himself numerous times, first of all by saying he was the biological father of Prince and Paris, then saying months later that he didn’t know.
 
Just watch. In a few weeks to a few months, he won’t know anything about Michael and Jason, either. He’ll weasel out, backpedal, and leave Jason to fend for himself. I guarantee it.
By the time of this King Jordan radio interview in February of this year (probably the last interview Klein gave on Michael) he had completely back pedaled on the story, as I predicted he would.

Not to mention, he was another on the infinitely long list of those who immediately had a hand out to the estate after Michael’s death, claiming he was owed over $48,000 for cosmetic services rendered during the This Is It rehearsals and a green dinner jacket that was supposedly never returned to him.

In fact, listening to that final interview is quite interesting and revealing. In the six years that have elapsed since Michael passed, Klein definitely experienced his own “swift and sudden fall from grace,” going from “The Father of Botox” and “Doctor to the Stars” to bankruptcy and a tattered reputation.
But as always in cases like this, where death has claimed yet another of Michael’s controversial friends/acquaintances/frenemies, I can’t help but feel mixed emotions. For all the up’s and down’s, I never got the feeling that Klein was someone who didn’t care about Michael. Was he guilty of using that friendship as a self-promoting platform? By even his own admission, yes. But then, so were many and Klein would hardly be the first, or last, to capitalize on his association with Michael. Again, if we go back and look at the list of descriptive adjectives one could apply to Klein and his role in Michael Jackson’s life-friend, frenemy, betrayer, confidante, enabler-all are apt, and all can apply equally depending on the lens one chooses to view their relationship.
Yet I am reminded of an incident from several years ago when, after writing one of my particularly scathing posts on Klein, I received a rather cryptic message (which I always suspected was from either Klein himself of Jason Pfeiffer) telling me that I was no better than the media insofar as reporting on what I don’t know. And in a way, I had to concede there is some truth in that. After all, I didn’t know either Michael or Arnold Klein, and sometimes it is good for all reporters, bloggers, and journalists to occasionally step back and be reminded that we are, after all, writing about real people whose lives are being impacted by the power of words. Sometimes it is all too easy to pass judgement on people we don’t know-especially famous people (or those famous by association) whose lives are often seen as fair game.
The tragedy, of course, is that with Klein’s passing goes yet one more connection to Michael. In the case of people like Tom Sneddon and Evan Chandler, we may not have particularly mourned their passing, but nevertheless, there was a bittersweet pang in also being aware that justice could never be served. In the case of Sneddon, it may have seemed particularly galling since many held out hope that he would one day have to be held accountable for his deeds (as for Evan Chandler, hiw own self torture that led to his suicide may have been punishment enough).  As for Arnie Klein, we may certainly not mourn the loss of the stories he will never get to sell TMZ, but I think there is a part of all of us-a tiny part, at least- that will certainly miss him as an effervescent presence in the Michael Jackson world.
In thinking back to some of the lighter moments, I’m reminded of something Klein said in his last interview, when the topic came up of Michael’s cosmetic surgery and obsession over his appearance.   When a female caller asked his opinion on why Michael never seemed satisfied with his appearance, Klein responded in his typical blunt and blustery style, “Michael wanted you to wet your pants when you saw him.”
Love him or hate him, Arnie Klein was definitely one of the more colorful figures in Michael’s life. And I must admit, however grudgingly, that the Michael Jackson sphere will somehow feel just a little bit colder without his blustery swag.
arnie klein3

Michael and Chakra: A Culinary Love Affair

I Joked And Said, "Man, That Was A Lot Of Jacksons Packed Into One Place!"
I Joked And Said, “Man, That Was A Lot Of Jacksons Packed Into One Place!”

From time to time on this blog, I’ve done features on some of Michael’s favorite foods and eating establishments. Occasionally I receive promotional requests from some of his favorite (or even rumored) favorite dining establishments. While I do not, as a rule, like to use this site to engage in any sort of promotional advertising or endorsements, I couldn’t help but be intrigued when I received a request from Chakra Indian restaurant in Beverly Hills, largely because Michael’s relationship with this particular establishment already has somewhat legendary status. It’s mostly known as the site of the last Jackson family gathering which Michael attended, in May of 2009 on the occasion of Joe and Katherine’s 60th wedding anniversary. Out of that particular event came the last known photo of Michael with the Jackson family. But in actuality, it’s a relationship that goes back much further.

When we talk about Michael Jackson and his favorite foods, most fans immediately think of KFC. But along with his weakness for the Colonel’s secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices, other favorites high on the list were sushi, Mexican food, and even the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish which he once proclaimed as “pretty good” though he wasn’t overly impressed with the rest of the menu (but as with so many parents, an at least somewhat acquired taste for Mickey D’s had to come with the territory!). But what about when it came to fine dining, or just wanting a place where he could actually sit down at a table and order a meal without being bothered? Or a place where he could arrange private family celebrations and intimate dinners with friends? For those times, only one restaurant fit the bill: Chakra of Beverly Hills. According to many reports, Chakra is a rather unassuming restaurant from the outside, one that blends so seamlessly with other similarly ethnic themed shops and restaurants on Wilshire Boulevard and Doheny Drive that it’s rumored to be easy to miss if one isn’t specifically watching out for it.

chakra 2

This is, as we say, one of those “well kept” secrets that, nevertheless, everyone in the know, well, “knows.” And that just might be the first clue, as one of the first indicators of true greatness is that the “best” doesn’t usually have to boast. When Michael Jackson says you have the best food in Beverly Hills, why would you need to, right?

The initial request that I received from Chakra’s was for a restaurant review. However, I informed them that I don’t live in the Los Angeles area and have no plans to be in the area in the immediate future. Instead, I offered something else: How about an exclusive interview of what it was like serving and waiting on Michael Jackson? Much to my delight, the offer was accepted and below are the answers I received.

The first, and obvious, question had to be about the food. What specific menu items were Michael’s favorite? According to Vadivel, Michael loved the “Potato Samosa, Garlic Naan, Channa Masala, Jack Fruit, and fresh berries. ” For those who don’t know, a samosa is a deep-fried pastry usually filled with spiced potatoes, peas, and other various fillings, which can be dipped.

Potato Samosas, Chakra-Style. I'm With Michael On These...Yummy!
Potato Samosas, Chakra-Style. I’m With Michael On These…Yummy!

Garlic naan is a traditional Indian garlic bread that has a reputation as being delicious but-beware!-quite loud, as raw garlic is the principle ingredient. Let’s hope Michael kept plenty of breath mints on hand for afterward! Channa Masala is a very spicy dish of chick peas, which, accompanied with the naan, would have made for quite a kick!

Tatiana Gushed Over Michael's Minty Fresh Breath...Obviously, She Never Worked With Him After A Trip To Chakra's! Garlic Naan Is Said To Pack a Potent Punch!
Tatiana Gushed Over Michael’s Minty Fresh Breath…Obviously, She Never Worked With Him After A Trip To Chakra’s! Garlic Naan Is Said To Pack a Potent Punch!

Jack fruit is native to Southeast Asia and is reputed to be a food that can provide a great spiritual boost to one’s system. For someone like me whose palate revolts against anything too raw, rubbery or crunchy, these things frankly look like a mutha to bite through, but according to most sources, they are exotically aromatic and wildly sweet and savory to the taste-no doubt, the perfect cap to such a spicy meal.

Jack Fruit. Tough On The Outside; Wildly Sweet and Aromatic On The Inside. Michael Loved These!
Jack Fruit. Tough On The Outside; Wildly Sweet and Aromatic On The Inside. Michael Loved These!

Of course, Michael wasn’t always dining alone. Chakra’s was also a place where he often dined with the kids, Prince, Paris and Blanket. I asked about some of their favorite menu items. The Malai Chicken was a favorite. along with Tandoori Salmon. They also shared their dad’s love for the samosas and garlic naan.

And what about Michael’s oft reported tendency to leave behind a messy place? These stories have apparently been somewhat exaggerated through the years. Vadivel reports that Michael “didn’t leave a messy place” and “did a good job” cleaning up after himself and his-or, at least, as much as any ordinary patron in a restaurant would do.

Vadivel also recalls that Michael actually didn’t interact much with the wait staff (the contact between them was kept minimal) but when he was served, he was always polite, smiled, and said “thank you.”

Michael With Prince, Paris, Blanket and Nephews At Chakra
Michael With Prince, Paris, Blanket and Nephews At Chakra

Before Michael’s death, when he was still a frequent customer, his patronage had to be kept extremely low-key. Since his passing, however, the restaurant has been a lot more open in promoting themselves as “Michael Jackson’s Favorite Restaurant in L.A”. The menu now features a special “King of Pop” dish which combines many of his favorite dishes for one price, and the “Smooth Criminal” is rumored to be a drink as smooth as its namesake but with a vicious kick!

Fans on their “Michael-ing” tours of Los Angeles often make Chakra’s one of their “have to” places to visit, and yes, Michael’s favorite booth is even available with a reservation.

But, frankly, this is the kind of cashing in on Michael’s name that I don’t mind. After all, one can’t go to Memphis without encountering at least a dozen greasy spoons claiming to be Elvis’s favorite place to grab a cheeseburger. Even Penn’s Hamburgers, a local favorite in Decatur, Alabama where I grew up, has the distinction of being a place that Elvis loved to send his peeps on secret runs. There’s just something about being able to sit where a legend once sat, smelling the same aromas and ingesting the same cuisine, that packs a vicarious thrill. We all like to feel a little closer to our idols; what turned them on, what sensory pleasures did they enjoy; what flavors suited their palates and excited their taste buds? There may be something slightly voyeuristic in requesting a celebrity’s favorite booth and ordering his favorite dishes; we know it won’t transform our lives, or make us musical geniuses. But it does bring us a little closer to their humanity, and therein lies the thrill.

Review of New Jackson Doc Series: “The Love You Save”

frontOne of the perks of having this blog is that I get asked to review a lot of stuff-books, films, and so forth. Awhile back, I was contacted by a film company in Atlanta,  who have put together a documentary series on Michael, “The Love You Save,” After viewing the film and coming to the conclusion that I could not give it an absolutely positive review, in light of some of the film’s content, I wrote them back to say as much. I felt it was only fair to give them warning, since after all, they did contact me. I really didn’t expect to hear anything back. However, much to my surprise, I received a very genial response that expressed genuine interest in some of the points I raised. They assured me that not only did they want me to run my review, warts and all, but that they would love to interview me for a future installment to counter some of the inaccuracies and views expressed here! That sounded like a fair offer, and since I will be in the Atlanta area at the end of the month, I said I would be happy to do it.

But first, some things to keep in mind about this documentary: It is a small and independent “labor of love” project. They do not have a huge budget to work with, nor do they have the endorsement of the estate. That automatically means there will be much that is missing-namely, Michael’s music, for starters. And we have seen from past endeavors of this sort how difficult it is to truly do justice to Michael Jackson when the one most important element of all is missing-the music that made him so great in the first place. It is the very thing that kept other projects of this type, such as David Gest’s ambitious “Life of an Icon” from being as enjoyable as they might have been. In this case, the producers do an admirable job of getting around that troublesome issue for the most part, but like the proverbial white elephant in the room, the viewer is always acutely aware of this lacking.  That isn’t to say there isn’t any music at all. Like the spirit of Michael itself, the music is all around, and still manages to become an ethereal presence throughout, whether it is being sung by fans, or given to impromptu chants by street kids. And so in its own way, even without estate permission to use the actual recordings, it still manages to give us the perfect feel of just how magical and timeless Michael’s music is, and perhaps in a much more intimate way than we might have gotten with the use of the actual recordings. And, in the absence of the music, we often get something else that is just as valuable-Michael’s own words, taken from various interviews and public speeches, inserted at pivotal moments to provide the insight that only his own words can provide.

However, the fact that this is a project being done mostly at local level, on a low budget, means that we won’t be getting a lot of high profile celebrity interviews from people who actually knew Michael or worked with him. That, too, is a much needed ingredient that simply isn’t there. The producers do an admirable job of attempting to fill that gap with fan interviews, archival footage that isn’t owned by the estate, and interviews with various analysts and psychologists who attempt to “deconstruct” the Michael Jackson myth. The film’s promotional blurb reads:

Michael Jackson was locked in a cage his whole life. He held the key to escape but never knew how. This underground documentary deconstructs the complex psychological and emotional profile of a poor African-American kid from Indiana who became a music pop icon in an era when race mattered most.

Therein for me, however, lies part of the problem, and I’m sure you can guess where I’m going with this. Read that blurb closely again. Yes. Somehow these words-“psychological,” “emotional,” etc- always become closely linked to anything about Michael Jackson, even too often, projects like this that are intended to be positive. It really begs the question: Why must it be necessary to approach every analysis of Michael as if he is a subject in need of being poked and prodded from a psychoanalytical perspective? I “get” that Michael was a complex human being, and I understand that part of the modus operandi here is to deconstruct some of the tabloid myths. But the problem I found, far too often, is that the documentary often feeds into those myths as much as dispelling them, and in the end, viewers are really left with no clearer idea of who Michael Jackson was at the end than at the beginning. The interviews with the so-called psychological “experts” do nothing to clear these issues. Like so many of their ilk, from Dr. Drew to Dr. Phil, they can do no more than offer up opinions about a man they never even met; for whom they never even sat down and had a conversation. Like so many, they have formed an opinion based on tabloid caricature or perhaps a few hastily read books from less than stellar sources. When their own knowledge of Michael Jackson is so obviously limited-the average fan will know far more than they do-it really begs the question of why they should be given a platform to offer half-baked theories of who Michael was or the forces that motivated him. At least with people like Schmuley Boteach, we know they knew Michael intimately enough to have an informed opinion. That isn’t the case here.  And, too often, the constant need to offer up some kind of psychoanalysis of Michael Jackson, often at the expense of in-depth discussions of his art, only plays into the already tired and cliched’ narrative of Michael Jackson the Genius who Nevertheless Was One Screwed-Up Individual. The problem is that even when such approaches are intended to be sympathetic, they really offer nothing that is revelatory or that hasn’t already been hashed out a million times before. I think it is time for a new approach, one in which the complexities of his artistic genius can be discussed on equal terms with his complexities as a human being. Yes, we may surmise that anyone who has been raised from the age of five in the spotlight’s glare may have “issues.” Michael himself was forthright in telling us the damage that comes to children who are forced to take on adult responsibilities too soon. But the “damaged child” trope is already a well worn one, and there simply isn’t enough new insight brought to the topic here to warrant its inclusion. If any of those people would but pick up a copy of Dancing The Dream, or would but take the time to closely listen to the Dangerous and HIStory albumsthey might be surprised to learn that Michael was already quite adept at self-analysis. Through his own art-often quite brutally and honestly-he had long ago stripped away most of the masks and illusions, and had allowed us to see him in all of his naked vulnerability. I guess I have simply become rather blase’ about the whole topic, but I am much more interested these days in how Michael’s own self analysis helped to create and inspire his art. For those who still find some lingering romanticism in the story of “Michael Jackson, Tragic Hero” perhaps they will find something of interest here. But for me, there’s just not enough that is new, and for others, it will still leave many of the most burning questions lingering uncomfortably.

The film's strength is in the voices of the fans
The film’s strength is in its objectification of the fandom.

The first episode begins mostly as a grassroots tribute to Michael, comprised of various street interviews with fans, shots of various memorials that sprang up in the aftermath of his death. and footage of the Carolwood house. This segment is interesting, even if we aren’t really seeing anything that hasn’t been done in other similarly formatted documentaries such as “The Way He Made Us Feel.” However, this film gives us a broad spectrum of fan reactions, and some are quite revealing in their own way, such as the James Brown lookalike in Episode 1 who says he wishes he had known Michael because if he could have been a friend to him, “I think he’d still be here.” The comment is touching, but raises another interesting question about the psychology of fandom (which may, also, have been part of the producers’ intent). There are so many of us, like this gentleman, who seem to feel that we could have somehow “saved” Michael, by being that one, true friend we often imagine he never had (this, too, is part of the romantic trope that clings to Michael’s “tragic” image, as a kind of sacrificial lamb who never had one, true friend he could trust). It is mostly myth, of course. In reality, Michael did have many close friends who remained loyal to him to the end, but then, we have also seen how many of them, over time, showed their true colors, whether in his lifetime or afterward. So while it may be in part a myth, it is not a myth totally without merit.

In the most touching segment of Episode 1, a child reads an autobiographical narrative of Michael for a school project. His report, spoken from Michael’s perspective, begins with a boy who is born poor in Gary, Indiana but later buys a place called Neverland that is made into an amusement park and consists of almost three thousand acres. This essentially becomes the theme of Episode 1, and like the story of Elvis Presley-who went from poverty in Tupelo, Mississippi to the wealth of Graceland-it is a story deeply woven into the American fabric; the classic tale of The American Dream. However, we know that for both Elvis and Michael, achieving “The American Dream” didn’t bring with it automatic fulfillment. For Michael, especially, it would become a kind of hollow victory, for unlike Elvis he had yet another hurdle to overcome-racism. This is a topic I really would have liked to have seen the film explore in more depth. Perhaps instead of two more caucasion psychoanalysts attempting to deconstruct Michael’s psyche from their perspective of white privilege, we could use more African-American expertise on what happens to a black child blessed with enormous talent when he learns that everything he accomplishes is going to have to be “in spite of” having been born in his skin.

For me, the documentary’s main strength is in exploring fan reactions and the “cult of celebrity.” Where it is lacking is when it attempts to explore more controversial aspects without providing the much needed contexts. Yes, we know if you interview enough random people on the streets, you are bound to get a mixture of reactions, both positive and negative. There will be some, as shown here, who still have ambivalent opinions about the allegations and other issues. I have no personal qualms with acknowledging that there is, indeed, a whole other side to the Michael Jackson mythos, including those who have doubts. What I find more problematic, however, is in giving a platform to these views without offering anything substantial either in the way of context or refutation. The problem, of course, is that these people being randomly interviewed on the streets can’t be expected to have those answers. They obviously only know what they have seen reported in the media; they don’t know any factual information about the cases. If those issues are going to be raised; if they are going to be alluded to in any way, then they should at least be followed up with a rebuttal by a knowledgable individual on those accusations. But too often in this film, these controversial issues are raised and the uncomfortable fallout simply left to settle as it may. Perhaps that was part of the intent, but if so, it would seem to defeat the film’s overall purpose of gaining further insight into either who Michael was, or the forces he had to swim against. In other words, if the viewer is still left with a bigger question mark than before, then one might ask, What’s the point?

Overall, my biggest impression is that the film is uneven. There are moments of very insightful commentary (the man from Zambia interviewed in Episode 2, for example) who provide much needed insight into what Michael Jackson means to his fans of the world. But then, too often, these jewel moments are followed up by glaring inaccuracies that form a distorted picture. I was especially enraged at the segment where a woman, also from Zambia, goes on and on in an uninterrupted interview for several minutes espousing her views on why Michael “didn’t want to be black.” This was problematic for me because the interview was conducted in 2010, a full year after Michael’s autopsy was made public, confirming that he did have the skin disease vitiligo. It’s even more puzzling that the producers not only allow her views to stand unchecked, without rebuttal or the offering of counter information, but never even mention that he had vitiligo (even more puzzling, the complete omission even of the claim of vitiligo, which was so often cruelly referred to in the media as Michael’s “alleged” skin disease”). I don’t think his vitiligo is even mentioned until, in a much later episode, a fan being interviewed casually mentions it. But for viewers who may catch only this isolated episode, they may form the opinion (especially since the interviewee appears reasonably informed and assured of her views) that hers is the correct view. So again, a controversial issue is merely raised, with no real attempt to address the issue or counter it. However, this is an ongoing series, so perhaps those issues will be addressed in upcoming episodes. I certainly hope so, At any rate, they have demonstrated a fair willingness to allow counter perspectives, so we’ll see.

Overall, I found the general structure and chronology of the series a bit confusing, too. There does not seem to be a real narrative focus, and I’m not sure if this is intentional, but it’s a quality I usually expect from documentaries. Rather, it seems to drift rather haphazardly from point to point, while the viewer may be left unsure how a current interview fits into the overall context, or even what that current context is supposed to be. At times, it seems as though it is trying to be too all-inclusive, and that may be part of the problem. The scope of Michael Jackson’s life, career, musical impact, and social impact is simply too vast to be adequately covered in one project, and it means that no matter how you slice it, all are apt to get short changed in the process. This, too, was an issue with David Gest’s “Life of an Icon,” which became a bit unwieldy at times, but to his credit, Gest managed to maintain a strong narrative focus throughout that held the entire, two and a half hour project together. “The Love You Save,” however, feels very disjointed at times, with no real sense of thematic connection.

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There is, of course, much to commend here and I do feel it is a genuine product of love made by people who want to shed some light on the Michael Jackson mystique, while maintaining a balanced perspective. And there is something to be said for its very genuine, grassroots approach. The main problem may be that, for diehard fans, there isn’t going to be enough here that is new to them, and for those with only a casual and passing interest, there simply aren’t enough of the tough questions that are truly explored or, more to the point, satisfactorily answered. This is the same conundrum that has so often plagued many well-intended, but ultimately misguided,  projects on Michael Jackson. However, what it does offer-and where its strength lies-is in the obvious sincere devotion of the fans as expressed in those street interviews, showing a microcosmic view of just how Michael and his music impacted so many lives. I also like how they compared and contrasted the street views from 2004 (at the height of the Arvizo scandal) with those of today. These provide an interesting glimpse of how the public view and perception of Michael Jackson shifted from 2004 to 2009 and beyond, and help to serve an important historical function in the study of how public perceptions of celebrity can be shaped by the media and how those perceptions can be altered over time, especially as the media itself continues to evolve.  Also, the fan views are interesting because they are not one sided, but rather, run the gamut from the truly zealous to the bitter rants against the media, America’s racism, and the hypocrisy of those who ragged him in life only to embrace him in death.

I will certainly look forward to the opportunity to add my own views to this series, and judging from the response I received, I believe the producers really wanted to put the word out on this series and to get feedback from the fan community. This is, after all, still a work in progress and I believe they are sincere in wanting our input, so please, by all means, let them know what you think.

Here is the link to the first episode; from there, you can access the rest of the episodes.

Factions, Factions, Everywhere a Faction! Who Really Pays the Price?

Is Michael's Legacy Being Slowly Crucified By His Own Fandom?
Is Michael’s Legacy Being Slowly Crucified By His Own Fandom?

Once again, I’m feeling the need to take time out from my favorite subject-Michael Jackson-to address a semi-related topic. It’s a topic that isn’t pleasant, but nevertheless, one that every so often rears its ugly head and must be addressed. I’m talking, of course, about the fandom. Not that it’s any news that we don’t all agree. I have long ago accepted the fact that the divide between us is simply too deep to ever bear hope of reconciliation, The ideologies and faction loyalties that have created those divides are simply too vast, I now believe, to ever be brought together. So this post, unlike some past others I have done on this topic, isn’t about some idealistic hope that we can just put aside our differences and get along. What I want to address specifically, however, is a disturbing by-product of this faction division, and how it is impacting Michael’s legacy in the world beyond the fanbase. In the last few months, I have been appalled to see many of the best and most noted Michael Jackson scholars and writers being bullied and lynched-often to the point of having to remove themselves from social media. In the more extreme cases, it has resulted in some of their valuable works actually being removed from availability, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. What is most disturbing is that it isn’t haters who are leading these efforts to censor positive and important writings on Michael Jackson. Rather, these efforts are coming from within the fan base.

The most recent example was the removal of Joe Vogel’s article “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Rescreening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White'” following a claim of plagiarism from The Michael Jackson Academia Project (the article has since been reinstated).

You can read a more detailed discussion of the controversy over this dispute here.

For my purposes, I’m not going to get into debating the validity or non-validity of those claims, as that debate has already been pretty much hashed out on Dancing With the Elephant and elsewhere. However, I do see this latest controversy as yet one more example of how fan faction rivalries are impacting works that are written on Michael Jackson. And this is what it all comes down to. What I find most disturbing in this particular case is that the claims of plagiarism seemed more of an excuse than anything-an excuse to bring down a scholar and writer simply for not not towing a certain line within the fan base ideology.

This isn’t about supporting or not supporting the estate executors. It isn’t about taking a hardline stance against Sony, or not. As I’ve said many times, my own personal views are neutral when it comes to issues of the estate. I do not align myself one way or the other, with either faction, and the reason for that is largely because it is important to me to maintain the balanced objectivity that I feel is so vitally important to what I do. As a journalist, I do feel it is important to maintain a certain level of objectivity on these issues. I certainly don’t mind raising the tough questions about the estate. By the same token, I’m not opposed to posthumous releases (as long as Michael’s standards of excellence are maintained) or projects like Cirque du Soleil. These kinds of projects are important for carrying on Michael’s legacy. However, I have been opposed to other issues such as the sale of Neverland, and overall, I have been willing to keep an open mind on issues pertaining to the validity of the will. And I have always felt it is important to listen, even when you don’t agree, and that even when you do disagree, you should be able to do so with civility. I have a lot of supporters and followers from both sides of the camp, and I have been largely able to achieve this due to my willingness to treat all views fairly and respectfully. I can also say that I have met a lot of good people on both sides of the estate rivalry, and that there are people among both camps who I count among some of my dearest friends and supporters. Thus, as you can see, these kinds of issues are never easy or pleasant to address because no matter what I say, or how civilly I try to say it, someone will accuse me of taking sides. However, this isn’t about siding with any one faction, as I have seen this kind of behavior, to greater or lesser extent, from all factions. But the bottom line is that we really need to stop these kneejerk assumptions that every writer who has achieved some level of mainstream success by writing positively about Michael Jackson is somehow in league with Sony or the estate. Trust me, these are the kinds of things that make MJ fans look like a bunch of looney tunes to the outside world.

Fans Will Usually Unite Against Controversial Books From Questionable Journalists, But Are Often Divided Over Books and Authors From Within the Ranks
Fans Will Usually Unite Against Controversial Books From Questionable Journalists, But Are Often Divided Over Books and Authors From Within the Ranks

It used to be that whenever a new book about Michael Jackson would come out, fans were usually united in either praising or condemning it. There were writers who admired and respected Michael, and who were interested in truth and fairness. And then there were those whose only interest was in sensationalism and falsehoods to drive the sales of their books. There were writers who genuinely admired Michael, and writers whose only agenda was to tear him down. The lines were clearly drawn, and a fan always knew where they stood in regards to those consumer choices. How I long for the simplicity of those days!

Now there is so much paranoia and suspicion-even within the fan base-that no writer is immune to it.  Immediately, it seems, if a writer or scholar is simply interested in writing about Michael’s art, and is not interested in engaging in the politics over the estate and Sony, that person immediately becomes a target of suspicion and abuse. However, there are many and varied reasons why a writer, journalist, or scholar may have no interest in addressing those issues. Perhaps because those issues are not relevant to their works (and indeed, we must ask if it is truly necessary that a scholar interested in studying only Michael Jackson’s music or cultural impact is somehow obligated to also become an anti-estate camp follower) or perhaps because, for most scholars and journalists, these kinds of issues are simply not their concern or their area of expertise. I am quite certain, for example, that not every scholar or journalist who writes on The Beatles, Bob Dylan, or any other culturally significant artist is obligated to concern themselves with issues of the artists’  executors or record companies, at risk of censorship and even the public stoning of their own, personal reputations.

So why is this the case with Michael Jackson? Those answers are certainly more complex than any one article can address. But the bottom line is that it should be the writer’s choice whether they wish to engage themselves in the politics of the anti-estate faction, or if they simply want to write about Michael’s music and cultural impact. I am still a little fuzzy on how those boundaries have become so apparently blurred (and if someone cares to enlighten me, I’ll gladly hear you out; as I said, all views are respected here).

But an excellent case in point would be D.B. Anderson, who late last year published an explosive article in the Baltimore Sun that was, to my knowledge, one of the first pieces to draw the connection between Michael Jackson’s music and #BlackLivesMatter.  Although fans and some scholars have been addressing the black activism of Michael Jackson’s music for years, this was an important and eye opening piece for introducing that concept to the mainstream media. Anderson then followed that piece with another article that served as a scathing expose of Sony’s scheme to sabotage “They Don’t Care About Us.” But apparently even writing a scathingly critical article against Sony was not enough to convince some factions that Anderson wasn’t somehow in league with Sony. I saw many of the tweets that went back and forth during this time. Apparently they had wanted Anderson to write an article exposing the estate, and Anderson had refused because it was not his area of expertise or interest, nor relevant to his own purpose.  I still don’t get the idea of targeting a random journalist, just because they have had a few popular pieces, and essentially trying to threaten them into writing articles that they have obviously expressed no interest in writing. So has it come down to the fact that writers who choose to write about Michael Jackson are no longer free to choose their subject matter or approach in what they wish to write about Michael? Is it no longer enough just to write about the music? I honestly don’t know sometimes. Over the past few years, I’ve seen people attacked for so many stupid reasons that it isn’t even funny anymore. And apparently, unless a blogger or journalist devotes themselves to screaming rants against Branca and Sony non-stop, 24-7, they are considered a supporter, a “fake fan,” or a paid employee. And as I have so often seen, these accusations are often made without merit.

I could understand the criticisms better if the writers in question were actively and vocally supporting the estate, but nowhere have I seen that to be the case. The only exception, to my knowledge, may be Zack O’Mally Greenburg’s book but since that is one I still haven’t read yet (yeah, I know it’s been out awhile but I only have so much dough for MJ books and only so much time in a day, lol) I can’t vouch for its contents. However, my understanding of the book is that it is also one of the few that gives Michael his props as the brilliant businessman that he was, and one that gives him full credit for building his own empire. Doesn’t exactly sound like a negative message to me, but again, I will have to read it before I can fairly judge it.

Despite Having Written The First Truly Comprehensive Book On Jackson's Musical Legacy, Joe Vogel Is One Of The Authors Who Have Come Under Fire.
Despite Having Written The First Truly Comprehensive Book On Jackson’s Musical Legacy, Joe Vogel Is One Of The Authors Who Have Come Under Fire.

I can say, however, that I am certainly familiar with everything that Joe Vogel has ever written on Michael. His books, Man in the Music and Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus, are books I have relied on for a number of years to help educate students about the cultural impact of Michael’s music. Vogel’s  writing style, which constitutes a tasteful and balanced blend between the popular and the academic, is perfect for classroom use, especially at the freshman and sophomore level. My students respect Mr. Vogel’s works immensely, as do I, because his writings enable them to clearly understand the cultural importance of Michael’s work without the feeling that they are being “talked down to.” These are books that chronicle the history of Michael Jackson’s artistry. They are neither pro estate nor anti estate, which is a completely irrelevant issue to the subject. That’s why I fail to understand how these accusations of Vogel as some sort of vessel for the estate have come about. Sure, his books have been successful in reaching a mainstream audience, and his writings that have been featured in The Huffington Post, The Atlantic and many other outlets have enabled him to reach a mass audience. His work on Michael’s music has been deservedly recognized by the estate because, simply put, it is good work. And quite frankly, being asked to be included in a project as huge as Spike Lee’s Bad 25 film is an honor that any Michael Jackson writer would have eagerly accepted if asked.  I seriously doubt this offer came about because Branca and company saw Joe Vogel as a vessel to promote themselves. It was about the music, pure and simple, and Vogel’s expertise and popularity made him the perfect candidate for the job. Did it boost his own profile? Sure, it did. But what writer out there doesn’t wish to be recognized and honored for their accomplishments and expertise? I certainly do not fault Vogel-or anyone-for taking advantage of such a platform.

The Anti-Estate Faction Feels That The Estate Purposely Chooses Certain Authors To Promote. But Are The Reasons Necessarily Sinister?
The Anti-Estate Faction Feels That The Estate Purposely Chooses Certain Authors To Promote. But Are The Reasons Necessarily Sinister?

For someone like Vogel, whose works have always been meticulously documented, I find the accusations even more bizarre, as the only link I have been able to find between Vogel’s article and the videos of the Michael Jackson Academia Project is that they both deal with the topic of the “Black or White” video and the black panther symbolism. But again, as has already been pointed out in Willa’s post, it is not plagiarism when two writers merely cover the same material, or even the same ideas. For fiction writers, those lines are much more clearly drawn. For scholars, it can become admittedly trickier because no matter what you say on a subject-especially one that has been pretty much dissected and analyzed for over two decades-it’s always possible that someone else has had a similar idea, or drawn a similar conclusion. Joe Vogel certainly isn’t the first writer to address the racial themes and symbolism in the “Black or White” video, but he has always generously acknowledged the works of those previous scholars

The bottom line is that, whether we like it or not, Michael Jackson was under contract to Sony for the entire duration of his adult career. That means that all of the great work he did-all of the great music that we know, and that we celebrate as his legacy-is irrevocably tied to the company he came to despise. That is a tragic irony indeed, but it kind of is what it is. Which means there is no way we can write about, analyze, discuss, or even simply celebrate his musical legacy without at least acknowledging Sony’s role in it, for better or worse. It’s a willing disconnect that most fans make. For example, many will willingly boycott new, posthumous releases, claiming they don’t wish to support Sony or the estate, while seemingly forgetting that they are supporting those very entities every time they purchase or even dance to a copy of Thriller.  I understand that there are fans who do not support the idea of “contemporizing” Michael’s music, or even the principle of releasing music he did not approve, or worse yet, tracks whose very authenticity is in question. Those sentiments are certainly easy to understand. But what I don’t get are those fans who actively boycott every new project based simply on the principle of not supporting Sony or the estate, while continuing to purchase Michael’s back catalog of music. Do they honestly think Sony really gives a rat’s ass whether their pockets are lined from fans purchasing Number Ones as opposed to Xscape? It’s all the same to them.

But to bring the matter back to the point at hand, the fact that Sony is inextricably linked to all of the music of Michael Jackson’s adult solo legacy means that it is virtually impossible for any writer or scholar who simply wishes to write critical studies of that music to undertake such a task without, apparently, undertaking the risk of being labeled a Sony/estate supporter. It has indeed become a confusing paradox, and it is small wonder that people outside the fan community are often left puzzled and scratching their heads at the “logic” of Michael Jackson fans. You see, apparently,only in the upside down, often illogical world of the Michael Jackson fan base is it possible to be labeled a “traitor” by the simple act of celebrating an artist’s musical legacy. Here, any celebration or acknowledgment of that legacy is soon tainted with suspicion. He or she must be a hired agent of Sony or the estate (or both)! Especially at risk are those who write about the music to the exclusion of all other concerns.

Look, I know very well the arguments of both factions. I have heard them all, and as I said, there are issues on both sides that I agree and disagree with. But this isn’t about my personal views on these issues. It is about allowing all authors who choose to write positively about Michael to be able to do so without being harassed and hounded by any faction of the fan base (and yes, that includes all factions, including the rights of authors to write books that are also critical of the estate).  It is about allowing all writers to do what they do best-and to be able to choose the topics they wish to address, and that are within their area of expertise-freely without censure and harassment. Any true fan of Michael Jackson would have no objections to works that help to enlighten and educate the masses about the importance of his musical contributions, regardless of how they feel about Sony or the estate. Conversely, MJ authors who choose to write about more controversial topics are still within their rights, and should be allowed to pursue those topics freely without bullying or harassment from the opposing faction. While it may be easy for readers to get confused by such a wealth of often contradictory information, all of it is important, ultimately, to gaining an understanding of Michael Jackson-the man, the artist, and all of the forces that worked both for and against him. And the most important thing to remember is that, if you don’t like a particular book or author, no one is putting a gun to your head to make you buy, read, or support their work. There are quite a few MJ writers out there whose opinions and conclusions I could debate heartily. But disagreeing with them does not give me the right to destroy their careers, reputation, and livelihood.

To reiterate something very important that Willa mentioned in her own blog, any accusation of plagiarism is a very serious offense in the academic world. Because such accusations cannot be taken lightly, they must also not be made lightly. Case in point: When I was an undergrad at Mississippi State, one of the well respected professors in our English department, Brad Vice, was accused of plagiarizing one of the short stories in his award winning published collection. The Bear Bryant Funeral Train. Although the actual charge was debatable, the accusation alone resulted in the rescinding of many of his awards and the threat of losing his job. Here is what Brad Vice’s Wikipedia entry says about the controversy:

In late 2004 Vice’s short story collection, The Bear Bryant Funeral Train, won the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award from the University of Georgia Press. The Press published the collection in late 2005. Kirkus, in a starred review, called it “distinguished and disturbing work, from a lavishly gifted new writer.”[2]Publishers Weekly agreed: “Vice has a gift for making the extraordinary plausible, for rendering complex motivations in spare but metaphoric language and searing details.”[3]

When the University of Georgia Press discovered that one of the stories in The Bear Bryant Funeral Train incorporated material from a short story by Carl Carmer, the Press accused Vice of plagiarism, revoked the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award, and destroyed unsold copies of the book.

Jason Sanford, writing in storySouth, described it as a “literary lynching.”[4] A number of other writers and editors came to Vice’s defense. Jake Adam York, for instance, noted that Vice had allowed his short story and the four-page section of Carmer’s original book to be published side by side in Thicket, a journal edited by York. To York, this action by Vice “implicitly acknowledges the relationship (and) allows the evidence to be made public”. York added that doing this allowed the readers to enter the “intertextual space in which (Vice) has worked” and that what Vice was doing with his story was allusion, not plagiarism. York also stated that, according to his own analysis of Vice’s story and Carmer’s source material, Vice did not break copyright law.[5]

After Vice’s book was destroyed, remaining used copies on Amazon.com and other booksellers were selling for hundreds of dollars.[6]

In late March 2007, a new edition of the collection was published by River City Publishing. According to a report in The Oxford American, “The revised version will more closely mirror Vice’s 2001 dissertation from the University of Cincinnati, which contained many of the stories that ended up being published as The Bear Bryant Funeral Train. Unlike the UGA Press edition, it will be divided into two sections, the latter of which is set entirely in Tuscaloosa. In his dissertation, Vice described the Tuscaloosa stories as an ‘attempt to reconcile the seemingly incompatible movements of Southern regionalism and international postmodernism.’ In that vein, it contained epigraphs by Albert Camus, Basho, Guy Davenport, Bear Bryant, and, more importantly, Carmer, all of which will reappear in the River City edition.”[7]

In May 2013, Salon.com reporter Andrew Leonard revealed that Brad Vice had been the victim of a “ferocious assault” byRobert Clark Young, a writer who spent years anonymously attacking his literary enemies by inserting “revenge edits” into Wikipedia. Editing under the user name “Qworty,” Young “devoted a significant amount of intellectual and emotional energy to attacking not only Vice, but the entire community of writers centered around the Sewanee Writers’ Conference that had nurtured Vice.”[8]

So here we have, again, a case of one person who seemed to have an especial and vicious agenda to destroy a writer by bringing a charge of plagiarism-a charge that was debatable, at best. I do remember quite well when the blowup over Brad Vice’s book occurred, and of course, he had adherents and foes in both corners. In the end, some supported him and some didn’t. I cannot personally vouch for whether Vice committed willful plagiarism or if this was, indeed, a case of a literary allusion being misconstrued as plagiarism, but the end result was that a promising writer’s career was cut short amidst a wave of humiliating and disgraceful publicity, resulting in the loss of his position and livelihood. I did some recent, additional research and came across the scathing article from the above mentioned Robert Clark Young, who was apparently a huge instigator in the charge, especially when his article “A Charming Plagiarist” appeared in The New York Press. I don’t have permission to reprint his article, but you can read it here.

While I can agree, perhaps, with some of Young’s points, it doesn’t take very deep reading into his article to quickly ascertain that his real beef was with the Sewanee Writer’s Conference and the entire Sewanee community of writers centered around The University of the South in Franklin, Tennesseee-the very community that had nurtured Brad Vice early in his writing career. In fact, Young’s article devotes more space to ranting bitterly about the Sewanee writers’ group than to the actual issue of Vice’s plagiarism. For many, that was an obvious red flag.

In 2013. Robert Clark Young’s true agenda was revealed in an equally scathing piece written by Andrew Leonard for Salon.com, in which Leonard revealed how Young, under the pseudonym of “Qworty,” had extended his vendetta against the Sewanee writers by editing all of their Wikipedia pages with false or misleading information. It turned out all along that the real reason behind Robert Clark Young’s vendetta was the simple fact that his own work had been poorly received by the Sewanee committee back in 2001. One line in particular from Leonard’s expose on Young seems especially relevant to the issues we are dealing with in the MJ fan community regarding authorship and works:

If Qworty has been allowed to run free for so long — sabotaging the “truth” however he sees fit, writing his own postmodern novel — how many others are also creating spiteful havoc under the hood, where no one is watching?-Andrew Leonard.

In other words, this was a clear cut case of a writer using his own personal vendettas as an excuse to wreck havoc on other author’s reputations and livelihood. It seems all too eerily reminiscent of what is happening within the MJ fan base, whereby some parties are deliberately plotting and strategizing how to “bring down” certain authors for reasons that have to do with everything except the content of what they’ve actually written.

Tanner Colby, Co-Author of Remember The Time, Was Another Writer Bullied Into Sile4nce
Tanner Colby, Co-Author of Remember The Time, Was Another Writer Bullied Into Silence

Again, I want to stress this is not about “taking sides” on any issue or with any faction. It’s simply about what’s right. If you don’t like a certain author-if you don’t agree with their position or views-then don’t purchase their books. You can give them a one star review on Amazon, if you like. But there has to be a line drawn when it comes to actually censoring works and bringing about very serious allegations, or simply bullying a writer to the point that they no longer feel free to maintain their public profiles and social media pages. I feel this is especially tragic when the subjects of concern are writers who have maintained, for the most part, a neutral stance and are simply choosing to focus their writing on Michael Jackson’s music, his social/cultural impact and his positive contributions to humanity and the arts. None of these are issues that have any relevance to who his estate executors are or who is currently in control of that music, which means that these issues have no place in arguments against writers who are focusing on those topics. In short, if a writer’s only interest is in what Michael Jackson created and/or his social and cultural impact, those writers do not deserve to be judged by political standards that have no bearing on their work. The role of writers, journalists, and scholars who take on Michael Jackson as a subject are, for the most part, simply striving to enlighten the general populace or the academic world of an often misunderstood and maligned genius. These are not people who deserve to be caught up in the crossfire of petty fan wars and fan factions, or the ever arbitrary whims of whoever may be the latest “disciples” in control of said factions.

And again, I will say this in support of all writers-pro estate, anti estate, or completely indifferent-who have found themselves or their works to be victims of such campaigns.

On this very blog, I have given positive reviews to many books that were openly critical of the estate, and so again, this has nothing to do with siding against the anti-estate faction. There are a few of those authors, as well, whom I feel have been unfairly targeted by hate campaigns and bullying. It works both ways, and as we have seen, each and every time, the only purpose it serves is to fuel the flames of revenge by the opposing faction.  Simply put, we cannot allow our own politics to dictate which authors get heard or suppressed. If there are professional and legit issues involved, such as disputes over copyrights or infringement, those can usually be resolved peacefully and civilly behind the scenes, through the proper channels. There is no need to wage a public mud slinging campaign, and I honestly believe those who resort to such tactics are doing it more for their own attention and glory than to resolve the dispute. Perhaps, if all attempts to resolve the dispute through civility and legal channels have failed, then yes, raising public awareness of the issue may be the only alternative left. But waging terrorist tactics against writers should not be the way to resolve potentially litigious disagreements, and should always be a last resort when all other options have failed.

Look, I am not writing this to further stir the pot. I am posting it in the hope that we might all come to our senses and realize the damage we are doing to Michael’s legacy every time these battles are publicly aired. I am also writing this for every advocate of Michael Jackson whose voices, one by one, are being silenced for no justifiable reason. When it has reached the point that the biggest threat to a positive Michael Jackson legacy is coming from within his own fan base, rather than without, it is time indeed to have some serious concern. There are many talented writers, gifted journalists and insightful scholars who love writing about Michael Jackson, and who have a lot to bring to the table. But for most of them, it is not a passion that they can afford to place ahead of their own livelihood and even personal safety. When people feel those things to be threatened, the natural instinct is to protect themselves. Thus, many who used to love to write about Michael Jackson are now choosing not to. Why should they, when they feel like their only reward is bullying and harassment from so called fans? We must ask ourselves, do we really want a world in which the only narrative that exists of Michael Jackson comes from the tabloids and the likes of Diane Dimond? Or the senationalized accounts of his life by writers like Taraborelli and Halperin who basically all but ignored the musical legacy altogether? If that’s what we want, we seem to be on a fine path to achieving it. That is, if some things don’t start to change, and change soon.  We can start, first of all, by ceasing to assume that all writers have some hidden, ulterior motive or are working in league with one faction or another. In truth, most aren’t, and furthermore, could care less.  Writers don’t get rich selling books (unless their names happen to be Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, perhaps!). But many writers have ceased publishing articles or books about Michael Jackson altogether, and have claimed they will not write about him again-sadly, not because their passion for the subject has dimmed, but because they feel forced by necessity into that position. Every time I hear a writer utter those words; every time I see another writer’s Twitter account closed, a little piece of me dies-and, I feel, along with it, a little piece of Michael as well. I hope that most of them will come to see that they do have the support of many fans, and will eventually come around and realize they should continue the good work they have started. But many, I fear, will not, and who can blame them?

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Who Loses? That Answer Shouldn’t Be Hard To Figure Out!

Sure, Michael Jackson’s music will survive. Some may say that’s all that matters. But I beg to differ. The cultural narrative of his work is equally important, and will be important to those future scholars and historians who will study the cultural impact and legacy that he left behind. We owe it to them to allow for a positive, cultural body of popular and academic scholarship on Michael Jackson to exist. But if we continue to create, perpetrate and allow this environment of hostility towards writers and scholars to exist, I can only foresee a regression in which all of the past mainstream narratives we have fought so hard to eradicate will be the only alternatives available.

We must ask, is that what we want? And if that’s what we want, who ultimately loses?

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