Monthly Archives: December 2011
Hello everyone! Hope you are all having a wonderful holiday season. Willa and I are still enjoying our holiday vacation but we can’t wait to get back to the conversation next week. In the meantime, we were forwarded a link to The MJ Academia Project videos by Black Shark, one of our regular readers here, and we wanted to share them with all of you since they highlight some of the things we’ve been talking about in this blog for the past several months. The videos are really excellent so here they are – enjoy!
Joie: So this week, in celebration of the Christmas season, Willa and I wanted to continue our discussion of childhood and what it meant to Michael. And I know we’ve all heard many times all of the very impassioned speeches that Michael gave over the years about childhood and the importance of protecting that precious time in our children’s lives. But I’d like to start this post with a quote from Michael that I have always found simply enchanting.
“One of my favorite pastimes is being with children, talking to them and playing with them. Children know a lot of secrets [about the world] and it’s difficult to get them to tell. Children are incredible. They go through a brilliant phase, but then when they reach a certain age, they lose it. My most creative moments have almost always come when I’m with children. When I’m with them, the music comes to me as easily as breathing.”
I love what Michael says here about how children go through a brilliant phase and they know a lot of secrets about the world. I think he’s so right! As I mentioned last week, I’ve never been blessed with children but, I do have several nieces and nephews that I adore, three of whom I lived in the same house with from the time they were born until the youngest was about 8 or 9. And when they were little, they were just the most fun to be around. They are all adults now but, I still have very vivid memories of things they said that were just so wise and simple or very creative things that they did that just made you sit back and say, ‘Wow.’ So, I understand exactly what Michael is talking about here and it just makes me smile every time I read that quote.
Willa: Joie, I absolutely love that quotation as well, and I’m so glad you started off with it. I think it really gets to the heart of what Michael Jackson kept trying to tell us about childhood. It really is a special time, and children do know secrets about the world that many of us adults seem to have forgotten.
Children are just amazing, and they look at the world in such different ways than adults tend to. My son had to do a freewriting assignment at school a couple weeks ago, and the teacher didn’t give them any direction about it. She just said, ‘Write a short story as fast as you can, starting … Now.’ So they all started writing without time to plan or think, just write. My son came home and was telling me about it, and he said he thought about this funny postcard that’s been in his room for a while, of a disgruntled cat wearing a melon helmet:
Joie: Oh my gosh! That picture is adorable!
Willa: Isn’t it funny? So he wrote his short story about that, but what threw me for a loop is that he told it from the point of view of the melon. He said he’d been wondering what it would be like to be sitting in a nice field, soaking up the sun, when suddenly someone comes along, grabs you, scoops your insides out, and stuffs you on the head of a rather annoyed cat. He cracked himself up telling me about it, and he thoroughly cracked me up. Who would ever think of such a thing? But kids think sideways all the time.
As adults, we’re pretty much trained to look at the world in certain ways, but kids haven’t been – at least not nearly to the extent we have. To use Michael Jackson’s terminology, they aren’t as “conditioned” as we are, so their minds are flexible enough to look at the world in amazing ways that most adults just don’t seem able to do any more.
Joie: That’s really sad but, very true. As Michael said in that quote I used earlier, children “go through a brilliant phase, but then when they reach a certain age, they lose it.” And he’s right; it does seem that we all lose something when we leave childhood behind. As if that mystical, magical connection to light and innocence that we’re all born with gets broken somehow.
Willa: I love the way he put that – children do “go through a brilliant phase.” But we “lose it” as we grow older and become “conditioned,” and we lose a lot of our innate creativity as well.
A couple weeks ago, I was watching a PBS documentary called Journey of the Universe by Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, and near the end of the documentary Swimme said something fascinating. He suggested that the rise of human civilization may be linked to childhood. Humans have a very extended childhood: it takes around 20 years for a human infant to reach full maturity, far longer than other species. (Elephants are another exception – it takes around 16 years for an elephant to reach maturity – but that’s a rarity in the animal world.) And Swimme suggested that our long childhood may be one key reason why humans were able to develop civilization.
I was so intrigued I went to the library and picked up Swimme and Tucker’s book, and the theory is that most animal behavior is guided by “instinctual responses.” However, for some reason, humans as a species underwent a profound change so that instead of slavishly following instinctual responses, early humans developed “behavioral flexibility.” As Swimme and Tucker write, “a new kind of consciousness was entering existence, one that was freer and more exploratory.” But where did this behavioral flexibility come from?
Swimme and Tucker suggest it came from children, and humans’ extended period of childhood:
“For [children], behavior is open-ended in a way that is rarer in adults. This youthful behavior is readily distinguishable from the serious adult concerns of survival or sexual reproduction. Certainly some of their youthful behavior can be understood as preparation and practice for their later lives. But much of it is without any direct relationship to adult behavior. In a word, what often occupies their consciousness is play. They leap and twist; they explore the world with their eyes; they taste the world with their mouths; they enter into many kinds of relationships out of sheer curiosity. With their play they are discovering the exuberance of being alive.”
Swimme and Tucker go on to suggest that this playfulness of children may have led to nothing less than the rise of human civilization, as well as our artistic sensibility:
“It was this relative freedom from instinctual behavior … that enabled us to become profoundly captivated by so many things – by fire, sunrise, ocean waves, erotic intensities, the death of a friend, the birth of a child. … They [the early humans] viewed life through new eyes. Instead of simply responding, they also reflected. They tasted the very essence of what it means to be alive. With the emergence of the human, the universe created a space where depths of feeling could be concentrated and wondered over.”
In other words, Swimme and Tucker believe the imagination and “behavioral flexibility” of childhood led to a new “superabundant consciousness” as well as a wealth of creativity – a level of creativity powerful enough to spark the rise of human civilization.
I think Michael Jackson was keenly aware of these deep connections between childhood and creativity. As he says in the Immortal version of “Childhood,” in spoken segments interspersed with the lyrics, “The magic, the wonder, the mystery, and the innocence of a child’s heart are the seeds of creativity that will heal the world. I really believe that.” Unlike most adults, he cultivated those “seeds of creativity” throughout his life and never lost them, and he maintained a wonderful childlike inventiveness and flexibility in his work, but it’s coupled with a mature awareness of the very real pain of human suffering. And the two together – the childlike vision with the mature understanding – gives his work tremendous range and depth.
Joie: You’re so right, Willa. Michael was very aware of the deep connection between childhood and creativity – as many great artists are. I believe it was Picasso who once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.” Well perhaps the key to that problem is finding a way to maintain that connection to the magic of childhood, and no one did that better than Michael. He had this amazing personality trait that not many others possess. That incredible, innocent sense of childlike wonder! It just seemed to flow from him like water from a fountain and it’s one of the things that made him so very special.
It’s also one of the things that made his work so special. He really gave us glimpses of that childlike wonder on songs like “Childhood,” “Heal the World,” “Gone Too Soon,” and “Another Part of Me.” Even on several unreleased songs like “Carousel” and “Monkey Business” and “Scared of the Moon.” That endearing playful quality that was always right there just beneath the surface. You could see it in his eyes every time he smiled and it just melted your heart. And it wasn’t an act, it was genuine and sincere. But I think the general public and the press really tried to make it into something weird and unnatural and that always angered me. They would pretty much come right out and say ‘well, there has to be something wrong with a man who prefers to see only the good in people and tries to look at the world with childhood sensibilities.’ Never once did any of them consider that Michael may have been on to something with his desire to hold on to that connection to childhood. They just thought he was, at best, very eccentric and, at worse, very scary. But it was something that was very important to him. That connection was like his lifeline; it was a source of great strength for him.
You know, in March 2001 Michael was a guest lecturer at Oxford Union at Oxford University in the UK. And during his lecture, he talked about how important that connection really was to him. He strongly believed that connection to childhood could heal many of our world’s problems:
“Please harken to my message, because what I have to tell you tonight can bring healing to humanity and healing to our planet. Through the grace of God, I have been fortunate to have achieved many of my artistic and professional aspirations, realized early in my lifetime. But these, friends, are accomplishments, and accomplishments alone are not synonymous with who I am. Indeed, the cheery five-year-old who belted out “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” to adoring crowds was not indicative of the boy behind the smile.
Tonight, I come before you less as an icon of pop – whatever that means anyway – and more as an icon of a generation. A generation that no longer knows what it means to be children. All of us are products of our childhood. But I am the product of a lack of a childhood; an absence of that precious and wondrous age when we frolic playfully without a care in the world, basking in the adoration of parents and relatives, where our biggest concern is studying for that big spelling test come Monday morning….
And it’s not just the kids who are suffering. It’s the parents as well. For the more we cultivate little adults in kids’ bodies, the more removed we ourselves become from our own childlike qualities. And there is so much about being a child that is worth retaining in adult life!”
I just love reading that entire speech; it really shows exactly what was in Michael’s heart in terms of his love for children. The whole speech is based on his belief that the connection to childhood is the primary ingredient to love. And without that connection, we can’t fully express our love to others. As he tells us,
“Love, ladies and gentlemen, is the human family’s most precious legacy, its richest bequest, its golden inheritance. And it is a treasure that is handed down from one generation to another…. But if you don’t have that memory of being loved, you are condemned to search the world for something to fill you up. But no matter how much money you make or how famous you become, you will still feel empty. What you are really searching for is unconditional love, unqualified acceptance.”
The speech he gave that night was really quite revealing. He spoke about the emotional neglect of the children of today and the emotional neglect in his own childhood. And he got pretty emotional as he talked about forgiving his father because he didn’t want his own children to judge him too harshly one day for the choices he made in raising them.
“The strain and tension that exists in my relationship with my own father is well documented. My father is a tough man…. [He] had great difficulty showing me affection. He never really told me he loved me and he never really complimented me either. If I did a great show, he would tell me it was a good show. And if I did an OK show, he would say nothing…. My father was a managerial genius and my brothers and I owe our professional success, in no small measure, to the forceful way that he pushed us. He trained me as a showman and under his guidance I couldn’t miss a step. But what I really wanted was a Dad. I wanted a father who showed me love. And my father never did that….
But now I am a father myself, and one day I was thinking about my own children, Prince and Paris and how I wanted them to think of me when they grow up…. And at that moment I pray that my children will give me the benefit of the doubt. That they will say to themselves, “Our daddy did the best he could, given the unique circumstances that he faced. He may not have been perfect, but he was a warm and decent man, who tried to give us all the love in the world.” I hope that they will always focus on the positive things, on the sacrifices I willingly made for them, and not criticize the things they had to give up, or the errors I’ve made, and will certainly continue to make, in raising them. For we have all been someone’s child, and we know that despite the very best of plans and efforts, mistakes will always occur. That’s just being human.
And when I think about this, of how I hope that my children will not judge me unkindly, and will forgive my shortcomings, I am forced to think of my own father. And despite my earlier denials, I am forced to admit that he must have loved me. He did love me, and I know that…. So tonight, rather than focusing on what my father didn’t do, I want to focus on all the things he did do and on his own personal challenges. I want to stop judging him.”
Willa: Joie, that is so beautiful, and so heartbreakingly honest. And it’s a wonderful example of how Michael Jackson somehow miraculously combined a childlike vision of the world with a mature understanding. His words in that speech are not childish by any means – they are the words of a mature man who has experienced a lot of pain in his life. But that maturity is coupled with a childlike resilience, as well as a childlike yearning to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven. Children seem to forgive so easily – they don’t become obsessed with the bitterness of the past the way adults often do – and that is another important lesson we need to learn from children.
Importantly, Michael Jackson didn’t just apply the lessons of childhood to his own life, but to the global possibilities of unlocking the secrets and creativity of childhood. As he says in another except from “Childhood” on the Immortal album, “What we need to learn from children isn’t childish. They know the way to solutions that lie waiting to be recognized within our own hearts.”
I see this as the message of Jam as well. In the lyrics, he tells us we’re often hesitant to help each other because we’ve “been conditioned by the system.” But through the visuals of Jam, we see images of children – and adults – at play. They’re leaping, jumping rope, dancing, playing basketball. It’s this spirit of play, and the tremendous creativity we can access through play, that may one day help us solve the seemingly intractable problems we as a global community must face. As Michael Jackson sings in the opening lyrics,
Nation to Nation
All the world must come together
Face the problems that we see
Then maybe somehow we can work it out
In Journey of the Universe, Swimme and Tucker challenge us to imagine a utopian world where adults retain the wonder and imagination of children – not childish but childlike:
What if we could one day bring forth a species that could dwell in flexibility and resilience? What if, after a million years of mammalian existence, there appeared a species that could remain spontaneous, curious, astonished, compelled to try everything? What would happen then?
I think this is precisely the kind of world Michael Jackson envisioned – a world of love and creativity, where we are all artists and where we all retain our childlike wonder. And he tried to share this vision with us throughout his life and his work.
Joie: I think you’re right, Willa and I think he tried to tell us that in the lyrics to “Childhood” when he sang,
“Have you seen my childhood? I’m searching for the world that I come from. ‘Cause I’ve been looking around in the lost and found of my heart. No one understands me. They view it as strange eccentricities. ‘Cause I keep kidding around like a child, but pardon me.”
I think he once said in an interview that “Childhood” was one of the most autobiographical songs he’d ever written and if you listen to the words, it’s easy to understand why.
Well, Willa and I will be taking the next week off in order to enjoy the holiday so, this will be the final post of the year. But we will be back on January 5 with a brand new post!
Joie: This past weekend, Willa and I met up in Las Vegas to take in the Cirque du Soleil IMMORTAL show and, while we were there we couldn’t help thinking about Michael’s children, each of us for our own reasons. The kids were on my mind because they had made headlines recently when they saw the show, and Willa was thinking about them because Vegas is where Martin Bashir met them and filmed them for his infamous “documentary.” And before going to Vegas, we had already decided that we wanted to talk about Michael’s ideas about childhood for our Christmas post – it just seemed fitting somehow. So this week, since we were already thinking about children, and Michael’s children in particular, we wanted to share our thoughts on the subject.
Willa: This is a really hard topic for us, though, because it is so very important to both of us to respect his children’s privacy. At the same time, childhood – and his own lost childhood, in particular – was a very important issue for him, and we can gain insights into what childhood means to him through his role as a parent. So this week we’re kind of walking a tightrope and trying to talk about this in a way that lets us elucidate some of these ideas without being too personal or invasive.
Joie: That’s so funny, Willa. You said we’re walking on a tightrope and all I can picture is you and me and three baby elephants up on a tightrope, attempting to dance with each other! I just love that image; how cute! But, in all seriousness, it is very important to respect their privacy for many reasons. Mostly because that’s what Michael would have wanted.
Willa: So I don’t want to go too much into personal matters, but there’s a scene in Martin Bashir’s documentary where he tells us we’re going to meet Michael Jackson’s children, and to be honest, as soon as I heard that I just dreaded the idea. I was streaming the interview in on YouTube, and I actually clicked the Pause button so I could get some water and prepare myself for it. From what we see of Bashir in the documentary, he is incredibly judgmental (that ceiling is “tacky,” that vase is too expensive, your lips look “very different” from when you were younger, and on and on). He can’t seem to observe anything without judging it, often in rather superficial ways, so you know what this meeting is going to be like. He’s going to pass judgment on these young children (you’re so pretty and handsome, your hair is so blond, you don’t look much like your daddy) and they’re going to feel self-conscious and awkward and weird, and I just dreaded it. I hate it when kids are put in uncomfortable situations like that, and to be honest, I was disappointed in Michael Jackson for allowing it. I thought it was a really bad decision.
Joie: I was disappointed in him too, for the entire “documentary.” I just don’t understand how he could have been so taken in by that sleaze bag and allowed him such access to his life, to his children…. it just turns my stomach now when I think about how it all played out and, of course, what that whole association with Bashir eventually led to.
Willa: The whole documentary is really hard to watch, and if I hadn’t been writing the book and felt like I needed to watch it, I wouldn’t have made it through – especially when Bashir announces he’s going to film his children. I really had to step away for a minute then. So I went and drank some water, came back to my computer, clicked the Play button, and watched with trepidation as Bashir met Michael Jackson’s two older children, who were about 3 and 4 years old at the time.
But it didn’t turn out at all the way I expected. There was a surprise: the children were wearing masks. Bashir says to Prince, “That’s a really great mask” (a value judgment, of course – Bashir is so judgmental) and Prince replies in an excited voice, “It’s a butterfly!” and they have this discussion about Prince’s mask. To me, what’s most striking about this scene is that Prince seems perfectly comfortable talking to Bashir. He doesn’t seem embarrassed or self-conscious at all because Bashir isn’t passing judgments on him and his appearance, but on the mask he’s wearing. I watched that scene and thought, Michael Jackson was the wisest parent those kids could possibly have had for the very public life they were born into.
A lot of commentators have been talking about how centered and grounded his children are, typically adding that celebrity kids are rarely as well-adjusted as they are. And it seems obvious to me that this strong sense of self didn’t happen by accident. Rather, they had a thoughtful father who knew what it was like to grow up in a white hot spotlight, and he protected them as best he could. And I personally think those masks were one of the kindest things he ever did for his kids. Those masks protected their identities from kidnappers, but even more importantly, they protected their psyches from the intrusive comments of insensitive people like Martin Bashir.
Joie: You know, Willa, I am so happy you brought that up because this is something that I have felt for a very long time. The general public – and the media for sure – always tried to make that such a weird, bizarre thing. Some even went so far as to call it cruel of Michael to force his children to wear masks or veils over their faces in public.
Willa: Though his kids have said they thought it was fun, and enjoyed trying out different masks.
Joie: That’s true, they did find it fun when they were little. But to me it was always the smartest, most compassionate thing he ever could have done for them. You mentioned that the masks protected the children’s identities from kidnappers – and that was the explanation originally given by both Michael and Debbie when the children were very young. But knowing that Michael usually had a very sane and logical reason for every perceived crazy thing he did, I always suspected there was more to it than that.
In essence, Michael was completely aware that his children were in danger of living their lives in a fishbowl like he did, simply because he was their father. So in order to give them some tiny semblance of normalcy, he covered their faces when they went out in public with him. And this was a brilliant move because whenever the children ventured out in public without him – which they frequently did with the nanny – they didn’t wear masks. There was no need to because no one knew they were his children! Michael understood that it would be difficult for the paparazzi to stalk his kids if they didn’t know what his kids looked like, so he made sure that they didn’t! And everyone got so caught up in the “bizarre” way these children were being raised and they questioned Michael’s parenting abilities. But meanwhile, no one ever saw a snapshot of Prince or Paris on the cover of some tabloid when they were little, did they? I mean, did the world really need to know what 3-year-old Suri Cruise was wearing or who Shilo Jolie-Pitt played with on her playdate? Give me a break! There was a certain brilliance to Michael’s madness when it came to protecting his children’s privacy and I thought it was an amazingly smart thing to do. It wasn’t until people began paying attention to the nanny and watching for her to be out with her charges that pics of their faces began to trickle out, and even then it was sporadic at best.
And I love what you said about commentators taking note of how grounded and centered Michael’s children are and I agree with you completely. That doesn’t happen by accident. Children have to be taught how to be respectful and polite and Michael really did that. Since his death, we’ve heard report after report from various people about how truly unspoiled Prince, Paris and Blanket are and that says a great deal about Michael’s parenting skills. You know, in his book, Frank Cascio talks a lot about how Michael went out of his way to be a ‘hands on’ father and raise his children right – even, at times, sending the nanny away in order to take care of them all on his own. It was obviously very important to him.
Willa: I agree. He approached parenthood in a very considered and thoughtful way, just as he approached most things he did. You know, Michael Jackson had an incredibly expressive voice with an amazing range and timbre and texture, but there are other singers with beautiful voices. He was also a wonderful dancer who inspired a whole generation of young dancers, but again, there are other dancers who can move their bodies somewhat the way he moved his. He was an innovative and intelligent filmmaker, but while others may not have the same vision he had, there are other intelligent, innovative filmmakers.
But for me, what sets Michael Jackson apart from every other artist is his tremendous empathy for those without a voice (and as Julie commented several weeks ago, “Children have always been the most voiceless and marginalized human beings in every culture around the world”) and his immense emotional intelligence. He could touch an audience in ways no one else could because he had deep psychological insights into the workings of the human heart and mind. And we see this emotional intelligence in the thoughtful way he raised his children.
I’m going to go off on a tangent for a minute, but I think it’s important. There was a French psychoanalyst and theorist named Jacques Lacan who developed a new model of human psychological development. His ideas are pretty complicated and I’m not a Lacan scholar by any means, but as I understand it, one aspect of his model is that our personalities are formed by a series of losses.
The first is the loss of the mother, or other primary caregiver. When we’re first born, our world is undifferentiated, without borders or boundaries. We don’t know that we are a person – we don’t know where “I” as a person ends and “you” as a person begin – we simply experience the world as a fog of sensory inputs: I’m warm, I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m fed, I’m wet, I’m dry, I’m content, I’m discontent. Except there is no “I” – just sensation.
Gradually the infant becomes aware that his or her mother is a separate being, a separate entity. That’s a profound moment in the child’s development and helps initiate the infant’s sense of identity. But it’s also a huge loss because if your mother is separate from you, that also means she can go away and leave you. So this loss creates anxiety as well as identity.
The second big loss is the loss of a unified sense of self, though it’s complicated since the sense of self is still being formed. But as I understand it, Lacan suggests that around 6 to 18 months of age, a baby first enters the mirror stage. This mirror can be a literal mirror or it can be the gaze of the mother or father or caregiver, but in many different subtle ways, babies this age become aware of themselves as reflected in mirrors and in the faces and minds of those around them, and this creates tremendous joy as well as anxiety, and a different level of consciousness.
This process begins in infancy and extends throughout our lives to some degree, and Lacan suggests that the “gaze” and our awareness of how we appear to other people is very significant in our psychological development. My son is 13, and I can see a new self-consciousness in him that wasn’t there when he was younger. A friend his age was always a very confident little girl, but now she’s going through an awkward phase where she’s painfully self-conscious. In fact, it seems that a lot of the gawkiness of teenagers isn’t just their changing bodies but their growing awareness that other people are looking at them. It’s like they are developing a double consciousness – a growing sense of how others see them as compared to how they see and experience themselves. As with the loss of the mother, this loss of a unified sense of self is very painful, but it’s a loss that helps create identity as well as anxiety.
Joie: That’s all very interesting, Willa. And it certainly explains that awkward stage we all go through as pre-teens and teenagers. I remember my own young-adulthood and how difficult that time was. I was all legs and arms back then and not exactly part of the ‘in’ crowd. Yikes! And it makes me think about Michael and how difficult that time was for him too with his acne. He said that during that time in his life he actually stopped looking in mirrors because he hated the way he looked. But if we look at this according to Lacan’s model, Michael probably also hated the way he felt others saw him, not just the way he saw himself. I know that for me, this was certainly the case.
Willa: Oh boy, Joie, I know what you mean about “all legs and arms.” My mom actually started calling me “Grace” for a while because I could hardly walk across a room without tripping over my own feet, and I went from being one of the best gymnasts on my gymnastics team to one of the worst. There’s a reason Olympic gymnasts tend to be 12 years old. I just couldn’t seem to keep track of all these long arms and legs I was suddenly supposed to use. And imagine what it must have been like for Michael Jackson, to have to sing and dance on stage with all those people watching his every move. Talk about being hyper aware of a public “gaze” – he was the object of worldwide attention at a terribly self-conscious life stage. That had to be an incredibly difficult time for him, on many different levels.
So I’ve been thinking about all this a lot lately, especially in terms of Lacan’s ideas of the “gaze” and the huge impact it has on our sense of self, because I think for child stars like Michael Jackson or Elizabeth Taylor or Shirley Temple or Emmanuel Lewis or Liza Minnelli or Jane Fonda or Tatum O’Neal or Brooke Shields or Sean Lennon or Macaulay Culkin or a lot of the child stars Michael Jackson befriended over his life, this process happens far too quickly and far too intensely, and it’s extremely painful. Child stars don’t just see themselves reflected in mirrors but on movie screens and tabloid photos – not just reflected in the eyes of parents and grandparents who love them, but also in the eyes of snarky critics who may dislike them or audiences who may grow tired of them and turn against them.
Macaulay Culkin talked about the pressures of being a child star in an interview about his close relationship with Michael Jackson:
“I can describe our friendship and I can explain Michael’s bond with children, but no matter what I say, you can never understand. Unless you have been through what Michael and I have been through, you just can’t comprehend what it’s like… We understood each other because we’ve both been there.”
I think this intense pressure and intense awareness of the public “gaze” is a large part of what Michael Jackson was talking about when he said he lost his childhood. It’s not just that he didn’t have time to play, but that to some degree he lost his ability to play – to experience life in a carefree way without constantly wondering what other people thought of him – and once you become self-conscious like that, you can never truly shake it. It’s a one-way street, and child stars are forced to experience it too early and too intensely. Remember, Michael Jackson began performing at 5 and had a Motown contract by 10, and Motown groomed him and his brothers very thoroughly, telling them to always act properly because the public was always watching them, and drilling them with lessons on how to speak and dress and behave so the public would perceive them in a positive way and like them.
As an adult Michael Jackson said he loved being with children because they didn’t judge him, either positively or negatively. They just accepted him and played with him, and he could lose that painful self-awareness for a time. When he was with children, he could regain some approximation of that experience of childhood that he lost way too soon. And I think he fiercely tried to protect his children from losing their childhoods the same way he lost his.
Joie: I think you’re right; he did try extremely hard to give his children the carefree childhood he missed out on, and that process of self-awareness does happen way too quickly and too harshly for child stars.
You know, Paris has been in the news a lot the past two weeks because it’s been announced that she’s landed her first film role in a movie called Lundon’s Bridge and the Three Keys. And every time I post a new piece of news to the MJFC website about it, I can’t help but think about Michael and wonder how he would feel about his only little girl, his baby that he tried so hard to protect from the harshness of the entertainment industry, suddenly stepping so blindly into that spotlight at such a young age. I know that he would be so proud of all of her accomplishments; but I also think that part of him would just cringe at the thought.
Willa: I know what you mean, Joie, though I remember he specifically said at some point that he wouldn’t push his children to become performers, but if it were something they wanted to do, he would let them. It’s always so difficult as parents to find that balance between protecting your kids and supporting them as they stretch themselves and try new things. You hate to see them get hurt, but if you never let them run the risk of failure, then they’ll never learn what they’re truly capable of and they’ll never reach their full potential. So you have to let children push themselves to the limits of what they can do – and maybe push too far and fail sometimes – but you also want to protect them and do everything you can to help them succeed. It’s just a constant negotiation. And I imagine it’s all the more difficult with celebrity children because their successes and failures are so public, and the stakes so much higher.
Joie: Yes, that was during his interview with Barbara Walters right after the death of Princess Diana that he made that comment. And he also said during that interview that he would make very certain that his children understood exactly what they were in for if they decided to go down that road. Only he’s not here anymore to help guide them and advise them and that thought just makes me very sad for so many reasons.
But, I understand what you’re saying about it being a constant negotiation. I’ve never raised children but, I can imagine how your heart would simply bleed for them as you watched them work and strive and struggle toward some goal, whatever that goal may be. And Paris is such a beautiful girl and she seems like a very smart, very capable young lady to me. And she appears to have inherited her Daddy’s charisma and charm so, I’m sure she’ll do very well. And again, I know Michael would be incredibly proud of her.
Joie: So, last week we began a discussion about how Michael Jackson dealt with race issues and in particular, his fight for racial equality in his work, and we talked a little bit about Can You Feel It, which was the first video that he ever had a hand in creating the concept for. And in thinking about all of his videos and his response to racial prejudice, I can’t stop thinking about They Don’t Care About Us.
You know, before the HIStory album was even released, critics were labeling this song racist and anti-Semitic because of the lyrics, “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me / Kick me, kike me, don’t you Black or White me.” And Michael actually took offense to that because he felt he had written a song that drew public awareness to the ridiculousness of racism and prejudice. He even issued a statement saying,
“The idea that these lyrics could be deemed objectionable is extremely hurtful to me, and misleading. The song, in fact, is about the pain of prejudice and hate, and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the Black man, I am the White man. I am not the one who was attacking… I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.”
But even after his explanation the heat wouldn’t let up so he finally went back into the studio and re-recorded the lyrics. And even though both videos for the song still have the original lyrics, the offending words are masked by obscure sounds over top of them.
What intrigues me is that, I think this is probably the one and only time that Michael was ever accused of being a racist himself and it’s just sort of odd to me that anyone could look at his overall body of work up to that point and accuse him of anti-Semitism. I mean, even Sony at the time came to his defense and called the lyrics brilliant, saying that the song was an opposition to racism and had been taken out of context.
Willa: And Sony was right. The lyrics are actually confronting anti-Semitism, not endorsing it, and that should be obvious to anyone who listens to the lyrics. Yet even Michael Jackson’s friends Steven Spielberg and David Geffen criticized the song, saying it was offensive.
I was really disappointed in Spielberg’s response, especially. As a director whose own work has been misunderstood on occasion, he should be a little more insightful than that. For him to suggest that Michael Jackson is anti-Semitic because of these lyrics is simplistic and a gross misinterpretation. I mean, Spielberg has Nazis in his film, Shindler’s List, and they aren’t just one-dimensional characters, and presented as uniformly terrible people. The film is more nuanced than that. So does that mean Spielberg is a Nazi sympathizer? Of course not. Spielberg isn’t endorsing Nazis – just the opposite, he’s critiquing their beliefs, obviously – and that’s exactly what Michael Jackson was doing in the original lyrics of “They Don’t Care about Us.”
Joie: I agree with you about Spielberg’s response; he should have been much more insightful but instead, it felt like he was just jumping on the bandwagon.
Willa: It really did. You know, Spike Lee, who directed the videos for “They Don’t Care about Us,” talked about the controversy in a very interesting interview with The Guardian. He was actually asked about a different controversy – Quentin Tarantino’s use of racial epithets in his film, Jackie Brown. Spike Lee had spoken out about it, calling it “excessive,” and then was roundly criticized for criticizing Tarantino. So The Guardian asked Spike Lee if he regretted his comments. Here’s an excerpt from that interview:
“Oh, I don’t regret that at all. And to put the record straight, because a lot of people never got the whole story… I never said that Quentin Tarantino should not be allowed to use the word nigger. My contention was that his use of it was excessive. You know, Harvey Weinstein [co-founder of Miramax, Jackie Brown's financiers] called me up and said he wished I’d leave this thing alone. And I said, ‘Harvey – would you ever release a film that on so many occasions used the word kike? He just cleared his throat and said, ‘No.’ So, it’s like, ‘Oh – you can’t say kike but nigger is OK?’ ”
He lets the question hang. But he’s not done yet.
“And then of course they say, ‘But Tarantino’s an artist, he’s just expressing himself.’ Well, if we’re talking about artists, let’s talk about…”
Everything slows with the realization of what’s coming next.
“Michael Jackson. Because, forgetting all that other shit for a minute, in the song ‘They Don’t Care About Us,’ Michael Jackson said ‘Sue me, Jew me, Kick me, Kike me.’ What happened? He was ripped apart by Spielberg and David Geffen, and the record was pulled from the stores. So, Quentin Tarantino says nigger and he’s an artist, but Michael Jackson says kike and it can’t be exposed to the public?”
That’s a really long quotation, but I think it raises several important issues: not only are different groups, and the sensitivities of different groups, treated differently, but different artists are interpreted differently as well.
Many critics see Tarantino’s films as crossing the divide between high art and popular art, and that affects how they interpret his work: he is given the respect due an artist, and therefore is allowed a certain artistic license to challenge social norms. But most critics dismiss Michael Jackson as “just” a pop musician, so his work is interpreted very differently. When he challenges social norms, it’s treated like an offensive publicity stunt. That’s why I think it’s so interesting and important that Spike Lee says, “Well, if we’re talking about artists, let’s talk about … [long pause] … Michael Jackson.” His point is right on target, I think.
Joie: I think so too; I loved that quote. But, you know, it wasn’t just the song’s lyrics that came under fire for racism, it was also the video itself – or I should say videos, plural – as this is also the first time that Michael ever made more than one video for a particular song. Interestingly, both versions of the video came under fire for what you could call racial / political reasons.
As you said, both videos were directed by Spike Lee and supposedly, the Brazil version was filmed first but Michael wasn’t very happy with the finished product. So they shot the Prison version, which was reportedly filmed in a real prison with actual inmates. This is the version that was originally released but critics and others thought it was way too violent. The video was banned in several countries. And in the US, MTV and VH1 would only allow it to be shown after 9pm. So Michael withdrew the video and released the Brazil version instead.
The Brazil version was fraught with controversy because authorities in that country were afraid that images of poverty in the areas where Michael wanted to film would do damage to their tourism trade and they accused him of exploiting the poor. A judge in that country even ruled that all filming be stopped but that ruling was overturned by an injunction. I can understand why they were afraid. I mean, I think the visuals in that video really serve to highlight the poverty and social problems in countries like Brazil but, I wouldn’t call it exploitation on Michael’s part. I think he was just trying to draw attention to their plight. But it’s my opinion that this version of the video really doesn’t serve the song very well and I think Michael obviously felt that way too, seeing as how he started over and shot the Prison version.
The Prison version paints a much better picture of what the song is all about; it features real footage of police brutality against African Americans, real footage of the Ku Klux Klan and footage of violence and genocide in other parts of the world. We also see Michael himself behind bars wearing a prison uniform, handcuffed and shackled, sitting in a prison commissary with real prison inmates – many of them Black or members of other minorities. And if you examine the lyrics of the song, these were all points that Michael really wanted to make so, to me, the Prison version is so much more effective than the Brazil version in terms of evoking the feeling that Michael was going for. In fact, when describing the song, Michael himself said,
“‘They Don’t Care About Us’ has an edge. It’s a public awareness song…. It’s a protest kind of song.”
I just think it’s a shame that this version was deemed too violent because, coupled with the song’s lyrics, it really makes a powerful statement.
Willa: I agree, it’s very powerful, and as with much of his later work, it also makes the personal political. It begins with a group of teenage girls filmed through a chain link fence. They’re all minority kids, and the fence suggests that they are imprisoned in some way – either literally imprisoned at a reform school or some place like that, or figuratively imprisoned in a social system that restricts their freedom and limits their potential.
As the girls begin to chant the chorus of “They Don’t Care About Us,” one of the girls says, “Don’t worry what people say. We know the truth.” To me, this clearly refers to the 1993 accusations against him, so he’s juxtaposing the lyrics of the song with the way he’s being treated by the police and the press. That’s what I meant when I said this song is “personal.”
Joie: Oh, it’s no doubt that this song is very personal and obviously stems from the events of ’93.
Willa: It seems that way to me too. But then he “makes the personal political” by situating his plight within the context of other scenes of oppression. He’s saying that the way he’s being treated isn’t an isolated incident – it’s part of a much larger pattern of systemic oppression. And in a country where a young Black man is more likely to go to prison than college, that is a crucially important point. Why are all those young men going to prison? Are they all criminals? He’s been falsely accused and painted as a criminal by the police and the press, but he’s innocent. Has that happened with other Black men as well? How widespread is this?
Joie: All extremely good questions.
Willa: So as with the young girls behind the chain-link fence in the opening shot, the prison can be interpreted both literally and figuratively as well – literally in that far too many young Black men are being incarcerated, and figuratively in that they are trapped in a society that presumes they are born guilty merely because of who they are.
However, he doesn’t make this a clear-cut Black and White issue. Most of the prisoners are Black or some other minority, but some are White. Most of the guards are White, but several are Black. In fact, at one point he shoves aside a guard’s billy club, and that guard is Black. And while he includes many scenes of oppressive White-on-Black violence, there are also scenes of Black-on-Black violence, and Asian-on-Asian violence, and two clips of a White truck driver being beaten by a circle of young Black men during the Rodney King riots. And when identifying leaders in the fight for justice, he cites Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well as Martin Luther King.
As in so much of his work, he’s talking about issues of race in a powerful and important way, but he refuses to simplify it down to an Us versus Them conflict, and he doesn’t align individuals with one side or the other based on physical signifiers such as skin color. Racial identity, including the physical signifiers of race, is an important element of the type of systemic oppression he’s targeting – hundreds of years of injustice and violence and prejudice make it important. But while he highlights that history of oppression and violence and forces us to look at it in ways that may make us uncomfortable, he nevertheless insists that everyone be judged by their behavior and beliefs, not their race or cultural identity. This isn’t simply a Black or White issue.
Joie: You’re right, it’s not simply a Black or White issue and, while I believe the Prison version is the superior video for this song, the Brazil version does highlight the fact that it’s not strictly about race. It’s about the universal political issues of poverty, oppression and the abuse of human rights. And why is it that those three always seem to go together?
Willa: Now there’s a good question.
Joie: The video was shot in the shanty town of Dona Marta and reportedly there were about 1,500 policemen and 50 local residents acting as security guards to control the massive crowd of residents that came out to watch the filming. The government was overwhelmingly against the video being filmed there and an article printed in The New York Times in February 1996 tells why:
Raw sewage runs down the hills, sending nauseating odors like curses through the neighborhood. Drug dealers stand at checkpoints along winding alleys. This is the favela, or hillside slum, that the singer Michael Jackson will use as a backdrop for his music video, “They Don’t Care About Us.” The knowledge that the poverty here will be used as an international image of urban misery has sparked an emotional debate dividing the “Marvelous City,” as Rio likes to be called.
An “international image of urban misery.” That’s pretty strong language but, it’s entirely accurate.
Willa: It’s especially striking compared with the “Marvelous City” that tourists see.
Joie: An “international image of urban misery” is exactly what those scenes from the Brazil video have become, giving visibility to the poverty and oppression. You know, Michael was really good at throwing those ‘in-your-face’ punches in his music with songs like “Earth Song” and “They Don’t Care About Us,” and both the Brazil and the Prison videos are visual ‘in-your-face’ punches instead of musical ones.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Joie, because it seems to me that challenging both psychological and institutional oppression and the many different forms of prejudice – especially racial prejudice – is a central theme throughout Michael Jackson’s work. But he doesn’t always address it in the same way. In fact, he uses several different approaches.
First, there are those really sexy videos from Don’t Stop til You Get Enough up through In the Closet where he’s presented as a sex symbol, which was a relatively new and provocative concept for a Black entertainer, especially a Black entertainer with cross-over appeal. There was Sidney Poitier, but he was always pretty buttoned up. I can’t really picture him ripping his shirt open like Michael Jackson does in Dirty Diana and Come Together. In all of these “sexy” videos, race is an issue whether he wants it to be or not – though I always felt he was very aware of what he was doing. In these videos, race is an issue because of who he is, and the character or persona he projects on screen.
Importantly, this kind of video abruptly ends after the 1993 accusations. To me, he always seemed a bit reluctant to portray himself as a sex symbol anyway, though he certainly handled it awfully well when he wanted to. (I’m thinking of Don’t Stop til You Get Enough at the moment. I do love that song….) But after 1993 he doesn’t put himself in that role any more. The one possible exception is You Are Not Alone, but there he’s with his wife and the mood is very different, and to me it conveys a totally different idea.
Joie: Well, I gotta say that I completely disagree with you on that because for me, Blood on the Dance Floor is like watching MJ porn or something. That video does things to me that we should not be talking about in this blog!
Willa: Heavens, Joie, you are incorrigible! You know, I can hardly listen to “Rock with You” any more because of you. I always loved that video because he just seemed like such a happy, exuberant kid. Then you clued me in to some of the lyrics and now I blush all over myself every time I hear it. Gracious….
Joie: I merely suggested that the lyrics to “Rock with You” might not be all about dancing, that’s all! But seriously, you know, I’d really like to be able to say that my interest in Michael is purely intellectual but, we both know I couldn’t say that with a straight face. The fact is, there is an element to the music and the short films and the live performances that would make for a very steamy blog topic but, probably wouldn’t be very appropriate so, I’ll be a good little girl and behave myself.
Willa: And I won’t mention that amazing poster with his boa constrictor draped over his shoulder. Oh my!
So anyway, there are these very sexy videos that present him as something entirely new in our national consciousness: a Black teen idol, which is pretty radical if you think about it, and a major challenge to miscegenation customs and beliefs and how Black men were labeled and categorized in the past. There were a lot of White teenage girls out there thinking about Michael Jackson in ways that would have shocked our elders, and I know – I was one of them.
Then there’s the cycle of four videos set in the inner city: Beat It, Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, and Jam. The “inner city” is a term sociologists use to denote a lower income urban area with a predominately minority population, regardless of whether that area is in the middle of a city or not. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t. So in these videos, their setting designates race as an issue – and the Brazil version of They Don’t Care about Us fits within that as well. As with the “sexy” videos, evoking and reconfiguring racial tensions is a subtle but important undercurrent in all of these videos, and he handles that in very interesting ways.
And finally there are the videos where race is a thematic element and he confronts racial issues through the ideas he’s expressing. Sometimes it’s implicit, as we’ve talked about with You Rock My World for a couple of weeks now, and sometimes it’s more overt, as in Can You Feel It and Black or White. However, even in cases where his message is explicitly stated and seems more obvious, there’s still a lot to explore and discover as we’ve just seen with They Don’t Care about Us – the prison version, especially, which makes it so frustrating that it was banned.
The complexity of Michael Jackson’s work is one reason it was so misunderstood sometimes, but that’s also what makes it so endlessly fascinating – and I think it will help make it interesting and relevant to audiences for generations to come. His work continually surprises. And while it appears deceptively straightforward and transparent sometimes, it is never simple.
Willa: A couple months ago we raised the question, “Was Michael Jackson Black Enough?” and we ended up really challenging the question. After all, what does it even mean to be “Black enough?” How do we define that, and what does that definition say about how we perceive and interpret racial differences?
Joie: Well, I think during that discussion we came to the agreement that we can’t define that. No one can really say whether or not someone else is Black enough or White enough. That’s something that can only be determined by the individual, and I really feel that when this accusation is leveled at Michael Jackson, it’s really just masking something deeper.
Willa: Absolutely. I think you are so right, Joie. It really seems like the people most threatened by Michael Jackson and most insistent on questioning whether he’s Black enough aren’t really talking about skin color at all. Instead, they’re using that as an indicator of something else. They’re speculating about the color of his skin, the shape of his nose, the parentage of his children, his relationships with women, his clothes, his hair, his penny loafers, his whole public persona, as external manifestations of his thoughts and how he sees the world.
In other words, they’re using his skin as a metaphor for his mind. And what they’re really saying is that his mind wasn’t Black enough. There seems to be this insistence that a “proper” Black man must have a Black mind, and Michael Jackson challenges that idea and calls the whole concept into question. What does it even mean to have a Black mind? What are the implications of judging him by that standard, especially when many of the commentators passing judgment on him are White? And does anyone, especially a White person, have the right to impose their definition of Black onto someone else?
We concluded that “Michael Jackson was plenty Black enough,” as you put it. However, he insisted he had the right to define for himself what that means. And in fact, everyone should have that right of self-definition.
Joie: You know, Willa, I really do hate this Black enough question and I find it somewhat disturbing. That would be like me trying to tell you that you’re not White enough. I just find it sort of ridiculous that anyone would even attempt to impose their idea of how a certain race should “act” on others. I mean, isn’t that sort of the definition of a racial stereotype? And I wonder how interracial people feel about this topic. I’m sure this is something that they have a lot of experience with in a way. You know, they’re seen as not really Black but, not quite White either and again, I wonder who are we to determine whether or not they are Black enough or White enough? And why does it even matter? And I wonder about Michael’s children sometimes and how they see themselves and how this Black enough question affects them.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Joie – and as Dr. Louis Henry Gates, Jr., suggested in his PBS series, Faces of America, most of us are mixed race if we look at this genetically. I am. You are. Especially in the U.S. most people are, with the possible exception of Stephen Colbert. He started laughing when Dr. Gates told him the tests they ran showed he was 100 percent White because that perfectly fits the persona he plays on his show. Dr. Gates even found that he himself has “more White ancestry than Black” – far more – though he still self-identifies as Black.
Joie: That’s very interesting. And really funny about Stephen Colbert!
Willa: Isn’t it? What a crack up! But this isn’t really a genetics issue. It’s a cultural issue. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, ever since we looked at You Rock My World a couple weeks ago. The ideas generated by that video and by the fascinating comments that followed has this persistent criticism that Michael Jackson somehow wasn’t Black enough percolating in my brain all over again.
The central conflict of the video is between Michael Jackson’s character and the managers of a club. And as Ultravioletrae pointed out, all of those managers are White. There’s also this wonderful interlude in the middle of the video - just as the big face-off with the managers reaches a fever pitch, suddenly there’s a pause in the action as the everyday people in the club create a type of street music. As you described it, Joie,
“We hear the rhythm of the broom sweeping across the floor and the glasses clinking, the shoe shine guy buffing, the high heals clicking and the patrons tapping on the tables.”
And all of the people creating this street music are Black. Importantly, Michael Jackson’s character draws strength from this street music – he pulls the rhythms and energy of it into his music and then uses that beat and energy to defy the White managers. And he fights hard, flipping a henchman onto his back, punching the ringleader in the face, and ultimately burning the club down.
So we can actually look at You Rock My World as representing the conflict between Black musicians and the people who make money off them. And as Aldebaran pointed out in a comment, that conflict has a long troubled history, and Michael Jackson was very aware of that. As Aldebaran wrote,
“in Michael’s press conference about Sony and Mottola, he speaks of how black artists (like James Brown) were exploited by the music industry and how they ended up penniless and forced to perform into old age.”
Joie: Aldebaran was right; Michael did speak out about that troubled history very publicly. And I’m glad you brought that up, Willa, because I believe that Michael’s participation in that conference proves unquestionably where his head was at, or how Black his mind was, as you put it. During that conference, Michael told the world exactly how he saw himself:
“I know my race. I just look in the mirror; I know I’m Black.”
Everyone always thinks that conference was all about Invincible and the shoddy way it was promoted (or not promoted) by Sony. But in actuality, the whole purpose of that conference was to fight for better contracts, royalties and distribution for Black artists. So, Michael didn’t only address racial issues in his own art, but he also became something of an activist in the fight for racial equality in the music industry as a whole. And this was a cause that was very important to him, as he said in his speech:
“I just need you to know that this is very important, what we’re fighting for, because I’m tired, I’m really, really tired of the manipulation…. they manipulate our history books. Our history books are not true; it’s a lie. The history books are lies; you need to know that. You must know that. All the forms of popular music from Jazz to Hip Hop to Bebop to Soul, you know, to talking about the different dances from the Cake Walk to the Jitter Bug to the Charleston to Break Dancing – all these are forms of Black dancing! …. What would we be like without a song? What would we be like without a dance, joy and laughter, and music? These things are very important, but if we go to the bookstore down on the corner, you won’t see one Black person on the cover. You’ll see Elvis Presley. You’ll see the Rolling Stones. But where are the real pioneers who started it? Otis Blackwell was a prolific, phenomenal writer. He wrote some of the greatest Elvis Presley songs ever. And this was a Black man! He died penniless and no one knows about this man. That is, they didn’t write one book about him that I know of, and I’ve searched the world over.”
I once read a really interesting blog post called “How Michael Got Gangsta With Sony Music Over Black Music and Racism.” It was all about that conference and I learned some things that I hadn’t known before simply because of the way the media distorted coverage of that conference. They deliberately made light of the importance and seriousness of the issue and instead tried to make it all about Michael being upset at Sony because his album didn’t do well but, that’s not what the conference was about at all; it was about fighting for racial equality and Michael took it very seriously.
Willa: Wow, that’s such an interesting post, Joie. I didn’t know a lot of that either, and I think it does show where his mind was at. But I think the best reflection of his mind is his work, and fighting racial prejudices and other forms of prejudice is a critically important issue in his work, though it’s often handled in subtle ways. If we look at a chronological list of all the videos he helped produce and develop the concept for, fighting racial prejudice is a recurring emphasis throughout his career, from Can You Feel It, the first on the list, to You Rock My World, the last on the list.
Joie: You’re right, Willa, fighting racial prejudice was a recurring theme in his work and that clearly shows what an important issue this was for him. And we see it in song after song and in video after video.
You mentioned Can You Feel It. You know, I remember when that video first came out and I thought it was the coolest thing! Videos were still very new at that point and just the whole visual for it with the special effects and everything – at the time, it was actually sort of cutting edge. But the amazing thing about this video is that, for the first time really, we get to see exactly what Michael’s message was – LOVE. His dream was to bring people together. People of all backgrounds, all ages – and most importantly – all races. From the very beginning, it was obviously all about love for him, and love has no room for racial prejudice. And I think that is ultimately the message behind this particular song and video.
Willa: I agree, Joie, it is about love. That’s evident in both the lyrics and the visuals: the video ends with everyone joining hands as they share a new vision of the future. And this was a groundbreaking video, both in terms of its special effects and some of the ideas it puts forth.
For example, through the lyrics he “tells us twice” that “we’re all the same / Yes, the blood inside of me is inside of you.” So as we were talking about earlier, he’s saying this isn’t a genetics issue – biologically, we’re all the same. Instead, it’s about perception, as he emphasizes through the visual elements of the video. He was very interested in the relationship between perception and belief throughout his career and, in this case, genetic differences such as skin color aren’t nearly as important as how we perceive and interpret those differences.
Basically, a few biologically trivial differences such as skin color have become artificially important cultural signifiers. As we all know, dealing with how we as a people perceive and interpret those signifiers became a huge issue for him a couple years later when he discovered he had Vitiligo. Importantly, he was already thinking about these ideas before he developed Vitiligo, and I think that strongly influenced his response as his skin began losing its pigment. And I strongly believe that his response revolutionized the way White America, especially, perceives and experiences those signifiers.
You know, Lorena wrote a comment last week about her work with Michael Jackson impersonators, and I’m so intrigued by the research she’s doing. Looking at her photographs, I’m fascinated by which signifiers they thought were important to duplicate when portraying Michael Jackson, and which ones they didn’t. As I look at them, they don’t seem to be trying to replicate his appearance, as celebrity impersonators generally do. Instead, they seem to be focusing more on capturing his spirit, his style, his personality, his way of being in the world, and that’s so interesting to me.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that, for me, Michael Jackson was Black – he fully embraced his Black heritage, he fought for equal rights on many different fronts, and he always identified himself as Black – but his race didn’t define him. Instead, he defined himself to an extent that’s rarely been seen before.
Joie: That is so true, Willa. I love the way you put that! His race didn’t define him and I wish that everyone could get to that place where race doesn’t define any of us anymore and I think, with each new generation, we’re slowly getting there. Very, VERY slowly.
You know, that makes me think of a line from one of my most favorite movies of all time – “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” with Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Sidney Poitier’s character is arguing with his father about his desire to marry a White woman and he says to him, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.” Basically, he’s saying that the older generation has to let go of their antiquated ideas about race if we are ever going to move forward. It’s a very powerful moment in the movie and it has always stuck with me because of it. And I think your statement of ‘his race didn’t define him’ is just as powerful.
So, next week we’ll look at some other examples of Michael’s work where he addresses the subject of race and other prejudices.