The Cultural/Verbal Abuse of Michael Jackson

Willa:  Joie, last week we looked at “Is It Scary,” and you said something that really stuck in my mind:  “for some reason, [we] need him to play the role of the monster in our imagined horror movie.” I was so intrigued by the way you put that, and I’ve been mulling it over all week.

And interestingly enough, Joe Vogel recently published a wonderful article that takes an in-depth look at that very issue. Titled “Am I the Beast You Visualized?: The Cultural Abuse of Michael Jackson,” Joe’s article examines this “need” to dehumanize Michael Jackson and force him “to play the role of the monster in our imagined horror movie”- and the many ways he resisted that.

What appeals to me most about Joe’s article is that he not only describes how “Jackson became a sort of global representative of the ‘Other,'” but frames that as an act of compassion and courage. Joe shows that Michael Jackson strongly identified with those who have been marginalized, and in song after song gives voice to the voiceless – as Joe says, “he witnesses for the disenfranchised and demeaned.”

Joie:  And that is such a true statement. And we do see it on song after song, all throughout his career. You know, I don’t want to go off on a tangent here but, I have to tell you this because it just fits here with what you’ve just said and it’s something that really struck me.

Today, as I’m writing this, it is the evening of November 7th – a day of victory for Michael Jackson’s family and the fan community. The verdict has been announced and the doctor responsible for Michael’s death has been taken into custody and is behind bars right now. But, earlier in the day, before we knew what the outcome would be, I was changing the channel on the TV and I heard a reporter say – in a rather shocked tone of voice – that it wasn’t about a pop star for all of the fans gathered outside the courthouse. It was about a very real connection that they each felt to this man who they saw as a defender and a champion for those who had no voice and were often forgotten about or overlooked. And, as I listened to her words I could tell that she was truly surprised that so many fans had such a similar response to her question of “why is Michael Jackson so important to you?” It was almost like she was finally beginning to see him through our eyes and, for the first time, she was getting it. It was starting to click; you could see the light go on in her eyes! Now, whether or not that new insight will stick is anyone’s guess but, just for an instant… it had penetrated her consciousness and she was enlightened.

That small segment stuck with me the rest of the day and I found myself wondering, what if they could all have just that one little moment of enlightenment? Would it change things if, for one instant, every reporter and journalist on the planet could finally see Michael through a fan’s eyes and with a fan’s heart.

Willa:  Joie, that’s such an interesting observation about the reporter because, for me, speaking up for those without a voice and leading us to care for those who have been marginalized was such an essential and obvious element of Michael Jackson’s character, his mission, and his art. It’s what attracted me so intensely to “Ben” 40 years ago. It’s a central feature of song after song, video after video. In fact, it’s one of the defining characteristics of him and his art, and it’s why I personally care so much – and have since I was a little girl. So I can understand exactly what those fans outside the courthouse were saying to the reporter because I feel the same way. I’m just surprised at the reporter’s surprise, but I think a lot of people listened to his music without really hearing his words. Your story perfectly illustrates the disconnect between how he was seen by those of us who really got into his music and visual art, how he was perceived by the general public, and how he was portrayed in the media.

And I don’t think that disconnect is accidental, especially with the media. There’s a reason he was attacked so relentlessly and forced “to play the role of the monster in our imagined horror movie.” As Joe writes in his article, “The mass media … never held much regard for Jackson’s other-ness, just as they held little regard for the ‘others’ he spoke of in his songs.” This is a really important point, I think, and also helps explain why Michael Jackson retained such strong support in other countries around the world while losing support at home. The United States is a prosperous nation that values certain types of success above all else – including values we give lip service to like compassion, integrity, and respect for others and the environment. And our values are reflected in our mass media, which fawns over those who are popular but then viciously turns against those same people the minute they lose favor, and which generally ignores those who are struggling or don’t fit in or don’t want to fit in.

And Michael Jackson never fit in. Even at the height of his popularity, he never fit in. He actively refused to fit in. As Joe goes on to write,

One of the remarkable qualities of Jackson’s life and work, however, is that he refuses to compromise his “difference.” He never becomes “normal,” as the term is represented by, say, the Mayor of Normal Valley. He doesn’t conform to expectations. Rather, he is true to himself and flaunts his unique, multi-faceted identity, to the frustration of those who would like him to fit in more predictable boxes.

This insistence on embracing difference, on blurring boundaries, on representing that which has been excluded or marginalized, is extremely threatening. So to minimize that threat, he was labeled a “freak,” a “weirdo,” as he says in Ghosts, and publicly ridiculed.

Joie:  And boy was he ever! You know, it really is very strange when you just sit and look at it. Why did the world feel this need to make him be that freak? The weirdo, the strange person with the perceived scary face and the supposedly “bizarre” lifestyle? The level of ridicule was just unbelievable really.

And the language is honestly what I find most disturbing. “Weird,” “freak,” “strange,” “bizarre,” “wacko,” In his article, Joe calls these words slurs, and he’s right. They are slurs. Every bit as ugly and hurtful as “wet back” and “chink” and “Nigger.” But yet, it was perfectly ok to throw these ugly slurs at Michael Jackson. Why? It’s like, because he was different from the rest of us, it was ok to point to him and say hurtful things about him. And then when the extortion plot happened in 1993 and the allegations were made, suddenly people were saying, ‘Aha! I knew there was something weird about that guy,’ and overnight it became ok to say the cruelest, meanest things about him that you could possibly think of. And it wasn’t just ok to say these things, it was expected that you say these things. Otherwise you ran the risk of being seen as a Jackson Fan. And nobody wanted to be seen as that! Those people were just as freaky as Jackson himself was! He became the most reviled man on the planet and people saw nothing wrong with screaming these hurtful labels at him and we – the fans – became freaks by association.

You know, I don’t ever remember another person in the history of our world who was so beloved by millions and yet, so incredibly hated at the same time. How is that possible?

Willa:  Well, there have actually been many figures throughout history who have been “beloved by millions and yet hated at the same time,” but they’ve tended to be political figures – people like Napoleon, or Fidel Castro, or even Barack Obama to some extent. It’s rare for an artist, especially a pop artist, and I wonder if it’s because Michael Jackson’s art was such a political statement. When we think of political artists, we don’t tend to think of Michael Jackson because he handles it all so subtly, but think about it – he was attempting to shift the balance of power, and that’s an incredibly powerful political act. So he was loved by the powerless, who were given a voice through him, and distrusted and even hated by the powerful. As Morinen wrote so well in a comment on a post several weeks ago,

He was too different and too open and audacious about his ‘otherness’ and at the same time too powerful to be tolerated. Such a character evokes admiration and worship in some people, but in many (especially ones that aspire to have power too) it evokes hostility and a sense of threat.

If we look at him this way, there’s a reason he was attacked so viciously and called those names. It was an attempt to neutralize that threat by minimizing his appeal. His message was subtly yet powerfully subversive, so there was an impulse to bury the message by attacking the messenger.

Joie:  A tactic we’ve seen so many times throughout our history – Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela just to name three. But even with all of that history of political struggle and the battle for power, I don’t ever remember a single figure who was so cruelly and viciously demonized, vilified and reviled. Has there ever been another person who evoked such passionate feelings and emotions – both from those who loved him and from those who hated him – than Michael Jackson? I mean, the man was mocked and ridiculed for his disease, for Christ’s sake! When is it ever ok to make fun of someone because of their disease? That is the meanest, most humiliating thing one person could do to another and yet, the world did it to Michael Jackson every single day! In his article, Joe tells us that Michael,

was mocked incessantly for his skin disorder, Vitiligo, which most people didn’t believe was real until it was confirmed definitively in his autopsy. He was mocked for his love of animals, for his love of children, for his love of the planet. He was mocked for his marriages, for his three kids, for his Neverland home. He was mocked for his sexuality, his voice, his childlike behavior….  Can there be any doubt that this treatment by the media and culture at large was abusive?

Of course, it occurs to me that maybe the reason it seems so overblown with Michael is because of the times we live in. I mean, there was no such thing as the Internet or Twitter, or even tabloids for that matter back in the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s.

Willa:  You know, technology probably exacerbated things. It’s quick, so people can fire off opinions before they’ve had a chance to really think things through, and it allows those opinions to spread quickly around the world. And the Internet can be a pretty anonymous place, and people will say things anonymously that they would never say to someone face to face. But it doesn’t explain why Michael Jackson in particular became such a target.

I think one reason he was attacked so fiercely for so many years is that he posed a strong challenge to the status quo and forced us to rethink some of our deepest beliefs and prejudices. What does it mean to be Black or White, and what do we mean by racial identity? What does it mean to be masculine or feminine, and what defines sexual identity? What defines a family and family identity – is it genetics or something else? What defines national identity, or cultural identity, or religious identity, and can we show tolerance towards others and still maintain our identity? Ultimately, what defines our personal identity, the very essence of who we are? And who decides which people or group of people deserve compassion and respect, or even basic necessities like food, shelter, security, and medical care?

Michael Jackson forced us to confront all of these really difficult questions – questions that hit really close to home, including how we see ourselves and our relationships with others – and as Morinen wrote in her comment, some of us really admired him for that, and some were really threatened by it. Those who felt threatened lashed out at him in sometimes brutal ways. But it seems to me that the very intensity of the backlash against him speaks to the power of his art. He provoked such strong reactions – both of admiration and fear – because his work was powerful and important and moved us in deep psychological ways that I believe we’re just beginning to understand.

Joie:  I think you’re probably right and I wonder sometimes, do great artists know that they’re great? Do they feel that as they are creating or do they just labor over their work – pouring their blood, sweat and tears into their art – never really knowing how they’ve touched others or how their art has impacted the world around them?

Willa:  That’s a really good question. You know, in our interview with Joe a few weeks ago, he said that Michael Jackson was aware of the significance of his work. As Joe said,

Great, prophetic art is often neglected or misunderstood in its time. There are so many examples of this, from Blake to Van Gogh to Tchaikovsky to Picasso. Michael was a student of history and art and he understood this. He was confident that the work he created would hold up over time.

Because he was so knowledgeable about art history, and certainly knew that transformative artists are often treated pretty shabbily in their own lifetimes, I hope he was able to take a more philosophical view of the criticism he faced – and he was certainly never one to back away from controversy. So I’m sure the horrible things that were said about him in the press had to sting, but it also placed him in the company of a mighty select group – for example, Vincent Van Gogh, as Joe said, who may be the patron saint of misunderstood artists – and I hope he was able to take some comfort in that.

Joie:  You know, now that you mention Joe’s comments during that interview, it reminded me of something I heard Michael say in an interview about his music and how he hoped it would live on. He said,

“Great music and great melodies are immortal. Fashion changes, culture changes, customs change, [but] great music is immortal. We can still listen to Mozart today – any of the greats. Great music is like a great piece of sculpture or a great painting… it’s forever! For generations upon generations to appreciate forever. And that’s… I know that’s a fact.”

So, I think you’re right. I think he was very aware of the impact his work had on our society and the world. And, just because I love to hear the sound of his voice and how passionately he talks about his art, I’m going to let Michael end this one in his own words so, follow the youtube link:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4Sg_A0A16c

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About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on November 10, 2011, in Michael Jackson and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Its sooo refreshing to read such a positive michael jackson article. I read this article by some lady named christina patterson or something like that earlier today and it really upset me, it was so negative & just bad mouthing him like no other, but reading this really made my day 🙂 Thanks for restoring some good in the world!

  2. Contrary to what Joe says I don’t think the world was trying to dehumanize Michael, I think the world was trying to humanize him which is even worse. Nobody would let Michael be Michael and wanted to shape him into being just like the rest of us, and when he fought back to be the man he wanted to be the world made fun of him.

    Will You Be There
    ==============
    Everyone’s Taking Control Of Me
    Seems That The World’s
    Got A Role For Me

    • Melanie, you make an interesting point here and the lyrics you’ve cited from “Will You Be There” are a great example of how the world tried to make him fit into one box or another; to “shape him into being just like the rest of us,” as you said. But I think that Joe is also correct when he says the world tried to ‘dehumanize’ him. When they couldn’t make him fit into those neat little boxes and be what they wanted, they learned that they couldn’t control him, and so they dehumanized him and tried to turn him into that “monster” they imagined him to be.

  3. Dear Willa!

    I just read your book and I found it a very interesting and a great read. Especially the last chapter on “Smooth Criminal” was fantastic.

    Or there is Chapter Four about how Michael was so threatening to many people because he blurred boundaries. Not crossed them (that would have been more acceptable for people because then they could have still put him in a category, put labels on him), but blurred them. He blurred the boundaries of race or gender and that made people feel uncomfortable. I never thought of it before, but I think you hit the nail on the head with that!

    The only thing I didn’t like in the book were the quotes from Ian Halperin. The quotes themselves weren’t the problem, since they were in support of Michael, yet Halperin is a sleazy tabloid journalist, who is famous for making up stories and lies and quotes and interviews, not just about Michael but generally about everybody he deals with in his books or articles. So I don’t trust him at all and I don’t like to see his name and be quoted in a great book like M Poetica. I think the point you made with those quotes could have been made with quotes from more trustworthy people as well. But it’s a small issue and doesn’t spoil the whole experience, I just wanted to note this.

    Right now I’m sitting here, reading the articles and comments about Conrad Murray’s documentary and interview and I cannot get my head around what this World has become! Apparently for the mainstream media this is all OK. Is it for the public as well? Seems like Michael Jackson is still not a human being for them.

    I often think about why and I think this article gives the perfect answer. He was always the “Other” for people. I love your analysis and I wholeheartedly agree. Thank you, Willa and Joie!

    • Thanks for the feedback about the book. It’s really interesting for me to hear what works and what doesn’t, so I appreciate your sharing that.

      About Ian Halperin: I have to say, I disagree with most of the conclusions he jumps to in his book, either because there doesn’t seem to be sufficient evidence to back them up, or because they’re none of our business (or in some cases, both). And it does sound like he’s done some things he shouldn’t have in the past. However, he’s also a really skilled interviewer. People simply seem comfortable talking to him, he knows how to get them talking, and he knows when to be quiet and let them talk. His interviews with Macaulay Culkin and Sean Lennon and others who knew Michael Jackson when they were children are wonderful, and they cast that whole situation in a very different light than it’s usually seen. And those interviews are available nowhere else. So I took a very pragmatic approach with Halperin’s book – I used the parts I found useful and rejected the rest.

  4. Willa,

    I’d not like to put too much focus on Halperin because he’s not worth it, but I have to say based on everything I have learned about him I’m not sure those interviews even took place. He is that kind of “journalist”. He often simply makes up stuff. He does this in other books about other people as well. (For example, look at the reviews on his book about Celine Dion on Amazon.) So, it’s easy to get people open up for you when those interviews only take place in your fantasy. I’m not saying each and every one of those interviews are fake, maybe there are a couple which are real – perhaps the Macaulay Culkin and Sean Lennon interviews are, since there he at least named them – but he does make up things and exaggerates his own work. It’s his modus operandi.

    I also heard people to praise him for his work on uncovering the truth about the allegations against Michael. I always get annoyed when I hear that because that is not his work. He simply read the works of Mary A. Fischer, Aphrodite Jones, Geraldine Hughes and others and he repeats the findings of those people. Of course their works were much less promoted in the media than Halperin’s book, but they are the original sources and the real investigative journalists, not Halperin. I’d rather give credit to them.

    But I’d really not like to take this off topic. It was just a small side note, as the only thing I didn’t like in your book. I liked everything else! So let’s get back on discussing Michael, that’s a lot more interesting topic!

  5. Amazing post Willa, Joie and Joe Vogel too! I think we will all be trying to understand this topic more fully for a long time to come. It’s been hard for me to contain my anger at the news media for the way Michael has been portrayed during the trial. I cannot think of another homicide victim who has ever gotten this type of callous, inhumane treatment. Usually in homicide cases, we speak kindly of the deceased. It’s not really relevant what kind of missteps the victim might have made in life, we focus on the loss. But with Michael it seemed necessary to zero in on each and every foible, real or imagined. If you didn’t condemn him or blame him for his own homicide then you were guilty of deifying him. It’s kind of crazy to me for example the way the iphone tape was described as “shocking, sad, drugged up”. While it was definitely hard to hear the doctor’s unethical recording, I just want to say WE ALL sound that way under sedation! Including EVERYONE! Is it really shocking to find evidence that Michael Jackson was being sedated at the trial for the doctor that sedated him to death? Did he sound any sadder, or more drugged up than you or I would if a physician administered these to us for treatment or a procedure? No!

    Joie, I know exactly which reporter’s epiphany you were talking about, that had a huge impact on me too! I told everyone I knew about the way this reporter’s face suddenly softened, the light in her eyes turned on, and that obnoxious tone of voice and fake facade melted away. She shape shifted before my very eyes and I suddenly liked this woman, though previously I had nothing but savage criticism for her! She could see nothing in Michael Jackson except a stereotypical pop star addict (she freely admits she sees the addict in herself too). Her tone was condemning, implying he contributed to his own homicide! But darn it if Michael wouldn’t fit into her nice neat little pop star addict box, he blurred the boundaries again! Her overly simplistic definitions and assumptions weren’t the whole story, it was much more complex. And during that pivotal interview she suddenly got a glimpse, maybe the truth is that Michael Jackson is far more than she imagined! Maybe he is not just an 80’s pop star and his medication! And maybe just maybe we should have a different tone when talking about a homicide victim whose great artistic genius made a real difference in the world. A little later in the evening she was on with an addiction specialist and came to grips with the fact that those with addiction diagnoses do require medication at times and it is a doctor’s responsibility to manage the patient’s medications correctly. This was a far cry from the pop star junkie box she was so determined to stuff Michael into.

    I believe Michael had a deep understanding of individual and collective consciousness and the way we project ourselves onto others, seeing our own reflection in the other. I think successful media outlets understand this too. They aren’t really in the business of forming our attitudes, they figure out what our attitudes are and reflect it back it to us as a group. You can look around and see there is a sadistic streak in our collective mind set. We’ve all used the cliche “kids can be cruel”. We see it even in little children. Michael brought this up and out for clearing. “I’m gonna be exactly what you want to see, it’s you whose haunting me”. Just like with the vitiligo, he took the hand that life dealt him and figured out a way to use it. He saw the mean streak and transformed himself into a mirror so we could see our ugly reflection. It’s more important now than ever to me to make sure we learn the lessons he gave us. Anyone who believes this man was simply a pop star with a glitter glove has never seen Michael Jackson.

  6. “I think one reason he was attacked so fiercely for so many years is that he posed a strong challenge to the status quo and forced us to rethink some of our deepest beliefs and prejudices.” I absolutely agree. And he did so by “speaking up for those without a voice and leading us to care for those who have been marginalized. […]It’s what attracted me so intensely to “Ben” 40 years ago.” Children have always been the most voiceless and marginalized human beings in every culture around the world and they still are. Michael spoke up for them, but did even more. Perhaps the most profound cultural narrative Michael tried to retell is the one about “growing up”, leaving that pre-identity of purity, playfulness and wonderment behind us as if it was kind of a naiv illusion we urgently must overcome to enter the “real life”. So at a certain age you get forced to not behave like a child any more, childlike qualities and pleasures now are ridiculed and tabooed by those who already got forced and finally accepted their coming of age as a traumatic yet natural and unavoidable fact. But indeed it is not natural but cultural and therefor susceptible of change. There was no distiction between children and adults before the Modern Age and the upcomming class, the bourgeoisie. In Michael telling his multimedia coming-of-age novel we come to see what we get deprived of by growing up and finally realise that this is not a necessity due to a naturally cruel environment but in the first place the very reason why the world got that bad and still remains like that. In fact the cultural narrative of growing up confirms that dominant culture itself. So Michael truely is a real life Peter Pan fighting against time-fearing Captain Hook and his greedy pirates and he seems to triumph: He´s the most popular and beloved star on earth, earnin a huge fortune and a lot of respect because of refusing to grow up. It is a new myth, a powerful one, maybe the one Romantics have always been lookin for…

    • That is so interesting, Julie, because my thoughts have been running in a similar direction lately. In fact, Joie and I were talking just yesterday about “Childhood” from the Immortal cd, and the excerpts of Michael Jackson speaking about childhood that are layered into that version of the song.

      I absolutely agree with everything you said here, and it’s interesting that you should mention the Romantics because, in some ways, they created the idea of childhood as a qualitatively different life phase. Before the Romantics, people tended to see children just as little adults, but the Romantics led people to see childhood in a new and different way – as a time of innocence and imagination and creativity. And Michael Jackson fervently believed this was true. He also believed that the way to solve the world’s problems was for adults to somehow reconnect with that place of imagination and creativity that many of us mistakenly left behind when entering the adult world.

      Here’s a quotation from the Immortal version of “Childhood”:

      “Many of our world’s problems today are a result of the fact that children have had their childhoods stolen from them. 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.”

      And here’s another:

      “When I create my music I feel like an instrument of nature. I wonder what delight nature must feel when we open our hearts and express our God-given talents. 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.”

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