Summer Rewind 2014: The King of Pop and the Pope of Pop

The following conversation was originally posted on September 26, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

In other news, Elizabeth Amisu and Karin Merx are about to launch a new website,, that they envision as an “online centre of academic studies regarding MJ.” It’s a wonderful idea, and could become a very useful resource for those interested in a deeper understanding of Michael Jackson’s work.

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.

[Note: Unfortunately, this link no longer functions. Here’s a new link, though the times are a little different. For example, the picture of Michael Jackson on the cover of Interview is at 2:10:25.]

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 July 17, 2014, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. I am completely blown away by this article! You bring so much depth to your conversations, ideas that most people can not fathom, which to me is another example of the many layers of significance of Michael’s work. We are so impressed with the music and spend so much time simply enjoying its aesthetics that we don’t take the time to examine the many layers of meaning and significance. Thank you SO MUCH for doing this for us!

    • “We are so impressed with the music and spend so much time simply enjoying its aesthetics that we don’t take the time to examine the many layers of meaning and significance.”

      I agree, Anna. His art works on so many different levels, which is part of its tremendous strength to move and engage people from around the world, but I think that has also led a lot of critics to dismiss his work as simply pop music and promo videos. They see the surface brilliance, but not the deep well of meaning that lies beneath it.

  2. Thank-you for the lovely mention, Willa. You are so supportive and kind. I really came away from this article enriched and educated. You always come up with things about MJ that I had no comprehension of. Well done, Lisha for bringing forward such interesting parallels. What I have learned about Warhol is invaluable and in all likelihood, MJ himself was quite aware of their similarities between them. If I remember correctly in ‘Scream’ he morphs into Warhol (vis a vis Black or White). Actually, the issue of definition is always so interesting with MJ. He was so far ahead that people generally didn’t know how to define what he did. Parallels help to illuminate him as an artist a) Warhol, b) J.M. Barrie, c) David Bowie and of course, many more.

    • Thanks for your comments Eliza! I agree that these parallels are really helpful. I was fortunate enough last summer to get to see a beautiful exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on David Bowie. I was just amazed by how much MJ’s work followed his. We so often mention James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as MJ influences, that we lose sight of how much more was there, if you’re looking. I learned a lot about Michael Jackson from that exhibit!

      • You are so right. I had a conversation with a friend, he’s a Doctor in Philosophy and he drew so many parallels between Jackson and Bowie and we couldn’t identify why Bowie was declared almost Saintly while Jackson was vilified for androgynous style and outlandish stage personas.

        • “we couldn’t identify why Bowie was declared almost Saintly while Jackson was vilified for androgynous style and outlandish stage personas.”

          Hi Elizabeth. I’ve wondered about this also. I mean, it’s not like Michael Jackson was the only performer to have an androgynous look on stage – in fact, in the 80s especially, androgyny was almost the new norm among rock stars! So why was he “vilified,” as you put it, when others weren’t?

          I think partly it’s because he also crossed racial boundaries, and in the U.S. feelings about race are so complicated and so intensely felt. Another reason is that he was so familiar to us – we’d “known” him since he was a little boy. It’s one thing to see a stranger with a tattoo and quite another to see one on your own son, and in many ways he was our favorite son. So the rules were different for him.

          But I think the main reason is that, while many big name performers – David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Steve Tyler, and on and on – adopted an androgynous stage persona, they made it very clear that persona only existed on stage. Off stage they were almost hyper-masculine, dating supermodels and surrounding themselves with groupies. Michael Jackson may have taken Brooke Shields or Madonna to events with him, but he made it very clear he didn’t have sex with his escorts (while other rock stars made it very clear they did …). And if he ever hooked up with groupies, he kept that all very private. In other words, he never used women to assert or publicly affirm his masculinity.

          But more broadly, he never pulled back the curtain to reveal that his crossing of boundaries was “just” a performance, as other rock stars did. He left that uncertainty hanging in the air, which caused deep cultural anxiety, I think. And that anxiety was artistically brilliant but personally dangerous, and left him vulnerable to all sorts of false claims and accusations.

  3. I haven’t read you book yet Willa, but I had this conversation with Lizha in private and promised her to comment on the website. We are both also professional musicians besides scholars and my reaction to the ‘transformation’ is mainly written from my experience as musician rather than from an academic point of view. I truly believe in the combination of the practice and the theory.

    MJ had that remarkable depth where voice and brain, body and brain immediately connected when he was on stage to perform. It’s that aspect that you also see with good instrumentalists as if their hands are connected with their brain the moment they start playing. From my own experience I know that if you play by heart this happens. It has also everything to do with concentration, you as musician knowing exactly how to ‘tell’ your story. When you know your music by heart, you can actually let go of everything you have learned and freely tell your story. In classical music it is not really done to improvise, only with cadences, but MJ could improvise and convey his story on every level he wanted.

    The audience or people that know you from when you are not on stage, see some kind of transformation. Given the fact that MJ did everything with his body, his voice and his looks, this must have been of great impact to his friends, seeing him perform. Classical trained musicians often have repertoire that they know so well, they played it for years on, that even when very old and barely able to walk and being guided towards the piano stool, the moment they sit down behind the piano, the hands and brain take over and the musician is away with it. The music but also in a way, the body, starts to convey messages that let the audience feel emotions. It is also common that people that studied the art of great composers or audiences that see, hear someone like MJ perform, think that they know him very closely and they are convinced of his true emotions. A good example of that is when he on tours crouches down. He uses that to express emotions but I truly believe it is more likely a very good time to take a little rest before he starts a new song. It is a very clever way to use this both ways. In my opinion MJ himself was the ‘gesamtkunstwerk’.

    I already mentioned something like this on the Susan Fast website. As musician you learn to balance the intelligence and the real emotion. It is sometimes difficult not to speculate, but I really think he did not put his personal emotions on stage he used emotions to tell his stories trough the songs and dance. He had this special musicality, he knew de door at the end of the hall way and could open it when he wanted it to let the magic come out, that’s not given for every musician, that’s something you get born with.

    I always thought of MJ as someone that fitted more in the classical world than the popular, just because of his perfectionism, his always wanting to give everything for his audience, always studying to become better. It’s to my knowledge not a common practice in the world of popular music and that fact makes him even more special.

    About the striking resemblances with Andy Warhol, it is nice to mention that somewhere in the nineties of the 20th century, I have seen an interview on TV where he was with Lisa Marie. They asked a lot of inappropriate questions and also on his changing face. It is all art he said, if I do not like what I see I change it. He also mentioned the statue and military stuff in HIStory as art. I don’t think they really grasped what he meant, but it was all art. He obviously turned the disadvantages from his body into something ‘positive’ and used it as art. I find it still mind-boggling why the changes were accepted for Warhol, while the media constantly bullied MJ.

    Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol new each other as from 1977 when Warhol had to interview him. Michael then, asked him all kind of questions about his family, his mother etc. and he did not know that Warhol was an artist, he thought Andy was a poet. (See the Andy Warhol diaries)

    • Karin, I enjoyed reading your comments. Regarding MJs transformation once on stage, it reminds me of Frank Cascio’s question to his father when seeing MJ perform for the first time. In disbelief he asks “Is that the same Michael Jackson that comes to our house?” So heart-warming! Also, your remarks about the association between MJ and AW are so interesting. I recently read the blog that examines their relationship and the stark similarities in their “MO”s if you will. Fascinating! MJ never ceases to inform, amaze, delight, and deepen the thought process.

    • Hi Karin,

      Really fabulous observations and I could not agree with you more about how connected MJ was as a performer between his voice, his brain and his body. You reminded me of some really interesting research I came across in neuroscience and brain mapping. Apparently really skilled musical performers are very adept at storing musical information in the unconscious areas of the brain. When researchers mapped the brains of student musicians, it was the opposite, their brains lit up like Christmas trees as they read music, it required so many areas of their brain to perform a musical work. But, when they mapped the brains of highly accomplished musicians, who were performing works they knew very, very well from memory, it turns out there was almost no brain activity. This really shocked the scientists who were doing the research, but to me it makes perfect sense. It’s that rare feeling you have as a musician when you step aside and let the music take over. Naturally, it takes many, many years of work to get to that level of performance. I remember seeing an interview with choreographer Vince Patterson, who said MJ used to practice over and over until he could do the movement completely naturally, sometimes spending hours on just one move. His voice coach Seth Riggs, also talked about how he would do dance moves even as he did vocal scales. I don’t think any of us can imagine what he went through to be able to give those masterful, flawless, “effortless” performances.

      I, too, suspect that Jackson’s work would be better understood in terms of how we value classical music. There is so much there, sometimes I don’t know where to start! And how do we bridge that gap between traditional musicology and the new musicology? I feel like we are just scratching the surface. It’s exciting to imagine how this will all unfold.

      I believe the TV interview you mentioned is the ABC Diane Sawyer interview in 1995. I also found those responses you mentioned fascinating. And believe it or not, I have a transcript somewhere of that initial meeting of MJ and Andy Warhol. I’m assuming it was recorded by Warhol, who often said he wanted to be a machine. As I understand it, what he actually meant by that was that he wanted to be a recording machine. And I think Warhol was fascinated by MJ. A while back, I counted AW mentioned MJ in his “diary” something like 29 times!

    • PS I always forget to mention, this is Lisha, aka ultravioletrae!

    • Karin, Anna, Lisha – This is such a fascinating discussion, and it reminds me of something a friend was telling me a long time ago. Her father was a chemistry professor but he also played clarinet in the local orchestra for over 30 years. Late in life he developed Parkinson’s disease, which kept progressing until it prevented him from doing many routine tasks – things he had done for years, like tying his shoes. But he could pick up his clarinet and begin to play, and the tremors and rigidity would decrease tremendously. His doctors told him they had seen that phenomenon before, but only with people who had played for a long time. It didn’t seem to work for people who weren’t already proficient with an instrument before they developed Parkinson’s.

      So it wasn’t the physical activity that was reducing their symptoms – amateurs perform the same physical activities as proficients, but the tremors weren’t diminished for them. And it wasn’t just muscle memory, because presumably her father would also have muscle memory for tasks like walking, but walking became increasingly difficult for him. I don’t think it was concentration – he’d concentrate on tying his shoes and still have trouble.

      There was something else going on that allowed his body to function while playing an instrument in a way it couldn’t at any other time, with any other activity. And I wonder if it gets back to these deep connections you’re talking about between mind and body – connections that form through music, but only with intense practice until your movements become almost autonomous, more like breathing than intentional actions.

  4. The blog I’m referring to is of course, the one above by Willa and Joie.

  5. Hi Anna and Lisha, thanks for the comments. I did not read that Cascio book, it’s my own experience with music. And I have read something like that too Lisha, about mapping and brains and what happens. I remember when I was very young I had a book with pictures of a piano player that showed what happend in the brain when he played the piano. It is exciting to read that when you know your music so very well as MJ also did, there is not so much brain activity. That confirms what I wrote and experienced, that when you know your music very well, you can let go of the technique, the thinking, the reading and freely play to express effortless and flawless. Unfortunately there is among audiences not much knowlegde about this process and it should be more acknowledged.

  6. Hi, Lisha, just to add to your interesting discussion that there is also research on how early musical training alters the brain anatomy. For example, see

    “A new study finds that musical training at a young age may strengthen the brain, especially regions that influence language skills and executive function, needed for activities such as planning, organization, and managing time and space. The volume of brain regions related to hearing and self-awareness appeared to be larger in those who began taking music lessons before age 7.”

    This was a study in China but it was repeated with the same findings in USA.

    I agree with Karin that MJ’s instinctual musicality–in terms of body movement as well as voice and emotional expression–was far beyond what we normally see or expect to see. I think he enjoyed his power over the audience too when he performed.

    • Thanks for that great article stephenson, I had not seen that one before. So often research like this preferences Western European classical music, which has inspired projects such as the children’s CD series called “The Mozart Effect.” But I am inclined to believe this phenomena is much more universal, like you say, and that we could expect the findings of this research to be repeated cross culturally. I’m sure you would agree, great music can be found in many places other than the Western European concert hall.

      And I also think MJ enjoyed the power he had over his audience. It’s intoxicating to watch him perform and see how completely he takes control over his audience. Endlessly fascinating.

  7. Hi Stephenson, I know that article, we used something similar in the Netherlands to make the brain dead government (who obviously did not get musical training in their former years;-) ) clear that they should invest in music for children in stead of cut back on it.

    And I would say that MJ besides being very talented and drilled at a young age, also had many interests, not only Warhol or Bowie, but also Radio Head and Björk and Debussy etc….He danced and balanced that rare line between the entertainment and the high art, that makes it intriguing and on the other hand clear why there was and still is so little discourse on his art.

    Lisha, I was also wondering. The portraits Warhol made were all related to the end of a carrier Liz Tailor, or even death, Monroe, Kennedy. I mean, he created them always on this particular moments. The one on MJ was I think right before or just after Thriller, for the Time Magazine Cover. Was it an coincidence or do you think he had a premonition about the rough times that lay ahead for MJ. Warhol was hyper sensitive, as was MJ. Just a thought.

    • That’s a really intriguing idea Karin, I hadn’t thought about that before. But I think you may be on to something. There is news coverage dating back to “Thriller” era and the height of Michaelmania that shows the vultures were already circling. The second Michael Jackson toppled the white power structure of the entertainment industry, signs of backlash start to emerge. Even Simon Frith, who writes glowingly about MJ before Michaelmania is pretty snarky by the time “Bad” rolls around.

      • yes I thought so too. But I asked myself how in the world could you define that without being too speculative. You mentioned already the events that happened around MJ at that time. You than could compare that with events that happened around the time of this others. But also the portraits themselves. Can you see differences in colors, the photo he used in the way it was shot, and what he’d did with them. For instance with the Monroe he created a series from black and white to color. What are the similarities and the differences and how do they relate to the circumstances….Gosh this is very intriguing:-)

        • You know, one thing that’s different about Warhol’s Michael Jackson portraits is that they were commissioned. With the others, Warhol came up with the idea and created them on his own, but Time magazine wanted to put an image of Michael Jackson on the cover and approached Warhol, asked him to create them, and paid him to do it.

          Still, I think Warhol must have felt drawn to Michael Jackson or intrigued by him – for example, I knew Warhol mentioned Michael Jackson in his diaries, but didn’t realize he mentioned him 29 times! That was really interesting, Lisha.

          • ah, that’s makes it different. But I agree that he was at least fascinated. The first time he wrote that ‘they made him ugly’ and the second time ‘he was so beautiful’. (I can almost hear him saying that) 😉

  8. Going back to the brain-mapping discussion, even when still in his mother’s womb, Michael began hearing music, if we can believe the research findings of what a fetus if capable of learning and absorbing. Then, once born into the world, he was continuously exposed to it by his mother’s singing, The Falcons’ rehearsals in the living room of their Gary house, by the radio, the multitude of neighborhood groups who apparently sang on street corners around the neighborhood, and by the music his brothers rehearsed before he joined the group. The musical imprint on his brain had to be so immense that by the time he began performing, it was already much more natural to him than to other performers who began their careers at a later stage in life, including his older brothers. They were all immensely talented of course, but Michael and Janet probably received the most “musical brain-training” if you will, before they actually began performing. In that sense, there’s no wonder they were the two who stood out among the nine.

  9. yes Anna, you are absolutely right. Another good example of that is Glenn Gould. His mother was piano player so when not yet born and as baby he sat on her lap when she studied. I mean, that was partly forced, but the man had an incredible talent. Musical brain-training starts already with the unborn child. Nevertheless, I know someone who always played music and specially Prince. When their child was born she always wanted Prince but never aimed for an music carrier. That means that even if the imprint starts early, you are not necessarily a talented musician, and if you are, you still have to work your but of to accomplish what Could, Janet and MJ accomplished, to let it become a second nature. That’s what people often forget, that if you are talented you do not have to work so hard, but it is exactly the other way round.

  10. Karin, yes I agree about the requirement for a strong work ethic.

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