A Conversation about Queerness with Susan Fast

Willa:  This week Joie and I are excited and honored to be joined by Dr. Susan Fast, Professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University and Director of their graduate program in Gender Studies and Feminist Research. And, in addition to all that, you’re a musicologist and study popular music as well. Is that right?

Susan:  Studying popular music is really the main thing that I do!

Willa:  Really? Well, then we definitely want to have a nice, long chat with you!

Susan:  Well, I want to begin by thanking you both for inviting me to be part of the rich conversation about Michael Jackson that you have on this blog. I’m so glad that there are, increasingly, spaces devoted to the serious discussion of his work and cultural impact.

Joie:   Yes, so are we. It’s way overdue.

Willa:  That’s true, Joie. And Susan, you’ve done so much interesting work with Michael Jackson’s music and stage performances. There’s “Difference That Exceeded Understanding: Remembering Michael Jackson, 1958-2009,” a popular article in our Reading Room, and the recently published “Michael Jackson’s Queer Musical Belongings.” You also co-edited the special Michael Jackson issue of Popular Music and Society that came out a few months ago, and you’re currently working on a book about the Dangerous album, which will be published by Bloomsbury Press next year, right?

Susan:  Yes, I’m really thrilled to be able to write a book on Dangerous as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, in which an entire book is devoted to the study of a single album. Remarkably, there is no book in that series about any of Michael Jackson’s records! You can go here to see which albums have been written about, and which books are forthcoming.

Willa:  That’s really exciting!

Joie:  It is exciting. And again, it’s long overdue. Susan, here’s a question for you, and it’s one that I know really puzzles and frustrates so many fans. Why do you believe there haven’t been more publications of serious study of the work and artistry of Michael Jackson?

Susan:  This is quite puzzling, Joie. I remember looking for scholarly work right after his death and I was stunned at how little there was; it was one of the things that made me want to write about him. There is a little bit from the 1980’s and early 90’s – a wonderful article on “Thriller” by Kobena Mercer, a chapter of a book called Invisibility Blues by Michelle Wallace, and one in Michael Eric Dyson’s book Reflecting Black, etc. And then there was Margo Jefferson’s rich book On Michael Jackson from 2006. (Joe Vogel has a good bibliography on his website.) But considering what an important cultural figure Michael was, it’s a pitifully small amount, and some of it isn’t all that sound in terms of scholarship. Scholars of popular music have been much more interested in MJ’s contemporaries, Prince and Madonna, because they saw there a more radical questioning of gender and, in the case of Prince, racial norms.

My sense is that MJ’s lack of irony played a key role in scholars’ disinterest in his work; this is a perpetual problem in popular music studies: one is just not hip if one is playing it straight. He was not considered oppositional enough, in a counter or subcultural way – at least not on the surface of much of his work.

I also think that the accusations of child molestation played a role in scholars staying away from him as a research subject. There have only been a few scholarly articles that have taken up the accusations, and then not particularly well. This is beginning to change; unfortunately it took his death to make it happen.

Willa:  It’s terribly unfortunate. And I agree the lack of irony in his work was a big factor – one that hasn’t been examined nearly enough. The postmodern aesthetic tends toward irony, and since his work is so earnest and sincere, it was seen by many as simplistic and harkening back to an earlier, outdated and discredited point of view. However, as you and other critics are starting to reveal, his work is far from simple. And if one of the goals of postmodernism is to expose the constructedness of our beliefs and perceptions – in part by undermining binary oppositions such as black/white, masculine/feminine, gay/straight – then Michael Jackson wasn’t just in touch with the times but at the forefront, pushing the envelope.

I also wonder if another factor was his refusal to interpret his work for us. He always resisted attempts to draw him out about what his work meant, and many critics took that as a sign that it didn’t mean anything – or if it did, it was purely unintentional. Here’s a quote from Randy Taraborrelli, and while I know he’s not really a critic, it expresses a feeling shared by many critics, I think.

Even if [Michael Jackson’s publicists] could fathom a way to promote him as an accessible human artist with goals that were artistic instead of just commercial, it would never work. No one would believe it; Michael simply wasn’t that way and didn’t even know how to act that way.  

Michael has always been myopic in his thinking about the music business: how many records are being bought by the fans? How long does it take to get to number one? How many records are sold? For Michael, commercialism is key, and he doesn’t understand any artist who doesn’t get that. …  

For instance, Michael has never been a fan of Madonna, a woman who has managed to combine commerciality with artistic vision because, from the start, she has had something she wants to communicate with her music and, usually, a clear-eyed vision as to how to go about it. She gives interviews; she has a point of view. Other than lamenting about his lost childhood and his victimization at the hands of the media, Michael has never had much of a public viewpoint about anything. He’s not what one would call articulate, not by any stretch of the imagination.

I shouldn’t pick on Taraborrelli because he isn’t a critic and for the most part doesn’t pretend to be, but this just makes me crazy. Thank goodness there are critics and academics and musicologists like you, Susan, who are starting to lead us to a deeper understanding of Michael Jackson’s work, and just how complex and meaningful it really is.

Susan:  Same with your work, Willa, which is also giving us new ways to think about his work and life. You’re so right: Michael’s reluctance to give interviews and really talk about his work left the door wide open for critics to dismiss or misconstrue it – although Prince doesn’t talk about his work much either and there hasn’t been the same problem, I think because there isn’t the same kind of cultural and artistic illegibility and confusion as there is with MJ.

Willa:  That’s another reason pioneering work like yours is so important. It not only provides insights into his music and performances, but also legitimizes the serious study of his art and helps frame his work in new ways.

So I wanted to ask you about the title of your most recent article. Generally when we hear the word “queer,” it brings to mind sexual orientation as well as a specific political stance. Basically, it means gay and proud, and opposed to any attempt to cast shame onto anyone’s sexual orientation. But that isn’t what your article is about. It’s a wonderfully insightful analysis of how Michael Jackson incorporates and juxtaposes and plays with and off of different genres in his music and concert performances. So what does the word “queer” mean to you in terms of his work, and why did you choose that title for your article?

Susan:  I chose to situate Michael’s genre-crossing in terms of queerness in order to, hopefully, shine a new light on the powerful cultural politics of his work. I’m not the only one to have used this frame to think about MJ – there are two other recent articles and one older one that look at him through this lens, but in ways very different from my approach. Queerness is not only about subverting, and thereby questioning, norms, but about the creation of ambiguity, of de-stablizing binaries, especially around gender and sexuality. It’s meant to be an empowering idea in that it gets us away from the notion that our identities need to be pigeon-holed into tidy, rigid categories. An important queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, put it this way: queer is “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” when someone’s gender, sexuality, or race can’t be made to “add up” in the way we’re used to, or isn’t stable.

Willa:  That’s a wonderful definition, and very applicable to Michael Jackson.

Susan:  Queerness often refers to sexuality, but it has also been used more broadly – in my article I also talk about race, and others have used the term to refer to the “non-normal” more broadly, although this can have the effect of diluting the concept. So … I’m not interested in MJ’s private life at all in this essay, but rather in the way he played with gender, sexuality, and race in his work in order to make us think about these categories and in order to subvert them, mess them up, and shift normal power relations in the process.

Willa:  And we definitely see that urge to subvert categories and in that way “shift normal power relations” running throughout his work – in his music, dance, fashion, films, stage performances, and even public perceptions of his own body. And in your article you take a really detailed look at how this “queering” of established categories and genres functions in his music and live performances, especially.

Susan:  Yes, that was my goal. Everyone knows how skillful he was at combining elements of pop, rock, soul, R&B, Tin Pan Alley and later hip hop in his work; his ability to cross genres is partly what made his music accessible to a wide audience. That’s a story that’s often been told about him. What I wanted to examine is what that “crossover” really looks like in particular songs and performances of those songs. Musical genres are deeply connected to ideas of social belonging, of ideas we have about race, gender, sexuality, class and so on. We already understand this in the well-known narrative about MJ and genre:  his inclusion of elements of pop and rock made his music reach into the white mainstream, while the music of his idol, James Brown, remained deeply connected to black musical forms and didn’t have the same crossover appeal. When one begins to cross musical genres, one recognizes these categories more forcefully:  they become denaturalized, and what gets called “normal” comes into question.

Joie:  Susan, I love what you just said about musical genres being deeply connected to our ideas of social belonging and the ideas we have about race. I think that’s so unfortunate, but it is also so very true. I can think of so many instances where a person was harassed or just made to feel really uncomfortable because of the type of music he or she liked to listen to, and it was all because it just didn’t fit into the racial “norm.” Black kids aren’t supposed to like rock or country, and white kids are ridiculed and made fun of everyday for having an affinity for rap and hip hop. It just doesn’t make sense; music should be universal. And I have always believed that striving for that was one of Michael Jackson’s goals.

Susan:  Yes, I agree, but on the positive side, music gives us such a powerful way to feel connected to others, to feel a sense of belonging when we might otherwise feel socially isolated; feeling part of a social scene organized around genre is one way that that happens. We could also think of genre as a way of celebrating difference. And it’s certainly a means through which artists cultivate their audience, which makes MJ’s successful crossing of generic boundaries all the more interesting. I think his musical virtuosity is what made that possible; people sometimes write about his genre-crossing as a brilliant marketing ploy:  sure, but there aren’t many artists who can pull off moving so easily among very disparate musical genres convincingly.

Joie:  Well, I agree with you that music is a great way to feel connected to and accepted by others, but I believe strongly that we shouldn’t allow it to close us off from other genres either. I believe that Michael was constantly trying to educate us – on so many different subjects – and I think this is one of his lessons. And you’re right, there aren’t many other artists out there who could move between genres so convincingly.

Susan:  I recently watched his 1989 performance at the Sammy Davis Jr. TV special, a song he wrote for that occasion called “You Were There,” which could have come right out of a Broadway musical, and tried to reconcile this with, for example, a song like “Jam,” or “Give Into Me.” He internalized generic codes so that somehow he was as convincing as a rock star as he was a Broadway or soul singer. And I agree with you, Joie, exploiting this incredible skill was probably an extension of MJ’s desire to blur, or queer, all kinds of boundaries.

In my essay on MJ’s queer musical belongings, I look at a lot of different songs, but one of my favorite examples is the live performance of “Working Day and Night” from the 1992 Bucharest concert.

Here’s a song that first appears on what is often considered to be the finest disco album ever made, Off the Wall, transformed from its glossy production values into quite a raunchy R&B/funk number (by punching up the groove, emphasizing the slap bass part and, especially, through MJ’s gritty vocals – completely transformed from the album version). In live performance this song really ends up being quite the homage to James!

So MJ has already messed with genre and, in the process, social relations here, by highlighting the black roots of disco in soul and funk, a connection that often got lost as disco entered the mainstream in the late 1970’s. The part of this performance that truly blows my mind, however, is Jennifer Batten’s metal guitar solo. What on earth is this doing in the middle of “Working Day and Night?”

Willa:  That is so interesting, Susan, and you know, looking back at that clip I see exactly what you’re saying – that guitar solo really is quite a disruption – but I never thought about it until I read your article. The guitar solo sounded perfectly “natural” to me, so I didn’t question it. And in talking to you, Susan, I feel like I have to put that word “natural” in quotation marks because as you point out so well, he’s really calling into question so many things we tend to think of as “natural.”

But you’re right. That guitar solo is like a sudden intrusion of “white male” rock by a female guitarist into the middle of a black R&B/funk/disco song – just a classic Michael Jackson situation!

Susan:  It does seem “natural” at first because both the hard-driving funk groove and the metal guitar solo are high-energy, but when you start to take it apart, it’s pretty camp and queer!  Of course it could be argued that the guitar solo adds to the spectacle of the performance – it’s near the end of the show and MJ clearly wanted to ramp the energy up – but this could have been done without creating such genre dissonance. What’s interesting is that musically, Batten’s guitar solo is never really integrated into the rest of the performance:  it’s left as a disturbance, a generic dissonance – that’s partly what makes it queer. The loose ends aren’t neatly tied up. Metal (the white genre) “serves” the larger R&B/funk (black) genre.

MJ liked to queer rock music in particular: it’s a genre of music that really (even still) belongs to white men, who control so many things in our culture. He was clearly aware of rock’s cultural power and turned it on its head. First, he chooses one of the only women guitarists in the 80s and 90s who is a heavy metal virtuoso; Batten is an excellent guitarist, but so are plenty of men:  why choose a woman, when you know that it’s unusual, unless you want to point to how unusual it is?

Clearly MJ was interested in questioning genre expectations in this respect. And he was going to do it again in the This Is It concerts, for which he chose Orianthi Panagaris, another blonde, white, woman rock guitarist. MJ dressed Batten up to parody the typical rock guitar god (and the look was his idea); although other musicians in his band wore costumes, none of them were as camp as Jennifer.  He wanted to point to the genre of rock/metal in a particular way, a way that, I suggest signifies his control over it. So he makes sure that rock’s whiteness is represented in the figure of the metal guitar player (Batten is one of the very few white musicians in his touring band, and in this show, the only one who takes center stage with him, representing the genre of rock music), but subverts genre expectations by choosing a woman. Brilliant!

Joie:  Susan, it is so fascinating to go back and watch the footage of that performance keeping in mind your comments here. And really, all of his live performances where Jennifer Batten was featured very prominently. You’re correct in saying that she was always the only member of his band that he routinely presented center stage during performances. And as Willa and I have learned during the course of this blog, Michael rarely did anything without having a very good reason for it.

Willa:  That’s true, Joie – it does seem like this was a deliberate artistic decision on his part because we see it repeatedly in his work. Lisha McDuff described a similar inversion and disruption of genres in the post we did with her about the Black or White video.

“I am tired of this devil” is sung to the hard rock and heavy metal styles that have been overwhelmingly consumed by white audiences. … But they are not coming from the viewpoint of the white musical style being offered. The lyrics are coming from a black perspective of frustration and the horror of racial injustice, even invoking an image of the KKK with a reference to “sheets” …

The next section is hip hop rap, a black musical style, but the rap lyrics are unmistakably white in tone and perspective … This rap section flies at a completely different altitude than we might expect. The message is uplifting and inspirational, and in the short film it is lip synced by Macaulay Culkin, the same white child who appears in the opening drama. Instead of appearing in a lily white suburb as he does earlier, the child is now in an urban melting pot and his clothing and mannerisms register black.

So in the Black or White video as well as the “Working Day or Night” concert performance – and Susan, I love your analysis of that – he’s inverting the norms of white male rock so it becomes very self-referential and kind of a critique of itself, and he’s doing it in both a musical and visual way, as you say.

Susan:  That’s a very perceptive analysis of “Black or White,” one that made me go and read the entire blog you did with Lisha. Her reading of the song and video is terrific – it begins to get at how complicated MJ’s music is and how we need to dig beneath the surface to really understand it.

In the issue of Popular Music and Society that I co-edited, there’s an article by musicologist David Brackett in which he talks about “Black or White” and his analysis moves in the same direction as Lisha’s. One of the points he makes is that the main guitar riff sounds remarkably similar to the Rolling Stones’ song “Soul Survivor,” off of Exile on Main Street.

The riff incorporates, generally, sounds that are central to Keith Richards’ rhythm guitar style. David’s point is that Michael chose what has become an archetypal rock riff, from an album that is central to the rock canon: it’s not some random “rock-like” sound, but one that goes to the heart of white blues rock; it’s also an interesting re-appropriation of blues-based white rock by a black musician. Touché, Michael!

What makes this even more interesting is that this guitar riff is combined with a bass guitar part that comes out of the R&B/funk tradition, rather than the straight-ahead rock bass part that is used in “Soul Survivor” (or other Stones’ songs).  So from the very beginning of the song, two generic, racialized and gendered worlds are brought together.

Willa:  And he does something similar in the Bucharest performance of “Working Day or Night,” right? There’s a very funky bass guitar solo right before Jennifer Batten’s hard rock guitar solo.

Susan:  Yes, that’s right:  Don Boyette, his touring bassist, takes centre stage for a slap bass solo, but it’s not nearly as lengthy or developed as Batten’s solo, and there are no theatrics associated with it. Boyette just comes to centre stage and plays.

Willa:  You talk about those theatrics quite a bit in your article, pointing out how important the onstage visual drama between Michael Jackson and Jennifer Batten is to the meaning of the performance. I was so intrigued by that.

Susan:  The interaction between MJ and Batten during the solo is fascinating. It’s quite complex – there’s an awful lot going on. But one of the things that’s striking is that MJ seems to control the performance. Batten follows him back and forth across the stage and when he’s watching her play, it sometimes appears that he is conjuring the sounds out of her guitar himself. Often in rock performances, the relationship between singer and guitar player is quite different: the guitarist (the virtuoso) controls the performance. My reading of this performance is that Batten stands in for hegemonic, or controlling, white power, albeit queerly because of her gender, and that MJ ends up mostly controlling that power. A pretty significant social statement.

Willa:  That is such a fascinating interpretation!

Joie:  It really is. I’m blown away! I had never thought of it in this way before but it makes so much sense knowing what we do about the way he liked to blur the lines.

Susan:  Yes, and while I’ve mentioned the racial politics here, it’s also pretty interesting to consider what’s happening in terms of gender. Batten’s appearance points in a complicated way both to the feminization we see in glam rockers of the 80’s and earlier 90’s and the understanding that these were generally not female bodies:  so we get all the expected “hard” and aggressive moves associated with rock from Batten. At the same time, there is MJ’s quite complicated gendered body playing against this. He is androgynous, somewhat feminized, but still performs traditional masculinity through some of his moves, and the fact that he’s in control of Batten’s performance. While many of these kinds of exchanges between singers and guitarists in rock bands have an erotic element to them, I don’t see that in the performance here. MJ was certainly capable of creating eroticized spectacle on stage (think of some of those steamy encounters with Sheryl Crow or Siedah Garrett during performances of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” for example), but that was not the intent here.

I think this is one of many instances where MJ queered all kinds of normative social and musical relations. Willa, your analysis of “Ben” in your book, M Poetica, including the pictures you offer of MJ with rats on his shoulder and his pet snake draped over him can similarly be thought of as queering human/animal relations, of rethinking ideas of kinship, for example.

Willa:  That’s an interesting way to look at that, Susan, and it’s significant in that context that the animals he’s holding aren’t traditional pets. Just the opposite – they’re animals that are viewed with fear and loathing by many people. It wouldn’t be “queering” the human/animal relationship in the same way if he were holding a cat or dog or riding a horse. And of course we see this again in his very public relationship with Bubbles.

Susan:  Exactly. These are examples of what can be called queer kinship; whatever might have been going on in his private life, the vision of family that he presented as part of his public self included children (some his own, some not), animals, and various adults, like Elizabeth Taylor. He eschewed the normative nuclear family structure, creating instead a more and less fluid chosen family consisting of both humans of various generations, as well as non-humans. There has been a lot of interesting scholarly work done on the role of the nuclear family as a primary means of structuring power – patriarchal power, for one, but also integral to such things as the smooth running of capitalism. Queer kinship threatens patriarchy as well as all kinds of other power structures.

Joie:  Now I find that truly fascinating because I believe we are increasingly seeing this ‘queer kinship’ becoming the norm in our society. More and more, people are creating their own versions of what we know as the nuclear family. And yet, Michael Jackson was severely criticized and ridiculed for such behavior.

Willa:  He really was. In fact, while he resisted social normalization on so many fronts – norms of what it means to be black, to be a man, to be straight, to be a pop artist, to be a father figure – it was this last transgression that proved intolerable. As threatening as they were, those other transgressions could still be accepted more easily than his defiance of the traditional family unit. Even people who concede that the evidence shows he was not guilty of abusing children still see something damning in his creating familial relationships with children who were not related to him. It shows just how deeply engrained the idea of the nuclear family is. Of all the boundaries he crossed, that was the line that could not be crossed. And as you said so well, Susan, the nuclear family plays an important cultural role – politically, legally, psychologically – in “structuring power.”  No wonder that transgression was so threatening.

Susan:  Absolutely.  Judith (Jack) Halberstam has written beautifully about time, space and normativity, citing, for example, reproductive time – the biological clock for women – and the “bougeois rules of respectability and scheduling for married couples” and how these have become not only normalized, but naturalized and desirable. She talks about how everyday time gets regulated – when to eat, sleep, play, for children, etc. – and how this gets tied to normative morality (I think of MJ’s sleepovers with a bunch of kids here and how many normative lines this crossed). She also talks about the time of inheritance, meaning how generational wealth, including both goods and morals, pass through the family – so if you aren’t part of a traditional one, heaven help you – and how this also connects the family to the history of the nation and forward to the nation’s future (the book is In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives).  MJ transgressed these rules about family, space and time in almost every way.  I think the narrative that we constantly hear about how his children could not possibly be his biological offspring is partly a way of striking back at his threat to the normative family unit, along with a general desire to emasculate him whenever possible.

Halberstam and other queer theorists claim the queering of space and time for the LGBTQ community and it’s tricky to talk about queerness – as I do in my article and as we’ve done in this blog – in a context that isn’t explicitly queer in terms of sexual orientation, although other musicologists have done so (for a wonderful example, see Freya Jarman-Iven’s book Queer Voices: Technologies, Vocalities and the Musical Flaw). There’s the risk that the political potential of the term could be watered down and re-appropriated for straight culture. But I actually don’t think it’s inappropriate to talk about MJ in these terms, because he so messed with heteronormativity and with race and left the reading of his work and life so open and unsettled. I’ve never really understood why he hasn’t been claimed by the queer community, although I suspect that his more-or-less insistence that he was straight, as well as the accusations and trial tempered enthusiasm for this.

Willa:  This is such an important issue, Susan, and I’m so glad you raised it. I’ve asked myself a similar question many times. If ever there was a champion of difference it was Michel Jackson, so why didn’t the groups who’ve traditionally advocated tolerance for difference support him when he was under attack? He had no constituency other than his fans – which, granted, is a lot of people, but it’s not a political constituency. So why didn’t certain political advocacy groups support him?

I think partly it’s because the accusations were so ugly that many saw him as a tainted messenger, and that “tempered enthusiasm” as you say. But I wonder if there isn’t another reason also, which is that tolerance for difference, at least as a political stance, has itself been normalized, and Michael Jackson refused to express his difference in proper ways. While we like to believe we’ve moved beyond the White male stereotypes of the past, they still exist and have been joined by stereotypes of diversity that in many ways are just as constraining. For example, Black kids are supposed to show pride in their race by identifying with the approved genres for their demographic and “aren’t supposed to like rock or country,” as you pointed out earlier, Joie. And “queer,” which by definition should be a celebration of difference, has been politically codified as well.

You express this so well in your “Difference that Exceeded Understanding” article, Susan, when you write,

Michael Jackson’s subjectivity off the stage was disquieting … racial, gendered, able-bodied/disabled, child/teenager/adult, adult man who loved children, father/mother. These differences were impenetrable, uncontainable, and they created enormous anxiety. 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.

I love this quote, and I think it really gets to the heart of why he wasn’t supported by those who traditionally support the disenfranchised – namely liberals.

Susan:  We desperately want categories in order to make sense of the world; there’s safety in being able to say someone is this or that. It bothered many people that this was not possible with MJ. And that’s exactly why I think “queer” is a productive way to think of him (partly because it names the confusion – very unqueer!). Queer is a process, a constant becoming (of something else); by its definition, as musicologist Freya Jarman argues, it cannot be and does not want to be contained. It is “anti-normal.”

Joie:  I like that. “Anti-normal.” What a great way to put that!

Susan, thank you again, so much for taking the time to sit and chat with us. Willa and I really appreciate it and we had so much fun talking to you. We hope that you’ll join us again some time!

Susan:  And thanks again for inviting me to blog with you! It was really a pleasure.

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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 November 14, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 74 Comments.

  1. aldebaranredstar

    Great discussion! Thanks you all for this wonderful, in-depth exploration of Michael’s queerness. Love the focus on his female guitarists, yes, that was quite a statement. And the women looked good and sounded so good as well, breaking the assumption that a great lead guitarist had to be a male rocker.

    Love the discussion of how Michael redefined the family–this is a key point and maybe one of the primary reasons for all the criticism and backlash. It also got him into major hot water, to put it mildly, when it led to the accusations that basically over time destroyed him. When he showed up for award ceremonies with a traditional ‘date’–Brooke Shields, and then–in addition–Bubbles (even the name has a ‘queer’ message) and Emmanuel Lewis, he broke the rule book for ‘normative’ relationships.

    And you are so right, that capitalism and patriarchy depend on the nuclear family as defined, not redefined, where children are as much possessions as any other object in a capitalist, patriarchal world. I find it strange that so many people still want to say “those are not his children!” as if they actually think the only thing that matters in parentage is DNA.

    On the other hand, in many ways it is hard to say Michael was anti-normal b/c when you look at his values–love, compassion, humanitarianism, creativity, fun–they are as normal as can be. In fact, I increasingly see that normal and abnormal have traded places and we are now living with essentially insane values and definitions (insane as in Orwell’s 1984, where love is hate, and war is peace).

    All this ‘queerness’ in Michael was what produced so much anxiety, and led to the famous ‘wacko’ epithet.

    • “Capitalism and patriarchy depend on the nuclear family as defined, not redefined, where children are as much possessions as any other object in a capitalist, patriarchal world.”

      Wow, aldebaranredstar – this is such a big issue, and gets at something I’ve been trying to articulate for a while. It really seems to me that part of the intense anger directed at Michael Jackson after the 1993 allegations ties in to this feeling that he was “stealing” children away from their fathers – that he was stealing their “property” in a way (much as he was accused of “stealing” Paul McCartney’s property rights to the Beatles catalog) and was usurping the role properly held by their biological fathers. I’m still working this out, but I think this issue of children as possessions is really important to understanding the intensity of the backlash against him.

      • And while you are thinking on the subject Will, I’ll add Michael as possession to his own father, family, industry, media and the possessiveness I find in many people who seem to have some form of friendship/relationship to Michael.

      • Willa, you are right about that. I read Ray Chandler’s book and it’s clear from that that besides money it’s about jealousy on Evan Chandler’s part. Actually it’s even admitted in the book that Evan was jealous of the fact his son wanted to spend more time with Michael than with him. IMO he was jealous that Michael started to replace him as a father figure in his son’s life. It’s also clear from the Schwartz-Evan taped phone conversation.

        Evan should have only blamed himself, because he neglected his son before Michael came in their lives. He also betrayed him, for example by promising him money for helping him writing a screenplay, then he backtracked and never paid the money to Jordan. It’s also interesting what a big deal is made of a story about a laptop computer in the Chandler’s narrative. Ray Chandler addresses the “issue” in length in an article he wrote in 2005 – even though it has nothing to do with the allegations. But it seems it hit a nerve with Evan. The story was told by an ex-lawyer of June in Mary Fischer’s 1994 article. It was that Evan kept promising a laptop computer to Jordan, but never delivered. And when Michael came in their life, he bought the laptop computer for Jordan. And in the 2005 article Ray is all defensive about why Evan did not buy the computer for Jordan. It’s clear to me that Evan saw a competition in Michael and only when this competition appeared he started to show more interest in his son. And yeah, he saw Michael as “stealing” away his son from him. He did not have the same jealousy towards the boy’s step-father, David Schwartz, because – as admitted on the Schwartz-Evan tape – he was not a particularly good dad for the boy either. Michael, however, was a threat.

      • Hi Aldabaranredstar and Willa — I agree. Such a big issue. I think it was Engels who analyzed the patriarchal family structure as the basic building block of capitalism — with the father as owner/manager, the wife as the means of production, and the offspring as the product. Both means of production and product were property. I think these ideas are very deeply ingrained in our culture. One is either the owner or the owned, and Michael (being black and belonging to the class of “the owned” — slaves also being part of the means of production) was daring to steal the most private of property away form rightful owners — their children. And, he was also stealing away the hearts of white women. How could they let him get away with that?

        But, the fact is, he did steal the children from the patriarchy and provided a new, non-patriarchal model, and, as a result, is still a positive influence in the world — an influence which I hope and believe will continue to grow.

        Speaking of which, I hope everyone watches Spike Lee’s movie about Michael on ABC Thanksgiving night.

        • Hi Destiny, Jacksonaktak, Eleanor – you all raise so many important points, and so many interesting things to talk about!

          Destiny, I think the issue of child actors as commodities (and other child laborers as both commodities and units of production also?) is crucial to understanding Michael Jackson’s childhood, and why it was so very painful for him. He loved singing and dancing, obviously, as many children do, but his singing and dancing generated huge revenues – so his whole childhood became commodified to maximize those revenues. One thing he said several times was that, to his father’s credit, he didn’t spend his children’s money. Apparently, many child actors work their childhoods away and then find they have no money to show for it because their parents have spent it all. According to Michael Jackson himself, his father controlled their money and doled it out to him and his brothers (and he did that in a way that was appropriate for children), but it was put in accounts for each of them and was regarded as theirs. Joseph Jackson is such a complicated person and it sounds like his sons genuinely feared him, which isn’t right – obviously there’s something wrong there – but there are some really positive aspects to his personality too. But while Michael Jackson’s childhood provided him with an incredible education in the performing arts as well as money and success, he was also a very valuable “possession to his own father, family, industry, media and the … many people who seem to have some form of friendship/relationship to Michael,” as you say, and the realization of that in itself must have been very painful for him.

          Jacksonaktak, you’re convincing me I need to read Ray Chandler’s book (as much as I don’t want to). Just reading the transcript of the Schwartz-Chandler conversation is shocking enough – in fact, that’s what started me thinking about this whole issue. There’s a very strong sense in that conversation that Chandler feels his rights are being usurped (by June Chandler also – he’s very angry with her), and he should be compensated for that somehow. For example, at the very end of the conversation he implies that he’s actually ok with Michael Jackson having a sexual relationship with his 13-year-old son as long as he’s able to negotiate the terms. (As he says, “I’m young, I’m really liberal. As far as I’m concerned, anybody could do anything they want” – as if being “liberal” has anything to do with abusing children.) That whole conversation is just mind-boggling to me.

          Eleanor, there’s so much to say about this, but you’re absolutely right – if you want to fight racism, misogyny, and prejudice more generally, you have to capture the minds of children and turn them against the biased views of their parents. That’s why “Black or White” begins with a boy rebelling against his father, I think. So in that sense, he really was “stealing” the minds of (white) children away from their (white patriarchal) families, and there was a lot of resentment about that – just as there was a lot of resentment against him for “stealing” the hearts of white women, as you say.

  2. I so look forward to your blog post. As usual, you have done another thought provoking post.

  3. Hello Aldebaranredstar,

    You’re most right when emphasizing Michael’s deeply loving nature, whatever form of family pattern he chose. Notice his children, one rarely meets kids that are as civilized and kind as his, where did they get these norms from if not from their father? Also, the so called “loving family” does by no means have to be by definition biological. I’ve experience love and loyalty from those belonging even to another race and faith. Those who were close to Michael knew how perfectly normal he was, no matter what weird choices he made in other people’s mind.

    About being androgynous, I have no problem with this creation as among my favourite artists are Gustave Moreau and Sir Edward Burne-Jones, both of who painted gorgeous beauties of this type. Michael is free to choose, and this quality in fact suits him very well, remember he is a dancer. As for his being both mum and dad, he did a superb job.

    Now, concerning his silence about politics, I fully understand where he comes from. The man was so stalked, anything he would utter would be twisted for ridicule, Money, media interests, you name it. He had to be reserved. Besides this, remember how his attempt at lecturing on interpersonal relationships at the Carnegie Hall, after the Oxford happening, was thwarted? The media obviously wanted him silent about issues he fought so much for.

    However, upon scratching a little beyond that, Michael appears an extremely well read man, perfectly conscious of the world’s ills, and really fighting to build a better world. Read both his Moonwalk and Dancing the Dream, as well as his care for the children in Ireland that were victims of violence, and Michael is by no means distant. His Oxford lecture is not to be forgotten, it is the most moving essay on parenting to have been ever presented, there he sounds divine.

    I think Randy Taraborelli is off base in the quoted views. Artists should be distant from politics, the road easily slips into propaganda, and this is not where they are most adept at. Do we criticize sculptors, authors, or scientists for not dabbling in the field? Even Tolstoy’s political views are considered weird for an author who towers so high. Of course Madonna has the knack for handling the media and projecting herself, but please, Taraborelli should not compare her to Michael for very obvious reasons, he was a hugely gifted man.

    Another aspect Taraborelli misses is that artists should not explain their art, this is a self-contained, autonomous world open to interpretation. Would you imagine Emerson, Thoreau or Poe explaining their writings? Symbolist authors and visual artists have a highly developed theory of this creed.

    • Thank you for your comments. You have stated two things that I agree with. First, an artist should not explain his work – sometimes I don’t think they should even explain their process except that it may help others in their journey. Second, I like artists to contain their political views to their work. It doesn’t mean they can not be good civic citizens, but that should be a private matter for all the reasons you stated. I’ve been struggling with this especially with what I term “The Business of Saving Africa”.

    • You raise a really important point, Gihan: why should artists explain their work? Michael clearly wanted his to speak for itself, as so many other artists have. Further, I think Michael spoke so little about his work or life because, as I see it, he wanted increasingly to become myth; the less information we have, the more intriguing he becomes, the more people want to talk about him and his work in order to try to figure it out; he was keenly aware of this. It makes me think of Marshall McCluhan’s idea of hot and cool media, where cool media require more active involvement on the part of the consumer because there is less information given and the quality of this information is more abstract. It’s not a perfect analogy–Michael was not a medium, like television–but I do think he understood that the more you show yourself in public, the more you talk about your work, the less interesting you become.

      • I think its important to note that whenever Michael did an interview, noone was asking him much about his work. Its quite ridiculous its all about commenting on the rumour de jour. remember on Oprah Michael said that he couldn’t understand why these things were important and if he has a chance to talk to his idol Michaelangelo he would like to know anout his creative process and what inspired him. Not what he had for breakfast or who he had a date with last night.

        I think he would have talked about his art more if someone had asked. If you watch court depositions for the girl is mine and dangerous cases, it is obvious that he likes to talk about writing music. He becomes animated and involved when those lawyers ask him about it!

        I do agree with him not wanting to overexpose himself and remain partly a myth. It makes sense with his fascination with Barnums book and story. But he did want to be understood. It really bugs me to no end that all those journalists had the opportunity to ask him anything and they chose to focus on tabloid trash.

        • I agree, Gennie. In fact, one of the things that frustrates me most about the Bashir documentary is what a wasted opportunity it is. He was given the chance to talk with Michael Jackson off and on for eight months, and he could have used that time to give us fascinating insights into Michael Jackson’s creative process or his world view. It was just an incredible opportunity, and Bashir completely squandered it – he spent the whole time rehashing old tabloid rumors. What a waste.

          At the same time, I can understand why Michael Jackson would be reluctant to explain his art to us since, a lot of times, explanations end up diminishing it. Art functions at so many different levels – many of which are extremely difficult to verbalize – so attempts to capture it in words always fall short. Plus, art carries multiple meanings, so identifying one interpretation as “the” correct one limits other interpretations.

          It’s also true that sometimes you can explain and explain and explain, and people still don’t understand what you’re saying. …

  4. Thanks for a fantastic blog which has really got me thinking about Michael’s body of work and his ‘cultural impact’. I know I wasn’t a fan when alll these songs came out but it just beats me how anyone can say that he didn’t write ‘anti-establishment’ or ‘oppositional’ songs. I list the following as songs that have a huge message somewhere in them:

    They dont care about us/Beat it/Can you feel it/Little Susie/History/Lost Children/Heal the world/Black or White/Cry/We’ve had enough/Earth song/Wanna be startin something/Blood on the dancefloor/Scream/Money/Bad/Another part of me/Keep the faith/Tabloid junkie/Why you trippin on me/Man in the Mirror (though Michael didn’t write this one of course)/Abortion Papers (recently released), and I am sure I have missed some.

    Also I wouldn’t say that Billy Jean, Thriller and Dirty Diana were exactly your average love song, and they all made number 1 in the charts, were commercially successful and had huge cultural impact as well.

    I seems to me as if Michael was almost willfully misunderstood by critics, as if they didn’t want the milions of people who listened to his music to ‘get’ his message – how else can one explain it? Michael was indeed ‘at the forefront, pushing the envelope’ and I really cannot understand how music critics just couldn’t see that at the time, I really can’t. As you said, Randy Taraborrelli (though not a music critic) is a prime example.

    I am not into the music of Prince and Madonna and such like, but I have a strong feeling that in 200 years time no-one will know who the heck they were, but Michaels music will be the classics played as Mozart or Bach are today.

  5. Thanks again for another great blog.

    Susan said —

    “My sense is that MJ’s lack of irony played a key role in scholars’ disinterest in his work; this is a perpetual problem in popular music studies: one is just not hip if one is playing it straight. He was not considered oppositional enough, in a counter or subcultural way – at least not on the surface of much of his work.”

    I have thought about this so much. Michael is not “cool,” he is too hot, he is sincere, he is earnest, he feels deeply the words that he sings. The impact of his work is not cerebral, but visceral. We hear his heartbeat, we feel his heartbeat — he makes us aware of the rhythm of the tide in our own bodies. He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion — and that is what sets him apart — and that is the difference between a great artist and a clever artist. He is not above his topic, commenting on it, he is in it, he is part of it — he is part of “us” in “they don’t care about us.”

    It is only after getting a little distance from the emotional impact that one can begin to appreciate the incredible artistry and genius that went into his work. Cerebral artists are so often directing the attention to themselves — “oh, what a clever boy/girl am I” — they are cool observers, outside of and above the fray — but Michael directs the attention to the issue itself — in earth song, in they don’t care about us, etc.

    He is not cynical, he wants to heal the world — and, in spite of all, he believes that the world can be healed. He believes in love — not sentimentality. He believes in a deep connection between human beings and he is tapping into that sense of connection. Cerebral artists are often saying ” I am not part of this scene, and, if you appreciate my work, you can pat yourself on the shoulder because it means that you, too, are somehow superior. This is not Michael’s message.

    He wanted his art to be accessible — not inaccessible. To return to a discussion Nina and I had on commercialism, I think that Michael’s focus on sales was not because of the money, but because every sale represented a person — or several people — he was reaching, and his goal was to reach as many people as possible.

    I agree with Caro that MJ will outlast them all. How anyone could have missed his political messages in his music and his life and his body is beyond me, but the truth is, it was just uncool for serious people to take MJ seriously. That is clearly changing. Witness this blog. I think that MJ was dismissed by the serious people, not because he was not oppositional enough, but because he was too oppositional. Serious people have succeeded because they are cultural gate keepers, not gate crashers. And they sensed that MJ represented a real threat to the values they represented — and had built their reputations on — and he had to be frozen out.

    • Yes Yes Yes Eleanor. That is exactly my feeling – he was frozen out because he was all too well understood by the “powers that be” but it was still willful on their part. Thank goodness that folks are getting it now.

  6. So much interesting stuff to comment on —

    I loved the discussion about Jennifer Batten and MJ’s taking control of white macho rock — similar to his buying the Beatles catalog…a financial transaction that continues to enrage some. So, interesting..

    White rock, heavy metal, etc (which I hasten to say I know little about) is so anti woman and defines masculinity in terms of hostility to the feminine.

    MJ redefines masculinity — offers a far truer version of the masculine. If you think about it, from nature’s standpoint, maleness, as a reproductive category, is characterized by an attraction to, an appreciation for the female — think of all the trouble many male birds go to just to attract the attention of the female. Even when MJ is writing about Billie Jean or Dirty Diana, he is not discounting woman’s power. Macho musicians, like many men, cannot acknowledge the power women have — and so devote their music to putting women and the feminine down. I think all this macho posturing is a testimony to their insecurity as males. I have never gotten the impression that MJ ever felt insecure as a man — and that his sense of security in his maleness was what enabled him to embrace the feminine and honor it. I have felt for a very long time that both in terms of race and gender he was juxtapositioning black and white and male and female, not to blur the lines but to celebrate differences. Even at my advanced age, I find him one of the sexiest men ever. I can’t say that about Prince.

    • I couldn’t agree more with this comment! My latest laugh in the category “crazy things written about Michael Jackson’s sexuality” comes from the new, apparently terrible, book by Randall Sullivan, who says that Michael was not “asexual” but “pre-sexual,” that he died a virgin. What is it with white male journalists who just cannot imagine Michael Jackson as an adult, sexualized human being? Nothing speaks louder about how threatening they found his construction of masculinity than the insane conclusions they draw about him on the basis of…..no information!

  7. aldebaranredstar

    “He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion — and that is what sets him apart — and that is the difference between a great artist and a clever artist.”

    I agree, Eleanor, thanks for putting it so well. Michael was a channel, and I think he saw himself as that, for the music and the feelings it conveyed. This was the same with his dancing–he always said don’t think, feel when you’re dancing. The music was so good, so danceable, so emotional, that it was maybe too easy to miss the message, at least as far as actually thinking about it, rather than just feeling it.

    But when we go back and explore the lyrics, the narratives, the poetry, we see how it all fits together into a seamless impression with a powerful impact (as Gihan spoke recently about the mantras in Michael’s lyrics). The powerful emotions made his work global, even if you didn’t understand the words.

    I agree too that he was dismissed too easily; he was caricatured and dismissed. Maybe his very perfectionism made his work so finished, so polished, that it was hard for critics to find an ‘in,’ a way into the work, but very few bothered to look.

    Caro, my Eagle friend, you said it! : “I am not into the music of Prince and Madonna and such like, but I have a strong feeling that in 200 years time no-one will know who the heck they were, but Michaels music will be the classics played as Mozart or Bach are today.”

    And I think you are right that critics “willfully misunderstood” him b/c it wasn’t cool to like Michael after those allegations surfaced. I have some cool and hip relatives in London who would die if they knew how much I admire Michael b/c to them in terms of music he is a nobody. I played some music once and they asked why I didn’t play Nina Simone instead, b/c they don’t see Michael as part of the same tradition.

    I hope one day soon all the misconceptions and belittlement will disappear. Thanks to Willa and Joie for their great work in that regard, and thanks to Susan Fast and all the scholars and critics doing their best to turn it around.

    Thanks, Gihan, for this: “Those who were close to Michael knew how perfectly normal he was, no matter what weird choices he made in other people’s mind.” So tired of people imposing their values on others. Armond White had a memorable phrase when he called the media “the superego of the status quo,” and all the criticism and finger-pointing is just a way to solidify the status quo and prevent change, innovation, creativity. BTW, what happened at Carnegie Hall?–I am not aware of that. I agree the Oxford lecture is moving and beautiful.

  8. aldebaranredstar

    Whoops, it was Bjorn, not Gihan, who commented on Michael’s mantras. Sorry.

  9. The speech at the Carnegie Hall was organized for the Heal the Kids Foundation. There he spoke about parental love in a less detailed but equally moving manner as at Oxford. I also discovered his speech about interpersonal love during the United We Stand event at the RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. 2001. His name and part were removed from the televised broadcast, for reasons anyone familiar with Michael’s life would correctly guess why. It was boycott I believe. Every word uttered by Michael is so powerful and full of emotion, delivered not by some celebrity, but by a real preacher.

  10. aldebaranredstar

    Thanks, Gihan. I will look for those talks. About the United We Stand issue, I read that he was under contract to someone else (maybe Sony) and that’s why CBS (or whatever network it was) couldn’t use his image, except in the last group song, What More Can I Give.

  11. This post is outrageous! Thank you so much Dr. Fast, for such an enlightening discussion. I can hardly wait to get my hands on your upcoming book, “Dangerous.”

    I am also struck by “MJ’s lack of irony,” and just how difficult that is to interpret. I wonder if this isn’t one of the reasons we can say MJ was “at the forefront,” not “harkening back” as Willa points out, but pushing through into a whole new paradigm.

    One of my favorite MJ quotes is from the 2002 racism speech with Rev. Al Sharpton. In defending his own racial identity, MJ says: “I know my race, I just look in the mirror, I know I’m black.” Of course this is years after the vitiligo destroyed his beautiful African skin tone, so, in one sense there is tremendous irony in someone who appears so light saying–how do I know I’m black? I look in the mirror! But at the same time, his statement couldn’t be any more true, heartfelt or sincere. He can look at himself and see who he is, he knows his family, where he comes from, and the traditions he can claim as his own. He knows his own musical heritage and has tremendous pride in the cultural achievements of African Americans. His statement describing his racial identity includes irony, but it transcends it all at the same time.

    So, I just love this discussion about the queering of musical genres and codes. In one sense, MJ is depending on the stability of all these different categories, so he can identify them and then “mess them up.” He honors and celebrates difference (the heavy metal guitar and the slap bass solo), but he takes it a step further and transcends that difference as well. I think this is done in such a sophisticated and radically inclusive way.

    In the “Black or White” video, I absolutely love the way all the ethnic dancing gets deconstructed, by pulling the camera away and exposing the artifice of each scene. There is nothing naive about MJ’s vision of a world that comes together through song and dance. By deconstructing these scenes, he shows us that we’re not quite there yet, it’s still a vision. MJ punches through the flames of war and burning crosses, and later positions himself in front of the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Are these the flames of war and racism that he has just walked through? Yet some interpret this video as simply a naive, utopian dream with racial stereotyping. With the possible exception of the African “warriors” in the first dance, I believe all of the dancers are wearing their own traditional clothing, not film costumes, but their own clothing representing their heritage in the way THEY want to be represented. (Having been to quite a few Pow-Wows and Bharat Natyam dances, I can confirm that the Native American and Indian dancers are authentic.) So the video includes this postmodern sense of deconstruction, but transcends it with a heartfelt vision and an inspiring, unifying message. This new way of thinking that isn’t always so easy to identify, it’s both ethnic and trans-ethnic, very confusing!

    Thank you again for such an amazing post. I really miss the weekly format of this blog, but you’ve made it worth the wait!

    • One of my favorite MJ quotes is from the 2002 racism speech with Rev. Al Sharpton. In defending his own racial identity, MJ says: “I know my race, I just look in the mirror, I know I’m black.” … in one sense there is tremendous irony in someone who appears so light saying–how do I know I’m black? I look in the mirror! But at the same time, his statement couldn’t be any more true, heartfelt or sincere.

      Absolutely, Ultravioletrae! I had the exact same double-vision of both complete sincerity as well as a very self-aware irony when watching Michael Jackson speak those words in Harlem. You describe this so well.

      I also love what you say about his sophisticated use of musical genres: “In one sense, MJ is depending on the stability of all these different categories, so he can identify them and then ‘mess them up.'” I am so fascinated by the way he makes meaning in nonverbal ways through incorporating and bending the historical significance of icons, tropes, genres. So for example, when he puts on a fedora, he calls up a whole history of song-and-dance numbers running through figures such as Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra, but also his own iconic Motown 25 performance and his many concert performances of “Billie Jean” and “Smooth Criminal.” So the simple act of putting on a hat carries the symbolic weight of a long tradition that he himself has altered in significant ways.

      Through insights from you and Susan Fast, I’m also starting to become much more aware of how he’s doing something similar with genre. He doesn’t incorporate a rock guitar lick into “Black or White” or “Working Day and Night” simply because he likes the sound – though I’m sure that’s part of it – but also because that lick carries very specific cultural connotations about young white male rebelliousness and power. So I think you’re onto something really important when you say he’s “depending on the stability of all these categories,” while at the same time playing with and off of those categories and “messing them up.”

  12. Very disappointed by all this “queer” nonsense. Michael Jackson wasn’t “embraced” by the queer community because he didn’t embrace them back. He wasn’t gay, he wasn’t sexually ambiguous.

    I thought you two loved and respected Michael. Clearly you don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t be trying to pigeon-hole him into a category where he doesn’t belong.

    • @VC, try reading the post and you might have an opinion based on it’s content.

    • Hi VC. When Susan said she was disappointed that Michael Jackson hadn’t been embraced by the queer community, I interpreted that to mean, in part, that she was disappointed his work hadn’t been addressed more by academics specializing in queer theory. For example, Mark Anthony Neal is a professor at Duke University who is currently teaching a class about Michael Jackson (which I would love to take!). Dr. Neal’s specialties include queer theory, but he himself is married with children.

      And in fact, one of the things I like about queer theory is that it tries to break out of pigeonholing people in ways that suggest only women should care about gender issues, and only gays and lesbians should care about gay rights, and only racial minorities should care about racial prejudices. These issues are important to all of us. More than that, queer theory helps highlight just how arbitrary those divisions of black/white, male/female, gay/straight really are.

  13. A fascinating conversation!

    If I would want to be dismissive of Madonna the way Taraborelli is dismissive of Michael, I could say “all Madonna ever sings about is sex – like dozens of other artists, by the way, so Michael is at least more original”. But I guess that too would be unfair and simplicistic.

    I sometimes have the feeling that Michael is actually too challenging and that’s why people CHOOSE (consciously or subconsciously) to miss the message. Not many people like to look into the mirror he holds up to them, to society. Let’s take his criticism of the media, for example. When History came out critics accused him of “whining”. One critic, Jim Farber from The Daily News wrote: “Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you out there were forced to cancel your last world tour and suffered the loss of a multi-million-dollar endorsement deal from Pepsi because every media outlet in creation trumpeted accusations that you molested a young boy? If this describes the last two years of your life, the new Michael Jackson album is for you. Everyone else may feel a bit shut out. In 11 out of 15 new Michael Jackson songs on HIStory, the singer uses his music as payback to a world of accusers.” (quoted from Joe Vogel’s Man in the Music)

    Of course, like every artist, Michael was influenced by what happened in his life. That’s only natural. What did critics expect? That he would keep singing songs like Rock with You as if nothing happened? But to say that such topics do not mean anything to anyone else is really missing the bigger picture, IMO. In a world where the (tabloid) media operates the way they do, where so many people stopped thinking and rely solely on what they are brainwashed with by the media, where the media pay people to lie and ruin lives, please don’t tell me that this is only Michael Jackson’s problem and nobody else’s! We are the ones who are lied to and manipulated by the media! And we are the ones who feed a very immoral and harmful machine! But for some reason the media prefers to play down that message as just Michael Jackson “whining”. Does it have to do with the fact that the journalists who write these reviews are part of the very machine that Michael criticizes? So instead of taking an honest look into the mirror it’s easier to dismiss him?

    Or when he sings about his lost childhood is it really only his problem? Nobody else’s? Really? With the many tragic childhoods? With the tragic fates of children who are exploided in show business? How is this a less important subject than Madonna’s singing about women’s sexual emancipation?

    I really feel that Michael is dismissed because we feel uncomfortable looking in the mirror that he holds up to society in his songs. Because it’s something very true and profound about US! Inconvenient truths. I personally find Michael’s messages a lot more profound and deep than anything Madonna and Prince ever did. (And I like Prince. I’m not so much of a Madonna fan though.)

    I really love that quote from Dr. Susan Fast:

    “Michael Jackson’s subjectivity off the stage was disquieting … racial, gendered, able-bodied/disabled, child/teenager/adult, adult man who loved children, father/mother. These differences were impenetrable, uncontainable, and they created enormous anxiety. 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.”

    I smiled as I read this, because it’s so true. Actually, my impression is that the liberal media was more vicious towards Michael during the allegations than the conservative. I found that really interesting and revealing about the true nature of their “liberalism”. As long as you are within one of their preferred groups they support you. But if you are not part of anything that they can define or claim their own (Michael being the ultimate “Other”, as Joe Vogel put it) then they attack you more viciously than anyone else…

  14. Destiny – I did read the post, and my comment is based on its content. Michael Jackson was not ‘queer’. Lots of other artists proudly claim that description. Susan Fast should write about them. This is just the latest attempt to emasculate Michael, dressed up in academic jargon. No one who truly loves and cares for him would be a willing party to this travesty.

    • Hi VC —

      I think Susan is using the term “queer” in a broader sense, as in to mess things up — as in “queer a pitch” — to destroy or ruin a plan — to take things in completely new and different and unanticipated directions. However, when she says the following —
      “I’ve never really understood why he hasn’t been claimed by the queer community, although I suspect that his more-or-less insistence that he was straight, as well as the accusations and trial tempered enthusiasm for this”…. she kind of confuses the issue. I understand completely why he hasn’t been claimed by the gay community. Why should gay guys identify with a straight guy? My son is gay and he says he and his gay friends agree that MJ just doesn’t come across as gay. And, his “insistence” that he was straight is only natural since he was straight. When the media were accusing him of being gay, they were not trying to be complimentary — and it put him in an awkward position. How do you say “I am not gay” without it seeming to be defensive when you know it is being used in a perjorative sense?

      Given all the “accusations” of gayness — because that is what they were — and the pain these accusations caused Michael, I think using the term queer in relation to Michael will lead many people to react the way you have.

      But, I don’t think Susan is saying that Michael was queer sexually.

  15. Eleanor, I appreciate your response, but there is intellectual dishonesty on display here. If Fast is not implying that ‘queer’ has anything to do with sexuality, then she would not write “please be gay or straight”. She would not describe him in Bucharest as “feminized” but still “performing” masculinity. Ladies please – stoptrying to emasculate Michael. The Randall Sullivans of the world have got that covered.

    • Hi VC. You’re absolutely right about the ongoing attempts to emasculate Michael Jackson. In fact, Susan herself just mentioned this in a comment posted above.

      I think part of the confusion comes from the fact that the word “queer” is used differently by different groups. Politically, it tends to mean gay and proud of it, but academically it means something much broader than that. Here’s the definition Susan used in the post:

      An important queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, put it this way: queer is “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” when someone’s gender, sexuality, or race can’t be made to “add up” in the way we’re used to, or isn’t stable.

      So in this sense, “queer” still refers to confusing sexual boundaries, but also to confusing boundaries of race, gender, age, nationality, religion, etc, as well as artistic boundaries such as genre. I think this is a very useful way to approach Michael Jackson, not because I think he was gay – he said he wasn’t, and I see no reason to doubt him – but because he did play with all of those boundaries so much, including the ways we signify sexuality. Does that make sense?

      • Yes, Susan who is writing comments is Susan Fast! Am enjoying all your responses to this post!
        Willa, you’ve captured exactly why I’ve chosen to frame my discussion of Michael as queer. I do not wish to (further) emasculate him, as so many tried to do when he was alive, but rather to explain his profound blurring of boundaries–and I’m not leaving gender boundaries out of the equation here. Queer does not mean gay. Queer means fluid, undefinable, unstable, unpredictable. Michael did not organize his life around a monogamous relationship with a single woman and children: he chose to live differently and in our culture, if you don’t partner up and have kids it’s still considered odd. A gay couple who marry, where legal, or who have a long term committed relationship and, perhaps, children, are more normative in creating a family structure than Michael ever was. I think most of us who are fans view this in a positive light: he offered a different way of moving through the world, one where there are deep and loving connections to people and animals outside of the narrow confines of the nuclear family. One has to be incredibly brave to step out of “normal” societal roles–we see how he paid for doing it.

  16. Firstly, I’m not sure that the “Susan” who wrote the above comment is the same as “Dr. Susan Fast,” the guest on this blog.

    In any case, thank you so much, Susan (Fast) and Willa and Joie, for another thought-provoking excursion into the fascinating subject of Michael’s work and cultural impact. I have lots to say on the myriad issues Susan F. has raised here about the implications of “queer” and how it pertains to Michael Jackson’s transgressions, as well as his use of camp—in a more un-ironic way than some of his contemporaries.

    Thanks for these ideas, which I’m sure could, in all their ramifications, fill a book! I hope to return later with a fuller response to what’s been said here.

  17. Thank yoy Willa, Joie and Susan Fast for your interesting discussion.I lack the credentials to for a musicologist ,but I do know what I like.Michael´s music never sounds dated always fresh and great,very distinct.The lyrics at times straight forward, other times intriguing and enigmatic.The same goes for your views on his personality.From my expierience it is a fact that many women actually prefer androgynous looking men.And most women do not like heavy muscles at all.
    I think you are right in that he will outlast his contemporaries.

  18. But Michael did organize his life around a monogamous relationship. It was his misfortune that his wife did not want what he wanted – his own biological children. So he strayed outside his marriage got another woman pregnant. That was traditionally patriarchal, and as American as apple pie. I’m sure he was fond of Bubbles and his other animals, but that doesn’t mean he saw them as stand-ins for family members.

    Michael had no control over his vitiligo. But he certainly knew that having de-pigmented skin did not make him white, any more than George Hamilton’s perpetual tan makes him black.

    There’s no point in arguing about the meaning of the word queer. To the greater public, it is a pejorative for gayness, and it’s unfair to burden Michael with it, especially considering how he was mocked as unmasculine for so much if his life. Elvis co-habited with an underage girl, ate fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches, and shot the TV screen when some program was not to his liking. Sounds pretty transgressive to me, yet white sequined jumpsuits and all, no one ever calls Elvis queer.

    • I am in agreement with you, VC, I don’t like labeling Michael “queer”. The word is too loaded with homosexual meaning for those of us not involved in academic research.

    • VC, this is an interesting point you make. From what I know about his life, which is of course not from direct observation, but based on what I have read, it seems that he wanted very much a normal home life. As was pointed out, he was not interested in the womanizing, drug taking rock and roll life style which was expected of him. So, in this way he was not normal — he did not meet expectations.

      I think, after LMP, he pretty much gave up on that hope, but did not give up on the desire to have children. And wanting to have children, itself, is so normal. But again, if MJ wanted to have children, it was seen as abnormal. It did not fit the image of a pop star.

      Perhaps you have hit the nail on the head. MJ was a very normal man in terms of his desires for a wife and family and friends. And people couldn’t get their heads around that. So they had to create wild and bizarre and criminal explanations.

    • Hi VC. You’re right that he wanted to start a traditional family with Lisa Marie Presley, so he didn’t reject that kind of family. But he also formed other domestic relationships that we can see as non-traditional families. For example, Sean Lennon lived with him off and on for several years after his father died. That’s a non-traditional arrangement, not only because they aren’t related (either genetically or legally) but because of how it functioned. Michael Jackson acted as kind of a surrogate father, but also as a friend and as a mentor – an older artist teaching a younger artist. And he had similar non-traditional family-type relationships with Macaulay Culkin and Brett Barnes and Ryan White and Allyson Smith and the Cascio kids and Jordan Chandler and many other children, as well as Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Ross and Jane Fonda and … and … and … These relationships can all be thought of as non-traditional families.

      One reason this is so important is because of the molestation allegations, and how they were handled by the police and the press. For example, even journalists who agree there’s very little evidence that Michael Jackson was a pedophile still treat him as suspect in large part because of his non-traditional relationships with children. They can’t understand them, in large part because those relationships don’t fit the nuclear family model they’re used to, so they treat them as deviant – and I think the police did too. I think that’s what’s meant when people say Michael Jackson “fit the profile” of a pedophile (even though a lot of pedophiles are married with children). It’s a statement based on false stereotypes, like saying a Muslim traveler fits the profile of a terrorist, or a black driver of an expensive car fits the profile of a drug dealer. Michael Jackson was treated with suspicion, I think, because he formed these non-traditional families, and he paid a big price for that.

      • Willa, you make some very valid points here. I’d also like to add that this gets back to what I believe was the theme of the original post you and Joie had with Susan – that Michael’s willingness to move through life in a non-traditional manner was a threat to the status quo and he was attacked for that. If we just use the example of his relationships, I see several areas that were non-tradition. As you mentioned above, Michael had many relationship with children that seem to be brotherly, fatherly, mentorly. If we believe Lisa Marie (that Debbie Rowe was willing to have Michael’s child even while Michael and Lisa were still married), then to have a child open and willingly outside of marriage while you are still married would be considered non-traditional. To willing want to be a single father is non-traditional, although that is starting to change. For those people who believe that Michael’s children are biologically his, then perhaps having biracial children is not the norm, and for those who believe that Michael’s children are not biologically his, then having a black man raising white children is probably not thought of as common. For Michael to not call Joesph “Father” (although not of Michael’s doing), is certainly not the norm, but also calling Marlon Brando “Dad” is probably not the norm either.

      • Hi Willa —

        I guess I don’t see MJ as deliberately —

        “resist[ing] social normalization on so many fronts – norms of what it means to be black, to be a man, to be straight, to be a pop artist, to be a father figure”

        I don’t think he started out to be a transgressor. I’m not even sure he was aware of the norms. How could he be, given his isolation and insularity? It just happened as a result of his being true to himself and his art. And once he became painfully aware that he was viewed as a transgressor, I think he was truly confused and hurt.

        When I think about MJ, I don’t think about someone who was abnormal or anti normal, but someone who felt deeply the very normal human needs for friends and family and love. And, in his art, like Shakespeare and all great artists, he dealt with the great themes of life — basic human desires and needs and joys and sorrows. And, like all great artists, he had true and deep insights into the human heart and the world he inhabited.

        He “queered” things, paradoxically, by being a straight arrow — true to himself and by having true perceptions — by expressing the joy and exhilaration of young love and youth, anger at injustice, grief at senseless acts of violence, etc. Powerful, powerful emotions coming from a deep place within him and reaching a deep place within us.

        Placing this in the context of post-modernism where there is no recognition of one single “truth,” I believe that there are basic, biological animal needs — needs for food, water, air, love, sex, etc. — but how humans satisfy these needs is culturally constructed and many cultures satisfy them in many different ways — no one more true than any other. However, when a culture’s construction of how to satisfy these needs is actually acting against survival, then falseness has entered the picture and survival demands change.

        The task of culture at its deepest level is to promote the health and well being of a society — to help it survive. If a culture has gone around the bend and is actually promoting behaviors and values that act against the well being of all, then it needs a correction. Take the western way of life that is promoting the destruction of the earth we depend on for our survival. Truly sick.

        I think great artists, like MJ, intuitively feel the deep disconnects which turn a way of life into a way of death. And, through their incredible artistic abilities, they make us feel them.

        Our society is pathological in its treatment of the earth.
        Our society is pathological in its treatment of women.
        Our society is pathological in its treatment of people of color.
        Our society is pathological in its treatment of children.

        Our society is sick, and if we don’t do something, we are going to die.
        Michael wanted to heal the world.

        In pathologizing Michael, society and the media revealed our own pathologies.

        He was really showing us how messed up we are.

        Thanks for making me think.

        • aldebaranredstar

          “I think great artists, like MJ, intuitively feel the deep disconnects which turn a way of life into a way of death. And, through their incredible artistic abilities, they make us feel them.”

          AMEN, Eleanor!!!

          I think this is why Michael ended Earth Song with the words “What about death again”–death, death, death, and again death. What about death AGAIN? He just saw too much death all around, war, ecological disaster, cruelty.

          I loved your statements here, especially I got joy out of this comment: “He “queered” things, paradoxically, by being a straight arrow.”

          He was not really anti-traditional in expanding the narrow sense of ‘family’ that some people have and that the patriarchal, capitalist culture promotes. Indigenous people have a larger sense of family–the tribe, the clan. The people of the long house (the Houdanosanee) built large log houses and many families lived in that one house.

          When society is sick, the sane ones are the ones out of step. Michael was very attracted to the Romantics, who honored the child, and to the American Transcendentalists, who honored nature; like Henry David Thoreau, he danced to a “different drummer.” These were also people who experimented with different social communities, such as solitary living in nature (Thoreau), or communes, like Fruitlands. It’s not that he was anti-traditional, but that he was part of a different tradition, one with deeper roots than the one we are currently boxed into. When in Black or White, he danced with various indigenous groups, including Native Americans, he showed his kinship with them.

        • Hi Eleanor. I agree with most of what you wrote, so I don’t think our views are as far apart as they may seem.

          Michael Jackson did many things that are coded as “feminine” in our culture: he wore makeup and perfume, he enjoyed fashion and shopping, he was very emotional and wasn’t afraid to express his emotions, he was nurturing with children, he loved his mother, he was comfortable with women and had many close friendships with women (Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, …). But that’s just a cultural construct – there is no inherent reason why any of these things should exist solely in women’s sphere and not in men’s.

          In fact, it’s wrong, misogynistic, and deeply damaging to both men and women to divide things up this way, and Michael Jackson resisted it. I think it’s true that he was, in large part, just living his life in a full way and “being true to himself and his art.” As you wrote so beautifully, he was

          someone who felt deeply the very normal human needs for friends and family and love. And, in his art, like Shakespeare and all great artists, he dealt with the great themes of life — basic human desires and needs and joys and sorrows. And, like all great artists, he had true and deep insights into the human heart and the world he inhabited.

          However, I also think he was aware of how “masculine” and “feminine” are defined in our culture and deliberately tried to expand those rigid definitions. As Joie and I have talked about several times this fall, he refused to conform to restrictive ideas of what it means to “be a man,” and one of his goals on his Bad album seems to have been redefining what it means to “be bad” and “be a man.”

          A powerful example of this resistance, for me, is the video statement he made in December 1993, a few days after the strip search. He was under intense pressure to prove he was a “normal” guy – he was seen as a pedophile in large part because he was not seen as a “normal” guy – so what did he do? He put on false eyelashes and lipstick and went on national tv proclaiming his innocence. I never thought I would see wearing false eyelashes as an act of courage, but in this case it absolutely is – it took tremendous courage, I think, and confidence, and a very strong sense of self. Remember, this is just a few days after that horrible strip search and he’s so upset he’s practically shaking, but he’s sending a very powerful message through words and images: he will not be broken, and he will not conform to proscriptive ideas of what it means to be a man. And I feel deep admiration for him because of that.

          • Yes, Willa, that video is really astonishing. I guess what I am trying to express is that Michael did not set out to break all the rules, breaking the rules just grew out of who he was — and he had the breathtaking insight to know who he was and be true to it.

  19. I don´t want to reduce my thinking to looks alone.In a more evolved, and hopefully better, society the rigid division of male v. female qualities will lessen.In some songs Michael calls God both he and she.

  20. aldebaranredstar

    I hear what VC is saying and I think it’s a valid point. To the average person the word ‘queer’ means homosexual and this is something Michael was always accused of being, even though if he had been gay, that would have been his right and should have been accepted, as it was for example with Elton John, Boy George, j d lang, etc. However, he was sneered at b/c he was (supposedly) gay and he wouldn’t admit it. I think VC also has a point when she argues that Susan’s analysis does open up such fluidity around the gender/ sexuality issue, that it would seem she is close to suggesting Michael was gay or that this would be a possible conclusion.

    For example, Susan says: “Queerness is not only about subverting, and thereby questioning, norms, but about the creation of ambiguity, of de-stablizing binaries, especially around gender and sexuality.” Creating so much so much subversion, de-stabilization, ambiguity gets close to what actually happened in Michael’s life when he was accused of taking female hormones, being gay, even being a pedophile, and now with this new book by Randall Sullivan, he is a ‘pre-sexual.’

    As much as we want to see Michael as a visionary and an artist who broke boundaries, we also can do that while respecting what many friends have said, as well as business, legal partners, and what he himself said, that, speaking about him as a man, he was a heterosexual. That is not to say as an artist or performer, he did not take risks in breaking sexual codes of ‘heteronormativity’; obviously he did.

    But let’s not get too carried away with the idea of breaking the codes–there will always be the gold pants and some unforgettable, highly seductive moves that drive us wild. In fact, to many women, Michael is the sexiest man alive. And they are not talking androgyny.

    • “there will always be the gold pants … “

      Thanks for the great start to my morning, Aldebaranredstar! This made me laugh out loud.

  21. aldebaranredstar

    “We desperately want categories in order to make sense of the world; there’s safety in being able to say someone is this or that. It bothered many people that this was not possible with MJ.”

    I am wondering if this is really true– ‘this was not possible with MJ.’ Why didn’t we just let him tell us who he was, instead of trying to make him fit categories other people had? Then it would be possible to understand him. He tried to tell us in his own words–performer, visionary, artist. These are not categories that never existed before. But maybe they are categories that are not accepted as valid in our increasingly judgmental, sanitized, and deadened definition of reality. Maybe that is why other nations, more in touch with these energies, accepted Michael while the media and the gullible public in USA castigated him and decided to try and lock him up.

    Maybe it was not so much that he was transgressive as that he was simply fully alive–and life is movement, not dead–more alive than the society in USA could handle.

  22. aldebaranredstar

    One more try to articuate this: it is not that he was so ‘queer’ (to use Susan’s term) or so transgressive, or so ambiguous–it was that WE were so closed, so numb, so dead, so identified with the social codes in comparison.

    • Yes! Aldabaranredstar, I agree with this so much. And Michael’s art and life — and our reaction to it — revealed this deadness. So, society, not liking what they saw in the mirror, took it out on MJ.

  23. There are witnesses in Michael’s life that knew of his attraction to women, Lisa Minelli is one, others noted his profound love and admiration for Princess Diana, remember his closeness to Brooke Shields, all attesting to his good taste in the opposite sex. That he didn’t manage to build and maintain a relationship I think has more to do with childhood traumas that remained unresolved, after all he was a very attractive and amiable person, had a huge fan base, knew plenty of people, perhaps naive in interpersonal relationships as his record suggests. A psychoanalytical approach would shed more light here. I cannot believe that all women who approached him had an agenda, I’m sure some loved him genuinely.

  24. Ladies, thank you for this brilliant discussion. I have not commented much, as I usually just enjoy the other comments so much and I don’t feel I have that much to contribute. My name is also Susan, but this time I will use initials of my surname to avoid confusion with any other Susans.

    Aldebaranredstar, I particularly enjoy your comments, as well as the research you have provided in your comments on the “Vindicating Michael” blogs. In your comment above – from November 18 at 2:36 am – “However, he was sneered at b/c he was (supposedly) gay and he wouldn’t admit it.” This is what always gets me about Michael’s critics. They just refuse to believe him. They don’t believe he was straight, don’t believe he had vitiligo, don’t believe he had his own children, don’t believe he did not harm children. I find them incredibly ignorant. Michael is like a Rorschach test. Say his name and the looks and comments you get will tell you a lot about people. It reminds me of something similar with your wonderful President Obama (I am Canadian and I love him). I found the questioning of his own American citizenship and faith, to be repulsive. I do believe it was and continues to be due to his race. A strong, black man that many in the white establishment try to undermine at every opportunity. Sounds very familiar.

    May I just add that I don’t know if any of you have seen the movie “Doubt”. I saw it again yesterday and it reminded me somewhat of Michael went through. You have a nun played by Meryl Streep – she is like Tom Sneddon in a habit, a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) suspected of being inappropriate with a young, black boy and a another nun, played by Amy Adams who does not believe the insinuations that the nasty nun is claiming. I would like to post a link to one scene in this movie where the priest is describing what gossip is and how harmful it is, as we all know that gossip was/is the bread and butter for the usual suspects in Michael’s life. Thank you.

    • Susan M-S and Aldebaranredstar – this phenomenon of “he was sneered at b/c he was (supposedly) gay and he wouldn’t admit it” is such an interesting one, I think. It’s not just that these critics didn’t believe him, but they felt he lacked self-knowledge and somehow they knew him better than he knew himself. The feeling seems to be that he claimed he wasn’t gay but they knew better, he claimed he respected his racial heritage but they knew better, he claimed he loved children but they knew what that really meant. …

      I think the connection to President Obama and the birth certificate controversy is really interesting, Susan, because the subtext of all that, of course, is that Obama isn’t a “real” American. He’s the President, but he’s still not American enough (speaking of irony). So he’s asked to produce ever more documentation to somehow prove he’s a “real” American, but of course it’s never enough. The really interesting part about all this is that it first arose four years ago when Obama was running against John McCain, who was born at a naval base in Panama. So John McCain was not born in the U.S. but is unquestionably a “real” American, while Obama was born in the U.S. but is not.

      The whole issue is very telling, I think, and ties in very well with the issues we’ve been talking about this week – namely, what does it mean to be a “proper” subject (in terms of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc) and who is authorized to decide? Donald Trump? (which adds yet more resonance to that list of capitalists Michael Jackson calls out in “Money,” with Trump’s name prominent among them … )

      p.s. Great clip, Susan! Thanks.

  25. aldebaranredstar

    Hi, Susan M-S, Willa, Eleanor, Gihan, and everyone, thanks for this great discussion! Susan M-S, thanks for your kind words, and the clip from “Doubt” on gossip is very interesting, and words repeated over and over do create a kind of reality, and become a mantra, as Bjorn said. So we had the mantras Michael was sending out–“It don’t matter if you’re black or white,” “heal the world,” “make that change,’ and so on, and the competing mantras of the media, prosecutors, and accusors, “pedophile, freak, wacko, addict” etc. If it is true that words create vibrations, Michael had to be enormously strong mentally to resist the destructive forces of the words used like weapons against him.

    I read the free ‘selections’ of Sullivan’s book on Amazon, and one thing that struck me was according to Marc Shaffel, who was in Las Vegas with Michael when the Neverland raid took place in November 2003, Michael tore the villa in the Mirage Hotel apart. He broke furniture, tore down the art on the walls, in his anger. In a way, this made me feel good b/c I think anger is healthier than the crying and sobbing I had heard about from another witness, Dieter Weisner, who was there when Michael saw what Bashir produced after 8 months of filming. I am not saying he was right to tear the villa apart, but I am glad to hear (if it is true) he was that mad about his life being derailed by disgusting lies.

    Michael wasn’t culturally indocrinated in schools, the way many of us were. He had a tutor and just got his G.E.D. high school equivalency diploma. He was self-taught beyond that, although he always honored his tutor. Maybe this helped him step outside the social codes?

    Willa, I never heard that about Joe and the money set aside. It would be great to know your source for that as it would help me see a good side of Joe.

    Some think (see Raven’s All For Love blog) that Michael was a heterosexual but not good ‘husband material,’ b/c he traveled around so much and was restless, as well as his independence and his love of all children, not just his own. One complaint he supposedly made about LMP during their marriage that she was ‘invading his privacy.’ He wanted a lot of freedom in any marriage. Some people do better having sexual relationships but remaining unmarried, and this seems to be what Michael was more comfortable with.

    For all our so-called liberalism, the various codes and norms are pretty well locked down and it seems there is little room for discussion (except here), let alone change, on them. I go back to what Susan Fast said, “We desperately want categories in order to make sense of the world,” but we can’t ever make sense of the world by means of categories, so it is a losing proposition. She goes on to say “There’s safety in being able to say someone is this or that.” Too much ‘safety’ can lead to the death of experimentation, innovation, and original thinking. Why are we so scared of vibrant reality that we have to cling to dead ‘categories’ ?

    As Michael said in HIStory, “keep moving.”

  26. Thanks for the discussion! First time commenting here 🙂
    I always get a bit puzzled when people talk about MJ crossing all these boundaries and I think I know why: I never experienced the world before Michael blurred it so me its not abnormal at all. I became a fan in 1993 when I was 10 and somehow I never thought that Michael was supposed to fit in some certain ‘boxes’ – he just was.

    I think that because of him ignoring those boundaries – or rather I believe he just didnt care for them (there is a quote of him saying that music is universal and he doesn’t think in terms of genre – a good song is a good song) – because of that my generation grew up without thinking that rock is white and hip hop is necessarily black.

    Same goes for gender/sex thing – i remember clearly the first time I saw Michael was remember the time video (yeah, i grew up in russia so before that I didnt even know who he was haha) and he was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Simple as that. It is kinda fascinating to me – if no one tells you that you are looking at a someone who is considered a freak, how would you know?

    I think Michael himself didnt consider those boundaries of any importance and thus disregarded them. I think the whole merging of things was to create what he heard in his head, where there was no ‘boxes’. I guess I’m trying to say that I believe that merging and crossing was ‘means to an end’, the end being his art and not the other way around. In my opinion of course 🙂

  27. I have read and re-read this interview with Susan Fast, in the interests of giving her point of view a fair hearing. If anything I am more puzzled as to why it’s here, in a blog that is purportedly in celebration of Michael Jackson. I cannot believe that anyone who loves Michael would co-sign using the word queer to describe him or his work.

    If you ladies believe that Michael was gay, please just say so, even though he himself said he was not gay. That would be more honest than using terms like “androgynous”, “feminized”, and “queer”. For a straight man, and a father whose three children can read, those words are hurtful and insulting.

  28. aldebaranredstar

    “Other than lamenting about his lost childhood and his victimization at the hands of the media, Michael has never had much of a public viewpoint about anything. He’s not what one would call articulate, not by any stretch of the imagination.”

    This quote from Taraborrelli is mind-boggling in its stupidity.

    Gennie: “he was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” Amen!!

    Happy Thanksgiving to all! We will see Spike Lee’s documentary on Bad 25 tomorrow on ABC, for those in USA. I am thankful for Michael, his brilliance, his love, his music, and for this great blog, Joie and Willa, their guests, everyone who works to improve understanding of Michael’s art and legacy, and all the wonderful and thoughtful comments!

  29. Androgynous is not a term used in a pejorative sense. In fact quite a lot of characters, whether in art, fiction or in reality bear this characteristic are normally considered beautiful. If you closely watch Michael, he is both paternal and maternal towards his own children and those of others, this is a very high accomplishment, most people find it difficult to play even part their parental role. Or watch classical antiquity, the men possess more feminine beauty than their counterpart in Hellenistic and Roman art. In my view Michael was highly developed as a person in which case the possession of androgynous qualities carries very positive connotations.

    To you, Aldebaranredstar, Willa, Joie, and all who so lovingly contribute to celebrating Michael, Happy Thanksgiving!

    • “Michael was highly developed as a person in which case the possession of androgynous qualities carries very positive connotations.”

      I agree, Gihan. I love the way he allowed himself to express the full human experience. I see this as very positive, and think it’s one reason he had such deep appeal for so many people. He wasn’t limited by the boundaries we tend to impose on each other – not just in terms of gender, but also other cultural boundaries such race, religion, nationality, as well as artistic boundaries such as genre, medium, and audience. One of the things I find so fascinating about Susan Fast’s work is that she explores the intersection of the two – of how the structure of his art and the way he “queered” artistic boundaries reinforces his message about overcoming cultural divisions and our social “conditioning.”

      To me, this crossing, blurring, rewriting, “queering” of boundaries was perhaps his most important message, and he expressed this message not only through his art but through his life. His life, his art, and his public persona became so intertwined, it’s like he lived his artistic vision and became a physical embodiment of that message.

  30. A great interview with Spike Lee about Bad 25:

    • Thanks, Jacksonaktak. Wasn’t the documentary wonderful? And apparently the full version is even better – Spike Lee cut about an hour from it to fit the ABC time slot.

  31. I’m not in the US, I saw it earlier on German TV (they showed the 2 hours version) and I loved it. I read that they cut out a lot of important parts in the US which is a bit sad. Especially that they cut out the James Baldwin quote. If anyone needs to hear that and think about it, it’s the US…

  32. aldebaranredstar

    Michael had a great sense of whimsy and humor, which is not always emphasized, especially as contributing to his art and its mixing-up of categories. Playfully subverting categories, as in Leave Me Alone, all the mischievious disappearances and transformations in Speed Demon, the film of Billy Jean, Remember the Time, and the film for Liberian Girl show this lighter, comic side. We see this in the Spike Lee documentary, where Michael shows how he wants the California Raisins to look, one a ‘cool dude’ and the other a goofy guy, and he mimes the parts hilariously. His attraction to Peter Pan has something to do with this humor and whimsical side.

    I recently read a description of his time in rehab in London in 93, after he canceled the Dangerous tour and before he returned to USA to face the allegations. He was ill from dependence on various prescription drugs, pain and sleep medication, and yet during rehab he could still joke around–he called his doctor ‘the mad professor,’ which is so funny–and play electric trains with someone’s young son. The account is from one of the bodyguards.

  33. Considering that Susan Fast’s main interest is popular music, and she is determined to utilize the word queer, which many consider inappropriate, has she written any articles about kd lang? Considering that kd lang is a lesbian who dresses exclusively in unambiguously male clothing, and has a ‘butch’ haircut, while singing in a throbbing, overtly feminine voice, she is infinitely more transgressive, more ‘queer’ than Michael Jackson. Steven Tyler often dresses in women’s clothing, wears makeup, paints his nails, and experimented with gay sex by his own admission. Would Susan Fast describe him as queer? By her stated criteria, she should.

    For that matter, Ellen DeGeneres wears trousers and vests, and very short hair, even as she appears as a spokeswoman for Cover Girl cosmetics. She’s also a lesbian, married to another woman. Lots of gender bending and androgyny on view there. Yet a Google search yields plenty of descriptions of her as gay, but none as queer.

    Evidently it’s indelicate to call actually queer white people queer, but you are trying to persuade us it isn’t pejorative to saddle Michael Jackson with a term most consider an insult?

  34. aldebaranredstar

    This is such an interesting post and discussion and I have re-read it all and I think one of the key points is found in what Eleanor said: “I don’t think he started out to be a transgressor. I’m not even sure he was aware of the norms. How could he be, given his isolation and insularity? It just happened as a result of his being true to himself and his art.”

    This reminds me of the scene on the street in’ The Way You Make Me Feel’ where Michael is trying to be like the other guys and an old man says, ‘sit down, I’ve been watching you.” and goes on to give him advice. ‘Just be yourself. You can’t be nobody else.’ And Michael repeats it, “just be myself.’ Then he goes on to meet ‘the girl’ and pursue her in his way. This idea of being true to oneself is easy to say and hard to live, especially if it means violating what society expects, but there is no other way if one IS to be true to oneself. Finding out who we are is a big job in the first place and talks a lot of inner work and willingness to go against the grain. It takes courage. I think this is what Michael means to many and to me, someone who was true to himself at the deepest levels. A true individual.

    It also reminds me of the movie ‘The Adam Family Values,” and Michael was writing what came to be “Ghosts’ as the soundtrack, although it was not used for the movie. In this movie the Adams family, those radical noncomformists, and particularly Fester, try to be ‘normal.’ Fester falls in love with a scam artist called Debbie, goes through all sorts of ‘normal’ transformations and only after Debbie tries to kill him a few times does he wake up and go back to the family, proclaiming ‘I’m an Adams!’ The movie is all about being true to yourself, so I can see how Michael would have been attracted to it.

    This relates to the idea of blurring or transgressing as well, because we can’t blur or transgress to the extent that we are no longer true to ourselves. Take the morphing sequence in Black or White; each face is clearly an individual before it morphs into another clearly differentiated individual face. If the faces were not differentiated, and were all blurred togerther instead, the whole point of the morphing would be lost. In painting, if you mix a bunch of colors together, you end up with a muddy brown. You lose the differences in the colors.

    Similarly, if you try to force ‘diversity’ this is not allowing true differences to exist. Willa makes this point very well in the post:

    “tolerance for difference, at least as a political stance, has itself been normalized, and Michael Jackson refused to express his difference in proper ways. While we like to believe we’ve moved beyond the White male stereotypes of the past, they still exist and have been joined by stereotypes of diversity that in many ways are just as constraining. For example, Black kids are supposed to show pride in their race by identifying with the approved genres for their demographic and “aren’t supposed to like rock or country,” as you pointed out earlier, Joie. And “queer,” which by definition should be a celebration of difference, has been politically codified as well.”

    When the old man says to Michael, ‘Just be yourself. You can’t be nobody else,” he rejects living an inauthentic, false life, doing what others expect or find comfortable, and asks for deeper honesty and self-awareness.

  35. Thank you Willa and Joie for your interesting themes and for offering a platform to discuss Michaels artistry . My first time here, a bit late in the discussion, but felt I had to respond to the subject and some of the comments.
    Michael has been labeled many things, different social groups who identify with him and want to push their beliefs or life style claimed him as their poster boy , but queer was new to me. So I thought if the queer community did not embrace him ,could it be that he didn’t have ‘queer-dar’. To understand more of the queer concept I looked for stories of people who call them self queer and found this very interesting article. http://queerkidssaynomarriage.wordpress.com/

    I learned that they have a liberal ‘leftist’ view on many social issues, but find them quite limited in some. In their advocacy against establishment they create a new establishment. Their ideas worked in the 60s 70s and 80s but today are a bit out of date . People are now free to choose their relationships and that includes a choice for marriage, gay or straight.
    Much of what is attributed to Michael and the examples to define him as queer, are not convincing to me , there are other obvious reasons to explain them and I prefer Occam’s razor here.
    Michael married twice with the purpose to have children and to have them born in wedlock. That sounds pretty traditional to me and is a sin in the queer way of thinking. What may be nontraditional to some, is normal to others.
    In African American culture the extended family, not limited to ‘blood’ family is more norm than exception. See many adoptions in the Jackson family. That’s why Michael had no problem to have families and friends staying all over his home, including his bedroom and saw nothing strange in knocking on the Cascio families door in the middle of the night . Hayvenhurst was an open door where fans,random strangers were welcome. Many family friends call Michaels mom mother – watch Emanuel Lewes recent interview – the same way Michael called Marlon Brando dad and James Brown poppa. He insisted his children call him daddy. Was it because he couldn’t call his own father by that sublime of patriarchy title or because it was not uncommon in his upbringing?
    He wasn’t monogamous and had a relationship outside his marriage. Some will call it non traditional, others will say its machismo and selfish. Joe Jackson and his brothers did the same and are called cheaters. As for his looks I don’t think Michael would want to be associated with queerness. Its common knowledge that even after surgery he was not happy with his looks. (1993 O interview answer on more surgery : ‘I am never satisfied’, Schmuley tapes : hates mirrors thinks that he looks like a lizard, confidence to Teddy Riley, regrets physical changes, would turn back the time if he could.) Joe Jackson also wears make up, what does it say.
    Many people who knew Michael say that in private he was the opposite of his public image. Do we apply the queerness to who he was or who we think he was, based on his public persona?
    In conclusion, I think the queer community didn’t embrace Michael because he was not one.

    Michael choose to be traditional’ or non traditional’ when he wanted to. He engaged in personal and business relationships when he wanted and ended them at his convenience.
    He didn’t blur, but acknowledged and celebrated the beauty and uniqueness of the different races and cultures in their full glory like in the Black or white film: Indians are unmistakably Indians, Africans are Africans, Native Americans are Native Americans etc.
    He celebrated childhood and enjoyed playing, like a child. He treated children with the same respect as adults, maybe a little naïve as to their innocence at a certain age, but he was always more of a mentor than a peer to them, no blurring there. At an early age he bonded with a woman twice his age and fell in love with her, one of his closest friends was his mothers age and he adored his mother, but he also feared old age and didn’t see it as a blessing. That’s how complex he was.
    I hope that the blurring of race idea is not based on the skin disease that left him without pigmentation and lifelong , gruesome treatment and use of toxic creams to even out his skin color .And probably even a complex that could have affected intimate relationships. Who would voluntarily choose that?
    To me Michael did not blur race, culture, gender or age. That would make it one nondescript, grayish mass , nothing like him.
    I find Gennies comment very refreshing : I think the whole merging of things was to create what he heard in his head, where there was no ‘boxes’. ‘somehow I never thought that Michael was supposed to fit in some certain ‘boxes’ – he just was.’

    Another thing in the discussion that caught my attention is this:
    ‘I am not into the music of Prince and Madonna and such like, but I have a strong feeling that in 200 years time no-one will know who the heck they were, but Michaels music will be the classics played as Mozart or Bach are today.’
    I kindly beg to differ . I ve been a fan of Michael since Jackson 5 days , but I also admire Prince very much and I see him on the same artistic level as Michael. Superior in some and less in other aspects, like-ability, and definately in the number of fans. Prince is an artists artist, his concerts are highly anticipated and sold out in no time. At 54 he is as youthful, dynamic and versatile on stage as 30 years ago , he has a steady fan base, among which very beautiful women who find him as sexy as Michaels fans find him, if that counts.
    From the 80 s up to june 25th 2009 Prince was Michaels only rival of generation. Michael wanted to work with him on the Bad album and even in 2008 went to see his concert with Will-Iam. He first did the 10 sold out concerts at the 02, after which Michael was contracted by AEG . And soon began the stories that Michael wanted to beat Prince’s
    10 concerts and raised his to the still controversial 50. Why do you think Spike Lee went out of his way to have him on Bad 25. It would have been a super boost for the doc. If you look beyond the surface Prince and Michael have more in common than they have differences.
    Prince in his heydays was the uber queer. His music crossed over black and white audiences, his lifestyle and looks were camp ,androgenic, his sexuality a mystery. So much so that in 81 or 82 as a support act for the Rolling stones he was booed and stoned off the stage by a homophobic macho, racist audience, the hard core RS followers who think rock is superior to other genres. So he also paid his due, again as TAFKAP.
    Vocally Madonna is not in the league of Prince and Michael but she is an icon in her own right. And so are Bruce Springsteen, James Brown, Elvis, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Tupac and all Michaels predecessors . This monday me and some friends celebrated Jimi Hendrix birthday, watching his Woodstock performance in the cinema. We are Michaels generation, there were some older folks, but the majority were in their 20s and 30s. Woodstock was 43 years ago, JH passed away at 27 and would be 70 today!
    So who is to say who will make the music history books and whose name will fade out. only time will tell. Ergo there is no need to talk down other artists to praise Michaels greatness. Michael never did. He respected and enjoyed great music of different genres.

    What I come away with from this discussion, the real eyeopener is that Michaels music lacks irony and cynism and is very straightforward, what you hear and see is what you get. Because of that ,still today its considered inferior to rock and even in the pop scene gets a lot of criticism. Despite their contempt for his music, it is embraced by every possible demographic, race or culture in the world. And instead of questioning why and how he did the magic, they started questioning him. The rest is history.

    Long post, not to change anyone’s mind, but for the record that we can see things in many different ways.

  36. i dont agree with both (willa and susan) that ‘lack of irony ‘ was the reason behind why scholars was lagging on michael.just look at his rock songs (give into me) and much of history’s work.
    the actual reason is extremely simple to answer-

    1) they considered him crazy, its not like genius crazy though (like jhon lennon or Salvador Dali ) . besides michael himself should take blame for that,(selling tabloid in bad era)

    2) his was a new kind of music, its not that he was godfather of any genre (like james brown)
    but blending basically anything from chaplin to lennon got its extends, but i must say it is actually because of the fact that critics never knew what to make of it, hence they looked upon their fellow men and when they failed to give him credit they generally passed on the fact that he was simply trying to win records , but in rare instances there were a few who did understand him (armond white),

  1. Pingback: MJ Academic of the Week 12/12 – Willa Stillwater & Joie Collins – Writing Eliza

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