As the legacy recedes into shadows, who will ultimately have the authority to “write” Michael’s story?
This post was prompted by a recent post from another MJ blogger (whose blog bears a name confusingly similar to mine, although there is no affiliation). Hers was a statement against blogs that have become part of “the clique” and a kind of lambast against those bloggers who have apparently attempted to become “authorities” on Michael Jackson.
The post did not mention any names directly. However, anyone who has been part of the MJ blogosphere for any length of time certainly knows that “cliquedom” has become an unfortunate fact of life. Inevitably, MJ blogs and their authors have become lumped into various cliques, based on the author’s particular ideologies and those of their followers, and the approach they take to their subject-namely, Michael Jackson. I need not enumerate them. We know who they are. There are vindication blogs, anti-Sony blogs, anti-estate blogs, pro-estate blogs, conspiracy theory blogs, and just about everything that falls in between. There are blogs solely dedicated to Michael as an artist; blogs that celebrate his humanitarian work, and blogs that attempt to separate myth and fiction from reality. The nature of that “reality”, of course, is what was being called into question-and rightfully so. But let me back up for just a second.
I have always thought that the MJ blogosphere is a wonderful, diverse community where many of us are sharing our knowledge and research, and in so doing, building an archive of information that has seriously dented the narrative of the tabloids and mainstream media. Sure, we don’t all agree on everything. But that is the beauty of it. Readers are free to accept or reject what is put out. MJ fans, especially, are well informed and well aware that they are free to accept or reject any opinions or theories that are put out. They are free to absorb it all, to compare views, and to draw their own conclusions. However, with that being said, I have certainly seen my share of intolerant communities, where bloggers belittle, bully, and sometimes even block anyone who disagrees with them. A few have even gone on actively aggressive campaigns against other bloggers, publicly questioning the intents and motives of fellow bloggers-energy that certainly could be put to far better use by focusing on the subject at hand-Michael Jackson. Sadly, however, it seems that the MJ blogosphere, like so many things these days, is not immune to petty jealousy and the desire to drive off the “competition.” And I sometimes feel that this is the very motive behind a lot of the petty snipping and heel biting that I see.
But this does raise an interesting question. Are we, in fact (as this blogger suggests) guilty of merely supplanting the tabloid spins with a spin of another kind? Are we merely supplanting the mainstream MJ narrative-which has been mostly concocted by journalists with agendas-with an equally questionable narrative that is being spun by well intended fans and armchair researchers who also have agendas? Perhaps more to the point, is that a bad thing? Perhaps the answer is both yes and no.
The crux of her argument is that most of us did not know Michael; therefore, none of us can be qualified as the final authority on him. Well, that’s true. My favorite joke-especially when I hear someone being touted as a “Michael Jackson expert”-is that there is only one person who could have ever been a true “Michael Jackson expert,” and he has been gone for over five years! (Some would even argue if Michael really “knew” Michael!). But by that same argument, we would also have to reject the full body of scholarship on every single historical figure who has ever lived! In the academic world, it is quite common to refer to colleagues as a “John Keats scholar” or a “Geoffrey Chaucer scholar.” But all the title really means is a nod to the amount of time and energy the scholar has poured into researching their subject. They have earned a certain entitlement due to their hard work and dedication, at least enough that students know to listen carefully and take good notes when they speak-if they want to pass the course. And, of course, it may get them invited to all the right parties, where they will be sure to sit and banter with other “authorities” on many past lives. But no one is ever truly an “authority” on anyone, no matter how many ph.d’s we have or how much research we pour into that person’s life. We might, over time and with enough dedication, eventually get all of the facts of a life down. But always, the many facets of what truly comprises a human being-their heart, their soul, their dreams, their motivations and aspirations- will always be that elusive shadow we chase. What we think we know about famous celebrities or historical figures is constantly being deconstructed and then revisioned by subsequent generations. So, too, will it be with Michael. Certainly our thirst to understand these individuals who have shaped and impacted our world doesn’t end just because they die-if anything, death intensifies the need to understand what their lives meant. If everyone ceased researching and writing about historical figures just because they have died and because we did not know them, then pretty soon there would be no biographies left; no documentaries, no library of research or knowledge at all. We can say we didn’t know them, so why bother?
We Often Don’t Even Grant Authority To The Ones Who Knew Him, So How On Earth Can We Entitle It To Anyone Else-Including Ourselves?
On the other hand, when the subject is Michael Jackson, how much credence or authority is really granted to anyone who knew him? I never met Michael, but I have met and in some cases have maintained close contact with many who did know him-some quite intimately. To this day, I have only shared a small fraction of some of the wonderful stories and memories that have been shared with me because I considered those things to be private information. Having access to this knowledge, however, still doesn’t make me someone who “knew” Michael Jackson nor does it qualify me in any way to wear the label of “expert” or “final authority.” It is simply what it is-knowledge that has come about second hand, via two degrees of separation, and for which many variables must be accounted, including the nature of that individual’s relationship, the time period in which they knew him (for as with most of us, Michael changed and evolved over time) and their own motivations and experiences, which of course will invariably color their memories of Michael.
But as for actually knowing Michael and allowing that to serve as some kind of right to authority, we have certainly all seen for ourselves just how much weight that carries in the fan community-and even in the media. Karen Faye, Frank Cascio, Bill Whitfield, David Gest, and many others I could name are all certainly people who knew Michael Jackson as well as anyone could know him, yet their comments and motivations have constantly been held up for scrutiny, and even dismissed outright when they did not suit the preferred narrative of fans. Likewise, individuals who knew Michael and who have tried to speak out positively in the press are almost always invariably dismissed as biased sources (if only the same standard would be applied to those who speak negatively!). Lisa Marie Presley can go on Oprah and say she had a real marriage with Michael, and there will still be people calling her a liar. Michael’s own family, including his parents and siblings, would for sure have to count as people who knew him. Heck, he came from his own mother’s body! Yet I don’t even have to touch on how much “authority” or credibility they are granted by many, especially fans, when they talk about Michael! I have seen how quickly any quote from anyone who knew Michael can be shot down by fans and foes alike who don’t wish to accept any “truth” about Michael that deviates from their own-good or bad. And while it’s good to keep a critical mind, it is sometimes just as important to keep an open one.
If you read the information I posted on my “About” page, which I haven’t altered much since November of 2009, I made it very clear that I do not consider myself a Michael Jackson expert. I considered myself a researcher and newly turned on fan whose mind was being blown by all that I was learning about Michael. I was on fire with all that I was discovering and wanted to share it with the world. I figured if I encouraged at least one person to take a closer look at the life and work of Michael Jackson, I had fulfilled my mission. I am human, of course, and not immune to the allure that is the attraction of the name Michael Jackson. Over the past five years, I have seen so many attach themselves to this name, all in the name of research, scholarship, and “authority”-and, sometimes, ultimately, glory. In time, many individuals come to develop their own following-in Michael’s name, of course, but it is still a kind of ego-driven glorification, a kind of fame that inevitably is riding the coattails of Michael Jackson. I am sure most do not start out that way, or with that intention. It evolves over time and perhaps to some degree, is both subconscious and unavoidable. If you do good work, you are eventually recognized. Then people who love Michael come to love what you do. And that, of course, is a very satisfying and rewarding feeling-as long as we can keep the egos in check.
It Is Highly Doubtful That One, Definitive Version Of The “Truth” Will Ever Be Arrived At. But Over Time, We Can Certainly Chip Away At The Media Caricature To A More Balanced Perspective.
It is true that none of us can stand as the final authority. In the end, I think this blogger made a very valid point. We can only be the authority of ourselves and what Michael’s life, art, and struggles mean for us. But by the same token, I think it would be a terribly impoverished state of affairs if we all suddenly threw in our towels and ceased asking the hard questions about Michael’s life-what it meant, who he was, and what happened to him. After all, it has largely been through the hard work and dedication of bloggers that, finally, many of the long held misconceptions about Michael are being deconstructed. Social media and the internet have eaten away at the almighty power that the tabloids and mainstream media once had. The dedicated research of MJ bloggers has provided an invaluable wealth of knowledge. I don’t think that can be a bad thing-and I am frankly not sure how I feel when someone lumps us in the same category as the tabloids that ought to be “burned,” even if albeit by “we” I am assuming she is including herself as well. Her argument, in essence, seems to be that we are just another side of the tabloid coin. Well, as someone who has been, by turns, both frustrated and enlightened, betrayed and supported, by the MJ blogosphere community-and at times outraged by some of the holier-than-thou attitudes that prevail- I can certainly see both sides of the argument. However, it may be a slippery slope when we start asking the question of who really has the authority to write on Michael Jackson.
Michael’s story-and his legacy-may be best left to the music and words he wrote. However, that isn’t going to stop a whole host of others from jumping on that ship, from fans and scholars, to music critics and cultural analyists, to haters and tabloid journalists, to biographers and even psychoanalysts. I have heard it often said that the bloggers, in fact, may be the last and only real bastion of truth that is out there for the MJ researcher. With such a myriad of opinions, it may be impossible to ever pin down one definitive version of that “truth,” however. When all is said and done, most fans will pick and choose and assemble the narrative that suits them best. Perhaps Michael might even say, if that’s the version of me that makes them happy, so be it. As has so often been said, what matters most-what should and HAS to be our top priority-is clearing his name from the allegations. His legacy will more than survive all else. So we might agree to disagree on whether he was always a strict vegetarian, whether he preferred white wine to red, or exactly how many surgeries he actually did have-in the end, this is all small fry stuff and none of it will ultimately matter.
So who has the authority to write on Michael Jackson? The answer may well be all of us, and none of us. If you have a passion for him; if his music or his life touched you, affected you in any way, you have the authority to write about him. If you have read and researched enough to feel you have a say about him, then you have the authority to write about him. If you feel there are still questions about his death that need to be answered, or even questions about his life that still need to be answered, then you have the authority to write about him. Does that make your word the final authority, however? Certainly not. You have to consider that yours is just one of thousands of voices-perhaps even millions-who are contributing to the fabric of that “truth,” perhaps a “truth” that will never be definitive but which, over time, will certainly be much more accurate and multi-faceted than had we all remained silent, simply allowing the tabloids and the media to tell that story. In time, Michael’s story will be one that has been sculpted and shaped by many hands, from the fans of remote African villages to Harvard Ph.D’s.
We bloggers do have a responsibility. With every word about Michael Jackson that we cast into cyberspace, we are formulating and shaping someone’s perception of him, whether for better or worse. That is not a responsibility to be taken lightly, nor one that is meant merely to stoke our own egos or whatever sense of “power” it gives. We have to remember that when it comes to that vast cosmic ocean of voices raised in search of truth about this man,each of us, individually, are just small drops in that ocean. Let’s not over inflate our worth. But by the same token, let’s not sell ourselves short, either. After all, it takes every single drop, working in concert, to create that ocean.
Hi all! I am going to be on a brief hiatus for a little while, as I am very stressed with work right now and trying to get things caught up before we leave on an out of town trip for the weekend. To tide you over in the meantime, here is an article that has been buried for a long time in the old, pre-2011 Allforloveblog archives. I thought it would be worth resurrecting for two reasons: One, not many people saw it back when it was first posted, since the blog was still relatively new at that time. Secondly, I will soon be doing some important updates to this piece as I am planning my own on-the-road investigation into Michael’s Alabama roots (probably this spring). Now that I have access to the old archives and have copied most of the pre-2011 articles, I will be reprinting and updating quite a few of these classic posts as time permits. Enjoy, and I will be back with all new material, including the latest updates to the “Australian Conspiracy” soon!
NOT MANY PEOPLE WOULD GUESS THAT THIS TINY TOWN-POPULATION 592-WAS A PLACE MICHAEL JACKSON VISITED OFTEN
While most people are aware of Michael’s roots in Gary, Indiana, not as much is known about Michael’s ties to Alabama. As a native and lifelong resident of Alabama, this is a subject that has fascinated me–largely because, like many Alabamians, I was totally unaware of Michael’s Alabama ties until after his death. After all, it was never something that was widely publicized. His mother Katherine was born here, and her family then moved to Indiana when she was a small child. In fact, to the end of his own life, Michael Jackson retained a slight Alabama inflection, obvious in his speech (but one that, for the most part, only a discerning Alabmaian ear would pick up on). I do remember that it was a huge deal in 1984 when The Jacksons came to Birmingham to rehearse for the Victory tour-a huge deal because it meant, at least for those few weeks, we in Alabama had Michael Jackson all to ourselves for just a little while.
But what most of us Alabamians did not know was just how often Michael was in the state, usually lowkey and even incognitio, of course, to visit his mother’s relatives in Russell County and the small city of Hurtsboro (Katherine was actually born in nearby Barbour County, but her mother and stepfather later resettled in Hurtsboro). In LaToya’s autobiography, she states that Hurtsboro’s population is around 1,000. But a more recent census listed on Wikipedia gives the town’s population as 592.
The name of the town may be more than a bit appropriate, considering that Michael Jackson and my home state, unfortunately, did not always have the most cordial relationship. While I’m sure Michael may have had some happy memories of the state, it seemed later in life that coming to Alabama often spelled disaster for him. His string of bad luck in the state included everything from a racially motivated beating that landed him in an Alabama hospital, to a severe case of stomach cramps that nearly put an end to the Victory tour in ’84.
Of all the things I have learned about Michael’s comings and goings in Alabama, the beating remains for me the most disturbing-disturbing for two reasons, one being the fact that it occurred AFTER he was already famous (in fact, the incident occurred post-Thriller) and, 2: Why was it kept out of the local media and never reported? What were they afraid of? Or did Michael himself choose not to go public with it?
But before getting into all of that, let’s back up for a minute to get some more background on Michael’s Alabama roots.
MICHAEL STAYED IN BIRMINGAM FOR SEVERAL WEEKS DURING THE VICTORY TOUR REHEARSALS
After June 25th, 2009, a rash of local Alabama writers took an avid interest in educating the public about Michael’s maternal ties to the state. One of the more in-depth and interesting articles came from a colleague of mine, Joseph Margetanski. Margetanski and I both do freelance articles for the same local Alabama paper, “The Valley Planet.” Margetanski had spent a considerable amount of time tracing Michael’s family roots in the state. In his article that appeared in the July 23rd issue, Margetanski wrote:
Michael Jackson’s family ties to Alabama date back to the beginning of the 20th century. His grandfather, Prince Albert Screws, was born October 16, 1907 in Jernigan in RussellCounty, Alabama, just across the state line from Columbus, Georgia. He saw service in the First World War, but his main occupations were railroad work and cotton farming. He later moved to neighboring BarbourCounty. He married Martha Upshaw (from whose mother, Josephine, Michael received his middle name Joseph). Like her husband, Martha was also an Alabama native. And on May 4, 1930, Martha gave birth to Kattie B. Screws.
Kattie’s life was a challenge almost from the moment she was born. Shortly after her birth, the Screws family left BarbourCounty and their name behind. Prince changed their last name to Scruse, and changed Kattie’s name to Katherine Esther Scruse. As if getting three names wasn’t traumatic enough, young Katherine developed polio-all before she was four.
Katherine beat the deadly disease, but it left its mark on her. To this day, she walks with a limp. After her bout with polio, at the age of four, the Scruse family moved north, as did many African-American families. They settled in East Chicago, Indiana, not far from where her famous son would be born. It was there that Katherine met Joseph Jackson, a former boxer…
…As brief as they were, Katherine’s Alabama roots tugged at the souls of her children as well. Michael Jackson sang backup vocals for Kenny Rogers in the country singer’s 1980 hit “Goin’ Home To Alabama.” Four years later, The Jackson 5-brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael-rehearsed in Birmingham for their “Victory” tour. They greeted fans from their hotel balcony, after a heartfelt request from the city’s mayor, Richard Arrington. At least two Alabama residents became intimately involved with the youngest, and most famous, member of the pop group. John Ray of Birmingham, founder of Just In Time Music, Inc., promoted three Michael Jackson concerts in Dallas. David Rowland of Summerdale was Jackson’s pilot for six months, , while the rising star was touring North America. Rowland flew Jackson as far as Niagara Falls and Vancouver…
Not only were the Jacksons in and out of the state many times through the years, but often, in times of her greatest troubles, Michael’s mother Katherine would return here (often on her own) simply to seek solace and to regroup spiritually. Of course, that would make sense. Often, in dark times, one can find the greatest comfort in getting back to their roots. In the early 80′s, when Joseph’s adultery had finally gotten the best of her, Katherine escaped for several weeks to the refuge of tiny Hurstsboro. Later, she would return on a search for her family roots. This was when she looked up a young local man, Larry Screws, who had no idea until that visit that he was actually Michael Jackson’s distant cousin!
But in a county as small and rural as Russell County, Alabama, it doesn’t take much asking around for anyone named “Screws” for one thing to lead to another. Eventually, Katherine was directed to Larry Screws,who of course was delighted to learn he was actually related to the King of Pop. He says it was the “glitz and glamour” of Michael’s life that kept them apart. (Note: I was not able to embed it, but if you click on the link for the below article, there is an interesting local news video on Larry Screws and Michael’s ties to Alabama).
“We were just proud of knowing that they were related to us.” said Larry Screws.
Larry Screws was a distant cousin to Michael Jackson, but he didn’t know it until he was in his early 20’s.
“I guess the thing that strikes us most is that we didnt know of them until she came to us.” said Screws.
Katherine Jackson, Michael’s mother’s decided to search for her relatives.
The search lead her back to the place she was born, Alabama. She was born in Barbour County and moved up to East Chicago, Indiana when she was four.
Her maiden name Katherine Screws.
Larry says that’s all she needed to say to find her way to her them.
“Russell County is a county where everybody knows everybody.” said Screws.
Larry says the life of glitz and glamour is the reason he never had a chance to meet his cousin.
“I guess because of the celebrity status we never became close.” said Screws.
Of course, given the frequency of Michael’s visits here, it was probably much more likely that Michael simply did not know of his cousin’s existence. The Screws/Scruse are a large, extended family, scattered throughout the neighboring counties of Russell and Barbour. And every day, it is almost impossible to not find someone claiming to be kin to Michael, claims that are nearly impossible to either verify or disprove with any certainty. But given the proliferation of Scruse/Screws in the area, it’s usually far more logical to assume they are probably being truthful than not.
Michael’s family ties to the state have for sure been played up more since his death. Even in 1984, when The Jacksons spent several weeks in Birmingham rehearsing for Victory, I didn’t recall hearing that much about his family ties. However, as I said, I do recall that his residency here was a HUGE deal. The biggest superstar in the world was right here in Alabama, rehearsing for a tour, and you’d better believe, the local media made the most of it! If he ventured out of the hotel to go to the park, we heard all about it. If he went shopping at a local mall (which he did, in disguise, of course) it made the local papers even as far north as where I live, approximately eighty-two miles away. When he went Witnessing, it was all the talk on the local radio, though of course they did not reveal to the public that he had gone Witnessing door-to-door in the Birmingham suburb of Trussville until the next day.
I remember at the time the reaction of many locals was that they thought it was a little bizarre. Back then, a lot of people weren’t aware that Michael was a Jehovah’s Witness, so it kind of struck people as odd-the idea of this mega-celebrity going door-to-door, in disguise, to talk to locals about Jehovah and to pass out copies of The Watchtower. We didn’t know back then that Witnessing played a huge role in Michael’s faith; it was something he had done for years, even after he was famous, and something he would continue to do for several years thereafter.
I’m sure there were more than a few very surprised Birmingham residents who, after the story broke, were thinking back to that “nice but rather nervous acting, young man with the afro and mustache” who knocked on their door, and thinking, “Was it…could it have been….?” In interviews, Michael always said that one of the things he enjoyed about Witnessing door-to-door was the rare glimpses it gave him into normalcy; an excuse to see how average, ordinary people lived their lives. Usually, his disguises worked well enough, but he said that while it was easy enough to fool the men of the household, the women were much more challenging-and the kids even worse. They would see right through the disguises. “Mommy, it’s Michael Jackson!”
(Note: The original “Alabama News” link I posted with this article in 2010, which detailed some of the stories from the chauffeur who took Michael on that Trussville Witnessing venture, has since disappeared. Among his stories included an incident with a vicious dog, and how he tried to park the limo insconspicously on a residential street while Michael walked on foot throughout the neighborhoods. I am hoping at some point I will be able to track this driver down-he apparently owns a limo rental service in Birmingham-and interview him).
Here is what is apparently the only remnants of that story still available online:
1984: Michael Jackson left Birmingham after concluding rehearsals for his “Victory” tour at the BJCC. He was largely unseen during the time here, save for a balcony appearance and a Sunday morning when Jackson, a Jehovah’s Witness at the time, disguised himself and went door-to-door in Trussville for about two hours. He wore a mustache, afro wig, hat and black suit while he handed out materials about his religion. No one knew it was him, until it hit the papers the next day.
I am not quite sure why this outlet reported it as such a lowkey affair, because my memory of that time is certainly quite different. However, I think they mean it was lowkey in the sense that Michael did rarely come out of hiding to show himself during those two weeks. Rather, it was the intrigue; the possibility; the ANTICIPATION of a possible Michael Jackson sighting that fueled most of the local hysteria. Judging by the local media, it was, however, almost a relief when the rehearsals were over and the last vestige of The Jacksons had finally packed up and moved on. The presence of Michael Jackson in a town the size of Birmingham (even if, granted, it IS our largest city) had practically brought the city to a standstill, with traffic jams, crowd control and security issues a constant problem. Although it was an exciting few weeks, I think most of the town’s more conservative citizens (i.e, “the old fogies”) were heaving a big sigh of relief when the madness was over. But oddly enough, in a time when my entire home state of Alabama was caught up in Michaelmania and reporting his every move, his every coming and going, it seems rather bizarre that the most horrific thing that could have possibly happened to him-or to anyone-went unreported and ignored in the media.
A SEVERE, RACIALLY MOTIVATED BEATING LANDED MICHAEL IN AN ALABAMA HOSPITAL…SOMETHING THE PAPERS NEVER TOLD US
In LaToya’s autobiography, she gives a brief but horrific account of how things went down. The incident apparently occurred during one of Michael’s many routine visits to his mother’s relatives in Russell County. During a drive with Bill Bray, an associate who had made the trip with Michael and Katherine, Bray decided to stop for gas and to use the restroom. Michael, who loved nothing better than a chance to browse and putter around in small shops where no one would know who he was, couldn’t resist the temptation to go into the shop next door. When Bray came out of the gas station, he noticed Michael was gone. Then, according to LaToya’s account, he heard this “Help! Help” coming from the shop. He ran inside to find Michael on the floor and a white man standing over him, kicking him viciously in the stomach and head, over and over, while shouting, “I hate all you niggers!”
It took Bray several minutes of struggling to get the guy off of Michael. The incident reportedly left him with several severe cuts and bodily injuries, resulting in a hospital stay. As it turned out, the reputed “cause” of the attack was that, according to the shopowner (the guy who was beating Michael), Michael had put a “candy bar in his pocket.” Bray argued and said that was ridiculous…”He doesn’t steal, and he doesn’t even like candy!” Michael continued to protest his innocence, but the man kept insisting that Michael was trying to steal from him.
Well, actually, I think Bill Bray may have been trying at least in part to cover for his friend-Michael certainly DID love candy-but I highly doubt he was trying to steal; this was Michael Jackson, who had the #1 selling album in the world, why in heck would he need to steal a fifty-cent candy bar! (Though the way he liked to pull pranks, it’s entirely possible he could have been “messing” with the guy as a joke, but if that was the case, it was a prank that backfired on him horribly).
But whatever the case, the fact was that the guy never gave him the benefit of the doubt, and for one reason only-because he was black. Reportedly, the man never even recognized who he was; as LaToya put it, Michael to him was “just another nigger he could abuse.”
So during the time that was supposed to have been a fun and pleasant visit with relatives ended up being, for Michael, a very painful time laid up in an Alabama hospital, being treated for his severe cuts and bruises.
As the story went, Katherine called from Alabama to report what had happened. The family was horrified and outraged; according to LaToya, Jermaine was ready to fly down here and “whoop Alabama ass.” But cooler reasoning prevailed, and instead, a lawsuit was filed against the store owner. However, nothing came of it.
“Two girls standing outside had witnessed the beating, and one offered to testify on Michael’s behalf. We felt very strongly that racial violence must be stopped, but unfortunately, justice did not prevail in this case. The racist harbored no regrets. In fact, discovering that the black man he’d assaulted was a celebrity only inflamed his hatred. Now he threatened tokillMichael. Bill convinced us that this person was mad, that the threat was quite serious, and that it was better for everyone to drop the action. None of us was happy about this, but there was really no choice.”-LaToya Jackson.
As I said before, my big question-since this incident reportedly occurred at or close to the same time as when Michael was here for the Victory tour and rehearsals-was why it was never reported in the local media? Or for that matter, why Michael Jackson being the victim of a racist beating never made it into the news at all (amazing, considering how his every sneeze or fart was usually fodder for the tabloids?). However, given that the lawsuit was dropped out of concern for what action this guy might have taken, perhaps it’s understandable why the incident was kept lowkey. But I also have to wonder if Alabama didn’t feel some sense of shame that something like this could happen to the biggest star in the world right here in our own backyard…and was that part of the reason why it never made it into the papers?
Through the years, it seemed that Michael continued to have bad luck whenever he crossed paths with my home state. A Brazilian chef, Rema Vila Real, who had worked for Michael, and whose talents for healthy dishes was one he keenly appreciated, recalled in an interview the time she was mysteriously but urgently summoned to drop everything she was doing and get on a plane-immediatly.
“… I was living in West Los Angeles in a small apartment when I got a phone call. The person on the phone asked me to look outside. He said: “See the limousine? Get in it, now!” I told him I could not because I was taking care of a person off the street and could not leave him. They said that they would send someone to look after the person right away and for me to get into the car. I told them I had to change my clothes because I all dirty from cleaning. They didn’t care. Finally I agreed when the man arrived to take care of my guest and I was taken to a big building in Beverly Hills and up to the very top penthouse. It was very luxurious.
The man on the other side of the desk handed me a ticket and said ‘you are going to the airport right now. Here is your ticket.” I asked him why. He explained to me that Michael Jackson was having stomach aches and specifically requested me to be his “nutritionist” on the “Thriller” tour. He was feeling sick to his stomach and refused to go on stage until they sent me to be his private cook. They were all very nervous. They said they were losing millions of dollars in canceled shows and I had to go right then.
I told them I could not and could only go in the morning. After a lot of arguing, the agreed to let me go home and they picked me up early in the morning and I was off to BirminghamAlabama…”
So…it looks like the stomach ailment from unhealthy eating that was costing the tour millions reached its crisis point in…where else, Alabama! (Maybe too many stops at those Birmingham barbecue joints, hmmm?).
But it wasn’t all bad. In fact, one of the funniest segments of the special Michael Jackson’s Private Home Movies is when he talks about going “down home” to Alabama, and we see the clip of Michael, his brothers and relatives having a good, old-fashioned hootenanny. Even though bad luck sometimes seemed to dog his steps in Alabama, I think he also enjoyed the bit of anonymity of just getting back to the country, traveling the backroads, shopping at The Salvation Army and being able, for a little while, to just drop the mask of stardom and see how us ol’ regular folks down here live. I can never travel I-65 (Alabama’s main north-south interstate) without thinking how many times Michael and his family must have traveled this road; probably more times than any of us everyday Alabamians will ever know. To this day, I still don’t think most people around here realize the extent of Michael Jackson’s Alabama connection.
But maybe that’s not a bad thing. At least it ensures that tiny Hurtsboro, Alabama and rural County Road 12 in Russell County are not destined to become mega tourist attractions anytime soon. Hopefully, they will remain as pure and untouched as they were in this hilarious clip from a Jackson Alabama road trip in 1979:
From time to time, I like to share with you what my students have written after our studies on “Black or White” and “Earth Song.” Here is one that was submitted last summer which left an impression on me. As always, I present my students’ views here exactly as they wrote them.
“Earth Song” by Garrett Rogers
In 1995 Michael Jackson released “Earth Song” on the album HIStory. To some, it was a song that they could understand, but to others it was something that brought their initial reactions to be very judgmental and condescending towards the work. “The six and half minute piece that materialized over the next seven years was unlike anything heard before in popular music” (Vogel). This was exactly how the public interpreted this song. While the critics kept critiquing, Michael Jackson knew exactly what he was doing when he released this top hit single. His spiritual background and how he would break away from it are key elements of why he would write this song.
While studying Michael Jackson this last week, I have come to know and understand things about his life that I never knew were true. I had always cast my judgment on him like everyone else did and didn’t know the truth about his work or his personal life. Michael really was a true musical genius and “Earth Song” is a prime example of how he could write and perform anything in a way that could be inspirational to millions. In learning about Michael I could see that throughout his whole life he was actually a very devout and spiritual person. His mother raised him to be a Jehovah’s Witness, which is a type of religion that can be extremely difficult to understand and interpret the faith, especially for a young boy like Michael. It would be very hard for any young man trying to find himself in life while ultimately preparing for an Armageddon that only 144,000 of the righteous would be able to survive and preside over the Earth. “He pored over the Bible while feeling deep anxiety about his eternal salvation” (Vogel). While becoming very confused with some of the doctrines of the faith, Michael decided to officially resign from the faith. In resigning from his faith, I think he was almost able to release a part of himself that couldn’t have been reached while being a devout/practicing Jehovah’s Witness. He was now able to take to a whole new meaning of who God was and what kind of relationship he could have with him into his life. “For me the form God takes is not the most important thing. What’s most important is the essence. My songs and dances are outlines for Him to come in and fill. I hold out the form, She puts in the sweetness” (Michael Jackson). I think this quote alone is how “Earth Song” was written. He doesn’t think God has a form but he knows that they are one together. He is now a prophet for God. He also loved our planet and most all the people that surrounded him. Michael was now using his gift of music and dancing to prophet with his God above, while still trying to impact literally the entire face of the Earth. If this were to have been anyone but Michael Jackson I would have told you this was impossible. God gifted him with so many things and he was just starting to realize how useful he could make of them.
I believe while cutting ties with his mother’s religion, there was still a lot to gain from that experience. He was able to develop a desire to learn, along with a touch of dedication towards something that you believe strongly in. I was shocked when we watched how he actually saved a child’s life in “Michael Jackson Visits Children’s Hospital.” While this title makes it sound like he did this type of thing once a year, they don’t want to portray Michael for being a true visionary in important matters in life that did not pertain to his own well-being. I still will stand by that I think this is a result of his mother being so involved in his life in a loving way, which was complete opposite of how his father was towards him.
“He is now a prophet for God”-Garrett Rogers
After Michael broke away from his mother’s religion he even began to write his feelings of his decision. In “Heaven Is Here” Michael says, “You are much more than I ever imagined/You are the sun and the moon/You and I were never separate, that was just an illusion.” He then goes on to say, “Let us celebrate the joy of life.” From this poem I can take away a few new things that Michael is experiencing. He is seeing his faith begin to work in the lives of others. That being said in “Earth Song,” he put everything inside a song that he felt strongly about including his newly developed faith towards God. While number of songs sold may not mean anything, this was his best selling song in the UK of all time. Michael had succeeded. He was able to take his experiences and his worldviews and put them into words. Not only were they just words, but they were visual examples of what he was talking about in his world-renowned music video.
With Michael breaking away from a religion and developing his own opinions and making his own decisions, he did himself and everyone that is inspired by him a great service. I think that his religious decision affected him for the rest of his career in music and in life. He was able to make a statement to the world by showing them who Michael Jackson really was in a six minute song. This was probably the happiest time of his life. He was at the peak of his career and he knew all too well that he would not have been able to accomplish any of this without the help of his mother showing him a part of religion that he didn’t want to pursue, along with God giving him his ultimate feeling of faith and love the rest of his life.
I have to admit, I am a recently converted “Breaking Bad”fanatic.The controversial but critically acclaimed AMC series, which just wrapped its fifth and final season and cleaned up at this year’s Emmy’s, has been a phenomenonal and critical success since its first season debuted in 2008. The story of a mild mannered family man and high school chemistry teacher who transforms, over a five season period, into a drug kingpin-a monster known as Heisenberg-struck an immediate and resonating chord with audiences. Despite the fact that its protagonist Walter White becomes, in fact, an anti-hero who commits some horrific acts in his quest for power, there is something inherently fascinating to us about the idea of transformation. Try as hard as they might, the writers of the show could not make us hate Walter White. We continued to root for this chemist geek who, at first manages to genuinely convince us and himself that he is doing it all for his family (in the series, he had been diagnosed with lung cancer and at first, was motivated by the idea of the money he could make for his family by cooking and distributing meth. He rationalizes his actions by thinking that the consequences to himself don’t matter; after all, he’s going to be dead soon. But over time,we realize it is no longer about his family-they are just the excuse. He comes to love the power that his new role, and new identity, gives him). We rooted for him precisely because there is something inherently appealing in the idea of the underdog coming out on top, and even moreso, in the satisfaction that comes from a formerly emasculated man being able to take control of his life and, in essence, to “get his balls back.” This was the formula that made American Beauty such a success in 1999, when a similarly anti-heroic character named Lester Burnham-“an ordinary guy with nothing to lose”- became part of the national consciousness. With the character of Walter White in Breaking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan simply took the character of Lester Burnham to a whole new level, one that completely foregoes any idea of the moral compass.
As I often do with subjects I find equally interesting, I began to do some research for cross references. I became curious to know if Michael Jackson ever watched this show, or knew about it. After all, he would have still been alive when the first season aired in 2008. Well, I still don’t know if he ever actually watched it (for the record, I don’t believe Michael was a particularly avid TV watcher of new shows. He had a lot of classic TV show he loved, such as The Twilight Zone, which is going to figure quite prominently in this post, but overall, I think his tastes ran more towards classic films). But I did find a very interesting story which reveals that Michael’s influence on this show-and especially of lead character Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul-might have possibly been more than anyone ever knew.
In an interview on The Jimmy Kimmel show that aired earlier this year, Aaron Paul revealed that in 2007 (which would have been just before landing the role of Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad) he met Michael Jackson and the two of them ended up having a very interesting heart-to-heart conversation over shots of tequila. Here is the video of that interview. Jimmy Kimmel, of course, is his usual dickwad self, but just ignore him. What is interesting is what Paul has to say about the encounter:
Now, I will tell you why the story of this conversation is interesting to me considering the direction that Jesse Pinkman’s character took. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show’s premise, I’ll just offer this brief summary. Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher who decides to “break bad” at age fifty, is first introduced to the world of meth when he rides along with his DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, to the scene of a bust where, it turns out, one of Walter’s former students, Jesse Pinkman, is cooking for the gang. From there, Walter and Jesse decide to hook up on the sly, and the rest is TV history.
At least part of the series’ critical acclaim had much to do with the arc of Jesse’s character. At first, it was easy to root for Walter, the bumbling and well meaning guy who just wants to provide for his family after he’s gone. Jesse Pinkman is every bit the little punk-ass, a street kid who (we think) is guilty of corrupting his former teacher. But Walter, as we learn, is still very much the adult figure here, and thus the authority figure-the one in control. Who is corrupting who? As the series progresses, we learn that Jesse has an estranged relationship with his parents, who eventually disown him and refuse to have anything further to do with him. Jesse becomes a kind of orphan, cast adrift, which of course makes him vulnerable to “Mr. White” who becomes his substitute father figure. Over time, the relationship corrodes, for as Walter’s character sinks deeper and deeper into a kind of moral abyss, Jesse eventually has a moral awakening. He gradually comes to realize that, in fact, he is the one who has allowed himself to become corrupted. And after witnessing-and being cajoled into participating in-many of Walter’s most devious schemes, Jesse eventually comes to the realization that the only way he can save himself is to break free of the monster-Walter White. But it will not be easy. Without giving away too many spoilers, suffice it to say that Jesse Pinkman has to learn a lot of tough lessons in what true love and forgiveness is all about.
Aaron Paul stated that his conversation with Michael centered on the concept of forgiveness; of being able to let go of the poison that is anger. Michael evidently told him that he had to tap into the ability to forgive those who had hurt him. Hearing of this conversation does not surprise me. Forgiveness as a necessary means of healing was a subject that Michael referred to often, both in interviews and in various speeches.
As part of Jesse Pinkman’s character arc, we see him bond with Walter White as a surrogate father, a bond that eventually turns to distrust and then to outright hate. He goes so far as to plot to kill Walter, thinking it is the only way he will ever be free from both his influence and his threat. But an interesting thing happens in the end. These two characters had been through so much together. I believe that everyone, deep down, was rooting for a reconciliation between Walter and Jesse. While the show never quite delivers that resolution, we do realize in the show’s powerful finale that, in the end, forgiveness has indeed conquered hate.
Did Michael’s words resonant with Aaron Paul as he dug deep within Jesse’s psyche to find the power of forgiveness, even under the most unforgiveable of circumstances? It might be a stretch to say yes-after all, Paul himself did not say so. But it seems ironic in a funny way that the conversation, as described by Paul, almost uncannily echoed some of the same conversations that Jesse would end up having with Walter White on the show. So we can imagine this as very much a case of art imitating reality. The orphaned kid is essentially tutored in life-and manipulated-by the man who should have been his role model figure. In real life, the struggling young actor meets older, succesful performer who, not unlike Walter White, has learned the ropes. And maybe a thing or two about “breaking bad.”
What exactly does the term “breaking bad” or “to break bad” mean? Well, apparently it was a well known phrase long before the famous TV show. Here is what The Urban Dictionary says:
“Breaking bad” comes from the American Southwest slang phrase “to break bad,” meaning to challenge conventions, to defy authority and to skirt the edges of the law.
An article by Lily Rothman from “Time,” written to coincide with the show’s finale, dug even deeper into the roots of the phrase. Here is an excerpt:
Here’s a question that’s been hovering in the Breaking Bad fandom for years, but now worth revisiting as the series’ finale is almost upon us: What does it actually mean to break bad?
Show creator Vince Gilligan has said (as in the video above) that he had thought it was a commonly used phrase when he decided to use it as a title, not knowing that the expression was a Southern regionalism from the area in Virginia from which he hails. It means “to raise hell,” he says, as in “I was out the other night at the bar…and I really broke bad.”
But, while the gist of his definition is pretty widely accepted, Gilligan’s use-it-in-a-sentence definition of the phrase is an incomplete accounting of its meanings. In general, “breaking bad” connotes more violence than “raising hell” does. A glance at the bevy of definitions at user-sourced Urban Dictionary reveals that different contributors think the words possess a wide variety of nuances: to “break bad” can mean to “go wild,” to “defy authority” and break the law, to be verbally “combative, belligerent, or threatening” or, followed by the preposition “on,” to “completely dominate or humiliate.”
Reference books back up that third meaning seen at Urban Dictionary. The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English gives a definition of “to act in a threatening, menacing manner”; American Slang gives a similar definition and traces the phrase to 1970s black usage. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says it’s African-American slang from the ’60s that means “to become angry or aggressive”—and that on 1980s college campuses it could (perhaps in a “bad equals good” sense?) mean “to perform well.” The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms labels the phrase as Southern slang that means “to behave in a violent manner for no good reason.”
One of the earliest instances of the phrase appearing in the New York Times backs up the definition (to turn violent unnecessarily) and history (black, Southern, 1970s) suggested by those lexicographers. In a 1980 excerpt from John Langston Gwaltney’s Drylongso, a Self-Portrait of Black America, an oral history of African-American communities; in describing his view of race relations, a black man from rural Missouri told the author that “if a white man was to come over here and ask me anything, I wouldn’t break bad with him.”
In the interview, Jimmy Kimmel made a wise crack about the story of Michael taking shots of tequila as “the most normal story about Michael Jackson I’ve ever heard.” While I could take a lot of issues with this ignorant statement, it does illustrate in at least one crucial way why Michael felt the need to “break bad.” In the late 1980’s, we saw a very conscious campaign on Michael’s part to break free from his formerly “goody two shoes” image and to embrace a much darker side. It was not, of course, an overnight decision, nor was all of it completely conscious on his part. Some of it was part of a conscious image shift; some of it stemmed from real issues going on in his life, which made it impossible to hold on to certainly formerly held values. And a lot of it would be born out of two decades’ worth of persecution, which eventually is bound to cause even the most gentle and forgiving of souls to “break bad.”
Why did we so universally embrace Walter White? There is something inherently within human nature that responds to the idea of gaining power, and winning respect. In the fantasy world of TV and movies, characters like Walter White and Michael Corleone vicariously fulfill our need to feel powerful, respected, and even feared. What bullied child doesn’t secretly fantasize about one day being able to whoop ass on his tormentors? It is a basic human need that is seldom given outlet in real life, where we are taught that violence isn’t the answer and that we should turn the other cheek; be “the bigger person.” To some degree, these are good platitutdes to live by. But to live by them also involves swallowing a lot of hurt and bitterness, which isn’t necessarily healthy, either. As William Blake wrote in his famous poem “The Poison Tree,” “I swallowed my wrath/my wrath did grow.”
The idea of morphing from a meek and humble character to one who rises against his enemies as a force to be reckoned with-who essentially “breaks bad”-is an idea that had similarly started to consume Michael Jackson’s imagination at least as early as Thriller. Transformation, of course, is a central theme of that video. “I’m not like other guys,” he warns Ola Ray, in that deceptively sweet voice, right before turning into a monster. In a rare rehearsal of that scene, which was first shown as part of Michael’s Private Home Movies, we see him expanding upon his Thriller character as someone who had been bullied, and wasn’t going to take it anymore.
The character, and the transformation, seemed to echo many personal and professional changes that were taking place. The mid to late 80’s was a turbulent time for Michael, when he was undergoing a lot of change and a kind of new awakening of his direction, both personally and professionally. The break from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, his lifelong religion, was just one deciding factor. Throughout this time, he seemed to be making a conscious effort to stand up and shout; to make a bold stand against a world that, for too long, had given him lots of musical accolades, perhaps, but little in the way of actual respect.
In 1987, Michael took the idea of “breaking bad” quite literally with his third solo studio album, simply titled “Bad.” There has already been much critical analysis and debate as to exactly what the term “bad” meant for Michael. Some critics and scholars believe that “bad” and its accompanying catch phrase “who’s bad” was intended as a metaphor for “black” and I believe there is a lot of merit to this claim, particularly with the title track’s video and its famous stand-off scene between Michael’s character (Daryl) and Wesley Snipes. In essence, this was Michael boldly affirming his stance as a black artist (especially if we buy into the notion of “you ain’t bad” as a metaphor for “you ain’t black). The word “bad” essentially has many layers of meaning within the context of the album, its title track, and the title track’s video. Of course, in the late 80’s we can’t forget that “bad” was also a slang word with an inverted meaning-“bad” meant “good.” But clearly, when Michael morphs from mild mannered Daryl to a hood figure in black leather, he is also playing on the idea of “bad” as in “bad ass.” Or more to the point, as in “I will kick your ass if you mess with me.”
For sure, it was a side of Michael that we hadn’t really seen up until that point. Even in “Beat It,” with all of its macho swaggering, he was essentially saying that the way to be a real man is to avoid violence. But by the time of “Bad,” when he faces off with Wesley Snipes’s character in the final showdown scene, we sense that not only does he have no intention of backing down, but would actually welcome the chance to throw in a punch. The final exchange of looks between the two says it all. This kid is bad. And dangerous (which, perhaps not coincidentally, would be the name of the next album on the agenda).
Clearly, the album titles-and the messages they conveyed-were not accidental. If “Bad” was all about sending the message that “I’m not gonna take anymore” then “Dangerous” was an even bolder statement. Although the media persecution against Michael was not yet in full swing, it was certainly by then very much bubbling under. The title track, “Dangerous,” may have been about another one of Michael’s femme fatales. However, the overall message that Michael seemed bent on conveying with the album’s title and content is that, yes, I can be a real threat, and it may be in your best interest to watch over your shoulder. Whereas with “Bad” he seemed to be making a stand, what we see with the progression of “Dangerous” is one who has actually gone beyond being on the defensive.
In one of the most famous scenes from “Breaking Bad,” Walter’s wife Skyler, who has recently discovered her husband’s double life and has become something of an accomplice to it, expresses her concerns. “Just admit you’re in danger,” she says, to which Walter responds-not as Walter but, rather, as his Heisenberg persona-“I am not in danger. I AMdanger. I’m not the guy whose door gets knocked on. I am the guy who knocks.” On the “Dangerous” album Michael perhaps most epitomizes this stance with the controversial “Black or White” video in which he morphs from a happy and spite-ish figure who slips interchangeably between cultures and races, to a raging black panther. Even the album’s more romantic moments seem imbued with a sense of threat. In the track “In the Closet” he is clearly calling all the shots of an illicit relationship. In the video of “Remember The Time” he is the cunning seducer who steals a king’s wife-the queen, no less-right from under his nose.
With “Dangerous,” Michael may have been sending a similar message as the one that Walter delivers to Skyler-“I’m not in danger; I AM the danger,” via the guise of his new persona. If one examines the progression of his one-word album titles, they reveal an interesting narrative and arc, from “Bad” to “Dangerous” to “HIStory” to “Invincible.” They each carry their own message of defiance, with “Invincible” perhaps as the culminating defiance-“You can keep trying to kill me; you can keep trying to bury me, but I’ll always come back.”
More to the point, Michael specifically says in that album’s final track, “Threatened,” “I’ll come back to haunt you.” This carries the message to an even darker-and perhaps scarier-depth. In other words, it could also be interpreted as, “Even if you succeed in killing me off physically, I will still haunt you from beyond.”
Michael’s body of work created an interesting paradox. On the one hand, he was the philanthropist and ecologist who implored us to look “at the man in the mirror” and “make that change”; who pleaded the need to “Heal The World.” Yet the bulk of his body of work, especially from “Bad” forward, seemed to be as much about defiance as love. Perhaps this came from a deep-seated recognition that his message could only be conveyed via a price. He could not simply be “the angel messenger.” His work would require the need to don many masks, including that of scapegoat, monster, and even devil. His greatest “message” songs represent the best of his spiritual ideals. But his songs about “being bad” are perhaps even more interesting to me on some levels, for they best represent his humanity.
In the case of the fictional Walter White character, he first “breaks bad” as a direct result of external circumstances. He is a guy who has been pushed to his limit, by finances, hard luck, and the fact that many have taken advantage of him. His alter ego “Heisenberg” is at first born out of a kind of evil necessity. He doesn’t enjoy doing what he has to do. Yet a strange kind of transformation happens for Walter, once he loses his hair (due to chemo treatments) and dons the pork pie hat that symbolizes his transformation into Heisenberg. He finds that he is actually quite comfortable in Heisenberg’s skin. He enjoys being his alter ego. “Say my name!” he demands, in Clint Eastwood style, as he faces down a rival gang of meth dealers.
In a fashion similar to Walter White’s transformation, we see Michael at first rejecting the world’s attempts to label him as a “freak” but by the time of “HIStory,” “Blood on the Dance Floor” and his film “Ghosts” he seems to have decided that, if this is who/what they want me to be, then I’ll embrace the label and wear it on my sleeve. In doing so, of course, he would only serve to expose who the real freaks were, and this was part of his modus operandi. By this period in the late 90’s, when he enters his darkest and most gothic era in terms of image and subject matter, he is clearly playing on-and manipulating-the public’s perceptions of him. He is gleaning power from his enemies by embracing and becoming the very thing they fear most-a representation of their own darkest and innermost fears. This is never more apparent than in the showdown scene in “Ghosts” when he literally faces off with himself via his own alter ego, the Mayor of Normal Valley (who is, in fact, Michael himself under a fat suit, a gray wig, and many layers of ageing makeup).
It is interesting that when critics discuss the character of Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” the word “monster”-a word that Michael similarly embraces as a kind of mock, self identifying label in “Threatened”-is often used. Over the series’ five seasons, the character progresses from a man of moral ideals with his humanity fully intact, to a likeable and bumbling (and still sympathetic) criminal, to finally, a terrifying enigma who we no longer really know or recognize (and perhaps this is true even for himself). Although we still get glimpses of his humanity here and there, we are simply no longer comfortable-or sure-of just who Walter White is, for he seems capable of most anything. As he says, he has become “the danger.”
Michael Jackson was a performer and entertainer, of course, not a criminal. But his artistic trajectory was in many ways quite similar, from the swaggering of the kid who had simply decided he wasn’t going to take anymore in “Bad” to, finally, its culmination of the “monster” he self proclaims himself to be in “Threatened.” Like Walter White, Michael Jackson transformed over time into an enigma that we could never be quite sure of. Who exactly wasMichael Jackson, and why did his identity raise so many questions?
It is, in fact, a trajectory that was analyzed brilliantly in this series of videos by Kanal von MyWhoisIt, who drew on all of the “Twilight Zone” episodes referenced in “Threatened,” as well as various other influences, to illustrate the creation of Michael’s ultimate “breaking bad” persona. The series definitely helps us to realize why understanding Michael’s dark side is perhaps as important as understanding his messages of love and healing the world. We can see that he was not only peeling back the layers to reveal himself, but in so doing, was teaching us a lot about ourselves as well.
Just as final side note to this series, I feel that it has given me some new insight into the cover photo that was used for the Invincible album. I have never been a fan of that cover photo, but as with so many artistic decisions, there may have indeed been a method to the madness. It is certainly not a typical Michael Jackson photo. He is neither smiling joyfully, nor wearing his trademark scowl, or even looking seductive a’la’ the Thriller cover. In fact, the last time Michael had even actually appeared on one of his album covers was “Bad.” For “Dangerous,” we only got that cryptic glance of his eyes behind the mask, and I don’t really count “HIStory” which was a depiction of a statue. Even “Blood on the Dance Floor’s” cover was not an actual photo, but a drawing. For “Invincible,” the decision was made to feature his face-in intense close-up, no less-on the album cover, with an expression that appears strangely neutral. His eyes simply stare straight ahead, blankly, and there is what appears as a slightly sardonic smirk on his lips. The left eye appears normal, if albeit rather expressionless. The right eye, however, is slightly elevated; the brow cocked. The face seems intentionally to represent a kind of mask. He could, for all intents and purposes, be a singer, a savior, a seducer-or a serial killer. Perhaps this was intended as the representation of the “monster.” For sure, it is a difficult face to read; its expression an almost blank slate that could be filled in by anyone’s interpretation.
To bring this back to the analogy of “Breaking Bad” and its characters, there are really, in the end, only two things that keep Walter White grounded to his humanity, and which serve as his redemption. Those two things are his love for his family, and the care he still has for his former partner, Jesse Pinkman. It’s a bond that endures even after Jesse has turned snitch and threatened his life-indeed, even after he himself has ordered Jesse killed. In the end, the ability to forgive redeems them both. Ultimately, Walter’s fate falls into Jesse’s hands, who must make the final decision as to how the story ends. Theirs is an ending without words, but it speaks volumes.
It seems that Michael, who understood all too well what it meant to walk that fine line between love and hate; between anger and forgiveness (especially for those who had wronged him), and between dark and light, just may indeed have cast a bigger shadow over the show than even he or actor Aaron Paul realized in that chance meeting. For sure, Michael knew the meaning of “breaking bad” long before Vince Gilligan turned it into America’s new catchphrase. He had lived it for the better part of two decades.
But in so doing, he had also kept us, by turns, both repelled and fascinated; spellbound by an enigma that we could never quite put our hands on. Looking back now, it also becomes easier to see that he was teaching us a lesson in our own humanity. We have the power to create our own reality, in ourselves and in others. We can, in fact, even become that which we fear most.
But fear’s greatest counterbalance will always be love
The connections between Michael and “Breaking Bad” apparently haven’t been missed. In this hilarious Spanish spoof, “Breaking Bad” is mashed with Michael’s “Black or White”:
Posted by: Raven on: September 14 2014 • Categorized in: Reviews
I am very pleased to bring you a review of the latest book by one of my favorite MJ authors, Veronica Bassil.
How do you really feel about Michael Jackson’s song “Childhood?” Be honest. If you are like most critics-and even many fans-you may think of it as Michael’s most maudlin composition, a mawkishly saccharine and sentimental ballad that seems more like rationalization of all those “strange eccentricities” than anything else. It is perhaps one of the great tragic ironies that the song Michael often called his most autobiographical piece-the song he hoped would finally help the world to understand who he was-has come to be one of his most maligned and, perhaps, least understood songs. I will admit I have never been wild about this song myself; certainly, I would never place it on any of my top ten lists of favorite Michael Jackson songs. For a long time after his death, it was one of those songs I simply couldn’t listen to. Its lyrics, mawkish and sentimental as they are, were just too brutally honest and painful (again, perhaps one of the tragic ironies of this song-its very honesty made it a difficult pill to swallow, especially during a time when emotions were still raw and the guilt of having never made the effort to understand him better while he was alive was still fresh). Over time, it simply became the track I usually skipped when playing HIStory. I preferred the grittier songs such as “They Don’t Care About Us” and “Money,” or the more lyrically challenging angst of “Stranger In Moscow.” Yet, for someone who has to honestly admit that “Childhood” has never been my favorite MJ song, I realize its importance as a key to fully understanding who Michael was. And after reading Bassil’s latest book, I can honestly say that I may have finally come closest to fully understanding just what an important composition “Childhood” truly is.
One thing we have to understand is that, until this song appeared on the HIStory album, Michael had commented very little, at least publicly, of just how scarred he had been from his lack of a normal childhood. There had been intimations of it before, in his autobiography, the Oprah interview, and his acceptance speech when he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. But the song “Childhood” was the first time he really laid all of the pain of his lost childhood on the line in a public declaration. When he sings of the “painful youth I had” he doesn’t go into specifics, but by this point he didn’t have to. We had heard enough by then to know all of the details-the beatings, the long hours of recording; the late nights and early mornings; the lack of a normal school environment for most of his formative years; the story of the little boy who watched from a recording room window as kids played in a park across the street. Although Michael had spent most of his adult solo career building up a wall of mystique, he had come to realize by the mid 90’s, especially in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct with children and the media’s increased mockery of everything he stood for, that it was time to open up and explain Michael Jackson to the world.
The only problem was that, then as now, so few were ready to listen.
With all of the recent developments that have happened, including the pending sale of Neverland (the place that personified his dream of recreating the perfect childhood world for himself and for others) and the allegations of Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, it is perhaps more important than ever that the world understands why children and the concept of childhood were so important for Michael. Because much of the world-and certainly popular media-continues to mock, distort, and take out of context Michael’s beliefs about childhood and the importance of childhood, it is crucial to understand how these beleifs and values about childhood formed such an integral part of his ethos, both personally and professionally. Everything from the most basic aesthethics of his art, to his deepest spiritual beliefs stemmed both from his loss of childhood, his attempts to reconnect with it, and his belief in childhood-the state of “wonder”-as the human stage that is closest to true Deva-gati (in Sanskrit, the realm of highest enlightenment).
But there has been to my knowledge no comprehensive work that has truly addressed-from an artistic, spiritual, and even psychological standpoint-how and why the state of childhood became such an important part of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic. Until now.
Actually, to be fair, there have been quite a few-too many, in fact-that have attempted to do so only from the psychological perspective. Such attempts, however, are always doomed to fall short. Without understanding the full context of Michael’s artistic, philosophical and spiritual aestethics, such attempts to understand his seeming “obsession” with childhood purely from a psychoanalytical perspective is always doomed to fail. At best, such attempts can only bring us a half baked part of the picture (if you will excuse my mixed metaphors). Too often, even the most well intentioned attempts to understand Michael’s views on children and childhood go no further than the acknowledgment of his own tough childhood. But without also attempting to understand his artistic and spiritual beliefs, we are usually left all too often with little more than (mostly inaccurate) conclusions of a man who was, often at best in their scenarios, a regressed man-child. Depending on the views and biases of the author, they may draw conclusions of someone with sinister motives at worst, or as someone to be pitied at best-a man robbed of a childhood; forever doomed to a life spent trying to compensate. They may see him as a kind of eternal Peter Pan, but only based on the broadest stereotypes and misconceptions of what it means to be Peter Pan. When Michael said to Martin Bashir, “I’m Peter Pan” much of the world scoffed, for how were we to take such a comment other than as a pop star who somehow had this delusion that he is that little Disney creature in green tights?
This is exactly why neither approach-and especially an approach based only on psychoanalysis-can ever do full justice to helping us understand what Michael meant by “that wonder in my youth.” It is also why we cannot trust the media and its “sound byte” approach, so often as they did taking Michael’s own words out of context. To best understand Michael Jackson, we have to cut out the middle man and go directly to the source.
As with Bassil’s previous books, the author excels at tracing the historical roots of Michael Jackson’s artistic ethos. Here, she takes on the challenge of Peter Pan, the Lost Boys, and the enchanted, mystical world of Never-Neverland (which, of course, would serve as the model for Jackson’s Neverland). In doing so, Bassil goes far beyond the simplistic Disney image, taking us back to J.M. Barrie’s original creation and even beyond (for as the author establishes, the roots of “Peter Pan” as a representative of eternal youth go all the way back to ancient Greece, to the god Pan and the ancient legends of “Green Man.”). Michael, of course, had a thorough and intimate knowledge of Peter Pan and would have been well aware of this history. It’s too bad that Bashir couldn’t drop his own agenda long enough to give Michael the opportunity to fully explain what he meant when he said, “I’m Peter Pan,” instead merely sitting him up for ridicule. This book not only provides the opportunity for explanation that was denied Michael in that interview, but also helps the reader to understand the full historical context of Peter Pan and his very ancient pagan roots. Much of that understanding, of course, also involves an understanding of his creator-J.M. Barrie. What we are left with, ultimately, is an understanding of the Peter Pan myth that goes far beyond the simplified Disney version.
“However, we can see that Jackson’s understanding is far deeper and more complex than the superficial, sound-bite often given by the media , namely, that Peter Pan is merely ‘someone’–that is, a human being , rather than something nonhuman, like a character, a myth or an archetype–in a state of arrested development. In contrast to most people, Michael studied Barrie and the various versions of Peter Pan that were based on Barrie’s creations. He was also drawn to classical themes in sculpture as well as in music, and there are many statues of mythological creatures, such as fauns, satyrs, cherubs, Hermes, nymphs, and so on, in the garden and interior statuary at Neverland. His understanding of Peter Pan went far beyond those who focused on cut-and-paste journalism and snap judgments.”
Bassil, Veronica (2014-08-14). That Wonder in My Youth: Michael Jackson and Childhood (Kindle Locations 737-738). Kindle Edition.
In yet another very insightful passage on the history of Peter Pan and the character’s relationships with other mythical figures, Bassil writes:
“Barrie commissioned a statue of Peter Pan to be placed in Kensington Gardens, and Disney portrayed him in film. In both cases, he wears a similar costume and lives a similar life as Robin Hood, another dweller of the forest. A green tunic covered with leaves, green leggings, a hat with a feather or leaves, a home in the woods, a cocky defiance of laws made by such as the Sheriff of Nottingham, a wide-legged, rebellious stance, hands on hips, chest thrown out, are all ways the two figures resemble each other. Both figures— Peter Pan and Robin Hood — draw on a relationship to a figure evident throughout medieval Europe as far back as 400 A.D.— the Green Man. The Green Man is a nature spirit or deity, represented in stone carvings as a face surrounded by leaves and branches. Indeed, the leaves often grow inside the Green Man and emerge from his mouth, nose, and hair. The Green Man was prominent in Celtic Winter Solstice and May Day celebrations as a representation of rebirth and renewal; his enemy is Jack Frost, whom he battles. Green represents the vegetation, food, shelter, clothing, and oxygen that the plant world gives us— it is the life force, whose name to the Celtics was Viridios. In our culture today, we see emblems of this potent symbol in such figures as The Hulk and the Green Giant of advertisements. Osiris, the Egyptian god who was killed, dismembered, and reborn, was depicted with a green face as early as 1300 B.C. Like Peter Pan, Robin Hood, the Green Man, and the great god Pan, Michael Jackson, through his connection with his 2,700-acre ranch, his love of wild animals, and his passion for preserving the natural habitats of Planet Earth, is also associated with the world of nature. As an artist passionate about the loss of species and ecosystems, Jackson wrote what some consider his greatest work— the environmental anthem Earth Song. Certainly, Neverland was a monument to the natural world, and the children who visited there were encouraged to become familiar with nature, even to be a little wild themselves— playing as long as they wanted until they fell asleep, having gleeful and exuberant games, like water fights, swimming, riding horses, and generally experiencing the world of nature as opposed to being in the confined spaces of a city or a schoolroom . In contrast, however, Jackson was considered a ‘strict’ parent by his own children, one who gave his children structure and who asked them to complete certain educational tasks in order to win rewards, such as permission to watch a movie. It would seem that in general, he believed children needed structure, but also necessary release and exposure to nature, and freedom to explore their own emotions and creative abilities.”
Bassil, Veronica (2014-08-14). That Wonder in My Youth: Michael Jackson and Childhood (Kindle Locations 1227-1228). . Kindle Edition.
There are many other parts of this book that really stood out for me. Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters was “Peter Pan and the Movie That Was Never Made.” Based heavily on Darlene Craviotto’s account of her conversations with Michael on the proposed film project in which Jackson would portray Peter Pan (the film that eventually materialized as Steven Spielberg’s Hook starring Robin Williams), this chapter offers a fascinating and insightful glimpse into Michael’s own ideas about the character of Peter Pan and how both he and the story should be portrayed on film. Unfortunately, as we know, this plan did not work out. Michael Jackson never got the opportunity to bring his vision to light, and the eventual film that did materialize was very much the anthithesis of everything that Michael had envisioned. Perhaps there was some poetic justice in that, in denying Jackson what would have been the role of a lifetime and the opportunity to follow through on what might have proven a great vision, Spielberg instead ended up with one of the most embarrassing stinkers of his career, a film that was a commercial and critical flop.
The film version of Peter Pan that Spielberg eventually made bore little resemblance to Michael’s vision-and may have suffered as a consequence:
Yet (and this is an aside from the review, which I will return to shortly) it is interesting that with two of the movie roles for which Michael lobbied hardest-Edward Scissorhands and Hook-he lost out in both cases to actors (Johnny Depp and the late Robin Williams, respectively)who would go on to win fame by playing the exact kind of quirky and whimsical, child-like characters that Michael Jackson so personified. It is indeed an interesting twist of irony that both of these actors would go on to win critical acclaim for encapsulating the very childlike essence that Michael possessed naturally, in abundance. Perhaps we can say it is ironic indeed that we will praise actors who can successfully mimic and imitate this quality onscreen, while we ridicule and scapegoat those who embody those values in real life. Perhaps this is a very telling quality of our society-we love the fantasy of childhood innocence, but seem to have a difficult time embracing it as a reality to live by. It is the difference between two hours of escapism in a movie theatre, and having the courage to actually live one’s life in a state of “wonder”-or at least in the quest of it. And this is a point that Bassil actually discusses in the book, using the example of adult males who flock to super action hero movies, for example, in an attempt to reconnect to their inner child. And have we really considered why “childhood fare” such as The Lion King and other Disney features often outperform more “adult” fare at the box office? Clearly, adults love these movies as much as their children do. What further proof do we need that all of us, on some level, are looking to reconnect to a time when we were capable of wonder and the ability to appreciate enchantment?
The author also does an excellent job of analyzing the “Childhood” video. Just as with the song, this particular short film has never been a favorite of mine. As Bassil points out, it is a curious anamoly in the canon of great Michael Jackson music videos. There is no dancing; he doesn’t morph into anything. Instead, he sits planted on a rock throughout the entire piece, while above him children float in boats across the sky. By the time I finished Bassil’s chapter on “Childhood,” I felt that I finally understood and “got” the full message of both the song and video for the very first time. It wasn’t that I had no idea before of what Michael was trying to get across. But Bassil’s analysis did help me to glean a much deeper understanding, especially in regard to the isolation that is represented in the video. I had also never considered that the song could be as much an accusatory statement as a rationalization. The fact that Michael is left seated on the ground as the children float away is, perhaps, ultimately, his own realization (and confession) that-try as hard as he might-he realizes that all of his attempts to compensate with “elementary things” are doomed to be in vain. He is an adult, after all, and the magical world of childhood is already far behind him. The fact that he realizes he is doomed to forever be searching in “the lost and found” of his heart is perhaps the song’s saddest clincher. When understood in this context, it becomes easier to appreicate that “Childhood” is not really about rationalization or “explaining” at all. Rather, it is a therapeutic confession that allows Michael to work through his own conflicted feelings on adulthood vs. childhood. In the end, the quest to be Peter Pan-that eternal, youthful sprite who is, in reality, thousands of years old-is an ideal. If one listens only to the track, it may seem as if he truly believes in the ideal and its possibility. The video, however, enables him to bring about another, somewhat more pessimistic interpretation. Try as hard as he might, he will never again inhabit that world. It has already sailed on, leaving him far behind.
In addition to these outstanding chapters, the book also compiles many of Michael’s best known quotes and speeches on childhood. All of these will be familiar to most fans, but for the casual reader, they will prove an invaluable source for finally understanding what Michael’s stance on childhood was all about. However, I don’t want to give the impression that this is a book that only casual fans will learn from. Even if you are a seasoned MJ scholar, there is much that can be gleaned from this book. I consider myself a testament to that fact.
Veronica Bassil’s ebook That Wonder In My Youth: Michael Jackson and Childhood is available on Amazon: