The Trilogy: We Don’t Need Freaks Like You

Joie:  So, Willa, for the past two weeks, we have looked at two out of the three Michael Jackson works that you say sort of form The Trilogy of his aesthetic – “Ben” and Thriller. This week, let’s go over the final work in that trilogy – Ghosts – and talk about how it fits in and how all three of them seem to deal with this complicated issue of crossing the boundaries that separate us. As we all know, this is a subject that Michael dealt with often in his career and, for you, this idea of The Trilogy is very important because of it, right?

Willa:  It really is, partly because each of these works is so important individually, and partly because looking at them together allows us to see the progression of his ideas.

In “Ben,” which was recorded in January of 1972, Michael Jackson adopts the role of a young boy who becomes friends with a rat. Most humans see rats as disgusting, as “other,” so this friendship is a socially transgressive act. In other words, “Ben” is the story of an improper friendship. But it presents this relationship as so special and beautiful that it challenges us to alter our perceptions about this unconventional friendship. Importantly, though, while the boy and the rat cross social boundaries, they’re external boundaries. What I mean is they cross the boundary between them by becoming friends, but the boy remains a boy and the rat remains a rat.

Twelve years later, in December of 1983, Michael Jackson released the Thriller video, and it expands the ideas of “Ben” in crucially important ways. Once again, Michael Jackson is a young man crossing socially prohibited boundaries, but this time those boundaries are within himself. He becomes a werewolf, which blurs the boundary between man and animal, and then becomes a zombie, which blurs the boundary between living and dead. So Thriller isn’t about an “improper” friendship but about an “improper” person whose identity is constantly in flux. So it internalizes the crossing of those boundaries and alters how we perceive and respond to this unconventional person, as well as how we perceive and maybe express the prohibited boundaries we feel within ourselves.

What’s especially interesting about Thriller, though, is how it reworks the emotions of this issue. Basically, Thriller tells us that crossing boundaries isn’t scary – it’s fun!  It’s thrilling, in fact. Look at the many Michael characters on screen. Which one do you want to be? The repressed Michael at the beginning who’s trying very hard to be a proper person, or the free-spirited Michael who’s cutting loose and dancing with zombies? As you said so well last week, Joie, he’s “inhabiting those differences” he feels within himself – he’s embracing the many different aspects of his personality, including the scary or shameful parts we’re told to keep hidden – and he’s having a blast! Just look at him dance, and look at his face at the end when he turns and fixes us with those freaky cat eyes. He’s beaming! He couldn’t be happier. Thriller handles this all so skillfully and effortlessly that we don’t realize what a radical psychological shift this is, but I believe Thriller functions at a deep psychological level to challenge some of our most primal fears about difference, about “other,” and neutralize them. And it’s brilliant.

Thirteen years later, in 1996, Michael Jackson created Ghosts and took another quantum leap forward. This time he’s approaching the issue in a theoretical way and suggesting specific ways in which art can help us overcome the boundaries between us. In other words, Ghosts isn’t just a work of art. It’s meta-art – it’s art about art – and in it we see evidence of Michael Jackson creating a new poetics.

Joie:  You know, Willa, that’s something you say often – that Michael was creating a new poetics. Can you explain what you mean in very simple terms for those who may not understand what it is you’re trying to say?

Willa:  That’s a really good question, Joie. There are many different definitions, actually, but what I mean is that he’s creating a new philosophy of art, or a new paradigm for conceptualizing art – a new theoretical framework for understanding what art is, how it functions, and what it has the potential to accomplish. You know, if we go back and look at the major artists in history – artists like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Vermeer, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol – they didn’t just create important works of art. They also altered our definition of art, and that’s what Michael Jackson is doing. He’s creating exquisite works of art, but he’s also redefining what art is and expanding our ideas about what is possible through art. And that’s why he’s the most important artist of our time.

Joie:  Ok, so let’s talk about what’s going on in Ghosts and why you feel it’s part of The Trilogy. You say that Ghosts is art about art, but how does it fit in with this theme of crossing the boundaries that keep us separated?

Willa:  Well, as we’ve talked about before, Ghosts is the story of an artist – a Maestro – who’s under attack by the provincial townspeople of Normal Valley. They’re scared of him because he’s so unnervingly different – they think he’s a “freak,” a “weirdo” – so they approach his home with torches in hand, determined to drive him away. But something unexpected happens: the Maestro engages them in a series of artistic experiences, and through those artistic experiences not only changes how they feel about him, but how they feel about difference more generally.

So Ghosts is functioning on several levels at once. On one level, it’s pure entertainment and engaging us in an interesting story. At another level, it’s creating a parable for what was actually happening to Michael Jackson himself in real life, and explaining how he plans to respond as an artist to the threats against him by Tom Sneddon and others. And at another level, it’s art talking about art and demonstrating how art can change perceptions and bring about significant social change – just like it changes the perceptions and attitudes of the residents of Normal Valley.

Joie:  That is really very interesting, Willa. You know, I’ve said this before but, I really feel like I need to say it again. Before you asked me to read M Poetica and give you my opinion on it, I never really thought about Michael’s work on such a deep artistic level before. And I know now that it was because I didn’t really have the tools or the knowledge to do so. But I really feel like you have taught me so much about art and about how to interpret art, and I’m really grateful for that. Its allowed me to really examine Michael’s work in a way I never really had before.

Willa:  Well, believe me, Joie, I know exactly how you feel. I enjoyed Thriller for years simply as a very entertaining video. In fact, I still enjoy it that way, and that’s perfectly ok. In the 1999 MTV interview we cited last week, Michael Jackson is asked what makes a good music video, and his first response is, “In my opinion, it has to be completely entertaining.” And he succeeded: his work in general, and Thriller in particular, is wonderfully entertaining.

But as much as I appreciated Thriller simply as entertainment, I increasingly felt there was a lot more going on – but I just couldn’t get my mind around it somehow. I could feel that something significant was happening, but I couldn’t explain it, not even to myself. It wasn’t until I started studying Ghosts that something clicked for me. As I mentioned earlier, Ghosts isn’t just a work of art – it’s also art talking about art, and exploring specific ways that art can change people’s minds about difference and bring about social change. And as I studied that and thought about it, I suddenly realized that the specific processes he’s describing in Ghosts are happening in Thriller. So basically, Ghosts gave me the tools I needed to interpret Thriller in a whole new way. For me, Ghosts opened up a new avenue for thinking about art, and that new view allowed me to see Thriller in ways I never had before.

So Michael Jackson isn’t just creating a new type of art that functions in a new way, which is amazing enough. He’s also providing us with the theoretical apparatus we need to interpret this new kind of art. And Joie, it just blows me away. As an artist, he’s phenomenally intelligent and phenomenally creative – just off-the-charts brilliant – and I think we’re only beginning to realize the depths of his work and the tremendous implications of what he’s showing us.

Joie:  Well, I agree completely that he is ‘off-the-charts brilliant’ as you put it. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. And I have to say that, I really love your observation that Ghosts is ‘art talking about art.’ That’s not only a really profound statement to make but, it was also a very profound, very bold move for Michael Jackson to make. Create a video – a work of art – that talks about art and the ways we can use it to educate and to change people’s minds about the social injustices surrounding us. That’s amazing stuff!

Willa:  It really is. And in Ghosts, we see him directly addressing a very specific question about art and the power of art: How can an artist use art to change people’s minds about those they reject as different, especially when their antipathy is based on false narratives and unfounded prejudices?

As I mentioned earlier, Ghosts begins with the residents of Normal Valley approaching the Maestro’s home, intent on driving him out because they think he’s monstrous, a “freak.” And their emotions at that moment are pretty complicated: they fear him, but they’re also excited and empowered by the idea of driving him out.

As we discussed in a post about Ghosts a few weeks ago, the Maestro responds to the townspeople with a two-phase process. First he takes on their fears and desires and reflects those emotions back at them: he appears to them in a mask, so gives them the monster they want him to be. But then he lowers the mask and reveals it’s just an illusion. That’s the second phase. And this quick double movement of first inflating their fears and desires and then deflating them provides a type of catharsis, and helps neutralize the emotions they are projecting onto him.

But the Mayor doesn’t want those fears neutralized. His goal is just the opposite – he wants to whip up those emotions and keep the townspeople in a state of fear and agitation. So he begins building his case against the Maestro: that he’s a “freak,” a scary unknown, a monster who’s infecting the town’s children with mysterious ghost stories. In response, the Maestro once again evokes that two-phase movement of embodying and inflating the emotions they’re projecting onto him and then deflating them. First, he distorts his face, making it grotesque and scary. Here are a couple of screen captures:

Then he rips his face off altogether so there’s nothing but a laughing skull. But importantly, after the townspeople have fully experienced those emotions they were projecting onto him, he cracks the skull, reveals his true face, and shows it’s all just an illusion.

Then he enacts this two-phase process a third time, but it’s a little different this time around because their emotions have changed, so the emotions they’re projecting onto him have changed. They aren’t as afraid of him as they were before – in fact, they’re starting to enjoy him and his “freakish” troupe of dancers – but they’re still unsure of him and still want him to leave, though they’re conflicted about it. So he enacts those emotions for them: he destroys himself and turns to dust before their eyes. But then he reappears and once again shows it was just an illusion. So repeatedly we see him embodying and even exaggerating the fears and desires the townspeople are projecting onto him, and then diffusing them.

Joie:  I think it’s really interesting that he repeats this process over and over again throughout this short film. That lets me know that he was really trying to make a point. There’s something that he wants us to really get … some idea that he wants us to really grasp and understand. Otherwise why keep repeating yourself?

Willa:  It feels that way to me too. He enacts this double movement three times in Ghosts, one right after the other – in fact, that’s basically the plot of Ghosts, that series of three double movements – which tells me this is really significant. Importantly, that’s exactly what he’s doing in Thriller as well, as we talked about last week. In fact, the plot of Thriller is also a series of three double movements – or rather two and a half since the last one ends unresolved – and if we look at what was happening in 1983, the plot of Thriller makes perfect sense. In the early 1980s, he was our nation’s first Black teen idol, which was both titillating and monstrous to a lot of people. So he responds by becoming a monster onscreen – a werewolf, a zombie, an unknown creature with cat eyes – but then neutralizes those emotions by showing us “It’s only a movie.”

And I believe he responded to the media hysteria surrounding the false molestation allegations the same way. Through the illusion of plastic surgery, he made himself monstrous in the public mind. But it’s just an illusion. He’s merely reflecting what the public is projecting onto him, as he explains very clearly in “Is It Scary”:

I’m gonna be
Exactly what you wanna see
It’s you who’s taunting me
Because you’re wanting me
To be the stranger in the night
Am I amusing you
Or just confusing you?
Am I the beast you visualized?
And if you wanna see
Eccentric oddities
I’ll be grotesque before your eyes
Let them all materialize. …
So did you come to me
To see your fantasies
Performed before your very eyes?
A haunting ghostly treat
The ghoulish trickery
And spirits dancing in the night?
But if you came to see
The truth, the purity
It’s here inside a lonely heart
So let the performance start
So tell me, Is that realism for you, baby?
Am I scary for you?

The plastic surgery scandal was, in fact, a type of performance art, but it was an entirely new kind of art unlike any we’ve ever seen before. It was “realism” on a scale we’ve never experienced before. It’s such a new kind of art it’s hard to recognize it at first, but it’s a work of art with a very specific purpose and function – to rewrite a false cultural narrative and provide catharsis for the emotions driving that false narrative. It’s breathtaking in its sheer audacity, but once we get our minds around it, we realize it’s built on sound principles of art and psychology – and the intersection of art and psychology, especially group psychology, is a primary focus of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic. In other words, it’s perfectly aligned with the artistic principles he’s establishing in Ghosts and throughout his work.

And Joie, I can’t say emphatically enough how important and radical this work is. In M Poetica I said that I see his face as his masterpiece, and I believe that strongly. I love his voice and his music and his dancing and his films – you know how much I love them – but his face, and the illusions he conducted through his face, points the way to a new kind of art that has the potential to challenge some of our most entrenched cultural narratives and rewrite those narratives. And that is truly revolutionary.

Joie:  Willa, I love the way you put that: “It’s breathtaking in its sheer audacity.” That is such a true statement when it comes to anything having to do with Michael Jackson. I think that sentence pretty much sums up his entire career and persona. He was “breathtaking in his sheer audacity!”

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 May 31, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 64 Comments.

  1. I love your article and insight into michael jackson. he was a genius. I am truely fascinated by his life and how he carried himself in a cruel world. I have found that the image of an artist that is changed by the managers or who ever is some what of a down fall to the artist. A true artist changes over time. and the record company or managers forget this. For example, the michael jackson on the stage was not the same as the michael off the stage. It is entertainment. Look at Jimmi Hendrix, he stated he was tired of being a clown. with all the wild clothes and beads. At the end of his career, everyone knows he wanted to change. he wanted to change his style and music. but the system was resistant to it because they feared they would loose money.. I believe m.j wanted to leave the system and do his own thing. and the next step was in film. but they didnt want to loose money on the deal. They all treated him like a money making machine and never a true artist. A day doesnt go by without thinking about this true angel. He conducted himself with class. and he lived his life in spite of the evil media. I have changed my way of thinking because of his death. 1] how someone can be crucified in public when all they give is their life and talent and love. 2] that the media is nothing but a waste of time and dont believe anything you hear ..3} and know matter how big of a fan we are to michael, he was a regular person and wanted to be treated that way. I only wish he could have seen in himself what his true fans saw. He will be forever missed for the artist he was and mostly the man he was. thanks willa for your articles, i never go without reading them all. I think you are correct about your analogy for the message in his music and he was reflecting what was happening at the time in real life. and when i saw the video of ghost it did seem that he was giving the message that he is the entertainer who entertains with magic and illusions. and if you got to know the real person would you still try to destroy him? I think the answer is yes. look what A hole martin bash did to him. M.J. was himself and opened his personal life to the media and look what they did. We may have lost him to the world but he will live for ever. I guess we all have a choice in life, we could love each other or destroy each other.

  2. Hello Wila and Joie, thanks for your wonderful analysis full of inspiration and reflection.
    I wanted to ask you, if possible, greater depth when you say “The plastic surgery scandal was, in fact, a type of performance art, but it was an Entirely new kind of art unlike any we’ve ever seen before. It was” realism” on a scale we’ve never experienced before.”
    This phrase refers only to the movie Ghost? I heard an interview of Michael, with Lisa Marie, in which he said that his face was, for him, a work of art and as such, if he wished, he could totally transform the next day. Now this leaves me puzzled.

    I thank you with affection

    • Dear Lorenzo. This is a really complicated question, and difficult to answer. We were routinely told that Michael Jackson’s face reflected some sort of inner pathology – that he hated his father, or his race, or himself, and expressed that hatred through his face. But that simply doesn’t ring true, and the photographic evidence contradicts it as well.

      Michael Jackson LOVED illusion and magic, and he loved disguises. Diana Ross caught him using her makeup when he was still a little boy, and he told her, “But, Diana, it’s magic!” He once said that knowing he could control the look of his face was “the greatest joy I ever had.” And looking at pictures of him from over the years, he seems to be having a great time creating new looks for himself.

      And those looks weren’t always attractive. In fact, he seemed to enjoy creating somewhat “grotesque” images for himself. Jermaine Jackson includes a story in his book, You Are Not Alone, about Michael coming to see one of his concerts. He wore a disguise so he could be out in the crowd and experience Jermaine’s concert as part of the audience – and when he came backstage afterwards, Jermaine didn’t recognize him. Here’s a picture from backstage:

      Believe it or not, that is a picture of Michael Jackson in 1985, but it sure doesn’t look like him! Not even his own brother recognized him. Jermaine goes on to write that, “During the Bad tour, it was this disguise, along with others, that allowed him to mingle and sight-see among crowds in places like Vienna and Barcelona.” So he was very skilled at disguising his appearance, and it was something he enjoyed doing.

      The plastic surgery scandal is difficult to understand. If we look at photos of him from over the years, his face does appear different at different times, but if we look carefully, it’s all just hair and make-up – not surgery. The structural lines of his face remain essentially unchanged. Joie and I talked about this a little bit in a post about Who Is It a few weeks ago. It’s also addressed in a little more depth in “Rereading Michael Jackson.”

      I’m not sure how much you know about American racial history, but the U.S. is still a very racist country with deeply engrained cultural narratives that young black men, especially, are monstrous – that they are unable to control their sexual urges, or criminal inclinations, or animal instincts. I think Michael Jackson challenged those cultural narratives on-screen in Thriller and Ghosts by reflecting back that monstrous image and neutralizing it to some degree. And after 1993, I think he extended this to his off-screen persona as well.

      My feeling is that the 1993 allegations were unbelievably horrible for him. The press and the public began to see him as a child molester, which was intolerable to him. Public perceptions of him were so false that I think it caused a permanent rupture between him (the real person) and his public persona. After 1993, that persona was routinely portrayed as monstrous – a pedophile, Wacko Jacko – so he gave us a monster. His public persona became the monster the public and press wanted him to be. So once again he reflected back the narrative we were projecting onto him, just as he does in Thriller and Ghosts. But it’s all just an illusion. His face didn’t change.

      I keep thinking about Lewis Hyde’s book, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, which is a wonderful analysis of trickster figures, and how they force us to question beliefs we had assumed to be true. In the final paragraph of his book, Hyde quotes James Baldwin – “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them …” – and then writes,

      For Baldwin, the “white man” (or anyone unconscious of history and human artifice) takes the local and contingent to be universal and essential…. Whosoever hopes to loosen that “binding” and reshape the essences will have to … engage in transgressions sufficiently mind-boggling that illusion must resurface from the unconscious, where it lies forgotten (354).

      I keep thinking about Hyde’s words in terms of Michael Jackson. Specifically, I wonder if Michael Jackson was “engag[ing] in transgressions sufficiently mind-boggling” that we are now forced to re-evaluate everything we think we know about him and question what is true and what isn’t.

      Just as importantly, does it force us to question the underlying cultural narratives that led to those misperceptions – narratives that are so deeply entrenched that we don’t even realize they’re simply stories, and human constructs? In Hyde’s words, is the plastic surgery scandal a “transgression sufficiently mind-boggling that illusion must resurface from the unconscious, where it lies forgotten”? Or in Michael Jackson’s words, does it illuminate and help undo our “social conditioning”?

      • Thank you very much, Willa, is a very important and profound speech, I’m not sure being able to understand everything because of the language, but the fundamental of what you mean, I’ve got. (the backstage photos do not appear).

        I’m pleased to have found your blog, it is very important to talk and clarify ideas, especially with regard to a character like Michael, who – in life – has been far too many mystifications.

        I am a man and maybe I have less sensitivity “amorous” in regard to Michael, but I, like Destiny, feel “his pain was so strong That I Could feel the hurt.”

        But I wanted to add another question and ask again your opinion, if possible.
        I read on websites that deal with Michael, he was suffering from serious diseases such as lupus erythematosus, and possibly alpha 1 antitrypsin, as well as vitiligo.
        Is it possible that some of his choices look to have been “forced” by the disease?
        I think the hair, the scars, I am a professional children nurse and I know that autoimmune diseases lead to serious problems of their own hair loss and difficulty in healing wounds.

        I do not know how reliable these reports on the health of Michael, but perhaps – along with his artistic intentions, the media distortions – if they were real – this should be taken into account.

        I believe that entering Michael’s world is the best thing that ever happened in life and, as Eleanor said, “Everything Looked different and felt different”.
        He is to me a beautiful kaleidoscope, his music gives off colors that illuminate the world in the many representations that actually owns.

        • “Is it possible that some of his choices look to have been ‘forced’ by the disease?”

          This is a very important issue, Lorenzo, and I’m glad you raised it. Yes, I absolutely agree that, in many cases, he was “forced” to make a decision by illness or accident.

          For example, David Nordahl, who painted many portraits of Michael Jackson, describes visiting him one time and finding him in tremendous pain because of reconstructive efforts on his scalp. He said Michael Jackson asked him to feel a large bladder that had been put under the skin on his scalp and then gradually inflated – the goal was to stretch his scalp and encourage the growth of “extra” skin to be used for grafting. This was years after the accident that caused severe burns on his scalp, but he was still enduring reconstructive efforts because the damage was so deep. And I believe that was one motivation for changing his hairstyle. He had a full afro when he was burned, but it’s difficult to hide a wound like that with an afro. So I strongly suspect that pulling his hair back from his face and tying or braiding it in back (as in the Blood on the Dance Floor video) was motivated in part by that injury. (Though I have to say, he looks awfully cute with his hair pulled back – I love his look during the Bad tour – but I digress….)

          I also strongly believe that he would never have meddled with the color of his skin if he had not developed vitiligo. So once again, a physical condition forced him to make a decision. But I also believe he was an artist to the core of his being, so when confronted with that decision, he approached it as an artist, if that makes sense.

          • Really thanks Willa, I believe that this interpretation is the most balanced and perhaps closer to reality.

            Thanks again for your wonderful work, full of dedication and great cultural openness.

        • Hi Lorenzo. I just tried uploading that photo again – the one of Michael Jackson in disguise backstage at his brother’s concert – and I can’t seem to figure it out. So I’m just going to email it to you, if that’s ok. If anyone else would like to see it, send an email to and I’ll reply with the photo attached. Sorry!

  3. Another brilliant blog ladies, I applaud you. Nothing else to add except I thank you both for giving all of us -old-time-fans like me and newer fans- a chance to glimpse the Michael we knew or thought we knew in a different way.

  4. Willa said: “in Ghosts, we see him directly addressing a very specific question about art and the power of art: How can an artist use art to change people’s minds about those they reject as different, especially when their antipathy is based on false narratives and unfounded prejudices?”

    Thank you again. I know your analysis in these three great posts is correct because MJ’s art transformed me. I experienced the “Michael Jackson epiphany” the night after he died, and when I woke up the next day, it was as if I inhabited a completely different world. Everything looked different and felt different. And for me, his art did two things — revealed antipathies I had no idea I had, and changed/ opened, my mind — simultaneously. I really would not believe the power of his work if I had not experienced it myself. And, I look forward to studying Ghosts from the perspective that you offer.

    Also, I want to thank you — and this blog — for confirming my perception of reality concerning MJ. As has been mentioned in several previous comments, it is often very difficult to talk about Michael Jackson to friends and family who are still imprisoned by their misconceptions — who, as someone said, “recoil” at the mention of his name. So, until you started this blog, I felt pretty alone — not being able to share with those closest to me an experience that has literally changed my life.

    • Eleanor, I know exactly how you feel because I’ve lived my whole life that way – not being able to share the experience of Michael and his art with those closest to me. And it does make you feel very alone at times. So, if this blog has helped you, that makes me feel extraordinarily happy and humbled at the same time. Thank you.

    • Hi, Eleanor–I am very intrigued by what you wrote: “I experienced the “Michael Jackson epiphany” the night after he died, and when I woke up the next day, it was as if I inhabited a completely different world. Everything looked different and felt different.” In fact, I am so surprised that this happened to you that way–I mean so suddenly. For me, it was first, shock and being stunned when I heard about MJ’s hospitalization and death. Then I went into a mode that led me to explore and just soak up everything I could on MJ–I guess it was fascination. When I spoke to friends, they asked questions that I could not answer and that led me into research (e.g., was he gay? Was he a pervert?). I went through grief, confusion, and anger the more I found out. I could not understand how he died right on the verge of a comeback and I also wanted to think about what happened in his life and the choices he made to deal with what he faced and I asked myself what he could have done, if anything, differently that might have given a happier outcome. I am curious about the sudden shift in your perception–rather than a more gradual one–and whether you can tell us more about what you experienced. Thank you for sharing so honestly.

      Yes, it is hard when others don’t know who Michael was–it shows how pervasive the brainwashing by the media was. I admit after he died, I saw performances, films, heard songs, and was introduced to so much art that he had made that was basically hidden under a rock while he was alive due to prejudice and lies. I get so mad about this.

      • Just to add that my first reaction included a lot of sadness– I saw all the people crying, and I was crying with them. Paris’s words broke my heart. Lots of tears have been shed for this wonderful man. Some of the youtube videos are heartbreaking–the songs the fans chose for their videos, such as ‘hurt,’ and ‘I cried for you’–just make me fall apart. I cried when I saw the autopsy photos. People who know I care about MJ said about the trial–I thought you would be watching it every day–but I couldn’t; it was too painful. I wanted so much for him to have a successful comeback–all the media were harping on can he do 50 concerts–it was sickening all the negativity–they did want to write his obituary. One obit that I read in a UK paper harped on all the typical BS about his career, and yet the fan comments, which went on and on, spoke of such real grief that it put the obit to shame–people who were so upset they couldn’t sleep all night, who who understood Michael Jackson. I don’t think I have ever seen a decent obit–they were all worthless.

      • Aldebaran, Thank you for sharing your experience.

        I have been trying to understand what happened to me since it happened. It was almost as if I had been “possessed” by MJ. Before his death, I knew almost nothing about him. Rather, I had just put him in the category of pop star/uninteresting. I was such a music snob — listening almost exclusively to classical music — the music of dead white men. I had no other feelings about him one way or another. Then, the news coverage of his death got my attention and I decided to check him out on YouTube. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” left me with the biggest smile on my face and a feeling of such joy — and then I felt so sad, because OMG the creator of this wonderful music was gone. I watched videos into the night and Earth Song really got my attention, as he seemed to be saying in a single song what I have been trying to express in a book (on our culture’s unaccountable hatred and contempt for nature) for several years. I think I really connected to him in Earth Song.

        Anyway, I seemed to suddenly “get” MJ and intuitively understand so much abut him that it was really almost a scary experience. My younger son was so disturbed by this major change in character that he half seriously suggested that I had had a stroke. Most of my friends humor me, but I have learned to keep most of my musings on MJ to myself. One friend told me I could never mention his name to her, so she is no longer my friend.

        I have a theory which fits in with your comment last week on music and the brain — that MJ’s art is reprogramming our brains. That through his art, our whole cultural worldview and value system are being turned on their heads — which needs to happen if the human species is going to survive. And, which helps explain why people seem to feel so threatened by him.

        I am hoping to include a chapter on MJ in this neverending book that I am writing entitled: His Immanence, Michael Jackson, showing how his art is transforming the Western perception of reality into a global perception of reality that is immanent rather than transcendent. Our culture’s worldview and value system has taken value out of matter — it has created a false perception of reality — a false narrative as Willa says — that has separated mind from body, humanity from nature and has rendered females and people of color as less than fully human. Through his art, MJ destroys these dichotomies and restores value to the earth, women, people of color, and “the other” whoever that might be. His goal — if an artist has a goal other than to express his vision — is also my goal.

        I hope this helps explain my previous comment.

        • Hi, Eleanor, Thanks for sharing your experiences more fully. It’s interesting that “Earth Song” was the song that helped you connect to MJ and see his mission to “change the world.” In Dancing the Dream he said this was his dearest wish, and I sincerely hope he managed to do it, and that we will see the changes he effected manifest more and more clearly b/c I do agree we are endangering life on earth as never before. In fact, I read that the oceans have changed more in the past 30 years than in all the time since the dinosaurs. This is so scary and MJ really understood this as he was so in love with the natural world.

          About his music changing the brain–yes, I do think this is true. When I see the concert footage of the audiences–we are talking huge numbers of people all grooving to his music–it had to have changed them. The only issue for me is that he stopped touring in USA ( ‘Bad’–1988-89– was the last tour on mainland USA) and so we here in this country did not get that in the way other nations did (Europe, Asia, etc), so maybe we will have a harder time changing. Also his music was not as popular here as in other countries due to the allegations. Earth Song–1995– was not released as a single in USA (it was in other countries and was a bit hit in UK).

          In the article on music and the brain there is a reference to work by a researcher at Cornell U, Carol Krumhansi. She has done interesting work on how the brain processes music and how music affects the body in terms of heart rate, respiration, etc. She also finds that music is more right-brain than language, which is more left-brain. She studies the emotional effects of music. It is a fascinating area. There was recently a conference on this in Chicago.

          Good luck with your ‘never-ending book’–I know how that goes. Sounds like you’re doing very important work and I am glad you found MJ (and this blog too). When MJ died I felt intuitively that this was the most important thing that had happened in my generation– an earth-shaking event. I do believe it. He gave us his heart and soul–he gave us everything–no one can do more than that.

  5. Wow! Can I just say I love you ladies and these posts!! I have been learning sooooooooooooo much! “Breathtaking in his sheer audacity” indeed!!!!

  6. Thanks again.

    The part about plastic surgery being art, not sure how I feel about this but you’ve given me another way to look at it.

    • Hi Destiny. I can understand your hesitation – in fact, I resisted it for a long time. I kept seeing evidence that pointed in that direction, but I just wasn’t ready to go there. But once I started easing myself into it and started looking at things that way, suddenly a lot of puzzle pieces fell into place. I’m still trying to figure a lot of things out, but the more I look at it, the more convinced I am that his face was as much a work of art as his music or his films – and his art isn’t always beautiful. (Think of “Little Susie.”) It can really shake us up and challenge us sometimes, on many different levels. But as with all the interpretations we talk about here, there’s lots of room for differing views and opinions.

      • One thing I really appreciate about this blog is that it places a focus on Michael’s art. So as usual, thank you. And yes, you certainly picked up on the hesitation (good word!) that I’m feeling about this particular subject. Still, we all have been around for some months here and I know I can be totally honest regarding my feelings. There are a few issues with Michael that cause me great pain and his plastic surgery is one. There were times in later years when I found it very painful to look at Michael. Not in a disgusted way, but more like his pain was so strong that I could feel the hurt. I’ve grappled with that for many years but even more so since his passing. I’ve asked the same questions as most and have gone from self-mutilation to BDD (never thought he didn’t want to be black or hated his father so much).

        But now you’ve put another spin on it that I’ve never really thought of, and honestly I’m not sure how I feel about that either. To think that Michael REALLY gave of himself completely – voice, body in dance, and even his face – all for the sake of art. What your saying is not totally far off. We’ve heard Michael himself say something similar as someone posted above and also with his conversation with friend Glenda. We’ve also heard Arnie Klein (I know, I know!) say “Michael considered his face a work of art”.

        So what do I make of it? I don’t know. I’ll have to let this one marinate a little!!!

        • You know, I’ve studied hundreds of photos of him and done quite a bit of research. And from what I can tell, he had several nose surgeries, and had a chin cleft added during one of those nose surgeries, and that’s it. He always said that’s all he’d had done, his mother confirmed it after his death, and the photographic evidence supports them. There are no structural changes after 1988, and the plastic surgery scandal didn’t really gain steam until after 1993. From what I can tell, it was all just an illusion.

          But it still hurts. I think I know what you’re feeling, Destiny, when you say “his pain was so strong I could feel the hurt.” I look at that notorious mugshot, and feel a physical ache. Just imagine what he was feeling at that moment: he loved children and had done so much to help sick and injured children, and to raise awareness about the importance of protecting childhood as a special time in a child’s life. And now he’s in a police station, being fingerprinted and photographed on suspicions of molesting children. I imagine he did feel monstrous at that moment, and he reflects that back at us. I look at that photograph, and I just ache. What must he have been going through?

  7. Aline Joucaviel

    Michael Jackson rest in peace and in my haid. It’s good for his children and his familly to sing and Paris wants to be an actor and his soon Prince and Blanket is good and teenigers.
    I saw Germain at Zenith’s Paris and Janet Jackson at Olympia’s Paris it was well.
    Conrad Murray is stoped by police its normal because he gave so many propofol and demerol
    at Michael Jackson Michael Jackson rest in peace
    (Michael Jackson forever)

    Aline Joucaviel

  8. Lorenzo, thank you for bringing up the “forced” question. I’ve always held the theory that Michael’s plastic surgery was in part due to lupus. If you read the entry for discoid lupus in Wikipedia,, under Society and Culture, it says “The musician Seal has this skin condition. Michael Jackson also suffered from this skin condition, which contributed to the ever changing appearance of his face, as well as the numerous plastic surgeries performed on his nose due to cellular death that resulted from this skin condition.[2]”

    While this may or may not be true. The photo shows a lesion that looks similar to one that Michael had on his cheek as a child. And, there was something with Michael’s lower lip. Both areas that are noted as favored sites in the lupus entry.

  9. Thanks for this stimlating conversation, as always, Willa & Joie! And this particular topic—-about Michael’s altering appearance—fits right in with the interesting grouping of three works you’ve been discussing, about “difference” and “otherness”—I’ve had some thoughts about this that I hope to share, later.

    But meanwhile, I wanted to mention that I’ve downloaded over 30,000 photographs (never before have I looked so long, or lovingly, at the face of any human being, in images or in the flesh)! I’ve also done a lot of research. And like so many others I’ve been perplexed by the possible meaning(s) of Michael’s changing appearance. My conclusion is the only one that seems possible for me: Michael remains an enigma, wrapped in a conundrum, surrounded by a mystery.

    Some writers have compared his plastic surgeries to those of the French artist Orlan, who changed her appearance quite drastically with the collaboration of her surgeon, as a performance/body art project that was meant to be understood “fine art” context. But because Michael Jackson is seen as pop star and as such inhabits a very different cultural context, his actions are usually read entirely differently.

    Turning these mysteries around in my mind ran me into circles of speculation, seemingly without end or outcome. I’ve contemplated many possibilities, including the Body Dysmorphic Disorder hypothesis as the following (to name only a few):

    –That he was trying to stave off the appearance of aging for as long as possible.
    –That he tried to externalize a “Peter Pan” image, since he said that he was Peter Pan, in his heart.
    –That he wanted to be the living embodiment of global racial unity that he sings about in “Black or White,” or a kind of one-man Rainbow Coalition.
    –That he (painfully) wanted to literalize the monstrosity or radical difference he felt internally, as seen in his identification with figures like E.T. and the Elephant Man. (This of course ties in with “Thriller” and “Ghosts”)
    –That his altered appearance was an effect of (or a response to) his lupus.
    –That he was making an effort to look as unlike Joe Jackson as possible.
    –That he intentionally provided us with not one or two, but perhaps TEN, or a multitude, of different versions of “Michael Jackson,” so that his public could choose a favorite from among them. This, then, would better ensure him immortality through notoriety.

    The list goes on.

    At the same time, I suspect that regardless of “negative” or “positive” readings of the actions Michael took, the entire discussion about what happened to Michael’s face is always bound up with anxieties about race—our own anxieties, and possibly Michael’s—at least in an American context. I believe we have to find some honest way to talk about this, WITHOUT recourse the social and psychologically loaded concepts as shame and self-hatred.

    Shortly after Michael’s death, writer and Brown University professor Tricia Rose was interviewed on WNYC radio in New York:

    Brian Lehrer: There’s this question about his skin disease and whether or not that is part of why his complexion was changing. Did he have vitiligo? A skin ailment where you lose pigment. He says it, other people say it, other people don’t believe him. They think this is sort of racial self-hatred manifesting. Do you have an opinion?

    Tricia Rose: I think he had vitiligo, I think he does. And I think part of his facial plastic surgery, which I think is quite evident as well, is about matching skin color with features and an anxiety about the self. And about a sense of…..I wouldn’t quite say self hatred, but a feeling he would be more universal if he weren’t so African-derived looking. And I think that that is a message of American culture for 400 years. What we need to ask when we look at Michael Jackson is what context did we set up to unleash what might have been his personal demons, but to create a setting where those demons would take hold. Because there’s nothing unusual about him if you unpack his behavior and look and surgery and even his illnesses and his talent if you don’t [sic] understand the history of race and its ideas and its social construction in American society. Once you understand that, he actually makes tragic sense. That’s the part that I want to see. I want to see us connect him to ourselves in that way and still hold him personally accountable for whatever he might be personally accountable for.

    “ [….] “Louis Armstrong had to figure out how to make whites feel comfortable in an era of full segregation, all right. This isn’t about saying that he could say whatever he wanted at any time, do whatever he wanted, it didn’t matter that he was African American. He couldn’t speak about certain significant truths about his life and maintain white approval. That is unfortunate. I mean, but the only way we get past that is to be honest and then say wow, what gifts.”

    • @Nina Y F, Thanks for this comment. You and Willa have added more layers for me to issues I’ve struugled with in understanding Michael.

      “My conclusion is the only one that seems possible for me: Michael remains an enigma, wrapped in a conundrum, surrounded by a mystery.”

      I’ll say “AMEN” to that.

      And thanks for the comments from Ms Rose.

      I agree that the conversations need to be had, in a safe place, because I do feel that they are important topics that are part of the WHOLE of Michael Jackson. Ms Rose explains this well. And I also agree with her about US connecting OURSELVES to Michael and our responsibilty in his journey – not just the success.

      Thanks again!

    • “But because Michael Jackson is seen as a pop star and as such inhabits a very different cultural context, his actions are usually read entirely differently”

      Hi Nina. I’m so glad you raised this issue of how we interpret “high art” or “fine art” compared with “popular art,” because I think it’s another crucially important factor in why his work has been so undervalued and misunderstood by critics and the general public. And this ties in with how we interpret his changing appearance as well.

      In addition to Orlan (who as I understand it has had far more plastic surgery than Michael Jackson did) another artist who bears mentioning is Andy Warhol, for a number of reasons. One is how Warhol challenged the division between popular art and high art, and brought pop art into the realm of fine art. Another is that as a child Warhol suffered from auto-immune disorders, including St. Vitas’ Dance, and those disorders damaged the pigment of his skin. Later, as an artist, he developed a rather eccentric persona and appearance. However, while some critics rather ridiculed him for that, it was not widely seen as pathological – as manifesting deep-seated anxiety about his father, for example, or his strict religious upbringing, or his sexuality, and certainly not his race.

      We see that in Dr. Rose’s interview, where she compares Michael Jackson with Louis Armstrong (who’s widely seen as an entertainer, not an artist) and says, “Louis Armstrong had to figure out how to make whites feel comfortable.” Michael Jackson’s crossing of racial boundaries didn’t make anyone comfortable, black or white. It was extremely provocative to everyone. And if he had been classified as a serious artist, that provocation probably would have been interpreted very differently than it was. Because he was a pop star, it was assumed he was trying to please us, and failing. If he’d been seen as a serious artist like Warhol, it might have been recognized that he was trying to do something very different, and succeeding.

      p.s. Like Destiny, I love your line that “Michael remains an enigma, wrapped in a conundrum, surrounded by a mystery,” and I envy your 30,000 photos. Wow!

      • As for the 30,000 photographs…. I’d be happy to burn these to discs and send them to you or anyone! They’re organized into their appropriate folders and are mostly jpgs, but for the most part they’re not individually labeled!

      • Well, the comparison with Warhol would fill volumes! But the fine art vs. popular art conundrum is only a part of it, I think.

        It’s true that Michael made people uncomfortable after a certain point. But earlier in his adult career, much was made of how “safe” he was, how “clean”—much to the scorn of a lot of rock-oriented, hipsterish music critics at the time. The criticism that many people had, as I remember, was that he didn’t make people uncomfortable ENOUGH. (It’s interesting later on he was offering these same people perhaps more discomfort than they bargained for!)

        I’ve recently undertaken to read a couple hundred articles from the Washington Post from the 1982-83-84-85 period, and it’s really interesting to trace his decline in the popular press—from those who championed him early on, and then grew lukewarm toward him, and finally dismissed him altogether.

        Not only does it say a great deal about the mindset of these people as individuals: in my view, the trajectory of all this writing reveals deeper patterns of elation, disappointment, and distaste, on myriad psychological, social, and political levels. The reasons for his fall from grace (though not as “swift and sudden” as he claims in “Stranger in Moscow”) are manifold, I think, and warrant serious scrutiny.

        It’s not enough to claim, as many fans have, that the tabloids lie and everyone else follows suit because they believe what they’re told. Of course that’s part of it; but I believe looking at the broader picture would reveal a much more complex and dynamic process at work—which is the kind of inquiry we’re undertaking here!

        Thank you.

        • “It’s not enough to claim, as many fans have, that the tabloids lie and everyone else follows suit because they believe what they’re told. Of course that’s part of it; but I believe looking at the broader picture would reveal a much more complex and dynamic process at work—which is the kind of inquiry we’re undertaking here!”

          I agree that the response to Michael was much more complicated than the tabloid explanation. I’ve been working through some ideas on that. And yes, he was considered pretty squeaky clean in some quarters in the early part of his adult career! I believe he tried to retreat to that image at various times in the future when he made people too “uncomfortable”.

        • “I’ve recently undertaken to read a couple hundred articles from the Washington Post from the 1982-83-84-85 period, and it’s really interesting to trace his decline in the popular press — from those who championed him early on, and then grew lukewarm toward him, and finally dismissed him altogether.”

          Wow, Nina, that’s a huge project, but a fascinating one. I’d love to hear what you find out. I’ve pondered the origins of the backlash against him many times myself, and like you believe there are “myriad psychological, social, and political” reasons – some of them specific to Michael Jackson and some not. After all, this pattern of turning against a superstar repeats itself over and over again in our history.

          It seems that it lies, at least in part, with how so many critics, and people in general, define themselves through who they like and dislike at the moment. It’s “cool” to like an up-and-coming new talent no one else has heard of yet, and it’s “uncool” to like that same artist if they become too popular, and certainly not once they’ve passed the highest peak of their popularity. It’s like critics, especially, have to distinguish themselves from the masses by scorning an artist who has been embraced by the masses – and then that scorn spreads outwards through the population.

          And you’re absolutely right, Nina, that in the early stages of the backlash, “much was made of how ‘safe’ he was, how ‘clean’ — much to the scorn of a lot of rock-oriented, hipsterish music critics at the time.” It reminds me of something he wrote in Moonwalk, which was published in February 1988, about the same time as “Leave Me Alone”:

          “I think I have a goody-goody image in the press and I hate that. … Everybody has many facets to them and I’m no different” (277).

          It’s one of many quotes that’s painfully ironic in hindsight. Anyway, I’d love to hear the results of your research!

    • Very astute, thought-provoking comments, Nina. Would it be possible for you to send me the disc of photos you mentioned?

  10. Brilliant discussion!

    Just wanted to know, Willa:
    What do you mean by stating that Michael created a new type of art?

    I’ll relly can’t see it… MJ was an amazing singer, composer, dancer, visual artist etc. but none of those things are entirely ”new”. Even the trick of mirroring people’s feelings and fears has been performed by clowns countless times before MJ. He did combine elements in unique and novel ways, but where is the new type of art that you see?

    That’s quite a claim to make – like saying that a specific person invented sculpturing or painting – so could you please enlighten me and the other readers…

    • The fourth line of my previous comment should of course read: I really can’t see it …

    • “What do you mean by stating that Michael created a new type of art?”

      Hi musubana. You’re right, that is “quite a claim to make,” but I do believe it’s true. In fact, I believe we could even suggest that he created two closely related genres of art. I’m still working through these ideas, so don’t have a ready answer. But if you don’t mind, I’ll think out loud for a bit and see if I can give a sense of what I mean. And maybe you or others can respond and help clarify this.

      Michael Jackson studied martial arts, and as I understand it, a central principle of marital arts is that, when attacked, you should redirect your assailant’s energy and then use their energy against them. (My son studied aikido for a short time, and this was one of the first things he was taught.) I believe that Michael Jackson used a similar strategy when responding to the barrage of attacks on his character after 1993. The media kept imposing false labels on him – most painfully that he was a pedophile – and he kept denying those claims, but it didn’t work. His denials did nothing to change the dominant narrative. So I think at some point he began to redirect that energy and use it against them.

      For example, in April 2003 Maureen Orth published a truly despicable article about him in Vanity Fair. It’s lurid and sensationalistic – the very worst of yellow journalism. And it begins with a bizarre report that he had been engaging in voodoo. Here’s Orth’s intro:

      “David Geffen, be gone! Steven Spielberg, be gone!” The witch doctor cursing Michael Jackson’s enemies and blessing the tarnished King of Pop himself in a voodoo ritual in Switzerland in the summer of 2000 had promised that the 25 people on Jackson’s enemies list, some of whom had worked with him for years, would soon expire. The voodoo man later assured one close observer of the scene that David Geffen, who headed the list, would die within the week. But Geffen’s demise did not come cheap. Jackson had ordered his then business adviser, Myung-Ho Lee, a U.S.-educated Korean lawyer based in Seoul, to wire $150,000 to a bank in Mali for a voodoo chief named Baba, who then had 42 cows ritually sacrificed for the ceremony.

      I think it is safe to say that this story is ludicrous, and the fact that it was published in a somewhat respectable magazine is astonishing. (One of Vanity Fair‘s contributing editors is Carl Bernstein, whose investigative reporting helped break open the Watergate case.) Where did this ridiculous story come from?

      It seems to me there are three possibilities. One is that Maureen Orth invented this story herself and published it as true; however, I find that very unlikely. As little respect as I have for Orth’s reporting, I don’t think she would sink so low as to make up a story, especially one so detailed and so easy to disprove. She repeatedly references Myung-Ho Lee, a financial adviser Michael Jackson fired – in fact, it’s implied that he was her source – and he could easily deny her claims if she simply made them up. That raises the second possibility, which is that Lee invented this story and then passed it off to Orth as true, but again that strikes me as very unlikely. It’s too detailed, too easy to disprove, and too outrageous. I just can’t believe Lee would simply invent a story like this.

      That leaves the third possibility, which is that Michael Jackson invented this story himself and convinced Lee it was true. That not only seems possible to me; it seems probable. Almost everyone who knew him well – his mother, his brothers, his friends – talk about what a trickster he was. In fact, he himself told Rabbi Boteach, “That’s my most favorite thing in the whole world, to prank people.” Most convincing of all, to me, is something he told Randy Taraborrelli:

      Why not just tell people I’m an alien from Mars? Tell them I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight. They’ll believe anything you say.

      So he’s pretty much saying you can tell the press an outrageous voodoo story and they’ll believe it. And he was right, as the Orth article proves.

      So we can look at this incident as a prank designed to discredit the media, and I think that’s true. It proves very effectively just how sloppy Orth was in reporting on Michael Jackson, and how willing she was to believe the very worst about him. But I also think it was a lot more than that. I think that, after 1993, Michael Jackson was being assailed from all sides with charges that he was a pedophile, that his behavior was out of control, and I think at some point he began redirecting that tremendous energy and turning it against itself, as we see in the Orth article.

      I believe that from the mid-1990s on, we all witnessed a global drama about a fictional character named Wacko Jacko. And I believe that persona performed an important cultural and psychological function: it became the “monster” the public needed, and it helped express and to some extent neutralize the intense emotions swirling around Michael Jackson, as representative of “difference” and “other.” In other words, I believe Wacko Jacko functioned like the werewolf and zombie in Thriller, and the skull masks in Ghosts.

      That doesn’t mean Michael Jackson had complete control over that character. I don’t think that’s true. In fact, I think a lot of the Wacko Jacko mania was imposed on him by unscrupulous people. Instead, I think Wacko Jacko was something of an exquisite corpse (there’s that word “corpse” again) that existed as a constant mediation between Michael Jackson as artist and the popular press. And there has never been a work of art like it before – in form, function, or scope.

      However, talking about this work of art simply as a persona misses something important. I’m thinking now about Elaine Scarry’s incredible book, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. In it, she describes how ideologies are “made real” by being grounded in real, physical, sentient human bodies. I think Michael Jackson’s persona was “made real” by being linked in important ways to his body, and I believe this is a new avenue of art as well. That’s what I meant when I said it’s almost like he created two closely related genres. But I’m still in the very early stages of thinking this through.

      So that was a very long and wandering response, but I hope it gets across some of the concepts I’ve been thinking about.

      • Willa —

        That voodoo story is absolutely fascinating. It reminds me of MJ’s song “Why You Want to Trip on Me?” He sings it with such sadness in his voice, wondering why, with all the things going seriously wrong in the world –things which if ignored are going to destroy us, world hunger, police brutality — the media is so focused on reporting nonsense about him, and the public is so willing to spend its time on nonsense rather than on the things that are really important.

        So, if I am following your logic, in the artistic creation of the Wacko Jacko character, he gives up on the media, and a public that only wants to read garbage, and gives them what they want, so they can endlessly trip on him — but, in a way, he has the last laugh: they truly trip on him — as in stumble — reporting what is false as true and thus doing a disservice to themselves, their profession, and the public.

        In creating this fictional character, he reveals two truths: he proves to himself just how willing the press is to malign him, perhaps making the pedophile accusations easier for him to bear. But, he also reveals the fourth estate’s dereliction of duty to keep the public informed of what is or should be important to them, as well as the public’s denial of the truth of what is really going on in the world.

        But, in order for his artistic strategy of this fictional character to work, the press and the public have to at some point become conscious of just how cruel and how shallow they are. Does this happen through recognition, at some point, of the patent absurdity of their stories? Is his creation of this fictional character an example of MJ appearing to engage in “transgressions sufficiently mind-boggling that illusion must resurface from the unconscious, where it lies forgotten ?” His illusion makes us aware of our delusion?

        • “Is his creation of this fictional character an example of MJ appearing to engage in ‘transgressions sufficiently mind-boggling that illusion must resurface from the unconscious, where it lies forgotten?’ His illusion makes us aware of our delusion?”

          Hi Eleanor. I really believe so. In fact, I think that’s why that quotation keeps circling around in my head: because it captures something important about trickster figures and their improper pranks – pranks that defy and undermine propriety, which encourages us to normalize ourselves and our behavior and reject the weird, the freakish, the abnormal. They show us that our ideas of what’s proper and normal and natural are merely human constructs – they “make us aware of our delusion,” as you put it so well.

          But as you point out, for it to work we have to be made aware of how false our perceptions have been, and how does that happen? A friend and I have wrestled with that question a lot, and haven’t really developed any good answers. I really don’t know. The best I can come up with is a line Michael Jackson repeated often in later years – that “lies run sprints but the truth runs marathons.” I think he simply had faith that, once the media hysteria had passed, people would begin looking at everything with more judicious eyes and the truth would be revealed.

          • “lies run sprints”–let’s hope one day we can say they have finished that sprint, and the truth is still running the marathon b/c so many lies are out there. For example, Orth claims that re Jordan Chandler’s description of MJ’s private parts: “the photos matched the drawings exactly”–now how would she know that? Did she see the drawings? the photos? She gives no source. I find it incredible that any reputable magazine would print such a claim without a reliable source. But this and other lies get repeated and recycled.

            Regarding MJ as a meta-artist, I have been thinking that he broke new artistic territory when he staged global events, such as the Thriller and Black or White broadcasts. In BoW, I read the broadcast was simultaneous to 27 countries. This is using technology to create art on a global scale. He continued to do this after death when the Memorial program was watched by a billion people. These are such amazing numbers. So maybe his way of bringing us all together in a common experience is the meta-art, or part of it? Look also at the moonwalk on Motown 25–all the people watching this at the same time and talking about it!

          • Interesting ideas about the trickster figure here, and WJ as a persona performing cultural and psychological functions.

      • You know Willa and Eleanor, you might be on to something.

        What comes to mind for me are comments made by LMP over the years. She has talked many times about the public Michael Jackson and the private man she fell in love with. I also remember her talking in an interview before his death and after their break up, about this “Howard Hughes type thing he had going on” and how she kept telling him it wasn’t working for him. I think she also explained in the Oprah interview after his death that she thought it was a protection mechanism for him, having been brought it in a business that was all about creating an illusion.I understood what she meant and at the time I just took it as private Michael was totally different from public Michael (or MJJ Inc as I call it). That it was something Michael did for fun and as a way to keep people guessing.

        Very interesting.

      • Hi, Willa–wow, it seems we really are opening all the cans of worms at once–the surgeries, LMP, Wacko Jacko–and why not. Let’s go for it. To respond to your suggestions about MJ the prankster and martial artist deliberately planting that voodoo story, let me say that none of the pranks that I know of involve killing people and animals and for that reason I do not believe MJ deliberately planted that story. Dropping water balloons, throwing pies, even saying you are sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber or buying the Elephant Man’s bones–none of these involve harming, let alone killing, another being. (MJ denied that he wanted to buy the bones or that he slept in the chamber or that he planted the stories.)

        So where did that story come from? I am not sure of the date of the Orth hit-piece on MJ in 2003, however there is an interesting cascade of events that happen in 03. MJ is due to release the Number Ones album, he is supposed to do a CBS special which will have the new film One More Chance in it as part of the PR around this release, he is supposed to be interviewed by Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes (CBS), and Bashir is showing the LWMJ. However all this (supposed to be positive about MJ) falls apart. In Feb 03, while Ed Bradley is waiting at Neverland for MJ to come down and do the interview, MJ does not appear b/c he gets a call from Marlon Brando in London saying that the declaration that Jordan Chandler gave and that was sealed is on the internet and will soon be in all the papers. MJ does not do that interview b/c he is so upset. Who leaked the declaration? In March 03, LWMJ is shown. Then the day that MJ is filming One More Chance in LA, Sneddon’s 70-100 detectives invade Neverland and tear the place apart. Number Ones and the single One More Chance are released as planned in November, but in November MJ is arrested and charged. Coincidence?The CBS TV special and Ed Bradley’s interview are delayed. Ed Bradley later does the interview where MJ talks about how they mistreated him during the booking. Then the special is shown minus the One More Chance film, which was never completed.

        Ok–long and short–MJ was planning a lot of good PR events–they all turned upside down. Someone leaked a sealed declaration by Jordan Chandler with a lot of salacious accusations that were never addressed in a court. Martin Bashir twists his interview to put MJ in a terrible position directly leading to the nightmare of the Garvin Arvizo accusations and MJ’s arrest and trial. All this is terrible timing for MJ to do well with his new releases. Was the Orth Vanity Fair article part of this smear campaign?

        Ok–let’s go to Myung Ho Lee. From what I can gather, he started being MJ’s financial advisor in 97. Lee negotiated huge sums of money–we are talking $140 million loans here. It seems during the Bashir nightmare in 03, MJ accused Lee of breaching contracts and not acting in good faith to protect MJ. MJ says his name was forged on an agreement to pay Lee $12 million. Lee is fired. They each sue the other. Lee settles with MJ but is later sued by his own lawyers (!). In all this acrimony, Lee becomes the source for Orth’s piece in Vanity Fair.

        Do I believe anything either Lee or Orth says–no. Do I believe MJ planted any of the material that appeared in the Orth article –no. Do I believe there was some kind of coordinated effort to bring MJ down and make $$ in the process, involving Lee, Orth, Sneddon, Dimond, Bashir, and others–yes. Do I believe all this happening in 2003 is just a coincidence–no.

        • Hi Aldebaran. I agree that the voodoo story is kind of disturbing, even “scary” – just like the ghost stories in Ghosts – and if this were just a prank I might agree that it goes too far. (Though we are talking about an imaginary event. No actual deaths took place, of animals or humans, despite Orth’s reporting to the contrary.)

          But I don’t think this is just a prank. Not at all. I think this is much more than that. I think it is part of a project to challenge some of our worst cultural narratives – our cultural nightmares even – and to really challenge them you have to go down into the lair where those nightmares live, and wrestle with some pretty disturbing images that have been embedded in our cultural consciousness.

          Think about Thriller. It’s not a nice story. A sweet-faced teenaged boy named Michael turns into a werewolf, attacks his girlfriend and presumably kills her, then is shot and killed himself by the police. (We don’t see that part, but we hear the gunshots.) Then he turns into a zombie and threatens her again, and again, and again. Does that mean Michael Jackson, the artist behind the film, is saying it’s ok to attack women? Some critics have read it that way, but I strongly believe that is a simplistic interpretation that completely misreads how this film functions, both culturally and psychologically.

          And I think the same is true of the Orth story in particular, and the Wacko Jacko stories in general. Think of what Michael Jackson told Taraborrelli: “Tell them I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight.” That’s a pretty gruesome image if you take it literally, but I don’t think it’s meant that way. Again, I think he’s confronting the narratives that are being imposed on him – that he is scary and alien and out of control – and redirecting and neutralizing them, just as he does in Thriller and Ghosts. (Think about what the Mayor says to the Maestro in Ghosts – “You’re weird, you’re strange, and I don’t like you,” and “We don’t need freaks like you.” That’s exactly what the press is telling Wacko Jacko.)

          • Hi, Willa–Thanks for your reply. However, I have to say I am in no way persuaded that MJ is the source for those voodoo stories from Orth. You say no animals were sacrificed–yet the purpose was to sacrifice them in order to kill 25 of MJ’s enemies, including Spielberg and Gefflin. Everyone who knew MJ says he wouldn’t hurt a fly. In fact, he is seen stopping his concert in order to call security to take an insect off the stage and when the guard leaves with the insect MJ says “Don’t kill it!” and the guard holds up the insect. So this story is not in character–to say the least. Also that year that Orth wrote the story (03) was a terrible year in which the Bashir LWMJ came out and MJ was arrested in November. He also had 2 lawsuits that year going on–Myung Ho Lee and concert producer Avram. It was not a time to be playing pranks by putting out these incredibly damaging stories. The other point is that if the purpose was to defuse the public’s revulsion, it didn’t work as he only ended up with a horrible court case which devastated his energy, his finances, his career. I don’t think MJ was that stupid–but I think Maureen Orth and Taraborelli are. I do not believe that MJ said what Taraborelli quoted him as saying re eating live chickens. Taraborelli is a notoriously unreliable source who was loosely linked to the Jackson family when MJ lived at Hayvenhurst and did not have, as far as I know, any contact with MJ himself after MJ left the Encino compound.

            This is what Dieter Weisner (MJ’s manager 96-03) said about MJ after he saw the Bashir piece: “It broke him. It killed him. He took a long time to die, but it started that night.” Dieter said in an interview that MJ believed that Bashir was honorable and that he wouldn’t betray him, even when reports came out that the interview would not be favorable. Dieter describes how MJ reacted after the broadcast: “Michael was a very proud man. To see this proud man sitting on the bed and crying like a child . . . it was incredibly hard.” Here is link to a transcript of the interview.


            I just don’t think MJ would be ‘pranking’ with putting out stories about sacrificing cows, goats, etc in order to kill 25 human enemies–and then leak it to Orth. I also think the links to Thriller are tenuous–that shots are fired so to conclude he kills Ola Ray–she is in the movie theater, she is never harmed, even at the end. Also Thriller is 1982 and we are talking 2003 for the Orth article.

            But I also have to say I am extremely grateful that you referred to the Orth article as I went back and read it, and never before have I read such utter hatefulness towards another human being; venom truly dripped from her pen. (I had read one of her 5 articles, but not the 03 one.) Here is her conclusion to the 03 piece: “Now that Michael Jackson has three children of his own—children who are growing up with no mother, who live under constant camera surveillance, whose diets are prescribed, and whose faces are wrapped when they venture out in public—it will be interesting to see one day how they remember their father.” Yes, Maureen, it will be interesting, and I hope you have heard Paris say that MJ was “just a normal Dad, except he as the best Dad.” This is a person who had an extreme vendetta against MJ, starting in 93. She is also deeply connected to Sneddon, Dimond, and the whole effort to destroy MJ. I read that on the way to hear the jury’s verdict, MJ kicked his shoe against the inside of the limo and kept asking Why? Why? This is what I have to ask too– why? It is hatred beyond comprehension.

      • @Willa

        Thank you for this very detailed reply!

        I don’t know enough to say whether MJ indeed created a WJ persona as a work of art, but the idea is quite fascinating!

        I’m not quite sure whether this – if true – could be said to be a new genre, though.
        I would call it performance theatre on a global level. There are various other artists doing similar things (albeit on a smaller scale); in Denmark there’s for instance the group Surrend who have published fake ads in Iranian newspapers, and the artist Das Beckwerk, who pretended to be a corporation representing a nameless person who had died (his old self before he began annihilating his identity) – to name a few.

        I hope you’ll continue your investigations on this!

        • Hi musubana. You’re right that there are a number of performance artists conducting their work outside a traditional theater and blurring the boundary between what’s “real” and what’s “art.” There have even been other artists whose public persona is something of a work of art, going back to Byron and Shelley in the early 1800s. However, this is only a part of what Michael Jackson is doing, I think, and when seen in its totality, the public function of Wacko Jacko (artistically, culturally, psychologically) seems fundamentally different to me than anything that has been undertaken before.

          It seems to me that Wacko Jacko, as a cultural signifier, came to embody “otherness” in the press and in the popular imagination, and I use that word “embody” very deliberately. All of our deepest fears and abjections became attached to his body: specifically, our fears about the dissolution of boundaries of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, age, religion, or even just the boundary between ourselves and those who are simply uncomfortably odd or different in some way – boundaries that distinguish between us (the clean, the sane, the appropriate, the proper) and not-us (the unclean, the disturbing, the inappropriate, the “other”). In other words, his body became the locus of our deepest fears about the transgression of the boundaries that separate us from the “other” and keep us safe.

          Michael Jackson repeatedly and insistently positioned himself in the uncomfortable gray area between our tidy social categories, and for years he inhabited the shadowy region where our worst fears reside, according to Kristeva’s ideas. That position was monstrous to the public imagination, in many ways, and I think Wacko Jacko became the public embodiment of that monstrosity. And while I don’t believe Michael Jackson, the artist, ever had complete control over Wacko Jacko – far from it – I think he had more control than we realize. As Nina and others have suggested, I think Wacko Jacko was a constant mediation between Michael Jackson as artist and his audience, including the tabloid press and us.

          But while I believe it was a mediation, and while I believe many false narratives were imposed on him against his will, I also think he very deliberately accepted/rejected, complicated, and engaged with the role of monster or “boogieman” in the public imagination, and we see references to that throughout his work – in Thriller, Ghosts, “Threatened,” “Monster,” “Breaking News,” and most explicitly in “Is It Scary,” to name a few.

          I’m still working my way through this, so my thinking is far from settled, but this is how I’m conceptualizing it at the moment. And the insightful discussion in the comments this week is really helping me work through these ideas, so thank you sincerely!

          • Thank you for your insights, Willa!

            I haven’t thought so much about public personas and performance art before (except writing an article about ”the corpse with no identity” aka the corporation Das Beckwerk for an ethnographic journal here in Denmark, where I also threw in a reference to MJ).
            But the idea that MJ engaged us at a more profound level than any performance artist before him … is fascinating, to say the least. I still don’t know if that qualifies as an entirely new art form, but I am certainly looking forward to any discoveries you make on this!

            I guess I’m not the only person occasionally becoming tired and bitter because of the many meaningless tasks imposed on us by our modern societies. Now that you made me think of it, I can recall several situations where MJ (or rahter WJ) has served as a ”bitterness receptor”, a Wailing Wall for disillusioned souls:

            – a German tabloid (Die Zeit, I think) which brought the story of MJ’s bandaged nose with a condemnation that ran more or less like ”Is that the Strafe (punishment) because he wanted to be so heavenly beautiful”? [The implication, of course, is that ”black people are ugly”, and ”white people are beautiful”, and that MJ, by daring to leave his assigned place in his desire to become ”white”, somehow threatened the Divine Order, this inevitably leading to a fall from grace and a total disintegration of his being.]

            – a former boss of mine who had to tackle a situation of racism against an African. The boss (a hard-working and usually very friendly white man) seemed very tired as he let go off a spontaneous comment of how hard is must be having Black skin (the ”poor fellow” kind of comment). In the next second he added ”but Michael Jackson knew what to do about that”. That line seemed to come out of nowhere – we hadn’t been discussing music or art at all at the meeting – but he did look less ”bitter” and more relaxed after having said it.

            – (Ok, I stop here, I could go on and on, with my own relatives etc.!)

          • Hi musubana. Lisha or Nina no doubt know a lot more about this than I do, but it seems to me that deciding whether or not Michael Jackson was creating a new art form is a pretty tricky business – and the more you look at it, the murkier it becomes. As with all attempts to divide the world into categories, it’s very subjective and depends on how minutely you define those categories.

            For example, is glam rock completely separate from heavy metal? They’re both rock music. How about rock and classical? They’re both musical performances. What about a concert and a play? They’re both performing arts. Then what about the performing arts and the visual arts, like sculpture or painting? They’re both art – they’re both stylized representations of the artist’s vision. And what about an artist who creates incredible set designs for a Broadway play – is that artist engaging in a visual art or a performance art? Where exactly do we draw the boundary between forms?

            And of course, as soon as we draw a boundary, we’ll probably find that Michael Jackson was trying to blur it, cross it, complicate it, erase it. So not sure where to go with that. As I said, it seems like the more I think about it, the murkier it becomes and the less confident I feel about any sort of boundary….

      • Interesting connection to Scarry’s The Body in Pain, Willa. Just pulled that off my book shelf.

  11. Thanks, Madi G and Nina YF and Lorenzo for your comments and insights re Michael’s face and its changes. I have not done anywhere near the research that others have, including Willa, of course, but from what I have read I conclude the following:

    –MJ had the following diseases starting from around the time of Thriller (at least)–lupus and vitiligo (both autoimmune diseases, affecting the skin).

    –His father called him ‘big nose’ and abused him verbally about it.

    –as a teenager he had very bad acne that embarrassed him.

    –he broke his nose during a dance rehearsal. Not sure the exact date. He had his first rhinoplasty (nose job). This operation was not a success b/c he had trouble breathing afterwards, so they did it again (Dr. Steve Hoefflin).

    –After those 2 rhinoplasties, MJ’s lupus/vitiligo diseases kicked up such that the skin did not heal properly around the sites of the surgery, so he began to have reconstructive surgeries b/c of dead or dying skin and lesions developing.

    –according to court-appointed (by Sneddon) dermatologist Dr. Strick, who looked at MJ’s medical records, MJ’s reconstructive surgeries to repair the necropsies were an attempt to make MJ ” look like a normal guy”.

    (So MJ had the 2 rhinoplasties but had to keep going back for reconstructive surgeries.)

    –autopsy confirmed vitiligo and tattoos on MJ’s lips, eyebrows, and upper forehead near the hairline.

    –MJ admitted having a cleft put on his chin (reportedly to make him look more masculine?)

    –Dr. Klein and Karen Faye have said that as the vitiligo progressed it wasn’t possible to keep using dark makeup to cover up the white patches b/c there were too many white patches, so they went for removing pigment entirely, so MJ’s skin looked translucent or without color–(maybe like an albino?)

    So my guess from this is that he had the tattoos to add permanent color to lips, eyebrows, hairline, so that he wouldn’t look like a totally pale ghost as he lost pigment. When he had the rhinoplasties, he opted for a smaller, more upturned nose–why? b/c his father had made him sensitive to his nose and b/c he wanted to look like Peter Pan (maybe?). Why did he have the cleft put in his chin? Maybe it was indeed to make him look more like Kirk Douglas (?) b/c he could see that due to the loss of skin pigment added to his naturally delicate (and beautiful) bone structure, he was looking more feminine and the cleft might look more masculine (?).

    I have an unpublished photo of MJ taken when he was 14 on the 1973 Japan tour. When you see the photo there is no mistaking who it is. Everything regarding his face is as we know it to be later on except the nose is wider, of course his skin is darker, and no chin cleft. All else is the same.

    I think as the skin diseases progressed, he took to wearing more make-up and getting the tattoos. (The real estate agent who helped him buy Neverland talks about him wearing makeup in 1987-88.) The scalp burn led to his need for wigs (also lupus and vitiligo lead to hair loss). The media picked the worst photos to show–actually he looked great in his last short film (On More Chance), when he appeared post trial (at James Brown’s funeral, etc), and in the early stages of the trial, and even in This Is It, altho he (and his face) looked thin.

    I am leaning to Dr. Strick’s POV combined with Willa’s POV: he wanted to look ‘like a normal guy,’ but normal for Michael Jackson, meaning, as close as he could get to how he wanted to look given the many physical issues he had to face and still be the beautiful, amazing, unique man and artist he always was.

    If he had wanted to look like a ‘freak’ to challenge the audience into acceptance, it didn’t work, and if so, why would he sue a UK paper (the Sun or Daily Mirror, not sure which) for saying his face was ‘horribly disfigured’ by surgeries?

    Here is a short clip of the interview Geraldo had with Dr. Strick:

    • Aldebaran, I just think that you are closer to reality. I certainly can not believe of what must have been hard for him throughout this situation, the fact that he loved performing strongly in public, that he is become the greatest entertainer in the world, yet constantly struggling with physical problems so highly “visible”.
      And then all attacks on his dignity as a person.
      I have always believed that the two are highly correlated: attackable attacked because in many respects.
      Thanks Aldebaran …

  12. That video clip is quite misleading, as the poster states that the doctor says the Chandler description matched, while in reality Dr. Strick says: “I was told later that the description matched.” Quite a discrepancy. Also, after Dr. Strick’s assessment that all of the nose surgeries were for reconstructive purposes and Michael’s plastic surgeries were an effort to look normal while fighting the two autoimmune conditions lupus and vitiligo, Geraldo himself contradicts the doctor and claims it wasn’t so. Wisely, the poster disabled the comment section so that no viewer can set the record straight. The people in the video even tut-tut because Michael “threw a tantrum like a six-year-old” during the strip-search instead of submitting to it like a man. How insensitive could they get? Geraldo, while maintaining Michael’s innocence in the second case, did much to damage MJ’s reputation during the interviews. Rivera suffers from foot-in-mouth disease even to this day, as his widely reported Trayvon Martin “hoodie” comment shows.

  13. Hi, Kris, the link I gave is to a clip 1.02 minutes long and it has some comments. I had trouble getting to it from the link I gave; I had to copy and paste in the address bar and take out the period ( I think you went to another clip. I did see that there were other clips on youtube about Dr. Strick, and I deliberately did not link to one that claimed there was a ‘match.’ I agree Geraldo played a strange role–so he was not favorable during the 1993 allegations but supportive in 05.

    MJ ‘threw a tantrum’ b/c it was an incredible violation of his civil rights–since when can the state inspect and take photos of your private parts? Matt Drudge even went ballistic over this (see vindicatemj website). Also, MJ told Boteach that Joe made him strip naked before he whipped him, so it was a replay of past abuse. He settled a few days later–the strip search was right before Christmas. This reminds me of the tests for witchcraft–examining the body of the accused for places where ‘familiar spirits’ (imps that the witch supposedly controlled) could suck–any kind of little warts or skin flaps. There was not a match of course b/c if there had been he would have been arrested and taken into custody.

    • re strip search:

      I remember a reviewer of History condemning the booklet photo of young MJ naked in a bath tub. His genitals are visible. ”Star pornography?” the reviewer provocatively asked (in Norwegian). By linking the photo of an innocent child to pornography, the writer revealed his/her (don’t remember the name/sex) own ”dirty” imagination, in a way turning the media and the public into the real culprits of ”child abuse”.

      It now occurs to me that that photo was MJ’s in-your-face response to the strip search and the allegations: You want to see me naked? Okay, here you are, feel free to wallow.

      • It’s so interesting that you mention that adorable picture of baby MJ getting into the tub. I didn’t know that it was first released on the History album, when Michael was responding artistically to the turmoil that was happening in his life. It’s also interesting to note that I’ve seen the pictures in various other places/posts, and sometimes the genitals have been edited out! I’ve always wondered why that was done, perhaps it speaks to our nation’s obsession with child pornography, to edit something so incredibly innocent.

  14. @aldebaran Right–Yes, I did try your link but it didn’t work, even when I copied and pasted it. I find it alarming that the strip-search photos they took of MJ are still in some vault and could yet wind up on the front page of every gossip rag. It seems to me the Estate should take steps to have them returned and destroyed. I just tried to google a great article about the art of Michael’s face I read right after his death, and couldn’t find it. But in the process I realized what a vast amount of wrong and misleading information as well as half-truths and out-and out lies about Michael are still floating around in the internet ether. It’s a life-time’s worth of misinformation. Made me appreciate all over again the sanity and vision of this web-site. Anyone trying to do research from scratch can so easily be led astray. Once again I have to agree with Willa and Joie’s approach of celebrating the man and his art.


    Hi, Kris, I am trying to provide the link again. I agree those photos need to be destroyed and that there is a lot of misinformation out there–not surprising given decades of unscrupulous ‘journalism.’ Also agree with you that this site is a breath of fresh air.

  16. Hi Willa and Aldebaran —

    As to MJ planting the extreme voodoo story, I don’t quite know what to think. The remark to Taraborelli seems more reasonable — in that he seemed to be saying, “Tell them anything, the more grotesque the better, and they will believe it”. Al Sharpton pointed out at the memorial service, in quite an understatement that there was nothing strange about MJ — but it was strange how he was treated. I do think it is reasonable to believe that after a while, MJ got so sick of being misrepresented — and so out of control of the misrepresentations — that he decided to put out false info about himself. Although he was gentle and loving, he was also very, very angry — as he had every right to be– and the anger comes through in his dancing as well as his music. (It is a personal anger, but it is also righteous indignation at the damage “we” do, while clinging to an image of being well meaning and good hearted.) So, it is not too far a leap to think that in his anger and frustration he put out false stories. But was he cutting off his nose to spite his face, or was there a deeper, artistic intent, as Willa believes?

    What a riddle. In everything he did and everything he was, he was “speaking truth to power.” He was embracing his identity as a young black male in a time when to be a young black male was to be seen as a mugger, a rapist, and a murderer — someone who was hardly even recognized as being human. In his success, he was saying, “I am a young black male, and I have more brilliance, more sensitivity, more compassion in my little finger than all white society put together. In the truth of who I am, I am proof of your falsehood.” In his music, he told it like it was — from the truth of the joy and sweetness of young love to the despair of being abandoned in his fame, and the despair over the treatment of the earth and the trashing of children and the poor all over the planet.

    How to reconcile a man devoted to truth with a man who created a false image? But was it false if he was mirroring back to us the grotesque image we were projecting on to him? So many questions.

  17. Some intriguing ideas here…. and I love that passage from “The Trickster” that you quoted, Willa, which is very resonant with so much of what I believe Michael was about.

    It’s refreshing to finally hear some creative control or agency attributed to Michael and some of his actions. Many fans, I think, get very caught up in a narrative of Michael as an ideal victim, and so their idea of his transforming appearance is limited to, “He had vitiligo. End of Story.”

    Still, I don’t believe we’re ever likely to come up with a definitive answer to these questions, no matter how hard we ponder it, and no matter what new information may emerge. It’s a fascinating inquiry in itself, but I really believe that the “truth” that will run marathons will be forged over time as a collaborative work of putting together these “reality fictions.”

    The dominant narrative about Michael Jackson (if one ever emerges) will itself be a kind of “Frankenstein monster,” a patchwork of disparate stories, rather than anything that we can definitively state as fact. His motives, to my way of thinking, appear too complex, too multifaceted, and at times too contradictory to even be able to make a compelling case for a singlular motive.

    “Michael Jackson” is not separate from us! His readers, his spectators, his viewers, his interpreters, are all part of a collaborative process that brings both “Michael Jackson” and “Wacko Jacko” into being. I think this is shown quite graphically in “Ghosts.” The Maestro, for all his supernatural powers, becomes the screen onto which his viewers project their own anxieties, a creation of the collective imaginations of everyone in that liminal space that has both liberated and entrapped him.

    I keep returning to this question: do we interpret the artist’s work through what we know about his life—or do we try to make sense of his life through the symbols and forms we find in his work? I guess this is a question that may arise with any artist.

    Although this may raise some hackles, I believe that the construction of these “reality fictions”–rather than some satisfying conclusion that can be accepted as *absolute truth*—is what we dare reach for. It’s happened with so many artists in the past, after all: a combination of fact, fiction, mystery, legend, myth emerges that people, over time, come to regard as “the real story.”

    • @Nina Y F says
      “do we interpret the artist’s work through what we know about his life—or do we try to make sense of his life through the symbols and forms we find in his work?”

      Perfectly questioned!

    • Nina, so many great points you make here.

      “His motives, to my way of thinking, appear too complex, too multifaceted, and at times too contradictory to even be able to make a compelling case for a singlular motive.” I agree with this, and you put it so well.

      And I love this point: ” “Michael Jackson” is not separate from us! His readers, his spectators, his viewers, his interpreters, are all part of a collaborative process that brings both “Michael Jackson” and “Wacko Jacko” into being.” I’ve been thinking along the same lines, and again, you put it very well, especially referring to it as a collaborative process. I’ve been thinking about how fans in particular help create “MJ” but as you point out, the work being done goes beyond fans.

      And this: “Although this may raise some hackles, I believe that the construction of these “reality fictions”–rather than some satisfying conclusion that can be accepted as *absolute truth*—is what we dare reach for. It’s happened with so many artists in the past, after all: a combination of fact, fiction, mystery, legend, myth emerges that people, over time, come to regard as “the real story.” ”


    • “The dominant narrative about Michael Jackson (if one ever emerges) will itself be a kind of “Frankenstein monster,” a patchwork of disparate stories, rather than anything that we can definitively state as fact. His motives, to my way of thinking, appear too complex, too multifaceted, and at times too contradictory to even be able to make a compelling case for a singlular motive.”

      Very well put, Nina. I agree that a lot of this comes down to whether we are assessing MJ as a cultural signifier/artist or as a human being with very specific life experiences, insecurities, etc. Of course, the two are connected in many ways which are worth exploring…

  18. Yes, Destiny and Nina, but what was “his work” and what was not? That is the issue regarding those voodoo stories.

    From the same April 2003 article by Orth quoted above by Willa, additional voodoo ‘info’:

    “Jackson had already undergone a blood bath. The pop star, who is said to be $240 million in debt, had paid six figures for a ritual cleansing using sheep blood to another voodoo doctor and a mysterious Egyptian woman named Samia, who came to him with a letter of greeting from a high-ranking Saudi prince, purportedly Nawaf Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, now the chief of intelligence of Saudi Arabia.

    Anyone who wants to believe this can go ahead. But I do not believe that Michael, a lover of animals and a vegetarian, either actually did this or put this story out. No offense intended, but I think to believe MJ either did this or put it out does not make sense from what I know of him. Is there any evidence to support this idea other than what has been offered so far (i.e., fictional acts in Thriller and Ghosts, mainly involving makeup and special effects)? Orth’s article is 6 years after Ghosts and 21 years after Thriller.

    MJ became a father in 97 (Prince), 98 (Paris), Blanket (02). Would he have put these stories about ritually killing 42 cows in order to kill 25 human enemies and then bathing in sheep’s blood, knowing that one day his kids would find out about it? Just asking.

    I don’t think we need to get into this in order to interpret/discuss “Ghosts,” but since we are in it, this is just my 2 cents.

    • Hey aldebaran –

      You know I never really thought much about this until Willa’s comment. I can;t say I agree 100%, but it does make me think and wonder if the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I think that is similar to what Nina was saying as well. Orth is a idiot. Sorry, I know that’s not nice, but I read her articles after Michael’s passing and wondered how she could write such trash and how Vanity Fair could publish it. Still I have questioned if Michael’s need to control and create his image, and therefor his art, sometimes took a different turn once in the hands of others. So knowing that Michael placed the story about sleeping in the chamber and elephant bones (I think?) and how those sotries got twisted, it is not hard to think of him at the very least telling a crazy story to the business manager even in a joking manner on a good day, who would in turn sell the story once his relationship with Michael went south. Actually, that part about people turning on Michael seems to have happened often as Bob Jones and others come to mind. DO I actually think Michael did these voodoo things? Nope. But I can believe he would tell a crazy story like that. Now after 2003, I think Michael wanted no parts of any of that!

      And as Nina said “… “truth” that will run marathons will be forged over time as a collaborative work of putting together these “reality fictions.” “

    • “Yes … but what was ‘his work’ and what was not?”

      Exactly! That’s the key question, isn’t it?

      And Destiny, your suggestion that “the truth lies somewhere in the middle” sounds very reasonable to me. Like you, I can easily imagine Michael Jackson concocting “a crazy story,” as you say, which was then exaggerated by Lee, and then embellished still more by Orth, who seems determined to assume that all the worst stories about him are true.

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