Seems That the World’s Got a Role For Me
Posted by Dancing with the Elephant contributors
Willa: This week Joie and I are excited to be joined by Sylvia J. Martin, a Research Fellow at the University of California at Irvine with a Ph.D. in anthropology. Sylvia’s work focuses on socio-economic relations in commercial media industries, and this research has led her to study Michael Jackson’s art and cultural impact, both here in the U.S. and overseas while living and working in Hong Kong on a Fulbright scholarship. She is interested in the public and media discourse about Michael Jackson, and has conducted interviews with people who worked with him. She recently published an article in Social Science and Modern Society that explores how, in her words, “Like Superman, Michael Jackson is an American icon who went global.” Thanks so much for joining us, Sylvia!
Joie: Sylvia, can we talk about that word “icon” for a minute? Sometimes I think that we tend to use that word a little bit too much these days and it seems to have become somewhat trivialized. But when someone or something reaches “iconic” status, it really is a big deal in our society, isn’t it? Can you tell us exactly what it means to be an American icon and what that means when thinking about Michael Jackson?
Sylvia: Great question, Joie. I think that an icon, in the context that we are using it, is someone who captures the sentiment and style of a particular moment, who represents the essence of a specific time and/or place. Objects and places can also be iconic; for instance, the Chrysler building may be considered “iconic” of the Art Deco movement. Yet at the same time, an icon has the potential to transcend its particular time and place, to be noteworthy outside of its immediate context.
Willa: Like the Mona Lisa has become iconic, or Munch’s Scream? Or even Einstein’s wild hair or Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair? They’re all instantly recognizable outside their immediate context, as you say, and they all seem to evoke specific connotative meanings that transcend their literal meaning. For example, Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair isn’t just something that moves him from place to place – it also seems to represent the poignancy of a brilliant mind trapped inside a failing body.
Sylvia: Exactly, Willa. Like McDonald’s is iconic of, or epitomizes, the global spread of American products and “values” (fast food for people on the go, affordable meals for families), sometimes at the expense of locally produced food.
So as I discussed in my article, Michael was an American icon because he wasn’t just topping all the charts in his own industry – he was also hailed at the White House, at the Superbowl, at the U.S. military ceremony. Many consider him the quintessential American performer of the 1980s; his domestic success reflects the struggles and accomplishments of the American Civil Rights movement. Yet for decades since, he has found fans in the former Soviet Union and China (some of the U.S.’ Cold War foes), Iran, and India – places with vastly different political and economic trajectories than America’s.
Now, the term “icon” carries religious connotations, in which it is a representation of a deity or revered religious figure, usually in the form of a carving or a mosaic. A comparatively secular, contemporary icon such as Michael may also generate a following, a mysticism. He certainly seems to have! To put fan reverence in context, in India, Bollywood film star Amitabh Bachchan is considered almost divine by many of his fans. And in the south of India, Tamil fans build temples for their favorite stars. So this religious connotation for a celebrity icon is observable across cultures. But it’s also worth pointing out that Michael’s reach isn’t just a result of his tremendous talents; it’s also facilitated by our globalized cultural economy – by global capitalism.
Willa: I was really intrigued by that aspect of your article, Sylvia, and how you suggest that Michael Jackson’s iconic status abroad served a political function as well. As you wrote,
“Jackson’s music and life narrative were upheld at home and abroad as compelling evidence of the ascendancy of American individualism, entrepreneurialism, multiculturalism, and consumer capitalism.”
Yet at times his work also provided a sharp critique of American life and politics, especially in terms of racial prejudices, as you point out as well. So how do you see these two somewhat contradictory impulses playing out, both globally and domestically?
Sylvia: It’s challenging to be both a poster boy and a provocateur of sorts. Outside of the U.S., for the most part people seem to appreciate that he spoke for the mainstream and the marginalized. Within the U.S., it was trickier to pull off, but in the 1980s, at the height of his American solo career, his musical critique had a very light touch. His critique became more explicit as he experienced extortion, media slander, and the pursuit of “justice” by American individuals and agencies with considerable state power.
Joie: That’s a very true statement. Once he experienced the negative side of fame – the extortion, the media slander and the ‘trial by tabloid’ that ensued – he became much more outspoken in his critique of the social ills that plague us.
Sylvia: Exactly, Joie. And lets look at one of the “American values” Michael came to epitomize – individualism. His reading choices reflect that value (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the writer Ralph Emerson). But Michael also expressed, repeatedly, the need for community; he spoke of caring about and acting for the community, our reliance on each other, and he put that communal value into action. And some of that he did at a time when President Reagan was withdrawing state support for social services for low-income people, and promoting the “Pull yourselves up by the bootstraps” ideology.
Lyrics like “We are the world” and “Make a better place / For you and for me / Heal the world we live in / Save it for our children” – note the references to “we” and “our,” to the collective. There are so many lyrical and visual references to the importance of community in Michael’s work. Sure, he happily collected the many accolades awarded to him personally, but he also acknowledged his predecessors, the community of musicians from which he came, and he was a huge philanthropist. And just this one example – of how he represented individualism and, at the other end of the spectrum, community – shows that he had a very broad appeal. Maybe the people filling up stadiums around the world to hear him perform weren’t always consciously thinking about how broad a spectrum Michael represented, but they were filling them up nonetheless, and empowering Michael’s iconicity (and market value).
Now, when Sylvia Chase asked him in 1980 on a 20/20 interview how it felt to perform for hundreds of people, Michael responded that they held hands and rocked and “all colors of people are there, all races, it’s the most wonderful thing, and politicians can’t even do that.” While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, in general, it is hard for politicians to gather a diverse group of people at venue after venue as Michael did.
Willa: That’s true, and I don’t know that politicians are able to get them holding hands and rocking the way Michael Jackson did.
Joie: Yes, I have to say that I don’t think that was an exaggeration on his part at all. It is nearly impossible for politicians to bring people together in that way!
Sylvia: Well, I think some presidential candidates (not to mention political activists and monarchs) have inspired multicultural groups of people to chant, cheer, clap, salute, and stomp their feet in very large numbers. Fleetwood Mac’s performance of “Don’t Stop” at President Clinton’s Inaugural Ball comes to mind – and actually, Michael was there. He even joined Fleetwood Mac and the Clintons to sing on stage! But no, American politicians probably couldn’t bring people together in the way that Michael was talking about, with actual handholding.
Anyway, to just step back and look at the broader cultural context in which Michael became so prominent in the 1980s, we probably should recall that a few charismatic black male speakers in the U.S., such as Fred Hampton (the activist who formed the Rainbow Coalition) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., met untimely deaths just a couple decades prior to Michael’s American peak. I’m not saying that Michael was a political activist or that he was their protégée, but with racism always just under the surface, or on the surface, there were definite risks for black men who tried to speak to a plurality of people, who reached across boundaries that others have worked hard to keep in place.
So in light of this history, perhaps it’s not surprising that Michael faced some backlash for occupying such a broad spectrum, and for being able to get so many people to congregate in one space, over and over. And this is why I quoted James Baldwin in another piece, “Remembering Michael Jackson: Moonwalking Between Contradictions” – Baldwin identified that such unprecedented success and attention on Michael could not be separable from America’s role as a “dishonest custodian of black life.”
As Michael told Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, a lot of the white press didn’t like that he played to stadiums full of screaming white girls around the world, and I think Michael was right to a large degree. By the way, I spoke with a male photojournalist who covered Michael over the last few years of his life, and the journalist was not only bewildered as to why so many women found Michael and his masculine, androgynous, and feminine aspects so sexually appealing, he was clearly bothered by it.
Joie: Really? That is so interesting to me. I’m always fascinated by the fact that so many looked at him and saw him so completely differently. Everyone in the media always tried to make him out to be this weird-looking nut-job with a freaky face but yet, millions of others saw him as very handsome and incredibly sexy.
Willa: I’m fascinated by that too – that different people could see him in such radically different ways. He really did seem to reflect back the expectations and biases that each of us brought to him. And I think you raise an extremely important point, Sylvia, and one that hasn’t been addressed nearly enough. The way he challenged notions of gender and sexuality are every bit as threatening as his transgression of racial boundaries – maybe even more so – and directly tie in with the police actions against him, as well as the media and public backlash.
Sylvia: Exactly, Willa. Michael profoundly challenged white, American, male heteronormative sexuality, caught up as it is in issues of race and “authenticity.” The “confusion” Michael caused is unforgivable, as Susan Fast also mentions in her article, “Difference that Exceeded Understanding: Remembering Michael Jackson 1958-2009.”
Willa: Yes, as Susan Fast puts it so well in her article,
“Please be black, Michael, or white, or gay or straight, father or mother, father to children, not a child yourself, so we at least know how to direct our liberal (in)tolerance. And try not to confuse all the codes simultaneously.”
With so many of our most fraught divisions – of race, gender, age, sexuality, family – he didn’t just cross the boundary, but inhabited an in-between space right at the intersection. And that’s what was so “unforgivable,” as you say.
Sylvia: Yes, he “confused” musical codes (as Lisha pointed out in her discussion of “Black or White“), and he also confused normative social and sexual codes. And it’s that impending confusion that Baldwin referred to in his comment about Michael’s success tapping into America’s discomfort over sexual roles and sexual panic. Anyway, in the process of dealing with backlash over various matters, Michael saw that some of the problems he had identified, particularly in the U.S., were not going away, and in fact deserved more critique (such as racial prejudice and media ethics) which he addressed in his later work. He saw that despite, and in fact maybe because of, his unparalleled success, he was becoming something he probably had not thought he was in danger of becoming: a criminalized black man.
Joie: I don’t know if I’d agree totally with that statement, Sylvia. I think for every Black American man, the thought that you could one day very easily, and through no real fault of your own, become “a criminalized Black male” is a very real one. So I couldn’t say that thought had never crossed Michael’s mind before. In fact, I’d be willing to bet money that it probably had at some point. I think that’s just a fact that all Black American men live with, no matter how successful you become.
Sylvia: I totally agree with you that in all likelihood, Michael knew he could be criminalized. However, I didn’t say the thought had “never” crossed his mind but that he “probably” had not thought he was in danger of becoming criminalized. There is quite a difference.
The reason I said he “probably had not thought he was in danger” is that from what I’ve read and heard it was possible he was at times understandably lulled into a false sense of security by having a private security detail (Bill Bray, etc), access to top lawyers, and institutional accolades. In other words, his class location and profession complicates the race issue because he had access to resources that many non-famous and middle to working class people do not. I am not saying that he wasn’t as much of a target as any other black man, nor am I saying that his visibility rendered him immune – in fact in my comment regarding the threat to charismatic black speakers I’m suggesting that Michael was also very much at risk. But, as much as Michael knew he was a target because he was so famous, I still think there were times when he thought he might have access to more protection from being criminalized than a non-celebrity Black man.
Willa: This is a really complicated issue, I think. In Randy Taraborrelli’s biography, he describes the moment in 1993 when Jordan Chandler’s mother and step-father first warned him about Evan Chandler’s threats:
Michael didn’t take them seriously. “Oh, this kind of stuff happens to me all the time,” he told them. “People are always trying to get money out of me. I’ll have my people work it out. Don’t worry about it.” However, when they played Michael the tape Dave had made of his conversation with Evan, Michael became anxious. “He sounded so angry,” Michael told me of Evan Chandler in an interview months later. “I knew then and there it was extortion. He said it right on the tape. So what I did then,” Michael told me, “was turn it over to [lawyer] Bert [Fields] and [private investigator] Anthony [Pellicano] and I decided to try to forget about it”
When Taraborrelli questions him about this, he responds:
“I don’t think like that,” Michael said bluntly. “I don’t live my life in fear.”
But then I think about something he told Gerri Hirshey in a Rolling Stone article ten years earlier, not long before the Thriller video came out. She wrote,
He is known to conduct his private life with almost obsessive caution, “just like a hemophiliac who can’t afford to be scratched in any way.” The analogy is his.
That line has always stuck with me – just imagining what it must be like to feel you have to live your life that way, with the “obsessive caution” of a hemophiliac. So I think he tried not to “live my life in fear,” as he told Taraborrelli, but he was a student of history, especially Black history, and the U.S. has a long troubling history of “criminalizing” successful Black men. And he was the most successful Black American man ever. So he was a huge target – for the police, the tabloids, the critics, everyone – and I think he was very aware of that.
Sylvia: He was indeed aware. And as we see in the example you cited, he turned the issue over to a pretty high-profile lawyer and private investigator, probably hoping it would be resolved without much damage.
Joie: Willa, I love that Hirshey interview and that comment has always struck me as well. Especially the last sentence – “The analogy is his.” That means those were his words; he described himself as “a hemophiliac who can’t afford to be scratched in any way.” Knowing that this is his description of himself and the way he guards his private life is very telling, I think.
Willa: I agree, and you know, it’s tragically ironic in hindsight, but several people who knew him have suggested that one reason he spent so much time with children was because he thought they were safe. Adults could betray him – and had – and he was concerned about that, but he trusted children. And I think he was right in feeling he could trust children. If you look at what happened in 1993 and in 2003 leading up to the 2005 trial, the accusations didn’t begin with children – they began with adults.
Sylvia: I have to quote the Marxist art critic, David Walsh, here who wrote some of the most astute coverage of the 2005 trial verdict right after it was announced. Walsh hones in on what I believe was at stake: Michael’s perceived threat to “American values.” Walsh writes,
In the brutality of a Sneddon one sees in microcosm the character of the American ruling elite: ignorant, reckless, embittered, endlessly pursuing anyone and anything that hints of opposition or the “counterculture.” Why was Michael Jackson actually on trial? Because his lifestyle is different, even bizarre; because he is perceived to be gay; because he is black. In the paranoid, pornographic vision of the extreme right, whose perverse mental life deserves to be analyzed by a Freud, Jackson represents a provocation and threat to “American values.”
So, the man who was once the top-ranking Western pop star in the former Soviet Bloc according to the Voice of America, and who was celebrated by both Republican and Democrat administrations, ends up becoming a threat to “American values.” The King of Popular music and culture becomes the “counterculture.” Look at how he’s now moved (or, been moved) across the spectrum.
Willa: It’s really pretty shocking, isn’t it? And it’s like a replay of what happened to Charlie Chaplin during the Cold War – in fact, that’s almost the exact language that was used against Chaplin. So this isn’t just a race issue, though race played a very significant role.
Sylvia: Yes, ideology and larger political circumstances play a role here, too, as they did with Chaplin. The moralizing among America’s “ruling elite” after President Clinton’s affair, which was echoed by some of the media, probably led to greater scrutiny (and distortion) of Michael’s high-profile, unconventional lifestyle. I’m also reminded of the 2003 live webchat with Bjork, when people wrote in questions to her, and Michael was one of them. She responded to his question about the influence of nature on her music, and then extended some support to him remarking, “It’s like in the US right now, it’s illegal to be an eccentric.”
Willa: What a great quote!
Joie: It is a great quote!
Willa: And she’s right.
Sylvia: And regarding “American values,” here again, we see the contradictions play out; yes, the U.S. valorizes success … but when we are faced with all the complications that it entails and the human frailties behind it, we turn on it. When Michael took the unconventional step of forming surrogate families such as he did with the Chandlers and friendships with kids as a way to compensate for his loss of childhood that was sacrificed in order to attain that “all-American” success, the reaction in many quarters was to immediately sexualize and therefore criminalize it.
The media-entertainment industrial complex in particular has a long history of sexualizing children. (I showed my students Shirley Temple’s 1932 “Baby Burlesks” films and they were rather shocked to see her, in diapers and aged 3, dance in a “playfully” seductive way.) So it’s not so surprising that many in the media-entertainment industry took the easy route and in turn rushed to sexualize Michael’s relationships with kids. I do think that Michael made some unwise choices along the way, but this “beacon” of the post-Civil Rights American dream was made to pay for the full expression of his art, and the humanity that fueled it. And he paid for his multi-faceted iconicity.
Willa: He really did – he paid for it most painfully. Well, thank you very much for joining us, Sylvia! We’ve really enjoyed talking with you.
We’ve also begun work on the Lyrics Library and just posted the lyrics from the Off the Wall liner notes, so want to invite everyone to come check it out when you get a chance. We’re hoping it will be a fun and useful place to share ideas and gather information about Michael Jackson’s lyrics.
About Dancing with the Elephant contributorsJoie 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 June 13, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged David Walsh, Gerri Hirshey, Icon, Michael Jackson, Randy Taraborrelli, Susan Fast, Sylvia Chase, Sylvia J. Martin. Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.