Seems That the World’s Got a Role For Me

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 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 June 13, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. Thanks Willa Joie and Sylvia. What a wonderful read before vacation!

  2. Wow!!!!! I haven’t read Sylvia’s article yet, but what a wonderful discussion. Being a non-American I have not been able to get to grips with why Michael was treated so badly by the press, Sneddon and the likes. I wanted to write and ask last week if anyone had any ideas why, and thanks to this blog I can see that many people have many ideas, and they soooo make sense, even to me as an outsider so to speak. It is certainly about time that all this ‘false’ information about Michael is made public and discussed, so that many more people can see him for who he really is, and for what he really was trying to get across to us all with his art. It seems that all through the ages, such prophets have been brought down and derided cos ‘the establishment’ was afraid that the average person would have different ideas and even perhaps revolt!!! Well, I for one think it is about time to revolt and get behind Michael and spread his message far and wide. So thanks for all you are all doing – just wish that this could reach everyone and not just us already ‘converted”!!! From this ‘revolting’ fan ha ha.

  3. Thanks for the excellent discussion and also for starting the Lyrics Library! I think it is hard to pin down the various factors that led Michael to be criminalized because they are multiform. One thing that strikes me is the relevance of the critique of American democracy made by Alexis De Tocqueville back in 1835 when he coined the terms ‘tyranny of the majority,’ ‘mild despotism,’ and highlighted the fear of the eccentric individual.

    The ‘mild despotism,’ as opposed to a more violent despotism, covers society “with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

    Stanley Cavell notes that de Tocqueville saw “the aristocrat’s capacity for independence in thought and conduct, a capacity if need be for eccentricity, as a precious virtue,” and asks whether “in its search for individual equality democracy will abandon the task of creating the genuine individual.” Michael’s friend Steve Manning on a recent TV discussion called Michael “an artistic eccentric”–and I think that is a valid description. In a country where eccentricity of thought and conduct is rarely tolerated, I wonder if Michael’s whole personality, as well as his race, was at odds with the prevailing cultural norms.

    I tend to attribute the genesis of the worst that Michael dealt with to his purchase of Neverland. Steve Manning says that when he first saw Neverland he could not believe, as a black man, that a black man could own such a place. The fact that this gave Michael control over access was a threat to people who wanted to deny him his privacy. And it was a place where people could speculate, as Bashir did, on the nature of Neverland. The sexualization of children in USA contributed to this fear of what went on at Neverland. I read a comment by a person from the Philippines who said he could not understand how it was strange in USA eyes for an adult to want to spend time with children or that doing so was sexual–he asked, What’s wrong with spending time with children? and What’s sexual about children? Valid questions, but unfortunately, as the panel discussion points out, in USA children have been sexualized. And it is even more a violation of social codes for a man to spend time with children.

    This brings up the ongoing Sandusky trial and its striking contrasts with Michael’s trial. Sandusky has multiple accusers (I think 16) testifying about 100’s of incidents over 15 years. Michael’s trial had the primary accuser testifying to a very few incidents over a period of 2 months. The accuser from 1993 refused to testify. The only other accuser who testified for the prosecution claimed he was tickled outside his pants. The contrast is great in terms of the numbers of accusers and incidents and the severity of the accusations. Sandusky even has an eye-witness who saw him in the act of raping a child. Nevertheless, the jury has 9 members who are connected to Penn State and so there is a strong pull to exonerate due to the big money and influence of football.

    Finally, (sorry for long post) I see Michael as a human being who was an artist and also as a money-making product. Many people wanted a piece of that product. Millions of dollars were involved. As Michael sang in Breaking News, “Everybody wanting a piece of Michael Jackson,” and as he sang in Money–‘They don’t care, they do me for the money,”–“you’ll do anything for money.” Money or as he said ‘the love of money’ was always a factor in Michael’s life. I think we can never underestimate the extent to which he was exploited by people who wanted his money.

    • Aldebaran, great response! Yes, de Tocqueville’s critique of American democracy is very relevant here. A lot of Michael’s life narrative invokes questions about American democracy, including the role of a “free press” which de Tocqueville saw as so crucial to maintaining a true democracy. De Tocqueville was also quite taken with the potential of civil and political associations in the US, and one can infer a connection between civil associations in the US that may challenge the “tyranny of the majority” and the MJ fandom in the States as a sort of civil association that questions the American mainstream media that is not “free” as we see with its corporate and political tie-ins. (This came up in a conference presentation I gave on MJ “fan activism” at a conference on globalization.)

      About eccentricity, the rest of Bjork’s comment to Michael was, “Maybe people would have been more understanding if you were a contemporary of Ludwig II of Bavaria, who comissioned Wagner and lived with the swans.” Bjork really recognizes that contemporary American democracy may not protect or even permit the fullest expression of art and idiosyncratic behaviors that may go along with it.

      I agree that Neverland was very controversial. Some fans today celebrate it as a magical place, and it was that, but it was also a site of speculation and suspicion. And race absolutely played a factor in that perception.

  4. Not only people who wanted Michael’s money but also people who wanted to, and did, make their own money by exploiting him as a product.

    • Aldebaran. is very interesting your speech on Alexis De Tocqueville. The same thought is in Giacomo Leopardi, an Italian philosopher and poet of the first half of the 800: he speaks about a “perfect despotism, bloodshed and perfected” and expresses more or less the same concepts that you so well summarized.

      I wanted to add that too, here in Italy, unfortunately MJ was always seen as a pop singer, commercial, a Pepsi man. I do not even know and not even remotely imagined that he could be the author of many of his songs!! I’d like to ask you to explain better, if you can, what says Sylvia: “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.”

      Thanks to all, with all my heart

      • Hi Nicoletta, I’ll try to explain. Basically, I’m saying that Michael went from being greatly admired to feared and despised. But had he really become so subversive?

        In the 1980s he was a celebrity who was approved of (and to a degree, used by) the American political institution (including the administrations of US Presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, as well as Voice of America, which is a radio network owned by the U. S. government). And it was prestigious for Michael to be awarded and recognized by these institutions.

        But Michael ended up being seen as a danger to the very American society for which he was previously held up as positive role model. And he was pursued quite strongly by a District Attorney (who was a state government official) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

        I’m not saying that Michael’s problems were the result of a federal/state government conspiracy. And I do maintain that Michael made some very unwise choices along the way. But Michael had accomplished so much of what American society values, right? Success, entrepreneurialism (he owned that Beatles catalogue), philanthropy. Some fans overseas saw Michael as representing American “democracy”. He was a cultural ambassador for the US. He also promoted Pepsi, as you say – he was good for American business. As so many countries’ economies liberalize, MJ remains a symbol of what an individual can accomplish.

        But he didn’t conform in other ways.

        Michael had been the monarch of “popular” music (“King of Pop”), and music is a cultural form. Yet, 20 years after the peak of his success, he was seen, as the article by David Walsh says and as the musician Bjork said, as oppositional, or, “countercultural”.

        But was Michael really so “counter”? Was he really so “oppositional”? So “eccentric”? Or did not the parameters in certain American social sectors (political-legal) also narrow, influenced by political rhetoric of “American family values” and aided by the rise of a conservative tabloid press a la Rupert Murdoch?

        Michael was seen as eccentric what with being known to talk to mannequins, wear surgical masks when he appeared healthy to the public, and carrying a chimp, etc. But maybe the sum of those habits should have been taken as a reason to question the conventional impulse to sexualize and therefore criminalize his relationship with kids. Yet the media and officials rarely put his individual behaviors into a larger context.

        The thing is, being “popular” offers the one deemed popular the potential to be subversive on a grand scale. And some of the more conservative and powerful forces in society recognized that.

        • Thank you, Sylvia, for your kind reply, I believe that the discourse is very complex and that has also to do with the human propensity to build invincible gods, only to have a perverse pleasure in seeing them fall from their Olympus.

          I was also thinking about the last year of Michael, before his return to This is it. After all, they were years of a man who lives as an exile and, perhaps, for him it was impossible to recognize his self in his nation.

          I’m reading your article “The Roots and Routes of Michael Jackson’s Global Identity” (slowly, unfortunately because of the language), which I find very interesting, especially the part related to aspects of political outlooks, in “The King and the State”.

          Thanks again for all your work.

          • Your welcome, Nicoletta. We do indeed have that complex relationship to mythic figures you described so well.

            The years after the trial to “This Is It” were indeed years of exile, and transition (to what entirely, we’ll never know). I could not talk about the route of (self) exile in my paper because I had a word limit! It will be elsewhere.

            Paul Gilroy talks about the possibilities that geographic movement allows for identity. Michael in fact joined a history of other black American artists who have undertaken “routes” of exile or geographical re-location for various reasons, such as Paul Robeson and James Baldwin (and even Quincy Jones!). And since many of Michael’s ancestors were a part of the African Diaspora, Michael in a sense was born already diasporic and “transnational”.

            Yet even though the route of exile may have helped Michael in some way, and provided even more fodder for his art, what led to him taking that route is a very sad commentary on the US.

        • Thank you Syvliva and Nicoletta for this further discussion which has really helped me to understand also as a non-American. But yet it seems to be a problem the world over that prophets and artists are so misunderstood in their own time, and if they are understood then they are brought down by the ‘establishment’ as revolutionaries. A sad reflection on humanity as a whole I feel. Maybe one day we will get it and behave differently, but in the mean time I am going to crusade for Michael as best I can whenever and wherever I can as my way of saying sorry to him and promoting his very important messages.

          • Me too, Caro Attwell, I do like you! I try to spread here in Italy sites like this, who really do understand Michael deep. I can little, but this little I do with much commitment. Michael deserves it and I really hope that his memory and, above all, his music is able to overcome the barrier of time and that will endure long in in our world.

  5. Fascinating discussion! Sylvia, your work is brilliant and you crystallize your ideas so well it helps us to understand the significance of Michael Jackson in ways we never have before. This is excellent work!

    It is so interesting the way US Presidents used Michael Jackson to wield their power and the way Michael in turn used them to further his artistic/humanitarian vision. I especially love the visit to the Reagan White House which strikes me as a great example of environmental performance art. Michael totally transforms the White House environment into something more like a concert arena, complete with screaming fans. He looks like an updated version of the handsome prince in his sparkly military costume – gorgeous, wealthy and very powerful. Even the President has to admit he as been upstaged. This is a powerful message and not way Americans have been cued to think of young, black men! Of course at another point in time I believe Michael Jackson was taken into police custody for an unpaid parking ticket after being pulled over for “driving while black.” Baffling. We all know the story after that and that eventually he had to leave his own home, his town, his country. As a nation, we have yet to deal with this and I have to admit it is something I am deeply ashamed of. I really appreciated the Walsh quote about “the character of the American ruling elite: ignorant, reckless, embittered, endlessly pursuing anyone and anything that hints of opposition…” In this case, I think that’s putting it mildly.

    A very big thank you to Sylvia, Willa and Joie! Hope there are many more of these to come. Looking forward to taking advantage of the Lyrics Library!

    • Thank you, Ultravioletrae! Michael really brought the charismatic style of sovereigns of old to the White House, didn’t he? It was quite a performance.

  6. I just read the David Walsh article written on the 05 trial verdict of not-guilty (thanks, Sylvia). It is so accurate and I appreciate very much that he directly quoted how the media still insinuated that Michael was a child molester even after the verdict–specifically Nancy Grace and Katie Couric. Walsh highlights the media’s glossing over the verdict as a vindication and instead moving into a new narrative of jurors who ‘had doubts.’ This is important b/c it kept the public from believing the not-guilty verdict. The question of why the media turned on Michael, aided and abetted the prosecutors, and promoted a sinister, ‘creepy’ portrayal, from at least 1993 to his death and even after his death, is complex and I hope one day the truth will out. I believe it goes beyond individuals like Couric or Grace to the very top of the media elite.

    In contrast to the media, the words of the jurors are refreshing:

    “In a statement they had the judge read out in court, the jury of eight women and four men explained, “We the jury feel the weight of the world’s eyes. We thoroughly studied the testimony, evidence, rules and procedures. We confidently came to our verdict.”
    Jurors explained that as the trial proceeded, they began to think of Jackson less as a celebrity. “Even though he is a superstar, he is a human,” one female juror explained. “Seeing him throughout the trial, he is a normal person. It made him real in my eyes.” (David Walsh)

    This time three years ago Michael was found not-guilty of all charges. He only lived four more years after that. I agree with Ultravioletrae that as a nation we have yet to deal with this, to face it, or even look at it. The day we do, America will be a better place.

    • I’m glad you like the Walsh article. He brings a larger framework to the specific issue of Michael’s trial, and I think the piece really benefits from that. I know it’s kind of controversial to bring in a piece from the World Socialist Website, but I think his analysis is spot-on and he deserves mention here.

      Although I don’t agree with everything Walsh says, he wrote some pieces in 2003 when the charges were brought and other coverage during the trial that show he was aware of what many legal/media pundits and Sneddon were doing. Walsh also wrote a fairly sympathetic obituary of Michael that, while again I may not agree with everything he wrote, is far more sincere than many others in that he had originally “welcomed” the news of MJ’s 2005 innocent verdict and accurately assessed the media biases as they were occuring. That he doesn’t identify himself as a fan gives even more value to his consistently sympathetic views.

      • Thanks for your responses, Sylvia–I do want to read more of what Walsh has to say about Michael. In reading your remark, “That he doesn’t identify himself as a fan gives even more value to his consistently sympathetic views,” I started to think about whether fans have more or less credence than anyone else when commenting on Michael. In my reading of fan comments, they consistently “get” Michael in a way I find refreshing. A related issue: What is a fan?Take for instance, Armond White–is he a fan? Yes, I think given his enthusiasm and his recognition/appreciation of Michael on so many levels, yes, I would call him a fan. Does this lessen what he has to say–no, I do not think so. In fact, I think Armond White’s “The Michael Jackson Chronicles” is certainly one of the best, if not the best, extended piece of writing that exists on Michael.

        I think the key, as Nicoletta says, is “who really do understand Michael deep”–and the fans do. And if you do not ‘understand Michael deep’ then you are part of a large group of writers and journalists who have caused much confusion and misunderstanding. Susan Fast (thanks for introducing us to her) also remarks on the lack of good writing on Michael in the mainstream. When it comes to Michael, the fans were there first, mainly because they took him seriously, understood him “deep,” and rejected the box the media tried to put him in. The fans were vilified by the media in the same way that Michael himself was, and this made it hard for them to cope with his loss, to grieve, surrounded by people who have contempt for Michael. When I tried to talk to people, it was hard and still is. There is so much explaining to do b/c people do not “understand Michael deep.” Doing so involves not only an intuitive understanding but a certain amount of research–reading what he wrote, etc. Most people are either not that interested or find it easier to swallow ‘the received wisdom’ from the media.

        Fans of something or someone are usually knowledgeable on that subject. If you are a fan of football or knitting, you generally have more info than someone who is not.

  7. I was thinking that maybe MJ is an exception of our times: I believe that he is pure art, and perhaps in other times he would not have suffered a sense of alienation that accompanied him throughout his life.
    In the Renaissance these people were called “absolute geniuses” and held in high regard.
    “Creative in art is in fact the one who breaks the aesthetic rules previously formulated , and still is a brilliant man who uses cognitive interpretations of reality to new and forward looking, enabling him to see beyond the usual patterns of perception and then develop ideas and inventions from curiosity, intuition which is however the start of creativity, as it allows to develop creative ideas and new visions”. Interview with Prof.Paolo Manzelli of creativity and genius.

    I also believe that Michael would have been always an artist, maybe in the art, maybe in the literature, perhaps in the sciences, notwithstanding any condition of life and education.

    I therefore believe that behind many stories of his life there is this basic assumption. But everything is amplified by his own life. Being a child prodigy been stripped of play time and freedom, and then Jehovah’s Witness, the acne, large nose, burning, vitiligo, I think it has brought all this together into an attraction for all that is alien (since he first felt that) and unsuitable for the world.

    Willa and Joie, you may sound strange, but when I see MJ in the old footage of such awards, the Grammys, MTV, when I see him in interviews, I feel him inappropriate, he seems to me that he is not part of that world of showbiz. Not in a negative sense, not in the sense of incapable, but “different”.

    I perceive a kind of distortion, I do not know how to express myself well in English. This distortion vanishes during his performances, however, when MJ goes into a sort of catharsis to the grace which is easy to recognize him,and identify with his beautiful dream.

    Especially after 1993 I believe that the gap between his public persona and his real person is transformed into something very serious and unbridgeable.

    I wonder if that’s his special attachment to the guiness, the public awards, would be a way to feel part of the real world in an “official” way…

    I believe that cosmetic surgery (though much less practiced in reality than what the media wanted us to believe),are a kind of irrational reaction to the fact of being constantly an alien. Think of the suffering of life of an artist like Van Gogh: he tore his ear!

    I sense something strange, different even in tests This is it. He is there with his usual dedication and perfectionism, but he seems to me almost half raised from the stage, he seems to me often not suitable …

    I thank you with all my heart, Lorenzo

    • Hi, Lorenzo–Yes, I think you are right–there is something about him “being constantly an alien.” This goes to show how far our culture or society has come from being a normal one–normal in the sense that a person like Michael could be part of it easily and not seen as strange, weird, different, deviant, etc. When the majority is crazy, or sick in some way, the sane, healthy person will look crazy (for crazy has become the norm). We are living in very dark, sick times. I just read an article that predicts that elephants will no longer roam wild on the earth in 20 years, maybe less, due to the high demand for ivory in Asian countries, especially China. So elephants will be gone forever from the earth so some can have ivory knicknacks. If this is not sick, I do not know what it is. This also happened to the buffalo in USA. There were millions of them in vast herds. They were indiscriminately shot and left to rot. The Indians, the native Americans, saw this and said, “You can see that the people who did this were crazy.” And they were right.

      We are literally destroying our home planet, the home we live in. If this is not crazy, what is? And it seems this race to destroy cannot be stopped. I am glad, as others have said, that I lived in the same time that Michael lived. Otherwise, I do not see any consolation in living in this dark, dark time. I am very sad about the elephants.

      Here is the link to the article:

      • Aldebaran, I know what you mean. I suffer too much for impotence in front of these things, or fainting that occurs when you read those predictions (thanks for the article!). I have fought so much, here in Italy, I was a volunteer of the Abruzzo National Park, home to many species of endangered and I think that, like children, animals are helpless and terribly at the mercy of our behavior. Unfortunately I had to throw in the towel, greed and personal interests are leading to drift all the good done in the past.

        Returning also to Michael I remember a phrase from William Burroughs The Cat Inside “all the magical universe is disappearing” in the sense that “the elderly Burroughs despaired of man’s capacity for destruction and his account of his relationship with these elegant creatures is permeated with a terrible sadness at the spectacle of a planet on the verge of extinction, the forests bulldozed, “the whole magical universe… dying”.

        • Hi, Lorenzo, thanks for sharing about your feelings and experiences. Yes, I agree with what William Burroughs says. I think this is why Michael invited children to Neverland, to his private zoo– to see the gardens, the pools, the swans and flamingos in the lakes, the beautiful animals–so that they could come from the inner city (Los Angeles) and see nature, have that experience, so that they could see the magic and understand what is there. He was definitely part of the magic, wasn’t he?

          I am sorry to hear of your experiences with the national park. I am living in Northeastern USA where there is still a fair amount of wildlife, and I am very grateful for that, but I do feel sad and angry when I see nations seemingly unable to preserve magnificent wild species like elephants, leatherback turtles, whales, tigers, polar bears. Let’s hope somehow we can pull them back from the brink.

    • Hi Lorenzo. I love that Manzelli quotation you cited about a true genius as one able “to see beyond the usual patterns of perception and then develop ideas and inventions from curiosity,” and I definitely see that in Michael Jackson. You know, he spoke often about the limits imposed on us by our social “conditioning,” as he called it, and I think for him that word “conditioning” precisely meant “the usual patterns of perception” that Manzelli is talking about.

      If you think about it, racism and other forms of prejudice are nothing more than social “conditioning,” of absorbing “usual patterns of perception” that are false but have come to be accepted as true. So how do we break out of that conditioning and begin to see in different ways? I think for Michael Jackson, there were two main, interconnected answers: through art and through children. Children don’t see the world the way adults do – they haven’t been “conditioned” to the extent we have – so if we spend time with children and let them tell us what they see, we can begin to see the world in a different way. (You probably experience this in your work with sick and injured children.)

      Michael Jackson frequently spoke about the importance of looking at the world through a child’s eyes, and he almost always linked it with perception and creativity, like in this wonderful quote from 1981:

      One of my favorite pastimes is being with children, talking to them and playing with them. Children know a lot of secrets [about the world] and it’s difficult to get them to tell. Children are incredible. They go through a brilliant phase, but then when they reach a certain age, they lose it. My most creative moments have almost always come when I’m with children. When I’m with them, the music comes to me as easily as breathing.

      Joie and I talked about this a little bit in a post last Christmas, but there’s so much more to discuss. I really think he saw the relatively unmediated perceptions of children as closely linked with creativity – and the key to undoing our destructive social “conditioning.”

      • Yes, thank Willa, is true, when I am with the children in the hospital, they give me very, very much more than I can do for them. Thank you for the post “Please Harken to My Message” on 21 December. I’ll read it very carefully.
        I understand well when you speak of children as a source of creativity and I fully agree with Michael: there are so many poets in the past that have had as a source of inspiration for children and their special and unconditional view of the world. Thank you again.

        • I sooo agree with children being the source of creativity and innocence that Michael saw and related to. I never had children of my own, but 10 years ago moved into a flat of a house where there were 2 small children, and I cannot tell you how much I have learned in the last 10 years as I have experienced them growing up and growing up with them!! As part of my Michaeling I now volunteer as a play lady at a local children’s hospital and my education continues. I always come away feeling that I have gained much more than I have given. Thank you Michael for such a gift.

  8. Michael was very shy person due to situations from his childhood that is why he acted different during interviews or around regular people – he felt different when he performed because that was his world since a very early age, he was comfortable on stage plus he was able to express his feelings with his lyrics and dance – He was a great dad and a great human being

  9. Bridget Rowley

    All along, I have said to my dear friends, Lisha and Roberta, the following statement that I came to realize very soon after his death, especially as I saw the reaction of everyone once we lost him and how people, who had previously turned their backs on Michael during his worst troubles, were suddenly crawling out of the woodwork to proclaim their love and loyalty…and here is that statement: “Michael Jackson had to die in order to be forgiven for Being Michael Jackson”….think about it…we didn’t know what to do with this marvelous creature…this amazing man/artist/great humanitarian/visionary/messenger…his dichotomous ways were too much for the general American public to handle..he pushed the boundaries so far, we realized they didn’t even have to exist…and that was very uncomfortable for those in power….I believe that was his mission, whether he was aware of it at first or not…to hold up that mirror to society and shatter it…forcing us to question what we believed, forcing us to question who we were, forcing us to dig deep into our hearts to realize what really mattered…and as he did so, I believe he pushed the buttons of those that want to keep the status quo, which is this: it is more profitable for those in power to keep people living in fear…the Schmedia is implicit in this and is, of course, controlled by these same powerful people…Michael Jackson simply became too powerful and mystical…he was a threat…more powerful than any politician or religious figure…globally adored…I think that is why his death has stirred up an almost exponential dialogue…we will discuss his influence for all time, I believe…the ironic part? In death now, Michael Jackson has become even more mystical…even more powerful….his spirit was so strong and unique, it can’t be stopped or controlled…someday he will hold his rightful place among all the peacemakers of the world: Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King…Michael belongs in that same company, as well as the company of the greats in music and dance…Mozart…Astaire..but unlike them, he was a world figure that influenced our culture in more than just one aspect…he was the complete, perfect package…I feel so blessed to have been on this earth almost the exact length of time as he was…frankly, all of us of this generation are….I will teach my baby granddaughter everything I can about him….she will know Michael Jackson very well, despite being born after his death….it will be easier for her than it was for my children…no prejudice…future generations like hers will not be as bogged down by the lies…they will know the truth…and I pray his legacy will be vindicated during their lifetime….the madness about him must stop! Thanks for this great discussion…I love everthing I read here and have learned SO much…you really make me think…

  10. aldebaranredstar

    Beautiful, Bridget–your words are comforting, powerful, eloquent, and so true. ‘He pushed the boundaries so far, we realized they didn’t even have to exist”–wow!!! yes, his mission was “to hold up that mirror to society and shatter it”–yes, he was a threat to the powers that be who keep us controlled and in fear. I love, love what you said! I think you really said it all about his message, impact, influence–and the blessing to our generation that we ‘had him’ as Maya Angelou said. thank you!

  11. aldebaranredstar

    a beautiful discussion of Michael’s legacy. (hope the link works)

    • Here is another video that uses the discussion of Dyson and West. The discussion starts at about the 4:45 mark in the video. I found this video to the same narrative to be more moving and haunting. Or maybe it is because I saw this one first on June 25, 2012. In both the familiar video clips take on new meaning.

      Does anyone know the original source and context of the Dyson West audio? (I know I am hopelessly behind in my Michaeling.)

  12. aldebaranredstar

    Thanks for this, Madi G, I agree this is more moving and so well done. The discussion between Cornell West and Dyson comes from the Tavis Smiley show, where he had them on to discuss Michael’s legacy shortly after his death.

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