The King of Pop and the Pope of Pop

Willa:  A few weeks ago our friend Lisha McDuff sent us a link to a documentary about the biggest pop star of his time, and it was so fascinating to me – especially the way he redefined art to include areas we don’t typically think of as art, like his fame, his public persona, his speaking voice, and even his face.

However, as the documentary makes clear, in a way he was forced to make his face part of his art because he suffered from auto-immune disorders that attacked the pigment of his skin. In the documentary, there are photos that show large white patches on his cheek and neck where the pigment has been destroyed. People who knew him later in life say his skin was unnaturally white, and he sometimes wore makeup that made it even whiter.

He was also very self-conscious about his nose – he thought it was too “bulbous” – and he almost certainly had plastic surgery to make it smaller and thinner.  And he was known to wear god-awful wigs that he intentionally “damaged” himself, whacking at the front with scissors and dying the bottom layers a dark brown, while leaving the top layers white or silvery blonde.

Of course I’m talking about the Pope of Pop, Andy Warhol – an artist Michael Jackson met several times and pays homage to in his Scream video. Lisha, thank you so much for sharing that documentary, Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture, and for joining me to talk about it!

Lisha:  It’s such a privilege to talk with you again, Willa, especially about the connections between Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson. Ever since I read your book and your brilliant analysis of Andy Warhol’s self-portrait in Scream, I’ve been fascinated by the connection between the two and the way both artists dared to challenge and redefine the boundaries of art. In your book, you wrote:

While Warhol forced us to look at Campbell soup cans and think about our relationship with consumer culture in a new way, Jackson forced us to look at him – the little boy we’d loved since childhood who grew up into something unexpected – and challenged our assumptions about identity and race, gender and sexuality.

That is especially interesting when you think about how Michael Jackson must have understood himself to be a trademarked product early on in life; he developed a star persona at such a very young age.

Willa:  That’s a good point, Lisha. Motown not only produced music but also thoroughly groomed their artists, giving them lessons in speech, etiquette, fashion, demeanor – how to eat and drink in public, how to walk and talk, how to give interviews in a way that presented an appealing persona to a large crossover audience. And for Michael Jackson, those lessons started at a very young age, when he was only 10 years old.

Lisha:  I’ve often wondered what it must have been like – learning to create a star persona that was even younger than his actual age.  And what was it like for him to watch that star persona depicted as a cartoon character every Saturday morning on television? There are very few people in the world who could relate to that – developing a sense of self while learning to craft a public persona at the same time.

So I never imagined how many striking similarities there were in the lives of Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson until I watched this documentary. I realized that both men grew up in steel towns, Pittsburgh and Gary, because their fathers were steel workers. They were teased about their noses growing up and they suffered from medical conditions that destroyed their skin pigment and caused early hair loss. They became shy and soft spoken. And as adults, both men responded in such an unexpected and wildly imaginative way, it has captured the public’s attention ever since – by creating a larger-than-life celebrity persona – using glasses, wigs, light skin and a re-sculpted nose. You could easily argue that Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson’s greatest works of art are: Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson.

Willa:  I agree, Lisha. When we think of art, we’re used to thinking about music, dance, painting, fiction, drama, poetry, sculpture, film, and all the other easily recognizable genres of artistic expression. But Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson didn’t just create incredible works of art – they also challenged how we define art. And perhaps their most important and experimental work hasn’t even been recognized as art, and that’s their innovative work with the art of celebrity and mass media, including the creation of a public persona, as you say, that captures and reconfigures the public imagination in important ways.

And that interest in celebrity seems to have started at a young age for both of them. Warhol became obsessed with celebrities, starting a scrapbook of photos and autographs while still in elementary school. One of his prized possessions was a signed photograph from Shirley Temple addressed “To Andrew Warhola.” And of course, Michael Jackson later became fascinated by Shirley Temple as well, though for him it wasn’t just admiration. Because she was a child star and suffered some of the same experiences he had, he identified with her and seemed to feel a deep connection with her. Later they became friends, and he describes their first meeting in a very emotional way – like two survivors reuniting after a tragedy.

The Warhol documentary talks about his celebrity scrapbook, including the Shirley Temple photograph, about 8 minutes in.  Here’s a link to the full documentary, Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture, though it’s a bit spicy in places – people with children probably shouldn’t watch it with them in the room:

The discussion of Warhol’s face and public image – especially his visual image – begins about 12 minutes in, and picks up again around an hour in. And here’s an extra treat: there’s an image of Michael Jackson on the cover of Warhol’s Interview magazine at 1:13:20.

Lisha:  The influence of Shirley Temple on both of these artists is stunning to me. In Victor Bokris’ biography of Andy Warhol, he describes just how much Warhol truly idolized Shirley Temple. She inspired his basic philosophy of life: “work all the time, make it into a game, and maintain your sense of humour.” Warhol even took dance lessons to emulate her, and it was in reference to Shirley Temple that he famously said: “I never wanted to be a painter; I wanted to be a tap dancer.”

Willa:  That’s so interesting, Lisha. I’d heard that quote before, but I thought he was joking!

Lisha:  According to his nephew, James Warhola, Warhol privately maintained that kind of child-like spirit throughout his life. Warhola wrote a children’s book titled Uncle Andy’s, which describes Warhol’s home as a giant amusement park full of carousel horses, antiques and all kinds of “neat” art. Sounds a lot like Neverland to me!

Willa:  It really does, doesn’t it?

Lisha:  I think it’s safe to assume Shirley Temple and that child-like spirit influenced how both these artists viewed celebrity as well. As Crispin Glover says in the documentary, “There are certain people in history that you can just put a few things together and that’s the person, like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, or Groucho Marx.” You can easily see what he means. A stove pipe hat and beard = Lincoln. Nose spectacles and mustache = Roosevelt.  A mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, and cigar = Groucho. Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson are most definitely that way.

With Andy Warhol, the light skin and the silver wigs immediately come to mind. Matt Wribican, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, said that the wigs were something Warhol began to formally think of as art, and he actually framed some of them for that reason. Ultra Violet, a Warhol “superstar” from The Factory days, described how Warhol was creating a new mythology through his art – the mythology of Hollywood and the American Dream. Prosperity, glamor, and celebrity were a big part of Warhol’s art, and his own celebrity persona could be interpreted as an extension of that.

With Michael Jackson, we think of the unprecedented fame, the hair and sunglasses; the sequined glove and the fedora, the signature dance moves, the “hee-hee” and “aeow”! That’s the cliched pop star image of Michael Jackson, anyway.

Willa:  That’s true, and it’s fascinating to really think about how those symbols function, and how powerful they are. For example, my son decided to dress up as Michael Jackson for Halloween a few years ago, so he put on a black fedora, a black jacket and pants, and white socks. I suggested he make his hair dark as well, but he said no, that wasn’t necessary – and he was right. My son went around the neighborhood as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Michael Jackson, and everyone immediately knew who he was. He didn’t have to look like Michael Jackson – he just needed to tap into that iconography Michael Jackson had created for himself. Those symbols overrode everything else so completely, my neighbors looked at a little blond boy and immediately thought “Michael Jackson.” And my son understood that at 12 years old – better than I did, actually.

Lisha:  Isn’t it interesting that it seems to work for all ages, races, ethnicities and body types, boys and girls as well? As long as you have some combination of those symbols, it is immediately recognizable. And come to think of it, there isn’t just one group of symbols that identifies Michael Jackson either. A retro 1980s club in my neighborhood invites people to come dressed as their “favorite Michael Jackson.” Think of the possibilities.

Willa:  That’s awesome! And you’re right – there’s different symbology for different decades. A red leather jacket evokes a different era than a white T-shirt and black pants.

Lisha:  Yes, for different eras and for different characters and songs, too.  There are just so many of them: the armband, the surgical mask, the hair falling across the face, the glitzy military jackets, the arm brace, the glitter socks and black loafers … symbols that refer back to Michael Jackson and the whole “Michael Jackson” mythology.  For example, the red leather jacket in Thriller or Beat It, and the white suit and hat in Smooth Criminal are symbols that were intended only for those specific songs and short films.  And they became so inextricably attached to the music, it became necessary to include them in live performances as well.  These symbols help form the characters that make up the whole “Michael Jackson” mythology.

I remember reading an interview once with David Nordahl, one of Michael Jackson’s portrait painters, who talked about the contrast between Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson,” the celebrity.  Jackson didn’t like to sit for his portraits, so Nordahl painted from photographs. Believe it or not, he said it was difficult to get a good photograph of Michael Jackson unless he was “being Michael.” To an artist’s eye, Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson” even photographed differently.

Willa:  Wow, Lisha, that is fascinating! And I think I know exactly what Nordahl is talking about. I’ve looked at thousands of Michael Jackson photographs, including a lot of candids, and it’s true – you can really tell when he’s “being Michael,” and when he isn’t. It’s like he strikes a pose, turns on the high beams or something, and transforms. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that distinguishes Michael Jackson from “Michael Jackson,” but you can sure feel it when you see it.

Lisha:  To a great extent, you could say that all stars have carefully constructed personae and masks they use to create a public image. The music and film industries study these images very carefully because the celebrity/star system is crucial to how they market their products. But in the case of Michael Jackson, I feel like there is a lot more to it. Has there ever been a star persona that was so complex and radically changing as Michael Jackson’s? I believe there is a far more serious artist at work here who, like Warhol, is not at war with celebrity, mass media, or commerce. In fact, I believe he saw it both as art and as a delivery system for his art.

Willa:  I don’t know, Lisha. I see what you’re saying, and I agree wholeheartedly that he was a very sophisticated choreographer of celebrity and the media, both to deliver his art and as an element of his art. In some ways, the mass media became part of his palette for creating his art, and I think that is so important and revolutionary. I really want to dive into that idea more deeply during our discussion today.

But at the same time, I do think there were times when he was “at war” with the mass media. You know, Warhol basically felt that all publicity was good. Regardless of whether the media was praising you or criticizing you, it was all good as long as they were still talking about you. As he said, “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.”

But I think Michael Jackson would complicate that, in part because of his experiences with racial prejudice and other prejudices, in part because of the molestation scandals, and in part because of some frightening experiences with uncontrollable mobs of people when he was a child. I think those experiences gave him a deep awareness – maybe even a fear – of mass hysteria and that mob mentality that can take over sometimes. And when the media is portraying you in ways that are completely counter to your core beliefs, and in ways that feed a type of mass hysteria based on ignorance and prejudice, I think he would strongly disagree with Warhol.

Lisha:  I have to say you’re making some excellent points. And there’s no doubt that being a celebrated and powerful young black man dominating the entertainment industry is a very complicated situation to be in, bringing out all kinds of ignorance and prejudice.

Willa:  Exactly, and those are complications Warhol never had to confront, or maybe even consider.

Lisha:  But didn’t Warhol experience a lot of prejudice in his life, too?  At a time when the white, male, heterosexual art world frowned on his appearance, his sexuality, and his success as a commercial artist?

Willa:  Well, that’s a very good point, Lisha. Warhol did face resistance and prejudice from “the white, male, heterosexual art world” – and that world was pretty macho and homophobic, especially in the 1950s when he was starting out. I guess I was thinking about their public personae, specifically their faces as a provocative form of art. Warhol changed the shape of his nose, lightened his skin (in part to even out his skin tone from loss of pigmentation), wore wigs – and that public face challenged social norms and became an important part of his art, as we were discussing earlier. But it didn’t set off the firestorm that resulted when Michael Jackson did the exact same thing.

The color of your skin, the shape of your nose, and the color and texture of your hair have all been designated as racial signifiers, so when Michael Jackson dared to alter those signifiers, he was entering a cultural no man’s land. That simply wasn’t an issue for Warhol – that’s what I meant by “complications Warhol never had to confront, or maybe even consider.” Warhol’s changing appearance was noticed and commented on, but it didn’t set off the wave of hostility generated by Michael Jackson’s changing appearance, with accusations that he hated his race or had betrayed his race, or was brazenly attempting to “be white.”

Lisha:  I think that’s exactly right. There was a much different reaction to Jackson’s appearance than there ever was to the same changes in Warhol, which generated so much hostility towards Jackson.  But, even so, I still have to wonder – was Michael Jackson truly at war with celebrity and the media in general, or was he attempting to update and correct flaws in the system?

Willa:  That’s an excellent question …

Lisha:  Like Warhol, I think Michael Jackson was actually interested in some P.T. Barnum-style controversy, but there is an element in this that is beyond the celebrity’s control. One false allegation, fictitious scandal or unfair prejudice can ruin everything an artist has worked for their whole lives, through no fault of their own. We know the mob mentality is very real. Personally, I am very proud of the Michael Jackson fans who continue to challenge the media and expose some of the disastrous consequences created by the intersection of profit, news, and entertainment. I think Michael Jackson wanted to cooperate with the star system and use it to do good things, but he did not hesitate to point out where things went dangerously wrong, which again became part of his art.

Willa:  I see what you’re saying, Lisha, and that’s an excellent way of framing this, I think: that he both used the celebrity media in some ways and critiqued it in others, and in fact used it to critique itself. And I agree that Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson both engaged with and choreographed their celebrity in new and fascinating ways – ways that suggest their celebrity itself was an important part of their art – and I’d like to get back to what you said earlier about David Nordahl and the distinction he makes, and others have made as well, between Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson.”

For example, I’m reminded of something Bruce Swedien mentions in his book, In the Studio with Michael Jackson. He worked with Michael Jackson for 30 years, and he and his wife Bea knew him – meaning the gentle-artist-working-in-the-studio side of him – very well. But then he’d step on stage, transform into “Michael Jackson,” and just blow them away. Swedien says, “Bea and I have traveled with Michael to his concerts, all over the world, [and] we have often thought that we don’t know Michael Jackson, the performer, that amazing person on stage.” They were like two completely separate beings.

Lisha:  People who saw that say it was truly astonishing.  In My Friend Michael, Frank Cascio fondly remembers going to his first Michael Jackson concert, when he actually had to ask his father, “Is that the same Michael Jackson who comes to the house?”  The onstage transformation was so complete.

Willa:  Oh, I imagine it was astonishing! And then, of course, there’s the “Michael Jackson” who existed in the media, and that’s a completely distinct entity as well. And in some ways it’s the most interesting of all, because it is such a deliberate creation. As you mentioned earlier, Lisha, it’s far more than presenting a positive image to the public. Instead, he seems to be exploring the constructedness of identity, and challenging the way we “read” identity based on physical cues, especially cues of race and gender. That’s something we see to some extent in Andy Warhol as well, like in the photographs in the documentary where he’s wearing lipstick and eyeshadow, so adopting signifiers normally associated with women, though still clearly a man. Here’s one image:

genderbending 1Lisha:  That certainly challenges the white, male, heterosexual art world’s notion of who can be revered as a great artist, doesn’t it?

Willa:  It really does. But what perhaps defines our identity most of all is our voice, and Warhol even had a separate public and private speaking voice – something that’s frequently been said of Michael Jackson as well. I was very surprised to hear Warhol’s voice talking to his brother on the phone (about an hour and a half into the documentary) because it’s so different from the slow, banal public voice we’re used to hearing.

We don’t know much about Warhol, the person behind the public persona – he’s a shadowy figure that we, the public, rarely saw. He was a devout Catholic who went to mass every week, a shy workaholic, and an innovative artist completely dedicated to his craft. But his public persona is very different: crassly materialistic, flippant, ironic, affectless, detached – an observer who drifted through the studio watching others create his work for him. In a couple of interviews, he said he wasn’t involved in creating his art anymore and wasn’t sure who was doing it – maybe his mother, maybe the cleaning lady. That’s a fabrication, of course, but that’s the image Warhol very deliberately created for himself.

And then Michael Jackson takes that to a whole new level …

Lisha:  Sorry, I have to take a minute and recover from the thought of Andy Warhol telling the press that he wasn’t sure who was creating all that artwork, but possibly his mom or the cleaning lady were doing it. That’s about the funniest thing I’ve ever heard!

Willa:  Isn’t that hysterical? He really was very funny …

Lisha:  Though I have heard that Mrs. Warhola did actually sign some of Andy Warhol’s artwork for him – he just loved her handwriting. In fact, she is credited with creating this 1957 album cover with her son, for The Story of Moondog by Louis Hardin. It reminds me of Michael Jackson’s collaboration with his mother, Katherine Jackson, who contributed the shuffle rhythm in “The Way You Make Me Feel.”

Willa:  Oh, really? I hadn’t heard that, about either of them. Though if it’s true that Andy Warhol’s mom did that album cover, she really did have wonderful handwriting.

And I guess we shouldn’t laugh too hard when Warhol implies he wasn’t creating his art himself because there’s an element of truth to it. What I mean is, Warhol didn’t create all of his prints himself. He was very involved throughout the process – designing them, specifying production details, reviewing them all – but he didn’t craft them all with his own hands. We don’t expect Calvin Klein, for example, to stitch every Klein garment – if he designs it, that’s sufficient to legitimately put his name on it. Yet there is an expectation that an artist will craft all of his artwork himself. Warhol challenged that, even calling his studio The Factory, and this is another area where he merged commercial art with high art to create not just new works, but a new aesthetic. And that new aesthetic is reflected in his persona as well.

Lisha:  Exactly. This was an excellent point that Dennis Hopper brought out in the documentary and he’s absolutely right. We tend to forget that all the great European masters had other painters working in their studios under the artist’s direction. It’s not like a single artist got up on the scaffolding and painted the Sistine Chapel.  But there is such a powerful cultural myth in circulation – that of the tortured artist all alone in their garret, working away on a great masterpiece while refusing to “sell out” for their art – as in Puccini’s famous opera La Boheme. In reality, I believe that is a notion of 19th century Romanticism more than an accurate reflection of the creative process. But once you tune in to that story line, you can see how prevalent it is.

Willa:  That’s an interesting point, Lisha, and we see that bias toward the “solitary genius” even now in critical responses to Prince and Michael Jackson, for example. Prince is seen as the solitary genius alone in his studio, playing most of the instruments on his albums himself, while Michael Jackson was much more collaborative and perceived as more of a commercial artist. His thinking seemed to be that, if a musician dedicated to an instrument could play it better than he could, why not bring in the best?

Lisha:  Being a musician, I would certainly agree with that!  But, the myth of the solitary mad genius is such a cherished cultural icon that, in a lot of ways, I think we’re still having Beethoven-mania!

Like Warhol, Michael Jackson took the idea of working in collaboration to the extreme. On Dangerous, for example, the first album Jackson served as executive producer for, he had 3 production teams working simultaneously in 3 different studios for about 18 months to create the finished product. I don’t know if we’ll ever see those kind of production values again. The people who worked on the recordings talk about the unbelievable attention to detail that went into them, and the willingness of everyone involved to go all the way to create the best result humanly possible.

And though Jackson could be famously controlling of every detail, he was also very flexible in allowing creative input to come from anywhere within the system. For example, Bruce Swedien, a recording engineer, gets a writing credit on “Jam.” Bill Bottrell, a producer/engineer, created the rap and many of the rock/country instrumentals on “Black or White.”

So Michael Jackson was receptive to the ideas and talent around him, and he really used this to his advantage. Warhol seemed to have this ability as well – receiving help, ideas, and inspiration from many different sources. Apparently it was an art dealer, Muriel Latow, who suggested he should consider painting something as everyday and ordinary as a can of soup – the rest is history.

And I was surprised to learn that Andy Warhol actually did eat Campbell’s soup every day of his life; it wasn’t all postmodern irony and a critique of consumer culture as I had thought. His mother always had Campbell’s soup for him when he was a child, and it really seemed to mean a lot to him – warmth, nourishment, a mother’s love. He was painting his reality, and I see those paintings differently when I understand that about him, as opposed to his cool, detached celebrity persona.

Willa:  Oh, I agree – I’ve always been struck by what a feeling of comfort I get from his Campbell’s soup paintings. They’re often interpreted as an ironic statement, as you say, and I can see that intellectually, but that isn’t how they feel to me emotionally. There’s a real feeling of warmth and reassurance there. It’s like he’s saying that the comfort people once found in the familiar icons of the Catholic church – the paintings of the Virgin Mary, for example – they now get from the familiar icons of consumer culture, like Campbell’s soup cans. So while artists in past centuries painted and sculpted religious iconography, his focus is on the new consumer iconography. It’s a brilliant insight.

Lisha:  It truly is a brilliant insight, the marriage of the precious and the everyday. That’s something we see in every aspect of Michael Jackson’s work, from the high production values he brings to the devalued genre of pop, to the exquisitely made, hand-beaded couture jackets he wears with t-shirts and Levi’s 501 jeans. Creating art and myth through his celebrity persona is just another good example.

And as you were saying earlier, Willa, Michael Jackson takes the idea of the celebrity persona to a whole new level. I don’t even see how you could make an argument against it. I’m sure you’ve seen the 60 Minutes interview with Karen Langford, Michael Jackson’s archivist, when she displays some of his early writing which is now called the “MJ Manifesto.” It was Michael Jackson’s stated goal that “MJ” be a completely different person, a whole new character that he had big plans and ambitions for.

Willa:  That’s funny, Lisha – I’ve been thinking about the manifesto also. Here’s what he wrote:

MJ will be my new name. No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a tottally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang “ABC,” “I Want You Back.” I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.

And you’re right. It really does show how deliberate he was in thinking about and creating this new persona, this “whole new character” of MJ, doesn’t it?

Lisha:  Every album had a new one. I’ll never forget the shock and awe of standing in the grocery store checkout line in 1984 searching for a photo of Michael Jackson, since that is about all anyone was talking about in those days, and when I couldn’t find it, somebody had to explain to me that I was already looking at a photo of Michael Jackson. It totally blew my mind as I tried to rectify the earlier Michael Jackson image I knew with the Thriller/Victory tour image I saw. Of course no one could even imagine what was yet to come. He morphed again and again, to the racially ambiguous character in Bad, to the boundary-crossing Black or White character on Dangerous, to the colorless alien “Other” in Scream for the HIStory album.

Willa:  Which raises an important point – that the personae Warhol and Michael Jackson created weren’t necessarily intended to be appealing. They were much more complicated and provocative than that. As the narrator asks near the beginning of the documentary,

But who was Andy Warhol? On his journey from Andrew Warhola, he would not only change his name but also customize his personality to create a mechanical, factory-produced brand name that would embody the celebrity and consumer culture of the times.

That “mechanical, factory-produced” aspect of his “brand” was not especially attractive, at least not in the traditional sense. And neither were his wigs, for example, or his crassly materialistic public persona. But his wigs, his persona, and his brand aren’t judged by traditional standards of beauty or appeal because it’s understood that they were part of his art, and so they have to be interpreted in more complex ways, like art.

And I think this is one way a lot of critics have really misunderstood Michael Jackson. It is generally assumed that in his later career, he was trying to produce something attractive, something appealing to a mass audience, and failing. But if we look at the lyrics to “Is It Scary,” for example, we see that he was doing something much more complicated and interesting than that. Among other things, he was forcing us to confront our own prejudices – prejudices the press and public were trying to impose on his face and body because he was signified as “black,” as “male,” as a “pop star” or “just a pop star” – and later, horribly, as a “freak” and a “monster.”

So how does it change our perceptions if we begin to look at Michael Jackson’s public persona as an artistic creation, like we do with Andy Warhol? And how do we interpret it if we approach it that way?

Lisha:  Well, I think it would have been a much easier path for Michael Jackson had he initially made his private medical conditions public, broken the myth, and explained the changes in his appearance. He could have become an advocate for those like him who suffer from vitiligo and lupus, raising awareness of these diseases. I don’t think he would have had to take the relentless media bashing and persecution that he did, if that was his goal.

But instead of benefiting just a few, I think Jackson saw a much bigger opportunity that still has tremendous cultural resonance today.

Willa:  I agree absolutely. I don’t think we’ve even begun to measure the impact his changing face – as a work of art – has had on us psychologically, as individuals, and culturally, as a global society.

Lisha:  It’s true. Dr. Sherrow Pinder, a Multicultural and Gender Studies professor at California State University at Chico, has argued that as Jackson challenged the notion of “natural bodies and fixed identities as prearranged and controlled,” he had to be “culturally resisted, restricted, or worse, punished and humiliated in order for society to safeguard the realm of normality.”

Willa:  Absolutely, and the intensity of that backlash is an important indicator of just how profound and threatening this was – his transgression of a “fixed identity,” as Pinder calls it, based on traditional notions of race, gender, and sexuality. Michael Jackson challenged them all by “rewriting” his body, thereby complicating how identity is read through the body.

Lisha:  Media all over the world continue to speculate and fabricate stories about “Michael Jackson,” often disregarding factual information that has been available for some time. The media fiction almost always follows some variation of the “wacko,” “freak” or “monstrous figure” narrative, reflecting more about society’s need to “normalize” him than it ever did about Michael Jackson. And Jackson became so acutely aware of his function as a mirror of collective thought that he began exploiting it for artistic purposes, as in “Is It Scary” (“I’m gonna be exactly what you want to see / It’s you whose haunting me, because you’re wanting me to be the stranger in the night”) and “Threatened” (“I’m the living dead, the dark thoughts in your head / I heard just what you said, that’s why you’ve got to be threatened by me”).

Willa:  And we see that idea enacted literally in Ghosts when the Maestro enters the Mayor’s body, holds a mirror to his face, and forces him to witness his own inner “freakishness.” That freakishness the Mayor detests isn’t in the Maestro – it’s in himself.

Lisha:  That is such a brilliant scene – demonstrating his true mastery of the phenomenon.

And yet another mythic, artistic creation of “Michael Jackson” was ready to “Heal the World,” imagining a new empathic civilization into being. One of his most impressive feats was to magically strip away the color of his skin to physically demonstrate once and for all “it don’t matter if you’re black or white.”  When it became clear some still didn’t get the message, he took it a step further and became colorless – literally colorless. Scream and Stranger in Moscow demonstrate this so clearly.

Willa:  And it’s fairly clear that was a deliberate decision. Both videos were filmed in black and white with overly bright lights on his face to wash out the color, even gradations of color.

Lisha:  Absolutely. To me, it is obvious that this is the work of a brilliant and game changing artist. I hate to admit that it wasn’t until after Michael Jackson’s death that I finally looked at his work and realized what a new kind of art it was – imaginative and exquisitely crafted music full of sonic innovations and so-called “high art” aesthetics, synthesized with imagery and myth, delivered to the masses through the devalued genre of pop and the celebrity star system. But it was so much more – exploding off the stage and screen into our social discourses and everyday lives, encouraging us to go beyond our confused and violent past.

And although I wasn’t paying attention at the time, I came to realize how powerfully affected I was by Michael Jackson, without even knowing it. From 1969 to 2009, Michael Jackson was a constant presence, and I don’t believe you can overestimate the impact he made. Judging from the intense media coverage of his death, I wasn’t the only one who suddenly wondered what it was going to be like to live in a Michael Jackson-less world.

Willa:  Oh, I agree. I believe Michael Jackson profoundly altered our perceptions, our emotions, and our affective responses to differences of race, gender, sexuality, religion, family relationships – stereotypes of all kinds – though we may not realize it yet. As you said, we were “powerfully affected … without even knowing it.” And I believe he also revolutionized our ideas about art, though he was so far ahead of his time we don’t realize it yet. Some of it we still don’t even recognize as art!  We were in the midst of a gripping artistic experience without even knowing it.

It’s going to take a long time for art criticism and interpretation to catch up with him, I think, and begin to comprehend the enormous impact he’s had, both in terms of art and how we conceptualize art, and in terms of the deep cultural shifts he helped bring about. And that’s another way to evaluate an artist – by the depth and extent of their influence.

Near the end of the documentary, the narrator describes how Warhol’s influence is a constant presence in contemporary life, and then asks, “How can we miss you if you won’t go away?” You could ask the same question of Michael Jackson. He legacy is everywhere – from direct artistic influences on music, dance, film, fashion, to more subtle but perhaps more important cultural influences, such as how we read and interpret gender and racial differences.

Lisha:  You know, that’s just the thing. Michael Jackson is everywhere you look. And do we really understand why he continues to have such an impact? The entertainment industry is full of crazy antics, plastic surgery, glam rockers wearing make-up, gender bending and so on. Rita Hayworth is a good example of a performer who “whitened up” her Hispanic ethnicity to become the glamorous “Gilda” onscreen. So why is everyone still tripping on Michael Jackson? I think it will take a while to understand all this. Until then, we’ll keep “dancing with the elephant.”

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 September 26, 2013, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 65 Comments.

  1. Love the comparison with Andy Warhol being made- I will never look at a can of Campbell’s the same again (see, he’s still changing people’s perspectives).Love your blog!

  2. This blog has been so interesting and giving insights into both artists that I never knew. Thank you.

  3. I enjoyed the discussion re Andy Warhol, and the notion that great artists do not limit themselves in their artistic expression. That is part of what makes them “great.” But this has been the most puzzling of your entries for me. (However, I appreciate work that makes me THINK, so “puzzling” is not a bad thing).
    Please correct me if I am in error, Willa, but I believe it was in your work that it was noted that Michael did not really change his face all that much over the years, and that many of the changes we thought we saw were a function of several factors: the photos the media chose to present (often in the least flattering angle and light); natural aging; normal weight fluctuations over time; vitiligo; and the necessity of stretching his scalp to manage the burn from the Pepsi incident, which would have some of the effects of a facelift.
    The link to the source of Pinder’s quote takes us to an article that is actually a report of a presentation she did, not her own written work, (which could indicate misreporting) but, that aside, as I read it, the article lost its credibility. There are too many factual errors to delineate here and that are adequately addressed in the comments to that article.

    The quote, that “Jackson challenged the notion of ‘natural bodies and fixed identities as prearranged and controlled’” is itself flawed. First, Michael did little to his body except to keep it in shape for dancing, it is only his face that gets discussed. Secondly, neither body nor identity is “prearranged or controlled” as anyone who has any age on them can attest. People grow, develop, mature, and change over time; probably none of us much resembles our baby pictures. So I’m left a bit confused.

    Nonetheless, an interesting post. Thank you!

    • Hi Midnite Boomer,

      Lisha here (I post on this site as ultravioletrae). Of course, I’ll let Willa speak for herself, but you’re raising such an important point that I hope you don’t mind if I jump in.

      I wholeheartedly agree with the premise that Michael Jackson did not surgically alter his face as is widely believed, except for the rhinoplasty he publicly acknowledged and the chin cleft I suspect was achieved with dermal fillers, not surgery. I believe the evidence presented in the AEG trial strongly supports this (also some of Klein’s records shown in the Murray criminal trial). As I understand it, due to discoid lupus and keloid scarring, Michael Jackson was not a candidate for facial surgery. His skin did not heal normally, thus the obvious scarring on the nasolabial folds from rhinoplasty performed prior to these diagnoses.

      So, I think you are absolutely correct in pointing out Pinder’s faulty assumption that changes in Jackson’s appearance were the result of surgical procedures. I don’t believe they were. However, Michael Jackson’s “star text” or the way he presented himself to the public was so radically inconsistent, I do believe that he challenged the notion of fixed identity in a way that really threw people off balance, so I think Pinder is really onto something here. I can’t think of another celebrity/musician that has been singled out for the kind of punishment and humiliation Jackson was And it truly horrifies me to think this even intersected with the criminal justice system. (Professor Pinder also contributed a chapter in Christpher Smit’s “Grasping the Spectacle”

      The big question is why aren’t scholars and journalists thinking more critically about these myths? Why the faulty assumptions about surgery instead of investigating the factors you pointed out like photography, aging, vitiligo, weight loss, or scalp repair from a highly publicized injury? There is quite a bit of information available, yet very few seem to be able to take it in.

      • Hi Ultravioletrae,
        Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree wholeheartedly that Michael challenged many of our ways of thinking about many things, and that is part of what makes him great. It is one of the functions of art, and it is why oppressive governments often ban certain forms of art and music. They know their power.
        I still have difficulty with the notion of a “fixed” anything about humans, because we simply are not static creatures. (About the only thing we can say is “fixed” is our genetic makeup).
        The fact that he changed his “image” over time is, I’ll agree, part of his art. I believe his values, however, were unwavering, in his quest to heal the world and help those less fortunate. Our values, however, are only a tiny part of our “identity,” and while they often remain stable, they too can change…because to mature is to change.
        What do you think?
        (Wow, what a great discussion!)

        • Well said! And I think one of the most important values he addresses is “we simply are not static creatures.” Many things we take for granted are in fact illusory and Jackson made a huge point of exposing some of these illusions.

    • Hi Midnight Boomer. I’m just going to follow up a bit on what Lisha/Ultravioletrae said.

      I agree that the underlying premises of Pinder’s argument are deeply flawed. Michael Jackson didn’t alter his appearance so much as alter our perceptions of his appearance. There’s a big difference. Even more importantly, Pinder seems to buy into the commonly expressed belief that he was an insecure black man trying to be white, rather than a brilliant artist forcing us to confront our racial biases. That’s a huge difference.

      But, as Lisha already said so well, if you can get past those faulty assumptions (which is difficult, I admit, but they’re pretty commonly accepted) Pinder has some really interesting and insightful ideas. For example, I thought this was especially powerful:

      Whiteness, in other words, is made synonymous with being human, and blackness is “the other,” a constructed identity that “relies on an absolute contempt for the lived complexities of blackness ….”

      This cultural view that “normalizes whiteness” puts black artists, especially, in a terrible bind. They are only supposed to focus on stereotypical “black” topics like gang violence and life in the projects. If they try to break out of that little box and explore the “lived complexities of blackness” – or more expansively, the lived complexities of being human – they are accused of trying to be “white.” …

      • Getting around the reading the comments now, so will comment as I go along.

        I was updating a friend last night on the AEG trial, and she asked if I thought any of it had anything to do with race, which really got me thinking afterwards about Michael’s black or whiteness. Because I came to him after his death and worked my way backwards so to speak, i tended to think of him as a white man (though that is rapidly changing thank goodness) and so lost a lot of the culture of where he came from as a black man and how that affected him and his work. His whole life was an example of ‘black or white’ – he lived it didn’t he? and I think he lived it long before his skin colour changed.

        Before coming to South Africa I had hardly ever seen a black person, and only coming in 1985 meant I missed most of the ‘struggle’ and aphartheid, but have had a rapid and hard lesson in the difference that can be perceived between black and white, now coming to a point where I can see what Michael did in terms of colourlessness and the importance of what lied under the skin.

      • Even more importantly, Pinder seems to buy into the commonly expressed belief that he was an insecure black man trying to be white, rather than a brilliant artist forcing us to confront our racial biases. That’s a huge difference – says Willa.

        That’s a bit of British understatement if ever I heard it ha ha!!

      • I really like that quote, Willa. The subtext in our society is that to be human is to be white and male, so if you are black or female and aspire to full humanity you are trying to be white or male and are a traitor to your race or sex….

        So many women, I think, have tried to be fully human by distancing themselves from their femaleness — which has resulted in some pretty stressful internal conflict.

        Much the better way to address this problem is not to accept the unconscious message of what it means to be human ,in the process becoming a pretzel, but to expand and redefine what it means to be human — which is exactly what Michael Jackson was doing — but even so he paid a high price.

  4. I am finding more and more articles that discuss Michael Jackson as a serious artist, comparing him to important cultural figures, even philosophers. Here is an article that discusses MJ and Nietzsche: The Child in The Mirror: A Nietzschean Reading of the Myth of Michael Jackson

    A quote from the article:
    Nietzsche advocates for a thorough questioning of one’s values and beliefs, in order to free oneself from dogma. To be dogmatically rigid about opposing the prevailing order is as philosophically small-minded as dogmatically accepting it. In self-identifying as evil, the witch or heretic simply accepts the dominant morality, though he revels in taking the opposing stance within it. So, when I refer to Jackson saying “no” to norms, I am not referring to Jackson’s boldness in proclaiming that he’s “bad”, as he does in the title track from that album of same name. Rather, I am referring to his boldness in owning and expressing a variety of possible modes within his single person. “Bad” is a possibility that he tries on for size, as is “dangerous” — yet so too is the mildly effeminate and gentle man of the Thriller cover. Varying attitudes and correspondingly sculpted images are swapped out regularly with levity — the levity of one who is not chained to any single identity.

    To subject one’s core philosophical and emotional beliefs to intense scrutiny is an intensely difficult process. As discussed earlier regarding the “Camel” stage, Zarathustra considers such scrutiny to be virtuous and absolutely essential to growth, yet he never hesitates to note that it is work which requires an exceptional level of strength. Not everyone is up to the task. Furthermore, the individual who lives so courageously runs the risk of being misunderstood — or worse yet, feared — by those who would prefer not to meddle with the comfortable and comforting structures they’ve always upheld. This is where the affirmative side of “The Man in the Mirror” finds its opposing parallel in a specific parable in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, entitled “The Child with the Mirror.”
    This incident occurs during a time in Zarathustra’s career as a prophet where he has returned to his hermit-home in the mountains, thinking in seclusion following a spell in public. Zarathustra has a dream in which a child comes to him and holds up a mirror, urging him to gaze into it. Instead of seeing his own reflection, he sees the image of a devilish monster. Zarathustra awakens from the dream with newfound resolve to articulate and spread his message, interpreting the dream thusly: “My enemies have grown powerful and have distorted my teachings until those dearest to me must be ashamed of the gifts I gave them”. Jackson was extremely familiar with this situation of facing slanderous distortion in the public sphere. Nietzsche himself was likewise familiar with it in his own life.

    • Fantastic article safaikus! Thanks for sharing this. I thought this really summed it up:

      “ ‘My enemies have grown powerful and have distorted my teachings until those dearest to me must be ashamed of the gifts I gave them.’ Jackson was extremely familiar with this situation of facing slanderous distortion in the public sphere. Nietzsche himself was likewise familiar with it in his own life.”

  5. Great discussion. Sent me on a treasure hunt for Warhol/Jackson stuff. Not exactly on topic, but just interesting. Warhol was a great admirer of MJ’s — and I think vice-versa. Too many coincidences.


    • Thanks Eleanor for those links. Love this from the Interview Magazine

      “WARHOL: Did you ever think you’d grow up to be a singer?

      JACKSON: I don’t ever remember not singing, so I never dreamed of singing.”

    • Thanks for these articles Eleanor, and I don’t believe in coincidences in any respect.

  6. Another very enlightening article. Will have to bookmark the Warhol doc for when I have more time.

    You asked, “So how does it change our perceptions if we begin to look at Michael Jackson’s public persona as an artistic creation, like we do with Andy Warhol? And how do we interpret it if we approach it that way?”

    That’s really the question, no? So we would have to know that everything about Michael Jackson is a creation. All we know for sure is that he was born and that he died. Everything in between is a creation. The childhood stories could be real, or could be part of the creation. Even when something factual happened (ex: pepsi burn) it is turned into another component of the art project that is Michael Jackson. So how do we interpret it? We have do know that every critique, media report, gossip posting is reacting to a piece of art. Which reminds me of something LMP said in her Oprah interview after Michael died. She believed his public persona was a protection mechanism so that people wouldn’t know the real Michael (paraphrasing).

    • This is a really interesting point Destiny, thank you for bringing this up. I think goes to how we historicize musicians in general and the question of how much information is the public really entitled to about the artists we love?

      Dennis Bingham did an interesting study of musician biopics and wrote a book about it titled “Whose lives are they anyway?” In the book, he discusses the 2007 film on the life of Bob Dylan, “I’m Not There,” by Todd Haynes. It was the filmmaker’s belief that “in the life of a legendary person, fiction might get closer to the truth of the person than do the so-called facts.” I thought this was a fascinating idea. Bingham asserts that the masks and star persona of Dylan do in fact create a “genuine” picture of the legend.

      So, that made me think about what is the line between “real” and “creation” anyway? In so far as Michael Jackson created these star personae, aren’t these authentic representations of himself and his work? And didn’t Jackson say “Dancing the Dream” revealed even more of himself than his own autobiography? In the life of a true artist, I wonder if the “creation” isn’t even more “real” than the ordinary day-to-day life.

  7. Thanks for this interesting discussion. I have to say, however, that I consider MJ a vastly more significant and powerful artist than Warhol, although I recognize Warhol’s contributions and his influence and like much of his work.

    The person who is really interesting to me is Valerie Solanis, the woman who shot Warhol. IMO she was a gifted writer and I totally loved her S.C.U.M. Manifesto, which is very Nietzchean in its passion and its revolutionary feminist thinking. She attempted to get Warhol interested in her work and his response was to say she could perhaps work for him as a secretary. There is evidence that she staged the shooting in order to draw attention to her work as an artist–in much the same way as Warhol (and maybe MJ) staged events (although of course without the violence). Hers is a rather neglected story, although I believe there is a recent biography or maybe even a film (?).

    • Hi Stephenson, Like you, I consider MJ a vastly more significant and powerful artist than Warhol. I mean, really in terms of artistic power and achievement, no contest. What is fascinating to me is the fact that MJ met him in those formative years when he was morphing into Michael Jackson and so clearly understood what Warhol was doing in terms of his appearance — using art to deal with disease and adopted Warholian methods of using art to deal with his own physical problems. Scream really says it all.

      • Hi stephenson and Eleanor,

        Of course, I was thinking this way too, but questioning my bias! Glad to hear you both thinking along the same lines on just how powerful an artist Jackson was/is.

        • And, their art is so different. The appreciation of Warhol’s art is primarily cerebral — you have to understand the cultural context to get it. Thousands of years from now, archeologists might be scratching their heads over the Campbell soup painting. But, MJ’s music is visceral, coming from deeply felt emotions perfectly communicated to arouse similar emotions in his audience. Timeless. If you have ears to hear and hearts to feel.

  8. Yes, Stephenson, there’s a movie (at least one)! The one I’m thinking of is called “I Shot Andy Warhol,” directed by Mary Harron. I found it credible and authentic. I agree, the case of Valerie Solanas is really interesting; Warhol did one screen test where she appears, and otherwise treats her with little regard. Solanas said that Warhol had an uncanny power over her.

    Welcome back, everyone, Willa, Joie, Lisha! (I wanted to post responses to the “Can You Feel It” and “Say, Say, Say” entries in the last two weeks… but I guess time and tide wait for no “man”!)

    I’ve also been thinking about some strong parallels between Warhol and Michael—as well as some sharp discontinuities, of course! I’ve seen a number of Warhol’s short films, the ones he made on his own before he got together with Paul Morrissey and created feature films like “Heat,” “Trash,” “Andy Warhol’s Dracula,” etc. I can speak a bit to the different ways Warhol and MIchael approached making films, for example…but I’m falling asleep now! I’l return anon…..

    • Wow Stephenson and Nina, I’m intrigued by Valerie Solanis now and want to learn more about her. I saw I shot Andy Warhol when it first came out and read a little bit about her then, but that was a long time ago – 15 years ago, maybe? I don’t remember many of the details (I didn’t even remember her name) but I do remember that I had a very negative reaction to her. Now I’m wondering if that was fair. She just seemed really scary to me, like Mark David Chapman – or kind of like Warhol’s Evan Chandler?

      You know, it’s really funny how celebrity functions. It designates some people as important, as worthy of lots of attention, and others as less important. For some people, that seems intolerable to them – it’s almost like they need to be validated by a famous person to reassure themselves that they are valued also.

      My memory of I Shot Andy Warhol is that the main character (which is a fictional creation, to some degree) seemed really needy – she desperately wanted Andy Warhol to validate her and her ideas, and he didn’t. He wasn’t mean to her; he just didn’t care about the things she cared about. He was focused on his art and exploring his own ideas. And when he didn’t give her the attention and validation she wanted, she became irrationally angry about that and attacked him. And it had a devastating impact on him – it changed the course of his life and his career as an artist.

      It’s like Evan Chandler. He wasn’t just greedy. He was also extremely angry – irrationally angry – because Michael Jackson stopped returning his phone calls. Michael Jackson called it “the ghost of jealousy,” but it seems like a lot more than that to me. It’s like without validation from Michael Jackson, a person designated as important, Evan Chandler felt insubstantial – like he didn’t exist or didn’t matter. And he retaliated in a way that was just as devastating to Michael Jackson as the physical attack was on Andy Warhol.

      At least that’s how I interpreted things, but now I’m wondering if there’s more to the Valerie Solanis story that I’m not aware of. I need to learn more about that.

      • Interesting parallels, Willa! It would be tempting to think of Solanas as a kind of hanger-on turned violent; except that she seems to be a far more complex and interesting person than Evan Chandler ever was. As an early radical feminist thinker, her life and ideas bear consideration for the context of the times. Her presence in Warhol’s life raises a lot of questions; about fame, artistic identity, and the elusive line between creativity and madness. Valerie Solanas and Andy Warhol weren’t very well acquainted, from everything I’ve read; Warhol seems to have regarded her as just a passing acquaintance.

        Evan Chandler, for all his screenwriting aspirations, seems never to have had any particular social or political commitments that might have made his relationship with Michael Jackson productive or interesting. He may have been a consummate shakedown artist, but at the end of the day he had little artistic energy to impart to Michael.

        I’d recommend seeing “I Shot Andy Warhol” again. Plus, some new editions of Valerie Solanas’ book, The S.C.U.M. Manifesto [the Society for Cutting Up Men], have been published lately. One of them has this blurb on

        “The focus of this edition is not on the nostalgic appeal of the work, but on Avital Ronell’s incisive introduction, “Deviant Payback: The Aims of Valerie Solanas.” Here is a reconsideration of Solanas’s infamous text in light of her social milieu, Derrida’s “The Ends of Man” (written in the same year), Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech, Nietzsche’s Ubermensch and notorious feminist icons from Medusa, Medea and Antigone, to Lizzie Borden, Lorenna Bobbit and Aileen Wournos, illuminating the evocative exuberance of Solanas’s dark tract.”

        • Yes, I agree with this, Nina. There is a lot of joy and fun as well as anger in Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto. The writing is exhuberant and IMO her critique of the patriachy is brilliant.

  9. Welcome back to you Nina, and sleep fast! I’m anxious to hear what you have to say.

  10. New remix of Billie Jean–very interesting visually–off topic (but maybe not?).

    michael jackson billie jen (remix 2013)

    • Thanks for posting this Stephenson. I am usually very wary of remixes because the original Michael is still fairly new to me (even after listening every day for the last 3 1/2 years!!) and there is still much to discover, but I must say that i really really enjoyed this very much.

  11. Re the Billie Jean remix I posted, I do think it’s relevant to the present discussion re whether MJ deliberately and carefully choreographed his image or whether it was to an extent intuitive and spontaneous. In the beginning of the remix clip, he talks about how the song just came to him–that he didn’t ‘think’ of the lyric “Billie Jean is not my lover” that it dropped into his lap, along with the song in its parts, starting with the bass line.

    In Moonwalk, he talks about deciding on the dance for the Motown 25 performance the night before in the kitchen and how he just let the song ‘talk to me.’ He had worn the glove before in the Victory tour, so he wore that in the performance, but his mother’s jacket was spontaneous. He later added the fedora–but the choreography and the outfit for BJ was pretty much set after Motown 25.

    Just to raise an alternative view of this ‘iconic’ performance as having significant spontaneous elements–so there was a flow not a fixed, calculated image here in advance.

    • Thanks for posting this stephenson. It’s always interesting to see how Billie Jean is continually being reinterpreted.

      As for whether or not MJ carefully choreographed his image or came to it intuitively and spontaneously, I’ll say this: Michael Jackson is rarely an either/or proposition, he is a both/and kind of thinker. It’s amazing to me how often this is true.

  12. Fascinating blog which I have only just got to read. Havn’t read all the comments yet, but want to add my 2 cents worth for now!!

    The parallels between Andy and Michael are staggering arn’t they, and I am sure that, as he did with other ‘idols’, Michael “borrowed” some of Andy’s ideas, but yet again hit them out of the ballpark and into the stratosphere!!

    I remember from the Diana Sawyer interview Lisa-Marie saying that Michael was an artist who was constantly resculpturing himself, and Willa shows us how in her wonderful book.

    The amount of Michael’s inconography is astounding also, and when I think that a great deal of it came from his medical conditions, and just how he turned all that to his advantage, I am even more awestruck. Lisha says that it may have been better for Michael to have been more public about his condition, but he wanted that to be private, and to be mysterious himself. Now that it has all come out in the AEG trial, it just makes him even more miraculous to me in turning a carpal tunnel armbrace and a face mask into fashion accessories – how neat is that!! I remember him once saying words to the effect that who else is known by his socks alone? and he was right. He never cried “Poor me” – he turned all of that to his advantage, and that inspires me tremendously.

    More anon.

    • “When I think that a great deal of it came from his medical conditions, and just how he turned all that to his advantage, I am even more awestruck.” It is truly amazing, isn’t it? Michael Jackson could make art out of anything.

  13. As I think more about this post, and I do agree that there are many similarities between Michael and Warhol, I also think the the whole idea of celebrity is in and of itself an art form. I’m thinking of the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood when the studios would create a persona for their contracted stars (Elizabeth Taylor marrying Nick Hilton to coincide with Father Of The Bride or the closeting of Rock Hudson). Studios have been creating these images all along. I guess the difference is that the actual artist has some control over that today. But Warhol and Michael aren’t the only ones. Prince also comes to mind. Or even Madonna or Lady Gaga. Although with the ladies I mentioned, the need to create a persona seems more prominent that the need to create meaningful art. I guess in a way Miley Cyrus (sorry!) is another example.

    Also, and this may get me in trouble here (coming from a place of L.O.V.E. everyone!!!), could Michael’s illnesses also be a part of the art?

    • Hi Destiny are you suggesting (with or without L.O.V.E.) that Michael was deliberately ill so that he could make it into art??? surely that isn’t what you mean??? He didn’t catch discoid lupus or vitiligo, or deliberately set fire to his hair, or fall 60 feet on the stage in German y in 1999, but he sure did turn some of the horrendous stuff that happened to him to his advantage which has become an inspiration to us. Who else for goodness sake, but still be singing after falling 60 feet and climb out still singing and finish the show – only, only, only Michael I reckon, and I mean that with L.O.V.E.

      • @Caro,

        While I do think the Pepsi commercial along with the scaffolding fall and just regular aging hardships on a dancer all played a part on Michael’s body, I also think other things were intentional. I am one who believes that Michael had excessive plastic surgery on his face. This subject has been visited here before with Willa even questioning if that was a part of art in and of itself. I can’t say that is something I agree with, but it was an opening for me to look at it from a different point of view. I also must say that I am one who is starting to question some of the other things such as vitiligo, lupus, pulmonary diseases and insomnia as an excuse for drug abuse. That’s not a popular view to have in the Michael Jackson fan world, but it is my opinion and something that I have been questioning since Michael’s death as prior to that I believed it all to be true. Sticking close to topic, if we are to question if Michael’s image including his changing face to be part of his art, can we also ask the same of these other issues? And don’t have the answer for that. Was it for art? Was it out of pain? Was it all intentional? Or maybe a combination?

        • I think these are legitimate questions, Destiny, and I don’t hesitate to ask them. My only caveat is this: *why* would it matter? How, I wonder, can we try to understand the import of these questions themselves, whatever their answers might turn out to be? “Was it for art? Was it out of pain? Was it all intentional? Or maybe a combination?” I’ve wondered the same things many, many times.

          Willa and Lisha, I know that you’ve both looked into these questions extensively, and I know you’ve written about it in some depth, Willa. I’ve downloaded some 35,000 photographs, a collection initially motivated by my wish find out when, how, and—most importantly—-WHY Michael Jackson altered his face. In all this time, and 35,000 photographs later, I found that any insights I might have gleaned have eluded me, and that I could *never* hope to answer any of these questions to my satisfaction. Further, I found myself asking: why did it matter?

          I then thought of one thing that cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz has said: “Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is.”

          At some point I found that the set of questions that I’d addressed to Michael’s behavior was shifting, and I became much more interested in exploring the social meanings that always seem to lurk just behind the surface, behind our need to pose these questions in the first place—whether “we” are tabloids, fans, critics, biographers, or the indifferent majority who’ve never been tremendously interested in Michael Jackson one way or another. In that larger question I’ve found, at least, something amenable to the kind of investigation I felt I was poised to do.

          That’s just to speak of my journey; and I’m finding (much to the irritation of most participants on fan sites!) that these questions now inform everything I say or write about Michael.

          (But, I’ve been writing about the Warhol/Jackson connection, inspired by your post! That’s what I meant to respond to here, but I need to collect my thoughts!)

          • @Nina and @Caro,

            First, I must say thank you to both of you for the way you responded to my comment. As you mentioned Nina, this is not a popular point of view to have and sometimes can lead to a very unproductive discussion. So again “Thanks”.

            Nina, you asked a very important question: “Why does it matter?”. On the one hand I don’t know that it does. On the other hand, for me personally, it makes me question a set of things I thought true about Michael. Those things elicited a set of emotions from me that probably had nothing to do with the music, dance or videos.

            And if I think about this even more, I think with both Warhol and Michael and many more people is the issue of celebrity itself. They all are using the medium of media to get a response out of the public. We are being entertained by their every move. Yet it may not be the healthiest of relationships.

            Something more to think about!

          • That is so interesting, Nina, that what inspired you to accumulate that great treasure trove of photographs was your “wish find out when, how, and—most importantly—-WHY Michael Jackson altered his face.” Right after he died, I did the same thing, only my search was not nearly so exhaustive. But I remember poring over images, searching, searching for a clue.

            And, I also look for pictures where I can see the “real Michael” behind the mask. But, then I think of Willa’s theory and wonder if the mask is Michael.

        • sorry, but Ithink your questions its an outrage . Unjust. So, do you consider the possibility of Michael having “invented” or “produced” vitiligo and lupus and insomnia, and then used it as an excuse to use drugs? Please! Although I do not think Michael did so many plastic, I understand well what Willa mean when she said he used his face as canvas. And I think it take a lot of courage. And I’m okay with that. Now, a person inventing diseases and use them as an excuse to use drugs is a despicable behavior that does not suit a person with Michael’ spirit. Or his art would be “Oh, lets destroy ourselves.” Ridiculous. Have the strength of mind that he had to catch the tragedies of his life and use them as inspiration, and turn them art is commendable. Use it as a pretext? No, please, you offend Michael’s memory with these “questions”.

          • Hi Danebj I agree and disagree with you. I think Destiny is way out of it here. There is ample proof that Michael had these “illnesses” and accidents, and there is no way that he could have manufactured them to make art. Rather he made art because of, and out of. them. Plus there was all the psychological impact of them and the Chandler/Arviso cases, so no wonder he became drug “dependent” , not a drug addict – huge difference. There is no way anyone in their right mind would manifest illness for art sake, and let’s not forget that Michael believed wholeheartedly in manifestation and making his dreams come true!!

            However, I disagree with the tone of your response, because I think Destiny has every right to ask these difficult “questions” on this site or any other, and be respected for her opinions. I say that because Michael, for the most part, was a non-confrontational person and would rather walk away from it, except for the whole Sony issue and the bus demo in London, but even there he did it in a positive way rather than a confrontational angry way. If we are to be inspired by Michael, and I know we all are (even Destiny I suspect!!), then we have to behave as he did, and find ways that are more positive to express ourselves when we disagree with someone else, no matter how strongly.we may feel. I hate, hate, hate it when Michael is attacked, but feel it my duty to try and express another point of view – albeit my biased one ha ha – while respecting the other – Michael would expect no less of me, and I owe it to him.

            Having said that, Michael was far from non-confrontational with regard to his art – one only has to listen to some of his songs to hear how angry he was with the media, DS and others – afterall there is a gunshot at the end of DS and we all know who it was for!! But again, rather than verbally attacking the person he is angry with, he has used a positive means of expression to get across his anger

          • Do you want know, Caro, I’m tired of that speech that Michael was non-confrontational, so we must not be, as well”. I’m not Michael. I’m rather different from him, in fact.

            On the other hand, I believe he was confontontinal, yes, but he used his art to do that. He “slapped” people who have hurt him (Chandlers, Sneddon, media) through his music. How can you tell it was not verbal? Was verbal, yes. And visual too. But the words and images came through his art. His privilege, of course, because he was an artist. I’m not an artist. I can not refute what offends me (yes, I feel offended when he is offended) through music. I don’t have his genius.If I had, I would write a song in response to what Destiny said and I would give him some “brilliant buffetings” through it. But I can not. Sorry.

      • Great discussion, you guys – thank you for kicking it off, Destiny. I think this is a conversation we need to have. (And I’m glad you felt comfortable sharing an “unpopular” point of view. Joie and I really want this to be a safe place where many different perspectives can be shared and debated – even unpopular ones.)

        Like Caro and danebj, I am convinced Michael Jackson genuinely suffered from vitiligo and from physical pain caused by injury and stress. That isn’t just based on my own biased beliefs (though I admit I’m probably biased) but on evidence. For example, his vitiligo symptoms are confirmed by numerous photographs, by the testimony of people who knew him (Arnold Klein, Karen Faye, Frank Cascio, and many others), and by the autopsy report. The pain he suffered both from the Pepsi fire and from reconstructive surgeries following it has been described in rather graphic detail by David Nordahl, Debbie Rowe, and even Evan Chandler’s brother, of all people. (Raven discusses it in an interesting post on her All for Love blog, “Wade Robson: What The Heck Is Really Going On? Pt 4.”) And the lower back pain he suffered as a result of the fall in Germany was confirmed just recently during the AEG trial. Dr. Barney Van Valin said an MRI showed he had a bulging disc in his lower back, and the pain he described was consistent with what the MRI showed. Here’s a link:

        At the same time, I’m constantly revisiting the question of where to draw the line between “real life” and art with him – for example, when he went to the hospital with back pain during the 2005 trial and later appeared in court in his pajama bottoms. I know from my own experiences that stress can cause terrible back pain, from my lower back up through my neck and shoulders – and I don’t have nearly the stressors he had, nor a bulging disc. At the same time, showing up in court in his pajamas made a mockery of those proceedings, which they deserved. That trial was a sham from beginning to end. And if Michael Jackson appeared in his pajamas to make a statement that would be broadcast around the world, he succeeded. Was it intentional? I don’t know, but if so, it was brilliant.

        So I’m never quite sure where to draw that line between his life and his art. And in response to your question, Nina, to me it matters because it affects how I interpret and respond to him. If everything that happened was purely the result of medical necessity, then I feel tremendous sympathy. But if it was purely art, then my response is rather different: I feel not so much sympathy as deep admiration, even awe. But of course, it isn’t purely one or the other – and I’ve decided that trying to separate his life from his art is like trying to separate the eggs and the milk once the omelet has been made. It’s impossible. His art imbued his life and his life informed his art to such a degree that they are inseparable.

        And so, as you describe, Nina, I’m left looking at my own reflection (just like that amazing scene in Ghosts where the Mayor is forced to look at his own reflection) and wonder why I perceive things the way I do, and what’s at stake for me in seeing things that way – which is one of the functions of powerful art.

        • p.s. It’s interesting, Destiny, that you mentioned the “golden age” of the Hollywood star system as an earlier example of the “art” of celebrity since, apparently, Michael Jackson loved that period and was very knowledgeable about it. For example, Ian Halperin actually met Michael Jackson one time, and that’s precisely what they talked about. Here’s what Halperin says:

          [W]hen my friend introduced me to Michael, it was the most amazing experience I ever had. We talked about old Hollywood movies and hairstyles, which I had researched for months before I took on this undercover persona. [Halperin was pretending to be a hairdresser as a way of meeting him.] Michael went on and on about the hairstyles of the silver screen during the forties and fifties. “It was Hollywood’s most glamorous time,” Michael said in a frail but lucid voice. “No one has come along with such class and style since Deborah Kerr, Dorothy Lamour, and Susan Hayward,” he said. When Jackson talked about how beautiful Ava Gardner was, I told him about my close friendship with her. After hearing that, Michael treated me like part of his family. He was infatuated with my stories about Ava and asked me for all the juicy ones I had about Ava’s relationship with Frank Sinatra.

          I imagine he drew on this extensive knowledge and understanding of the old Hollywood star system when developing – and complicating – his own public persona.

        • Hi Willa, I am intrigued with your idea that Michael turned up at the court in his pjs on purpose, as I would never have thought of such a thing, but yes I agree it would have been brilliant.

          However, I don’t think that Michael would have done that deliberately, as even though yes the whole thing was a farce, I think Michael respected the law and the process, and indeed said that he wanted his day in court, though perhaps he didn’t reckon on it being so bad.

          I am sure you know the story that goes that Michael slipped in the shower on that day, badly injurying himself and was taken to the hospital by his family and the court was asked to excuse him because of it, but the judge not only refused but threatened to revoke his bail – which I assume would have meant that he would have gone straight to prison. Someone loaned him a jacket and when the jury came in he was already sitting and they had no idea that he was wearing pyjama bottoms.

          Up until that time and after, Michael arrived at court every day not only well dressed but beautifully dressed, and I think THAT was his way of making a point – you can accuse and abuse me, but I am going to remain dignified and respectful and worthy of respect myself.

          • Hi Caro. Yes, I had heard that story, and you’re probably right – that probably is what happened. At the same time, I LOVE the fact that Michael Jackson appeared in that courtroom in his pajama bottoms. It’s such a perfect response to the circus-like atmosphere of that place. In fact, it’s so perfect I have a little niggling suspicion that it was intentional … or at least, that he wasn’t too disappointed that things worked out that way….

    • Great examples Destiny, of other pop stars who used changing images and characters as a part of their work. I agree with all the examples you cited. Perhaps all of these musicians, including Michael Jackson, owe a debt to David Bowie, who came up with imaginative new characters, like Ziggy Stardust, back in the 70s. I love Michael Jackson’s comments in the “Interview” article Eleanor posted, about how much fun he had exploring new characters, “especially when you really believe in it and it’s not like you’re acting.”

      Here is another article on the media theory of “star texts” if you’re interested: Hollywood “star texts” are thought to work a little differently from “pop stars,” in that musicians are thought to have more control over the material they perform and often write their own material, revealing more of themselves in their work.

      The entertainment industry needs to generate stars in order to market and sell product, so a great deal of effort and thought goes into creating star texts of every variety. I think people are becoming more and more aware of how carefully thought out these are, and how they intersect with the real personality behind them in varying degrees. If need be, the entertainer’s personal history is fictionalized, as Jackson himself explained about telling the press he was 9 years old when he was really 11, and that Dianna Ross discovered them, when she clearly did not.

      Some rock stars (I’m thinking Keith Richards for example) go out of their way to be unpolished and unruly, as a part of the image they wish to present to the public. The sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll star text has been tremendously successful for a lot of performers and is also a carefully constructed image meant to project “authenticity.”

      In my mind, Jackson’s star text around the time of Thriller on seems to drastically change and work in ways that go beyond getting attention and selling records, though it is abundantly clear Jackson wanted to sell huge numbers of records. There’s no doubt about that. But there is so much confusion about what he was doing – was he trying to be white? Did he mistake that for an appealing image? Was he addicted to surgery? Was he acting out his “troubled” life? And though he eventually revealed that he suffered from various medical conditions, people continue to ridicule it and say rather cruel things, and I don’t think that sort of thing is usually tolerated elsewhere.

      I guess the exercise of comparing Jackson to Warhol, who also suffered from a disfiguring illness and similarly made a point of blurring the boundary between fine art and commercial art, is a way of trying to quantify or define how these star texts might be functioning a little differently from the rest of the industry. Jackson created so much confusion between his performance and the identity behind the performance, that I can’t really think of another example that comes close, though I believe many musicians do important cultural work through their star personae. Jackson just seems to take it to a whole new level, as Willa says. I agree completely.

      • Hi Lisha/Ultravioletrae. I haven’t had a chance to read the articles you linked to yet (though very curious – thanks for providing them). But I did want to respond quickly to a couple of things….

        It’s interesting that you mention Keith Richards’ bad boy image because I’ve been doing a little research about the history of rock (something I know very little about) and was just reading about that very thing. According to John Covach, author of What’s that Sound?: An Introduction to Rock and Its History, the Rolling Stones had a much more difficult time breaking through in the U.S. than the Beatles did. Part of the problem, apparently, was that they were seen simply as Beatles imitators. So their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, developed a strategy for differentiating them from the Beatles by presenting them as the “bad boys.” The Beatles were bright, charming, witty, with a very polished professional sound, while the Stones had a much rougher, more blues-oriented sound, and according to Covach, they developed the reputation of being the kind of guys parents wouldn’t want hanging around with their daughters. Covach says the development of this bad boy persona was very deliberate, and very successful. In fact, he says that you can sort almost all of the British Invasion bands after that into two camps: Beatles-style bands (like Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Dave Clark Five, and Herman’s Hermits) and Stones-style bands (like the Yardbirds, the Animals, and the Byrds).

        I also think you’re really onto something important when you say that most (if not all) pop stars have a carefully crafted public persona, and for almost all of them, the purpose of this persona is “to market and sell product,” as you say. But with Warhol and Michael Jackson, there’s much more to it than that. They are definitely interested in “selling product” – as Warhol says in the documentary, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” But it’s so much more than that.

        Michael Jackson, especially, used his persona to challenge our perceptions and force us to confront our prejudices about race, gender, sexuality, nationality, family, religion, politics …. in effect, how we construct and interpret identity. That’s what I tend to focus on when thinking about his persona as a work of art – how it functions like art to expand our understanding of ourselves and our world.

        • Really interesting stuff from John Covach. (Did you know about his free online courses in the history of rock at the University of Rochester’s Popular Music Institute?)

          Yes, the bad boy image has been an excellent strategy in rock. Notice in this interview with Richards, the first thing he wants to tell you about his singing in the boys choir as a child is that he and his pals were the “reprobates” of the school. This is exactly how it’s done!

  14. What a wonderful reading. Thank you both. All this was discussed in this post was what made Michael so a unique artist. Every part of his being was thinking as art.I believe Mike didn’t chosed change his color. He couldn’t control the vitiligo and it was so extense, was in all his bofy. We can see that what was left of his original color were just pints, spots
    But I think he decided to explore it, and, in a certain way, assume the control of his being, his life, body, again. As you said, made it part of his art and used it to challenge our conceptions preformed.

  15. Reblogged this on Bite Size Love and commented:
    This is wonderful post comparing Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol, two of my favorites! The post is long but well worth it. Enjoy!

  16. Great and interesting post! Thank you!
    There’s one more similarity that I’ve noticed while watching the Warhol-documentary. They say that: „The Museums important holdings aren’t necessarily the artworks. But the extensive archives. These include more than 600 of Warhol’s time capsules…“ and also: „The museum also holds 4000 of Andy’s audiotapes.“ (Which Warhol took since 1965 with his taperecorder.) And then someone commentated: „I think, all people who are constantly recording their life — it’s always a way of saying: „This is not gonna be lost“ save it somehow.“
    All this reminds me on those warehouses, filled with Michael’s personal things and collections, paintings whatsoever… and that he often had his own cameraman with him, who captured a lot of Michael’s „life“ on video. And we know, that he videotaped many of his recording-sessions too. All this is saved for the future. And that’s all part of the art.

  17. I’ve finally had a chance to watch the Warhol documentary. Very interesting. I came of age in the 80s so my references to Warhol are fixed on his later work and image. Oh and this video from a British pop band:

    But a few other interesting things that Michael and Andy have in common. Seems they were both very sensitive children. Both had interesting relationships with their mothers. I would say close, but I’m not sure how close Michael and Katharine actually were. As mentioned in the post, both had ideas to construct their personal lives as part of their art. Both were thought of by the public as asexual, even though it seems both were very sexual. Both were extremely religious although I think Michael’s beliefs evolved over time. And interesting enough I think both died in similar ways/surrounds. By that I mean that both were under doctors care and were basically neglected at their time of death. Interesting!

    • “Both were under doctors care and were basically neglected at their time of death.” I just can’t this out of my mind. It’s just crazy. Two people so famous they had to use assumed names to get medical treatment, and both died of neglect. Unbelievable.

      • I hadn’t thought about this, but you’re right. It’s just too tragic. And you can add another name to the list – Jerry Garcia. I remember when he died, one of the things that was so upsetting to deadheads was that the hospital didn’t really know when he died. He’d had a heart attack sometime during the night and no one noticed.

  18. …and there’s one more similarity: Warhol was fascinated of the idea to be a robot. He went to the lengths, that they even tried to rebuild him as a robot. (And he liked the idea, that the robot can replace him in interviews etc…) And we have Michael, with his HIStory-Opening Chrome Outfit, inspired by the Japanese Artist Sorayama, (who invented AIBO, the famous Robot Dog, as Michael Bush told in his book). So Michael really transformed himself into a robot. I think, thats even one step more, because Warhol just rebuild a robot, that looked like him, and Michael did the other way round, he simply became that robot, (and transformed back into a human).

  19. Eleanor, you mentioned the search for “what’s behind the mask,” and Willa suggests that the mask and what we might call the “authentic self” are more interchangeable than we sometimes believe them to be.

    In very distinct ways (which I hope to come back to later), both these artists seem to invite, and even *require,* their spectators to engage in exactly this kind of search, and that search may be what they have most in common. More than many of other artists of their time, they both ask us consider the terms of a kind of…. I guess I’d call it *intersubjectivity*…. on the level of surface vs. depth. How do we distinguish between the mask vs. the “real” person behind it? How might we strip away the layers of (perceived) fake personae and falsehood, to finally expose the “real person”? What do we make of the idea of the “doppelgänger” (double), and what Freud called the “unheimlich” (the “uncanny”)? These questions are all related, in my view.

    Another thing comes to mind. Life in democratic societies, through their media systems, offer the great promise that we will all be somehow empowered to strip away superficial appearances and disclose some “reality” that lies behind those appearances. But what happens when there is nothing left to strip? Or when we find that the process doesn’t bring about the revelation, or enlightenment, or closure that it promises, but can never deliver?

    Whatever violence and disinformation might result from the entire investigation will itself become part of the ensuing story, where it is eventually folded back into the “star text” that LIsha mentioned.

    These are just some preliminary thoughts, but I hope to return later when I have some time.

  20. I think you hit the nail on the head Nina, really interesting. I was thinking about a beautiful exhibition I saw this past summer on David Bowie, that emphasized his radically changing image and wide array of characters he created for his music. At one point in the exhibit, there is a sign reading “David Bowie is not David Jones,” inviting viewers to think about these characters as masks for the man behind them. It seemed to me he had a lot in common with Michael Jackson and other artists known to work with their own changing image. Destiny mentioned some great examples – Prince, Madonna and Lady Gaga.

    But there was a real difference to me in the way Michael Jackson used his image that was a little trickier to define. For instance, David Bowie had two different eye colors, as the result of an eye injury, something he really played up in characters like Ziggy Stardust. But I don’t recall any tabloid type stories claiming he surgically altered his natural eye color or did something crazy because disliked the color of his eyes. It seems explicit that Ziggy Stardust is his creation, a product of David Bowie, the artist, which intersects with the man who created them, David Jones. There isn’t a lot of confusion about that. Michael Jackson is another story, to my way of thinking. I think you’ve hit on why that is so.

    Also, I wanted to applaud the Clifford Geertz quote you mentioned above: “Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is.” I have to say the same thing about music. The more I study and learn, the more I realize I don’t know anything about music!

  21. Destiny, Eleanor, Nina, Lisha, et al – this discussion is so fascinating. It’s really interesting to look back at the many different ways artists have manufactured and played with and off of different public personae, going back at least to the early 1800s with Byron, Shelley, and Poe, and perhaps earlier. And then – even more importantly – thinking about how our search for the “real person” behind the mask reveals as much about us, and what’s at stake for us, as it does about them. As you said, Nina, “Whatever violence and disinformation might result from the entire investigation will itself become part of the ensuing story.”

    That odd mixture that results from fame – the constant surveillance coupled with an inability to ever know for sure if what we’re seeing is real (as you say, Eleanor, to know what’s behind the mask) – is so tantalizing to us, and I think both Warhol and Michael Jackson were very aware of that – that the more they retreated, the more fascinated we became. The mystery simply fueled the fascination. As he told Randy Taraborrelli back in 1984, when Taraborrelli asked him if it bothered him that a lot of commentators were calling him effeminate and insisting he was gay,

    “I don’t mind it,” he said softly. “The more they make fun of me, the more people are going to wonder what I really am. I don’t care when people call me a fag. No one knows the truth. No one knows who or what I am.”

    “You don’t care what people say about you?”

    “They can say what they want, because the bottom line is they don’t know and everyone is going to continue searching to find out whether I’m gay, straight, or whatever,” Michael explained. “It doesn’t bother me, and the longer it takes them to discover this, the more famous I will be.”

    So resisting the intrusiveness of reporters served several different functions – including, ironically, to make him even more famous.

    It seems to me, though, that there’s something distinctly different about Michael Jackson’s persona and how it functions than with any other artist before him. Specifically, it’s how he used his persona to capture the prejudices viewers imposed on him and then reflected their prejudices back at them. We see this especially later in his career with Wacko Jacko and his “eccentric oddities” as he called them, but that process is at work earlier on also.

    For example, he tells his mother that people stare at him like “an animal in a cage,” and then configures his persona as the patron saint of animals – a rat, a boa constrictor, a llama, a deer, a chimpanzee, an elephant, a tiger, etc – and he insists that reporters interact with these animals (the boa constrictor and chimpanzee, especially) and try to view them with compassion. He’s told that he’s a freak, and so he becomes the patron saint of freaks, linking himself with the Elephant Man and reaching out in very public ways to those who are outcast for some reason. He’s told that his tremendous success is a sign that he’s sold out, that he’s forgetting his roots and turning white, and then his skin literally turns white. He’s told that he’s a beast or an animal, and repeatedly in his work (for example, in Thriller, Ghosts, Black or White, “Threatened,” “Is It Scary,” “Monster”) he becomes a monster or an animal, and then continues that process off screen as well.

    I can’t think of any other artist who has used a public persona in this way – to capture, act out, and to some degree neutralize the prejudices people are imposing on him.

  22. I feel like I am in a big circle – I just came upon this article about a Japanese artist who considers himself the conceptual son of Andy Warhol. He has an exhibition at the The Warhol that includes himself portraying Michael Jackson.
    “The Warhol presents a survey exhibition of work by Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura. Morimura is renowned for his photographic reprisals of iconic images from art history and popular culture in which he replaces the subjects with his own self-image. By Morimura assuming a place in these works, he reimagines historical narratives and, in the process, mixes issues of originality and reproduction, gender, and race to create what he calls a “beautiful commotion.”

    • Hi Sandra. I really like this idea of a “beautiful commotion”! btw, I did a quick search in Google Images and found this link and this one to pictures of Morimura re-creating a couple of Thriller-era images.

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