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