"Michael Jackson, 4 Years Later", By Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

581171_333756773382463_1474395542_nNote From Raven: A few days ago, I received an email from Nigerian writer Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, asking if I would link to his tribute article published in Metropole. I was so blown away by this piece that I asked permission to reprint it here! I think you guys will see why I believe this, perhaps, to be one of the most important tribute pieces to come out this year, and I hope that Aigbokhaevbolo’s voice will be added to the new wave of writers who are reassessing Michael Jackson’s importance as an influential musician and artist.

Or, perhaps it would be more fair to say that in some parts of the world, there has simply never been any question of it.

Michael Jackson, Four Years Later

By: Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

Originally Published: metropole, 07/03/13

Last week was the fourth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death and I recalled that as a child, my relationship with Michael’s music was organic: he was just always there—there, on television singing “I’ll Be There” in the Pepsi ad; there in the VHS as a terrifying lover; there on the record player as a distinctive singer; and there on my lips as a persistent hum.

In the years since the king of pop’s death, several performers have been named heirs to a throne that doesn’t feel vacant. The frontrunners, Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown and perhaps Bruno Mars have major shortcomings. Justin is perhaps the greatest race-unifying media personality since Michael. A technically good dancer, he lacks the fluid effortlessness and inventiveness of the man’s dance talent. Chris, a remarkable dancer, capable of any dance move, is too divisive for the role and in last few years has become too obnoxious to ever ascend the throne. Bruno Mars shares Michael’s genius for a great tune and borrows from several sources, but he can’t quite dance— he’d always be referred to as ‘massively influenced by’, but would never be Michael.

These comparisons have been oblique— Mr Brown, in particular, has actively, implicitly sought the title, reproducing Michael in several songs and videos. This has changed with Kanye West, ever the grand performer with grandiose self-projections, chanting on Yeezus, his new album, he is ‘the only rapper compared to Michael Jackson’. For some this is blasphemy— almost like One Direction waking one morning to claim they are the new Fab Four.

But then, Kanye has always had a weird filial, if patricidal, relationship with Michael: he sampled Thriller’s P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing), he had an MJ effigy in his short film, Runaway, and this year, in an interview with the New York Times, he claimed to have known he was going to be a star the moment he penned the “she had a white friend, looked like Michael Jackson…” line from the 2003 hit Slow Jams. There can be no heir but Mr. West’s ambition is pardonable, and anyway, everyone wants to be associated with greatness.

For Michael, greatness invited scrutiny and more so, hostility. The world could not let him get away with being good and being good at music; he couldn’t be normal. His crime was simple: no one had ever and ever since, combined such outrageous commercial appeal with critical regard and in this era of digital downloads, the pestilence of piracy, and the general evolution of the way the world listens to music, it is safe to bet no one ever will. So, the press elevated his ubiquity to iniquity.

With the first of the allegations, in 1993, the media went to town, happy, grateful to have dirt. At the time, no cases were filed against him, but the media already had him convicted.

Dragged to court years later, he was acquitted but the media refused him reprieve. Even in death, the hounding continues. Some focus on the manner of his death, others on his legacy. There is a nasty, misleading, and obvious attempt by one Bill Wyman who in two pieces published a few months ago in The New Yorker seeks to denigrate his legacy and undermine the album sales of Thriller on the expertise of a certain unknown French aficionado. It is all too much.

But, these are distractions. Michael was a soft spoken person who let the music speak for him. Songs like Tabloid Junkie, and the duet with Janet, Scream— which, alongside its space-themed video predates and forecasts bands like Daft Punk— are more eloquent disclaimers than any number of press statements. Songs like In the Closet were said to be in response to comments in the media about the absence of a sexual edge to his music: an irony, considering the complaints about the sexual content of many pop songs.

There is, however, a way to look at the press celebrity-carnivorous carnival as a good thing. Without those travails of the early ’90s, the hauntingly beautiful Stranger In Moscow, released two years after the initial accusations, would not exist. While the baseline, elaborate arrangements and melody on Scream invited (and still invites) dancing so that it seemed Michael both revelled in and aggressively dismissed the daily diatribe, the sober, slow percussive base of Stranger In Moscow reins in what were surely explosive emotions, allowing the man’s sadness and loneliness to come through in heavy understated gusts.

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The words themselves are not so much sung as recited-in-melody, as he bemoans his fame— “Swift and sudden fall from grace…Take my name and just let me be” — with lyrics containing chilling imagery based on the Russian landscape: “Kremlin’s shadow belittling me…KGB was stalking me”. His voice is, by turns eerie, haunting, beautiful. He asks in the chorus, “How does it feel, when you’re alone and cold inside?” Somehow, he is the only one who would really know.

The crowning achievement of the song, however, is the lyrical coda, heartbreaking in the sincerity of the delivery and its ostensibly unscripted lines, “We talking danger, we talking danger…I get so lonely, I get so lonely like a stranger in Moscow.” It is both a cry, and a plea. I do not know many pop songs with such painful potency. I listen to it and recall the epigram in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, as taken from Whitman:

                  “I am the man; I suffered, I was there”.

The song itself was originally a poem written during a tour of Russia that would be abandoned because the media’s tales became unbearable; today, the eternally great song stands as the singular legacy of that tour. But, for all its beauty, I would rather be rid of the song if the genius could catch a break. The world would not be a terrible place deprived, as it were, of one more classic song.

Although organic, the centrepiece of all MJ fascination is Thriller. The video, in particular, received endless play on television. The making of the musical video was even more enchanting: the elaborate makeup, the glue, the playful rehearsal sessions rather than demystify the magic of the video added a layer of technical mastery to the proceedings. As a child, each viewing of the video remained glorious.

That night four years ago when he died, I remembered dancing competitions organised by the adults in the building where I grew up; vigorous contests always won by a certain boy living upstairs. In my eyes at the time, he should have been disqualified: he was a visitor, and he was older than the rest of us.

In retrospect, those adults only convened those dancing sessions just to see the boy dance. I am only just solving the mystery as to why the ‘competition’ only held when he’d come visiting. The conniving adults only wanted to see Michael Jackson in their living room, live. The man himself never toured Nigeria— this boy was the closest they would ever come to their idol. And so while the rest of us, valiantly, awkwardly, re-enacted moves from the videos, we were only distractions.

Two decades later, I am not sure I am still not bitter.

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Abuja At Dusk

This appeal to all ages, and, in America, all races, was responsible for Michael Jackson’s success. Several singles, for me, were always a dance event, but there are sober, ‘grown up’ ones: Human Nature, remixed in 1992 by SWV and again in 2011 by Chris Brown, remains a favourite for its portrayal of New York at night— I find it a suitable soundtrack for Abuja at dusk; there are not many songs matching the reflexive potency of Man in the Mirror; and there is Who Is It an anguished mid-tempo song about infidelity from 1991’s Dangerous. Michael’s body of music could be a soundtrack to a whole life.

These days, with all the courtroom dramas and tabloid dissections, I find it easier to remember him as that cool kid clearly in love with music, dancing and smiling in the music video for Rock With You, from 1979’s Off The Wall— his first solo album which, he believed, deserved more respect from the Grammys. His sophomore, 1982’s Thriller, would force the academy to pay attention, and release eight awards including the coveted Album of the Year. The moonwalk, performed in 1983, would, as clichés go, capture the imagination of the world. The rest, then, became history. He wasn’t even 25.

Upon his death, articles and columns were a mixed bag of the reverent and the profane. Some Nigerian columnists poured scorn on the man, complacent critics satisfied to sit in old offices telling rehashed lies. So, it was a pleasure to see Jude Okoye’s son in the recent video to the P-Square song, Personally, dancing like the king of pop. Reflect on this: when those moves were originally performed by Michael, the boy’s father and, especially, his uncles were not much older than the boy is now.

Clearly, Michael would outlive his detractors.

For the Western media, intent on championing The Beatles and Elvis Presley as the most successful pop music acts in history, perhaps it is time someone told them in Nigeria— the most populous black country— those artists do not have any music video in their honour. That fact should put an end to a debate that has seen the West demonise Michael while adorning the heads of Lennon and company with halos. In fact, the debate only takes place over there; there is no contention here— we know who is king, we know who’s bad.

Philip Gourevitch, in The New Yorker’s postscript for Chinua Achebe, recounted an incident where the late great novelist admonished an inquisitive member of an audience with the words, “Read our books.” Now, four years after Michael’s death, there is no more fitting tribute to the man’s genius than to listen to his music. Turn down the amplitude of the internet rumours; shred the tabloids; put off the television; and listen to his music.

And, please, feel free to dance along. Michael would approve.

http://www.metropole.ng/index.php/views/item/367-michael-jackson-four-years-later

End of Article

After I read this piece, I left a comment for Aigbokhaevbolo on the Metropole web page, which, after two attempts, has apparently failed to get past the moderators. Perhaps it exceeded their word limit. In any event, since The Metropole would not allow my comment to appear there, I am going to post it here:

My Comment In Response To Aigbokhaevbolo:

This is a brilliant article on several levels. As a Western MJ fan, I know exactly what you mean about the deification of artists like Elvis Presley and The Beatles, often at the expense of Michael Jackson. Of course, there has been a major revisionism of his work and influence since his death in 2009, and that revisionism continues. Now, he is usually at least in the Top 4 on any list of the 20th century’s most influential music artists, but usually #2 is as high as they will ever concede to him. Always, the #1 spot goes to The Beatles. And unlike these deified white artists, his name continues to be smeared on a daily basis. The miracle is that his legacy continues to be as strong as it is, despite all of these setbacks and curves that have been thrown him.

But because so many of us fans in the West are conditioned to think that we represent the world somehow (obviously we don’t!) it’s refreshing to hear a voice that speaks for how the rest of the world views Michael Jackson. I especially loved this paragraph:

“For the Western media, intent on championing The Beatles and Elvis Presley as the most successful pop music acts in history, perhaps it is time someone told them in Nigeria— the most populous black country— those artists do not have any music video in their honour. That fact should put an end to a debate that has seen the West demonise Michael while adorning the heads of Lennon and company with halos. In fact, the debate only takes place over there; there is no contention here— we know who is king, we know who’s bad.”

 

Michael Continues To Be Torn Down And Vilified For The Very Same Human Flaws That Other Artists Get A Pass On. Why?
Michael Continues To Be Torn Down And Vilified For The Very Same Human Flaws That Other Artists Get A Pass On. Why?

That reminds me also of just how hypocritical most of Western culture is. Michael is torn down because of what many perceive as personal flaws of character (and it’s not “just” the allegations against him; he is torn down for everything from his skin disease to drug dependency to his children’s paternity to any excuse they can come up with). Many of these white icons were/are drug users, adulterers, and any number of other bad things we could ascribe to them. I am not saying this to vilify them for their humanity (indeed, all great art is born out of some measure of darkness, pain, and suffering, as you so brilliantly described). But why is it not possible to allow Michael Jackson the same humanity? Instead, he was always put on this pedestal where he either had to be perfect in every regard,and continue to live up to that impossible standard-or be torn down.That is also an excellent analysis of Stranger In Moscow. We certainly need more intelligent and academic assessment of Jackson’s work, but especially his later and (often underrated) work. In the US, many have still never even heard Stranger In Moscow, Earth Song, etc because these songs were never played on American radio. I think more probably know Earth Song now, thanks to This Is It and the Grammy tribute in 2010. But still, the idea that Michael went on to create much great work after Thriller-and much greatly successful commercial work in the rest of the world-still comes as a surprise to many. This misconception was already being perpetuated as far back as 2004, when that horrendous “Man In The Mirror” TV movie referred to Dangerous as a flop album. So in the course of eleven years, they somehow managed to “forget” that this album produced a #1 smash single that stayed at #1 for seven weeks; a string of follow up Top 10 hits, influential videos, a song that would go on to also become part of a highly successful movie soundtrack, and a tour that broke world records. Add to this the fact that the album itself had an over two year life span on the charts. Yet in just a little over a decade, the writers of this horrid script felt they could get away with such an error, and viewers would never question it! Amazing. Clearly, the agenda to push the idea of Michael Jackson as a one-trick pony was already in full force by then.

Anyway, this is a brilliant article and I will be happy to share it. Thank you.

ETA: I have corrected the spelling of Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo’s name, and apologize for my error.

 

 

152 thoughts on “"Michael Jackson, 4 Years Later", By Oris Aigbokhaevbolo”

  1. “Turn down the amplitude of the internet rumours; shred the tabloids; put off the television; and listen to his music.

    And, please, feel free to dance along. Michael would approve.”
    Great, great article!!!!
    Thanks Raven for sharing it, and thanks Mr Oris Aigbokhaevbold.

  2. Such an eloquent tribute to Michael. Thank you Oris. Do you have other articles on Michael? We would love to read them. Non-western world views would widen all of our perspectives.

    This with the Alan Duke article in CNN, it has been a good 4th of July weekend so far…

    1. It’s wonderful that the CNN article effectively put out the fire. Although there wasn’t anything in there that hadn’t already been reported in Friedman’s and Thomson’s articles, it was able to reach a much wider audience. Thus, any outlet that simply pastes that story now is going to look pretty foolish.

    2. I have noticed that Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo’s article has been reposted at a number of MJ sites. Out of curiosity, I went to Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo’s original article posting at http://www.metropole.ng/index.php/views/item/367-michael-jackson-four-years-later as provided in the All for Love blog. It says there were only 2032 reads and 30 comments as of 14 July 2013. I think that we could do Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo a favor in return and go to his site, read and comment to help him get his numbers up at the article’s original posting site. Just a thought.

      1. I certainly encourage anyone to do that. The reason I posted it here was in hopes of giving the article more exposure. But it is always good for that added exposure to be reflected on the original site.

  3. @Lia: it was exactly this two phrases that stuck on my mind : ” Turn down the amplitude of the internet rumors; shred the tabloids ; putt off the television ; and listen to his music . ans , please , feel free to dance along . Michael would approve . ” I’ve been doing this since sometimes . I don’t pay much attention to the internet rumors , because is exactly our attention they hunger for . I never buy or read the tabloids . If it were for me , their owners would be completely homeless if they had no other thing to do . The TV I cut since I found ROKU , where you may see what you want and like, paying little as $7.89 per month. News ? If I think that I need or want to read something , I go to any news site . But I rather prefer to stay away of their sensationalism ! I knew today , in FB , that there was an accident with an airplane in San Francisco Airport . I’m praying to the victims and their family . I don’t need to know all the details they put on TV ! I’m ok this way … And evidently ” we know who is king, we know who’s bad.”

  4. An excellent article. Thank you for sharing. There is so much here that I would like to comment on but I will limit it to one point. This deification of the Beatles and Presley has always troubled/angered me. One does not need to look very deep to see the glaring flaws, drug usage, infidelities, promiscuities, living with underage minors, etc that ran deep in these artists’ lives. Yet Michael is excoriated for simply breathing and his art is denigrated for it. He constantly had to prove himself over and over again and even that failed. His genius, his music, his morality, even his manhood was excoriated. Few missed an opportunity to tear him apart and pronounce that he did nothing of artistic consequence after Thriller. Yet the Beatles, Presley, Stones, Aerosmith, Cobain have all become iconic legends whose sins are readily forgiven and rarely spoken of. I was always amazed by the complete lack of compassion shown to Michael. I still am…

    1. Or the sins of those artists have always fallen under the collective umbrella of “It’s only rock and roll.” I don’t know so much of how it is now, but I know in the 70’s and 80’s there was much “looking the other way” as underaged girls were allowed backstage. Granted, sometimes the guys didn’t know (girls will lie, and they can also make themselves look older) but it’s not as if anybody ever bothered to I.D. check, either…or cared, so long as they didn’t get caught. I would imagine things haven’t changed that much.

      Also, it bothers me that Michael is constantly vilified in the media about “drug addiction” when every single rock artist lionized by the press has had addictions and/or issues with substance abuse. In most cases, recreational drug addictions. Even if we cast aside for a moment Schnoll’s recent testimony and assume the worst, it still in no way makes Michael’s issues any worse than any other lionized artist.

      The reasons behind this are complex and would require a blog in itself to adequately get into, but I believe part of the problem was a combination of the fact that Michael at his height was too powerful and too popular-more than was comfortably being allowed a black artist-and, secondly, because his reputation was built on this sort of squeaky clean image. Thus, whereas most of these artists were very open about their sins, Michael was perceived as hypocritical. I think this combination fueled the desire to tear him down.

      Of course, it’s more complex and multi-faceted than that, but in a nutshell, that’s the way I see it.

      1. And I agree the reasons for Michael’s varying reputation is complex and very difficult to parse. More interesting to me than mounting a campaign against the “negatives” (which are subjectively understood, anyway), is to trace his declining fortunes in the popular press through the 80s and 90s. This process tells us a great deal, not only about Michael, but about the media, the zeitgeist, and ourselves.

        I once read an entire collection of articles from the Washington Post that reported on Michael Jackson from late 1983 through early 1985—the “long year of Michael Jackson,” as some journalists ended up calling it. The height of the Thriller success, the pre-Victory Tour material, through the Tour itself, and its aftermath.

        All though this period, the good-will toward Michael was starting to decline ever so slightly.

    2. Corlista: It’s important to remember one important point. The Beatles are deified because of THEIR MUSIC. In the end, the rest of the stuff drops to the periphery, where it becomes the stuff of myth and legend.

      The same can be said for the Stones, still performing into their 70s.

      Now, if only EVERYBODY would leave off all this talk of Michael Jackson’s indiscretions—whether to excoriate or exonerate him, it really *doesn’t matter*—then maybe we can get on with the business of assessing his unique contribution to the music and culture of our age.

      1. “It’s important to remember one important point. The Beatles are deified because of THEIR MUSIC. In the end, the rest of the stuff drops to the periphery, where it becomes the stuff of myth and legend.”

        I agree, Nina, and that is exactly my point. Why is Michael not deified because of HIS music? Were his “sins” any greater than those of the Beatles or Stones et al? Michael’s music is discounted and ignored because salacious headlines continue to paint him as a perverted misfit who a certain segment of the population takes sadistic pleasure in destroying and thus his music and artistic legacy. Why is he held to any different standard than any other artist? There are many reasons given in the astute and intelligent comments of fellow posters here. My feeling is it’s simply because he was a phenomenon that surpassed all of them and he did it HIS way bowing to no one.

        1. My feeling about it Corlista, has little to do with “sin,” or “sinful” behavior, or anything of that kind.

          As I think of it, Michael was a “revolutionary without a movement.” Unlike his white rock predecessors, he was (in the 1980s) he was not in any immediate way connected with a broader social movement where he could represent youth culture in an all-encompassing way, as the Beatles, Dylan, and other musicians did. Part of this has to do with his bluntly commercial aspirations, as you said, Gennie. But then again, “turning on, tuning in, dropping out” wasn’t a part of his training as a Motown artist. His commercialism was seen as conciliation, compromise, a kind of “inauthenticity” in comparison to white rock n’ roll aspirations.

          But he came along as a solo artist at the cusp of two decidedly different decades, or even two eras. In the ’60s (and maybe the ’70s), a lot of people talked about “selling out.” By the ’80s, this principle was seen as a moot point.

          If we want to have a serious discussion about this, we can do so from our (obviously limited) perspective in 2013. But we have to look at the complexity of the situation, and consider a lot of different factors. If then we have to look at the complexity of the situation, taking into account multiple factors From racism, to the rise of neoliberal economics under Reagan, to his “clean” image, to technological and programmatic changes in the music industry since the pinnacle of the Beatles’ success, we would have to look at myriad factors. We cannot reduce it to racism alone, in my view.

          Raven, as I’ve said before, the critics who are finding a new appreciation are by no means a “dying breed.” If you’d like, I can send you links to articles and book chapters where his music is being taken very seriously indeed. The Journal of Popular Music Studies and the Journal of Popular Music and Society, to name only two, have devoted entire issues to his music and cultural influence.

          Gennie says”
          “As for Beatles and Elvis, I kinda frown every time MJ fans feel the need to belittle any other artist to make Michael greater. (Was Elvis ever that big globally btw? Don’t think so) it should be possible to admire MJ without throwing shade at others I’m sure! Michael being great does not make Lennon less great, just like the pyramids don’t make the Eiffel tower less great, its kinda awesome we got both.”

          I wholeheartedly agree, Gennie.

          1. “Raven, as I’ve said before, the critics who are finding a new appreciation are by no means a “dying breed.” If you’d like, I can send you links to articles and book chapters where his music is being taken very seriously indeed. The Journal of Popular Music Studies and the Journal of Popular Music and Society, to name only two, have devoted entire issues to his music and cultural influence.”

            By “dying breed” I was referring to those who have denigrated the importance of his art and cultural influence, and the fact that they are not nearly as prevalent now, as I believe the newer generation of critics who have come in have a much clearer assessment of his legacy-without a lot of the prejudice of their predecessors. But with that being said, of course I am aware that there have been exceptions. Even in the 80’s, there were some intuitive writers already keenly aware of the impact his work would have. Some of those pieces I have written about here, as I have discovered them (and they are always a joy to discover; in some cases, part of the fun is in analyzing just how prophetic-or not- they turned out to be). But those articles are, far and large, like the proverbial needles in a pile of hay. After the initial glow of Thriller, the biggest majority were simply intent on tearing him down. I still stand by my overall assessment that he was not given a fair shake in the industry when compared to artists of equal stature, and I do think race was part of it, but not all of it. I think it was a complex combination of many factors.

            Even with artists generally and universally revered, like The Beatles, critics will still debate which albums, or which periods of their creative output, were superior and inferior to others,all of which is merely subjective opinion, of course, but over time can form a kind of general consensus. For example, most music critics generally regard the Stones album Their Satanic Majesties Request as a failure.But there are tracks I like on that album, and overall, to me, it was an interesting experiment. Most critics agree that The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a masterpiece, but you will also have those who argue that their earlier, more commercial output was better. Most critics agree that Elvis Presley had his peak as a cultural icon around 1957, and that it was all downhill from there (I don’t think anyone regards the fat, Vegas Elvis as the one who made a significant cultural impact). And on it goes.

            My point is that even among the artistic musical elite, critics will still debate the finer points. And if there are critics who genuinely believe that Michael reached his creative zenith with Thriller, they are certainly entitled to that opinion. However, the impression I get from many of them-and I am not alone in this, as Joe Vogel has written extensively on this very topic, also-is that it simply seems that a lot of them STOPPED EVEN LISTENING at some point, instead allowing their own biases and judgments of Michael’s life, character, etc to influence their perception of his music. For example, if the general consensus was that Michael Jackson was a megalomaniac, how did that color perceptions of a work like Earth Song?

            Whereas in most cases, it seemed that critics were able to separate the art from the artist, Michael often was not given that courtesy or benefit. I think this is what nettles many-including Michael himself, who was well aware of this.

            I would appreciate greatly if you would send me those links. I would love to read them.

          2. Raven, I’ve collected some 5,000 articles over the last four years (on about 4 discs) that represent a full range of writing: blogs, popular criticism, academic writing, newspaper articles, book chapters, transcribed interviews and panel discussions, and more, all directly to do with Michael Jackson.

            Not to brag, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I had one of the most extensive collection of texts on Michael Jackson (especially academic material) published in English.

            If you’d like, I can send you all this stuff on disc…. (probably way too much to send over the internet, and I can’t make a selection!) I’ve sent this material to a number of people who have expressed an interest, and I’m happy to send them on to you. If there’s a way I can get in touch with you, that would be great.

            Raven, you said that Michael should be judged by “comparable standards” as the rest of these artists. The problem is, I don’t know how music writers or the popular press—individually or en masse—can arrive at a set of standards that can be universally agreed upon. In fact, I don’t think they can.

            By the 1980s, the standards had already changed, but perhaps not kept pace with new movements and realities. Most of the critics had cut their teeth reporting on ’60s counterculture and rock n’ roll, and didn’t understand how to meet Michael Jackson’s particular aesthetic, or different brand of commercial success, or visual presentation, for that matter. Nor did they know how to “situate” him in whatever canon of pop culture was in the making. In a way he slipped through the cracks generically, as well as in all these other ways.

            We’re not talking so much about individual talent here as much as we’re trying to assess the cultural order into which Michael Jackson emerged. The bias of a lot of people (including, probably, me) is that the 1960s (as seen in the Civil Rights and antiwar movements) represented political and social pinnacle of resistance to the dominant order; and the job of culture (including popular music) was to represent these seismic shifts and galvanize the movements on which they were based. Hence: the importance of the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, etc. etc.

            But by the 1980s, it was generally assumed, things had gone swiftly downhill. The movements that had gained so much ground in the 1960s had been diminished through the 70s and all but vanished upon the election of Ronald Reagan. Then we had his subsequent demolition of social programs and whatever gains had come about through decades and decades of progressive social action.

            Michael Jackson, it seemed, fit into this new, neoliberal era a little too neatly for critics who were weaned on ’60s oppositional politics. They may have thought he was something of a “sell-out” when compared with his Soul and R&B roots. The moment of MTV made it possible for him and his contemporaries (Madonna, Prince, etc.) to deck themselves out in ways that seemed like there was an overemphasis on “superficial” visual qualities: costume, spectacle, etc.—rather than “just the music,” plain and simple. (Of course, in Michael’s case the visual element was necessary for more than cosmetic purposes: he was one of the finest dancers to come along in decades.)

            Anyway, not to lecture about social history. But this is WHY I believe it’s necessary to take a whole panoply of things into consideration when we talk about some idea of Michael not getting his “proper due.” It’s going to take awhile to sort this stuff out, and a lot of it has to do with the particular cultural milieux into which stars has the fortune–good, bad, or mixed—to enjoy their heyday.

            Remember, Elvis has been dead for 36 years; John Lennon for 33 years; the Beatles (as of the time of their breakup) 44 years. Michael Jackson died only four years ago. Already there are dramatic signs that his reputation is being resurrected (the Cirque shows are nothing to sneeze at). And look at the People magazine “Gone Too Soon” list I provided above. He is included in the top, “Unforgettable” list.

  5. Indeed a wonderful article. It clearly reinforces the glaring (and troubling) fact that Michael Jackson was immensely popular and more revered in so many other countries. And despite the British tabloid sewage, he is beloved in the UK. I am completely disgusted with my homeland. We are a nation of bullies and seem to take delight in belittling Michael Jackson. I grew up with and love the Beatles and Elvis. But there will never be any artist as gifted with raw talent and universal appeal (and influence), like Michael. Thank you, Oris Aigbokhaevbold, and thank you Raven for sharing his great article with us. After a week of being pommeled with tabloid trash, this is so uplifting!

    1. As an American, I can second the motion. I am ashamed of my homeland, as well. I once had a reader (from France, I believe, or so she claimed) who asked why I harp on so much of the negative stuff. She was referring to my various rebuttals, and posts dealing with the allegations and other controversial issues. She said I needed to realize that not every country in the world views Michael the same way as America and the UK.

      Well, that is true, but in my defense, I am from the USA and so much of what I write comes from that experience-or, more aptly, as a response to the things I hear and read about Michael HERE. And I don’t think other countries are necessarily immune to it. As Oris pointed out, Michael has been trashed by the press in Nigeria, too. But it seems that in many countries, they simply aren’t as OBSESSED with tearing Michael down as in the UK and USA.

      I think it is even more tragic here because this is Michael’s native country, the place where you would think he would be revered the most.

      However, the American press doesn’t truly reflect how most Americans feel about Michael Jackson. He is very much a beloved figure here. Most real people don’t give two cents about the latest tabloid story. And the truth is that, for many, stories about Michael Jackson ceased to have relevance once he died. In other words, the reaction of most people to the garbage now : “He’s dead. Let the guy RIP. Who cares?” The constant press scrutiny, even four years after his death, now strikes many as more than a bit morbid and exploitative. It’s one thing to continue to celebrate his art, legacy, and positive contributions, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It is the constant regurgitation of garbage and trash gossip that have many saying “enough already.”

      1. I, too, am sickened by the carnivorous “regurgitation of garbage and trash” by my homeland media. Though many have taken the attitude, as you say, “He’s dead. Leave it alone.” the constant salacious headlines, especially those of the last 2 months, are all that many will know or remember about Michael as well as providing fuel to the haters. Unfortunately, too many Americans have become headline readers and do little research into the veracity of such sensationalism nor believe the corrections/rebuttals when they do come as we have seen this week with the “FBI files”. The one thing Michael worked for all his life – along with taking care of children and the planet – was that his legacy was secure and a shining example for the world. What a grave injustice has been done to him by people who live in a world of darkness and greed.

  6. What a lovely, honest and refreshing article. Thank you Oris , and thank you Raven for sharing it.

    When I started to delve more deeply into Michael’s life I began to realise that some people didn’t like the fact that he even existed, and they were prepared to destroy him at any cost .

    Once the momentum got going with derogatory and negative reporting, it was never going to stop. When I pulled it all together I started to understand how every little thing he did would be a subject for speculation, and an opportunity to analyse his “character” .
    No wonder when it came to the real serious stuff he didn’t stand a chance.

    Was it the fact that this child star didn’t fade away, but went “super- nova”.. who knows , but clearly envy , jealousy and greed played a huge
    part, and let’s be honest Michael was in a league of his own ( and I do admire and enjoy many other artists ).

    It becomes ludicrous when you see just how many flaws Michael is supposed to have had.. they could have filled a page in the Guinness book of records on their own !! Yet even Johnny Rotten is respectable now !!

    As others have said nothing was allowed to blow over , or be forgiven.
    I suppose the bottom line is that Michael was, and still is so huge , that for some there can never be any turning back.

    Despite everything we know in our hearts that Michael is loved the world over ,and this article from Oris is like a shining beacon to remind and reassure us of that when the going gets tough.

    I found it very comforting.

    1. I so agree MagUK. Remember that old adage about a prophet in his own land. I am pretty sure that Michael is much loved and revered in many, if not most other countries. I have been amazed a couple of times when I have added my name to worldwide petitions to see just how many folks from other countries contribute, often outstripping by far the number of Americans who add their names.

      Yes, I am afraid that it is Human Nature to tear successful people down, and I just wish that would change, and it could if people followed Michael’s own example.

  7. As I re-read my post this morning, I want to clarify that I also grew up with the Beatles (my first album purchase) and Elvis (LMT – my first 45)and respect them for their talent and what they accomplished. However, Michael was always held to a more brutal standard and in the end it hurt him and cruelly damaged his legacy.

  8. For me an artist’s craft should be measured in how they grow as an artist, not how many units of a product they can sell in a short time frame. That truly is the measure of their work. If they don’t grow, can they truly say that they are successful, that they have made it? (I say resolutely no, I mean why waste your talent for the groping of the almighty dollar)!
    “For the Western media, intent on championing The Beatles and Elvis Presley as the most successful pop music acts in history, perhaps it is time someone told them in Nigeria— the most populous black country— those artists do not have any music video in their honour.”

    Yes, I too wish that Michael received the credit that was his due! America is often depicted as a melting pot or cultural mosaic, but if if this were really the case, wouldn’t artists from non-Eurpean countries be more recognized? For example, many people know who Bob Marley is but why don’t we see examples of music from artists who are Central Asian (aka middle eastern), or who come from African nations, Central or South American countries or Mongolia, China or Japan? I never see people from nations like these represented in mainstream media. Rap and Hip Hop have spread to Paris, Berlin, Africa Mongolia and Israel/Palestine but the music I hear on the radio doesn’t have these things in mind; instead it’s usually about drugs, women, the whole nine yards! It seems like American music could use more diversity!

    1. It also doesn’t help that corporate radio rules America now. Gone are the days when you had the mom and pop radio stations and the deejays who just might start spinning a record that was “different” because they liked it (or heck, even because someone had paid them to play it!). Corporate radio is just payola on a much bigger scale, but now the idea is to have all music marginalized into “markets” and to not allow in anything new. Of course, the internet has offset this somewhat (and in some ways has replaced the mom and pop radio stations). If anything new or innovative does break through, that’s where it happens. But by the time corporate radio is ready to integrate it, it’s hardly new or fresh anymore.

    2. I totally agree, Gloved 1. Where can we hear musicians from around the world? How much notoriety do their achieve globally, or in the U.S. Seems the U.S. exports cultural products everywhere, but imports very little.

  9. OMG!!!! THANK YOU SOOOOOO MUCH! I get SICK of this country trying to make that insulting comparison! Yes, I understand the cultural significance of Elvis and The Beatles, but honestly, Michael Jackson was more because EVERY culture in the U.S. loved him and was influenced by him. In the U.S. a lot of the so-called “experts” completely ignore Black Culture, Latin Culture, etc. for obvious reasons. My questions for anyone who seriously wants to go there are 1) How many Black people and/or Ethnic people have you actually seen passing out at an Elvis or Beatles concert? 2) How many different races and cultures have you seen passing out at a MJ concert? 3) If Michael was a White man with ALL of the same accomplishments, mass appeal, talents, record sales and influence…. Would we even try to compare him to ANYONE??

    1. Lol, had this image of black folks swooning and passing out at an Elvis concert, and had to laugh!

      Artists like Elvis and the Beatles hold little appeal for most ethnic people because they represent nothing for them. Why should blacks in the 50’s, for example, care about Elvis Presley when he was only doing what a million black artists had already been doing-and doing better-for years? And that was provided a black person could even get IN to see an Elvis concert!

      To white kids, it was all new but Elvis made that kind of music and performance “acceptable” for them.

      Elvis did share one trait in common with Michael, however. He had the ability to take what had been done before and make it uniquely his own. But Michael’s global power and influence was much greater, and reached a much more diverse audience.

      1. Here here Raven. Because I came to Michael later, I sort of worked my way through his body of work backwards, and I have always said that his later work was much better than his earlier, and there is hardly anything better than watching him sing Ben at the Oscars. He did continue to grow, and grow, and grow, and was never satisfied with 2nd best.

        I personally think that to compare him with the Beatles or Elvis is absurd on any level, be it personal or professional. Absolutely no-one else composed the music and lyrics of the vast majority of their songs, had such a range of subjects for those songs, made short films to compliment them, danced like a dancer who had trained professionally, kept their voice in tiptop shape with a vocal trainer, gave such dramatic live concerts and performances, won so many awards, got so many world records, gave away so much money ……… I could go on, but no need hey?? there is just absolutely no comparison with anyone on this planet, then or since in my humble opinion!!!

      2. I’m not so sure about this, Raven. I think this is what we’ve heard, over and over. The reality on the ground is likely to be much different, even if it flies in the face of the common wisdom.

  10. Hi Raven;

    Thank you so much for this amazing post. Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo’s piece is dead on the money. I, too, am a huge Beatles fan and was devastated by John Lennon’s death – but it shocked me how much deeper I felt when Michael died. Still, to this day, it is ongoing. I don’t undertand it – I just know I feel. It truly feels like missing a family member. Reading this article at this time has been like taking a clean shower. I almost get afraid to read anything about Michael anymore, not for anything that Michael has done, but for the continued willful ignorance of the masses. I guess I will never understand why so many in the USA continue to belittle this beautiful man – and I do mean beautiful both spiritually and physically – your pictue of MJ at top of page – is that not the face of an angel?? OMG!! Well, thank you Raven, for your blog. It is a place of comfort.

  11. First of all, yes, he is adorable in this picture or the picture is adorable, anyway it’s the face of an angel as Susan said. The article is so good that I miss the words for it. I always say in my eloquent speeches that if you go to the North and South Pole and you ask to a eskimo inside of an igloo if he knows who is Michael Jackson this eskimo will start to dance Thriller! I’m saying that Michael Jackson was so “BIG” that this small world coudn’t fit him. Elvis and The Beatles were great, wonderful ( I love them too!) but Michael Jackson had more influence in people’s lives because he gave his music through himself for EVERYBODY of every colour and every age. He touched MILLIONS of people. He still touches. . How could a boy, from I don’t know from wich country in this world, in the last 3 or 4 years, be so interested, be so in love doing this:
    http://youtu.be/UXQB2AugkgQ

    This is immortality.

  12. Guys, don’t you think that America is more obsessed with vilifying MJ partly because America in general is just more neurotic and “freak out before thinking”-prone than other countries? I don’t mean to offend anyone but the US public makes a huge deal out of things that are basically non-issue for most europeans.

    Also, americans seem to like to think of themselves as very conservative people, so being different is sort of frowned upon. They are of course not really conservative at all, judging by all the public scandals, but its like everybody is collectively pretending to be up-standing citizens and all about traditional values.

    I think here in Europe generally speaking people are just more relaxed about differences and more likely to take an open-minded approach, less likely to expect someone to be all perfect. I’m generalizing of course but the point remains.

    As for Beatles and Elvis, I kinda frown every time MJ fans feel the need to belittle any other artist to make Michael greater. (Was Elvis ever that big globally btw? Don’t think so) it should be possible to admire MJ without throwing shade at others I’m sure! Michael being great does not make Lennon less great, just like the pyramids don’t make the Eiffel tower less great, its kinda awesome we got both. I agree that Michael more credit than he gets, but I don’t think we need to get that credit by taking it from someone else – we are not dealing with a scarce resource here 😉 and honestly, if we ignore the press for a second, whenever MJ is brought up in a discussion, I have never so far met a person who wouldn’t acknowledge his enormous talent and influence – however they might misunderstand his personal choices, his genius is not even questioned by regular people.

    1. One thing we have to remember about the USA: It is a country founded by Puritans. And even though we’ve come a long way since the 1600’s, we are still a country very much tied to our Puritanical roots. (Of course, native Americans and Spaniards were here first, but as far as political power, this became in all essence a Puritan country).

      From drugs to alcohol to sex, Americans have always been more uptight about everything. That is a generality, of course, that doesn’t necessarily apply to every individual. But taken as a whole, it is very true.

      I am really okay that Michael is usually at least in the Top 4 or 5 artists of all time. As long as I know his genius is recognized, I am certainly okay with the fact that he shares that honor with other artists. Ideally, music and art are the two things that should NOT be about race.

      I think the problem (and what fuels the fans’ desire to become defensive) is when you have so many “critics” who tend to downplay Michael’s accomplishments and denigrate his post-Thriller work. This is still coming out of a deep-rooted desire on the part of many white critics to deflate his importance. We know that publications like Rolling Stone, for example, who continue to revere white artists like The Beatles, U2, Dylan, etc., still refuse to give Michael his due. That is not just fan paranoia, but a fact that has been noted by many neutral pop culture journalists.

      Just the other day, I got an email from Oris Aigbokhaevbolo reminding me of this recent jewel from Bill Wyman. This was not on some random blog, but published in The New Yorker:

      http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/01/did-michael-jacksons-thriller-really-sell-a-hundred-million-copies.html

      I have written about Bill Wyman before and his particular beef with MJ, and will be mentioning him again since he is going to feature somewhat in my next post. Now, obviously, it doesn’t really matter whether Thriller ever actually sold 100,000, 000 copies or not. What matters is that it remains the biggest selling album of all time. Wyman is making the case here that those numbers have been inflated. But his real agenda here (and not a very subtle one) is to strip away the power that those numbers give, so that Michael’s brand can be diminished.

      There has been a huge paradigm shift since Michael’s death, and his importance is being reevaluated by a whole new generation of critics who, thankfully, are independent thinkers and not under the influence of the dominating yoke that has been commanded for so long by Rolling Stone and their ilk. But they are a stubbornly dying breed. Randall Sullivan’s recent book is an example, in which again, Michael’s artistic legacy is belittled. As long as these writers can continue to paint the picture of an artist who fell from his throne after Thriller (and even, as in the case of Wyman, to belittle what Thriller has achieved) they will be satisfied to do so.

      1. Oh yeah, I remember that ridiculous article and his source “this French guy I know”.

        I agree with you whole-heartedly that any art should not be about race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation or whatever else generic aspect of us. Female writers used to publish under male pseudonyms – same thing really.

        I was just thinking after I posted that comment that another reason for MJ not being taken as seriously as a musician (as silly as that sounds) could be because he was also largely and also globally considered as a commercial artist first. There is stigma with art that a real artist cannot be that popular with real genuine stuff. Remember, how Michael was always accused of being too focused on sales, how it was always about being number one for him, not so much expressing some genuine feeling in a song, regardless of its popularity. That is exactly what this whole “rocker” thing is all about, its like they “accidentally” taped into something while they were just creating art for the sake of art. Another stigma right there – if an artist intentionally aims to become huge through their work, they will be labelled a sell out for something for sure.

        Michael never hid the fact that he wanted to be number one, to outsell and outperform everybody else and there was a certain agenda to his every move. I think a lot of critics really mistake his deliberate action for the lack of artistic purpose – like he would sacrifice any purpose or message if it meant more sales, which is not true.

        I don’t think people ever thought of MJ as an artist who expresses his intimate feelings through his art, and to be somewhat fair, it had not been obvious to most people until HIStory, where no one could miss the fact that it became personal now. Ironically, that is also when most people stopped listening!

        I don’t think we can narrow it down to the race issue though. There is a racial aspect of it, but there are many others too. Its kinda fascinating that Michael managed to intangle himself in so many things at once.

    2. If your theory is valid, then why are the Brits obsessed with denigrating Michael at every turn? (Although they like to think of themselves as separate from other Europeans, they are European in reality.) Recently the Brit tabloids have put out lie after outrageous lie about Michael, and these stories are picked up by papers in the rest of the continent, but are largely ignored by American media, even rags like the National Enquirer.

      Michael’s fans rarely put down other artists in order to build him up. But it’s a zero sum game with music fans, especially white fans, in my opinion – if you give Michael Jackson his due, it’s perceived as denigrating Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, etc. He’s seldom allowed his singularity.

      It’s naive to believe that Michael’s “difference” is at the root of American enmity. It’s racism, pure and simple.

      1. Well, the british are just as mean to their own Royal family, seriously, the tabloids are mean to everyone there, its their MO.

        Like I said I have never met a music fan who refused to acknowledge Michael’s talent and genius, even if they disagreed with some of his personal choices. There are people who like different kind of music and that is fine.

        I think blaming it all to racism is just too simplistic. Michael was a complex and complicated figure, he was not just a black guy who managed to sell more records than anyone else. Bob Marley was black and nobody tries to belittle his genius.

        Some people dislike him for being black and then some for not being black enough, or not wanting to be black. He was too mainstream and too out of touch with his audience at the same time. They need to write something though, to fill the air, to get people to click on their article, to sell the cover – its like the new King of Pop title, they do it every time there is a new hot kid and then he is gone in a few years so they make a new one 🙂 dust in the wind 🙂

        1. Gennie – I respect your opinion, but there is no way writing from Europe that you can begin to understand the byzantine racism of the US. Bob Marley didn’t own the Beatles catalog. Michael did, an unforgivable offense for a black man. It all stems from that, not “differences”.

          1. Simba, do you really think that every music journalist has a personal grudge against Michael because he bought ATV catalogue? Thats just silly, no offense. Or do you think every mean-spirited stab at Michael was motivated by racism instead of the fact that “wacko jacko” angle sells papers, pure and simple. Yes, Michael was the most successful artist, but there are tons of black artists who are not presented as wackos in the media. As fans, we cannot deny the fact that Michael defied norms in many ways, in ways that Lennon, Springstien and Elvis didn’t – we cannot expect to be taken seriously if we deny that and blame it all on the race issue.

            Blaming everything on racism makes one blind to other factors. Michael intentionally created this aura of mystery around him, he made people wonder about him and talk about him and most people just did not know what to make of him! And most people don’t spend that much time trying to figure him out, so he goes in to the “wacko” box and then its harder for them to take him seriously as a musician. Michael himself wondered why he wasn’t considered as much as a musician and songwriter as Prince. Both are black and don’t tell me its because one happened to buy some songs almost 30 years ago.

            Imagine an artist like Bjork making the most selling album of all time – the media would be all over her, yapping about how strange she is!

  13. You can read the music press, and the British music press for comparison. It’s a mixed bag, as far as I can tell. British writers have been about as fair (or unfair) as their American counterparts, so I can’t make any generalizations that way.

    My main interest in reading as much as I have is not to continually detect or point out trashing or valorization, because I believe “negative” and “positive” to be malleable and subjective judgments anyway. What I want from writing is the chance to absorb fresh insights from people who may have very different backgrounds than mine, or who have something to say about Michael from their unique perspective.

    I’d really like to hear more from writers, scholars, and fans in the developing world, and even in Europe. I wonder how Oris Aigbokhaevbolo has arrived as his reading of the Beatles’ and Elvis’s reception in the U.S., as opposed to Nigeria or other places.

    1. Agree with you about reading. I think the role of music critics (or any critic even) went from an expert in the subject who has the knowledge and perception to present a deeper understand the piece of music and put in context – to a self-absorbed and lazy writer whose goal is mostly to elevate himself and his “sophisticated” taste by trashing the subject. The latter of course does not offer any new insights or perspectives.

      1. I like what music critic Charles Rosen has to say:

        “You do not have to love a work of art or a style in order to criticize it, but you need to understand its attraction for someone who does…. Criticism has no significance and no importance if it is not accompanied by understanding—and that implies the comprehension of at least the possibility of love.”

        (“Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New,” Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000)

        1. That is very true. Just for example, I don’t like sci-fi or fantasy films (something Michael and I would have disagreed on quite heartily, I might add!) but I do know what qualities make a “great” film like Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind stand out from B movie drivel. I can appreciate the art even if the work itself is not to my personal taste. So I get exactly what Rosen is saying. It is the same thing as when I tell my students that they may not like a particular story we read, or poem, or a particular writer, but that isn’t what matters. What matters is the ability to view the work objectively (as well as subjectively) and to be able to think critically about what makes this piece, or this author, a part of our literary canon. It doesn’t have to be about blindly liking it just because someone has said it’s great art; rather, it’s about understanding those qualities that have led it to be perceived as “great art” even if you may not personally like it just because it doesn’t suit your own taste. In one class I teach, I almost always assign Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants as the first story. The kids read it dutifully, thinking it must be a favorite of mine; a revered work. It always knocks them for a loop when I say, “Nope, I actually don’t like Hemingway and I pretty much feel the same way about this story that you all do.” But then, from there, we have to address the question: “So why has this story stood the test of time, and why has it been so revered?” This means objectively looking at Hemingway’s technique; what he accomplished; how he innovated the ability to use dialog to advance a story, his “Iceberg Theory,” and how so much of what we read today is still influenced by him. Thus, while learning it is okay to not like something, and that our opinions are valid, we nevertheless have to be able to step back and acknowledge art-any art-on its own terms.

          But again, this goes back to what I said in my previous reply to you, that so often, this was exactly where many critics seemed to fail Michael. Granted, I don’t believe that ALL of his 90’s work was superior to Off the Wall and Thriller. But it is mind boggling to think that such great compositions as Earth Song and Stranger In Moscow were so often denigrated and dismissed. These are songs that would be considered masterpieces by any standards. But I believe that so many just couldn’t get past their personal biases about Michael by that point to really hear them.

          1. Yes, Raven; I also teach canonical films (Citizen Kane, etc.) But because film, like music, has established its base as popular culture, there’s also room to teach “drivel” (!) So one colleague of mine, for example, teaches “cult films,” and I’ve sometimes team-taught a course on “Pop Culture and the Films of the ’60s,” where we include some films (not all) that many “serious critics” might consider junk.

            At some point, everything that’s available is up for reconsideration. The “junk” films may also oblige us to see the possibility of love, as Rosen says: these mostly unloved objects, which haven’t necessarily earned the canonical Seal of Approval, are still loved by *somebody*—even by a very small group of fans. It’s interesting to find out why.

            In this connection, I really recommend Carl Wilson’s book about Celine Dion: “Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.” (It’s part of that useful 33 1/3 series of books that’s put out by Continuum Press.) It’s a wonderful book, because Wilson sets out to do what few people have: to discover why he *dislikes* something. At the outset, he doesn’t like Celine Dion at all, and talks with other people—including her purported fans—who don’t like her music.

            Then he goes to Las Vegas, attends her shows, travels around talking to some of her devoted fans to try to find out what they like about her music. He witnesses the emotional connection that so many people feel with her. At the end of the day, he still doesn’t like her music, but he’s gained a greater understanding of why others do.

          2. Yes. When I typed my comment earlier, I also thought of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. There was a movie so universally panned by critics as awful that it became a cult classic, beloved by many. Today, a lot of those movies have “classic” status even though they were some of the cheesiest films ever made.

  14. If people get their information mainly from the tabloids, there’s little doubt that they’ll have a truncated perspective compared with those who draw from different kinds of sources.

    Not necessarily a tabloid (though maybe it is), “People” magazine recently put out a special issue: Gone Too Soon: Remembering 57 Celebrities Who Died Far Too Young.” On the cover: pictures of Princess Diana, Whitney Houston, Patrick Swayze, Michael Jackson, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Farrah Fawcett.

    Their Contents page breaks down like this:

    UNFORGETTABLE
    Princess Diana
    John F. Kennedy Jr.
    Michael Jackson
    John Lennon
    Princess Grace
    Elvis Presley

    ENTERTAINERS
    Farrah Fawcett
    Patrick Swayze
    John Candy
    Heath Ledger
    River Phoenix
    Jim Henson
    John Belushi
    Gary Coleman
    Rebecca Shaeffer
    Brittany Murphy
    John Hughes
    Gilda Radner
    Christopher & Diana Reeve
    Brandon Lee
    Anna Nicole Smith
    Corey Haim
    Bernie Mac
    Chris Farley
    Michael O’Donoghue
    Freddie Prinze
    John Ritter

    MUSICIANS
    Whitney Houston
    Selena
    Kurt Cobain
    Karen Carpenter
    Freddie Mercury
    Amy Winehouse
    Tupac Shakur
    Biggie Smalls
    Andy Gibb
    Luther Vandross
    Joey Ramone
    DJ AM
    Bob Marley
    John Denver
    Stevie Ray Vaughan
    Adam Yauch
    Jerry Garcia

    NEWSMAKERS
    Steve Jobs
    Gianni Versace
    Ryan White
    JonBenét Ramsey
    Sergei Grinkov
    David Foster Wallace
    Tim Russert
    Randy Pausch
    Elizabeth Edwards
    Steve Irwin
    Dale Earnhardt
    Keiko

    So, I don’t know what this may mean: the “UNFORGETTABLE” section, the first six, may have pride of place; and Michael is among them.

    But the business of canon formation is fickle, and in another 10, 15, 20 years these lists are certain to change.

  15. The smearing of MJ,and everything he stands for is yet to come. The Defense is yet to open their own defense. We, the REAL fans should be prepared. I just hope the rest of the gullible world will take the so called ugly stuff at face value. The media , with their blatant biased reporting of the trail, only want us to believe that there was nothing good about MJ.As far as they are concerned, The Beatles,Elvis,were the true geniuses. Oris is so right. A desperate person will do anything to get out of the situation they find themselves in.I am only glad MJ is not here to see the betrayal of Wade Robson.IT would have literally killed him.He did not recover after the Garvin Arvizo’s incident.Wish Paris well.

  16. Gennie, you ask “Simba, do you really think that every music journalist has a personal grudge against Michael because he bought ATV catalogue?”

    No, not “every” critic. But yes, a considerable number of the most prominent rock critics, like Bill Wyman, and writers for Rolling Stone, worship at the altar of the Beatles and treat Michael and his accomplishments as illegitimate.

    Do you really believe that Michael “defied norms”, but Elvis and Lennon didn’t? Elvis kept an underage girl in his home, and bed, and was a heavy user of prescription drugs. Lennon used every drug in the book, beat his first wife, and posed naked in a fetal position with Yoko Ono for a magazine cover. Those are just a couple of examples of their behavior that “defied norms”. There’s one norm they didn’t defy – they were both white men, in a world run by white men. Their eccentricities are excused and forgotten.

    Michael wasn’t that damn “mysterious”. By comparison, Prince is downright reclusive. Prince is considered more of a musician probably because he is primarily a musician-composer. His singing and dancing are no better than serviceable. But it also serves certain interests to artificially pit the two great black musicians of the era against each other. Other black musicians get a pass because they don’t threaten white male primacy – or do seriously think that Little Richard, James Brown, Rick James, George Clinton, and a slew if others didn’t “defy norms”. What they didn’t do is buy and own the Beatles catalog. Until Michael bought it and gave it back to him, Little Richard didn’t even own his own catalog.

    Yes, I’m blaming Michael’s troubles on racism, and I’m confident in doing so. You are free to believe this man was crucified because of his unconventional relationships with children or because he had a pet chimp, but racism is the engine that drove media and government to destroy Michael Jackson.

    1. Simba,

      I can’t speak for Gennie, but I know that I, for one, am not talking about the Pet Chimp, the hyperbaric chamber, or his unconventional relationships with children. And Prince was

      What Little Richard, James Brown, Rick James, George Clinton and the others didn’t do was “defy norms” in the precise way that Michael did. If they used more “feminine” signifiers in their performances, they did so in a more tongue-in-cheek fashion, so audiences knew “where they stood.” The girls, the booze, the drugs, and ESPECIALLY lying in a fetal position naked with Yoko (well after they had established their *counterculture* credentials) hardly qualify as defying norms in this cultural milieu; rather, these are instances of ADHERING to the norms of rock stardom, as it has been constructed since the 1960s. Michael Jackson didn’t quite do that.

      He came across as vulnerable, perhaps not cynical enough. At some point, people (journalists and the public alike) were probably pinning their hopes on him as the “Great Black Savior.” When it didn’t pan out—as indeed it never could—there was a backlash.

      Through his insistence on remaining childlike, his talking about his stolen childhood, his increasing lightness of skin (the causes of which he didn’t reveal until the 1993 interview with Oprah), the surgical alterations to his face, which people probably regarded as a symptom of internal suffering, he constructed a figure that was vulnerable to certain kinds of ridicule.

      In doing these things, he essentially pulled back the curtain to reveal the machinations that go on behind the seamless surfaces of glamor and cost-free participation in the show business behemoth. Others may have expired early in life from drug overdoses and other disasters. in a very different way, MIchael revealed the catastrophic toll that the entertainment industry exacts upon child stars, and stars in general: the all-too-real human suffering that lies at the heart of the illusion that’s produced for our delight and pleasure.

      The fiction, or mass delusion that lies at the heart of mass entertainment itself, becomes an inviolable system whose inner workings must never be truly revealed—at least, not the way Michael revealed them.

      That, I believe, is the crime for which he was not forgiven.

      1. Nobody, past or present, can define exactly where Little Richard “stood”, not even Little Richard himself!

      2. Yes, the “wacko” thing is definitely bigger than Bubbles, hyperbaric chamber and hanging out with children.

        I’m not saying Michael does not get judged by a different standard – he sure does. Just in a recent ONE review by the financial times, the critic complained about the moralism in TDCAU and Earth Song and how it may irk some people. Its hard to imagine people being irked that a tribute to John Lennon includes “Imagine”. But then again, nobody ever complained about Man In The Mirror, which is like Imagine in a sense that it does not demand collective action and more self-reflective than angry.

        People also love to tear someone down, and the higher they build you up, the more fun is watching you fall. Michael is hardly the only megastar whose “downfall” got the public obsessed, but he was the biggest. Remember when Britney had her meltdown and how quickly they turned mean on her. Kinda like you are saying about the inner works of entertainment industry and the toll it takes on a teenager – the second she peaked, they were waiting for her to trip, and could not hide the delight of throwing metaphorical stones at her once she did.

    2. Simba, I have a feeling that you are not really interested in other points of view that your own 🙂

      What is the point of trying to belittle other artists?

      No, they did not defy the norm in the same way Michael did, they did not have “an image” since childhood that suddenly changed completely once he grew up. They never had that wholesome squicky clean image about them either – the public is used to rock stars doing drugs, alcohol and groupies, its almost the norm in that environment, the glamorous lifestyle if you wish. People don’t judge it that harsh because secretly if they could afford it they would love to try it too.

      Michael was that mysterious and unfathonable simply because most people could not relate to him. Most people if they had won the lottery are more likely to turn their life into a permanent party with sex, drinks, diamonds and what not, than build a place where childhood is celebrated with rides, animals and candy. Why u think its so easy for people to believe that Neverland was there to lure children in so he could take advantage of them? Because most people are sadly too cynical to believe in selfless deed, that someone can really just care and want to help. Its easier to believe there was some kind of dirty ulterior motive – THAT they can relate to, sadly.

      Also, most people are totally misinformed about why Michael’s appearance had changed so drastically – they just don’t know better. Just recently I tried to convince my friend who actually is from Africa that he did not bleach his skin – she kept saying that she knows people who bleach their skin and with what products and thus she assumes thats what MJ did. No amount of medical records would change her mind.

      You don’t notice it but in your quest to give Michael the credit he deserves, you stomp on a whole bunch of artists, who have nothing to do with this argument. The fact that Michael deserves to be fully recognized for what he accomplished does not change the fact that John Lennon does too. The fact that Michael bought those songs – that was a business move and most people, including the critics, don’t lie awake at night obsessing about it. Sure, it must have irked some people who were racists to begin with, but for most it did not mean that they turned against MJ the second that deal closed. It makes more sense for business executives to dislike that deal since it made MJ more powerful in negotiations, than for critics – it made no impact on anyone’s music quality.

      1. “You don’t notice it but in your quest to give Michael the credit he deserves, you stomp on a whole bunch of artists, who have nothing to do with this argument. The fact that Michael deserves to be fully recognized for what he accomplished does not change the fact that John Lennon does too.”

        How does citing the FACT that John Lennon posed naked in a fetal position constitute “stomping” on him as an artist? It had nothing to do with his art, and definitely nothing to do with Michael Jackson.

        Your remarks make my point about appreciating Michael Jackson being a zero sum game. You state your point of view and that’s fine. I state my point of view and you accuse me of not being interested in what others have to say. I point out that Elvis and Lennon defied societal norms just as you believe Michael did, and you accuse me of denigrating them as artists. It’s as if praising Michael and appreciating other artists can’t exist in the same time and space.

        You like Michael’s music but he was weird to you. I get it. He wasn’t weird to me.

        1. John Lennon posing naked has everything to do with his art, actually… I try to present arguments for my point of view, while you say that you are convinced its racism and only racism and thats it – that is why I said you don’t seem to be interested in what others think. And you do sound very dismissive of other artists, especially Prince.

          Michael was not weird to me, thank you very much, but he is one of the most unique and unusual people and artist that had ever lived. To agrue that he wasn’t different makes no sense, he was sure not like most people. In fact, geniuses are different, it is in the definition. I don’t to convince myself that MJ was a regular ordinary person in order to love him. Like Nina said, its impossible to understand why Michael was treated this way unless you are willing to understand many angles and issues that got intervined here.

          1. You try to present arguments for your point of view and I try to present arguments for my point of view. I really don’t see a problem here.

      2. I agree, Gennie. In one sense the purchase of the ATV catalog would have symbolically meant destroying a sacred cow—for some. Bankers, Beatles afficionados, some music industry people would have been affronted by this young “upstart,” “a black guy to boot. “The nerve of him!”, etc. But this business move would have paled in comparison to all the other things you mention.

        And I agree that rock stars are permitted all their booze, sex, drugs, partying, transgressiosns, etc. These people become our gods in a modern-day, secular society. They do all those things so that we ordinary mortals can live our pleasures vicariously through them (though at the same time, we also get to condemn and savage them, which provides kind of pleasure). In any case, they’re EXPECTED to be the target of tabloid-type scandals; but they quickly recover from them.

        If Michael’s career trajectory was different, it seems to me we should ask why on a number of levels; not only for the sake of understanding Michael Jackson’s life and career better, but especially to better understand *ourselves*.

        It’s interesting to hear about your friend from Africa. Somewhere I’ve heard that skin-lightening products and services are more popular and more socially acceptable, in Africa and parts of Asia. I’d be very, very interested to find out why that is; it might go a long way toward explaining why Michael wasn’t considered as “weird” in other countries as he was in the U.S. My first guess is that the idea of racial pride developed in US in tandem with the Civil Rights movement (e.g., the slogan “black is beautiful”) was closely connected with the visual signifiers of blackness—hair, skin color, features, etc. Michael challenged that; which led to the idea (shared by both blacks and whites) that he was somehow “ashamed” of being black.

        “The fact that Michael deserves to be fully recognized for what he accomplished does not change the fact that John Lennon does too.”

        I totally agree, Gennie.

      3. Ouch, this is getting to be a very heated debate!

        I do think Simba’s point is a fair one, coming off Aigbokhaevolo’s article which is basically stating how Michael’s art was/is viewed in relation to white artists of comparable stature. I can’t speak for Simba but I don’t think her views are that far removed from mine. It’s not really about tearing down other artists. It’s just about wanting to see Michael get his fair share-and also, to be judged by the same standards, no better or worse. I think that a lot of times, it is a natural tendency to point out that, “Well, so and so did this” and “so and so did that” because pointing out hypocrisy is a natural human tendency when venting.

        For my part, as I said, as long as I know Michael has a place among the top artists of all time, I am not going to sleep over whether he gets ranked #1, or #2 or even lower. I just want to see him have the respect he deserves and to be judged by the same standards.

        That is a good example about Neverland. If Michael had turned Neverland into a kind of Playboy mansion, which he easily could have, with non-stop parties and groupies, it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow.

    3. Simba says,
      “You are free to believe this man was crucified because of his unconventional relationships with children or because he had a pet chimp, but racism is the engine that drove media and government to destroy Michael Jackson.

      Simba, that is NOT what any of us have said here. As for Susan Fast, what she says here is much more complex than what you might at first glance read as *her own* judgment about his “weirdness.” In fact, she is interrogating this cultural trope at its base, as it includes Michael and others who are perceived as “different.”

      To paraphrase yourself: If you can’t “get” what you read, Simba, that’s your failing, not hers or ours.

      1. I ‘get’ what she’s saying. I don’t agree with it. Do you really imagine that black fans weren’t sure if Michael Jackson was black or white, just because of a skin disease? That’s down right insulting. Her statement takes the white cultural point of view as the baseline. Michael wasn’t testing boundaries. He was being himself. (Likewise African Americans are not invested in what an African has to say about Michael’s skin.)

        1. Why not? Since we are talking about global perceptions of MJ vs. the american view, I don’t see why an opinion of from an African is not relevant. My point was that a lot of people are misinformed about Michael’s skin condition and its not about them being racist. But I won’t be surprised if you start claiming that this is also a special case of racism since you don’t want to acknowledge any other issues.

          What you don’t get about Susan Fast’s article is that she never claimed that “black fans weren’t sure if MJ was black or white”. Yes, Michael was being himself and that challenged many boundaries.

          Black man living in a racist society who became the most successful artist challenged the perception of what was possible to achieve in this society.

          Mixing and fusing many styles and genres in his work challenged the cultural perception of art where many mostly stayed within their genre.

          A straight man did not conform into the behavioral stereotype for a straight male and casually used make-up, experimented with his own fashion sense and did not openly date – challenged the perception of straight guys!

          And no, he did not challenge those things just for the hell of it, he was being himself. Just like a hundred years ago (and still in some countries) women who want an education challenge the perception of women’s role in that society y just being themselves. Just like gay people who want the same rights as straights, challenge the perception of marriage in that society by just being who they are.

          To deny that Michael had challenged many barriers and labels and managed to break many as well is to deny a large part of his cultural legacy. If you look at the last 30 years of Michael’s life, with everything he achieved and turned on its head, and all you can see is “they were just mean to him cuz he was black and had the nerve to buy their songs”… I think you are seriously missing out on his impact.

          1. “To deny that Michael had challenged many barriers and labels and managed to break many as well is to deny a large part of his cultural legacy. If you look at the last 30 years of Michael’s life, with everything he achieved and turned on its head, and all you can see is “they were just mean to him cuz he was black and had the nerve to buy their songs”… I think you are seriously missing out on his impact.”

            You are seriously misstating the points I have made, in a rather offensive manner to boot. “Cuz”? I am fully aware of Michael Jackson’s impact. You seem unaware that there were actions taken against him, in death as well as in life, that were extraordinary, unprecedented and yes, racist. To give just one example, Michael’s dead naked body on the autopsy gurney was displayed on American television. This had NEVER been done to anyone else in public life. It would NEVER have been done to any white person of comparable stature, if such a person existed. It has never been done to white criminals, not even serial murderers. I repeat, this is just one example.

            Michael was fully aware that racism was behind the atrocious treatment he received, from media and government. How do we know that? He said so, and it’s recorded on tape. He pinpointed it – it began when he outsold Elvis and the Beatles, and especially when he had white women fainting and swooning over him. It had nothing to do with wearing makeup (which he did NOT use “casually), or his dating habits.

            It’s nonsensical to go on and on about Michael breaking down barriers if you can’t acknowledge why those barriers existed in the first place.

  17. I think Susan Fast’s views (in her 2010 article “Difference that Exceeded Understanding: Remembering Michael Jackson (1958–2009”) are very much to the point here:

    “As Madonna put it in her moving tribute to him at the MTV Video Music Awards in September 2009, he was a “magnificent creature [who] once set the world on fire.” But it is not possible to remember Michael Jackson’s difference as an artist without also remembering all the pain and controversy that surrounded him and how so much of this must also be understood as the result of his difference, difference much less easy, if not impossible, to embrace, so unsettling to the hegemonic order that it had to be contained through ridicule, misinterpretation, sensationalism, and finally criminal indictment. Michael Jackson’s subjectivity off the stage was disquieting. He was unknowable. He was impossible to “figure out.” While some of this difference was demonstrated through what was viewed in the mass media as “eccentric” behavior (the presence of his companion, Bubbles the chimp, the black surgical masks, the rumor that he wanted to buy the Elephant Man’s bones, some of this surely calculated to attract attention), it was really his more substantive, underlying differences that were most troubling— racial, gendered, able-bodied/disabled, child/teenager/adult, adult man who loved children, father/mother. These differences were impenetrable, uncontainable, and they created enormous anxiety. Please be black, Michael, or white, or gay or straight, father or mother, father to children, not a child yourself, so we at least know how to direct our liberal (in)tolerance. And try not to confuse all the codes simultaneously. Jackson tested the boundaries of subjectivity, not with the ironic distance of his contemporaries, Madonna and Prince, but with his heart on his sleeve, and he eventually lost. On those rare occasions when he tried to explain himself he seemed instead to dig a deeper hole. Many remained skeptical; too many normative social codes were in flux, and none were ever neatly put back in the container (again, unlike Madonna and Prince, who were both eventually domesticated—in “normal” ways).”

      1. I think I have seen some other articles from Susan Fast that incited quite a bit of controversy and discussion on fan forums. In this case, I believe she is speaking collectively rather than personally, as in “This is how we as a society viewed Michael.” Her approach is very typically academic (she’s a Ph.D in Cultural Theory). Michael’s fans, of course, have a much more intimate relationship with him and his music. For us, it is something magical that defies and transcends academic logic and analysis. Also, as I have said so many times, Michael wasn’t someone that hard to understand. All people had to do was listen.

        However, I do “get” what Susan Fast is saying, if we’re looking at it from a purely cultural and academic standpoint.

        As someone who is both a fan AND a scholar, I can appreciate both perspectives. I love to study Michael’s art and cultural impact from an analytical perspective, but I am also not immune to his magic. The things that made him impossible to pin down or define are the very qualities that attract me, and I imagine the same is true for many. Four years after his passing, I still see people on message boards every day, arguing and debating in their attempt to “define” him-he was this, he was that. If we had those clear cut answers, the debates would probably cease to exist. But, then, so would a lot of the interest (for some, anyway). I like to think that I understand Michael pretty well. But I hope I never understand him completely. The wonder that was encompassed by him is what keeps fueling me to do what I do.

        1. Raven I know you are busy with other things, but I think it would be interesting to get your (mostly young black) students take on this quote from Susan Fast:

          “It was really his more substantive, underlying differences that were most troubling— racial, gendered, able-bodied/disabled, child/teenager/adult, adult man who loved children, father/mother. These differences were impenetrable, uncontainable, and they created enormous anxiety. Please be black, Michael, or white, or gay or straight, father or mother, father to children, not a child yourself, so we at least know how to direct our liberal (in)tolerance.”

          I read that and I don’t recognize Michael Jackson. I wonder if your students think of him in those terms, or if that is strictly from a “cultural and academic standpoint”. It begs the question – whose culture, whose academics?

          1. To be honest, I think that any of my students-black or white-would just hear something like that and go, “Huh?” They are 18-year-old kids, for the most part, who aren’t thinking of anything that deeply.

            But all joking aside, remember, I teach at both a mostly black institution, but also at a community college where the student body is much more heterogeneous. Yes, based on my experience, I know my black students would have an altogether different take on it. Michael Jackson, to most of my black students, is someone they’ve grown up with. And what’s interesting is that, no matter what era we’re talking (even in the 2000’s, with the pale white skin, makeup, and straight hair) he is just Mike to them. I never hear any putdowns or jokes about his appearance, or questions about skin bleaching. And, for that matter, very rarely from students of other cultures (Asian, Indian, etc). So where do those questions generally come from? Yep, usually my white students, who always show much more evidence of being steeped in the tabloid culture that created the Michael Jackson caricature. Of course, black or white, they always have a whole new respect for him after our class lectures, but what I find on the whole is that white students are usually the ones who are more curious, and usually the ones most shocked or surprised to learn the things they learn about him from these lectures-that he was actually articulate and intelligent (not a “wacko”); that his songs had a much deeper level of social consciousness (not just old school dance music); that he was so much more than just this punching bag joke who supposedly had a fake nose, bleached his skin, and slept with kids. My black students, on the other hand, are already quite comfortable going into these discussions. They may not always understand the deeper implications of some of his work; they may not always really have a conception of the trails Michael blazed for many of the hip hop and urban artists they are listening to today, from a cultural standpoint. But they know their MJ. And from the impressions I get, he is not now, nor has ever been, a punching bag joke to them (black comedians like Chris Rock notwithstanding). They may poke gentle fun at his voice, or at lyrics like “Your butt is mine” but that’s about as far as it really gets, and it is usually more in the vein of affectionate teasing, rather than cruel putdowns. It’s just a different cultural mindset. Always interesting, to say the least.

            But to bring this back to the original point, I think that any of my students-black or white-would probably just hear Susan Fast’s words and give me blank stares in response. The only difference is that my black students would probably be much more apt to add something along the lines of , “S**t, , that bitch be talking some crazy ass talk, if you ask me.”

        2. Simba, I think there’s little argument that individuals and communities of interested people (including Raven’s students) will have very different standpoints on the interpretation of an artist’s work and life; and that race, class, age, nationality, gender, academic, non-academic, etc., will strongly enter into these viewpoints.

          Institutional power—which academic discourses grow out of and perpetuate—undoubtedly hold sway over the minds and opinions of many people. I’m not so naive to say that one group’s discursive power is equal to another’s.)

          But to argue that one group’s standpoint is more correct, more right, more real, more true, more authentic than another’s, veers into a kind of *essentialism* that’s potentially as harmful as anything else. So: who “should” we believe? Do we have to decide that one community’s standpoint is the most valid, and on what basis will we make that decision?

          While African Americans may not be *invested* in what an African has to say about Michael’s skin, some may nonetheless be curious about it, as I am. And while Susan Fast’s viewpoint may be inflected by her whiteness, her position as a (privileged, you might say) academic, I’ve read a lot of African American and black writers who, *almost to a man,* have forthrightly stated that Michael Jackson (intentionally or not) in some way troubled the boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. Some of these writers are academics; some are not. They include Ernest Hardy, Michelle Wallace, Mark Anthony Neal, Margo Jefferson, Jason King, Ali Babu Che Johnson, Francesca Royster, Scott Poulson Bryant, Daphne Brooks, Nicole Fleetwood, Tricia Rose, Kobena Mercer…. the list goes on.

          Clearly African American opinion is not all of a piece. Like the opinion of any large group, it’s varied, heterogenous, splintered, contradictory, and sometimes contentious. The question “whose culture, whose academics” is ALWAYS worth asking. But the answer, in my view, doesn’t always break down as neatly as many of us would at first assume.

          1. “Now, four years after Michael’s death, there is no more fitting tribute to the man’s genius than to listen to his music. Turn down the amplitude of the internet rumours; shred the tabloids; put off the television; and listen to his music.”

            This is where we came in. I agree that there are many opinions, arguments, points of view about Michael Jackson. But the man was about his music. Others enjoy parsing and speculating about “the boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality”, but I don’t see any evidence that Michael spent endless hours in the recording studio and the dance studio worrying about such things. If you know of any writing or interview of his where he expresses such sentiments, I’d appreciate a citation.

          2. I think it would be fair to say it was society who projected a lot of this onto Michael. This is a point we can certainly agree on, because if Michael had really been all about questioning the boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality, this would have also been reflected in his lyrics. When I listen to Madonna, for example, it’s very obvious to me that she is trying to push those buttons. Black or White and They Don’t Care About Us were probably his biggest political statements on race, but for sure, he wasn’t consciously addressing issues of gender and sexuality. The closest he came was in songs like Is It Scary where he is basically saying “I am whatever YOU want me to be.”

            With that being said, clearly we saw Michael’s appearance and outward image change over the years. And I’m not talking about things he couldn’t help, like vitiligo. I’m talking about those changes that were clearly part of an evolving image and artistic statement. Sometimes he seemed to want to look very tough and macho; other times sleekly sophisticated; other times a more ethereal, softer, almost androgynous appearance. Were these merely cosmetic changes? Or something he looked at as putting on and off, the way he put on and off his various disguises? Were they characters he was acting out; alter egos, perhaps? Or simply reflective of where his head was at the time?

            Madonna is probably the only artist I can think of, off the top of my head, who has similarly pulled off so many different looks and eras. But with her, we always know it’s an intentional statement, and usually, we know what her MO is when she is doing it. We know when it’s a statement about the liberation of female sexuality, or a statement regarding male/female duality.With Michael, it was never that clear cut. Or that simple. Again, if he had been pushing those boundaries in his music as well, it would have been easier, and I think he would have simply been lumped in categorically with artists like Madonna and David Bowie, who use many guises to make artistic statements about gender and sexuality. But Michael has always been more of an enigma in that regard. And in the end, you are probably right in that this is more a case of how Michael is perceived, rather than any kind of statement he was intentionally trying to make.

            Michael almost always left that work for us to decide. For example, we can theorize why he wanted to go for a more stripped down, raw (and clearly masculine sexuality) in a video like In the Closet, or the straight out androgyny of Scream (clearly intentional, as his and Janet’s characters have intentionally blurred sexual identities) but we’re never going to have definitive answers because Michael wasn’t the kind of artist to sit down in an interview and say, “This is what I meant.”

            And that’s where academia often comes in-and yes, some of the theories can get pretty far “out there.” I take a lot of it with a grain of salt, using what I find useful, and dismissing a lot that is merely pretentious dribble Frankly, a lot of academics, like many music critics, are simply in love with their own egos. That’s just life, though, and can apply to most anything. When I wade through this stuff, I usually can identify what strikes a chord with me, and what doesn’t. Academics, after all, are just people, too. And obviously, I will find some I agree with, and some I don’t.

            Something I always tell my students about academic writing (especially literary analysis, since that is usually what we’re concerned with) is that, yes, an excellent essay can certainly help to shed insight on difficult works. But in the end, it’s still just an opinion-and no more or less valid than your own. A person’s degree can give them expertise, but it does not make their opinions infallible. Usually, they are ideas worth considering. But ultimately, the reader can decide to accept or reject them.

          3. Simba, it doesn’t matter whether this was Michael’s intention or not; it really doesn’t, in the grand scheme of things. And that’s what’s so difficult for people to get their minds around.

            Artists may have one set of intentions, but it doesn’t end there. Eventually they put their work out into the world, where it takes on a life of its own. Whatever viewers/spectators/readers/listeners wish to make of it becomes its raison d’etre, independent of whatever the artist’s original intentions were. There will be interpretations, and counter-interpretations, and as the decades go on new audiences will discover new things, according to their own cultural priorities. That’s as it should be. If we stopped at what the artist intended, we’d soon find the conversation at an abrupt standstill.

            There’s a reason, isn’t there, why Beethoven and Mozart AND Elvis AND Duke Ellington still take up residence in our historical imagination. To ask that we stop with Michael’s stated intentions is, in effect, to wish him quickly forgotten.

            When it comes to Michael challenging the boundaries of race, gender, and/or sexuality, I think we can say that his “Black or White” song and short film —musically, lyrically, and visually—*strongly* hints at the theme of breaking down racial barriers.

            In 1980, he was interviewed by British journalist John Pidgeon (for NME). Michael was using Janet as an intermediary or mouthpiece of sorts:

            “Pidgeon: I wonder how Michael felt when suddenly the kind of music he’d been doing all the time, everyone was calling it disco, disco this and disco that. And now especially when people are talking that disco’s on the way out. I wonder how he feels about labels like that.

            “Janet: How do you feel about people they were calling your album disco all the time, and now some people are saying that disco’s going out. How do you feel about that?

            “Michael: Ummm, like I told you before I hate labels, because it should be just music. I don’t see anything wrong with disco. Every Friday night and Saturday, California is packed. Every club is packed, every disco is packed. People have worked all week and they want to party, they want to have a good time. And they want to dance, you have to dance to rhythm, to a beat. You can’t dance to da-da-da-da-da-da or…. you have to take it easy. And call it disco, call it anything, I don’t know. It’s music. And whatever they want to label it, like I said before is fine. Would you call “Never Can Say Goodbye” disco, would you call “Ben” disco, would you call “She’s Out of My Life” disco? “Off the Wall”? “Rock With You”? I don’t know. It’s music to me. It’s beautiful to the ear and that’s what counts. It’s like you hear a bird chirping, you don’t say “that’s a bluejay,” “this one is a crow.” It’s a beautiful sound. That’s all that counts. And you don’t get mad cause that’s a crow or that’s…… it’s beautiful. Listen to it. You watch ‘em soar in the sky, it’s just beautiful. That is the ugly thing about man, they, umm, they categorize too much, they get a little bit too racial about things when it should all be together.”

            From this, it seems clear that Michael understood how racialized musical genres had become. He always identified as black, to be sure; but at the same time he seemed to aspire to a condition where the concept of “race,” as we understand it now, either didn’t exist or wasn’t pressed into service as an instrument to separate and divide people.

        3. Wow! this article sure did elicit alot of comments (and banter!). After reading countless books, articles, blogs, etc. about Michael Jackson, I’ve come to the realization that no one person can claim to really “know” him better than anyone else. Each person has come to their own conclusions about him. However, I do believe that his fans, in many ways, know him best, because they look at him through the eyes of love. When it comes to understanding Michael Jackson, I feel that Helen Keller said it best in her quote:

          “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”

          Looking forward to your next post, Raven.

  18. No offense to anyone intended.. however I will apologise in advance in case anyone does take offense.. but can we keep it simple!!

    Some of the comments make me feel like I’m attending a lecture.. and I feel that some responses to others are now patronizing, rather than the open and lively democratic discussion which this blog has always been about.

    I’m sure there are plenty of other opportunities where experts can express their views and argue the case from an academic point of view, but most of us here are commenting from a mixture of our own (limited)knowledge and our personal feelings about Michael, because we are finding like-minded people here.
    Whilst we will all have some differences of opinion, and it’s good to learn from each other, and appreciate another’s point of view, I don’t feel there is any justification in making some people feel uncomfortable and dare I say inferior….that is not healthy debate in my view.

    (Just had to get that off my chest Raven!!)

    1. Well, I try not to censor discussions here because I think it’s important for everyone to be able to express their views. As you no doubt know from my articles, I can be pretty analytical myself. That just comes from years of academic conditioning, to the point that it’s almost second nature to me. So I hope it never comes across as if I am talking down to anyone.

      This discussion has been quite interesting to me, personally, because I can see very valid points being made on both sides. But perhaps, yes, a bit more refraining from personal attacks. I realize it’s very hard to keep emotions in check when we are debating something we feel passionately about, but just try to be kind to each other in the process.

    2. Raven, I believe Mag was addressing me—not you. I, too, have been steeped in academic culture, and I express myself in ways that come naturally to me. I’m very sorry if what I have to say sounds like a lecture and though I may become very pointed in an attempt to challenge people’s ways of thinking, I try not to use language that might be construed as an attack.

      In an open, democratic forum, we risk discomfort. Not everyone will necessarily be “on the same page.” There are many MJ fan sites where I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable—and indeed, attacked, sometimes brutally. I carry on. Like Raven, as well as being a devoted fan and researcher, I’m an artist who works as an academic (with all that implies).

      I don’t think debate is a negative thing; my hope is that we would all find food for thought through discussion and hearing all points of view.

  19. “There’s a reason, isn’t there, why Beethoven and Mozart AND Elvis AND Duke Ellington still take up residence in our historical imagination.”

    Yes, there’s a reason – they produced music that still speaks to us years after their deaths. Beethoven without his music? – a deaf guy with anger management issues. There was considerable outrage when Amadeus became a popular play and film – how dare Peter Shaffer reduce this towering genius to a cackling, boorish, oaf! Shaffer’s characterization was based on contemporary accounts and descriptions of Mozart. But many pointed out that his apparent vulgarity, even if true, had nothing to do with the music.

    It was Michael himself who told Oprah that if he could speak to Michelangelo, he would want to talk about his art, and what inspired it, not who he went out with last night. Ultimately for any artist, the art must speak for itself, no matter how fascinating their personal life may appear to us.

    1. There is this quote, I don’t remember the author but its goes like: if we waited for perfect art to come from perfect people, we would have to wait for a long time indeed”. Artist are not better or superior people than the rest of us, they just have certain abilities that others don’t. Its like expecting an athlete to be a perfect person just because he is physically superior.

      It is all about the art indeed, not so much the superficial circumstances where the art was created.

      1. You may have heard that from me. It is a quote from an English textbook I’ve used and which I have referred to quite often here.

  20. Nina, I totally agree with you about Michael just understanding music without boundaries, he spoke about it a lot. He was also years ahead of everybody in this sense, as people still try to put labels on music and thus make it easier to digest. Michael blended it all together and I think for some people it seemed like he would just go for anything as long as it could be a hit, instead of staying true to his own expression. I have certainly seen critics accuse him of experimenting too much and “selling out” to whatever was popular at the time just to sell records. Again, I think they mistook his devotion to innovation and pioneering due to which he had to stay up to date with the current music, for simplistic calculation. You cannot really innovate unless you are aware of what is happening in the moment.

    About the whole “artist’s intention” thing – most artist don’t seem to willing to talk about what inspired a piece or what they tried to say. I kinda understand it as they don’t want to impose a “correct” interpretation. Instead, anyone can have their own and the discussion itself can create something. I think this reluctance is very common. Honestly, one doesn’t need to know the circumstances of how Stranger In Moscow was written, to feel what he felt writing that song. Sure, for us fans, we want to know, but that feeling of “alone and cold inside” is quite universal. The trick is to express it in a way that expresses the feeling, not so much the circumstances, which is exactly what Michael did there.

    Now, that we have seen the “manifesto” it is hard to argue that most of what Michael did artistically was in fact deliberate and with an intent in mind. He did not just accidentally happen to become the greatest artist of his time, he meant it to happen. So, no he did not just accidentally write Beat It as a rock song – he wanted it in rotation where his songs normally would not play. (Imagine him putting together a strategy for that, including getting Eddie Van Halen!) we know how much thought and preparation he put into his outfits, so no accidents there. Its funny but sometimes people want to believe that geniuses just happen, out of the blue, no preparation needed, like it makes them more special somehow. But its the dedication and hard work that really counts. Having a strategy does not make you less special, it makes you smart.

  21. Raven, I agree that the society did project a lot of its issues onto Michael, and some of it was really not his mess to clear up.

    But also, since I definitely consider him to had been of way more than average intelligence, I wonder how much of it was somehow deliberate provocation. I don’t know the answer, but once you put a stick into a wasp’s nest, you cannot really be surprised that they go after you.. I’m trying to say that if he wanted to “shake things up” and create that change, he was smart enough to know it won’t come without a price. He studied history after all.

    So, going back to Fast’s article which I personally think was brilliant in terms of understanding Michael’s impact from a cultural and societal point of view, he really did shake things up and its not just the eye-liner. The most important point of that article was that most people really did not know where to direct their intolerance where all those conflicting narratives came. She is spot on about that difference that defies understanding. Not my understanding, since I studied him for the last 20 years, but regular people. Maybe its easier to see when you are outside the US and the race issue is not such a hot topic that clouds everything else. People did not really get what MJ was up to here either and his color was the last thing on their minds.

    1. I agree, Gennie. And I think it’s important to clarify one thing, anyway.

      Whenever a critic says, “he did thus and so,” or “she challenged this or that,” we should be aware that these statements don’t NECESSARILY reflect what the artist intended. It’s more about how (in the critic’s opinion) the artist wrought their effects upon their audience, or upon the general public or the culture at large (in the case of a superstar like Michael). It may also be true, Gennie, that some elements of Michael’s provocation and mystery were fully intentional.

  22. Gennie, I agree that the feelings expressed in “Stranger in Moscow” are quite universal. You may know the circumstances the song arose from, or you may not; but if you like the song, you can still feel it. Moreover, in Michael’s telling, a song like “Dirty Diana” wasn’t about one person, but was a sort of composite caricature about a groupie. Like any creative work, his songs might spring from something from his experience, his imagination, a mood he was in, etc.

    I’m an artist who’s often called upon to discuss my work in public, and I’ve learned how to do it. I no longer resent it, as I used to when I was younger. Artists’ ability to talk about their own work is all over the map; some enjoy it, and some hate it. Some are very articulate, others less so.

    But my point is, that while it’s an important starting point for a discussion about an artists’ work, it’s not the be-all and end-all. How could it be? Future generations (we hope!) are going to appreciate, enjoy, dance to, talk about, and—gasp!—even theorize about Michael’s music and performance. Future scholars—we imagine—will discuss his life and work in new historical contexts, depending on whatever new developments arise between now and, say, 10, 20 or 50 years in the future. Maybe some new facts will come to light; but, more likely, a whole lot of new thought and context will come to light.

    Simba says, “Beethoven without his music? – a deaf guy with anger management issues.” But couldn’t it just as easily be said: “Jackson without his music? A possible pedophile with Daddy issues.”

    The entire theme of “Amadeus” (the movie) centered upon the differences between the composer’s work and his affect—the crude, vulgar, boorish side of his personality. And since we’re mainly seeing the story through Salieri’s eyes, this is the central question/preoccupation that dominates his life. How could such a perfect gift be given to a person who was so…. unworthy?

    1. Please don’t use the p word. It really was not needed to make your point, or mine.

      You ask, “Why, then, do so many MJ fan sites focus on everything except his music?” One could ask why are so many so-called serious writers, like Susan Fast, so focused on gender and sexuality? In the excerpt you posted, there is not the slightest hint that she is talking about a great musician.

      1. Because her topic was not his music or would you prefer she wrote “the great musician Michael Jackson” in every sentence?

        That part that you quoted earlier, is about how the public perceived MJ and although it might not reflect your personal perception, it is pretty correct for non-fans who didn’t research MJ.

        1. It’s not about “how the public perceived MJ” so much as how the writer perceived MJ. It was, to paraphrase Wade Robson, her truth, not necessarily the truth. She could have been writing about RuPaul, who’s great at a number of things, but no musician.

          1. When a person writes a matter of opinion or interpretation as Susan Fast has done—-whether it’s on a blog or published in a journal, and unless that writer is intentionally lying—what they have to say will inevitably be “his” or “her” truth. What we perceive is filtered through our own perspective, background, and history. This seems fairly self-evident.

  23. Simba, I’ve often noted that moment in the Oprah interview where Michael urges her to talk about his work, citing Michelangelo. He says he wants to study the ANATOMY of artists’ work. Why, then, do so many MJ fan sites focus on everything except his music?

    Raven and all, Stan Hawkins and Susan Fast, the editors of the special MJ issue of the “Journal of Popular Music and Society” (2012), set about putting together some essays whose main focus would be Michael Jackson’s musical sound. So, this journal, called “Michael Jackson: Musical Subjectivities,” has a handful of articles by musicologists who have, in great detail, studied the *anatomy* of a number of Michael’s songs, complete with musical scores and rigorous technical analysis—a lot of which, unfortunately, goes over my head, and probably the heads of a lot of us who don’t have much musical training.

    Pretentious” and “ego-ridden” as these academics may or may not be, they have done a service. They’ve provided one way of taking Michael’s music seriously, making it that much harder to dismiss Michael as a “mere” entertainer. Their main audience is probably other popular music scholars who haven’t until now taken a serious interest in Michael Jackson’s work…. maybe for many of the reasons you’ve stated, Raven and Gennie.

    Unfortunately, most of the articles aren’t available unless you have access through university library database, or want to spend a fortune per article. (Academia, and academic publishing, is indeed as corrupt as any other kind of institution.)

    But if you’re interested, you can see what’s in the journal, plus download a pdf of the introductory essay by Stan Hawkins: “You Rocked Our World, Michael: Your Moves, Your Look, Your Music, Everything.”

    http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rpms20/35/2#.Ud8b8xYZ0Rk

    1. Good Lord! Seventy-two dollars for a single paper copy of this issue. For those who want to read it, you can request an inter-library loan for it through your local library.

      I think I’m going to buy one, though.

      Thanks for the FYI, Nina.

      1. Ara, I’ve often send this material to people who are interested; so you needn’t buy it. (As I said, the world of academic publishing doesn’t necessarily have the public’s best interest in mind, but they’re embattled, too.)

        I’d be happy to send you and anyone else a copy of these articles if you give me your email address, or leave it with Raven.

    1. It does kind of paint the typical picture of MJ fans as crazy and fanatical, though. That being said, I do appreciate the great work that teammichael is doing with the trial.

  24. I’ve come here late, when this discussion has gone in some interesting directions.
    Nina, I think, was asking about how I came to the Beatles/Elvis conclusion. Now, while there might be a lot of positive commentary on Michael someone living in Nigeria cannot get hands on, public opinion is hardly shaped by academic essays than by mainstream media. This may be reduced further to a few really influential ones.
    Upon Michael’s death, I wanted to read as much as I could on the man and how others saw him. I turned to the foreign print press. I used to get late editions of Time, The Economist, Newsweek. Several of them gave him a torrid time. Time had the best coverage for a fan.
    These same publications celebrated the Beatles 50th anniversary last year. For us here, it is strange. Radio hardly ever plays any Beatles or Elvis, to the point that knowing just one of their songs makes you a pop music expert.
    This is how one forms an opinion. I’m sure it is same for a large number of people not in the academia.
    As a fan, I wish we’d only come out to celebrate Michael, like the mass media does the Beatles, not defend him, but that’s in another world.
    I’ll, however, take heated discussions over silence.

    Someone asked if there are more articles on Michael: not from me personally, though I’ve played with the idea of writing on a few songs. But many many media people in Nigeria wrote about him in 2009, positive and otherwise, I have a few pages of these pieces, but sadly a lot of them were not hosted online at the time.

    1. Oris, many thanks for your wonderful piece on Michael. In the US, there is precious little intelligent, appreciative commentary on him as an artist. Please try to get your hands on Ebony Magazine’s commemorative issue. Black American media had a very different relationship with Michael than white media. From a very young age, Michael gave Ebony and Jet exclusive interviews, which allows fans a unique opportunity to track his personal development as an artist and a man.

    2. I would very much look forward to reading any articles you write on Michael’s songs. Hopefully such articles will be available soon? 🙂

  25. Oris,
    Thank you so much for your beautiful tribute. I especially loved this:

    “…I recalled that as a child, my relationship with Michael’s music was organic: he was just always there—there, on television singing “I’ll Be There” in the Pepsi ad; there in the VHS as a terrifying lover; there on the record player as a distinctive singer; and there on my lips as a persistent hum.”

    This is poetry, and I so enjoy reading the beautiful way you express what Michael Jackson has meant in your life. I agree that I wish there were more celebration. I’m reminded of something that was written by Motown songwriter and musician Leon Ware shortly after Michael’s death:

    “There are artists in the world. There are artists that come to the world whom the world relates to as artists. But there are very few that become art. I say to a world that I love and he loved and lived for, celebrate that man’s life. Don’t mourn. Celebrate the life and the gift that he shared. And let that gift be inspiring and motivating. He has set a bar that will probably never be reached.”

    —special tribute issue of “Waxpoetics” magazine.

    About academic essays, I can only say that while they may be slow to change public opinion, they still play an important role in the process: the form part of a corps that keeps an artist’s memory alive and illuminates why that artist is important. Michael is (slowly) receiving a long-deserved reconsideration, by academic writers and others.

    You can find the Ebony magazine special Michael Jackson tribute issue here:
    http://jetzi-mjvideo.com/books-jetzi-04/09ebony/09ebony0a.html

    The site as a whole has an extensive collection of Ebony and Jet (as well as other magazines) that reported on Michael Jackson over the years, and some excerpts of books where he is mentioned.

    I wonder if you may be able to share with us the work of other Nigerian writers who wrote on Michael Jackson? That would be wonderful; I know I’d love to read them.

    Again, thanks so much.

  26. Many thanks Nina.
    The problem is, as of 2009, not a lot of Nigerian publications were putting up opinion pieces online. What I read at the time I never found online.

  27. Finally reading this excellent article. Thank you for sharing this article, Raven. Very well written and deeply moving. I especially appreciated his comments concerning the song “Stranger In Moscow.” One of my very favorites from Michael. A searingly personal song with the power to capture and captivate in a very moving way. No Michael moves or typical Michael vocal affectations. Just Michael speaking directly from his heart. I find the end of the video the most compelling. Despite his isolation the video ends in defiance of that isolation. Michael steps out into the rain with arms out stretched. He flips his hair back as if to throw off each drop as if each were the endless insults and lies thrown his way ment to diminish him. He stands firm and lets the rain pour down his face. Defiant. Undiminished. Reaffirmed. (There’s so much more I’d like to say about this song/video!)

    Love that song, love Oris article! Thanks again for sharing this, Raven, and thank you for sharing your excellent post in response to his article.

  28. Simba,

    I never denied that there were racist attitudes and actions taken against MJ, it would be ridiculous to deny that.

    However, it was not what we were taking about. When its said that he broke down barriers, the fact that there were barriers, is rather explicit. But Michael being black was not the only barrier, which is my whole point! There were other perceptions that he challenged that had nothing to do with race. To say that it was all about race is simply incorrect and narrow-minded.

    You keep saying how you “get” it, and you understand his full impact and how you present your arguments as well, and then you bring his autopsy picture into the discussion about the cultural perception of MJ… Which makes it sound like you don’t get it at all. By the way you can google and find autopsy pictures of JFK and Marilyn Monroe, which look worse that Michael’s, especially Kennedy since he is missing a half of his head. we live in an information age, that stuff becomes available and some media will publish it. Not about race, its about ratings and web traffic.

    1. Gennie – in all sincerity, may I ask what barriers you believe that Michael Jackson broke down that were not race-based? I can’t think of any.

      While you can find autopsy photos of public figures online, you have to search for them, and there are certainly no current photos available – JFK and Monroe have been dead for fifty years. Perhaps you are unaware that NBC displayed Michael’s naked autopsy photo, on air during a morning news show for eleven seconds, while the announcer crowed about how he was unable to keep this aspect of his existence private, and how he would have hated it. It was also unexpected – anyone tuned in at that moment had that thrust upon them and any children who may have been watching. Michael’s own children might well have been watching. It was disgusting, and totally
      unprecedented.

  29. Michael’s crossover appeal was unprecedented. Little white girls fainting in ecstasy over a black man in the 70s and early 80s was unheard of! He broke down the MTV barriers against black artists which was huge in the early 80s. Many also feel he broke gender barriers taking on a more feminine persona when he chose to thus validating many with gender issues.

    He belonged to the world – not to a particular race, gender, nationality or sexual orientation. His appeal was massive and global. No one before or since Michael has ever accomplished that. He belonged to no one and to everyone. I’m convinced we will never see a phenomenon like him again

    1. Beyonce’s appeal is massive and global, and she has light skin and usually light hair. Yet no one seriously suggests that she doesn’t belong to a particular race or ethnicity. She most certainly does, and like Michael, that specificity forms the basis for her art.

      I see nothing particularly “feminine” about Michael. He never even flirted with an ambi-sexual image, like Mick Jagger, David Bowie, or Prince. I think maybe people who have sexual issues project them onto Michael, just like they make Lady Gaga the heroine of those who are Born That Way (which seems to be just smart marketing on her part). Certainly black people generally find this insistence that Michael ‘must’ be gender neutral, or sexually indeterminate distasteful and emasculating. But the last few days have definitely confirmed that in America, white people and black people often see things differently.

    2. I agree with everything you said although I will say, again, I don’t think he was breaking any gender issues-certainly not intentionally, and certainly not moreso than many other male stars of the 80’s who flirted with makeup or long hair. Michael, to me, certainly never looked any less masculine than the guys in Motley Crue, or Poison, or Duran Duran (in fact, he looked far MORE masculine than anybody in Poison ever did, lol!). Perhaps it would be more fair to say that the 80’s in general (when Michael came to prominence as an adult solo star) was a time in which many of these gender issues were being explored and broken down. Additionally, this was also the era of many androgynous female stars, who for the first time, gained mass appeal-Annie Lennox, Sinead O’Connor, Grace Jones, Brigitte Nielsen, etc.

      But no one ever doubted any of these guys were male, just as no one ever doubted any of these women were female. It was just all about playing on the expectations and stereotypes of both sexes-that hair has to be a certain length; that only women can wear makeup, and so on.

      Michael, like many male artists in the 80’s, flirted with a more feminine appearance, but I don’t think it had anything more to do with barriers against gender issues than any of these other artists. If anything, I always just felt Michael was following the trend of the times. His appearance to me, by the late 80’s and early 90’s, didn’t look that much different from the other male rockers of the era. The only major difference was that he was black, whereas they were all white. And I do think racism was a big part of why he was singled out for scrutiny and ridicule far more than these other artists.

      I think in his case, it was a lot of other factors, all coming into play simultaneously-the fact that vitiligo had changed his skin color; the fact that cosmetic surgery HAD altered his appearance to a great degree, and then added to all of these shocking enough changes for which his long-term fans had to adjust, he was going glam to boot! So, no doubt, it was all of these factors coming into play that invited more scrutiny. In the 80’s, we might have had a lot of male pop stars who looked like chicks-but none of them was a black man who had “turned” white (remember that at the time, no one knew why Michael was getting lighter) and none of them had had noticeable surgery to “look whiter or more feminine” (remember again that, at the time, we weren’t getting any explanations for any of this; we just knew Michael Jackson had “transformed” before our eyes).

      I believe that if some with gender issues looked to Michael as any kind of role model, that was due more to their projections on him than any conscious decision or statement on his part. Michael was aware, for example, that he had gay fans, and always went out of his way to never offend them. But by the same token, he was also very old school in his beliefs, most of which I am sure had been ingrained in him due to his strict JW upbringing. It has been said that guys who tried advances on him were usually put in their place-and not always kindly (especially if they were persistent). Also remember, he rebuffed Madonna’s concept for the In the Closet video, an idea he would have embraced if he had really been trying to make any statements about gender issues. Not that I blame him one bit, and he was smart to reject her concept. Madonna would have gotten the best end of the stick on that one. After all, a woman acting the part of a man can be seen as empowerment. But a man acting the part of a woman-especially Michael Jackson-would have simply invited ridicule, the kind of ridicule that his career might never have recovered from. That isn’t to say the double standard is fair, but it does exist, and Michael knew this.

      On the one hand, we could say Michael did like experimenting with makeup. He did choose the affectation of using that soft, high speaking voice (which many took as a sign of being gay, or at least effeminate). But once we get beyond these surface artifices, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence-either from his personal views or his artistic statements-that he was consciously attempting to break down any gender barriers. Just like my friend who was convinced that Michael wore womens’ clothing until I challenged him to find any evidence of it, I think there is a general misconception in the public consciousness that Michael was far more feminized than what the reality bears out. (On the contrary, military jackets are about as masculine as it gets, lol!). Again, it seems to go back to the fact that a lot of people were too busy projecting this or that onto Michael to really pay attention to what he was actually saying, doing, wearing, or anything else.

      1. Raven, do you remember an interview David Gest gave where he said a lot of Michael’s troubles stemmed from his refusal of sexual advances from major players in Hollywood, and that some assumed that if they made a business deal with him, sex with him was part of the package?

        I think Madonna had a Michael Jackson complex. She wanted him, and she wanted to be him, and she was deeply envious of him, all at the same time. Getting him to dress like a woman, while she dressed like a man, would have been a triumph for her. That said, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they had sex, and that it didn’t mean much to either one of them.

    3. Corlista, have you read Dave Marsh’s book, “Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream”? Marsh is pretty arrogant and a pain in the @$$, but his take on the black music scene is pretty interesting. Book is out of print but Amazon occasionally has a few affordable used copies. I recommend it.

  30. Simba, to get back to an earlier statement: even though Michael himself may not have been mysterious, his *effect* on people seems to have been, in many ways.

    That he had such different effects on different people is in itself mysterious, since we know that his reception all over the world was tremendously varied: from nation to nation, community to community, and certainly from one individual’s perception to another. Hence, Simba, your perception that there’s nothing remotely androgynous about Michael’s presentation, and mine that there *decidedly* is, especially in the ’90s—as I see in a number of his short films from the Dangerous and HIStory eras.

    Raven says:
    “But once we get beyond these surface artifices, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence-either from his personal views or his artistic statements-that he was consciously attempting to break down any gender barriers. Just like my friend who was convinced that Michael wore womens’ clothing until I challenged him to find any evidence of it, I think there is a general misconception in the public consciousness that Michael was far more feminized than what the reality bears out. (On the contrary, military jackets are about as masculine as it gets, lol!). Again, it seems to go back to the fact that a lot of people were too busy projecting this or that onto Michael to really pay attention to what he was actually saying, doing, wearing, or anything else.”

    I think “these surface artifices” are a large part of what Michael’s art was about as a performer whose best work can be seen on stage and screen—e.g., in visual media. I’ll repeat something that I believe is an important distinction: the difference between (conscious) artistic intent, and a full range, a full panoply of effects on an audience.

    I don’t know whether Michael’s styling was *intentionally” created to feminize his appearance. Perhaps not; or perhaps he was aware of it, and didn’t mind, or liked it that way, or he felt it was a more effective disguise—or whatever. What people are generally talking about and writing about is the EFFECT that his appearance produces—for themselves, and for a lot of people. People’s perceptions vary, as we know: depending on their background, experience, susceptibility to certain kinds of hype, and a lot of factors.

  31. So when we say “actually,” Raven, I have to wonder what we mean. The “actual” can be quite variable. I’ve heard you, Simba, and many, many other fans on other sites declaring that Michael’s appearance comes across in a very traditional and unambiguous masculinity—and I have to say that when I first heard fans talking expressing this perception, my jaw dropped.

    Raven, a military jacket may sound, on paper, like the height of masculine attire. But look at the embellishments: pearls, beads, sequins, closures, etc. that those jackets were designed with. Bling. They tell a somewhat different story, I believe. At least they modify the image that may spring to mind when we think of a “military jacket.”

    We can compare Michael with other ‘80s-‘90s performers whose costumes (as well as makeup and hair) may have had more feminine “signifiers” than Michael’s. Michael’s transformation was pretty much limited to his face alone. But when I see the short films and still photographs, from, say, Remember the Time, Give in To Me, Stranger in Moscow, Earth Song, and especially Scream, I really think—if I didn’t know who “Michael Jackson” was, and only glanced at the images briefly—I’d be seeing woman, or a person who has a distinctly feminine (outward) persona. And I don’t think it can’t be broken down into its component parts: nail polish, the use of feminine clothing, etc. It seems to me that the whole thing suggests a “gestalt,” so to speak: his overall appearance (in face, anyway), his voice, some of his moves, etc.

    I flatly reject this construction: “people are projecting their own issues onto Michael,” whenever people express the opinion that Michael’s appearance and/or voice is androgynous. It seems to me that this way of expressing how he was perceived—by SO MANY people, of all races—- pathologizes those perceivers. It makes it sound that there must be something wrong, or mistaken, about these spectators’ own sexuality or gender expression. In fact, there are some fans and observers (like me, or Gennie), who, no matter how we may identify personally, are very interested in looking at the ways he challenged normative constructions of sexuality and gender—through our eyes, of course. Then there are other observers who adhere to the idea that Michael’s presentation was more traditionally masculine.

    In fact, we are ALL projecting “our issues,” i.e., our own fantasies, onto Michael, no matter how we may perceive his seemingly kaleidoscopic style. As I say, I don’t know what Michael’s view of this is. One thing we know for sure: he wanted to have (and hugely succeeded in having!) a kind of universal appeal and a following of MILLIONS of people. And for that, I believe—in the ‘80s and ‘90s especially—-a little ambiguity never hurt.

    OK I’ll get off my soapbox now.

    1. Nina, I don’t completely disagree with you. However I get the impression that many fans are unable or unwilling to distinguish between Michael Jackson the performer, and Michael Jackson the man. He didn’t wear makeup offstage. You can see glimpses of him without it in This Is It. You can even see splotches of white and brown skin from vitiligo. When I think of his iconic off stage look, it’s the red shirt, black pants, and fedora – very plain, not the least bit androgynous. There was also nothing androgynous about his body, with his broad shoulders and narrow hips. He never delivered any manifestos about sexuality, gender, or difference, like Lady Gaga. So where are people getting this from?

      Michael’s appearance on stage, or in his short films, was part of his performance. I hate to invoke their name, but people don’t make assumptions about the members of Kiss based on their costuming and makeup, do they? Maybe they do, if it reinforces their own sense of themselves. But their desires are not facts.

      1. Simba, as I said: Michael’s physical changes were mostly evident in his face, not his physique. And even in non-performance context, he is still, in a sense, “performing.” (We all are.) For the camera in a studio, for the camera in a photoshoot at Neverland, for the camera in images that *seem* naturalistic which are nevertheless staged, taken in Munich or Moscow.

        Some percentage the surgery, and an increasing delicacy it imparts to his facial features; some percentage makeup and (importantly) his shaped eyebrows; another percentage, hair styling; another, a cultural perception of increasingly light skin–“whiteness” itself—as something that leans more toward the feminine: at least, I suspect, in Western cultures. All of those things, and many more are where, I think, people are getting it from.

        As I said earlier, I don’t think you can pin it down to any one thing, or even several. There’s simply a whole *gestalt*, a perception of the whole presentation. It’s definitely not something anyone can PROVE, one way or another. Michael himself was silent on the subject, so we can’t rely on him to tell us what he intended—he didn’t even go into great detail about how he felt vitiligo affected his life and his appearance. We know, by his own admission (and quite unbelievably, imo!) that he sometimes had a poor self-image about his appearance, especially when he was about 16, 17, 18, and had acne.

        So, while honoring what Michael said, we also have to recognize that there were limits; and, finally, we are with many areas of insufficient knowledge that we must deal with somehow.

    2. I don’t think his masculinity was unambiguous, so much as I just don’t believe he was making any conscious statement to that effect. I believe he LIKED certain looks that were not traditionally masculine, or at least not by our current standards, but I don’t think he was consciously trying to break down any barriers. On a certain level, however, I think he was very comfortable in his skin, and for some, perhaps, that was statement enough. For someone like me who has never gone for traditionally “butch” guys anyway, it’s part of his appeal to me.

      The Scream video WAS intentionally ambiguous. I don’t know that I would agree about Remember The Time, other than the hairstyle (which was not one of my favorites; it was the same hairstyle he wore in the Oprah Winfrey interview and I wasn’t crazy about it there, either. I believe that video was shot at about the same time as that interview aired, in February of ’93, which might explain why he was still wearing the same style for both).

      But then, if you go from that to something like Blood On The Dance Floor, that was 100% male there!

      In the long run, it may have been more about the characters and personas of his songs and videos than anything else. Perhaps what Michael sought was a kind of creative middle ground that gave him the license to be more creative, in ways that would generate controversy and discussion, without going to such an extreme that he would alienate certain aspects of his audience completely.

      And you’re right. In artistry, a little ambiguity never hurts. Michael, being the master showman that he was, certainly knew this.

  32. I don’t mean to get off topic, or get back my soapbox—-but I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t say something about some events that have been happening in the US this week. I’m talking specifically about the killing of Trayvon Martin and the “not guilty” verdict for his killer, George Zimmerman.

    What I have to say may turn out to have something do with Michael Jackson, anyway, especially the specific we’re talking about now. And the moment in time is dire enough, I believe, to call for absolute honesty and forthrightness in the ways we communicate with each other.

    This whole week, I’ve been involved in discussions, online and off, about white privilege. It’s something that I believe (and KNOW) exists, much as I’ve encountered and locked horns with a number of people who express their disagreement—I’d call it denial—-in insensitive, and sometimes violent, ways. So every time I opine as I did above, about what I believe to be Michael Jackson’s androgyny or femininiy, I try a best I can to be conscious of the many ways U.S. history and its legacy of racism and slavery are lurking right around the corner, or underneath the surface, of this whole controversy. I don’t think this element of the debate can be swept under the rug, and I sure don’t want to be the one to do the sweeping.

    I think it’s time people like me—i.e., queer-friendly white people—understood what might be at stake for many African Americans in this issue. (I say many—not all.) For several hundred years, our U.S. countrymen “enjoyed” a system that underwrote almost the entire story of economic prosperity in the New World. The consequences of slavery were many, but one of them was this: black men were routinely hung, lynched, brutalized, and denied their humanity by white slaveowners. They stood by while their wives and children were taken away and frequently molested—raped—at the whim of the master. Lynching activities themselves frequently involved the literal castration of black male victims, as well as the distribution of various other body parts as “trophies” that entire white families who witnessed these brutal acts would send to their friends. Photographs were taken of the hangings and used as postcards.

    The details of these atrocities are too many to enumerate, and too horrible to contemplate. As it concerns our present discussion, though, I thought it was important to reflect one element that I believe may factor into Simba’s view—-that part of U.S. black male experience where various kinds of emasculation—-symbolic, real, legal, extra-legal—are a routine occurrence. And it all too often means that the very lives of young black men are in jeopardy by a society that still—to this day—regards black lives as expendable, and of less consequence than white PROPERTY—let alone white lives.

    In this context—and although I still say I strongly disagree—I wouldn’t blame anyone for believing that the insinutation that Michael is unmasculine, would only seem to repeat the historical pattern, and fit all too neatly into a mold that was developed under a system of white supremacy.

    I’ll save another view for another time.

    1. Speaking of the Zimmerman verdict, that brings to mind another big issue that is somewhat related to Michael. I had considered sharing these thoughts as a post, but I am in the midst of another post and I have enough of a tendency to get sidetracked as it is.

      But once again, America is reeling from a “Not Guilty” verdict being handed down in a high profile case that seemed all but air tight. It happened with O.J.; it happened with Casey Anthony. And now it has happened with George Zimmerman.

      Inevitably, I hear comparisons being made to the Michael Jackson trial and that verdict. Unfortunately, this goes back to something I’ve said all along. The reason Michael has continued to be lynched in the court of public opinion despite being acquitted on all 14 counts is precisely because of so many high profile cases that have come back with shocking “Not Guilty” verdicts. The public has grown cynical of a legal system that seems, in essence, a mockery, where big name celebrities usually get off and people who seem, in all respects, guilty as sin, walk free.

      The unfortunate reality is that Michael’s case is usually lumped right in with these. In 2005, I was as shocked by the “Not Guilty” verdict as anyone else-not outraged, but definitely shocked. Why? Because if you believed the media, Michael was guilty as hell. It would take some time for me to realize that, along with half of America, I was convicting Michael based on the media’s presumption of guilt. Now, obviously, fans don’t want to lump Michael’s case in with these others. We want to feel that HIS case is the exception; the one time when the justice system actually got it right. Now, do I believe that sincerely with all my heart? Yes, I do. But, unfortunately, that’s not the way many see it.

      Thus, it has also forced me to re-evaluate how I think about other high profile cases. We know, just as in the Michael Jackson case, that we, the public, are not getting the whole story. We are getting what the media feeds us-often sensationalized for ratings and profit. We are getting the side of the story that “sells” (which, in most cases, is the pro-prosecution side of any case). We have to remember that a jury’s duty is to acquit unless guilt can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury hears evidence that, often, is never reported in the mainstream media (this we know, from the MJ trial).

      I always said that it was the O.J. Simpson trial that made it so hard for people to accept a “Not Guilty” verdict in the Michael Jackson trial. It almost seemed to me, at times, that Michael was serving as the scapegoat for that case-“We’re going to make at least one powerful, celebrity black man pay for OJ walking, yep!”

      For many people, these cases serve as proof that the justice system is a mockery that gets it wrong far more than they get it right. I don’t mean to make this all about Michael, because it isn’t. It is about justice for Trayvon and his family, and my heart goes out to them. But another downside, for those of us who love Michael and do believe in his innocence, is that these kinds of verdicts always end up leaving a very bitter aftertaste-and, again, fairly or not, Michael gets some of the fallout from that.

      I wish that everyone would learn to judge each and every case on its own merits, and stop trying to compare them. Just like the Sandusky case (but at least he was convicted, thank God).

      I didn’t mean to veer off topic, but obviously, I’ve had the Zimmerman verdict on my mind and heart for the last few days.

    2. The pathological need to emasculate black men is a current hot topic among many African Americans, especially as it pertains to, amazingly, wearing a dress. There is a perception that, in order to make it big in Hollywood, at some time in heir careers, black actors and comedians must don a dress and obliterate their masculinity. Some black performers have even vowed that they would never capitulate to this demand, one of the latest being comedian Kevin Hart, who has a concert film out now, called Let Me Explain. It was therefore all the more exasperating that when he was the guest host on SNL earlier this year, he did an unfunny bit as Quvenzhane Wallis, the little black girl nominated for an Oscar in the film Beasts of the Southern Wild.

      Kevin Hart managed to not only demolish his image as a ‘strong’ black man, he was perceived as disrespectful to a very young black child who had accomplished something rare and wonderful. It was also galling because SNL doesn’t have a genuine black female in its regular cast, so all black women in its skits are portrayed clownishly by black men.

      Michael Jackson was a very powerful black man, and to the black community at large, efforts to emasculate him are transparent in their motivation. The insistent portrayal of him as some kind of “boy-man”, gender bending androgyne is not considered a positive, or even a neutral characterization. It’s seen as an attack. It has nothing to do with homophobia, and even Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, likes Tyler Perry’s Madea. It’s seen as a specific strategy against a particular threatening black man. Similarly, Trayvon Martin has been characterized as a menacing, physically-imposing thug – Geraldo Rivera described him as a six foot two “stranger”, when he was actually a thin five foot eleven kid who had just turned seventeen. Trayvon, and Michael, became the monsters that society needed them to be.

      1. “There is a perception that, in order to make it big in Hollywood, at some time in their careers, black actors and comedians must don a dress and obliterate their masculinity.”

        That’s an interesting theory. Although I never heard it put quite that way, I think there is definite truth in it. I would say it probably goes back as far as the Buckwheat character in Our Gang, who was stereotypically portrayed for many years as a child in a dress, even though he was clearly a male (and before that, in the 1920’s, there had been a male character named Farina who was likeweise often donned in a dress until he got too old and too big to pull it off anymore).

        Tyler Perry having achieved his greatest recognition as “Medea” probably hasn’t exactly helped advance this perception.

        Even Jamie Foxx got his start on In Living Color by playing Wanda the Ugly Woman, a skit that in itself was a gross caricature of black women.

  33. Simba, I believe we’ve been through all of this before.

    You mention “The pathological need to emasculate black men. “ But what you call the “efforts to emasculate him…. Transparent in their motivation,” are counterbalanced by the efforts of many African Americans who strive for more inclusiveness and tolerance within that community. A younger generation of African Americans, many of them in the arts and academic scenes, are doing things like organizing conferences on “The Queerness of Hip-Hop,” building bridges between the black and LGBTQ communities, and initiating some productive discussions about intersectionality (the recognition that people have overlapping identities and multiple cultural affiliations).

    Simba says:
    “The insistent portrayal of him as some kind of “boy-man”, gender bending androgyne is not considered a positive, or even a neutral characterization. It’s seen as an attack. It has nothing to do with homophobia, and even Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, likes Tyler Perry’s Madea. It’s seen as a specific strategy against a particular threatening black man.”

    The boy-man thing may have at least as much to do with Michael’s own, often-repeated declarations of his identification with Peter Pan and other childlike figures and activities, than with the aspersive commentaries you’re talking about. It may be seen by some blacks as a specific strategy to neutralize the “threat” of black masculinity. But in today’s contemporary culture, the exclusion of ANY discussion of (possibly) unorthodox gender and sexuality in Michael’s performances as somehow “verboten” and off-limits IS, I’m afraid—deeply and undeniably—a symptom of homophobia.

    That homophobia, as well as the pathological need to emasculate black men (as you put it), must take into account someone like Louis Farrakhan’s statements on Michael Jackson included in 1984, this opinion:

    Gainesville Sun, Thursday, April 12, 1984

    http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1320&dat=19840412&id=8DxWAAAAIBAJ&sjid=j-kDAAAAIBAJ&pg=4227,3553955

    “CHICAGO—Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Black Muslim sect, has called on black youths to reject the “fermale-acting, sissified” image of award-winning entertainer Michael Jackson.

    “Farrakhan blamed the 25-year-old Jackson, recent winner of eight Grammy awards, for his style that “actually ruins your young men and makes your young women have nothing to as a real man for their own lives.”

    “[….]In the broadcast, Farrakhan said: “….we have today a Michael Jackson who is winning all kinds of awards because he is a great and marvelous performer. But the image that he projects to young black men is an image that we should all reject.”

    “Farrakhan said, “This …. female-acting, sissified acting expression, it is not wholesome for our young boys nor our young girls. Certainly, the man is a great singer, certainly, he’s a powerful entertainer. We cannot and we would never try to take anything away from our brother.”

    “He went on to contend that Michael Jackson is setting a poor example for black youth. “This is a shame. But, of course, men like this will live to die of old age, because they threaten nothing.”

    “A spokesman for Michael Jackson, whose latest album, “Thriller,” has sold more than 25 million copies, said the singer would have no comment. The spokesman in Los Angeles described Jackson as very religious and added, “I just don’t think he would subscribe to any way of life other than a very deeply religious lifestyle.” “
    ________________________

    That was Farrakhan in 1984. Raven, I know you posted on his more recent reflections about Michael, including his statement, “The Crucifixion of Michael Jackson.”

    By contrast, I’m most interested in and inspired by the work of African American and other black writers and scholars that I mentioned in a previous post, including Ernest Hardy, Michelle Wallace, Mark Anthony Neal, Margo Jefferson, Jason King, Ali Babu Che Johnson, Francesca Royster, Scott Poulson Bryant, Daphne Brooks, Nicole Fleetwood, Tricia Rose, Kobena Mercer…. and on and on.

    1. At the time I posted “The Crucifixion of Michael Jackson” I wasn’t aware of Farrakhan’s earlier, more controversial remarks about Michael (of course, it didn’t take long for some readers to point those out!). Farrakhan, of course, certainly wouldn’t be the only one to do an about face on Michael and speak glowingly about him after his death.

      I believe that Farrakhan certainly must have reevaluated some of his opinions in light of Michael’s later struggles, and as Michael himself became a much more politically conscious person and performer. Also, he got to actually know Michael over time, and came to appreciate the person rather than an image. We have to keep in mind that he spoke those words in 1984, at a time when Michael was commercially huge, but projecting a very sanitized image that was obviously intended to appeal to whites as well as blacks (and everyone else around the world). Though even with that understanding, I think his words were a bit harsh and extreme. Why should Michael have been saddled with anymore responsibility to project an “image” for black male youths than any other successful, black r&b singer of the time? Michael’s early music was about inspiring joy, not anger or militancy. I fail to see how that, exactly, constitutes a bad role model. I suppose people like Farrakhan were interpreting Michael’s success as a kind of “Uncle Tom” success, made possible by sucking up to whites and giving them what they wanted. But as Michael himself said on so many occasions, there is nothing wrong (or shameful) in giving people joy and escapism.

      Unfortunately, some may interpret words like Farrakhan’s to imply that all young black men are supposed to aspire to be thugs. Most of the well known rappers would have probably better suited Farrakhan’s ideal of positive role models for black youth-and yes, look where a good many of them have ended up, just as he said. Dead. However, we have to ask the question-in what ways is that more positive or desirable-or progressive-than what Michael was giving to youth at the time?

      There is much sad irony in this statement:

      “He went on to contend that Michael Jackson is setting a poor example for black youth. “This is a shame. But, of course, men like this will live to die of old age, because they threaten nothing.”

      Michael did go on to threaten that established order; he did go on to become a civil rights activist within the music industry-and died at the very young age of fifty, perhaps at least in part as a result of those struggles.

      It is interesting that Michael’s image did become more aggressive after this, and one has to wonder if this wasn’t at least in part a reaction to this kind of criticism. It had to have stung, and left him with a confused feeling of wondering just what his true “purpose” as an entertainer was supposed to be. I am sure you are probably familiar with Langston Hughes’s famous essay from 1926, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” which addressed this very issue long before Michael was even born:

      http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/mountain.htm

      Come to think of it, Hughes’s essay would be an interesting one to examine and analyze in conjunction with Michael’s career (I may do that sometime!).

      I wanted to say more, also, in regards to the “homophobic” commentary but I have to go now. Perhaps I can come back and address this in some more depth later today.

      1. Thanks so much for this link to Langston Hughes’s essay, Raven. I think that would be great; a post about Langston Hughes and MJ, as well as Oscar Wilde.

        My point about Farrakhan is not to malign him or his public statements about Michael, but to point out like he, like all of us, was/is a product of his time(s). His time in 1984 produces a very different version of Michael Jackson than when he spoke out, from a different “zeitgeist,” in 2009.

        It does seem curious, though, that he claimed “such men threaten nothing.” It’s interesting to reflect on what kind of figure he believed would threaten the (white) dominant power structure. The ’60s model of the Civil Rights movement might have been at the forefront of his thinking in 1984. In later decades, as we’ve seen, other kinds of “threats” to the dominant order emerge.

      2. Raven said, “Perhaps what Michael sought was a kind of creative middle ground that gave him the license to be more creative, in ways that would generate controversy and discussion, without going to such an extreme that he would alienate certain aspects of his audience completely.”

        I think that’s exactly it, Raven. He couldn’t be like Nat King Cole, if he wanted to push the boundaries of his art. But he certainly couldn’t be as avant-garde in ANY respect as, say, Sun Ra, nor as “our there” as Ru Paul, in a different way. Not if he wanted to rise to, and maintain a position as commercial giant with records that sold in the millions. But he had no way of knowing just how much this creative tightrope would imperil him. So I think he was testing, testing, and testing until a breaking point was finally reached. Plus, his reception wasn’t entirely within his control, of course. As I think I mentioned before, as early as 1983-1984 the tide of journalistic good opinion was already beginning turn against him.

      3. Raven, I hadn’t meant to comment on this, but I was particularly struck by your words, “Unfortunately, some may interpret words like Farrakhan’s to imply that all young black men are supposed to aspire to be thugs. Most of the well known rappers would have probably better suited Farrakhan’s ideal of positive role models for black youth-and yes, look where a good many of them have ended up, just as he said. Dead.”

        The Nation of Islam ideal of manhood is a clean cut, soft-spoken, bow-tied nerd in a suit! Michael’s assistant Michael Amir Williams is the archetype. I can’t think of any rapper that Farrakhan would consider a role model, except maybe Will Smith in his Fresh Prince days, but Farrakhan would not approve of his way of dressing.

        When Farrakhan said “men like this will live to die of old age, because they threaten nothing”, in a sense he was describing himself. Michael most certainly threatened white power structure, most notably by his ownership of the Beatles catalog, and he’s dead, whereas Farrakhan, who is little more than a boogey man to whites, is enjoying his senior years, with dark hair and unlined skin at age eighty.

        1. I was going by his choice of words in describing Michael as “female acting” and “sissified.” I’ve heard that sort of criticism leveled at Michael before, and usually it is from those who expect that all male black performers should fit the profile of a gangsta rapper in order to be a “real man.”

          So maybe in his estimation Michael should have been wearing a suit and tie, rather than a Beat It jacket, lol.

    2. Wow, we have really gotten far afield of our subject! I mean, this is supposed to be about Michael Jackson, isn’t it? It does illustrate how people can use him as a springboard to their own particular interests, whether they have anything to do with him at all.

      Nina, you should know that, as a member of what you call “that community”, rap music is not particular popular among African Americans, and many see it as kind of modern-day minstrelsy. They could not care less if there is “a younger generation of African Americans, many of them in the arts and academic scenes, are doing things like organizing conferences on “The Queerness of Hip-Hop,” building bridges between the black and LGBTQ communities, and initiating some productive discussions about intersectionality (the recognition that people have overlapping identities and multiple cultural affiliations).” What does that have to do with Michael Jackson? He did not write or sing one song that dealt with those issues. He didn’t talk about them. It’s reasonable to conclude that, as important as they may be to you and others, they weren’t important to Michael Jackson.

      As to what you call Michael’s unorthodox gender and sexuality and the supposed rampant homophobia in the black community – you can talk about it all you want. It doesn’t make it so. Michael descends from a long line of ‘unorthodox’ black performers, like Noble Sissle, Louis Jordan, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, and continuing on with the likes of Janelle Monae, who isn’t male, and Bruno Mars, who isn’t exactly black. It’s a performance style, not a public commentary on their sexuality.

      When Louis Farrakhan made those remarks thirty years ago, he was just doing what all preachers of a certain ilk did, then and now: Pick the most popular sexy young performer of the day and warn away the congregation, especially the young girls. There were plenty of sermons from white preachers against Elvis, too. Farrakhan was definitely a fringe player back then. I really doubt that anything he had to say would influence Michael. His entire career, Michael did what he wanted to do – remember when he essentially told Madonna to STFU when she offered to re-vamp his image?

      Farrakhan himself had a musical career before joining up with Elijah Muhammad. He used to be a calypso singer, performing in pastel satin shirts with big ruffled sleeves that Michael would have never worn onstage. Too femme!

      There is a world of difference between Michael seeing himself as Peter Pan, and a white person, like Paul McCartney, referring to him as a “boy-man”. PM’s characterization was perceived by many AAs as an insult, which I believe was the intent.

      Nina, I don’t doubt your interest in “Ernest Hardy, Michelle Wallace, Mark Anthony Neal, Margo Jefferson, Jason King, Ali Babu Che Johnson, Francesca Royster, Scott Poulson Bryant, Daphne Brooks, Nicole Fleetwood, Tricia Rose, Kobena Mercer…. and on and on”, but I’m pretty secure in saying that most black fans of Michael’s (and white ones, too) have never heard of these people, and put no particular stock in their opinions.

      1. Simba, I didn’t know about Farrakhan’s background as a musician; thanks for that information.

        Calypso is actually sometimes cited as one of the precursors of rap music because of its use of the spoken word.

        Anyway, by the time Michael got to be an adult solo artist, the North American vogue for Calypso (made popular by Harry Belafonte and others, including even the Andrews Sisters in the 1940s!) was already at low ebb anyway—hence, no pastel shirts with ruffles, with everything that kind of costume would connote about Afro-Caribbean music.

        But it’s actually not the case that Michael NEVER appeared in such a costume. In one of the twelve episodes of the Jacksons TV show that was aired in 1976-77, Michael & Co. are performing a cover version of the song “She Put the Lime in the Cocunut,” recorded by Harry Nilsson in 1971:

        Janet, Rebbie, LaToya, the brothers, and steel drum musicians—AND Michael, resplendent and sexy as always, in a pastel-colored ruffled shirt.

        1. Nina, LOL, you do know that Michael hated doing that show, don’t you? He had no control over the numbers they did, or the costuming. Boy, was that cheesy!

          Besides his career as a calypso singer, Louis Farrakhan is a very accomplished violinist. Although he’s been dubbed anti-Semitic, he has studied with Jewish music teachers, and when pressed to name a Jew he admired, he mentioned Yehudi Menuhin.

          1. Of course I know he hated doing the show, and of course I know it’s cheesy, Simba. That wasn’t my point.

          1. To “name a Jew he admired”—- the very nature of the question is ludicrous. It’s very nice that he studied music Yehudi Menuhin, and played in a symphony orchestra. I guess this proves that he can be “absolved” of the charge of anti-semitism. Reminds me of that old canard, with which I’m sure you’re all too familiar: “some of my best friends are _______________.”

            In any case, I never mentioned Farrakhan’s anti-semitism, real or alleged, here. I’m very glad Farrakhan could think of one Jew he admired.

    3. This is basically a continuation of my previous comment, since I said I wanted to address the issue of unorthodox sexuality and homophobia that you brought up, insofar as some fans becoming defensive over these issues.

      Of course, not all fans are cut from the same cloth, and what can be an interesting, intellectual discussion to some can be personally offensive to others. I get that where you are coming from is in analyzing how Michael was perceived culturally-the entire gestalt, so to speak.

      But, at risk of sounding like a broken record, what I’ve said so many times before is that, since Michael never declared himself as a gay man and we have no concrete evidence that he ever was (other than if one chooses to believe the allegations against him, or a few unsubstantiated stories) then we can’t truly reject him on the grounds of homophobia, as that is assigning to him something that the man himself never claimed, and in fact openly denied. Again, it goes back to the fact that whatever statement Michael may have been making regarding gender-if indeed he was making any conscious statement at all-he left it completely up to us to interpret.

      Michael’s fans are very much aware-and sensitive to the fact-that, for years, these kinds of accusations were made in order to essentially “emasculate” Michael and make him less of a threat. If they could reduce Michael to something that could be ridiculed or pitied, rather than envied or something to feel threatened by, it somehow made his presence safer to deal with. How many times do these labels come up in any discussion of Michael Jackson-gay, pedophile, asexual, virgin, etc? I think fans have become understandably sensitized to the whole issue for this reason, especially when most automatically associate the gay identity with the “p” one. Thus, any discussion of Michael Jackson as someone challenging orthodox views of sexuality is probably bound to derail pretty quickly. It is a loaded land mine, for many complex reasons. If it weren’t for a press that has been so quick to use these labels to dehumanize, unsex, and ridicule Michael-or, worse yet, to somehow “prove” the accusations of pedophilia-then fans would probably not be nearly so defensive.

      It’s interesting that, for many years before I became a hardcore fan, I did think of Michael as someone who looked very feminine. But then, as I started to discover him more deeply and to really see him as his fans saw him, I no longer felt as strongly that way. Clearly, what was happening was that I was looking at him through a different set of lenses-one that had been at least partly shaped by a public/cultural perception, and later, one that became shaped by my own personal observations, which were not as inclined to be steeped in superficial impressions.

      It is hard to say exactly what Michael’s intentions were, since he remained so purposely mum and enigmatic about most of it, leaving it to us to interpret, analyze, debate, etc. What I do know is that Michael seemed to be a man very comfortable in his skin. On the one hand, he did believe he was ugly (this is not guessing on my part; it’s something that several people who knew him closely have confirmed to me) but, by the same token, he was very comfortable with his image. As Simba pointed out, he flat out rejected Madonna’s overtures to change his image. And good for him. Madonna is a smart woman and I respect her, but it wasn’t for her to say who Michael Jackson needed to be. If Madonna’s idea was to make him over into one of her “Vogue” boys, clearly, Michael wasn’t going for that. He is also on record, in the Gloria Stein tapes, as saying he was happy with the way he looked (that would have been around ’91/’92). Personally, I didn’t think he sounded very convincing, but nevertheless, he stated, “I’m happy with my face and stuff.” But this was never something he liked discussing, so perhaps his reticence and discomfort came more from the question itself. He always seemed to wish to evade any discussion of his appearance as quickly as possible.

      What I DO find interesting about Michael is that he never seemed shy about allowing himself to be sort of exploited sexually, in the way that we usually associate with women. A great example is the “pole dancer” shots, those photos he did for Invincible which I featured a long time ago (hopefully this link works):

      http://old.allforloveblog.com/?p=4422

      Of course, with a photo shoot, we never really know how much is the creative input of the subject, and how much is the creative input of the photographer. But what I find very interesting about these photos is the contrast of Michael’s very masculine sexuality with the image of the stripper pole, which represents for many the kind of cheesy sexploitation of women. In some ways, this is a very powerfully liberating and equalizing statement because it is putting a man on the same level sexually as a woman. By the same token, it also seems to be saying that a man can enjoy being a sex object as much as a woman can-and that, too, is a very bold and empowering statement.

      On the other hand, it was said that one of the reasons Michael objected to the Bani photos is because he thought they feminized him too much I am prone to agree; I’ve never been a huge fan of the Bani photos, though I know there is some debate over these among fans. Some find them very lovely and artistic, but for me, I find them too much to accentuate the “weirdness” that too many already associate with Michael, and I have a hard time getting past that. The Sphinx photo, in particular, makes him look like Leonard Nimoy in drag. Again, I think Michael had second thoughts about them, as well (and, according to Karen Faye, wasn’t overly fond of Bani OR his vision) so I am apparently not alone in my dislike for them, even if they DID go for a hefty price when auctioned in 2010.

      The pole shots, on the other hand, struck the right balance for me. Those are flirtatious, sexy, and fun, whereas the Bani shots seem to be pushing an uncomfortable boundary. I think Michael, ultimately, agreed. Which, again, calls into question just how much of that “boundary” he was willing to push, or even trying to. Now, as to just “why” the Bani photos strike that uncomfortable chord with me-as they did for Michael-could go back to the very core of what you’re saying. I simply don’t know, and it would take too much psychoanalysis to try to understand. But clearly, Michael’s reaction does indicate that he had very strong limits with how far he was willing to push those boundaries. Of course, it could have been that he simply didn’t find the photos flattering. In that, I would agree.

      Just as we have discussed before, what we have is a very complex and tangled web between what Michael intended, what may have been subconscious on his part, how he was perceived by the public (due to those choices, whether intentional OR subconscious) and how those perceptions, in turn, were and are shaped by every individual’s own culture, background, and agenda.

      In the end, Michael said that he would become for us whatever we needed him to be. He meant this in the sense that he would be monster or savior, depending on what we projected onto him. But some have carried it even further, to think of him as someone neither man nor woman (ridiculous) or as someone neither white nor black (again, ridiculous). Clearly, I do believe he was testing boundaries and providing just enough ambiguity to make us think, as the best artists often do. I think this was an envelope he was attempting to push as far as he realistically could while remaining within the confines of his own, personal beliefs (i.e, his comfort zone) and remaining a commercially viable artist for the masses.

      I think he was open to experimenting with gender perceptions, but also, at his core, very old school and even a bit homophobic (again, this would be understandable coming from his JW background) so all of this combined made for an interesting aggregate-one that was, quite frankly, uniquely Michael Jackson.

    4. Fascinating and thought provoking discussion. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything substantive to add to the discussion re Mr. Farrakhan/MJ although it is interesting to see how his opinion of Michael appears to have evolved over the years. In fact, as an interesting point of trivia Mr. Farrakhan sat somewhat near Michael’s family during Michael’s memorial at the Staples Center which was also not far from media celebrities such as Larry King. I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that despite divisive comments Farrakhan made years ago to see him pay his respects to a man he once described as “sissified” was something I found remarkable. Which brings me to something I’ve never really understood and that’s Michael’s releationship to NOI. Beyond the scope of this particular article, I know, but it would be interesting to know your thoughts on this, Raven, or anyone else. Thanks.

      1. I believe he was curious about it, as he was curious about many religions. He was probably receptive to some of their teachings, but not all. He never converted to it, as so many mistakenly believe. I believe that Michael in his last two decades was taking a much more holistic and spiritual approach to religion, an all encompassing view that no one, single religion or creed could accomodate. Like many celebrities, he seemed to tend to “dabble” in certain things for a little while, or perhaps to experiment would be the more appropriate word. Michael had been a devout Jehovah’s Witness for much of his life, but when he broke away, I don’t think he was ever again satisfied to tie himself down to one religion or one mode of belief. Instead, as many celebrities and artists often do, I think he sort of created a personal spirituality based on many different influences that he had been exposed to-but without official ties to any of them.

        I also believe that Michael (and this is true of many) tended to fall under the influence of whoever he was hanging with at the moment. So if he was spending a great deal of time around Muslim friends, he would understandably start to absorb a lot of their views (which could also stem from genuine curiosity as well as a show of respect for his friends’ cultures). When he was spending a lot of time with his Jewish friends, such as Boteach and Geller, he would adopt certain aspects of their culture, attend their ceremonies, etc. Again, this was a way of showing respect but, also, as most intelligent and open minds are, he had a genuine curiosity about other cultures and religions. And, over time, I think he adopted bits and pieces of all of them. Some call this the “patchwork quilt” approach to religion, but I think it worked for him. But I think that is really the extent of his ties to NOI.

        1. It is interesting how there had been reports from some insisting Michael had converted to Islam with out any real proof of such a thing…typical. But at the end of the day, the “patchwork quilt” concept you mentioned makes the most sense. With that in mind Michael truly created something of a melting pot of cultures and religions as part of the world he raised his children in. It will be interesting to see, many years down the road of course, what kind of faith decision they make, if any. Thanks Raven!!!

  34. Hi everyone

    Ja a fantastic blog and all these wonderful comments which I have so enjoyed.

    2 strong recommendations to add.

    1.Nina very kindly sent me the discs of articles that she has, (all the way to South Africa) and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading them, as far as I have got, and recommend that anyone interested takes up her generous offer.

    2. Willa Stillwater has written a wonderful ebook available on Amazon called M Poetica: Michael Jackson’s Art of Connection and Defiance. This deals with all the matters raised in this blog and comments, (and of course so much more) from Michael’s musical art and its affect on our culture and society, to him using his body and face as a living sculpture to express his art in another way – and if that is not breaking down barriers, then I don’t know what is!! I can’t recommend it highly enough and really wish that she could somehow get it published and out into the general marketplace where it deserves to be read by everyone.

  35. Raven, you say: “…for years, these kinds of accusations were made in order to essentially “emasculate” Michael and make him less of a threat. If they could reduce Michael to something that could be ridiculed or pitied, rather than envied or something to feel threatened by, it somehow made his presence safer to deal with. How many times do these labels come up in any discussion of Michael Jackson-gay, pedophile, asexual, virgin, etc?”

    Raven, I tried to submit a comment yesterday–but apparently it didn’t show up. It was in response to Simba’s comment about Calypso. I’ll try again.

    Also, I had been at work composing a letter—to you personally—where I take up some of the issues you outline. I have plenty to say about them, but I didn’t want to take up this board explaining, in some detail, the essential distinctions between “gay, pedophile, asexual, virgin, “etc.” ,” to which list we might add “androgynous, effeminate, epicene, gender-bending, queer,” and things like that.

    I wanted to explain just WHY it’s vitally important to note how we’re using all these terms, and why lumping them all together—and ESPECIALLY including “pedophile” in this list—does a huge disservice to Michael, to us, and to millions of people around the world who may identify with one or another of these terms.

    But this week, in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict, I’ve been busy trying to converse with other white people about “white privilege”—what it looks like, what it might consist of. At another time, maybe I can engage other straight privilege in a discussion of straight privilege.

    But I don’t know. I don’t want to be accused of lecturing. Maybe I’ll just continue this missive addressed to you, Raven.

    1. No, I didn’t see the comment yesterday. It may have possibly gotten sorted into the spam folder. Sometimes it will do that if there are multiple links, or a flagged word. I apologize about that, but it looks like your current comment went through.

      To clarify, I certainly wasn’t implying that people who are gay or androgynous or any of the other labels we discussed are synonymous with pedophilia. I was merely stating that BECAUSE these labels have so often been used on Michael in the media in a derogatory way, and often to further fuel the “p” agenda, is one reason I believe that many fans are so defensive about the issue.

      But I will stop there, as I have to go and know I will risk not explaining myself very well if I feel rushed. We can certainly continue this discussion in PM if you would like.

  36. Nina, my point was that when he had the power to make the decision, Michael never wore pastels and ruffles, onstage or off, the way Farrakhan did. You are of course correct when you dub the “name a Jew you admire” question ludicrous. But these are the kinds of inane questions that prominent black people are often asked – like “Are you a virgin?”

    The video of Farrakhan playing the violin illustrates that he’s a complex guy. You never mentioned his supposed anti-Semitism, but you must be aware that it’s the main reason Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam are considered controversial, and why Michael’s association with the NOI caused so much consternation to people like Roger Friedman.

  37. Yes, I’m sure Farrakhan is a complex person, Simba; as is Oprah, as are other prominent black people, as is Michael Jackson, and as are you and me.

    Even more complex is the black community, or African Americans —a vast and heterogeneous group of millions of people, on whose behalf you apparently speak. You say, “…rap music is not particularly popular among African Americans. “ By “African Americans,“ I assume you mean people who—for all that they comprise a community—ALSO come from hugely divergent backgrounds and situations in life. These differences include age, class, religion, national origin, sexuality, educational background, region, gender identity, language, ability/disability, cultural tastes, and on and on and on.

    So my question is: on what basis do you say that an entire genre of music, which has stood at the forefront of American (and international) popular culture for the last 25 years, has no traction among African Americans? Isn’t that quite a broad claim?

    As for Roger Friedman…. really, who is this guy? Is he that influential? I’d never even heard of this writer before I started researching Michael Jackson four years ago, and I’m not particularly interested in what he has to say; it seems he’s little more than a gossip columnist (although he, too, is probably a more “complex guy” than I give him credit for)!

    I’m much more interested in reading people who actually have something to say about Michael’s creative work and his contribution to world culture in the late 20th century and beyond. That’s why I come to sites like this one.

    1. If I were to say that country music is not particularly popular with African Americans – and it isn’t – I don’t think you would demand to know how I dare to speak for millions who “come from hugely divergent backgrounds and situations in life”. But there are many black people who love country music. Likewise there are many black people who love rap and hip hop music, obviously, but not most. This is born out by sales figures, air play on black radio, and attendance at concerts. (Jazz isn’t that popular with black folks, either.)The percentages have varied over the years, but a number of media outlets have estimated that the majority of rap music is bought by young white suburban males.

      As for Roger Friedman, he isn’t a gossip columnist, strictly speaking, and while his influence is not large, he’s emblematic of a certain showbiz mindset. He’s been very critical of Michael Jackson, Grace Rwaramba, and the entire Jackson family for years. But recently he’s gone after Wade Robson and the Brit tabloids for their lies, and he’s even gone on mainstream radio defending Michael, which is amazing.

      (It’s a confounding, and all too common experience for African Americans to be challenged about their knowledge of their own community by those who are not a part of it. I wonder, does this happen to Irish Americans, or Korean Americans? I bet it happens to Native Americans – maybe Raven can comment on that.)

      1. This is not only EXCEEDINGLY true of Native American culture, but even from WITHIN, Natives will question the validity of other Natives’ views and whether their experiences are, strictly speaking, “Native” or true to the “Native experience”-whatever that means. The truth is that Native Americans, as with all races and ethnicities, are so widely diverse that no one can claim to speak for all Native people. To begin with, Native Americans consist of over five thousand individual tribes, all with their own unique language, religious structure, and customs. Then add to that over five hundred years’ worth of mixing and marrying among other tribes, and acculturation with Europeans. Then, add to that migration, urban relocation, increased educational opportunities, and you have a very diverse and mixed bag indeed.

        Within the Native culture itself, there is a lot of racism, based on skin color, blood quantum, and whether one was raised “on the rez.” Since I live in the Southeast, it is a unique situation I often observe at cultural gatherings. Most of us are mixed bloods, our Native genes long watered down by generations of inter marriage and that whole, unque history of white and Native relations in the Southeast that go all the way back to the Trail of Tears era and beyond. We choose to identify with the Native American side of our families, even though a good many of us, to the outward eye, LOOK as white as any typical Scotch-Irishman (and there are also, of course, many African Americans here who choose to openly celebrate their Native heritage. Again, interracial marriages were so common in the South that this has been going on for hundreds of years).

        But at any gathering, we also have a fair number of transplanted full bloods, usually people originally from the West, or in some cases, groups who travel the powwow circuits. I know a lot of these are very good people and I have many good friends among them. Of those, I do not speak. But there is also a fair amount of snobbery among them, as well, a superior sense that they are “the real Indians” because they think their background and skin color somehow gives them more license to the title.

        I’m sure you’re probably familiar with the very famous Native American author Sherman Alexie (I’m a huge fan!) I met Sherman several years ago at a reading in Memphis and he is a delightful man. But his stories are often quite searingly honest in exploring these racist attitudes, and he makes no bones that he sides with the “skins.” Conversely, however, he has also received a LOT of criticism from the Native community for portrayals that many see as stereotypes (“the drunken Indian,” etc) and having a somewhat arrogant idea that he somehow speaks for all Indians or the experience of all Indians, instead of acknowledging that his writing is born of his own personal experiences. With such a wide variety of literary Native voices, all of whom have created a pantheon of rich and fully dimensional characters ground in their own experience, it’s presumptuous for any Native writer today to lay any claim to speaking for all of us.

        But to get back to your original point, you see how it is. If even NATIVES can’t agree on what constitutes a sense of Indian culture or “what it is to be Native” we sure as heck can’t expect anyone else to! Yet we are constantly subjected to white (and yes, black views, too) of what does or does not make one “an Indian.” Stephen Graham Jones wrote about this in a delightful story called “Because I’m An Indian” which was published in his Bleed Into Me collection:

        http://www.amazon.com/Bleed-into-Me-Storiers-Narratives/dp/0803243502

        I’ll just quote here one of my favorite lines, which is also included in the review:

        We stare at each other because we don’t know which tribe, and then nod at the last possible instant. Standard procedure. You pick it up the first time a white friend leads you across a room just to stand you up by another Indian, arrange you like furniture, like you should have something to say to each other.

        1. Raven says, “With such a wide variety of literary Native voices, all of whom have created a pantheon of rich and fully dimensional characters ground in their own experience, it’s presumptuous for any Native writer today to lay any claim to speaking for all of us.”

          Thanks for this explication, Raven. And that passage by Steven Graham, about being “arranged like furniture”— very powerful. I want to read that book of stories.

          I haven’t read NEARLY enough Native American literature or history. I can imagine that Sherman Alexie is a controversial figure; I really liked his film “The Business of Fancydancing,” which I taught in a class. Have you seen it? The protagonist, a gay Native man and a successful poet, living in Seattle with his white partner, is perfectly at home within an urban lifestyle. Then he goes back to visit his home on the rez in Coeur d’Alene, Washington, and we see a very different side of him. The issues and controversies you mention here are embedded in this film in really interesting ways.

          I also wonder if you’ve seen Victor Masayesva’s film (he’s Hopi, I think), “Imagining Indians.” He also provides a really interesting cinematic discussion of these issues, constructed as part personal essay, part documentary. One aspect of the film involves interviews with Native Americans who worked as extras and low-level crew in Robert Redford’s film “Dances with Wolves” (1991). Some people attested to inaccurate representations (always an issue), ridiculous working conditions, underpyament, etc. There is also a through-line that appears continually this film: a Native woman is sitting in a dentist’s chair being treated by a white dentist. As he goes about his work drilling at her teeth, he talks on and on about the romantic “lifestyle” of Native Americans, how he has always wanted to do sweat lodges, how wonderful a life it must be to be Native, and on and on, reducing his patient to a romantic caricature. Finally, in a state of understandable irritation, she takes the dentists’ drill and…. well, I won’t “give it away.”

          Masayesva once gave a talk at my university, where he posed the question: “Can a white man film an Indian?” He showed us a video of a panel discussion where this question had been posed, and the answers were VERY wide-ranging indeed. Some said it should never be attempted, it would always, invariably become an exploitative situation. Another Native man said (somewhat to my surprise) that, based on his encounters with Hollywood producers and other high-ranking people in the film industry, these white people were the best, kindest, and most sensitive white people he’d ever met.

          I have a colleague, a filmmaker who is Navajo. She’s told me that when she travels to show one of her films at festivals that specialize in Native films, she, too, has found herself in the midst of these controversies for not being “Indian” enough—notwithstanding that her film is in the Diné language (with English subtitles). In nearly every community, it seems, people are caught up in issues of authenticity. (Maybe someone ought to do a parody: a film festival, or another cultural gathering attended primarily by whites, where white people are accusing each other of not being “white enough.”)

          Anyway, we’re getting far afield from Michael Jackson here…. though, not really—in my mind, it’s all connected.

          1. Yes, Nina. These stories/incidents only serve to further illustrate just how divided Native people are on these issues.

            I am very familiar with Alexie’s The Business of Fancy Dancing. I also have the book on which it was based. It was really just a random collection of poems and short prose pieces about life on the rez. I believe that the storyline in the film grew out of a couple of the pieces in the book.

            Alexie’s far more commercial film was Smoke Signals, based on his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. (Evan Adams is in both). I love that one, also, but as Alexie has said, it got much more of the Hollywood treatment. I recently found an old issue I had of Ploughshares in which there was an article by Alexie ranting about how Hollywood kills your soul as a writer. This is true of a writer of any race, but his point is that it’s doubly true for Native writers, whom everyone is trying to fit into a neat box, anyway. He was always being chided to make his stories “more accessible.” Which, of course, raises the age old question…more accessible to whom? I am glad I found that old Ploughsahres issue again because that has always been one of my favorite essays by him. Basically, he declares at the end of the essay that he will from now on only write and produce his own films, which will go straight to video and be seen by about 1% but at least (to paraphrase) he will have his soul and his integrity intact. The Business of Fancy Dancing was the first of his films produced after making that vow.

            One small correction…Dances With Wolves was produced by Kevin Costner, not Robert Redford.

            That was certainly a groundbreaking film for its time. It was one of the first huge, mainstream films to provide a realistic portrayal of Native people and also a sympathetic one (although 1970’s Little Big Man, I believe, holds the honor as being truly the first). However, there were still issues. The actors in the film are speaking the feminine Lakota dialect (even the male characters) and some felt that the characters, while sympathetic, were also too romanticized. Thus, in a way, the film was still indulging in stereotypes. However, I think the film did do a wonderful job of showing the complexity of Native people. Yes, some of the characters were romanticized, but not all. And “some” degree of romanticism is necessary in order to create sympathetic characters that we’re going to care about as an audience. On the whole, there’s been a lot of backlash against the film in recent years, but I don’t think all of it is deserved.

        2. Raven, it’s been said that Michael was of Native descent on both sides of his family. Do you know if any tribe has claimed him as a descendant? This is a touchy area for African Americans. Many genealogists maintain that, contrary to popular belief, most AAs do not have any significant Native American ancestry, that inter-marriage was rare, and ancestors believed to be Native were actually mulattoes. I have Native ancestry on both sides, confirmed by DNA testing, but my family has zero connection to any tribal tradition.

          (Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that some Native Americans were enthusiastic slaveholders. In Oklahoma especially, there are many AAs who descend from slaves freed by Federal troops from various tribes. These people spoke no English, having lived within Native nations their entire lives. Speaking of racism, the Cherokee Nation recently expelled several thousand black members of the tribe, even though they probably are genetically more ‘Indian’ then most of the ‘white’ members.)

          1. Michael’s Native ancestry is said to be Choctaw (on Joseph’s side) and Cherokee on Katherine’s side. Again, these mixtures were very common in the South (far more than in other parts of the country). But neither tribe “claims” him because, really, it would have been on Michael’s end to claim them, if he had been so inclined. That is the case with most of us not born on a reservation or into families that have Federal recognition. Like thousands of others, Michael was born into a family that had Native ancestry, but he was not raised in the culture and overall, knew little about it. Nor do I think he ever went out of his way to embrace it or to learn much about it; it just didn’t seem to be something that interested him that much. Nevertheless, I think some of the family stories Joe told in his book that was published in Germany are fascinating. It appears that Michael may have inherited a lot of his talent from at least one of his Native ancestors, who often entertained the town with his performances.

            Yes, you are right. Many Native Americans in the South became prosperous landowners and slave holders. But we have to remember, this was seen on their part as an attempt to acculturate themselves with the dominant culture. They believed that if they could prove they were just as prosperous, and just as “civilized” as their white neighbors, they could live in peace and be left alone. (Of course, the irony is in accepting the owning of slaves as being somehow the mark of being “civilized.”). But when these tribes-the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole are described as “The Five Civilized Tribes” it was generally for this reason-their ability to adopt European culture and ways. It would shock many to know that many Cherokees, prior to the Civil War, lived in mansions as grand as any white man’s, and owned slaves.

            Race relations have always been a very complicated and complex thing-and certainly racism exists in ALL races. The idea of a disenfranchised, minority culture being willing to exploit and take advantage of another is proof enough. On the whole, there was a certain camaraderie between African Americans and Natives because of their shared experience as subjugated races by the Europeans, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t still a certain degree of racist attitudes even among them. Truth be told, while many Native people at the time may have identified more strongly with blacks, they were aspiring to be like the whites they saw-prosperous, educated, etc. Thus, they were willing to cast their lot with the conquerors in order to achieve this standard of living.

            I would imagine that the percentage of African American and Native miscegenation was no greater or lesser than among whites and Natives. There was just as much intermarriage among them, just as much cohabitation, and just as many opportunities for illicit relations as among blacks and whites. But what you often saw was a much more willingness on the part of many Southern families to accept an Indian ancestor, rather than a black ancestor. This was just all a part of the general social hierarchy of the time, which considered whites first, then those of darker complexions second (which would include Indians), and lastly, African Americans.

            I’ve heard about the controversy in North Carolina over those expelled members. I really just think this goes to show how deep, complex and multi-faceted racism is (hardly just a white and black thing, as some try to make it). Where I live, there are many African American families who participate in Native ceremonies, who dance at the powwows, and in all respects, consider themselves to be Cherokee. In my opinion, they certainly have as much right as any “white” person there. But although fully accepted, at least on the surface, you will still sometimes hear the twitterings and rumblings in the background. I remember quite well one incident that involved an innocent child-a beautiful little girl who danced with so much poise, grace, and maturity that she was quickly elevated to “Head Lady” status among the juniors. But because she happened to look more like her Caribbean mom than her white father, there was one disgruntled old Native woman who was overheard to say, “That little niglet doesn’t represent me” or something to that effect. But the people all banded around the child and her family, and this woman was ostracized. No one wanted to defend her despicable comments once it got out what she had said.

  38. Thank you for the information, Simba. Strictly speaking, the sales figures may reflect that the majority of people who buy hip-hop records are not African American. (Similarly, I once read that 60% of the people who bought records produced by Motown were white.) But for this data to become truly meaningful, we’d want to see some statistical breakdown about what genres of music African Americans buy, as opposed to whites. And I think we’d also want to know just what the nature of our inquiry is—what are we setting out to learn, and why?

    It’s like this: “I have the answer. Now what was the question?” Whatever the initial question that prompted all of this, it seems to have gotten lost. But my feeling of doubt arose from the way you framed your statement, as a sweeping generalization: “rap music is not particularly popular among African Americans.”

    You say, “(It’s a confounding, and all too common experience for African Americans to be challenged about their knowledge of their own community by those who are not a part of it. I wonder, does this happen to Irish Americans, or Korean Americans? I bet it happens to Native Americans – maybe Raven can comment on that.)”

    It’s an interesting question, Simba. and I understand your point. If my question sounded impertinent, please accept my apology. But I think I can say this with some certainty: if a Native American, or Irish American, or Italian American, or someone who identified as a member of another ethnic group were to make this same kind of generalization, I would challenge them too. First and foremost, I would challenge any Jewish person (I am Jewish) who made any such generalization about the kinds of music Jews do or don’t like. In fact, I’d probably want to sock them in the jaw.

  39. This is one of the best mature discusions on MJ I ve ever read.
    With Michael I like to step off my fan seat and try to understand so many aspects of this little black kid from Indiana that has afecte the world in so many ways in only 50 years and STILL does.

    Theres something magical about Michael Jackson.Michael left the category of human being entertainer or celebrity long time ago.
    He was a masively talented artist,extremally creative.The excitement he caused first with hi art and later on with hi lifetyle choices and or his tactics facinated the world.

    He wasnt a politician,he wasnt a religion leader and he wasnt definately jut an artist.He was the closest thing ever to Santa Claus.Please let me explain the analogy.
    Michael Jackson was one of us,he was real he was a man but at the same time fantasy mistery and magic played a huge part of hi art and who he was. And it played a huge part on how we percieved him.

    People question his plastic surgery,his skin color change,Neverland…His unique feminine voice.All of that did set Michael apart from any other entertainer we had ever witness. He had no boundaries,nor in his artitic visions nor in his private life.
    I think the isolation Michael suffered a a kid led him to look at the world thru a different glass. SO in his mind it wansnt a crime to love your neibourh children as much as yours.

    We will never get to understand Michael Jackson and disect every aspect of his life. I think Michael-s life was deeply affected by the world,and we also were waiting what he wa going to do next.We were waiting for him to fall,or to rise again.But we were all definately waiting and curious on Michael Jackson.
    I think the character we built became too big to handle and groteque.I say we becaue he dint built Michael Jackson all by himself. We demanded more of him,we filled his ego,we criticie him,we made fun of him,we adored him,we acussed him.

    We bought the tickets,we desperately needed him in our life to bring that light and excitement that only St Clause could bring.

    The problem was that in the process the MICHAEL JACKSON character became too heavy for tha tlittle kid from Indiana to handle an selfdestruction started in front of our own eyes.

    Because we can talk about this musical genius,icon,trendetter,global figure,gossip celeb,superhero,traumatized inividual,child abuser to some…

    we can talk for hours but at the end he was just a little kid from Indiana that brought light to the world.But I dont think that neither him or us were ready to understand and deal with such a phenomenon

  40. What a BRILLIANT article. I myself just now tried to get onto the link that accompanies the article and was told “Blacklisted”. Its a shame that we cannot leave a comment under his article for him to see how much we appreciated it. Thanks for posting this on here. ♥

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