Just taking another quick detour to address an issue that’s been on my mind for some time, and has recently been heightened by the release of A Place With No Name.
When the video premiered, I watched with much excitement and anticipation, as did thousands of MJ fans across the globe. My initial impression was that it was lovely; certainly quite beautifully filmed and the integration of the In The Closet footage is cleverly edited into the storyline of the couple. It is definitely several notches above the Love Never Felt So Good video in quality and ambition, as well as a loving homage to one of Michael’s sexiest yet most underrated videos. However, I was so caught up in paying attention to the visuals that I failed to notice something glaringly obvious about the lyrics: An entire portion of the bridge is missing!
The lines in question are the ones that follow right after “This place is filled with love and happiness/Why in the world would I wanna leave.” In the complete version as it is sung in the demo and on both track versions of Xscape, the verse goes on to state:
So then I went in my pocket
Took my wallet on out
With my pictures of my family and girl
This is the place you choose to be with me
When you thought you could be
In another world
Recently, a single edit surfaced that contained the same omission. I don’t know if it was the “official” single edit, but now there is a “single edit” version that has the full track intact and the “edited” one seems to have disappeared.
It is still a bit disturbing, however, that such a glaring omission has been made to a video that is now going to be seen by millions.
Why this matters is because it is an omission that ever so subtley changes the entire meaning of the song. While it’s not unsual for such edits to sometimes be made in the interest of time, that excuse can’t really be applied here. Radio and single edits will occasionally lop off pieces of an instrumental section, or fade out the final few seconds of a track, to shave off a few minutes of time, but rarely are entire lines and verses cut from the song. I can think of a few exceptions where this was done, going back to some songs I remember from my youth where, upon finally hearing the full album version of a song, I would go, “Whoa, there was a whole other verse in there I never heard before!” But in all cases, those were either exceedingly long tracks or cases where some verse had been censored due to controversial lyrics. These days, for example, the lines from Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing that refer to “the little f****t” are often edited out when it is played on classic radio stations.
Neither justification seems to really apply here. The length of A Place With No Name, even with the full bridge intact, is only about 4:36, well within the average length of most singles released today. The omitted line adds, at best, an additional thirty seconds or so to the song, and I find it hard to justify that this additional thirty seconds or so would be a “make or break” as far as length.
Nor is there any other obviously justifiable reason for omitting the lyric, except that for whatever reason, it seems someone wanted to “tweak” the song’s dark twist.
The omitted line is crucual to the overall meaning of the song because, just as with many of Michael’s songs about giving in to the temptations of lust, it becomes a morality tale about the consequences of one’s actions. The narrator is obviously enjoying being taken to places he’s never been, but the photos in the wallet are a jarring reminder of hisreality. It is not clear in the end what his ultimate decision is, or where his loyalties will lie, but the fact that he must ponder the wages of that decision is ultimately the crux of the entire song. Just as with Billie Jean, Dirty Diana, Dangerous, Blood on the Dancefloor and so many others, Michael is taking us deep into the male psyche and taking some hard hits at what transpires when light and darkness collide.
By eliminating this line, it takes away the “moral consequence” element of the song and reduces it to merely a kind of sexy romp in the hay. The emphasis here is on the light and the joy of that utopia, but that is only part of the picture as that utopic vision eventually becomes tainted for the narrator.
My guess is that they wanted to keep the message here upbeat and positive. Maybe it became problematic trying to figure out how to work that element of the song into the video’s concept. But the bottom line is: They should have found a way. To do any less is a disservice to the artist and the artist’s intent. In The Closet-the video that served as the inspiration here-was likewise a video that juxtaposed a very upbeat and erotic visual storyline, while maintaining the dark edge of the lyrics (it is a tug-of-war battle between the power of the seductress and the male who says he will only give in if she agrees to keep their love a secret).
But I have noticed this seems to be an ongoing trend with some of Michael’s posthumously released work. The emphasis is on the positive, and a lot of the darker aspects are either being censored out or presented in a misleading way. In the case of A Place With No Name, it seems they wanted to keep it upbeat, without introducing the darker element. But really, why? Billie Jean wasn’t exactly a cheery video, either, but it made history.
And another recent example: The bridge to the title track, Xscape, is clearly referencing either death or the desire to die in order to “get away.”
What Michael clearly states in the bridge is:
When I go (or when I’m gone)
This problem world won’t bother me
(Some lyric sites quote the line as “When I go” but “When I’m gone” seems more logical, as it is a true rhyme with “alone,” the last word of the verse that the backup chorus sings).
Either way, the intended meaning of the passage is quite clear. In fact, it was made so very clear that when the track first leaked back in 2003, fans were concerned because they thought Michael might be contemplating suicide.
The line does appear intact on the track, but here is something interesting to note: In the album liner notes, the lyric to this bridge is printed thus:
Xscape, where did I go
This problem world won’t bother me
Is that a printing error, or a genuine attempt to mislead the lyrics?
The bridge as Michael sings it is a clear reference to the idea of death as the ultimate escape. But the misprint in the liner notes (whether intentional or not!) makes it sound like he’s just referring to slipping away on a vacation! (Or worse yet, feeding into the death hoax theory).
Clearly, Michael isn’t asking “Where did I go?” He’s saying “When I’m gone” as in “When I’m dead.”
By watering this down, whether purposely or unintentionally, it alters the meaning of the song to a simple tale of needing to get away from all the pressures. Well, the song isabout that, but it is very misleading if someone is purposely trying to paint it as if he’s not hinting that death might be the only way this will ultimately be possible for him.
I have to wonder if someone didn’t simply make the decision that the line was too dark, or might incite too much controversy, and so chose to alter it? Thankfully, the bridge is intact on the album, but what happens if it’s ever released as a single or video? Are they going to cut that out, too?
As subtle as all of this may be, the fact that it’s happening at all is somewhat disturbing. Such practices do nothing to assure those who are already against the idea of releasing Michael’s music posthumously on principle.
I am certainly not opposed to the new music being released, but I want to hear it exactly as Michael wrote it and sang it. Tweaking his lines, editing them out, or misprinting them in the liner note booklet (especially if done purposely to misrepresent) is not acceptable to me. I can understand when it’s done for consideration of length, such as when his songs must be abridged for things like the Cirque du Soleil shows or TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance. But even then, great care is usually taken that all of the song’s important elements are maintained; nothing that would actually alter the song’s integrity by changing its meaning.
Again, the omission of these lines in A Place With No Name makes no sense from an editing standpoint, and there seems to be no logical reason for it.
I love the video and have no complaints with it otherwise but as someone who has great respect for Michael’s art, this does trouble me a great deal and it bothers me that a lot of people will now only hear this “watered down” version of the song. Hopefully, the radio and single edits are indications that this omission only applies to the video but it is still kind of disappointing.
On a lighter note, there may indeed be some printing errors in the Xscape booklet. I am at least 100% certain that Michael is saying “She started likin’ me/kissing me and huggin me.” But the lyric printed in the booklet states: “She started lickin’ me.”
Lol. I think we can safely say that the reference to “huggin’ and kissin me” was as graphic as Michael intended to go. The rest was supposed to be left to our imagination!
Well, it looks like I’ll have to put my planned series on Michael and race on hold just a little longer in order to address what is truly the burning issue of the fan community at the moment-these latest allegations coming from Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck. This topic is going to take several days to address in full, so I think what I will do is to write as much as I can today, and will post subsequent installments as time permits throughout the week (so please plan on checking back often this week as I update).
Not that any of this is exactly news, or should be. We’ve known for over a year that a hearing would be scheduled to determine whether Robson can proceed with his civil case against the Michael Jackson estate, MJJ Productions, and MJJ Ventures. And while things had been relatively quiet on that front for some time, I knew this would change as the actual hearing date drew nearer. To be sure, Wade and his attorney have a very strategic strategy in place, and he has a few team players who are helping him with that goal (I will get to those in due course). I predicted how a lot of this would go down over a year ago. At that time, it was also hinted that other potential accusers were waiting “in the wings”-no doubt, to see how things played out with Wade’s case. In steps Jimmy Safechuck. Well, we’ve also known since at least May-when our good “friend” Diane Dimond first broke the news (on the eve of Xscape’s U.S. release, no less) that Jimmy Safechuck was joining forces with Wade. So in other words, we’ve known this shit was gonna hit for some time. It was just a matter of when. We had to know-even through all the hype over Xscape and holograms, etc-that he was only waiting, silent as a viper, in the wings. Waiting to strike again.
There is still a very good chance (in fact, a highly probable chance) that these cases will be completely thrown out. But it was inevitable that they would engage in some form of media blitz, via their willing mouthpieces, as the time approached. I don’t think anyone is particularly shocked about that. Or shouldn’t be. But what is disturbing for many, I believe, is the especially heinous nature of these very open allegations that are being made, and how/why Wade and Jimmy are being given this platform (a platform that, frankly, even Jordan Chandler and Gavin Arvizo did not have). Due process of law would seem to guarantee that these details be kept under seal until the actual hearings. Additionally, the staggeringly and ridiculously inflated sum of money that Robson is now seeing (1.6 BILLION) is, if nothing else, bound to generate media interest in this case. One might think, whoa, this certainly LOOKS big and scary, with the bully bantam rooster flexing his wings and threatening to break the entire Michael Jackson empire. But here is the stone cold reality: Even IF he gets a trial, and even IF (god forbid) he’s awarded money, he’s not going to get anywhere near 1.6 billion. It is a strategy, just like Katherine’s civil case against AEG, to throw out the highest imaginable figure in hopes that some lower figure-any figure at all-will stick. In other words, it’s a huge bluff to see if the estate will flinch-and bite. On the other hand, Robson and Safechuck might do well to take a hint from DA Walgreen that the more reasonable you keep your charges and expectations, the more likely you are apt to come out with a favorable verdict. However, it is a more common practice in civil cases to ask for as much as possible even if the the far more likely possibility is that the plaintiff will actually receive far less. And that, of course, is in the event that the case is even decided in their favor. Criminal cases depend too much on the ability to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Civil cases are not nearly as stringent. In a civil case, the plaintiff need only convince the judge or jury via a reasonable “preponderance of the evidence.”
But all of this combined-from the ridiculously over-the-top accusations, to the inflated figure, to the very specific media outlets that are giving Wade and Jimmy this platform-make for an interesting conspiracy that smells too rotten to be ignored. Could it be possible that there IS truly something rotten…Down Under?Well, I will ponder that idea in more depth in the next few days. For the moment, since these allegations have forced us once again to consider the nature of Michael’s relationships with children, that is where I would like to start. Firstly, for anyone interested in the history of how Michael got to know Wade Robson, you can check out my earlier posts in the series on him:
I have not written much, if anything, on Jimmy Safechuck, though now that he has joined the ranks of accusers, I may get more into his history in time. For now, I am just focusing on keeping this very generalized as it pertains to all of the kids who were frequently seen in Michael’s company. I have written on this topic before, but there were still some things at the time that I was not able to delve as deeply into as I would have liked. The big question that so many have, especially those who are new to discovering MJ or have had only a casual interest and knowledge, is: What the heck WAS up with all of those kids, if it was indeed innocent in nature?
Well, for those of us who are fans and have studied not only Michael Jackson’s life and art but also his philanthropic, spiritual, and religious beliefs, none of it is a mystery. But I do think it goes beyond such simplistic explanations as “He didn’t have a childhood” or “He was just a big kid himself.” For the record (and I have said this before) I have never bought completely into the “lost childhood” myth, and certainly not as a way of excusing all of Michael’s behavior. Let me clarify. When I say it does not excuse “all” of his behavior, is this intended to imply guilt of criminal behavior? Absolutely not. In fact, I KNOW that Michael Jackson was a human being who strove to maintain the best ideals he had for himself, and for all humanity-including children. This was a man who DID save hundreds of children’s lives (both directly as a result of his actions, and indirectly as a result of the many millions of dollars he contributed to organizations and charities). This was a man who DID cry for all the pain and suffering that children of the world endured (and continue to endure as we speak). And, yes, he DID bear a lot of scars from his traumatic childhood. If anyone has doubts , they should go back and listen to Conrad Murray’s recording, where a very drugged Michael, with his guard completely down, says in no uncertain terms, “I didn’t have a childhood…I hurt.”
That recording, controversial as it was due to the circumstances under which it was recorded, tells us quite clearly-if anyone ever had an ounce of doubt- that, for Michael, this was no act he put on for the media. It was a constant pain inside of him, so deep that I don’t think any of us can ever completely fathom its depths, or the extent to which it impacted every aspect of his adult life. I have heard some say-even Lisa Marie Presley, his own wife-”Lots of people have a bad childhood. Get over it already.” Here is the problem, though, and it goes back to one of the first and primary rules of psychiatry. It is not up to us-any of us-to invalidate someone else’s pain or emotions. Every individual’s experience, and how they cope/react to it, is unique to that individual, and has validity. Anything less is the crudest form of insensitivity, on a par with telling a person who is grieving when it’s time to “snap out of it.” In other words, it is not up to us to judge whether Michael Jackson reacted appropriately or inappropriately, or whether he coped appropriately or inappropriately, to the traumas of his childhood. Those experiences; those emotions; those traumas (whatever they consisted of) were uniquely his own. And yes, while there is such a thing as “wallowing in victimhood” (and we are perfectly free whether we wish to indulge it or not) we absolutely must consider how Michael was being judged on a magnitude beyond anything that the average person has to endure.
But that doesn’t mean that there was no calculation whatsoever behind these relationships. Michael was, simply put, creating a myth for himself. I have heard people question what was up with all of those little boys wearing his outfits, and being made up to look just like him? This is an important point to address, since this has surfaced among the many more sinister allegations that Jimmy Safechuck has leveled. And while there are certainly more serious charges to address, it is a good starting point because “appearances” -i.e., what the public saw and certain patterns of behavior that were starting to be picked up by the media-is at the root of all of this, at least in the sense of placing in the public imagination the idea that “something odd” was going on.
Well, the truth was obvious and two fold. On the one hand, those kids idolized Michael Jackson, and in the 80′s and early 90′s nothing was more cool than to be able to dress “just like Michael.” Michael Jackson had a unique style, and as so ironically happens, the more unique the style, the more it attracts its throngs of imitators. Those kids idolized him and wanted to be just like him, his mirror image, in every respect. On Michael’s end, he encouraged this behavior probably for many reasons. For starters, I’m sure it stoked his ego, and I think he purposely courted a kind of myth for himself as a Pied Piper (or Peter Pan, if you will) whom kids would naturally flock to, and emulate. Let’s face it, he loved the idea of having all those little “mini me’s” surrounding him. It made for good copy, and the P.T. Barnum aspect of Michael could never resist good copy. Part of the problem, however, was that this seemingly rather eccentric behavior-as the public saw an increasing entourage of little “mini Mikes” accompanying him on tours and other public appearances-also came on the heels of fake but “bizarre” stories of sleeping in hyperbaric chambers and purchasing Elephant Man bones. In other words, the perfect groundwork was being laid for the idea in the public consciousness of Michael Jackson as someone who was, at best, weird and strange. It would not take much push beyond that to also view him as capable of sinister deeds. Of course, allegations of sexual misconduct against children are sinister, and it’s perfectly fair to say that it was the first, actual accusations made against him by Jordan Chandler which officially rendered everything that had heretefore seemed merely eccentric or “just Michael being Michael” into something sinister. For the most part. However, as I have discussed in depth on this blog before (and as many other MJ writers have also concluded) it was in the seeds of those very “harmless eccentricities” that a lot of the fire was fueled that sped a gullible public’s willingness to swallow those accusations without question. It all goes back to the adage of, “Who is really the one most apt to be a child molestor? The weird old guy down the street, or the upstanding businessman next door? Or dear, sweet Uncle Bob? It should be no big shocker that either the upstanding businessman OR dear, sweet Uncle Bob are far more likely candidates. But many in their naivety of actual child predators or how they operate will quickly and instinctively point fingers to the weird guy down the street.
Michael Was Creating A Myth
But it is also too easy to brush it off as merely ego, or the idea of Michael creating a larger-than-life Peter Pan myth. Indeed, it goes much deeper. In her excellent essay “Black and White and Proud” Barbara Kaufmann describes it as Michael’s belief in “Kid Power” and the “Kid Power” cultural message, citing the “silent and untapped” ability within children to “change the world”-something that Michael was keenly and intuitively aware of.
However idealistic or even naive his intentions, Michael did genuinely feel himself to be on a crusade. Through years of stardom and money and all of the superficial values that fame and riches represent, he agonized over what his true life’s mission must be. There clearly had to be more:
“A faint suspicion came to me, one that had never dawned so clearly before. What if that one in the mirror isn’t me? He feels separate. He sees problems “out there” to be solved. Maybe they will be, maybe they won’t. He’ll get along. But I don’t feel that way-those problems aren’t “out there,” not really. I feel them inside me…”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from “That One In The Mirror,” Dancing The Dream.
An excellent point was raised by someone on my Twitter timeline, and I think this is a good place to address it because part of the answer to this question ties in exactly to this idea and the whole “Kid Power” myth that Michael began to perpetuate more and more as the 80′s decade faded into the 90′s-the decade that would really see most of his problems begin. The question (sarcasm fully intended, of course) was: Did Michael suddenly become a pedophile in the 90′s? He became an adult in 1976. How come there were no accusations in the 70′s and 80′s? That is an excellent question. From a fan and “defender” perspective, it makes perfect sense. However, I can also say that I know exactly how the haters would come back and respond to that one. So let’s address it from both angles (it is important, after all, to understand their perspective in order to refute it). The obvious answer, of course, would be that, since Michael was NOT a pedophile, the reason no accusations surfaced in the 70′s and 80′s would be because there were no such accusations to report, and never were. But that’s not an answer that will satisfy skeptics, so let’s move on. The more likely reason is that, obviously, he was simply not worth going after as a target until all of the conditions and circumstances that culminated by the early 1990′s made it feasible. The simple truth is that no one cared enough to go after him as a target until, obviously, he was the richest and most powerful man in the business, and that makes perfect sense. The higher and mightier, the harder the fall-and all the more perks that can be gleaned from that fall. In the late 70′s his star was actually on the decline until the release of The Wiz and Off The Wall put him on the map again. There simply wasn’t as much incentive to go after him, nor was there really any viable reason why such a charge might stick or be remotely believable. He was still, in the public mind, “Little Michael” from The Jackson 5, whose reputation was about as pure as driven snow gets.
The Bad Era Truly Represented Michael “Coming Into His Own” As An Adult, One Who Was Now Fully Independent And In Total Control Of His Life. Unfortunately, It May Also Have Marked The Beginning Of The End.
Enter the 1980′s. Thriller becomes the biggest selling album of all time, and Michael’s star-as well as his net worth-shoots into the stratosphere. But despite this, he is still-at least for a couple of years post-Thriller, a “puppet” of the industry. While this may have had its drawbacks in terms of holding him down, it means there is still a hard shell of protection around him that is mostly implacable to the corruptive forces and vultures who will soon come sweeping down. He is a superstar, but still not completely his own entity. He still tours as a member of The Jacksons. He continues to live at home with his parents (which is maybe not a bad thing, seeing as how it restricts the people he can actually allow into his life). Michael had his share of legal woes and bubbling-just-under-the-radar scandals even then, but they were usually of the same ilk as most popular young male entertainers, paternity suits and things of that order. His acquisition of the ATV catalog, at mid decade, is what seriously starts to change the rules of the game. By the time of the Bad album, he is solidified not only as a solo act but as a “brand.” He is also (understandably) just a little drunk with some of his newfound wealth and freedom. He can call his own shots. He has severed ties with his mother’s religion. He has his own digs-nearly three thousand acres’ worth. By 1990, he has signed the most lucrative recording contract in history. In many crucial ways, I think that what we start to witness of Michael during this phase is akin to a kind of late blooming of adolescence. His behavior during this period was on a par with what we usually see in much younger performers who have suddenly acquired wealth, fame, and power. (Think Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus, maybe right before their behavior became so scandalous, or the excesses of most rock stars who usually acquire their fame in their early to mid twenties). Michael was nearly thirty by this point, and although he was certainly not new to wealth or fame, his life as a child star and as a member of a successful family group meant that until that point, he had known little in the way of actual independence. The song that baby sister Janet sang-”Control”-could have just as easily been Michael’s new theme song as well. This created a heady brew, and I think it would be naive to assume that this had no impact or bearing on him at all. Indeed, it must have felt quite exhilarating to finally have arrived at this pinnacle. In Michael’s case, the excesses did not so much manifest themselves in the usual pop star ways-lavish spending, parties, drugs and sex-but with the newfound freedom he had to fully explore his artistic vision and the kind of myths which he wished to create. Thus, I think it is why we finally see, during this phase, the full coming to fruition of what Barbara Kaufmann so aptly described as his belief in “Kid Power” and its ability to bring about world change. From that point forward, freed from the last vestiges of his Jackson family fame, he sought to “make himself over” in his new image. From this point forward, everything would be larger-than-life, bigger, better, and bolder. So one can imagine that if part of his modus operandi was to bring to light the idea of “Kid Power” and its possibilities, he was going to make it the loudest and boldest statement possible. We certainly can’t say Michael ever did anything halfway.
I stated that I know exactly how the haters and objective critics will spin this, as they have already done, over and over. They like to portray a much more sinister and Machiavellian view of Michael during this late 80′s/early 90′s phase, as someone who was simply growing bolder and bolder in “flaunting” his “perversions” to the world. And in some ways, the very scenario I have depicted-of Michael as a young, newly emancipated and powerful man who was finally free to indulge his every whim, both personally, professionally and creatively-is one that would certainly not appear, on the surface, at least, to completely contradict that view. But in the end, a lot of it simply comes down to whether one wants to look at it from a pure minded view, or a jaded and cynical one. I am convinced that the only thing Michael was guilty of “flaunting” was, perhaps, a very big ego coupled with a naive belief that he could actually “dare to be different” and go against the norm of societal expectations without expecting that there were bound to be some consequence; some form of backlash.
This Pepsi ad from 1988 featuring Jimmy Safechuck (which ironically at the time was my favorite of all Michael’s Pepsi commercials) played on the idea of Michael as a hero that every kid in the 80′s wanted to emulate:
Michael was genuinely beloved by kids everywhere (and still is today!). One only has to look at all the thousands of kids who are still constantly imitating his moves and dressing like him; or the joy on their faces when they hear his music or watch Thriller. Michael capitalized on that love in a way that was, by turns, both calculated and genuine, as a means of fulfilling his “Kid Power” vision. But also, I think kids sensed in him that he was not phony; that he genuinely loved THEM as much as they loved him. Or as Michael himself would say, “I love you more.” It was always (and still is) a reciprocal relationship that children all over the world connected and responded to.
Kids Adored Him Then. They Still Do Today!
Unfortunately, we live in a jaded world where, too often, we have seen many of our most beloved children’s heroes and mentors tainted by scandal, from “Pee Wee Herman” getting caught masturbating in an adult theater to the more recent posthumous allegations against Jimmy Saville. In the aftermath of so many actual cases where popular children’s idols have proven to be pedophiles or perverted in other ways (since I used the Pee Wee Herman example) , the cynicism and skepticism becomes easier to understand. Additionally, we have to understand that many know only the broadest and most distorted view of how Michael’s relationships with children have been portrayed. This most recent media smear campaign, unfortunately, will do little to alleviate this misunderstanding, and is only serving to further muddy the waters-quite literally, I might add. However, if it’s any comfort, I do believe that a lot of fans are needlessly overreacting to it. Not surprisingly, we pay more attention to this stuff than the average person because, for obvious reasons, it matters more to us. And, weirdly enough, there is another group at the opposite end of the spectrum whom it matters to as well- the haters. But beyond the tabloids and Hollywood gossip sites, I haven’t seen that much interest generated by these latest allegations. It’s not on the front page of CNN news; it’s not trending on Twitter; Nancy Grace isn’t shouting about it. Granted, that may change IF Robson and Safechuck are allowed to move forward with a trial, but right now, this is just a lot of hot air hooey and a lot of chest puffing designed to bluff the estate and make them sweat a bit before the hearings-and perhaps, as a bit of a macabre side note, to make the fan base squirm as well. But keep in mind no amount of publicity and no amount of campaigning their case to the media will have any bearing on the due process of law. The court, ultimately, will be the one that determines if they actually have enough grounds to proceed. But as I’ve said before, the stakes of this trial are going to have relatively little interest for the media aside from whatever salacious details can be gleaned from it. Civil trials, in general, are less interesting than criminal ones, and in this case the accused is already dead, so it’s not like there is going to be the guaranteed ratings bonanza of a possible conviction (this, more than anything, was what generated so much interest in the 2005 trial). Both the AEG trial and even the Conrad Murray death trial barely registered with the public, although both were reported. However, I guarantee that you will be hard pressed to find anyone other than the hardcore fans who could actually tell you anything that came out of either trial. I still find people every day who never even realized that Murray was convicted! Those trials, too, promised lots of salacious details about Michael’s personal life (though, granted, I think any accusation of child sex abuse concerning him will always generate more media coverage than the tragic details of his demise). All the same, however, the stakes simply aren’t as high. Michael Jackson is dead, so he can’t be criminally charged or convicted. Wade and Jimmy are grown-ass men, not little boys, and while there may be some professed sympathy from the pseudo “victim support” faction (most of which I suspect are phony in their case, anyway) it’s simply not the same as when the case involves someone who is still a child, and thus still vulnerable.
Moreover, not only are Wade and Jimmy grown-ass men, but it is well known that they are grown-ass men who gave sworn testimony that they were never abused, and did so freely of their own accord AS adults. And please, spare me all the arguments of Stockholm syndrome, etc. I am very well versed in the psychology of child abuse victims. I am very well aware that the Stockholm syndrome exists (although in this case I call bullshit on it) but all of that is beside the point. I am talking about how it looks from a legal standpoint, as well as how it has deflected much of the public sympathy that these two might have had. From what I can see, none of this (at least so far) has made any dent on the Michael Jackson brand, which is a far cry from how the public reacted in 2005. Xscape is still selling as well as ever; the Immortal shows are still packing them in every night, and just this week, So You Think You Can Dance? (a show that Wade Robson has strong affiliations with) announced a Michael Jackson themed show that will serve as the official launching premier of the new single A Place With No Name. As some have already been quick to point out, if this isn’t a snub directly in Wade’s face, I don’t know what is.
Even though it is the haters’ greatest wish, and the goal of this current conspiracy, all attempts to turn Michael Jackson into the “next Jimmy Saville” or the “next Jerry Sandusky” or to even remotely paint him into that corner have so far proven futile. He remains a beloved performer whose fan base and legacy continues to grow rather than diminish, and for whom the loyalty and resolve of those who love him only seems to strengthen with every adversity. Overall, there seems to be a general consensus among the public that Michael Jackson the man is gone, and that his life (however he lived it) and his legacy (however he made it) has been done. Most are content at this point to enjoy what he left us, and to leave whatever sins he may have committed on this earth to God’s judgement. What I have seen overall is a general jadedness and even disgust with what Wade and Jimmy are trying to do-from average citizens to celebrities, most are saying, “Enough already.”
The General Consensus Of The Public, Now That He Is Gone, Seems To Be: Let’s Just Be Content To Enjoy What He Left Us. Anything Beyond That Is In God’s Hands Now.
But to get back to the question of why no allegations before 1993, it’s more a case of the fact that there was no high profile interest in such incidents prior to the 1990′s. Diane Dimond and others have hinted at vague and unproven pre-1990 incidents, such as the one Dimond recounts in her 2005 book Be Careful Who You Love of a Mexican gardener for the Jacksons who allegedly had two sons and to whom Michael allegedly wrote a substantial check (which Diane claims enabled the family to move back to Mexico). All of this information came from a typically unnamed source-”The Mormon”-who had supposedly gone to the FBI with the information. The FBI followed through, but there was simply nothing to go on, and the investigation was closed. Also, Victor Guiterrez was already on his one-man mission to “out” Michael Jackson as a pedophile long before 1993-and long before Evan Chandler came into the picture. You can read more about Guiterrez and his “mission” in the links I posted to my previous series, especially Parts 4 and 5. You may also be interested to check out some of the reader comments below this post, where some of my fellow astute MJ researchers have pointed out the connection to “The Mormon” and Victor Guiterrez.
We also have to keep in mind that it was during the early 1990′s when the “witch hunt hysteria” against suspected child molestors reached its peak with the McMartin Preschool trial and other day-care cases, which even Wikipedia refers to as a “moral panic.” In this atmosphere, no one was truly safe from false accusation. No one was immune. I think what we can safely surmise from this is that a combination of unique factors-as well as a very interesting cast of characters-were already laying the groundwork that would ultimately culminate in making Michael a very vulnerable target by the time of the Chandler extortion. But it was the resultant publicity and settlement of that case which really opened the floodgates. Since that time, there have been a number of fake cases and “phantom victims” that have been concocted against Michael Jackson, either for attention or with the hope of some kind of pay out. Here are just a few of the more well known “scams” and scammers who tried to concoct phony child abuse sex cases against Michael.
Why have so many tried this? You would think they would know full well that they needed real evidence to make a case stick. But I think the answer is in the unique reality of the Michael Jackson cases. Partly because of Michael’s reputation, and the all too eager participation of the media in helping to create that reputation-it became easy to make a gullible public believe most anything about Michael Jackson. You can see for yourself how in the case of the Canadian ring (the first video) that Diane Dimond is only too ready to go the Canadian police with the bogus story, and it is only after the teenager confesses it’s a hoax that she back pedals on this plan.
Any story about him was at least guaranteed to give the perpetrator a windfall from going to the tabloids. I think most knew full well that their concocted stories would never hold up under the scrutiny of a court, but there was always the hope that if they created enough stir in the media that they might exert some sort of pressure for a settlement offer. And even if not, they could still line their pockets quite handsomely just from the tabloids and TV appearances alone. In other words, it didn’t take long for a kind of black market to spring up around the idea of accusing Michael Jackson-of anything. The tragedy is that death hasn’t stopped it. In fact, due to the lack of protection against defamation for the dead, it has actually increased. After all, Michael Jackson cannot answer any charges made against him now. He cannot defend himself.
Just Ask Kenya How Much Michael Jackson Loved Having Poop On His Floor!
Case in point: Just this week, claims surfaced from three conveniently unnamed maids who supposedly worked at Neverland in the 90′s, There was no point whatsoever to the article except to claim that Michael’s house was filthy, and to add the obligatory bizarre streak, often smeared with feces (?) and that he, apparently, pissed whereever the urge hit. Granted, NONE of this had anything whatsoever to do with the allegations of Wade and Jimmy, yet it doesn’t take much brain wattage to conclude that it’s all either a very calculated part of the plan or, at least, a case of shit feeding off of shit (pun fully intended). These smear campaigns tend to snowball and take on a life of their own once they get started. And even when you have stories like this which have nothing to do with the allegations, they are nevertheless obviously intended to paint a picture of the individual-in this case, reinforcing the idea of abnormality and “freakishness”. In turn, such stories create a perception of the person in the public consciousness. “Gee, this guy was so weird I wouldn’t put anything past him.”
Anyway, why I bring this up now is because not only has at least one Neverland maid stepped forward to refute this ridiculous story, but also has confirmed (again!) a fact that I have heard over and over from Michael’s friends and those who knew him, that all at various times have been offered large sums of money to dish dirt.
The fact is, even if Michael wasa slob (and yes, I have seen the pics of the Carolwood bathroom as well as the piles of junk he hoarded at Neverland), my reaction has always been, So what? I mean, what are we supposed to take from that? Last time I checked, it wasn’t a crime. (And besides, if these women were hired as maids, wasn’t it supposed to be their damned job to clean up the mess? I mean, seriously, how could Neverland be so filthy if the maids were doing their job? Michael must have had a knack for hiring some of the laziest employees in the business!). These stories, obviously, are not meant to serve any purpose except as a kind of embarrassment to the subject. As we have discussed previously in comments exchanged on this blog, the titillation is in the thrill of “outting” someone’s “secrets.” That is what the celebrity gossip industry thrives on.
Adding in the needlessly scatalogical elements and the idea of someone urinating openly in their own home was purely for shock value, to put him on a par with a wild animal or something sub human. What person in their right mind is going to urinate in the very space that they live and breathe in? Not to mention, the “poop” stories are absolutely absurd and we have proof of that in the bodyguards’ book Remember The Time. Memory jog: When did Whitfield and Beard say was the only time they ever really saw Michael furious with Prince? Hmmm? Yep, that’s right-when he stepped in the “gift” left by Kenya (the children’s Lab) on the garage floor. Prince not only received a very severe verbal dressing down, but was ordered to clean up the mess and thereafter, was a lot more vigilant about his responsibilities. This certainly doesn’t sound like the reaction of someone who “loved” poop so much that he kept his own house smeared with it.
Anyway, enough of that bs and I would not even find such a story worth mentioning except for the fact that it highlights exactly what I’m talking about here. Like I said, such stories may not be as bad as tales of anal rape, but they all to some degree serve their collective purpose, if enough of them keep piling on.
Fans have no legal recourse, and it is left mostly to his estate and family to pick up the slack-and, quite frankly, I don’t think either have done a stellar job on that front. (Just keeping it real here). To his credit, Taj Jackson has recently launched a Twitter attack against the tabloids, but it would be nice if more of them would speak up-that is, to speak up and truly defend, not just to give the same weak responses they always do. But what are some other factors that have made Michael Jackson, in particular, so vulnerable to these accusations?
There has grown up around Michael a myth of someone who was, at the very least, a “boy lover” (a term often reserved for homosexual men with a predilection for very young boys, which may or may not necessarily be sexual in nature, but does usually denote a connotation of desired intimacy). On the surface, it is certainly easy to understand how and why this myth has taken hold. Michael certainly always “seemed” to have the company of a lot of young male friends around-and all of the accusers have been male. But I’m going to propose something here quite shocking. Michael had no sexual interest in boys. Period. In fact, that was the very reason he made sure-especially in public settings-that it was boys he was seen with, and not girls (though media manipulation has had a lot to do with this perception through the years as well-just look at how many photos you see where the boys’ sisters and mothers, etc., have been cropped out of the pics so as to make it look as though it is only Michael and the boy!).
A great and well known example of a photo that has often been manipulated by the media. The full shot shows Michael carrying Lily Chandler in his arms, with Jordan walking beside them. But media outlets almost always chop the pic so that it looks as if it is only of him and Jordan!
If anything, Michael used the boys as a smokescreen. Why? Because he preferred the myth he was creating as the innocent and magical Pied Piper to the typical, pop star “horn dog” image, and because-in what has to be one of the great ironies of history-he felt safer and less apt to be judged in their company. As I have said before, Michael was from the old school era which had taught him that an adult male’s place-if he was going to be in the company of kids-was with kids of the same gender. He would have considered it far more improper to have girls sleeping in his room, or traveling with him-even though they often did in the company of their brothers and parents. However, we have to remember that Michael was raised in an era long before the current politically correct standard, in which same sex adults sharing a room with a child could still be viewed as inappropriate. Case in point: When I was a little girl, I thought nothing of being in the bathroom with my mother or grandmother as they bathed, or in the bedroom with them as they dressed. That was normal and natural. But it would have certainly felt very abnormal and weird to be in the bathroom with my father or grandfather, or to be in the bedroom with them when they dressed. Wade’s sister Chantal Robinson said-in her own words, coming from her own mouth-that she felt “uncomfortable” sharing a bed with Michael and that was why she discontinued staying in his room. She was never at any time asked or ordered to leave, but the general consensus from all parties seemed to be that it was not the proper place for a female child.
The truth is that the displays of affection that Michael lavished on these boys-and which even now, questionable “witnesses” are attempting to use against him-was the kind of affection that he lavished equally on children of both sexes. Here is an obvious example, with this video footage that recently surfaced of Michael and Sage Romero: I have seen video footage where it may appear, on first glance, that Michael’s displays of affection may seem a bit “excessive” by most peoples’ standards-he definitely believed in giving hugs and kisses!-but Michael also said that he would never deny any child what he himself had been so denied growing up. Physical but innocent affection-hugs and kisses-were what he most longed for from his own father. Yet I think these displays of affection are what many sick minds have tried to twist into something more-if the price or incentive was right. It doesn’t take much connecting of the dots to figure, for example, how people like the Quindoys- upon perhaps witnessing an innocent hug given by Michael to Macaulay Culkin-managed to transform that hug into a “groping” outside the pants and then-as the dollar price for their story increased-quickly became a case of groping “inside” the pants. And I’ve always suspected that the alleged nonsense over his “head licking” of Gavin Arvizo probably stemmed from some stupid jerk who witnessed nothing more than an affectionate kiss on the head (a gesture Michael was prone to do, including with his own kids).
Michael essentially had two distinctly different modes when he was around kids, depending on their age. Unfortunately, both have been used against him for the wrong reasons, without any serious attempt to put either in their proper context, and often in the process creating contradictions that even the accusers and haters trip all over themselves trying to keep straight. I mean, really, was he encouraging young boys to hate girls, or actively encouraging them to get turned on by watching them perform explicit sexual acts? It can’t work both ways, although I think I can shed some light on how/why some of these myths have taken hold. One myth that has grown up around Michael is the idea that he despised girls and encouraged small boys to feel likewise. Yet this is not borne out by any actual footage or evidence that we see of Michael interacting with kids at Neverland (granted, what we see is usually what Michael wanted us to see-I will go ahead and beat the haters to that punch!-but there are also far more logical reasons to debunk this nonsense). Where a lot of this myth originated-and has continued to be perpetuated over and over as part of the haters’ propaganda-is from an alleged list of “six wishes” that Michael reportedly told Jordan Chandler to repeat every day. Well, this “list” originated from Victor Guiterrez’s fantasy novel “Michael Jackson Was My Lover” (so that fact alone should tell you of its credibility) I have yet to actually see a produced copy of this “list”; however, I tend to believe the mantra probably did exist, as its wording and phrasing is very similar to words and phrases Michael tended to use-but obviously, in Guiterrez’s hands, they became twisted completely out of context:
“NO wenches, bitches, heifers or hoes (whores). NEVER give up your “bliss” (sex acts). LIVE with me in Neverland forever. NO conditioning. NEVER grow up. BE better than best friends forever (lovers)”-Excerpted from Michael Jackson Was My Lover by Victor Guiterrez.
I left the above passage completely unaltered from Guiterrez’s version for a reason, so that you can see just how he manipulated the meaning and intent of the tenets within the context of a dirty, perverted mind. Everything in parenthesis from that passage are HIS words and additions (not Michael’s).
First of all, Michael most emphatically did NOT use the word “bliss” as a code word for something sexual. He meant it exactly in the same context that he wrote in his poem “Are You Listening?” from Dancing The Dream:
Are You Listening ?
Who am I?
Who are you?
Where did we come from?
Where are we going?
Whats it all about?
Do you have the answers?
Immortalitys my game
From Bliss I came
In Bliss I am sustained
To Bliss I return
If you dont know it now
Its a shame
Are you listening?
This body of mine
Is a flux of energy
In the river of time
Eons pass, ages come and go
I appear and disappear
In the twinkling of an eye
I am the particle
I am the wave
Whirling at lightning speed
I am the fluctuation
That takes the lead
I am the Prince
I am the Knave
I am the doing
That is the deed
I am the galaxy, the void of space
In the Milky Way
I am the craze
I am the thinker, the thinking, the thought
I am the seeker, the seeking, the sought
I am the dewdrop, the sunshine, the storm
I am the phenomenon, the field, the form
I am the desert, the ocean, the sky
I am the Primeval Self
In you and I
Pure unbounded consciousness
Truth, existence, Bliss am I
In infinite expressions I come and go
In the twinkling of an eye
But immortalitys my game
Ever the same
From Bliss I came
In Bliss I am sustained
Join me in my dance
Please join me now
If you forget yourself
Youll never know how
This game is played
In the ocean bed of Eternity
Stop this agony of wishing
Play it out
Dont think, dont hesitate
Curving back within yourself
Just create just create
Immortality’s my game
From Bliss I came
In Bliss Im sustained
To Bliss I return
If you dont know it now
Its a shame Are you listening?
This reference to bliss is clearly in the theological sense of the word, as a biblical “place” or state of being (usually defined as “Heaven” and associated with the joys of the biblical Heaven) but, as has been well documented on this site and from many other great sources on Michael-both scholarly and popular-Michael redefined his personal definition of “Bliss” after his break from the strict doctrines of the Jehovah’s Witness faith to a more immanent view that included the (for him) revelatory belief that “Bliss: could exist on earth, in the here and now. It did not have to be some abstract concept, dependent upon some idea of an abstract place and an abstract God. This could be interpreted a number of ways in the tenet, but its most likely definition-given that Michael was addressing it to a child-was to not give up on what makes you happy. Keep to your dreams.
To even attempt to twist such an idea into something sexual is in itself the height of perversity. Additionally, there is no proof that the tenet “Be better than best friends forever” is meant to be construed as “being lovers.” Really, it carries no deeper meaning than two boys cutting their palms so that they can become “blood brothers.”
But what I really want to focus on-because it has been so conveniently used by haters to “prove” their agenda of Michael as a boy lover who hated girls-is the first tenet.
As I’ve said, Michael was able to compartmentalize his child empathy to fit the mental and physical ages of the children he was around. When he was around a group of kids aged 7-12 or so, he could easily be one of the “Lost Boys.” What are boys of that age group, before the hormones of puberty hit, largely interested in? Well, they are interested in sports and video games, “snails and puppy dog tails,” etc as the old saying goes but the one thing they most definitely are NOT interested in is girls. This is the height of the “girls have cooties” stage, and it is simply one of the rites of passage of boyhood. Does anyone remember Dennis The Menace, and how he hated Margaret (for no good reason except she was a “creepy girl” and “icky?”). This was an idea that was epitomized by Our Gang (The Little Rascals) in the film, “The He-Man Woman Haters’ Club” in which Spanky and Alfalfa form a club where no girls are allowed. Of course, the plot hinged on the fact that Alfalfa would be tempted by the “seductress” Darla Hood into betraying his fellow club members. To her credit, even our nemesis Desiree from the “Desiree Speaks” blog recognized and had to concede this connection.
I don’t necessarily condone referring to women as “wenches, bitches, heifers and hos” but if one looks at the tenet in context, it is really nothing more than a variant on the idea of the “He-Man Woman Haters’ Club” and a reference to this very innocent phase of boyhood, something that Michael would have understood implicitly. It could also be a kind of way of advising, “Don’t let any girl bring you down” because, usually, the most crushing thing any adolescent boy can endure is that first heartbreak inflicted by a girl.
My bottom line: This is NOT some proof that Michael had an agenda to turn boys against girls. If anything, it only shows that he understood how little boys think. It’s an age of innocence that passes all too quickly, never to return again. Michael understood that.
YET here is where it gets complicated. Often, the very same accusers (and haters) who try to claim that Michael’s modus operandi was to turn them against girls are, ironically, the same ones who will claim that Michael used straight pornography to entice them. There are stories after stories of him making crude jokes about girls in front of the boys and things of that nature. But we can see already how this paints a very contradictory picture. Did he want them to hate girls, or did he want them to be turned on by women so that he could get some perverse, vicarious pleasure from it? They seem to want it both ways, but it doesn’t work that way.
I have said that Michael was able to compartmentalize his relationships with children. Michael had many very young friends, but his method of conduct around them was very different from the way he interacted with older, adolescent boys (aged 13 and up). What I am about to say may be controversial, and it may offend some. For that, I will apologize in advance. But I have never held to the belief that Michael was some kind of saint, or anything more or less than a flawed human being, even if albeit a very talented human being with many wonderful qualities. But bear in mind, that doesn’t make him a saint. And I have said before that part of exonerating Michael as a criminal may mean accepting certain human flaws that, while they may paint his character in a less than pristine light, may be necessary in order to understand why he was NOT a criminal. If that makes sense. Bear with me.
It’s no secret that Michael kept a lot of pornography. A lot. The trial pretty much made that fact open record, so there is no point in being shy about it. Don’t get me wrong, I feel genuinely embarrassed for Michael that this stuff was ever made public record, and yes, I feel a sense of shame that I know far more about this very private aspect of Michael’s life than I should. But the pornography that was found-while excessive- was all heterosexual and legal adult pornography. I don’t judge Michael for having these items. He was an adult, after all. Nor do I buy the favorite hater line that this porn collection somehow perverted the idea of Neverland as a “kid friendly place.” Yes, it was, and Michael clearly kept those boundaries. But it was also his private home. Just because he loved the magic of childhood innocence-and wanted to give children a place where they could experience that-didn’t mean that he didn’t have adult drives that he was perfectly free to entertain in the privacy of his own quarters.
Since at least three accusers have now tried to claim that Michael showed them pornography as part of the “grooming process” this bears looking into. Among Gavin Arvizo’s claims was that Michael showed him a magazine (although when questioned under oath, he identified it as a magazine that had not even been published when the alleged incident took place!) and that Michael made a crude sexual joke with a mannequin (basically, emulating the sex act by humping it).
I will set something straight for the record. I don’t believe that Michael ever showed pornography to the younger kids, but what about the teenagers? Those who were already well past adolescence? Could it be that Michael’s desire to be “one of the boys” caused some exercises in poor judgment? Even if he never showed it to them but bragged about having it (as in keeping with the adolescent mindset) this could have led curious youngsters to snoop into his room and private stash, as happened with Gavin and Star Arvizo when they were caught by Michael’s nephew Rijo masturbating to porn in Michael’s bedroom (for the record, Michael himself was not present when this incident occurred).
But one thing we have to understand is that Michael (and this is something I have reasonably gleamed from many private conversations with those who knew him, as well as many publicly available accounts) had a sometimes bizarre-and quite frankly adolescent-sense of humor. So, just as with any normal teenage boy, there’s a good chance that a lot of braggadocio-jokes about girls’ anatomy and references to the sexual act, etc- could have occurred. It’s the sort of thing that adolescent boys do for shits and giggles. Michael wasn’t an adolescent, of course, but it’s very likely that in his mind, he saw such behavior as just another manifestation of reliving his adolescent childhood. That Michael did joke around about girls in a sexual manner with his adolescent friends has been pretty much confirmed by Frank Cascio and others. This is what Frank wrote in his book “My Friend Michael”:
“We always tried to embarrass each other in front of women. I was shy—in many ways I still am—and knowing this, Michael would put me on the spot with women, saying, “Frank thinks you’re beautiful. He wants to kiss you.” Or we’d be standing in the back of an elevator car behind an attractive hotel maid, and I’d feel Michael subtly nudging my hand toward the girl’s butt. I’d shake him off before the girl noticed. It was juvenile—maintaining this private exchange that kept the girls at a distance. “-Frank Cascio, Excerpted From “My Friend Michael.”
Now THIS is the sort of thing I’m talking about, and it seems harmless enough. Just a couple of guys goofing off and acting silly. But my point is: Imagine Michael did this sort of thing often enough with some of his young friends (and he did). So then, let’s say down the road that this kid (now an adult) decides he wants to bring an accusation in hopes of getting some money. It doesn’t take much to construe an incident like the above into something much more graphic and sinister.
In other words, what we are really talking here has more to do with questionable AGE APPROPRIATE behavior than criminal behavior per se. But it becomes easy to see how such behavior might have made him vulnerable and eventually set him up down the road, as these young men could now twist these scenarios to use for their own advantage. If he so much as bragged about his “stash” (again, very typical adolescent boy behavior); if he revealed too much about what he liked or “how he liked it”; any of that could then be twisted out of context and used against him. I have a strong suspicion that what may be happening in the case of Wade and Jimmy (unless one subscribes to the theory that they are just out and out lying and concocting all of this from scratch) is that between their shared attorney and shared psychiatrist, they are now being convinced that anyaction Michael did; any joke that ever passed between them; any gesture; any words of affection constituted “abuse.” We have already seen at least one allegation where Safechuck has tried to make something perverted out of simply holding Michael’s hand!
I feel this is important to state even if some may take issue with any idea of wrongdoing or age inappropriate behavior on Michael’s part. But this is very consistent with the kind of behavior and sense of humor that many of his closest friends have ascribed. “Jesus Juice,” for example, is another case where Michael’s sometimes off the wall humor and creative wordplay became, ultimately, the source for misunderstanding-or deliberate misrepresentation. Michael would drink wine out of coke cans to keep children (his own as well as others) from knowing he was drinking alcohol. If they asked, he would jokingly say he was drinking “Jesus Juice” and it was not for them. We all know how that seemingly innocent line later became twisted in the media reports of the trial! Suddenly, it was no longer a secret code that Michael used to keep kids from knowing he was drinking wine; it was a sinister phrase he used to entice kids to drink it with him!
In other words, I believe that when Michael was among a bunch of adolescent boys, he tended to “think” and act like an adolescent. This may or may not excuse some of his more juvenile behavior and antics, but what we seriously have to question is: Does age inappropriate behavior necessarily equate to criminal behavior? I am talking here, of course, the distinction between telling a few off color jokes or bragging about his porn stash as opposed to actually committing a brutal sex act upon a minor-that is still a vastly huge difference.
So what exactly isthe truth behind these graphic allegations, and what is the strategic purpose behind them? More importantly, who is behind them, and why?
I will try to address all of these questions-as well as getting to the heart of the “Australian Conspiracy”-later this week.
“I Will Never, Ever Sell Neverland….It Represents The Totality Of Who I Am.”
I will resume my series on Michael’s work in relation to Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” soon, but for now, circumstances have once again intervened and required a detour. Late Wednesday, shock waves were sent throughout the fan community by a statement from the Michael Jackson estate. It is with a heavy heart that I begin this post today. First of all, here is the official statement that came late Wednesday night:
You will soon be reading news reports stating that Colony Capital has decided to sell Neverland. As the property manager, they have the right to do this. The Estate has issued the following statement in response to a media request for comment:
We are saddened at the prospect of the sale of Neverland which, under the agreement negotiated during Michael’s lifetime, Colony has the right to sell. The Estate will maintain Michael’s family home in Encino, including its iconic recording studio there. We continue to build upon Michael’s legacy as an artistic genius and humanitarian through his music and new projects such as the Michael Jackson ONE show in Las Vegas. We hope and trust that any new owners of Neverland will respect the historical importance and special nature of this wonderful property. Michael’s memory lives on in the hearts of his fans worldwide.
It is also important to the Estate that Michael’s fans understand that although the Estate has no right to stop or obstruct the sale, The Estate did explore a number of potential options for Neverland with Colony but zoning, financial and land use restrictions limited the alternatives and ultimately Colony made the decision to sell.
MJOnline The Official Online Team of The Michael Jackson Estate™
In an apparent attempt to assuage concerns and accusations that the estate had not “done enough” to preserve its stake in Neverland, another statement was released on Thursday:
MJ Estate Additional Info- Last night, we sent you a message from the Estate regarding Colony Capital’s decision to sell Neverland. Many of you have inquired about the Estate purchasing Neverland. As you know, the Estate does not disclose the details of its business dealings but last night’s statement to the fans (not included in the comment to press) states “the Estate did explore a number of potential options for Neverland with Colony” but for the reasons stated none of those options were feasible. This sentence was included specifically for your benefit to let you know that the Estate tried to find a way to keep the sale from happening but for a variety of reasons, it was not possible. Zack O’Malley Greenburg broke the news in Forbes shortly after we sent you the Estate’s statement: http://www.forbes.com/…/michael-jacksons-neverland-is…/. He offers some further insight you might find helpful in understanding the situation. Like you, the Estate is sad and disappointed by Colony’s decision. Michael’s legacy is in his music, in his humanitarian efforts, and in his spirit. The Estate hopes that whomever the new owners may turn out to be, that they will continue to appreciate the property not only for its beauty but for its historical and cultural legacy as well. MJOnline The Official Online Team of The Michael Jackson Estate™
No sooner had the news broke, then the heated battles were waging on social media between the usual factions of estate haters vs.supporters. It all comes down to a few key questions: Just how much interest DOES the estate really have in Neverland, and are they being forthright in their claims that every feasible avenue was indeed exhausted-or is it, as some are claiming, a case of unburdening a troublesome asset that has little financial incentive or priority for them? OR is it all a big bluff? These questions are ones that are being raised everywhere at the moment, and the answers are as varied and complex as every aspect of Michael Jackson’s life. The full details of Michael’s 2008 deal with Colony Capital, which prevented foreclosure of Neverland and allowed him to maintain a stake in the property-but with the understanding that Colony Capital would maintain the full right to sell-may be best left to those with more legal expertise to unravel. For the layperson, Zach O’Malley Greenburg’s article, linked to in the above statement, may be a good place to start but it still leaves many questions as to whose interests are being best served. And perhaps it is a legal web I will best leave for those who have, as I said, more expertise with which to unravel it. What is known with certainty is that Michael Jackson, contrary to popular myth, never “gave up” Neverland. True, he never had a desire to live there again after the 2003 raids and the trial, although it has been said that he was also acting on the advice of his attorney Tom Mesereau who had warned him that he would never be able to live there again even if he wanted to; that Sneddon and company would continue their mission to drive him out.
But the truth is that even though Michael Jackson never again physically lived at Neverland after 2005, he never gave it up, either. Rather, he fought valiantly to keep it-or at least, to maintain some measure of control over it on paper-just as he fought throughout the last years of his life to maintain all of his valuable assets. He could have easily sold the property in 2008, or earlier, and perhaps alleviated at least some of his financial headaches. But apparently, maintaining Neverland, and keeping it in his name, was important to him. Important enough to fight for it. What were his eventual plans for the property? We may never know for certain. It doesn’t seem likely that he ever intended on living there again. In fact, he had already set his heart-and his sights-on a luscious property in Las Vegas that he intended to purchase from the profits of This Is It and transform into his new vision-Wonderland.
Michael’s new “dream home” was said to be this Las Vegas property.He intended to purchase it from the proceedsof “This Is It”:
But Neverland had been too hard won, and as he had told us, represented the totality of who he was. Having put his whole heart and soul into Neverland, it was not something he could easily just walk away from. Perhaps it represented too much for him to be able to just give it up. The big question is: Did Michael, in his efforts to hang onto the property, get suckered into a bad deal? I have seen a lot of talk to that effect. Basically, the terms of the agreement that Michael signed to in 2008 would be what passed into the hands of the estate after his death. As much as we might fault Michael (or shoddy advice from Tohme) about signing an agreement that gave Colony Capital the right to sell at their discretion, there are still a number of factors to keep in mind. My understanding is that Michael maintained an 87.5% interest in Neverland (with Colony Capital maintaining a smaller 12. 5% interest) which, upon his passing, would have reverted to his estate. If true, this would mean that any decision to sell would have to be a mutual decision of both parties. The key, however, may be in a 2003 decision to initiate a non-renewal option on the Williamson Act, which until then had protected Neverland-just as it protects all agricultural California landowners-from massive tax liability, provided the land remains used for agricultural purposes. Under this agreement, the contract would have expired around 2013. Well, this is 2014. So maybe this IS an important piece of the puzzle that makes good sense. You can read more about Neverland and the Williamson Act here:
The irony is that when the above blog post was written, in 2012, there was much optimism that the estate would reapply for the Williamson Act when it expired. Apparently, however, upon the contract’s expiration, the decision was made not to reapply. If we go back to why Michael ever agreed to tie this asset up with Colony Capital in the first place-especially under the terms that he did-we have to remember that dying and leaving it all behind for others to unravel probably wasn’t exactly in his plan. Tom Barrack supposedly said to him when the idea was proposed, “Don’t have me do this…unless you’re really interested in building a program going forward to create some revenue for yourself.”
Message Of Welcome Carved By Michael
Michael obviously had high hopes-right up to the very last-that he could generate the revenue again to somehow make everything turn out all right. At the very least, he probably looked at Neverland as an asset that would benefit his children one day. But it is also possible that he was thinking about the potential revenue he could generate for himself, in his own lifetime, by maintaining control of this asset. Even if Michael never set foot on the property again, he could still generate a sizeable yearly income just from leasing it-a practice he had actually been doing, under the radar, for years. Here is a video clip where he discusses (besides Marc Schaffel) the leasing of Neverland property to local cattle farmers:
There are some reports claiming that Michael understood, from the get go, that the intent was to ultimately sell, but that with an estimated $70 to $80 million to be gleaned from such a sale after renovations and increased property values, it would have been quite a financial windfall for him-and his children. I don’t know if there is any truth to those reports, and I tend to believe Michael’s words that he would never sell Neverland. Whatever the case, Michael’s untimely death changed the game plan considerably. But what about Tom Barrack, the man who agreed to “bail” Michael out in 2008? Back in 2010, I did an in-depth post on Barrack and Neverland when an article ran in “New York” about Barrack’s partnership with Rob Lowe and the business of investing in “distressed celebrities.” Unfortunately, just as with everything I wrote prior to 2011, that post is currently inaccessible, but the “New York” article on which I based it is still available. While the article did a good job of humanizing Barrack and letting us get to know the man beneath the “gleaming” bald dome, it also left no doubt that, for Barrack, this was all part of a successful business model built on the idea of investing in “artificially depressed” celebrities and properties. The following passage is excerpted from Benjamin Wallace’s “New York” article:
Over the past two years, Barrack has been lining up deals that target celebrities and entertainment properties whose value he believes to be artificially depressed. In some cases, that’s because they haven’t yet figured out a way to monetize their assets. But mostly it’s because the investment is, in the classic sense, distressed—individuals like Jackson or Annie Leibovitz whose financial mismanagement has obscured their future revenue potential, or properties like the Miramax film library, which Disney is unloading at a time when no one can agree on what a studio archive is worth. This summer, Barrack created a new $500 million media-and-entertainment investment fund, working with his friend Rob Lowe, who is a partner in the fund. Together they have been on something of a shopping spree—and generating a little tabloid coverage while they’re at it. In one TMZ appearance, a paparazzo’s telephoto captured Lowe and Barrack, shirtless, checking their BlackBerrys on a yacht in the Mediterranean. In a second, the two men were video-ambushed as they entered the Mayfair restaurant C London for dinner with owner Giuseppe Cipriani and Formula One’s Flavio Briatore. Barrack has explained the timing of his new direction by musing publicly that some of the investment sectors in which he amassed his wealth can no longer generate extraordinary returns. The world right now is “an environment that has very little visibility, and whatever you guess will surely be wrong the next day,” he says, glancing at his BlackBerry. “Everybody has been abjectly wrong if they’re trying to make macro bets.” The only thing to do is position yourself for opportunities—stand in the stream and wait for fish to swim between your legs. That’s how the Neverland—(At this point in the conversation, Barrack was interrupted by the arrival of his partner Rob Lowe).
I suppose there are two ways one could look at Barrack’s practice. Some might call it savvy business dealing (and after all, isn’t taking advantage of opportunity part of every successful business model?). However, it could also be viewed another way as well-that is, simply taking advantage. And taking advantage of someone who has fallen onto hardship-however temporarily–is certainly not the most ethical practice in the world. In Wallace’s piece, it isn’t exactly made secret that Barrack’s modus operandi is to take advantage of distressed situations with an eye towards the profit they will eventually turn. It doesn’t make Barrack a crook, necessarily, but the point is that just because something is legal doesn’t make it ethical. The tragedy is that Michael-and Neverland-was ever put into such a vulnerable position to begin with, and for that, the real blame must go all the way back to Tom Sneddon. Today, the property for which Barrack initially invested $23. 5 million is guaranteed to fetch him anywhere from $50 million on the lower end of the spectrum, to $70-$80 million on its highest end. That should be good for at least an additional yacht or two to sail on the Mediterranian. The upside of the situation is that a sale on the higher end will probably guarantee Michael’s kids at least a $20 to $30 million windfall, once Colony Capital takes their end. But as some sources have reported, a sale on the lower end could possibly mean they end up with nothing. However, this is not really an issue of what will line the children’s pockets. Michael’s children are already wealthy. It’s an issue of losing something that may be far more valuable to them than money-their link to their childhood and that magical, wonderful kingdom he created. But there is another reason why Neverland may hold special sentimental value for them. It was much more than just their childhood home. It was the only permanent home they ever shared with their father. It was the last place they could ever truly call “home.” The tragedy for the fans in the loss of Neverland is nothing compared to the tragedy this must be for them. Perhaps, again, not so much for what it is-or was-as for what it represents. Had Michael lived, they might have been content to move on, because any home they eventually made with him-whether it be “Wonderland” or elsewhere-would have been “home.” But as it stands, Neverland has probably loomed large in their imaginations as a connection to a time and place when life was much more innocent, fun, and happier-and, of course, magical. But the subtitle of this post is: What does this mean for us? And that is where I would truly like to focus. Several months ago, someone kindly sent me two leaves from Neverland. I assume they must have come from a tree on the property. I sat for quite some time before beginning this piece, inhaling their woodsy fragrance and hoping to draw from their essence the inspiration on how to even begin to assess how I feel about this news. I try to look at it from all angles; to keep my balance in perspective, but I cannot overcome the empty sadness.
Even though we know that “Neverland,” as such, really died in 2003, and has stood mostly as an empty, abandoned shell since 2005, there was still the comfort of knowing it was “there”; that it was still a part of Michael, still in his name, and that any time one felt up to making the pilgrimage to the gates, they would still be there (for me, this has been on my “bucket list” for over five years). As long as the property remained in limbo, there was always the hope that something good might come of it. There had been talk of many proposed projects and ideas-a museum, a Graceland-like mecca for fans, a state park, an art school for teens, even a children’s hospital (though I don’t know how seriously the latter was ever really proposed). In the end, as we have been told over and over, none of these ideas have proven “feasible” given the reality of Neverland’s zoning and geographic location. “Los Olivas isn’t exactly Memphis,” Zach O’Malley Greenburg has stated, and he’s right. Graceland is situated in a wonderfully convenient location adjacent to the interstate, just a few miles south of downtown Memphis. It is a location that can easily accomodate the many thousands of visitors Graceland receives per year. That being said, however, there are many such rurally located tourist attractions that manage to do quite well. The D.H. Lawrence ranch in Taos, New Mexico comes to mind (and it, too, requires a trek up some very treacherous mountain roads) but I don’t think we can even begin to compare the number of average visitors to a place like the D.H. Lawrence ranch to that which would descend upon Neverland, should those gates become open to the public. But I honestly do not think most Michael Jackson fans are really concerned that the place become some huge commercial asset-in fact, most would probably prefer that it remain exactly what it is at present, even if going there must feel a bit like visiting a ghost place. That is, a quiet and tranquil place where Michael’s spiritual aura can still be felt. For most of us, that is enough. But apparently, the estate can only see the viability of hanging onto Neverland if it is generating a profit. This is what I really read between the lines of their statement. In saying every option had been exhausted, it seems what they are really saying is that every feasible option to turn Neverland into something viably commercial and profitable had been exhausted. So, in the end, I suppose, it must have come down to a choice: Either to hang onto something of great sentimental and historical value to the estate, at the cost of draining the estate’s resources, or to let it go. Apparently, they made their decision but I think it is a huge mistake. Understand that even though I’m not an estate hater, I am also not one who blindly accepts their every decision without question, and I believe those questions do need to be raised, especially when we look at the implications of what is potentially going to be lost IF this sale goes through.
They like to to tell us that the business of an estate is to generate money and to protect its assets for the heirs. It is true that an estate must make money. But they also have a responsibility for protecting and preserving the historical legacy, especially when we are talking the estate of one of the most culturally iconic performers of our time. To be sure, having Neverland sold might not exactly be the end of the world as we know it. As some have said, it may all depend, ultimately, on who buys it. Yes, it “could” end up in the hands of some very benevolent benefactor who will fully understand and respect its legacy and importance to fans-or, at least, its importance to his kids, which is really what should be our utmost concern. It would be wonderful to think that someone might buy the place who would actually consider opening it up to fans, or giving us that museum (though, no shocker, that would probably end in a lawsuit with the estate!). I even heard one very ingenious idea of turning it into a bed and breakfast establishment. I’m sure that would be a windfall for anyone, with guaranteed bookings up to ten years in advance! (And, heck, there ought to be enough guest cottages on the property to make it a perfectly feasible idea! And imagine…for an extra fee, getting Michael’s master bedroom!).
Over time, there have been rumors of many celebrities, from Justin Bieber to Lady Gaga, who have reportedly been interested in purchasing Neverland. I can’t really imagine Justin Bieber, after all of his antics, being a viable candidate (I am sure the neighbors of Los Olivas would probably be none too thrilled!) but Lady Gaga, I am sure, would at least respect the property’s connection to Michael. But while it would be wonderful to envision such a “best case” scenario, the simple truth is that we have no such guarantees. The new owners might be people who would care about and respect the property’s legacy.
But then again, they might not. What if Neverland falls into the hands of someone who could care less about Michael Jackson or his fans, and in fact, would do everything in their power to strip and dismantle all reminders of Sycamore Valley Ranch as the infamous Neverland? I am sure that, for many of us, that is our worst nightmare scenario-the idea of Neverland being taken over by some indifferent or cold hearted individual who would strip away all physical reminders and ties to “Neverland.” Even if Barrack has worked hard to restore Neverland to its “former glory” and has respected Michael’s vision, as he claims, that is no guarantee that any new owner will feel an obligation to do likewise. Imagine the beautiful flower gardens gone; the clocks taken down; the Giving Tree perhaps chopped down, and cattle grazing where the Ferris wheel once stood. Imagine those magical gates being torn down to make room for something else-a new, much colder, and more imposing barrier that says nothing. The scary thing is that we simply don’t know. The above scenario is certainly the worst case scenario, but it could happen, and there are no guarantees that it won’t. But even if Neverland is lucky and does fall into the hands of an owner who respects and values it as Michael Jackson’s home, it doesn’t change the fact that Neverland will no longer be in Michael Jackson’s name. It will no longer be under the control and protection of his estate; it will no longer belong to the family. And that, for me, is the saddest part of all. Neverland-if for nothing else, its historical value-should remain in the control of the estate. For me, it simply isn’t good enough to “hope and trust” that the new owners will respect and honor the property’s legacy. Does anyone think that Elvis Presley’s estate would simply “hope and trust” that someone would come along to take care of Graceland? Recently, a petition has begun circulating on Change.org to save Neverland. Although I am somewhat skeptical about the success of petitions, I signed it in the spirit that no turn should be left unturned. This is what I commented:
It is important that Neverland be kept within the control of the estate and of Michael’s heirs. It is much too important a part of his legacy to be turned over to other hands. Even if the future owner(s) were to honor the home’s legacy, there are no guarantees once it is passed on to the hands of others. It could end up going through countless owners, who no doubt over time will chip away until there is nothing of Michael left. The Neverland property has just as much historical value as Hayvenhurst, if not more. Michael composed many of his biggest hits on its spiritual grounds, in his beloved Given Tree. And yes, it became tainted over time but even that sad history, too, is part of the historical legacy of NL and vital for future generations to understand not only Michael’s great vision for healing children, but what he had to sacrifice and endure as well. Nothing represents the full breadth and scope of Michael’s magic, endurance, trials and tribulations like the 2700 acres of NL. Those acres are the heart of Michael; to sell it is like ripping the heart from him, more surely than the coroner’s scalpel. Consider: Michael went from a 3-room house in Gary to Neverland. There is nothing else-no other home or landmark-that physically commemorates this achievement Hayvenhurst, after all, belonged to all the Jacksons. Neverland was not only Michael’s one and only permanent home, it was his own creation.
There have been many similar “Save Neverland” campaigns and petitions started in the past. I found a few such petitions on Google, all from several years back, many with as few as a little over a hundred signatures. But now it seems there is a new sense of urgency; a sense that “this is it.” The reality is looming that Neverland could indeed really be gone forever now. This petition alone has garnered over FOUR THOUSAND signatures and counting, not to mention that many others have started up as well.
There Is A Sense Of Urgency This Time, A Sense That Neverland May Indeed Be Gone Forever
To expand further on my comment, Neverland not only stands to this day as the only permanent home that Michael Jackson ever owned, it is also the only truly physical testament to what he accomplished in going from that tiny, three room house in Gary, Indiana to a 2700 acre estate. It is, in fact, an insult to both Michael’s memory and to his accomplishments to even insinuate that Hayvenhurst is more worthy of preservation than Neverland. They should both be maintained, but again, it is Neverland that represents the “totality” of who Michael was. Over the past two days I have heard many arguments and reasons as to how we should view the potential sale and loss of Neverland. All of them have validity to some degree. Some feel that Michael set the example when he walked away from Neverland and (presumably) never looked back. And there is something to be said for the ability to just “let go.” The reality is that Neverland has sat as an abandoned shell for over six years. But although I have not been to Neverland personally, I have been told that its energy can still be felt. And I believe this very strongly, as it is part of my own Cherokee belief and my knowledge that Neverland is indeed sacred ground. It was sacred ground for thousands of years before Michael ever sat foot on it, as it was a place that Chumash Indians used for ceremonial grounds. But Michael definitely left the stamp of his own energy and presence there. Part of my personal Cherokee belief is that spirits never completely disconnect from earth or from their physical embodiment. Spirits will always maintain a connection to the places where they were happiest. If the property is taken over by someone else, it won’t take away the fact that Michael’s energy and presence is there. But over time, that energy will become diluted and dispersed, especially if it senses it is no longer welcome there. As so many have sadly noted for the past five years, one of the most tragic aspects of being a Michael Jackson fan is the fact that we have no real “center” where we can come together to feel his presence. Forest Lawn is where his body lies, but it’s not where his spirit dwells.
Where does Michael’s spirit reside, really? It is an impossible question to answer. If you are Christian, you may say he is in Heaven, or whatever is your spiritual equivalent. For most of us, we can say that he exists in our hearts, and that Neverland as a concept is something that no one can put up for sale. So if Neverland as an idea-as a place that lives in our hearts-cannot be taken away, is it worth it to fight for an empty house and a couple thousand acres of land that even Michael himself had not set foot on for years?
That may depend on personal view. I have been in a few of the same places that Michael has been. I can say I have been inside the same hotel room that he once stayed in. I sat on a bed he slept in, but other than the bragging rights of being able to say I sat on Michael Jackson’s bed, I can say it pretty much felt just like any ordinary bed. There was no “magic dust” that rolled off the sheets; no fairy dust under the pillows. I have even ridden his Ferris wheel from Neverland, and presumably sat in his favorite seat (No. 13)-at least so they told me. It was exciting, but again, having my rump on the same spot where Michael’s rump once sat still did not impart anything extraordinary or magical. It felt like any, ordinary Ferris wheel seat.
I try now to apply this same common sense logic to Neverland. It was just a house he lived in; the grounds were just grounds he once walked on. But we all know, Neverland was so much more than that. Neverland wasMichael.
The analogy I used-likening it to the moment when his heart was removed by the autopsy scalpel-may be unpleasantly graphic for some, but I stand by it. For me, that is an apt analogy as the sale of Neverland is exactly just that.
I can’t say I am totally shocked by this turn of events. I think a lot of us had seen it coming for years, but like everyone, I held out hope that eventually Neverland might be used for some good purpose that, of course, would honor Michael’s vision for it. As crass as it sounds, I always loved the idea of making it into a “Graceland” so that it would become accessible to everyone who wished to visit. But I would have been equally happy to see it become an art school or something equally productive-again, as long as it was within keeping with Michael’s original vision for the place. That could encompass a wide range, from recreational fun to spiritual healing.
I suppose the worst thing it could do would be to sit, abandoned. But there are some who say even that is not a bad thing. In the quiet stillness of its abandonment, one can still go there and find it a peaceful place to meditate, and to connect with Michael’s spirit.
Not everything can have a dollar price. I feel the estate has dropped the ball on this one. But I also have to admit that if I were pressed to ask what else should they have done-and how to offer up realistic solutions for this dilemma-I am not sure I would have those answers, either. Not without a lot of thought. I see and hear all of the well intentioned fan initiatives to “buy back Neverland.” I know such initiatives are well intentioned, but the reality is that unless a fan just happens to be a multi millionaire, it is doomed to fail. However, I just feel that selling it shouldn’t have to be that answer. And I am not consoled by reminders of saving Hayvenhurst, or the success of Michael Jackson One. New albums and Cirque du Soleil shows will come and go. They are exciting in their way. But all pale when compared to the immanence of Neverland, and what it represents. Those artificial gates in the One and Immortal shows will never compensate for the loss of the real thing.
Yes, it is possible that something good may come out of this. But it will not be the same. It is what Shakespeare meant by a “sea change.” Neverland will be transformed. In the best case scenario, we will still recognize it, and let’s hope that is the case. But the reality is that it could become something completely unrecognizable. I am reminded again of the climactic scene from Ghosts where Michael slowly disintegrates into nothingness. His legacy is not going to die, but it sometimes seems, just as with his physical remains, that much of what he left is slowly turning to dust.
Some will say it should not matter, as long as the music survives, and maybe the short films. But that is still only a part of Michael Jackson’s legacy, and maybe not even the most important part. The real essence of who Michael was-the father, the humanitarian, the man with a grand vision for himself, for the world, and its possibilities-is embodied by the grounds of Neverland.
It’s not to say we will lose the spirit and essence of Michael without Neverland. But it may be important to note that what we willlose is the closest physical representation of it that we have.
That is something worth thinking about. And yes, it should matter to all of us who care about him. No exceptions.
ETA (08/04/14): I saw this shared on Twitter last night, and found it so sickening that I wanted to also share it here (not that I enjoy sharing sickening things, that is, but sometimes they are necessary). It’s no secret that Barrack and Colony Capital have been leasing Neverland’s grounds for some time, usually for short term events such as meetings and weddings. I have not found anything that states that they are not within their legal rights to do so, as per the terms of the agreement but, if nothing else, this hits home the reality of what is happening-and will continue to happen, especially as the property goes on the market. Neverland is being invaded by people who have NO RESPECT for anything it stands for, as evidenced by the snarky comment below from a Miss Lauren Roxborough. “Happy Easter from the creepiest place on earth!” she mockingly and proudly tweeted, after being allowed privileged access onto those sacred grounds (and not just sacred because Michael lived there-Neverland has been sacred ground for thousands of years to the indigenous people of Santa Ynez Valley). It sickens me to think of disrespectful trespassers like this woman being allowed to walk the grounds of Neverland. But this may be only a hint of what the future holds for Neverland once it is gone, and no longer in the control of people who care about its legacy. I am not posting this here to stir bad feelings, or to rub salt in the wound, but rather, to show the reality of Neverland’s present and the possible reality of its future. I would rather see the gates closed permanently and the house razed to the ground than to have people like this in it.
While I am completing Part 2 of my series on Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” here is a wonderful bridging article by Didi Cheeka that touches on many of the very points raised in Part 1 of my own article, and which I will be exploring in more depth in Part 2. Some of you may recall a popular article I published here back in 2013, just after the occasion of Michael’s 4th death anniversary, by the Nigerian writer Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, titled “Michael Jackson, 4 Years Later.”
Recently, I received an email from Oris asking if I would be interested in reprinting this article from his friend Didi Cheeka. Cheeka is also a Nigerian writer who has written quite a bit on Michael but I don’t think his work has had much exposure in the U.S. and Europe.
This is an article I would have gladly reprinted anyway, but the particular timing couldn’t have been more opportune. Since my series on the Langston Hughes essay is dealing specifically with Michael’s role as a black artist, receiving Cheeka’s piece in my email was quite a timely coincidence, to say the least.
BLOOD ON THE DANCEFLOOR
Michael Jackson: The Hidden Injuries of American Entertainment by Didi Cheeka
Marx characterized the profit system as dripping from head to toe, from every pore with blood and death. The American entertainment industry drips with the blood of countless talented individuals. In the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, the mainstream bourgeois media fell over themselves in a frenzied feasting over his life without a single attempt at offering serious analysis of the processes that produced the persona.
Born in 1958 in Gary, Indiana – a working-class suburb of Chicago – Jackson, one of nine children of Joseph Jackson, a crane operator in a steel mill, began his musical career at the age of five as the lead singer of the Jackson 5. Michael’s dancing ability as well as his singing skills quickly made him the group’s leader. Jackson would later state that for many years, the stage was his real “home,” the one place he was “most comfortable.”
Of his father, Jackson told Oprah Winfrey in a 1993 interview, “I don’t know if I was his golden child or whatever, but he was very strict, very hard, very stern. … There’s been times when he’d come to see me, I’d get sick, I’d start to regurgitate.” The singer asserted that his father was demanding, and controlling, and regularly beat him. This much was confirmed by his brothers.
“Steel Mills At Night,” A Greeting Card Image Of Gary’s Steel Mills Circa 1950.
Gary, at one time, was one of the largest steel-producing centers in the world. With the end of World War II in 1945, Chicago experienced an increase in its black and Hispanic populations. Blacks and Hispanics moved into formerly white residential areas as whites moved to the rapidly growing suburbs. World War Two marked a new stage for the black struggle in America. Over 3 million blacks registered for the armed services and at least half a million served in racially segregated units in the Pacific, Europe, and Africa.
Back home the war economy drew Blacks into the northern factories, accelerating a migratory process began in the first world war, as a million Blacks left the south for the north between 1941 and 1946. This migration turned major American cities black, as whites fled to the suburbs before this black flood.
With the end of the war black America, now organized in unions, was gripped by the determination not to return to the old conditions. To stem black revolt, which was on the rise, the US administration had encouraged the growth of a small black middle class; this policy would receive further boost in the late sixties and early seventies.
But conditions in the black ghettos rapidly deteriorated, giving rise to despair, hopelessness, and rage. All these culminated in the great urban riots of 1965-8. To white America, the blacks were burning the cities, trying to turn them into the same kind of jungles their forefathers came from.
But while Watts, Newark, Detroit, and others burned, inside Motown’s music factory, insulated from the cities’ nightly flames, the henchmen of a music mogul were working round the clock hammering out what Berry Gordy himself called “bubblegum-soul.” In the words of former US Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell, it was “… A time of war, a time of political turmoil, a time of the counter-culture and domestic unrest,” and yet Motown’s product “made us smile with their freshness and their cute ‘fros. We tapped our feet, felt good watching them, and our cares left for a few minutes.” (TIME July ’09)
The group, the Jackson 5, was signed by Motown in 1968. Motown, owned by Berry Gordy, a fervent believer in “Black Capitalism”, was a beneficiary of Affirmative Action. Disguised as reform, as progress, Affirmative Action was an attempt by the American ruling class to promote a layer of blacks who having a stake in the system would promote the ideas of that system. That is to say that, Affirmative Action was an attempt by the American ruling class to cut off the black rebellion.
If Michael Owed Much Of His Success To Berry Gordy, Does This Mean He Also Owed Much Of It To Affirmative Action?
Thus, in 1971, Gordy and Marvin Gaye would clash over Gaye’s desire to record an anti-Vietnam song, “What’s Going On.” Marvin Gaye, whose cousin died in Vietnam, and whose brother had done three tours, said at the time, “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” Indeed, the black rebellion, civil rights, anti-war movements gave birth to an explosion of radical music. Curtis Mayfield recorded “Power To The People,” James Brown did “Say It Loud, I’m Black And Proud,” etc. In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry published her play A Raisin in the Sun, which was made into a motion picture in 1961, about a Black family’s challenge of Chicago’s segregation laws by moving to an all-white neighborhood. After Hansberry’s death from cancer, her husband, songwriter and music publisher Robert Nemiroff, adapted her letters, plays, and papers into the production To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1969). This compilation was published in book form that same year.
For the growing numbers of the black middle class moving ever closer towards the outlook of the American ruling class the Jackson 5 couldn’t have arrived at a more propitious time. “All record companies,” said Nina Simone, “prefer third-rate talents to true genius because they can push them around more easily, make them change their clothes or politics just to sell more records.” Of course, Jackson possessed real dancing and singing talents. But, all too often, talent is not enough.
The opening shots of the movement that would indirectly shape the trajectory of Michael Jackson’s musical and personal life was fired at least three years before his birth. The shot was fired on a day in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. On that day, Mrs Rosa Parks, a black widow in her early 50’s, refused an order to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. She was dragged off the bus and fined $10.
According to the city’s segregation laws, blacks paid at the front and then board at the back. Behind the first four rows stood the sign “WHITES ONLY.” If all these seats were taken, a white person had the right to demand that blacks in the next row gave up their seat. Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat. A boycott of the buses by blacks ensued which led to a desegregation of the buses. This victory triggered a protest movement that shook the very foundations of white supremacy in the southern states of America, as blacks rose up to challenge racist laws.
1963 was a watershed year in the black struggle. A march on Washington by 250,000 protesters forced important concessions from the state and led to the passing of a new Civil Rights Act, far wider in scope than hitherto. There were widespread arrests, beatings, injuries, death. But the rebellion continued to spread across states in the US, given an added impetus by the anti-colonial struggle sweeping across the African continent.
That same year, in June, Medgar Evans, NAACP’s moderate leader in Mississippi was murdered in front of his home. The summer of “64 was to prove a long hot one. Six blacks were murdered and 1,000 arrested, following the launching of a voter registration campaign. 30 buildings were bombed and 36 black churches burnt, and, in August of the same summer, the bodies of three freedom riders – a non-racial bus rides launched by the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) – were found in Mississipi, the two white men shot, and the black man chain-whipped and mutilated.
All across the south racist attacks was on the rise. In Granville, Louisiana, the sheriff presided over the savage beating, by racists, of the leader of the NAACP youth council. In Selma Jimmy Lee Jackson was beaten to death by policemen while trying to protect his mother. A non-violent demonstration of 2,000 protesters marched against this killing. The protesters were mercilessly beaten by state troopers.
The Violence Of Michael’s “Panther Dance,” As Has Now Been Well Documented, Was A Symbolic Representation Of The 1960′s Race Riots
Out of the growing radicalization of the black struggle, was raised the slogan of “Black Power,” which, by 1967, was to become the dominant ideology within the radical wing of the civil rights movement. Blacks were rediscovering themselves and affirming pride in their culture, their Blackness. Thus, in one of the most dramatic moments in Olympics history, at the award ceremony for the men’s 200 metres at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, American track-and-field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute as the American national anthem was being played, to protest racism in the U.S. For this Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S and expelled from the Olympic village.
It was really a time to be Black and proud – after hundreds of years of humiliation and indignity. In the words of Mckissick, one of the leaders of Core, “…we left our imposed status of Negroes and became Black men.” Blacks “…realized their full weight in society, their dignity, their beauty and power.” But, according to black historian Manning Marable, “Black Power quickly became the cornerstone of conservative forces.”
And so Richard Nixon was happy to endorse Black Power saying, in 1968 that, “ Much of the Black militant talk these days is actually in terms far closer to the doctrines of free enterprise,” and that his policies would gravitate towards “Black ownership…Black opportunity and yes, Black Power.”
In August 1965, the Watts district of Los Angeles exploded into a race riot lasting five days. The riot left 35 people – 28 of them black – dead and over 1,000 injured. Detroit followed in “67, with 47 people killed, 2,000 injured and 2,700 businesses destroyed. Across America, between 1964 and 1972, 250 people were killed in riots and 10,000 seriously injured. Even Washington was not left out. No doubt, in the eyes of racist America, the blacks were burning the cities, “the violent, lawless, savage Blacks…endlessly spawned by welfare mothers.” In 1968 protesters staged a demonstration against the Vietnam War in Chicago during the Democratic presidential convention. Daley ordered aggressive police action to quash the protest. The ensuing violence by police led to several days of rioting.
In what would be his last public speech, at a rally in Mason Temple in Memphis, King recounted that “the masses were rising up in South Africa, in Kenya and Ghana, in New York City, Atlanta, Jackson and Memphis and everywhere their cry was the same: ‘We want to be free.’ On April 4th 1968, King was shot dead on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis by a white man, James Earl Ray. As his death was announced, further rioting broke out in major U.S cities. About three years before, on Feb. 21, Malcolm X had also been assassinated.
Faced with the increasing radicalization of significant layers of the black population, the U.S. administration, alongside its strong arm tactics, stepped-up the expansion of the black middle class, creating new, relatively high paid jobs for some black workers. This thin layer quickly became integrated into the American system and broke, at critical moments, with the struggle. And so, there was a huge shift, particularly among the top layers of the movement, away from the radicalization of the civil rights movement.
By the early 70s, the earnings of the top 5% of the black labour force had increased by 32%. Between 1969 and 1977 the total number of black-owned business increased from 163,000 to 231,195 and between 1970 and 1975, twenty-four black-owned banks were established. Also, the number of blacks entering the universities increased from 75,000 in 1950 to 660,000 by 1976.
At this point, the civil rights movement was ebbing. The tiny layer of black petit-bourgeoisie, created through affirmative action and positive discrimination, having integrated itself into the American white middle class, occupied itself with making it within American capitalism and putting the radicalism of the civil rights days behind.
Writing in The Observer Review, Keith Richburg, New York bureau chief of the Washington Post said, “In the segregated America of the 1960s and early 70s, Michael Jackson was a true “crossover” artist… I started out in Catholic schools until eight grade, when my parents sent me to a private, almost all-white school in an all-white, wealthy suburb, Grosse Pointe. There were only a handful of black students at the school, and for me, in many ways, it was an alien environment. I listened to Motown and R’n’B; the kids I now went to school with were largely into hard rock. But Michael Jackson was like a bridge; everybody liked Michael. In 1972, the year we both turned 14, his song “Ben”, from the movie, became a No 1 hit.” This is a most telling statement.
From 1968 to 1971 the ranks of the antiwar movement had expanded greatly. But, by 1972, alongside the mainstream civil rights movement, organized protests against the war dwindled. Most mainstream antiwar activists had turned from demonstrations to working within the Democratic Party. The arrival of “bubble-gum soul” coincided with this moment. And the vehicle was the integrated black and white middle class. Michael was not the “bridge,” but rather a product of this integration.
As the civil rights and anti-war movements gained momentum, they triggered a cultural reflection in the works of cultural icons like The Watts Prophets, The Last Poets, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, The Beatles, etc., who gradually transformed their art from infantile love songs into complex works about a world full of political and social upheaval. These artists correctly reflected the turmoil and change that gripped their society during the 1960s. But with the ebbing of the movement, with “bubblegum soul” and the rise of Disco, the cultural movement seemed to be in the opposite direction.
In January 1970, the Jackson 5 reached No. 1 with the single “I Want You Back;” in April, with “ABC;” In June, with “The Love You Save;” and in October, with “I’ll Be There.’ All in a single year. “Because Michael I don’t think had ever dealt with an emotion that deep in just a regular normal romance,” said Jones, another product of Affirmative Action, “(And) he cried on every take. Every take we did, he cried. I left the tears on the record because it was real.” The song in question was “She’s Out Of My Life,” a song from Off The Wall about the very bad ending of a marriage, which Jones was saving for Frank Sinatra, but later did with Michael Jackson. The lyrics of the album’s first single were suggestive enough as to reportedly incur the disapproval of Michael’s mother Katherine.
But Katherine, wrote TIME’s David Von Drehle, quoting a family friend, “Knew the only way out of Gary was through Michael … One day she turned to me and said, ‘Michael is cute now, but he won’t stay that way forever. Then what do we do? They’ve got to get a record contract now.’” They did. But, “There was a park across the street from the Motown studio, and I can remember looking at those kids playing games,” Jackson wrote in his memoir, Moon Walk. “I’d just stare at them in wonder – I couldn’t imagine such freedom, such a carefree life – and I wish more than anything I had that kind of freedom, that I could walk away and be just like them.”
And what was it like inside Motown? “Wall-to-wall work,” wrote Drehle, “The house song-writers started cranking out ‘soul bubblegum,’ as Gordy called it. The arrangers and producers and sidemen pushed the boys in search of a Jackson 5 sound. There were endless hours with the Motown fashion crew, trying on wild clothes, and more hours with Gordy’s etiquette teachers. Inside the studio, there was a name for the group handling the Jacksons: ‘the Corporation.’”
“The Corporation” Would Have Been Responsible For Much Of Michael’s Early Molding
The economic crisis that hit American capitalism in the seventies, following the worldwide economic recession of 1974, triggered the movement of industries out of the big cities and devastated the living conditions of black workers. Black neighborhoods in the big cities of the most advanced capitalist country began to resemble third-world ghettos – areas of unemployment, bad schooling, drugs and crime, as “crack” (a cheap by-product from cocaine) began to overflow the streets.
But insulated as they were from the wretched conditions of these ghetto inhabitants, the creators of “bubblegum soul” pretended this horror did not exist and closed their eyes to it, serving for American capitalism a safety valve. This, I think, is the beginning of Michael Jackson’s flight from reality. “I… used to always cry from loneliness,” he told Oprah. “Beginning at what age?” Oprah asked?” Oh, very little, 8,9,” the singer replied.
Cut off from reality, the stage, its falseness and unreality, became ‘reality,’ became “home.” The “Vultures of culture,” as Public Enemy called them in one of their songs, “They like to… Profit off the soul of black folks.” Jackson was effectively transformed into a bland, desexualized money-making machine. For quite a section of the public, left without a clear leadership, politically and intellectually adrift, Jackson became the focus of popular adulation. No doubt, the combination of these – the emotional demands and financial requirements of the public and music industry, respectively – must have been very exacting. “They think they own you, they think they made you,” Jackson said of his fans in a 1982 interview to Gerri Hirshey, author of Nowhere To Run: The Story Of Soul Music.
In suburbia, where white America fled following the great urban riots that racked America, they felt their values threatened by a strange new counterculture – hippies, punks, radicals, drugs, and all that. Added to these were the burning cities of Watts, Rochester, Newark, Detroit, and even Washington. And the burning cities were black. Blacks! Violent and sexually threatening. “… I think that Honorable Members who have experience will agree that the attitude of the African towards women and sexual matters,” said B Craddock at the British House of Commons in May 1953, “is entirely different from the attitude of the general run of Europeans…”
James Brown, the godfather of soul, with his overtly sexual gyrations and lyrics must have lent credence to these – from the point of view of white America. And yet Brown, was a fervent believer in self-improvement, and the need for minority-owned businesses within American capitalism, and owned a variety of enterprises, including recording studios, radio stations, and a real estate company. Clearly, from the point of view of the American music industry, for a “crossover” artist, one that is black, to successfully crossover, s/he must be non-violent, non-radical, non-sexually threatening – and non-black. Michael Jackson will follow this to its logical conclusion.
“But Michael also had changed,” wrote Richburg, “… His hair was no longer the tight curls from Thriller – it now looked downright straight. His nose was appreciably thinner. The thick lips he had as a child were thinner, too. The round face was more gaunt. And his skin tone had become several shades lighter, to almost a ghostly pale. Jackson later explained that his color change was the result of a rare skin disease known as vitiligo… And even if the skin disease was legitimate, it didn’t explain the nose, the hair, the lips.”
In Black or White, as if in a cry of protest, the child rappers defiantly sang: “I’m not going to spend my life being a color!” And Jackson answered, “If you’re thinking of being my brother, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.” But it must have mattered to somebody. Actually, it became really noticeable with Thriller. In the videos Michael’s Afro had gone, in its place a straightened hair, a kind of relaxed perm. Physically, he had started to change, too.
Didi Cheeka is a Marxist critic, writer and filmmaker
My Follow-Up Commentary:
In regards to the quote from Richburg, and Cheeka’s own commentary, I wish to interject some of my own rebuttal here. Although I understand perfectly the point that is being made (it is one we cannot entirely escape or dodge if this topic is to be discussed with any degree of honesty) some of these points bear further scrutiny. I do not, for example, agree that Michael was trying to present a “less black” image simply because his curls became more relaxed. Michael maintained a curly look throughout most of his career (only occasionally in the 90′s opting for a more wavy look) but it was not until the 2000′s-his last decade-that he started to go with a predominantly straight look. However, these are cosmetic choices that I think are pretty much irrelevant as far as racial identity.
If Fan Polls Are Any Indication, This Was By Far Michael’s Most Popular “Look”-The Long Curls Of The Bad And Dangerous Eras.
I work with African-American students every day. It is not at all unusual for a student-male or female-to change hairstyles two to three times within a single week, especially what with all the options available today-wigs, hairpieces, weaves, extensions, etc-to make such instant changes possible. A student might easily have dreadlocks for a week, and the next week a trim flat top. A girl who had smooth, short hair a few days ago might suddenly appear in class with long, luscious curls cascading down her back. Many of the students are quite fashion conscious, and the desire to change and experiment with many different looks seems to be something they highly value. To some extent, it is also very much a “youth thing,” of course, but even among teens and young adults, I do not see this sort of thing nearly as much with my white students. The girls may be very fashion conscious, for example, but they will usually stick with one chosen hairstyle and color for at least a semester. So, if anything, it would seem that Michael’s embracing of his ability to change looks at a whim would only serve to affirm his black identity, if anything. And, as an entertainer, it was even more critical that his look and image continue to evolve. According to Quincy Jones, the decision to “toughen up” his image for the Bad album was a very calculated one, and with every subsequent album thereafter, we see Michael re-molding his image and look to suit the new album’s concept. Today, this sort of “chameleon effect” is not only standard for most major artists, but even expected. Michael may have simply been ahead of his time in somewhat pioneering this trend (just as Madonna did for white female performers). Many critics often point to Michael’s ditching of the Afro as the critical moment when his “black identity” began to shift, but that, too, is an absurd notion. The Afro was no longer in vogue in the 80′s. What did Michael have to gain by holding onto a look that was no longer current? (However, it is not at all unusual today to see many Afros popping up on college campuses; as with all fashion trends, everything that goes around, comes around eventually). Perhaps this sentiment has everything to do with the political statement that was initially behind the Afro’s rise in popularity in the 60′s and 70′s, and the Afros’s association with the Black Power Movement. But by the 80′s I don’t know of too many black performers, if any, who were continuing to wear them. Michael’s jheri curl was a logical step in his evolving transition, as he sought a more mature look and to create a new, adult entity that was separate from his childhood stardom and identity with The Jackson 5/Jacksons era.
I am also not entirely sure how having a more gaunt face equates to loss of racial identity. Aren’t blacks free to gain and lose weight just like everyone else? Michael explained over and over that these changes had everything to do with his change in diet. As he developed a leaner physique, his face naturally followed suit. I suppose the assumption is that even the change in his facial shape must have somehow been equated with a desire to look “more white.” I don’t get the logic of it, but such is the perplexity of the riddle we are dealing with.
But, nevertheless, small points of disagreement aside, it can’t be denied that Michael’s physical appearance did change drastically over the course of the 80′s, leaving an entire generation of his black fanbase in a bit of confusion. Keep in mind that the official explanation of vitiligo did not come about until after several years of speculation as to the cause and reasons for his lightening skin. And even if we say it’s ludicrous, many did believe that his cosmetic choices reflected a desire to look more Caucasion. It didn’t seem to matter how much or how vehemently he denied it. Humans are terribly skeptical by nature, and the media has only served to intensify that skepticism.
But it also brings up another interesting argument. Shouldn’t these kinds of aesthetic and cosmetic decisions be a matter of personal and individual choice? At what point-what arbitrary line- do they cease to be merely cosmetic or vanity decisions, and become, instead, justifiable reasons to question one’s racial identity and loyalty? And who, exactly, draws that line? And by what right?
However, shifting gears from the issue of appearance, Cheeka does establish quite clearly both Michael’s importance as a “product of integration” between blacks and whites at a crucial time in history-when the world was ripe for a black star of Michael’s magnitude. But the cost for Michael, in personal terms, meant a certain adherence to the music industry code for black performers (even if it was a subconscious adherence)-to be “non violent, non radical, [and] non sexually threatening.” Over time, of course, Michael would break and redefine all of these tenets, but again, not without some measure of cost.
The Asian comedian Margaret Cho has a very funny routine where she talks about her experience on the short-lived TV sitcom “The All American Girl.” She was routinely criticized for being both “too Asian” and “not Asian enough.” How is that even possible? At one point, they even brought in a coach to teach her how to be “more Asian.” And, of course, she was constantly being reminded that executives didn’t know how much longer they could play “the Asian thing.” Behind the humor, it is a very telling-and scathing-expose’ on a conundrum that remains unique for the minority artist, especially the minority artist in America.
These are all issues I will be continuing to explore in the coming weeks. Thanks again to Didi Cheeka for permission to reprint this piece, and to Oris Aigbokhaevbolo for bringing it to my attention.
“I know my race, I just look in the mirror…I know I’m black!”-Michael Jackson.
Langston Hughes As A Young Poet
In 1926, poet and essayist Langston Hughes wrote a short but stirring piece that became a manifesto for the Harlem Renaissance, the great cultural movement that brought Black art, culture, and music to prominence in American society. Last spring, when I assigned this essay to one of my American Lit classes, it occurred to me that much of what Hughes wrote in 1926 could also apply to many of the trials and tribulations that Michael Jackson would endure as an African-American artist more than sixty years later. Here is Langston Hughes’s essay. The sections that are highlighted are my emphasis, as these are important points that I will return to later when addressing the essay’s relevance to Michael Jackson:
Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926)
One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.
But let us look at the immediate background of this young poet. His family is of what I suppose one would call the Negro middle class: people who are by no means rich yet never uncomfortable nor hungry–smug, contented, respectable folk, members of the Baptist church. The father goes to work every morning. He is a chief steward at a large white club. The mother sometimes does fancy sewing or supervises parties for the rich families of the town. The children go to a mixed school. In the home they read white papers and magazines. And the mother often says “Don’t be like niggers” when the children are bad. A frequent phrase from the father is, “Look how well a white man does things.” And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues. It holds for the children beauty, morality, and money. The whisper of “I want to be white” runs silently through their minds. This young poet’s home is, I believe, a fairly typical home of the colored middle class. One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people. He is never taught to see that beauty. He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns.
For racial culture the home of a self-styled “high-class” Negro has nothing better to offer. Instead there will perhaps be more aping of things white than in a less cultured or less wealthy home. The father is perhaps a doctor, lawyer, landowner, or politician. The mother may be a social worker, or a teacher, or she may do nothing and have a maid. Father is often dark but he has usually married the lightest woman he could find. The family attend a fashionable church where few really colored faces are to be found. And they themselves draw a color line. In the North they go to white theaters and white movies. And in the South they have at least two cars and house “like white folks.” Nordic manners, Nordic faces, Nordic hair, Nordic art (if any), and an Episcopal heaven. A very high mountain indeed for the would-be racial artist to climb in order to discover himself and his people.
But then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority—may the Lord be praised! The people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round. They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. 0, let’s dance! These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations. And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself. Whereas the better-class Negro would tell the artist what to do, the people at least let him alone when he does appear. And they are not ashamed of him–if they know he exists at all. And they accept what beauty is their own without question.
Certainly there is, for the American Negro artist who canescape the restrictions the more advanced among his own group would put upon him, a great field of unused material ready for his art. Without going outside his race, and even among the better classes with their “white” culture and conscious American manners, but still Negro enough to be different, there is sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work. And when he chooses to touch on the relations between Negroes and whites in this country, with their innumerable overtones and undertones surely, and especially for literature and the drama, there is an inexhaustible supply of themes at hand. To these the Negro artist can give his racial individuality, his heritage of rhythm and warmth, and his incongruous humor that so often, as in the Blues, becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears. But let us look again at the mountain.
A prominent Negro clubwoman in Philadelphia paid eleven dollars to hear Raquel Meller sing Andalusian popular songs. But she told me a few weeks before she would not think of going to hear “that woman,” Clara Smith, a great black artist, sing Negro folksongs. And many an upper -class Negro church, even now, would not dream of employing a spiritual in its services. The drab melodies in white folks’ hymnbooks are much to be preferred. “We want to worship the Lord correctly and quietly. We don’t believe in ‘shouting.’ Let’s be dull like the Nordics,” they say, in effect.
The road for the serious black artist, then, who would produce a racial art is most certainly rocky and the mountain is high. Until recently he received almost no encouragement for his work from either white or colored people. The fine novels of Chesnutt go out of print with neither race noticing their passing. The quaint charm and humor of Dunbar’s’ dialect verse brought to him, in his day, largely the same kind of encouragement one would give a sideshow freak (A colored man writing poetry! How odd!) or a clown (How amusing!).
The present vogue in things Negro, although it may do as much harm as good for the budding artist, has at least done this: it has brought him forcibly to the attention of his own people among whom for so long, unless the other race had noticed him beforehand, he was a prophet with little honor.
The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. “Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,” say the Negroes. “Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously. We will pay you,” say the whites. Both would have told Jean Toomer not to write Cane. The colored people did not praise it. The white people did not buy it. Most of the colored people who did read Cane hate it. They are afraid of it. Although the critics gave it good reviews the public remained indifferent. Yet (excepting the work of Du Bois) Canecontains the finest prose written by a Negro in America. And like the singing of Robeson, it is truly racial.
But in spite of the Nordicized Negro intelligentsia and the desires of some white editors we have an honest American Negro literature already with us. Now I await the rise of the Negro theater. Our folk music, having achieved world-wide fame, offers itself to the genius of the great individual American composer who is to come. And within the next decade I expect to see the work of a growing school of colored artists who paint and model the beauty of dark faces and create with new technique the expressions of their own soul-world. And the Negro dancers who will dance like flame and the singers who will continue to carry our songs to all who listen-they will be with us in even greater numbers tomorrow.
Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz. I am as sincere as I know how to be in these poems and yet after every reading I answer questions like these from my own people: Do you think Negroes should always write about Negroes? I wish you wouldn’t read some of your poems to white folks. How do you find anything interesting in a place like a cabaret? Why do you write about black people? You aren’t black. What makes you do so many jazz poems?
But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile. Yet the Philadelphia clubwoman is ashamed to say that her race created it and she does not like me to write about it, The old subconscious “white is best” runs through her mind. Years of study under white teachers, a lifetime of white books, pictures, and papers, and white manners, morals, and Puritan standards made her dislike the spirituals. And now she turns up her nose at jazz and all its manifestations–likewise almost everything else distinctly racial. She doesn’t care for the Winold Reiss’ portraits of Negroes because they are “too Negro.” She does not want a true picture of herself from anybody. She wants the artist to flatter her, to make the white world believe that all negroes are as smug and as near white in soul as she wants to be. But, to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro–and beautiful”?
So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.
Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing “Water Boy,” and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas’s drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.
Now let’s turn the spotlight some sixty years later to Michael Jackson. Being born as he was at mid twentieth century, and coming of age during the turbulence of the 1960′s Civil Rights era and Black Power Movement of the 1970′s, Michael Jackson as a performer came along at a unique time in the history of American race relations. With the rise of Motown and the crossover popularity of artists like James Brown, Jackie Wilson and the Supremes, interest in black art was at an all-time high, probably the highest it had been, in fact, since the time of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. By the time Michael emerged as a solo artist in the late 70′s and early 80′s, his albums were as eagerly snatched up by white fans as black. Yet it was still an industry predominantly run by whites, who pulled all the strings and strove to keep the black artist “in his/her place.” Berry Gordy may have been the obvious exception, but even the legendary Motown label was primarily run as a production factory to make black artists-and black music-palatable to mass consumerism. It was the burgeoning of the era in which black male performers like Michael Jackson and Prince would become global superstars with massive interracial audiences and massive interracial demographics, while at the same time witnessing how global superstardom did not alleviate racism and prejudice-in fact, often only intensified it.
As A Black Performer, Michael Came Along At A Unique Time In American History.
Increased global fame and an ever increasing global demographic of many fans from many races and nationalities, however, also meant another problematic issue that would often dog Michael (exacerbated, no doubt, by the onset of vitiligo and the “skin bleaching” rumors that persisted for years): Was he still “black enough” or had he, in fact, sold out his identity in the interest of his amassed, multi-cultural following? Looking at Hughes’s essay and examining it within its cultural context may provide at least some of those answers. Langston Hughes, writing in 1926, may or may not have been able to foresee that within sixty years, an African-American artist would be one of the most powerful and influential people on the planet. But he would have certainly understood both how and why such an artist could come to be so universally revered, and yet, by the same token, often most cruelly taunted and rejected by his own race. Michael was, in many ways, the embodiment of the same spirit as that of the young poet whom Hughes refers to in the early half of the essay: “I want to be a poet-not a Negro poet.” For example, after winning only a single Grammy for Off The Wall in 1980-for Best R&B vocal-Michael vowed that his next effort would not be something that could be merely relegated to a category. He rightly felt that Off The Wall deserved Record of the Year, and certainly his ultimate goal was to not be “the best r&b male singer” but to be THE BEST. PERIOD. With Thriller, he would accomplish that goal and then some. However, by 1987′s Bad, the move to bring him “back down to size” seemed to be in full swing. Though the album actually outperformed Thriller in many crucial aspects-for example, producing a total of nine hit singles and five number ones, as opposed to Thriller’s seven hit singles and two number ones-it only won a total of one Grammy, for Best Engineered Recording. This, despite having been nominated in every major category for which it was eligible.
This Was Michael By The End Of His Landmark 1988 Grammy Performance! But The Album Would Win Only One Grammy That Night, For Best Engineered Recording.
Granted, there is the old adage that just being nominated is-or should be- honor enough. But Michael had values that had been instilled in him from a very young age by his father Joe Jackson, to never settle for being second best. Michael was never especially known for being a gracious loser. When he knew he had given something his all, he expected to be recognized for that fact-and was often crushed when such recognition didn’t meet up to his expectations. We could say that 1987 was an especially competitive year at the Grammy’s-among the nominees were U2′s The Joshua Tree, Prince’s Sign o’ the Times and Whitney Houston’s debut album Whitney, but many saw the snub as the beginning of the industry’s attempt to “de-throne” Michael Jackson. Also interesting that although albums by three major black artists were nominated, the committee chose to bestow the honor upon the very Irish U2. Of course, one could argue that after showering Michael with so many accolades in 1984, that should prove that this was not about racism. But not so fast. Yes, if Bad had come along merely a year later, I could then somewhat understand the committee’s reluctance to bestow him more awards, lest accusations of politics and favoritism come into play. It’s a given fact, for example, that the Academy Awards will usually attempt to spread things out a bit. If an actor or director has won multiple awards in a given year, it may be reasonably assumed that they will not be awarded the following year, even if they did outstanding work. (It’s not fair, but politics is politics). I would imagine that the Grammys do not operate that much differently. However, four years had elapsed since Michael’s mega coup with Thriller; certainly more than enough time to alleviate any concerns of Jackson saturation. We cannot. of course, point fingers and say beyond a doubt that Michael’s 1988 Grammy snub was racially motivated. But then, racism these days is seldom that overt, and many have rightfully pointed out that Michael’s expressions and body language that night clearly tell the story-he knew what was going down.
It Was Only An Instant Captured On Camera, But Many Believe His Face Told The Story That Night. He Knew What Was Going Down.
Michael’s desire to always be “The Best” or “The Greatest” of ALL categories-rather than being relegated to “Best R&B this or that” (which, as we know, essentially translates to “Best BLACK performer” or “Best BLACK album” )was both a blessing and curse. It was a blessing in that it motivated him to reach for those heights and to transcend those barriers. This is what Joe Vogel wrote in his excellent 2011 book Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Works of Michael Jackson:
“His success, of course, wasn’t only meaningful to African-Americans. ‘Even though rooted in black experience,’ writes cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson, “he felt it would be a crime to limit his music to one race, sex, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or nationality. Michael’s art transcended every way that human beings have thought of to separate themselves, and then healed those divisions, at least at the instant that we all shared the music.’ It was a boundary-less universality Jackson always aimed for: ‘From a child to older people,’ he explained, ‘from the farmers of Ireland to the lady who scrubs toilets in Harlem…I want to reach every demographic I can through the love and joy and simplicity of music.”-Joe Vogel, excerpted from Man in the Music, p. 18).
But it may also have been a curse in that it instilled in him a deep rooted sense of failure when he did not, or could not, manage to transcend those barriers-those times when, try as hard as he might, he simply could not succeed in ascending that racial mountain.
We continue to see evidence of this even now. For example, even though Xscape was the #1 album on Billboard’s R&B/Hip Hop chart for two weeks and #1 on the R&B album chart (only this week dropping to #4 and #2 on those charts, respectively), you will not see this fact quoted in any mainstream article that writes about the album in the U.S. Rather, U.S. journalists will usually cite that it peaked at #2, its highest position on the Billboard Top 200-the mainstream chart that includes all musical genres. And, in some cases, the more sarcastic of these articles have been rather gleeful in rubbing it in that the album did not reach #1 (despite the fact that #2 is hardly shabby). But such articles usually fail to mention that it DID peak at #1 in over fifty other countries worldwide, including the U.K. This highlights both a very problematic U.S.-centric view, as well as one that is just plain racist. The subtle message that is conveyed-especially by those snarkier journalists who seem to gloat over its peak #2 position-is that it doesn’t matter if Michael Jackson has the best selling “BLACK” album in America. In failing to note the album’s achievement as a a #1 R&B album on what is arguably the most prestigious chart in the U.S. is essentially the same as saying that the black charts don’t matter in America. He has “failed” in their estimation because Xscape only achieved-gasp!-#2 on the “mainstream” (let’s translate: WHITE) chart. Never even mind the worldwide vs. U.S.-centric issue, which is another topic for another day.
The R&B and Urban charts essentially grew out of a less politically correct time when the records on such charts were referred to as “race records” and the respective artists as “race artists.” In those days, the popular music charts-like so many other things-were strictly segregated. The highest achievement possible for a record by a black recording artist was to chart on the “race charts” but, with few exceptions, it was not expected that a black artist would successfully cross over, or that black and white artists would compete on the same chart. It was only in 1949 that Billboard began publishing “R&B” charts as opposed to “Race” charts, presumably due to the suggestion of Jerry Wexler. And it would still be several years hence before the marketing of “R&B” records and of black artists to mainstream consumers (i.e, “the white market”) would become standard.
Michael’s Deeply Embedded Competitive Streak Was As Much A Result Of Being A Product Of His Time As His Upbringing
The timing of Michael’s birth and the era in which he came of age no doubt played a role in shaping his deeply embedded competitive streak. It is something that younger generations of black artists, coming up in a time when hip hop has dominated the cultural landscape for over two decades, may take for granted. These days, there may be less incentive to prove that a black artist can achieve the same level of success as a white artist. But there is still a lingering sense that the black artist may have to struggle harder to maintain that success, without eventually being torn down. (Even the Illuminati conspiracy theories, as ridiculous as they are-seem to most frequently target successful black entertainers in the business). But for the black artists of Michael’s generation, there was always a deeply acute awareness that one would have to work twice as hard to achieve mainstream, crossover success-and, once having achieved it, would have to then work three times as hard to keep it-while at all times, being super conscious of the image one projected, and in making certain only the “right” words were said in interviews-after all, you were constantly being judged. One hint of being too “ghetto” (or as we would put it today, too “thug”) might be enough to kill your career, at least in the mainstream market. I have often said that I believe this was one reason Michael tended toward overkill in dropping lots of big, long words in his interviews. Sure, he was smart and well-read. But it always struck me as a kind of over compensation; he often, for example, would use a very elaborate word when a simple one would have been just as effective, if not moreso. (A great example: When he said that the sight of Joseph would make him “regurgitate” rather than simply saying it made him “vomit” or “throw up.”). While I have always found this to be one of his more endearing traits (especially when he sometimes used malapropisms like “oratory ears!”) I do sometimes wonder if there were insecurities that lay at the root cause of it. I have often wondered if it was not because at some point he had been made to feel inadequate; as someone “less than.” Thus, the constant need to over compensate; to sound “educated” rather than to be perceived as just some poor kid who grew up on the streets of Gary. It is interesting, especially if you compare his word choices, speech patterns and diction in his very youthful interviews at Motown, as opposed to his later interviews as an adult. But again, we have to understand Michael in the context of his own time, as a black artist who understood that appearing as articulate, soft-spoken and non-threatening as possible was vital to maintaining success in a desegregated market. In fact, as we will see later, it was only when he began to assert himself and his power that the whole game changed.
In this sense, Michael would seem not unlike the young poet whom Hughes so snidely referred to in his essay. And, in fact, this was exactly the theme that Michael explored in his landmark 1987 short film “Bad,” in which a returning student (Daryl) is bullied by his old neighborhood friends for not being “Bad” enough (or, in other words, no longer “Black” enough). The breakdown call-and-response sequence that Michael added near the end of the short film was very much a reaffirmation of who he was. Music journalist Danyel Smith said it best in the segment of Spike Lee’s Bad 25 documentary where she is interviewed about the breakdown segment of “Bad”:
“Oh my god, it was church; it was James Brown. If any place reaffirmed him, or if he was trying to reaffirm to people who he was and where his roots were, and the soulfulness that he had and, frankly, the blackness that he was, it’s those last thirty seconds.”-Danyel Smith.
A few things we already know about Michael Jackson that we can all agree on. He was a musical genius, and his ability to entertain and mesmerize audiences the world over knew no boundaries. Knowing that he had this gift, was it so very wrong to want to be acknowledged as “THE Best” and not just as “The Best Black Entertainer?” Michael grew up adoring black entertainers like James Brown and Sammy Davis, Jr. But we also know his admiration and unquenchable desire to learn did not end there. He also admired, studied, and emulated Caucasion greats like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Charlie Chaplin. To quote his own composition, it truly did not seem to matter to him if the greats were black or white-he loved them equally, and found in all of them qualities to admire and emulate. He loved classical music as much as he did r&b, and the influences of many styles, both with African as well as European roots, infiltrated themselves into his music. This reminds me, in fact, of a debate that is often brought up among my own students at the predominantly African-American university where I teach: Does a love of Beethoven somehow make one “less” black than a love of P. Diddy or Jay-Z and Beyonce? (Or whatever current name they care to throw into the mix). Of course, that such debates even exist at all is ridiculous, but the fact that they do still says much about the complexities of a culture whose racial identity was for so long oppressed, or merely held up for ridicule and mock entertainment (as in the case of the nineteenth century minstrel shows).
Is it possible that the young man whom Hughes scoffed in his essay-the young man who dared to say he wanted to be “THE” best poet, and not merely the “best Negro” poet-could have been misinterpreted by Hughes? That maybe this was not, strictly speaking, a young man ashamed of his race, but rather someone with all the fire of a young MJ who simply dreamed of a world where one could be the “best” of anything without having it necessarily defined by a label or an identity? And, in accomplishing such a goal, does it necessarily mean that one sacrifices their identity in the process? Indeed, this seemed to be the foregone conclusion that Hughes had arrived at, as if to say “there is only one way to be black, and only one way to be a black artist.” But again, we have to assess Hughes’s essay both within the cultural context of its time, and with the understanding of just what a deep and tangled web is the issue of race and art.
For Caucasion artists, it’s a ridiculous question, as identity never even enters the equation. One is simply a poet, or a painter, or a writer, or a singer and dancer. But for artists of color, there is always “the racial mountain.” How much responsibility does an artist really owe his or her own race? Especially if this comes down to a choice between racial identity vs. being true to self. The artist cannot separate themselves from their race, sex, or social class, no more than any human being can climb out of their own skin and become another. But who is to judge whether an artist’s vision and work is “black enough” or “brown enough” or “yellow enough” to allow them to maintain their cultural identity? How do we even begin to define what that “identity” is? The Native American author Sherman Alexie has said it quite well; that the biggest dilemma of being a successful Native American author is realizing that your success is owed to a European art form.
But let’s go back and examine where Hughes was coming from.
Hughes Deeply Resented That Much Of His Commercial Success Was Due To The Patronage Of White Liberal Readers
Langston Hughes wrote the piece from personal experience. Often criticized most sharply by his own people for creating “negative” or “degrading” portrayals of blacks (his characters, for example, tended to be poor or lower class characters who spoke in dialect; he freely employed the lingos of jazz and the rhythms of blues) Hughes would also come to resent that most of his fame was built on the support of white liberals. Art, after all, can only truly be appreciated by those with the luxury of time and money, and this was doubly true in the early twentieth century when Hughes rose to prominence. As I’ve often said, the “starving artist” is certainly a myth. Anyone who is starving is in survival mode. They aren’t going to be worried about painting or creating. It takes the comfort of a full belly for the brain to be able to turn to such diversions as words and music. Thus, for Langston Hughes, it meant that the very people he was celebrating in his works-the lower class working blacks; the drug addicted street musicians; the evicted and jailed tenants; the mothers weary from laboring all day in some white woman’s kitchen, would most likely never read them. This meant that the African-Americans who did read him would be those affluent enough to afford books, and literate enough to understand-and being literate in and of itself would have been most likely the result of having certain advantages-namely, money and education. In early twentieth century America, this usually meant being in some ways indebted to white society. These were the very African-Americans most apt to criticize Hughes (and artists like him) for creating work that was “too Black” and in so doing, setting the black race back. In turn, these were the African-Americans that Hughes criticized so sharply in his manifesto-as people who had, in essence, abandoned their own race and all of its uniqueness. It is a complex issue, of course, for what Hughes laments as a loss of cultural identity is merely what most black citizens considered at the time as achieving social and economic equality. Being “just like them”-achieving that desired level of standardization-was, after all, the whole idea behind the great American myth of the melting pot. Except that most African-Americans, then as now, are not here in America by their ancestors’ choice, but, rather, by the fact that many of their ancestors were brought here in chains. Keeping that dark history in mind, the whole concept of the “melting pot” and the idea of achieving status and equality by adopting all of the ways and customs of the dominant culture, cannot apply to African-Americans in the same way that it might apply to the millions of Irish, Italian, and east European immigrants whose ancestors came here by choice, with the ultimate goal in mind of becoming a part of that melting pot. Nevertheless, it was an unavoidable truth that if one wanted to do more than just survive-if one wished to prosper and achieve respectability-it would have to come down to being as much “like them” as possible. No minority race in America was truly immune to this phenomenon. In the early 1800′s, Native Americans-having long resigned themselves to the fact that “we can’t beat the whites; might as well join them”-established entire communities and government systems modeled on what they had witnessed from their European neighbors. In the Southeast, a thriving Native American economy was built on the commerce of European goods. Printing presses sprang up, as well as Baptist and Methodist churches. Children went to schools, where they learned from (usually) mixed blood instructors how to read, write, and cipher-in English (after all, it was the language they would need to know in order to survive in this new world). Surely, they thought, we can be left alone to prosper, now that the whites will see how much like them we can actually be; how “civilized” we are! History, of course, would teach them a very cruel lesson, as well as a crushing dose of reality.
Langston Hughes would come to resent that his fame and reputation, at least in the early days, was less from the acceptance of Black America, and moreso from the white liberals whom, as he stated, would read his books because it was the “in” thing to do; who would want to shake his hand at a party, but would never want to be his friend. This reminds me similarly of something that was once said of Michael, which is that he was loved as long as he was just a song and dance man (another way to say, “as long as he was “in his place”) and despised as soon as he acquired the ATV catalog and became one of the most powerful players in the industry.
This “tribute” article from June of 2009 exemplifies that idea exactly. Although the article did make a few good points here and there, it is very typical in its dismissal of Michael’s own contributions to his success. Note that it is exactly the time of the “Bad” album-when Michael finally really began to assert his independence as a songwriter and as a man very much in control of his career-that this writer portrays him as someone on a downward trajectory. The opening sentence is the ultimate admission and ultimate summation of the snobby and typical attitudes of most white journalists: We can give it to Michael that he entertained us, but we must stop short at placing him into the pantheon of “true” genius.
Michael Jackson: The ultimate song and dance man
Perhaps he couldn’t lay claim to genius. But he was, quite simply, an incredible entertainer, who redefined pop stardom and whose influence remains impossible to ignore. Simon Price pays tribute
Sunday 28 June 2009
Late last Thursday night, amid the chaos and chatter of the midnight vigil which arose on the internet as news of Michael Jackson’s death began to break, I bid the online world goodnight by pleading for a moment’s calm. My plea, directed at anyone who happened to be reading, was, with the greatest respect, to shut up for a moment. I begged them to mute the television, put down the phone, stop typing, be still for a minute, and just listen to something I’d found on YouTube.
It was a vocal track of the young Michael singing “I’ll Be There” a capella, accompanied by footage of The Jackson 5 performing the song on The Jim Nabors Hour, an American variety show, in 1970. Have a look: it may still be there, unless some joyless Universal Music drone has had it removed.
“I’ll Be There” is a song which, in even the happiest of times, can send shivers through your body. On a night like Thursday, as an oasis of beauty among all the ugliness and ghoulishness, it had the power to spear through your skin, rip out your heart and nail it to the wall.
At the age of nine, 10, 11, Michael Jackson had the uncanny ability to deliver vocal performances which combined the purity of an infant with the emotional experience of an adult. At the turn of the 1970s, when The Jackson 5 were turning out single after killer single for the Motown label, nobody knew the price he’d already paid behind the scenes, sacrificing his childhood in Gary, Indiana, at the hands of a harsh and abusive father.
And yet… what utter joy The Jackson 5 produced in those early years under the wing of The Corporation team, with their own cartoon series to spread their popularity: “ABC”, “The Love You Save”, and every DJ’s emergency floor-filler, “I Want You Back”. Michael, although the youngest, had emerged as lead singer. Berry Gordy knew the kid has something special, and soon he was a solo artist, putting down extraordinarily mature vocals on cuts such as the chart-topping “Got to Be There”, Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”, Stevie Wonder’s “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day”, the gorgeous ballad “One Day in Your Life”, and even on trite trash such as “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” (an improbably moving paean to a pet rat).
In 1976, The Jacksons, now microphone-headed teenagers, jumped ship to CBS/Epic minus Motown loyalist Jermaine but plus Randy, leapt aboard the disco train with considerable success (“Blame It on the Boogie”, “Shake Your Body Down”) and looked as if they were having all the fun in the world.
It wasn’t long, though, before Michael embarked on a second solo career. Off the Wall, produced by Quincy Jones (whom Jackson had met on The Wiz, Motown’s ill-fated Wizard of Oz remake) with considerable songwriting assistance from Heatwave’s Rod Temperton, is one of the great disco albums, ranging from the effortlessly sublime soul swing of “Rock with You” to the heartbreaking “She’s Out of My Life”. Its impossibly funky title track is an anthem to the social liberation of the disco movement, and Michael’s imperative to “leave your 9 to 5 upon the shelf and just enjoy yourself” sounds remarkably authentic coming from someone who had never done a normal day’s work in his life.
But it’s the lead-off single that really stands out. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” begins with the sound of Michael chatting away to himself, sotto voce, as though completely unaware of the listener’s intrusive attentions, about how the force … has got a lot of power … and it makes him feel like … oooh!!! before the whole thing erupts into mirrorball euphoria, with Jackson’s trademark shrieks, whoops and chirrups imitated so annoyingly by the likes of Avid Merrion. “Don’t Stop…” is in with a serious shout (and a scream, and a handclap, and a pirouette) of being the greatest piece of pop music ever recorded.
The Michael of Off the Wall sounds, and looks, like a healthy, carefree, playful young man, and is unavoidably poignant in the light of what we know would happen next.
With the Thriller album of 1982, Michael Jackson didn’t only become the biggest pop star in the world. He redefined what bigness meant for a pop star. He achieved this, to a large extent, by being in the right place at the right time. The video for paternity-suit drama “Billie Jean” arrived just when MTV was making it possible for a star to cover the globe without the hard slog of touring, and at a time when globalisation of American capitalism made worldwide homogeneity of markets a desirable thing. Corporations such as Pepsi needed a face who could appeal across races and nations, and Michael Jackson fitted the bill. Thriller made him the best-known black man since Muhammad Ali, and arguably the most famous human on the planet.
Which isn’t to say that it isn’t a fine record on its own merits. The percussive epic “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” exudes sheer exuberance, and “Human Nature” is a beautiful piece of sophisticated metropolitan soul. Jones and Temperton knew what they were doing: “Beat It”, cannily, crossed over with the rock market thanks to its Eddie Van Halen riff, and “Thriller” itself redefined music video. I’m just the right age to remember sneaking into clubs and seeing the place stop dead when the 15-minute zombie flick was played on the big screen.
What Jackson wasn’t, in the context of 1980s megapop, is a “genius”. Unlike Prince or Springsteen, he wasn’t a self-sufficient auteur, and unlike Madonna, he didn’t create his persona through sheer force of will. What he was – and there’s no shame in this – was an incredible entertainer, an untouchable song and dance man.
Speaking of which, even his dance routines weren’t self-generated. He may have tried to copyright the moonwalk as his own, but anyone with a sharp memory knows it was actually premiered by Jeffrey Daniel of Shalamar on Soul Train.
Post-Thriller, the Jacksons temporarily reunited, most memorably with the video for “Can You Feel It”, on which the brothers, 100ft tall, stood atop the Golden Gate bridge, scattering fairy dust on the mere mortals below. Less celebrated, but equally great, is the rock-funk scorcher they recorded with Mick Jagger, “State of Shock”. Michael relished these celebrity duets, and his oft-overlooked Paul McCartney collaboration, “Say Say Say”, features one of his most electrifying vocals.
The unimaginable wealth which Thriller brought him led to Jackson’s mad emperor phase: the Neverland ranch, the chimpanzee companion, the diamond glove, the Moonwalker movie, the oxygen tent, the insistence on the soubriquet “King of Pop”, the facial surgery.
Five years passed before Jackson released another album. By the time of Bad, whose title track had a leather-clad Michael playing an unconvincing street thug in the video, the singer’s skin was very, very white (due, it was claimed to widespread scepticism, to the condition vitiligo). Despite some superb tracks – notably the breathless urgency of “Smooth Criminal” – the writing was, like the album’s pseudo-graffiti logo, on the wall.
As Michael’s life continued to spiral out of control, from gruesome photos in which he appeared to have no nose to the scandal involving his strange relationship with 13-year-old Jordan Chandler, so the quality of his music deteriorated.
He was still capable of putting out the occasional great record, such as “Black or White” from 1991′s Dangerous, which also featured the minimal, robotic New Jack Swing of the Teddy Riley-penned “In the Closet”, but Jackson’s 1990s were defined by the likes of the schmaltzy “Heal the World” and the pompous “Earth Song”.
His antics became increasingly bizarre, from arriving on stage via jetpack to presenting himself as a Christ figure at the Brits (prompting Jarvis Cocker’s legendary stage invasion) to the giant effigy of himself he floated down the Thames to promote 1995′s half-hits, half-new album HIStory. A second child-abuse scandal broke out in the new millennium, exacerbated by Martin Bashir’s documentary and by Jackson, unfathomably, dangling his baby out of a Berlin hotel window.
Although he was never found guilty, Jackson’s reputation never recovered among the “no smoke without fire” brigade. Much of which comes down to a simple failure of imagination. What if Michael really did pay off the Chandlers because he just wanted the whole thing to go away? What if Michael really was so innocent he merely wanted to recapture his childhood with those sleepovers? What if, when he told Bashir “when I look at children’s faces, I see God”, he was being sincere? What if, in short, Michael really was – to quote his own “Thriller” video – “not like other guys”?
The lynch mob had made up its mind, and Jackson’s audience had shrunk. And, harsh as it may sound, this was probably no great loss: 2001′s Invincible doesn’t suggest the world has lost a productive talent, and it’s perhaps for the best that we never found out what the This Is It tour would be like.
Nevertheless, Michael Jackson is still loved for what he once was, his influence impossible to ignore. Right now, the more speculation and scum-slinging I hear, the more I feel drawn back to the purity of that four-decades-old a capella vocal. “You and I must make a pact/We must bring salvation back/Where there is love, I’ll be there…” It’s hard to assimilate the knowledge that, from this moment on, he won’t.
Unfortunately, this is the all-too-typical construct that is often presented in the mainstream media. The reluctance to attribute the term “genius” to Michael is especially problematic and disturbing. Even if one is of the school that thinks Michael pretty much reached his creative peak with Thriller-as this writer seemed to be-it would still have to account for the fact that Billie Jean and Beat It rank among the greatest pop songs ever recorded. I have a feeling this same writer would have no hesitancy in referring to the “genius” of The Beatles or Bob Dylan. And if it were an article about Elvis Presley-who never composed a single note he ever sang-I can almost guarantee that any question of whether he could or could not be considered a “genius” would be an irrelevant point that wouldn’t even get mentioned. These kinds of debates are almost universally reserved for discussions of Michael Jackson’s music. And the reason is obvious, especially if you look at any poll or listing of the rock era’s “greatest” or “most influential” artists. Michael Jackson seldom tops these lists, but he is almost always somewhere in the Top 5, and usually within the Top 3. Most commonly, he is usually in the #2 position as a runner-up to The Beatles (really, a comparison that hardly seems fair considering there were four of them, and only one of Michael). It’s also interesting to note that on the VH1 list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” he was given this #2 ranking, but it was duly noted that almost all of the African-American artists on that panel had ranked him as #1.
Such lists (usually compiled by music journalists and music industry insiders, or by fellow artists) are always arbitrary, of course, and prone to reflect the tastes of those doing the ranking. But if the same handful of artists are consistently ranking near the top, then we have to consider that these polls and surveys are a fairly consistent gauge of the artists generally conceded to be…well, “the greatest.” Thus Michael Jackson, boasting the biggest selling album of all time and almost always the lone African-American artist within the Top 5, stands within a unique position, as the only black artist of the rock era who threatens to topple or to overtake that long cherished pantheon of lauded white artists. While artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, or even Tupac Shakur may receive critical acclaim, they do not threaten the established cultural hierarchy in the same way that Michael Jackson did. Michael threatened to-and often did-break all of the records of our most iconic white artists. He sold more records than anybody, he won more awards than anybody, and is still setting chart records even today, managing to compete quite impressively with many living, contemporary artists. On a global scale, women fainted in his presence, and world leaders called him their friend. There had been black stars before, even mega successful ones, but Michael Jackson was a unique phenomenon-our first truly global black superstar.
Michael himself spoke of this in his taped conversations with Rabbi Schmuley Boteach:
“Before me, you had [Harry] Belefonte, you had Sammi [Davis, Jr.], you had Nat King Cole. You had them as entertainers and people loved their music. But they didn’t get adulation, and they didn’t get people to cry, and they didn’t get, ‘I am in love with you, and I want to marry you.’ They didn’t get people tearing their clothes off and all the hysteria and all the screams. They didn’t play stadiums. I was the first one to break the mold, where white girls, Scottish girls, Irish girls screamed, ‘I am in love with you, I want to…’ And a lot of the white press didn’t like that. That’s what has made it hard for me, because I was the pioneer and that’s why they started the stories, ‘He’s weird. ‘ ‘He’s gay.’ ‘He sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber.’ ‘He wants to buy the bones of the Elephant Man’-anything that turns people against me. They tried their hardest. And anybody else would be dead as a junkie right now, who’d been through what I’ve been through. “-Michael Jackson, excerpted from The Michael Jackson Tapes by Rabbi Schmuley Boteach.
“I was the first one to break the mold, where white girls, Scottish girls, Irish girls screamed, ‘I am in love with you, I want to…’ “-Michael Jackson
And it gets better. For embodied in the sinewy, whirling dervish of a being that was Michael Jackson was not only an artist capable of taking on the white establishment’s cultural darlings but even owning them outright. In fact, Michael Jackson’s song publishing empire not only acquired for him publishing rights (and royalties) to over two hundred Beatles songs, it also means that to this day his estate continues to generate millions from the song rights of many of the most legendary as well as contemporary white artists, including Elvis Presley (yes, the Sony/ATV catalog includes a goodly portion of Elvis Presley’s catalog), Taylor Swift, and Eminem (I always consider this as a bit of ironic payback for “Just Lose It”). Of course, there are also many black artists included in the Sony/ATV catalog, but for sure, the great irony of Michael Jackson ending up with partial ownership of songs by many of the most iconic and influential white establishment artists has not gone unnoticed-even if the media loves to downplay this fact by focusing, instead, on Michael’s spending habits and creating a narrative of a superstar on the brink of destruction until his assets were “saved” by the superhero white genius John Branca.
Back in 2006, freelance writer Christopher Hamilton wrote a searing piece titled “Is It Because He’s Black? What They Don’t Want You To Know About Michael Jackson”:
IS IT BECAUSE HE’S BLACK?: What They Don’t Want You to Know About Michael Jackson
By Christopher Hamilton
(January 5, 2006)What do you think of when you hear the name, Michael Jackson? ****o? Criminal? Great Entertainer? Businessman? Whatever you think of MJ, throw all your thoughts out of the window and let’s examine some facts.
For years the media has labeled him “****o *****.” What happened to MJ? Wasn’t he the biggest thing in music at one point? When did he go crazy?
All anyone has to do is look when Michael started being portrayed as “Crazy.” It wasn’t during the “Thriller” years. It’s cool being a song and dance man. That’s what they want. DON’T DARE BECOME A THINKING BUSINESSMAN. DON’T DARE BUY THE BEATLES CATALOG. DON’T DARE MARRY ELVIS’ DAUGHTER. DON’T DARE BEAT THE RECORD INDUSTRY AT THEIR OWN GAME. Michael started being labeled crazy when he began making business moves that no one had been successful at doing.
Michael took two cultural icons and shattered them to pieces. All our lives, we’ve been bombarded with 2 facts. The Beatles were the greatest group of all time and Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll. Michael bought the Beatles and married the King’s daughter. (if that ain’t literally sticking it to the man) If I wasn’t a cynic, I’d say Michael did the Lisa Marie thing just to stick it to the people who consider Elvis the King.
The Beatles were great, but they weren’t great enough to maintain publishing rights over their own songs.
Elvis was great, but he didn’t write his songs. His manager, Col Tom Parker, was the mastermind behind Elvis … keeping him drugged with fresh subscription pills and doing all the paperwork.
Michael could do no wrong as an entertainer. “Off the Wall,” first solo artist with 4 top ten singles. “Thriller,” the biggest selling album of all time, with a then record 7 top ten singles. “Bad,” the first album to spawn 5 number one songs (even Thriller only had 2 number one songs). All this is cool. But that is all you better do. SING AND DANCE. Michael wanted to be greater. He bought the legendary Sly and the Family Stone catalog and no one really cared. When he bought the Beatles, people noticed. The Sony merger took the cake. Sony, in their eagerness to have a part of the Beatles catalog, agreed to a 50/50 merger with Jackson, thus forming Sony/ATV music publishing. Now, Michael co-owns half of the entire publishing of all of Sony artists. Check out the complete lists of songs at sonyatv.com. A sampling of the songs he owns the publishing rights to are over 900 country songs by artists such as Tammy Wynette, Kenny Rogers, Alabama. All Babyface written songs. Latin songs by Selena and Enrique Iglesias. Roberta Flack songs, Mariah Carey songs, Destiny’s Child’s songs. 2pac, Biggie and Fleetwood Mac songs. In essence over 100,000 songs. “What is this man doing?” None of the greats did this. Not Bono, Springsteen, Sinatra. “Who does he think he is? Get whatever you can on him.”
To “get” someone, you have to attack what they love the most. I’ll say no more on that.
The only man who even approaches MJ in taking on the industry is Prince and to a lesser extent, George Michael. They went after poor George Michael, publicly outing the man as a ****sexual. Prince fought hard and made his point, but nevertheless still had to resort to using a major company to distribute his materials. There is nothing wrong with that. Prince would get the lion’s share, but the result were years of being labeled crazy and difficult.
The greatest moment for them was the Sneddon press conference. “We got him.” Never was such glee so evident. Who cares if we have evidence?
Michael was acquitted, did not celebrate, went home and left the USA. Best move ever. Now what is there left for the haters to do? He’s gone. “Gone, what do you mean he moved to Bahrain? Well, how the hell can we get him if he’s not here? Quick, get that columnist to write a series of articles on how MJ’s teetering on the brink of destruction. Oh we did that? Well, what can we do?”
On the outer surface, it appears Michael is not doing anything to make money. Don’t even count the weekly sales of his CDs. 15,000 CDs a week is nothing for Michael. The Sony/ATV catalog is money for Michael Jackson every time he breathes. Serious money. The fact that no one reports on the actual amount is proof of that. They would rather you believe he is broke than tell you the truth. Neverland is still owned by MJ. The family home in Encino is still owned by MJ. Michael still owns the Beatles songs through the merger with Sony as well as full ownership of his own songs. But, hey, that’s our little secret.
Michael Jackson is literally walking in the shoes that no Black person has ever walked in before. If he ever writes an autobiography, it will be one of the most interesting ever. A Black man with no real formal education becomes the most powerful man in the industry, DESPITE hatred, racism, enemies in his own camps and a media willing to be bought to the highest bidder.
If Sony had any sense, right now they should offer to continue the partnership. That’s the only way they will make future money off of Michael’s catalogue. Tommy Mattola did not lose his job with Sony because he was a bad label head. It was a casualty of war. MJ exposed him and Sony had to cut their losses. Companies do it all the time. Notice no one at Sony nor did Matolla himself ever sue MJ for slander. Michael always was loyal to his bosses at Epic/Sony. Back at the 1984 Grammys, he even brought then label head Walter Yetnikoff on stage with him at one point. He’s always thanked Dave Glew, Mattola and others at Sony in his acceptance speeches.
Sony can still do right by Michael, but it may be too late. However, they still should make a goodwill gesture, but how many times do businesses do that? If I were them, I’d still want MJ as an ally, not as an enemy. It is/was a mutally profitable merger.
I’d be scared as hell if I was an enemy of MJ while he is with the multi-billionaires overseas. Believe me, they aren’t just over there discussing designer clothing. A conglomerate is in the making.
One last note, these facts that I write here should not be the only times you hear this, but the sad fact is it probably is. I was worried that Michael would go down because of the uncertainty of the jury. That’s playing unfair. If I’m presenting these facts here at EURweb, YOU CAN BELIEVE THE MEDIA KNOWS IT ALREADY AS WELL. They aren’t salivating over everything MJ related just because he made “Thriller.” They know what’s up. Think about it. That’s why I laugh when I see shows like BET’s “The Ultimate Hustler.” We all know who that is. (How can Damon Dash know who the ultimate hustler is anyway? He lost Roc-a-fella to Jay-Z)
In the end, Michael won’t be known for being an alleged child ********. He won’t be known for “Thriller.” He will be known as the man that fought the record industry and won and lived to tell the tale. That is a book worth buying.
But lest we get too far astray, let’s get back to Hughes’s essay and its relevance to Michael Jackson. For sure, Michael’s singular accomplishments as a black artist and as a pioneer in the industry are to be lauded. But the question that Langston Hughes was really raising in 1926 was to ask how much does the black artist owe to his/her race? Should having an artistic talent and vision obligate one to be the “voice” of their race, or to advance the causes of their race?
For sure, this was an issue that Michael struggled with. He was a proud black man and a proud black artist who, nevertheless, desired to transcend racial barriers and to bring all races together through music. But the accusations of not being “black enough”; of somehow “selling out” would continue to haunt him throughout most of his solo career. Within the African-American community, he has been celebrated as a hero and loved like family, and yet by the same token, has also received some of his sharpest and most stinging criticisms. In Part Two, I will examine what many of the most prominent African-American writers and scholars-as well as ordinary fans- have had to say about Michael. For sure, the views and opinions of Michael Jackson from the African-American community are as diverse-and often as polarizing-as what one will find among fans, scholars, and critics of any race or nationality. There is no single consensus among African-Americans of who Michael was, or “what he meant to us.” Among my African-American colleagues and students, I still hear a myriad of opinions on Michael every day. My spring semester class, for whatever reason, was one of my most difficult yet, as I met with quite a few attitudes from some students who were convinced they knew more about Michael than I, after all my research, could possibly know. Why? Because it was what they had heard from their parents all their lives. “Michael wanted to be white.” “He bleached his skin.” “Michael was gay.” I can’t say that I blame them entirely for their resistance. After all, here was I-a mixed white and Native American-challenging everything they had been raised to believe about Michael Jackson. The hardest job any instructor faces is when it comes to challenging the notions and teachings that have been instilled in kids by their parents. In this case, it was the values and ingrained notions of an entire generation who had grown up on the tabloid myths-and had, in turn, passed them on the next generation who accepted them as unchallenged truths.
But oddly enough, these were the same students who, when asked to write an essay at the beginning of the semester on their favorite entertainer, almost unanimously chose Michael Jackson. What’s more, their words of adulation brimmed with obvious sincerity.
This seemed to me an odd contradiction of sorts. Here were many black students, typically about eighteen years of age, who freely said they believed Michael didn’t want to be black, and yet still cited him over and over as their favorite singer and greatest inspiration. What the heck was up with that?
To be sure, it’s a complex issue to unravel, but I think it goes back to the heart of what Langston Hughes wrote in 1926. Without exaggeration, Michael no doubt carried more scars from the climb up that metaphoric racial mountain than any other black artist of the twentieth century. He achieved his greatest goals and ambitions, but not without cost, and not without controversy. Like Langston Hughes, he would become both a a celebrated icon of black America and yet one whose very identity as a black American was often challenged, mocked, and ridiculed-by both whites andblacks.