Michael Jackson’s Otherness and Power

Willa:  This week I am very happy to be joined by Susan Woodward, a psychoanalytically trained clinical social worker. She’s also the author of Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics, a book that provides important insights into the extremely harsh criticism that came to dominate media coverage of Michael Jackson and his work. Instead of simply ignoring or discounting this criticism, as many of us tend to do, Susan has dived right into the worst of it to try to uncover what motivates it. And what she’s found is fascinating!

Susan, thank you so much for joining me to talk about your research and analysis.

Susan:  Willa, I am so honored to be invited to talk to you about Michael Jackson. I must note that your book M Poetica was an important inspiration for my book. I really admired the way you waded into the morass of some of the hot-button criticisms – plastic surgery, changing skin color, allegations of child abuse – and calmly, intelligently addressed them. I think that Jackson fans tend to shrink in horror from the most severe critics, and the critics see the fans as fanatics, but you were able to walk the middle ground of being a Jackson defender who was willing to look at the criticisms and deal with them even-handedly and effectively.

Willa:  Thank you, Susan. I really appreciate that, and I think your work is so interesting and important. Instead of reacting against that harsh criticism Michael Jackson faced, or simply ignoring it as many of us tend to do, you’ve really tried to understand it. And one of the things you discovered while researching this is that, ironically, the cultural critics who were the most severe when writing about him also seem to believe that he possessed tremendous power. I was really surprised by that.

Susan:  I was quite surprised as well.

Willa:  So I’m curious, how did you first notice this? And what drew you to this research to begin with?

Susan:  After Michael Jackson died I became interested in reading everything I could find about him. Along the way, I read some pretty hateful stuff, which I found increasingly puzzling, and even shocking, as I learned more about him. I’m a clinical social worker, so I’m always interested in what motivates people, and I wondered where all this vitriol came from. There were the child abuse allegations, but they were highly questionable accusations that were never proven, and there were abundant reasons to conclude that those allegations could not be true. And I eventually found that the allegations seemed to have little to do with the hatred that was leveled at him.

Willa:  I agree. For example, Woody Allen has been accused of child sexual abuse also, but there hasn’t been the rush to judgment that there was with Michael Jackson, and there hasn’t been the extreme hysteria and antipathy that Michael Jackson faced. So there seems to be something more going on there. It’s almost like the abuse allegations gave people an excuse for expressing strong negative feelings about him that were already bubbling underground.

Susan:  Yes. And at the time of the first allegations, in 1993, since he had already endured nearly a decade of inaccurate, exaggerated tabloid stories painting him as “bizarre,” the public was primed to believe that his “bizarreness” could extend to child abuse.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Susan. As Michael Jackson himself said in a speech when receiving a Grammy Legend Award, “I wasn’t aware that the world thought I was so weird and bizarre.” That was on February 24, 1993, a couple months before he met Evan Chandler. Then the allegations hit the newspapers in August, so it appears the press and the public were indeed “primed,” as you say, to see him as “weird and bizarre” – and perhaps guilty as well because of that.

Susan: Oh, yes. I think that the negative press he got had terrible consequences for him. I wanted to understand more about where that hostility came from.

Susan Fast, in her essay “Difference that Exceeded Understanding” (one of the best titles ever), pointed out that much of the hostility toward him was due to racism and a deep-seated discomfort with his “difference,” meaning the ways in which he was unreadable and unclassifiable. His signifiers for race, gender, age, and sexuality were hard to interpret and confusing to many. I call that difference his “otherness.” Although I don’t share in that discomfort with his otherness, at least I could understand that it might motivate some to criticize him. But I just had this nagging feeling that there was something else in the mix that I couldn’t identify.

So I kept reading. As I was reading a particularly hateful, long chapter of The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, one of the three works I analyze in my book, I began to notice that the author, amidst the vitriol, kept referring to Michael Jackson as a king or divine being and using other highly elevated descriptions. Often these terms were used sarcastically, but among the 23 authors included in the book, they all used that sort of language in describing him, along with a roughly equal number of disparaging and hateful terms. When I went back to look at the rest of Resistible Demise and then the other two works that I include in my book, I saw that there was an assumption that he was an extraordinarily powerful person.

And I mean a power that is quite different from the power that any famous, wealthy person would be perceived as having, and unprecedented for a musician. The critics I looked at for my book see him as a royal person or as having almost supernatural power. I cannot think of another figure in popular culture who was seen this way. But at the same time these critics just tear him apart for having those very qualities.

The three works I chose to analyze are Dave Marsh’s 1985 book Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream, Maureen Orth’s 2003 Vanity Fair article “Losing His Grip,” and The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, a collection of 23 essays published about six months after Michael Jackson died. I chose these particular works because they were each overviews of his life and work, rather than addressing just a particular event, and they were all harshly critical, even sometimes quite hateful.

Willa: Yes, though they’re very different, as you point out. In your book you show that, while they are all reacting very negatively to his supposed power, they didn’t all see his power the same way or react against it for the same reasons. For example, Dave Marsh seemed to think Michael Jackson had the power to heal racial divisions, and was deeply disappointed that he wasn’t using that power the way he wanted him to. And I have to say, there’s just something too ironic about a white man criticizing a black man for not doing enough to end racism – especially when that man is Michael Jackson, who has done more than anyone in recent memory to end help prejudice of all kinds, including racism.

Susan: Yes, well put!  Marsh says that initially he was a Jackson fan who saw him as almost a messiah figure, someone who could lead America, and maybe even the world, into a new era free of racial, sexual, and political divisions. Marsh writes quite eloquently about that feeling.

Willa:  He really does. And in an odd way he’s still a Michael Jackson fan because he sees such tremendous potential in him – not just musically but culturally and spiritually. And he keeps imposing his expectations onto him, the hopes of a white man looking for a powerful black figure to solve the complex problem of racism. For example, here’s a quote from near the end of Marsh’s book:

Michael Jackson is one thing before he is a singer or a success or a star or anything else. He is a black person in America. As a result, he set some old chains to clanking, stirred some ancient ghosts, incited some venerable dreams.

The ghosts of slavery and racism are four hundred years old but their power is fresh and strong. The dreams he incited are equally old – the fantastic hope that we can somehow be brought together long enough to lay those ghosts to rest.

Throughout his book, Marsh expresses tremendous respect for Michael Jackson’s musical talent, but also a longing for him to become a Moses-type cultural figure who will lead America out of racism. And that longing is coupled with a disgust that he isn’t Moses – that he isn’t fulfilling Marsh’s fantasy of who he wants him to be.

Susan:  That is a very powerful passage from Trapped. It’s such a shame that Marsh couldn’t see how Michael Jackson’s otherness, which he criticizes so harshly, was the very reason that Marsh and others could project onto him “that fantastic hope.”

Willa:  That’s a very good point, Susan. The real irony is that Michael Jackson actually was combatting the roots of racism – and much more effectively than anything Dave Marsh proposes – but he was doing it at a deep, almost subconscious level that Dave Marsh can’t comprehend. But instead of trying to understand what Michael Jackson is doing, Marsh attacks him for what he isn’t doing.

Susan:  He should have cherished that otherness.

Willa:  I agree. And then there’s Maureen Orth, who wrote some of the most sordid, inflammatory articles ever published about Michael Jackson. She felt he had tremendous power also, but it was the power to manipulate and even control people. So while Marsh believed he had a positive power that he was squandering, Orth believed he had a negative power that he was using all too well.

Susan:  Yes, Maureen Orth really seems to be in the grips of that fear of Jackson’s otherness. You get the feeling that she thinks that he was so dangerous that he deserved to be driven to the ends of the earth. While she seems to fear his otherness, she also seems to feel that his otherness was exactly what gave him the power to manipulate others.

Willa:  That’s really interesting, and something I hadn’t noticed before I read your book. She definitely seems to fear his difference, as you say – to the point of hysteria. For example, in her article she claims that Michael Jackson paid a Mali witchdoctor $150,000 to conduct a voodoo ceremony in Switzerland, and that as part of that ceremony he “ritually sacrificed” 42 cows. She actually published that in Vanity Fair. I think it goes without saying that that’s ridiculous – it makes no sense, and from what I can tell it has absolutely no basis in fact.

Some friends in Germany contacted the Federal Office of Agriculture (FOAG) in Switzerland for me, and the FOAG told them they have no evidence that anything like that ever happened. The FOAG tracks every cow in Switzerland from the time it’s born until it’s slaughtered and processed – they can tell you exactly which cow or cows are included in every package of beef sold in Switzerland – and they have no records of missing cows, no evidence of anything like this.

Susan:  That is one masterful feat of fact checking!

Willa:  It really is. I’m so grateful to them for doing that. But even without the FOAG, this story should strike any reasonable person as extremely improbable. For one thing, it goes against everything Michael Jackson stood for. But also, I just don’t think you could hide something like that. Cows are huge – around 1,000 pounds – so 42 cows would weigh about 20 tons. How could you hide 20 tons of dead cows? Where would you put them? How would you move them? You can’t just stick them in the trunk of your car. And yet the most obsessively surveilled man in history somehow did this, and no one knows anything about it? That just doesn’t seem possible. But Orth blindly accepts this wild story and reports it as true without any fact checking, as far as I can tell.

Susan:  I found that little fact checking seemed to have been done for many of the things she said in that article.  I have to say that I had a lot of fun doing the fact checking that should have been done before publication – and easily finding several glaring errors.  She really seemed to want to believe what suited her about Michael Jackson. Along the same lines, she cites numerous sources for the article, but almost all of them are either anonymous, have some obvious motive to want to say bad things about him, or are people (such as plastic surgeons) who had no connection to him.

Willa:  That’s true. The question is why she accepted such an outrageous story as true, and I think it’s because she was predisposed to believe it – she saw him as so completely Other that she thought he was capable of anything.

Susan:   I certainly agree. I think that it’s significant that she begins her article with this unbelievable voodoo scenario. This story presents him as racially other, foolishly wasteful of large sums of money, and indifferent to the lives of others, in this case animals. Certainly it primes the gullible reader to believe that he was capable of anything.

Willa:  It really does. And then there are the many critics in The Resistible Demise. Unfortunately, I haven’t read this collection of essays, but you show that these writers – and again, these are all music and cultural critics who are writing very negatively about him – expressed a belief that he had an almost supernatural power, which is very surprising. That is so unexpected. And while analyzing that you introduced two terms I hadn’t heard before: “angelism” and “beastialism.” Could you explain these a bit?

Susan:  The term “angelism” was coined in the 1940s by Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher. Angelism is the erroneous view of humans as being primarily of a divine nature, purely spirit and intellect. Angelism does not refer specifically to angels, by the way. The opposite, and equally erroneous view, is that of beastialism, that humans are only motivated by bodily, selfish concerns, such as greed, lust, envy. These views are erroneous because, of course, we are all driven by some combination of both angelism and beastialism. Michael Jackson came to be seen by many as an angelistic being, someone who seemed to be free of the normal human categories of race, gender, and age. And he was seen by many as beastial, someone who was physically decaying and morally corrupt.

Willa: These are such useful concepts for understanding reactions to Michael Jackson, I think. I hadn’t heard these terms before, but after reading your book and learning about these ideas, I’ve been seeing this angelism/beastialism split applied to him constantly, both by those praising him and those criticizing him.

Susan:  Yes, once you’re aware of that angelism/beastialism split, you just see it in so much of how he was viewed.

Willa:  You really do. And you know, it’s really interesting how these categories tie in with Eleanor Bowman’s ideas of transcendence, as she talked about with us in a post a while back. Transcendence views some humans primarily in terms of mind – they aim to “transcend” the limits of their bodies – while other humans are seen primarily as bodies. These two categories seem to map pretty directly onto the divisions you’re talking about, with angelism viewing humans primarily in terms of mind – “purely spirit and intellect,” as you said – while beastialism views humans primarily in terms of the body, and its needs and desires. Is that right?

Susan:  I would agree with you. The transcendent worldview involves seeing spirit as separate from matter, and matter as inferior to spirit. It’s a polarized way of perceiving reality, very much like the extreme poles of angelism and beastialism. Michael Jackson’s critics used the beastial end of the transcendent spectrum to debase him, to compensate for the angelistic, much more flattering view of him.

Willa:  Yes, but while the angelistic view tends to be more positive, it’s just as unrealistic and can be just as problematic. Eleanor sees Michael Jackson as challenging that division, and offering a new vision – one of immanence – where mind and body are fully integrated, indivisible. But the critics you researched seem to fall into that transcendental view of separating mind from body, and see him strictly as one or the other. So what are some examples of critics viewing Michael Jackson through the lens of angelism? And of beastialism?

Susan:  The Resistible Demise (I still don’t know what that title means) is very fertile ground for examples of angelistic and beastialistic views of Michael Jackson. Many of the words used on both sides of that polarity were so extraordinary that I included lists of them in my book. For example, on the beastial side, authors of the essays use words and phrases such as “freakish,” “inhuman,” “precious weirdo girl-man,” “not unlike Darth Vader – a degenerating husk of pale flesh kept barely alive by a complex mediating machinery,” “Zombie Jackson,” “auto-castrated asexual,” “creature of absolute soulessness,” “monster,” “genuine beast of the apocalypse,” and “biotic component going mad.” I could go on. There are hundreds of examples in Resistible Demise. Note that many of these terms focus on the body and make an assumption of decay, moral corruption, and insanity – the very opposite of the angelistic view.

Willa: Yes, they do. And in fact, much of the harshest criticism of Michael Jackson focuses on the idea that he somehow corrupted the integrity of the body, like the repeated fallacy that he’d had so much plastic surgery his nose disintegrated. And actually, the allegations of sexual abuse or perversion are another form of bodily corruption, and so are the claims of extensive drug abuse. So this criticism really does focus on a sense of bodily corruption.

Susan: And the angelistic terms used in Resistible Demise are equally extreme and see him as divorced from his body, a creature of pure spirit: “god,” “a creature of youth and lightness whose performance defies emotional gravity,” “otherworldly,” “an angel who fell to earth,” “beyond human law,” “invading savior,” “gravity-defying,” “archangel,” “unearthly,” “uncanny,” and “not matter.” As with the beastial terms, Resistible Demise contains hundreds of similar examples of angelistic terms, in addition to the many references to him as a kingly figure. And this is in a book that is harshly critical.

Willa:  Even his dancing is used as an example, which is so ironic. I mean, dancing is the most embodied of all art forms. Yet because he could do things with his body few others could do, he was portrayed as disembodied: “a creature of youth and lightness whose performance defies emotional gravity,” as you quoted before.

Susan:  One of the things that comes to my mind when I read these angelistic and beastial terms is, Do the authors really think they were describing an actual human being? You can easily see that both views are erroneous. It’s hard to imagine the sort of decrepit being of the beastial view. But it’s equally difficult to imagine that Michael Jackson was really a divine being. I know, however, that there are people who are absolutely convinced of one view or the other.

There were many reasons that so many came to see Michael Jackson in an angelistic light. Anyone who reads much about him learns that he wanted to give his audience a “magical” experience, and a person who appears to be magical also appears to be an angelistic being. There are abundant examples of magical transformations in the short films he made of his songs. In Remember the Time he appears out of swirling sand and then disappears into the swirling sand. In Black or White he moves effortlessly between scenes of performing with dancers from different cultures, then transforms from a panther to himself, and ends by becoming the panther again. In Smooth Criminal, Bad, and Beat It, his dancing transforms the mood and actions of the people around him. In Billie Jean he lights up the sidewalk as he steps on it.

Willa:  Yes, and there’s a suggestion that he transforms into a tiger.

Susan:  In the version of You are Not Alone that appears on the DVD collection HIStory on Film, Volume II he appears as an literal angel.

Of course, the degree and range of his talents were positively awe-inspiring and certainly could be seen as beyond the scope of a mere mortal. I have a theory that his dancing did more than his other talents to enhance the view that he was not quite of this earth. I couldn’t substantiate that theory, unfortunately, so I didn’t include it in my book, but I know that every single time I’ve watched him perform my immediate reaction is to feel overwhelming delight and almost a sense of shock that someone could move the way he did. You pointed out that dancing is the most embodied of all art forms. That fact that he could take take a physically strenuous act and appear to do it with ease and with such fluid grace, in a way that stands out even when he performed with other highly accomplished dancers, is certainly “magic.”

Willa:  It certainly seems that way, doesn’t it? He told Randy Taraborrelli in the late 1990s that his dancing was hard work, physically:

When I go on stage, people expect a lot. They want the dancing, they want the spins, and all. But I don’t know how much longer I can do it. I don’t know when it’ll just not be possible.

So he was human. But for the audience, watching him dance sure feels magical, doesn’t it?

Susan:  It certainly does. And the personal qualities that made him seem “other” to so many people were another major reason that he was perceived angelistically. In Resistible Demise, he is called a “postmodern dream of becoming something new,” “raceless and all races,” and “liberated from mere flesh, destiny, fixed roles of race and sex.” The very unreadabilty of his race, gender, age, and sexuality gave him a shape-shifter aura and made him appear to have left mere mortal life and its limits behind.

Willa: Yes, though that’s just a projection. What I mean is, the issue wasn’t his body so much as what other people projected onto his body, and how they interpreted it. He clearly had a gender and an age, for example. He just didn’t fit preconceived ideas about how his age and gender were supposed to define him.

Susan: Yes, that’s what’s so fascinating about all of this: it’s really just projection.

We’ve been talking about how Michael Jackson was described in words, but there are visual representations of him as an angelistic or beastial being. Some of them are subtle, like this one.

Earth Song portrait - croppedThis photograph was taken in approximately 1995, during the era of the HIStory album. His face is very pale, seems almost lit from within, obscuring all facial features except for his eyes, lips and, to a lesser extent, nose. One can’t get a sense of facial structure, such as cheekbones, or detail, such as facial hair. And he appears to be almost perfectly androgenous. This photograph is reminiscent of Italian Renaissance portraits, so it’s even hard to say what time he belongs to. In short, he appears as a somewhat otherworldly being who is free of the bonds of gender, time, and maybe even human flesh. Willa, in your book M Poetica you used the word “ethereal” to describe these luminous, pale images of him during this period, and I think that’s the perfect word.

This next image, however, is a literal, florid example of an angelistic representation.

2009 painting by David LaChapelle This is Archangel Michael: And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer by artist David LaChapelle. It’s one of three images he made of Michael Jackson in a series he calls American Jesus.

Willa:  Wow, there’s no denying that’s angelistic, is there?

Susan:  Yes, it’s really over the top. By the way, if you google “Michael Jackson angel” you’ll find dozens of images of him as a literal angel. This one, however, is probably the most accomplished. I need not comment on what makes this an angelistic representation.

This image works because the Archangel is Michael Jackson and not someone else. Imagine, say, Mick Jagger or Prince as the Archangel. I don’t think that would make the same kind of sense.

Willa: No it wouldn’t, and that’s a really important point, Susan. I read an article once about political gaffes, and why some get a lot of airplay – like Dan Quayle misspelling “tomatoes,” or George Bush not knowing what a grocery store checkout scanner was, or Sarah Palin saying she could see Russia from her house – and others don’t. And the answer was that the gaffes that go viral are the ones that tap into preconceived ideas the public already has about that person – that Dan Quayle wasn’t educated enough to be vice-president, that George Bush was completely out of touch with the everyday world of middle-class Americans, that Sarah Palin tended to believe what she wanted to believe.

If that’s true, it implies there was already a preconceived idea that Michael Jackson was “angelic” in a way that bad boy rockers like Mick Jagger and Prince definitely aren’t. But Michael Jackson was also demonized in the press and public imagination. It’s so interesting that those two contradictory images existed side by side.

Susan:  Well, I don’t think that “angelic” is quite the right word. “Angelic” usually means sweet. You could certainly characterize the first image we discussed that way, because in it he appears to have an otherworldly saintliness. But the image of Archangel Michael Jackson isn’t sweet. He is a being powerful enough to subdue Satan, and although his pose is still, he is stepping on Satan and a sword is dropped at his feet, suggesting that a violent struggle had taken place just moments before. And the Archangel’s power is echoed by the stormy skies, dark ocean and craggy rocks behind him. He uses his power for good, but it is a power to be feared.

Willa: That’s interesting, Susan, and reminds me of a YouTube video about Saint Michael the Archangel that Stephenson shared in a comment a few weeks ago:

As you were saying, Saint Michael is an angel but he’s not “angelic” in the usual sense. He’s powerful. And as you said, “He uses his power for good, but it is a power to be feared.”

Susan: And I think that it’s the power represented in this Archangel image that was so disturbing to his critics. The more mildly angelistic Michael Jackson that we see in that first image probably would have been kicked around by critics, but not in the way that the more powerful, threateningly angelistic Michael Jackson was.

And in case anyone thinks that this Archangel image is just an anomaly, please take another look at the angelistic terms I quoted above from Resistible Demise. Those terms were just a random sampling, but there are many, many more used – by very harsh critics – throughout that book that could be applied to this image of the Archangel.

Willa:  And this brings up another idea from your book that I found really fascinating: the phenomenon of “flipping.” Could you explain this a bit?

Susan:  The contradictory views of angelism and beastialism can sometimes be two sides of the same coin. In some people, especially those with personality disorders, there is a strong tendency to “split,” that is to see everything in terms of extremes of over-idealization and devaluation: all good/all bad, all black/all white. This is said to originate in early childhood as the child begins to make judgments in these simple and extreme terms. Most of us eventually learn to see and appreciate the gray areas, the nuances. By the way, almost anyone who is feeling really angry about something will revert temporarily to that all good/all bad way of seeing.

This splitting, however, is not necessarily stable. The split can “flip,” meaning that something that had been seen as all good can suddenly seem all bad. That often happens after a disappointment that may seem of little consequence to others but seems like a major betrayal to someone who sees the world in such polarized terms. The flip can go in the other direction too, from all bad to all good.

While I certainly don’t want to draw any conclusions about Dave Marsh’s personality, he writes in Trapped about exactly that sort of sudden and extreme reversal of his feeling for Michael Jackson, after experiencing “hairline” (Marsh’s term) cracks in his idealization of Jackson.

Willa: That is so interesting, and I think it’s a really useful and perceptive way of trying to understand the sudden reversal of feeling experienced by Dave Marsh, and maybe others as well. What I mean is, Marsh’s sudden shift also seems emblematic of what happened among critics as a whole. When Michael Jackson was an up-and-coming superstar, the next big thing, it was like he could do no wrong. But once he achieved that goal and was on the top of the peak, perceptions of him changed radically – they “flipped,” as you say – and suddenly he couldn’t do anything right.

So it’s interesting to look at Dave Marsh not only as an individual critic, but also as representing a whole class of critics who “flipped” at about the same time he did, and through him gain some insights into why that may have happened.

Susan:  I agree. We have to thank Dave Marsh for being so open about his feelings!  I suspect that envy also played a big role in the feelings of Marsh and many of Michael Jackson’s critics, although that’s difficult to prove.

Willa:  I agree. Michael Jackson himself seemed to think that envy – in particular, racial envy – was a primary motivation for many of those criticizing him. Joie and I talked about that in a post last February.

Susan: The splitting and the flipping of the split are projections, of course. All I am really talking about here are others’ projections of who Michael Jackson was. Dave Marsh certainly did a tremendous amount of research for Trapped, but his interpretation of what he learned seems to me to be devoid of nuance, as if he had a hidden axe to grind. And none of the other writers I analyzed in my book bothered to do what I would call serious research. They’re projecting, assigning to Michael Jackson qualities that correspond to deep fears and hopes in the one doing the projecting. It’s fascinating that one person could evoke such polarized, strong responses in others.

Willa:  Yes it is. I think that’s part of his power as a performer – that people looked at him and saw a reflection of their deepest fears and desires. So it’s ironic that you also see it as the source of a lot of his troubles.

1992 June - Daily Mail coverSusan: And here is another projection of who Michael Jackson was. As you note in your book, Willa, the press loved to publish photographs of Michael Jackson that made him appear to have had more plastic surgery than he actually had. This photograph, which was clearly doctored, was published in the Daily Mirror in 1992.

The photograph was accompanied by an article that claimed that he had had so much plastic surgery that his face was hideously disfigured. He sued the Mirror for libel, and the suit was settled in 1998 after the Mirror’s doctors examined his unmade-up face and then issued an admission that they were wrong and an apology.

Willa: I’m glad you mentioned this incident, Susan, because it’s important evidence that the plastic surgery rumors were wildly exaggerated, yet it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. Here’s what a BBC article said about it:

At the High Court in London, Mirror Group Newspapers and the paper’s former editor Richard Stott acknowledged that Michael Jackson was neither hideously disfigured nor scarred.

Mr Jackson’s solicitor, Marcus Barclay, … told the court: “Representatives of The Mirror have since met directly with the plaintiff and have seen with their own eyes that the photographs … do not accurately represent the plaintiff’s appearance.…”

Susan: While this seems like a happy ending, it did nothing to dispel years of rumors that he was grotesquely disfigured by plastic surgery, rumors that were still being repeated years later by Maureen Orth and many of the authors of Resistible Demise.

Willa: And that’s something we see often with him also – that rumors about him receive excessive and unwarranted attention, while follow-up articles debunking those rumors receive almost no attention.

Susan:  Yes, it’s clearly so difficult to undo the damage of negative stories once they’re out in the world.

Dave Marsh sarcastically called Michael Jackson “the most special guy in the world.” I think this one statement, sarcasm aside, does a lot to explain the situation Michael Jackson found himself in. Since the 1960s, our society has moved, however imperfectly, towards accepting previously marginalized racial and ethnic groups, and we are now struggling with accepting same-sex marriage and learning to understand transsexual people. But Michael Jackson was in a category all by himself, which is why I think the hatred towards him was so unbridled. In other words, there was no standard of political correctness to reign in critics and make them rethink their reactions. All of the authors I analyzed knew that openly racist opinions were not acceptable, so few of those sorts of opinions are in evidence in their writings. But it was not unacceptable, apparently, to severely criticize Michael Jackson for changing his skin color, acting childlike, and being sexually ambiguous.

This is why I care so much about how Michael Jackson was treated. The negative response he got says so much about the often unquestioning way we react to people who are perceived to be “other” and how quick we are to accept the received wisdom about marginalized people, even if, as in Michael Jackson’s case, the marginalized person happens to also be extremely famous.

Willa: I agree completely. My son is in high school, and there’s a lot of emphasis right now on preventing bullying, especially of kids who are different. Yet apparently it is still acceptable for tabloids to bully and cyberbully celebrities. I see pictures and headlines in the tabloids sometimes and think, if a high school student posted something like that about a classmate, they’d be suspended – and they should be. That kind of bullying behavior is not ok. Yet it is tolerated in the tabloids and even the mainstream press on occasion. It sometimes feels to me that Michael Jackson was bullied to death – that he died as a result of decades of bullying by the press.

Susan:  I couldn’t agree more with everything you just said. There are a lot of things I could say about that, but let me just note that none of the writers that I analyzed in my book were tabloid writers. It’s shocking that so much hatred was spewed at him from people who write as if they were offering good reporting and thoughtful analysis. And it is disappointing that so much of the public accepted lies and distortions as the truth. I can’t tell you how many times I have had conversations about Michael Jackson that consist mainly of my trying  to correct the other person’s misconceptions about him.

I’m hoping that one day we can all come to a much more rational understanding of who Michael Jackson was. Colby Tanner, a co-author of Remember the Time, recently wrote an insightful article for Slate called “The Radical Notion of Michael Jackson’s Humanity.” In it he addresses the issue of how little attempt has been made to understand Michael Jackson, although he comes at it from a different angle from the one I take.

Willa: It is a wonderful, thought-provoking article that really questions the “beastial” vision of Michael Jackson portrayed in the press. As he says, “The idea of Michael Jackson as a human being remains a radical notion.”

Susan: In a way, this brings me back to Eleanor Bowman’s transcendence / immanence ideas. I think that it is so much more interesting to try to understand Michael Jackson as a human being, one capable of such tremendous artistic achievement and with such highly intriguing personal qualities. I have to admit that I am very drawn into the angelistic view of him, although I know intellectually that that is a fallacy. I’m always trying to move past that transcendent view to the immanent view, to find the flesh and blood person who was capable of making others feel that he was a semi-divine being or a physically, morally decaying monster. For that reason, I find accounts of people who actually knew him well to be absolutely fascinating.

Willa: I agree – I really enjoy stories that show his “human” side also. For example, I have a friend who was a visiting professor at UC Santa Barbara for a while, and she became friends with an elderly woman who owns a shop in town. Her friend was alone in her shop one day when Michael Jackson came in and made a small purchase. Her friend has arthritis and was a little nervous, I think, and she was fumbling with the coins and taking a long time getting the right change out of the drawer. But instead of getting frustrated or angry about that, Michael Jackson just waited patiently and then started singing “Hot Cross Buns.” Do you know that song? It’s an old nursery rhyme:

Hot cross buns
Hot cross buns
One a penny, two a penny
Hot cross buns

What a wonderful way to handle that situation. I love that story!

Susan:  That is such a charming story. And I find it so much more interesting than lurid accounts of voodoo rituals or of his supposedly decaying nose. This story is so minor and incidental, but it says something about his character, who he really was. Thanks for sharing that.

Willa:  And thank you for talking with me today. I learned so much from your book, Susan, and really enjoyed having the chance to talk with you about it.

Susan:  Thank you so much for inviting me to have this discussion, Willa.

Willa:  Oh, it’s been a pleasure! I also wanted to let everyone know about an opinion piece by D.B. Anderson in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun. It draws important connections between Michael Jackson and recent protests against police brutality toward black citizens in the U.S. As Anderson says, “Michael Jackson was never afraid to put himself out there for the truth as he saw it.” But as Anderson goes on to say, he paid a terrible price:

What happened to Jackson for his politics was so much worse than losing sales. For in speaking truth to power, Jackson made himself a target, and he took a pounding. The worst shots at him were taken by a white district attorney in California who pursued him relentlessly for 12 years and charged him with heinous crimes that were utterly disproved at trial.

No one ever seems to connect the dots: A very vocal, very influential, very wealthy black man was taken down by a white prosecutor on trumped-up charges.

This is the first time I know of that a major newspaper has allowed the police handling of the allegations against Michael Jackson to be presented in this way: as a backlash to the very real threat he posed to existing power structures. Here’s a link to Anderson’s essay. We’ve also added it to the Reading Room.

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About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on December 11, 2014, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Thanks to you for this very thought provoking post. I’m so glad you included D.B. Anderson’s recent op-ed regarding celebrity silence at recent social events and Michael’s consistent leadership in bringing these issues to the forefront through his music and activism.

    You said: “This is the first time I know of what a major newspaper has allowed the police handling of the allegations against Michael Jackson to be presented that way: as a backlash to the very real threat he posed to existing power structures.” Upon reading his op-ed this was also my immediate reaction, and I asked myself if we would ever see such an article in, for instance, the LATimes or the NYTimes, but this is definitely a start!

    Following is the reply I received after emailing the author expressing gratitude for taking this brave step. Others received exactly the same response and it’s gratifying to know the author took the time to acknowledge our individual efforts:

    “Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m truly overwhelmed by the reception this piece has received. People like yourself who have written, tweeted, and blogged about the piece are key to encouraging more coverage of this type. Jackson deserves thoughtful, non-tabloid stories that include no apologies. Very happy to report that I’ve been asked to do another piece (not for this publication and not right away) due to readers like you.”

    So there seems to be a willingness on the part of thoughtful writers with large platforms associated with meaningful media outlets to take this bold approach re Michael Jackson’s social messages. Our assistance apparently is enabling Anderson to reach a wide mainstream media audience and he is grateful for our help. Let’s continue to laud efforts such as his.

  2. Hello Willa and Susan. I am so thrilled with this post, as my thoughts along those lines have been with me these past weeks, especially after being totally immersed and having finished Susan Fast’s book on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous.

    I was just wondering if I would have to re-read Willa, Joe Vogel, and Susan Fast before another great book comes alone- and you just answered that question. A clinical social worker myself, and working as both a therapist, supervisor to clinicians, and instructor for students, my private, often very much Michael Jackson centered brain, longs for such thorough analyses! Thank you.

    As a society we fear what is “different”- evolutionary it did not serve us go outside our social group. As our midbrain, which regulates emotions and memory is the older part of our brain, it still often supersedes any activity of our neocortex… Therefore, fear still rules us. Whatever structure is in power, uses that fear to keep a status quo. All this explains much of the reaction to Michael and his otherness.

    Also, every time I think about how he was treated. the sociological concept of “the Stranger” coined and explored by Georg Simmel pops into my head (this is a wikipedia summary for those who have not heard the concept- don’t tell my students I used wiki..)

    “The Stranger is an essay in sociology by Georg Simmel, originally written as an excursus to a chapter dealing with sociology of space, in his book Soziologie.[1] In this essay, Simmel introduced the notion of “the stranger” as a unique sociological category. He differentiates the stranger both from the “outsider” who has no specific relation to a group and from the “wanderer” who comes today and leaves tomorrow. The stranger, he says, comes today and stays tomorrow. The stranger is a member of the group in which he lives and participates and yet remains distant from other – “native” – members of the group. In comparison to other forms of social distance and difference (such as class, gender, and even ethnicity) the distance of the stranger has to do with his “origins.” The stranger is perceived as extraneous to the group and even though he is in constant relation to other group members, his “distance” is more emphasized than his “nearness.”[2] As one subsequent interpreter of the concept put it, the stranger is perceived as being in the group but not of the group.[3]

    In the excursus, Simmel briefly touches upon the consequences of occupying such a unique position for the stranger as well as the potential effects of the presence of the stranger on other group members. Most notably, Simmel suggests that because of their peculiar positions in the group, strangers often carry out special tasks that the other members of the group are either incapable or unwilling to carry out.[4] For example, especially in pre-modern societies, most strangers were involved in trade activities. Also, because of their distance from local factions, they might also be employed as arbitrators and even judges.”

    As Michael blew through boundaries, he also sort of blew through this very concept though. I found it interesting that origin determines the status of stranger… And what did Michael always point to? His childhood…

    Also, strangers were involved in trade activities? Hm… Look at Michael and his international appeal. Was that part of his “threat”- he was too “all over the place?” Can we trust people who do not stay put? Who say, the world is my home…not any one place. And as I listen to They Don’t Care About Us, wasn’t he also a “judge” and arbitrators… Only, the ruling status quo hates to be challenged, judged, and otherwise rocked (pun intended). So it pushed back.

    Speaking of- I also contacted D.B. Anderson and have received a lovely response. As an advocate for the disempowered and as a MJ fan, I definitely wanted to reach out to him, and the Baltimore Sun (I live in Maryland- so it was extra important to me) for this amazing article!

    Thanks Will and Susan- and sorry for the long comment!

    • “Simmel suggests that because of their peculiar positions in the group, strangers often carry out special tasks that the other members of the group are either incapable or unwilling to carry out.”

      Hi Birgit. I’ve been thinking about your discussion of the “stranger” and the “special tasks” he or she performs “that the other members of the group are either incapable or unwilling to carry out.” And it makes me think of how often in literature or movies an Outsider will appear who enlightens the local population or shakes up the established social order. It’s especially noticeable in works for children since they tend to be more imaginative and fantastical (I’m thinking of Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, E.T., …) but we also see it more subtly in works for adults.

      Looking at things this way, it’s interesting how often in Michael Jackson’s videos he is positioned as someone who is kind of an Insider but kind of not – who is also kind of an Outsider – and who uses that boundary position to “carry out special tasks that the other members of the group are either incapable or unwilling to carry out.” For example, think of how Michael Jackson’s Insider-Outsider character is able to stop the fighting between the rival gangs in Beat It, or stop the attack on the old man in Bad, or transform the Supreme Leader in Captain EO, or change the perceptions of his community in The Way You Make Me Feel or Jam or Ghosts.

      In all of these works, he is something of a “stranger” within his community – and functions like a stranger, in Simmel’s sense of the word – because of his creativity and his imaginative distance from the group as much as his physical distance. What I mean is, he’s different not so much because he comes from a foreign place, but because his artistic vision allows him to see things in ways that are foreign to those around him.

      This gets back to Susan’s idea that Michael Jackson himself possessed tremendous power, and this power came from his Otherness.

      • Thanks, Willa for your thoughts. It is fascinating that Michael took on that role so many times. I wonder, was this on purpose or planned? Knowing he was very well read, I simply do not think it was by accident. When you pointed out his role of the stranger in the videos, I also thought back to Susan Fast’s book, Dangerous and her discussion of his role in Remember the Time. “Jackson is a trickster in the file, the trickster being a central figure in the folklore of many cultures… The trickster is a person, who, often using humor as Jackson does here, outwits his powerful adversaries even though he might be physically smaller and holds no power of his own.” Wow! Of course, the question, is- doesn’t he?
        Even as I am writing this, I am thinking back to my childhood days in Austria and the stories of Till Eulenspiegel (his last name literally meaning Owl Mirror…)- a figure dressed like a medieval jester, always playing the fool, but holding up the mirror to hose in power, pointing out their lunacies. And of course the owl stands for wisdom. Now, who does THIS Make you think of? I see the Mayor from Ghosts before me- the mirror being held up to him. Wow! I need to go back and re-erad those stories or get my hands on my childhood books.
        The figure of the jester, the fool, the trickster made me think of when Susan Woodward discussed about Maureen Orth’s article. On page 39 she discussed how Orth was annoyed with the fact the Michael got “away” with misbehaving or not adhering to “the normal rules of conduct.” Tom Sneddon is then quoted by Orth as saying, “Of course. It’s deliberate. …He’s playing the fool and he fools people. But he doesn’t fool everyone.” This “bizarre” behavior was seen as Michael’s excuse and to get away from his responsibilities as a “middle aged man.” I could not help but cringe when I read that.
        What else but fear of a power they felt but could not name or understand can explain those words?
        My question is, what came first for Michael? Did his art inform his life, or his life the art? Because he not only takes on the role of the stranger, the fool, the trickster, the outsider- but he also was placed into this position in his life. It must have been so lonely and sad at times to be where he was. His intellect, his ability to look at the world from a slightly different viewpoint, his empathy, and the fact of his success and his “superstardom” place him at a very different platform. His fans felt that and admired and loved that about him- people with closed minds heard it and set out to destroy what they could not understand.

    • Hi Birgit –

      I was interested in your comment – “As a society we fear what is “different”- evolutionary it did not serve us go outside our social group. As our midbrain, which regulates emotions and memory is the older part of our brain, it still often supersedes any activity of our neocortex… Therefore, fear still rules us. Whatever structure is in power, uses that fear to keep a status quo. All this explains much of the reaction to Michael and his otherness.”

      Although the fear you speak of may have once served the interests of survival, today it is going to do us in and operates against our survival, as a culture (and a species). But, is the fear a product of evolution or of culture? If evolution, then it is hardwired, and we have to wait for nature to take its course and for change to happen through natural selection. And with the pace of our lives so speeded up, and the fear response being more and more of a liability, I fear that we humans can not evolve fast enough to save ourselves. I am, therefore, hoping that fear of the other is not hardwired. If so, we are doomed; however, if it is cultural, then we have a chance. And, I think MJ gives us that chance.

      I am no neuroscientist, but I have come to believe that music reaches our midbrain, that area that you say regulates our emotions, which in turn regulates the neocortex. What if the emotional power of MJ’s music not only reaches the midbrain, but reconfigures it, changing fear to love and compassion — and de-linking fear and exclusiveness and parochialism from survival and replacing the emotion of fear with the emotions of love and compassion – and linking those to survival? The survival of the individual depends on the survival of the group and the survival of the group depends on us working for the wellbeing of all and in this new global village, all means all. Right now, as you point out, fear still rules, but MJ’s art lives on and is still doing its work, changing those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, neuron by neuron.

      Although I agree with you 100% that many rejected MJ for his otherness, many others embraced him because of it. He offered us a new way of being in at the world. To me, MJ gives us a shot at survival. He believed in change and that we could change. He shows us a new way of being in the world, and many people, like me, are so hungry for what he had and has to offer.

      • Hi Eleanor, I do think that this fear is to a point hardwired, because the main function of our old brain (meaning brain stem and midbrain) is to let the system and the species survive. We had to spot danger and get away. In the clinical works we call that the negative bias of the brain. However, we also now have other brain regions, that let us evaluate the older functions as we get older and they develop. Experience shapes how we perceive threats, how we regulate emtions etc. Now, if our environment teaches us to not overcome the natural fear or what is different, or to distrust the innate curiously children have toward otherness, that would result in dangerous forms of stereotyping and prejudicial behaviors and attitudes. I think the dangerous mixture of innate distrust and taught fear can be overcome…but the person would have to have the insight to see it’s a problem and the motivation to explore, gather disputing evidence, and change. The problem is that the people who have abused Michael have not shown either insight nor motivation to change. To them there IS no other evidence in existence but that he is at best weird, at worst a criminal. That’s what I meant, not so much that everyone fears otherness by default.
        You are right, MANY people have been attracted to Michael for those very traits and love the attribtues making him different. But then, those people have not placed him at danger, either, but surrounded him with love.
        I love these discussions!!!! Thank you!

        • Hi Birgit — I love these discussions, too. And Michael Jackson gives us so much to think about and discuss. He was a man who was a mirror. So, responses and reactions to MJ tell us a lot about ourselves.

          I don’t want to let the fear notion go, because, beyond how it factored into the public abuse of MJ, I think the knee-jerk fear of the other is responsible for so much of the pain and suffering in the world today. And, I think Michael Jackson wanted to recalibrate our brains so that fear was not our first reaction to the other, and knowing that he was “other” in so many ways, he emphasized his otherness and made us fall in love with it – and in this way was actually changing the world.

          This is a hope I hold on to.

  3. Hi Willa and Susan,

    Thanks for the interesting post. I really enjoyed your book, Susan. Lots of stuff to think about.

    In reading your discussion on angelism, I was thinking that many of the characteristics associated with angelism come from white culture and that people who were projecting angelistic attributes onto MJ were really projecting whiteness on to him, and, when their projections failed and they saw him as black, then they flipped and demonized him.

    Also, it made me think of the madonna/whore problem women have (or used to have???).

    And Willa, thanks for the Anderson tip. I read the column and emailed him. He was right on!

  4. The title of the book The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson is, I expect, a riff on the title of Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 play The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, a satirical allegory of Hitler’s rise to power. Brecht’s main point is that Hitler’s rise was not inevitable, but could have been stopped if people had made different choices. Linking MJ to Hitler via the fictional character of Arturo Ui is another sly thing to do–as well as a subtle acknowledgment of MJ’s symbolic power–on Fisher’s part.

    • Thank you for making that connection. The link to Hitler is also relevant to the previous posts about the History teaser. So odd to think that Michael Jackson and Hitler could be linked at all!

  5. Thank you Willa and Susan for such a thought provoking article and for adding to my ever growing reading list.

    I also wanted to add that as protests in the US have been going on for the past several weeks (and months in Ferguson), I have three time seen protesters singing “They Don’t Care About Us”. I’ve wondered what Michael would have thought, although I’m sure he knew when he wrote the song.

    Thanks again and Happy Holidays ladies!

  6. Thanks so much, Susan and Willa, for this important discussion, and I look forward to reading Susan’s book. Your discussion of a binary view of MJ consisting of 2 polar opposites and flipping between them is great–the angel vs. the demon. It is so true that we often forget that people are basically composed of many mixed elements, good and bad, etc, and not all one thing or all another. I think it traces back to a Manichean idea of the universe being a battle ground between good and evil–god and devil. There are other historical world views, such as the Greeks, the pagans in general, the Hindu, etc or even the Buddhists, that do not promote this severe bifurcation.

    Along this line of thought re Manichean binaries, one person who is villified is of course Hilter, and anyone else who is compared to him, such as Saddam Hussein (Bush 1 called him ‘worse than Hitler’). The fact that Diane Sawyer went after MJ to such a degree for the HIStory Teaser, claiming, in her view, it resembled a Nazi propaganda film, shows that Hitler is an abhorrent, unthinkable being and any resemblance, however remote, is equivalent to aligning oneself with the devil. However, Hitler was also a human being and an abused child, cruelly and repeatedly beaten by his stepfather. I am not of course attempting to defend Hilter’s actions as an adult, but just to point out that he was a human being with a personal history rather than a personification or a symbol of something that we project onto to him that makes him “other.”

    Something similar, although to a lesser degree, is true for Sarah Palin. She became someone who was hated by many and subjected to lots of media abuse. For example, one regular commentator on CNN called her “illiterate,” even though she clearly was not (she had a B.A. and was a state governor). Comedians made relentless fun of her. Dave Letterman made a ‘joke’ about her underaged daughter having sex with a popular baseball player (which would have been statutory rape). She also never said she could see Russia from her house, although that has come to be accepted as truth. What she said was from certain outlying islands off the coast of Alaska, one can see the Russian landmass. It was Tina Fey who made that joke. Again, I am not defending her politics or other life choices, but pointing out she is a person not a projection. On the one hand, it is funny to mock her, but on the other, things like that have glommed onto to MJ in much the same way with journalists saying things that weren’t true. Many believe, for example, that he gave children ‘Jesus Juice,’ when that never happened. In fact, it’s ironic that Martin Bashir was finally fired by going completely overboard on attacking Sarah Palin!!

    As MJ once said, it is nice to be thought of as a person and not a personality (meaning, I guess, a personification of something in the minds of others). I guess it’s easier to hate (or perhaps even love) those people we reduce to generalized caricatures instead of multi-faceted human beings. In fact, I think we often project our own mental creations onto others, and onto ourselves too. Are we seeing something that is really out there, or just what we projected from inside our heads? Life is dynamic not fixed.

  7. Thanks for the interesting discussion. I enjoyed your book, Susan, and found it very thought provoking.

    I think it would be useful to this discussion to bring up the concept of charisma and charismatic authority in explaining the power of Michael Jackson. According to German sociologist Max Weber, charisma can be defined as
    “…a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which s/he is “set apart” from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These as such are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as divine in origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.” Michael Jackson was definitely charismatic, as discussed in this article: http://charismatoday.blogspot.com/2009/07/charisma-of-michael-jackson.html

    Charismatic authority is “power legitimized on the basis of a leader’s exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers.” I believe Michael had that power. Michael’s music crossed all boundaries and gave him power all over the world and across all languages. What politician or religious leader has ever had such a vast following? Michael’s power was threatening to those who did not believe in his vision of international unity and peace. The only way to defeat a charismatic leader is to delegitimize him personally. Thus the brutal attacks on Michael’s character.

    Interestingly, Charlie Chaplin and John Lennon are considered charismatic leaders, as is Sarah Palin. All have had their character attacked to diminish their charismatic power.

    Here are some excerpts from online articles on this topic:

    1. genuine leadership is best understood as a relationship. A relationship between the leader and his or her followers, which is why the word leadership is so much more evocative, really, than the word leader. And certainly charismatic leadership implies the power of the follower every bit as much as it does the power of the leader.

    I think it’s a gift. Sometimes a poisonous gift, I might add. Not all charismatic leaders are by definition great. But it’s a kind of natural gift, just like being a great swimmer, a great athlete of any kind, or, for that matter, a great artist or a great musician. Charismatic leadership, the genuine article, is usually considered great and powerful in some way. And that kind of greatness typically cannot– I at least would argue– be taught.

    https://hbr.org/2009/02/what-charisma-really-is-and-is

    2. Because charismatic authority is not based upon externalities like traditional or legal authority, the bond between the authority figure and followers is highly emotional in nature. There exists a devotion on the part of the followers which stems from an unwavering trust — often blind and fanatical. This makes the bond very strong when it is working; yet should the emotion fade, the bond breaks down dramatically and the acceptance of the legitimacy of authority can disappear entirely.

    Charismatic authority never appears in a vacuum — in every case, there already exists some form of traditional or legal authority which creates boundaries, norms, and social structures. By its very nature charismatic authority poses a direct challenge to both tradition and law, whether in part or in whole. This is because the legitimacy of the authority cannot derive either from tradition or from law; instead, it derives from a “higher source” which demands that people pay it greater allegiance than they currently show towards other authorities.

    Both tradition and law are limited by their very nature — there are constraints on action which charisma does not recognize or accept. Charismatic authority is not stable and need not be consistent. It is characterized more by movement and revolution — it is a means of overturning traditions and laws in favor of an entirely new social and political order. In this, it carries the seeds of its own destruction.

    http://atheism.about.com/od/religiousauthority/a/types_2.htm

    3. Attributes of charismatic leaders:
    Stretch the world: Charismatic leaders live as if heeding the old saying sometimes attributed to Niccolo Machiavelli, “Make no small plans, for they have no power to stir the soul.” They realize that only an audacious view of the future will excite people and bind them together. They also make it a point not to restrict their bold outlook to one primary aim; they extend it to almost everything they get involved in. In every undertaking they push the boundaries beyond what is ordinarily thought possible.

    Don’t hide. Be seen: Charismatic leaders keep themselves always visible. They stand up to be counted in every crisis. They make unwavering efforts to motivate their people, whether by listening and responding to them or by working alongside them. Their constancy emboldens their people to go on, even in the darkest times.

    Talk the talk: Charismatic leaders embrace every opportunity to convince others to adopt their vision. They make it a point always to speak in ways that convey personal integrity and engender trust.

    Speak even when you are silent: Charismatic leaders send out the right signals through all their actions. They always appear enthusiastic and passionate and make others feel good and strong in their presence. They let people know that they matter, even if just by simple and subtle gestures such as upright posture, direct eye contact, genuine smiles and firm handshakes.
    http://www.forbes.com/2010/01/25/charisma-speaking-communication-leadership-managing-inspiration.html

    • I’m glad that you brought up the issue of charisma. One of the nuggets of insight contained in The Resistible Demise is that few get to be celebrities without having charisma and that Michael Jackson had considerable charisma. That is certainly a source of power and, as you point out, a poisonous gift. I’ve thought a lot about how his charisma may have played a role in the allegations of sexual abuse. The allegations made during his lifetime seem to have come when he was starting to pull back from the families involved. I can understand that that might seem like an unbearable and enraging loss. And then Maureen Orth seems to have feared the power of his charisma to, in her view, manipulate others. And one can only guess how his charisma may have influenced Tom Sneddon’s actions.

  8. I love Dancing with the Elephant and appreiciate all the guests you’ve had on, especially the ones who’ve written about Michael. I have many of their books from the woman, a realtor, who sold him Neverland, called “In Search of Neverland” by Gloria Rhoads Berlin, the one the Doctor who lived near Neverland wrote called “Private Conversations in Neverland” by William B Van ValinII, M.D.,(the only two authors I’ve read who actually knew Michael personally) “Dangerous 331/3” by Susan Fast and Joe Vogel’s book, “Man In The Music” I also have Susan Woodward’s book “Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics” I have no complaints about any of those books whether or not the other authors actually knew him, as they took the time to fact check and research and interview people who did know Michael. I enjoyed reading Ms. Fast’s take on how the critics perceived Michael. I noticed too, at the time, right after Thriller’s 8 Grammy takes, (having been a fan since Michael was in the Jackson 5) that as he was approaching global stardom he was America’s golden boy and as soon as he did, he was criticised. Even to the extent that MSM got into the act during the trial in 2005. Before that it was mostly tabloids. But once he was accused of child molestation it was open season on him from all sides. There is NOTHING Imo, worse than being even just accused of molesting a child, let alone arrested and tried for it, NOTHING. And the sad thing is, there was no reason for it, other than they perceived him as having too much power. The D. A. had no case, and it was proven he didn’t. But all we heard was the prosecution’s side, other than a very few commentaries from the other side. MalcomX said: “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” That there were a lot of us who were immune to that is almost miraculous Imo. I met Michael once, but by no means knew him personally. I did though know his heart, as many of us did, for he wore in on his sleeve, in plain view of the world also. He was charismatically human. And some were blind to it.
    Anyway, the picture you have of Archangel Michael defeating satan is not Michael. It’s a Michael Jackson impersonator, and a very good one, named Carlo Riley. That picture was taken after Michael’s death in Hawaii by David Lachapelle. Here’s some videos featuring his work pertaining to Michael called: American Jesus. David LaChapelle’sAmerican Jesus – Michael Jackson – YouTube: http://youtu.be/5gfRYynNrEg

    Gadget Trish attends Michael Jackson “American Jesus” by David La Chapelle. – YouTube

    David LaChapelle defends Michael Jackson – YouTube

    His web site: http://www.davidlachapelle.com/exhibitions/2009-09-12_david-desanctis-gallery/press/flaunt/

  9. I’ve been out of town and wow – such fascinating comments! It’s going to take me a while to check out all the links you all provided, but in the meantime, here’s one more from a recent NPR broadcast. As the summary says,

    Social psychology researcher Kelly Hoffman has been researching white perceptions of black physicality as “superhuman” for the last three years. NPR’s Eric Westervelt talks to Hoffman about her findings.

    I thought this added another layer of complexity to Susan’s findings that Michael Jackson’s critics felt he possessed tremendous power. Apparently, white Americans believe that blacks in general possess extraordinary power – especially to withstand pain. This may sound positive on the surface, but it’s actually a very dangerous belief since it leads white Americans to ignore the suffering of black Americans.

    I think this is true of Michael Jackson as well. I firmly believe that a white celebrity would never have been strip searched and photographed the way he was – and if something similar did happen, there would be public outrage. But his dehumanizing treatment by the police was accepted by whites in general, and I think there’s a racist element to this. I think it was assumed that he didn’t suffer from humiliation the way a white person would, and so whites failed to empathize with him and his situation.

    Anyway, here’s the link.

  10. Willa, I think there is a definitely link to the culturally perceived threat of black men and their power, which is intrically tied to their sexuality, Susan Fast touches on the very important topic of how Michael was not seen as a threat until he no longer denied or disguised his sexuality, “blackness,” and pollitical interest. Interestingly, all three occurred in Dangerous. Historically, we know how the white ruling culture responded to the threat of black slaves ( or other non whites) “taking over their women.” One of the greatest threats to a culture is to have outsiders spoil the gene pool (see Sudan- warfare by rape and thus dilution of a culture or race). If it was ever perceived a black man even looked at a white woman ( see Emmett Till), he was castrated or worse ( men might disagree …maybe castration is worse)- thus the power was silenced. Now, if we look at Michael, what happened: stripsearched (again, there are remarkable historical parallels), accused of pathological sexual interest, then he had to declare publically, on national TV, that he indeed did have sex with his first wife (who still gets asked about that and is questioned when she affirms the normalcy of the marriage), finally he was politically silenced for good by criminalizing his sexuality. Interestingly, the timing is curious…this was the time when Michael became very outspoken and political, and no doubt ruffled important feathers in the entertainment industry and beyond. Then the trail happens… He was found not guilty, but not innocent. His power was finally broken. Who wants to take a pedophile serious? Even today, every serious discourse, such as Susan Fast’s article discussing the Dangerous Cover, evokes comments about ” the metally I’ll pedophile” ( this is a direct quote from the commets to Susan’s article) So yes, Willa, I think there’s a huge racial aspect, intrically tied to the complicated racial history in our country that’s we still don’t like to talk about, and one I plan to explore further in one way or another 🙂

    • Hi Birgit. That article is fascinating! I had no idea – especially about the connection between Bernie Weinraub, whose angry and misleading review in The New York Times “touched off a firestorm of other negative media coverage,” and Amy Pascal, his wife. As Anderson writes, “Pascal was previously Vice President of Columbia Pictures, where Jackson, who wanted to star in films, had a motion picture contract that was never fulfilled. Later she became head of Sony Columbia Pictures. Jackson’s recording contract was with Epic, a division of Sony.” Email messages between Pascal and Weinraub were revealed through the Sony hack.

      btw, I’ve added this article to our Reading Room. Thanks for sharing.

  11. It is unfortunate that people not understanding the U.S. criminal justice system insist wrongly that, as Birgit points out, Michael “was found not guilty but not innocent.”

    To those who keep arguing that a ruling of “not guilty” does not mean a person is innocent: there are only two options a jury or judge has in ruling on a criminal defendant in the U.S. legal system:

    1. Guilty
    2. Not Guilty

    All rulings of “not guilty” in the U.S. judicial system are determined on the basis of “reasonable doubt.” There is no such ruling or legal declaration in the U.S. judicial system or any state therein of:

    “not guilty without a doubt”
    “acquitted without a doubt”
    “innocent without a doubt”
    “proved innocent without a doubt”
    or even simply “proved innocent”

    So people need to keep that in mind when casting aspersions on Michael Jackson (or any person) found “not guilty” of charges with which they are accused of.

    No criminal defendant found “not guilty” in a U.S. court of law, is, in legal language, ever declared “innocent.” Not guilty means “acknowledgement by the court of the innocence of the defendant.”

    Not guilty is as good as it gets.

    I so wish people would understand this.

    • Ara. I agree with your point. But I do think what people who do not consider Michael innocent address is less based on not knowing the legal system, but more their belief that while he was found “not guilty” by a jury of his peers, he simply “got away with something” and was morally not innocent or also not innocent of the crime he was accused of in the court of public opinion. His guilt was a predetermined fact for many and that perception was certainly fueled by the media. Aphrodite Jones, changing her mind once she witnessed the deviation of the fans and started to ask questions, presented facts based on court documents in her book- and could not find a publisher. She eventually self published. The larger questions is, what about this man stirred up the beast of the powers that be to this unprecedented level? And why, even as we come to rediscover Michael at an arist, is it still so taboo to defend him as innocent? I think , there is more at work than ingnorance of the legal system, which I is why this present discourse is so stimulating.

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