Some Things in Life They Just Don’t Want to See
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.
Posted on December 7, 2011, in Michael Jackson and tagged Michael Jackson, Spike Lee, They Don't Care About Us. Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.
Great post, as usual.
The point was brought up that the Brazil version of TDCAU didn’t serve the song as strongly as the prison version. I like the prison version alot, but I find the Brazil one very poignant as well. To explain why, I’ll quote from a forthcoming chapter I wrote on Michael Jackson’s trans/national identity and how he paid tribute to his diasporic, African roots in his music.
“Brazil, according to historian Gerald Horne, was one of “the two great slave empires of the 19th century” alongside the U.S.; by 1850 an estimated 4.5 million enslaved Africans were shipped to Brazil (Horne 2007, 2.) A poignant reflection of Jackson’s commitment to his American and African roots, one of the locations chosen for the Brazilian music video was Pelourinho in the city of Salvador. From the 1600s to the 1800s, Salvador was a destination for the sale of slaves from Africa, and Pelourinho (which means “pillory”) is the site where African slaves were whipped, tortured, sold, and even died (Ramos 2010, 69). Pelourinho is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Jackson also used Brazil’s famous black drumming group Olodum in his video and their red, yellow, green and black clothing reflect their African heritage to which they pay tribute in their drumming (Ramos 2010, 69). In the video Jackson dances in the place where African slaves were once denied their freedom, their lives; his is an artistic act of reverence and reclamation. His performance is accompanied by the members of Olodum, whose colors Jackson also wears to signify his advocacy for their stance. Jackson grew up a member of a community legally, politically, and socio-economically marginalized in the U.S. for several centuries and who were in exile, and the imprint of that layered history never left his artistic expression even as he undertook his individual journeys.”
Great points, Dr. Martin.
Sylvia, thank you so much for this tragic yet powerful background information. I love learning things like this that place his work within a historical context, and reveal just how knowledgeable and engaged Michael Jackson was with these issues. He was a student of history, and that historical awareness adds yet another dimension to his work.
I agree with ChrisB. Thank you for sharing this – it adds tremendously to my appreciation of the Brazil version of the video. It truly was “an artistic act of reverence and reclamation.”
Thanks, Willa, and thanks to you and Joie for providing a platform for us all.
Sylvia, this is great information; thanks so much for sharing it!
Great analysis, as always, Willa and Joie. I really appreciate your blog and read it as soon as it comes out every time. You are doing the work that should have been done upon the release of Michael’s work. Most critics of the time and most who still deign to comment on his work miss the whole point of it. They mock what they are incapable of understanding. This is particularly true of his 1990’s work. People including pedestrian critics were not comfortable with a Black man of such enormous appeal and power stepping out of what they perceived as an innocent “pop” world. They proceeded to rip to shreds the most creative, innovative and astute artists of our time. They still actively do it today. I continue to try to understand why every single day. Thanks for another great piece.
I would like to add that I enjoyed your little foray into the BOTDF topic. I think that Michael Jackson as a towering sex symbol, to both men and women, is largely ignored but widely discussed “behind closed doors.” I think it is the elephant in the room that media will not face. They would rather portray him as weird and tragic and all the other names he is called. They miss one of his most powerful characteristics…. overwhelming personal magnetism.
Thank you, Chris, and I totally agree with everything you say, particularly about MJ’s international sex symbol status being the “elephant in the room”. He was charismatic on several levels and therefore appealed to a range of people – overlooked, as you say, by mainstream media and in fact distorted. There needs to be more serious discourse on his sexuality and how it is represented in various media, including his short films.
Hi Chris. I have to say that I agree with you completely. Michael was a huge sex symbol to many people, both male and female and it is something that is almost never discussed. And I believe that’s because the media did always try to paint him as this weird, plastic surgery obsessed person with a totally freaky face and – in their minds – who could ever be sexually attracted to that? But, there are literally millions of fans around the world who think and feel differently about the issue. I know Michael tended to be somewhat uncomfortable in that role of ‘sex symbol,’ however I also believe that he understood that his fans (men and women) did indeed see him as such and he often played to that in his videos and stage performances.
so, mike IS a racist and mike MAKES Brazil look less beautiful than it is……riiiiight…is it a surprise? I really do not think so….It’s obvious (and mike knew it all along) that there were “people” out to..hmmmmmmmm……..”terminate” him….and they would come up with every “trick” possible to achieve that..
.Mike was the one to say “truth runs marathons”……and he was right…his humanitarian efforts are part of his legacy….and this i think this the best answer to all the “sensitive” Spielberg’s of this world
yes, I agree that “MJ porn” is a big topic–just go to youtube–it is all over the place. And I agree that a ‘serious’ discussion of his sexuality and its representations is in order. I was always amazed at Diane Sawyer’s incredulous questions to Lisa Marie, “married? to Michael Jackson? How weird can it get?” as if she had no idea that millions of women would love to be married to Michael Jackson. Re the Brazil video–I like it so much as well–and thanks for the historical information–one of the reasons I love it is to see the Brazilian people so enthusiastic about Michael. It has a live concert feel to it. P.S. I thought Michael did change the lyrics to “do me, sue me”? Thanks for another great post. P.P.S. Ormond White has an excellent, in-depth discussion of the controversy about the song in his book ‘Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles.”
I agree, Aldebaran – Armond White’s discussion of the controversy is very interesting. (I agree with your other comments as well. In fact, I thought Diane Sawyer was mean-spirited and bullying in that interview with Lisa Marie Presley. I was shocked, and it really changed how I see Diane Sawyer.)
White begins by saying,
He ultimately declares that, “Bending like the proverbial, prevailing willow, Michael rises again, his voice intact. There’s no way he can lose. He’s freaky like a fox.”
That was from an article that was originally published in July 1995. But then two years later, in an article published in July 1997, he’s more critical, saying the re-issued “They Don’t Care about Us” was “blitzed-clean” and that “Jackson backed down from controversy as he always does (he put a disclaimer on his Thriller video, he cut off the final sequence of his great Black or White).”
My own feeling is that the videos handle the situation perfectly. The original lyrics are there, but the two offending words are masked by a “zwoop” sound. The effect is that the revised videos show sensitivity to the feelings of people who were offended, while still highlighting very effectively the power of hurtful words – which was his original intention – as well as the biased controversy that followed. It’s brilliant – or as Armond White says, “Michael rises again, his voice intact…. He’s freaky like a fox.”
Yes, MJ as a sex symbol is another very intriguing subject. Because he was a sex symbol and it’s another very overlooked aspect of him. The media liked to ridicule him and even make LMP feel ashamed for marrying him, but it doesn’t change the fact millions of girls and women found him very sexy and attractive and dreamed of him and continue to dream of him even after his death. Yet, the media’s typical reaction was how Diane Sawyer reacted to LMP: “Michael Jackson? OMG! What were you thinking?”
But they can’t put down millions of girls and women as crazy. They just can’t. There was something undeniably attractive in this guy whether they admit it or not.
“I continue to try to understand why every single day.”
Chris I really do too.
Willa and Joie I was so drawn to the discussion regarding BOTDF too. Additionally, as Dr. Martin mentioned, discussion on Michael’s magnetism would be so interesting. It happens to be something I ponder a lot. As well, the fact that it is so widely ignored yet “it” truly is an elephant in the room. Why did certain topics/stories/personas “stick” and others simply slid right off? I’d love to hear more, and this week’s topic was mesmerizing as always.
There is so much to say about this great post! Many thanks to Sylvia Martin for the sneak preview of your upcoming work. It is absolutely outstanding and can’t wait to read it in full. I am a big fan of the BorW article you wrote for the Lear Center.
It’s overwhelming to think about the cultural blind spots on race. For all of Michael’s tremendous achievements and staggering wealth, the fact remains he was maliciously accused of horrendous crimes, hauled into court, forced out of his home and out of town by the sheriff’s department. Same as what happens in the inner city. We’ve never truly dealt with that. The news media continues to promote it’s trifecta of Jackson talking points, 1) drugs (actually treatments by medical providers), 2) crimes (he never committed), and 3) his appearance (primarily the consequences of a disfiguring disease he suffered from). The real issue is that society just couldn’t accept that he dared to challenge what a black man is “supposed” to be. He just wouldn’t go and sit in that box. As a group we are completely blind to what happened and still won’t discuss it.
I think sexuality is at the heart of it. When J5 introduced their string of #1 hits, everyone went wild. But there was this uncomfortable dilemma that had to be dealt with – the tacit understanding that good little white girls do not fall in love with black boys. Without even having to be told, white girls knew this behavior wouldn’t be tolerated and they were directed to “more suitable” white alternatives. The teen magazines of the day focused on Donny Osmond and David Cassidy. I understand Joe Jackson was aware that his son’s photo did not command the same prices that the white boys photos did. (It’s so ironic to think of how valuable Michael’s photos would ultimately become.)
I know many women from the J5 era that grew up to raise daughters who idolized Jackson from Thriller on. The mothers report they “didn’t like” the crotch grab and other dance moves, which I interpret as Jackson’s way of poking around in the discomfort with black male sexuality. But they never restricted their daughter’s access to Jackson, even during a time when parents were heavily censoring their children’s music choices. It’s absolutely genius the way Michael knew how to push the boundary, but not exceed it. Although some of work did end up being censored, most of it stayed in the culture right on the edge of what we were able to handle. These daughters forged a completely new and different belief system on race. One college student I spoke with recently was giggling and amused by her grandmother’s old, silly outdated objection to her white cousin marrying a black man. It was like tee hee hee! The joke’s on silly ol’ Grandma! Only one generation prior, it wasn’t such an amusing joke.
I don’t think that it’s possible to overstate the contribution Michael Jackson made to us. The reason we can look back now on some of these cruel white attitudes and wonder “what the heck?” is directly related to Michael’s insight, courage and artistic genius. We still have so far to go and I believe that understanding and interpreting his work for future generations will have a huge positive impact. He deserves the recognition he never got and the world needs his message! Thanks to everyone here who are putting so much effort into this.
Thank you for your kind words, Ultravioletrae. I’ve been enjoying your comments on here for a while now.
I agree with you about the media trifecta (good way to put it). And I’m glad you brought up the media’s distortion of his looks. Some people were genuinely – and understandably – puzzled by the dimple he put in his chin. (And because he talked about Peter Pan and kids, people frequently referred to it as a dimple, not a cleft). I remember that in the late 80s when he had it done, most plastic surgery we heard about and saw for male talent was nosejobs – it just wasn’t considered manly or conventional to “go so far as” putting a dimple in one’s chin. Heck, it had been a big deal when men grew their hair long in the 60s and 70s! And even though in the early 90s we learned on Oprah that he had vitiligo, the dimple was a result of elective plastic surgery, not a disease he couldn’t control (unless you believe, as some do, that he had body dysmorphic disorder). Coming around the same time as his vitiligo treatment, the combination of changes led to gossip and frankly I don’t think it’s that surprising given the time and place. To be honest, I can’t really condemn ordinary folks who were at the time truly puzzled by his changes which were of course and unfortunately interpreted negatively by an insidious media (and sadly, many Americans were not trained in enough critical thinking to identify that). In fact, I feel that a number of fans today (and I’m not directing this at you at all, Ultravioletrae) in the post-Michael, post-Marilyn Manson, post-Gaga age are quick to criticize folks who had grown up with the Michael of J5 or The Jacksons. Witnessing his changes as they occured was a little puzzling at times. Unfortunately, certain sectors of society frequently make you pay for being unconventional – particularly the media.
I think you’ve hit on something crucially important, Ultravioletrae. Racism in America is deeply intertwined with our sexual mores and attitudes, and Michael Jackson took them both on in ways that had never been done before. I absolutely think that’s one reason there was such a violent backlash against him. And I hadn’t thought about it this way before, but you’re right – it’s very interesting that the backlash against him focused on denying his sexuality and how attractive he was to millions of people (including me).
I can remember reading opinion pieces during the 2005 trial, and many times there would be some comment about how he had altered his looks to the point where he wasn’t attractive anymore, was scarcely recognizable anymore, wasn’t really himself anymore. And it wasn’t just that I disagreed with them – I didn’t even understand them. I honestly couldn’t understand what they were talking about. He was beautiful to me. He was always beautiful to me. I would look at him in the trial photos and he looked unbearably sad sometimes – so sad it was painful to look at him sometimes – but he was always himself to me, and he was beautiful.
It was kind of disorienting having my perceptions be so at odds with everything I read. I couldn’t understand how those commentators could look at the same photographs I looked at and yet respond to them so differently. And it led me to appreciate just how fully our narratives shape our perceptions. Those who believed one narrative about him saw him one way, and those of us who believed a different narrative saw him a completely different way. We could all look at the exact same photographs and see completely different things because we viewed those photographs within the context of different narratives, and that radically influenced how we perceived and interpreted them.
Willa, I’m so happy you said this because I always felt the exact same way. How could “they” look at the same photos I was looking at and say that he looked strange or weird, or like a freak? I just didn’t get it; it made no sense to me because, in my eyes, he was always the most beautiful, sexiest man I’ve ever seen. And I had never thought about what Ultravioletrae said before either about the backlash against him being focused on denying his sexuality and attractiveness but, it makes so much sense!
I just can’t believe how easily led the general public can be. I mean, the media tells them what to believe and they lose all abillity to think for themselves. It’s just very strange how so many people could see him so differently. But it’s like you said, Willa, those of us who loved him viewed him within that context while those people who saw him only as a monster viewed him within that context. It’s really interesting when you think about it.
I simply refuse to believe that anybody could truly misinterpret “They don’t care about us” as anti-Semitic. Especially people like Spielberg and Geffen and actually all the newspaper critics, who should know better. And IMO they know it’s not at all anti-Semitic, on the contrary. It’s so obvious in the context. So I see this as just an excuse to once again find fault in MJ and attack him, bash him and divert attention from the main theme of the song and what he really has to say with it. This was an artificially induced “controversy” in my opinion.
And notice how every time he had something important to say from the 90s on, there were attempts to divert attention from the message and discredit it. “Earth Song” was not even released in the US, although it was a huge hit everywhere else (in the UK it was Michael’s most successful single since Billie Jean), “They don’t care about us” was dragged in an artificial controversy. And the song that was the only Nr 1 on the Billboard from HIStory was the harmless little love song “You are not alone”. Something that won’t stir up emotions and won’t force anyone to face important but inconvenient issues.
I agree with ChrisB that many people wanted MJ to “stay in his place” which was that he had to sing happy, nice, harmless disco, R&B and pop songs. As soon as he stepped out of that he lost lots of popularity in the US. He was in fact criticized for these themes! For example, one of the most common criticisms for the HIStory album was that it was “too angry”. What did they expect after what MJ has gone through? That he would make happy and nice songs for our entertainment like “Rock with you”? I think that a lot of people felt disturbed by the fact that he didn’t stay in this cliché box for black artists and that was one of the reasons of the harsh attacks against him.
Of course, there were other black artists as well who sang about important issues, but fact is that no one was as influential as MJ and none of them had as big white fan base either. So MJ was definitely a bigger threat than other black artists who didn’t just sing love songs.
Jacksonaktak, you highlight so many important issues in this comment. I was going to copy and respond to the best ones, and found myself wanting to copy the entire thing. I think you are absolutely right that “every time he had something important to say from the 90s on, there were attempts to divert attention from the message and discredit it.” And not just discredit it, but discredit him. And when he pushed back against the horrendously biased media criticism in songs like “Privacy” or “Tabloid Junkie,” he was called “paranoid.” So he was supposed to take his beating and like it? And how can you beat someone up daily in the press, and then call them “paranoid” for exposing it? “Paranoid” implies he was imagining things. It should be obvious to everyone that the media crucifixion was not imagined – it was very real.
Jacksonaktak and Willa, thank you both for highlighting this “paranoia” that Michael supposedly suffered from! I always hate it when he is refered to as paranoid and it just makes me laugh in frustration. Willa, I love the way you put that – “how can you beat someone up daily in the press and then call them paranoid for exposing it?” – this question is brilliant!!
I agree Willa. To call him “paranoid” after the very real verbal lynching he was a victim of for almost two decades, is just plain ridiculous and just shows how many people refuse to look into that mirror MJ holds up for them. It’s easier to label him “paranoid” than to admit he has a point or two about how the media functions and how much of society blindly follows what’s said in it.
In Joe Vogel’s book there is a quote from a critic (Jim Faber of The Daily News) who says of the HIStory album:
“whiny Jackson jive about his perceived mistreatment”
“Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you out there were forced to cancel your last world tour and suffered the loss of a multi-million-dollar endorsement deal from Pepsi because every media outlet in creation trumpeted accusations that you molested a young boy? If this describes the last two years of your life, the new Michael Jackson album is for you. Everyone else may feel a bit shut out.”
How very cynical? “Perceived” mistreatment? So after he was falsely accused of a very serious crime he is just supposed to shrug it off and not be affected by it at all? Of course, it’s also wrong that the album has nothing to say to those who were never in such a situation. For example, Michael’s criticism of the media doesn’t just tell something to those who were a victim of tabloid media, but also to us, the consumers of the media – it’s about the brain-control and the “matrix” the media have built around us. News of the World scandal, anyone? It’s not just Michael Jackson’s problem, it’s a problem of our modern society. And that can be said about all other themes he touches on the album.
Michael Jackson is a very good artist. In my heart he is in life.
Thriller Life will be in Toulouse in May 2012. I hope i will see it because it’s very good and
dancing very well with the dancers
there is one line in the song that for me says it all – “One thing in life they just don’t wanna see”. MJ highlited many things that ‘they’ didn’t wanna see, and so he was hounded and persecuted like many other people in the past who had huge followings and were therefore considered harmful revolutionalries and dissenters, and therefore discredited to keep them quiet – not the first to be ‘crucified’ I fancy. but bless his soul, because he cared so deeply MJ would not shut up and just kept coming in the hope that people would hear him. For me is is just so sad that only now after his death are people listening and taking note, but better late than never. His message was strong and necessary and I do everything I can each day to spread his message because this world really needs to hear it and hear it now. Caro Cape Town
Thank you again — Willa and Joie and those who have commented above. The idea that the “elephant in the room” is MJ’s sexual attractiveness rings so true! And how that ties in with the racism he experienced, WOW, we’re getting somewhere! I read an interview with someone who won a prize from a radio station that got her into a group dinner with him, and she said something like he was all about sex, or maybe even that he WAS sex.
About the anti-Semitism charge, I am Jewish, and since I’m also an “obsessed fan,” with all the research that goes with that (lol I’m sure anyone reading this knows), I feel positive he held no prejudice against Jews or any group of people. I think he emphasized in many interviews that he loved all people, and that’s what I believe. I appreciate the way he grouped together different kinds of bigotry because as I see it, all forms of bigotry are related, and they all end up causing the spread of more hatred and suffering.
Thank you so much again. I am so looking forward to reading more of this discussion!
Hi Mindy. Thank you so much for writing in. Even though I firmly believe those lyrics were fighting anti-Semitism rather than enacting it, I can see how someone who was raised with a sensitivity to those words might experience them in painful ways, and possibly feel the effects of past anti-Semitic slurs through them. That’s why I think your perspective is so important. It means a lot that you have done “all the research” that a lot of us Michael Jackson fans tend to do, and that you “feel positive he held no prejudice against Jews or any group of people.”
Also, like you, I believe very strongly that “all forms of bigotry are related,” and it’s a very important part of Michael Jackson’s message that he rejected all forms of prejudice. To fight prejudice against one group while endorsing prejudice against another group (as often happens) simply keeps the pattern of intolerance alive. The task before us – and it’s a big one – is to rewrite the underlying narrative of intolerance, and not simply rearrange how different groups fit within it. In other words, instead of trying to shift which group is playing the role of the oppressor and which is in the role of the oppressed, we need to rewrite the entire narrative so the oppressor-oppressed relationship itself no longer exists.
Here’s a video which shows the making of both versions of the “They Don’t Care About Us” video!
Wow, SaneMJfan, that’s so interesting – and it answers Joie’s question about why there are two videos.
This is a great video! Thanks SaneMJfan for posting it. But it doesn’t really answer my question, Willa. All Spike says is that originally the plan was for all the footage to be combined into one video. But he still doesn’t explain why they decided to make two seperate videos instead. Unless I missed that part.
You’re right, Joie. It explains why they filmed in two different locations – in Brazil and in a prison – but it doesn’t explain why they turned that footage into two separate videos. Hmmmm … the mystery remains …
The media did a complete hatchet job on MJ–and I go back to Armond White who sees the relationship between MJ and the media clearly (in my opinion). He calls it a ‘power struggle’–and this is what it was–they were 2 powerful adversaries and as MJ fought back–and he was such a fighter!–the media fought back harder. I think a lot MJ’s art changed as a result of what the media did to him–he got angrier and angrier in some songs and his voice changed as a result. When I listen to “Scream” for instance–or “Monster’ or ‘2Bad’ I hear his outrage, his righteous indignation–what White calls his ‘jeremiad’–in the vein of the Puritan preachers chastising their congregations. Re his amazing sexual appeal–yes, he claimed in interviews to be shocked or unaware–but was MJ a split personality–how could he wear those skin tight pants and not be aware of the effect? Surely he had watched his performances? Willa–I am glad your opinion of Diane Sawyer changed as a result of how she handled her interviews with him and with LMP–mine did too.
Reblogged this on girlinthemirror95.
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