The Power of His Art: a Call for Papers
Willa: This week I am very happy to be joined by Toni Bowers, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of four books and dozens of articles, including a fabulous article in our Reading Room, “Dancing with Michael Jackson: Baltimore and Its Discontents.”
Toni: Hey, Willa – thanks for this invitation. I’m a big admirer of your blog.
Willa: Thank you, Toni. It’s wonderful to have you here with me, especially since we have some very exciting news to announce! Toni and I are planning to publish a book on Michael Jackson as an artist, cultural figure, and agent of social change. It will be a collection of essays, and we’re hoping writers from many different disciplines and perspectives will contribute to it. Here is our Call for Papers:
And here’s a link to the posting at Academia.edu.
Toni: I am so excited about this collaborative project, Willa, and honored to be working with you.
Willa: Oh, I was honored that you asked me to participate. This seems like such an important and timely project.
Toni: Definitely. I think that it is the right time to recognize what Michael Jackson really achieved artistically and what a prescient voice his was when it comes to the civil rights emergency that our country is in right now. We hope to include voices from around the world in this collection of essays, but at the same time the project has a particular agenda in our US context – not only because of the specific civil rights issues that are erupting here, but also because this is the place where Jackson’s reputation and influence have suffered so much, and so unfairly.
Willa: I agree. I don’t think it’s coincidental that #BlackLivesMatter activists keeps turning to his music. As you wrote in your article, “the same structures of injustice that are permitting civil authorities to murder unarmed American citizens right now also hurt Jackson.” And also “Jackson achieved more than irresistible, superbly marketable tracks, or even magnificent music. His work also remains politically potent.” So in that sense, this is a good time to go back and take a close look at his work, and explore why it continues to speak to people so powerfully to this day.
But also, I think this is a good time because perceptions of him have changed radically in recent years. Scholars, especially, have gained a deeper appreciation of his work, but I don’t think those insights have filtered into popular opinion yet. Public attitudes have softened, it’s true, but I don’t think the public at large really understands yet the cultural significance of his work, or what was so extraordinary about him as an artist. So a volume of essays that brings those insights to a larger audience is important, I think.
And maybe the fact that public opinion about him is starting to shift, or at least soften, means that readers will be more receptive now to different ways of looking at him.
Toni: Well, I hope so. I know what you mean about the softening of opinion, but it is important also to recognize that there’s not really a single “popular opinion.” I think that many “black” Americans (again, not a single community, not a stable racial marker – these are the myths that perpetuate racism) never did turn against Jackson the way many “white” Americans did. Or more accurately, many “white” Americans had long looked askance at him out of embedded racist notions, and that simmering resentment, distrust, and even hatred were able to roar out in the context of the molestation set-up. I think that in a way, when we work on editing this collection we are helping to balance out the lagging and misinformed interpretations of his work that still often prevail in some communities, correcting them with more rounded, generous, and informed interpretations, based on actual thinking and evidence, like those that have long prevailed elsewhere.
Achieving that balancing act seems to me to have something in common with the delicate position of “white” Americans in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I fall into the “white” category, and I have no doubt that I can and must be an active ally. But I have also started to recognize that it is “black” Americans who are at the front of the line, who best understand what is going on, and whose voices must be heard. That community – or set of communities, which I think is more accurate – is leading the way, and should lead the way.
(I’m going to stop with the scare quotes, by the way, because they’re visually distracting. But if I say “white” or “black” again, I hope you’ll still hear my scepticism toward the fiction that those terms denote unchanging, clearly defined, tidily separate categories.)
Willa: I agree, though sometimes whites use that as an excuse to do nothing. It should not be up to blacks to solve racism. After all, it is white attitudes, for the most part, that need to change. So I agree that whites should take guidance from black leaders and writers and thinkers, but then we need to look within – both individually and institutionally – to help bring about the changes necessary to end the racism that continues to pervade American culture.
Toni: You’ve said it so eloquently. To paraphrase a wise man, we as privileged citizens need to “take a look at ourselves and make a change.”
I really want to find good ways to practice this balancing act with my white friends, who express real heartache and rage about what’s happening across the country right now. How to respond? I tried to get at this in “Dancing with Michael Jackson” (I don’t like the subtitle, by the way, and didn’t write it; I’d have suggested something more positive like “Learning from Baltimore” if it had been up to me) when I said that it is a pity that those already privileged expect the very people they are oppressing to educate them – or words to that effect. That’s really more than a pity, it’s a disgrace.
Willa: It really is, and one of the many things about your article that caused me to say, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” as I was reading it. So Toni, what led you to write your article?
Toni: It was a strange experience. To give any kind of accurate narrative, I’d have to begin by saying that I seem to have been one of only a few people on Earth who wasn’t especially aware of Michael Jackson in the 80s and 90s. There are complicated reasons for that, which may or may not interest you and your readers; I’m happy to expand, if so. But the bottom line is that when someone said “Michael Jackson,” I thought of “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” and “I’ll Be There,” songs I loved as a child. I heard Jackson’s music everywhere, I now realize, but I didn’t really listen to it, didn’t identify it as his or focus on him in any way at all.
It may have been because when I was small, my parents were very wisely grieved about his experiences as a child star with the Jackson 5. I did like J5, but when my parents looked at it they saw a re-run of the exploitation of their contemporary Shirley Temple, and they were horrified. I guess I picked up their disapproval and sadness, and just turned my attention elsewhere. Anyway, even though I was actually living in Pasadena when Jackson first danced “Billy Jean” at the Motown anniversary concert – I could possibly have bought a ticket! I’d move mountains to have that possibility again! – he just wasn’t on my radar screen.
Until the tabloids in the grocery store, of course, and all the “wacko” stuff. I’m glad to say that I’ve never purchased a copy of The National Enquirer or People, and didn’t read those stories that were all over the place. But even I, though pretty colossally oblivious, could not remain oblivious to Michael Jackson at that time – the headlines and pictures were everywhere, even on the TV. I’m sure I sat through some of the southern California “news” reports that he quotes in “Breaking News.” They sound eerily familiar.
I am ashamed to say that I didn’t much question the narrative I was being fed, either. It was very easy, too easy, just to accept that this person, this human being, was the worst kind of monster. I just believed it – still without giving it a lot of attention – based on absolutely nothing except those crazy headlines. It disturbs me now to realize that I participated in the injustice and character assassination leveled at Jackson during those years by not questioning what I was hearing. I cared a lot about Rodney King; I chose a job in Philadelphia in order to live a diverse city; but I didn’t connect the dots. I was the walking personification of unselfconscious white privilege. If I thought about it at all, I think I would have tended to link Jackson with OJ Simpson – two rich celebrities who got off. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to think about the racial piece, or about my own racism in conflating those two very different men.
Fast forward to 2015. Yeah really, 2015! That’s how long it took me to think this through at all. In January of 2015, I heard “You are Not Alone” after many years, and it was a revelation. I recognized the song, had surely heard it before, but didn’t know it, really. This time I was struck by its beauty as a piece of music, moved by the lyrics, and really, really impressed by the subtlety of the voice. Lo and behold, it was Michael Jackson.
That got me looking for more Jackson songs on YouTube. It surprised me that songs I already liked but hadn’t paid a lot of attention to (“Human Nature,” “We Are the World”) were all performed by this same guy! I was blown away by his version of “Come Together,” which I knew from John Lennon (who didn’t do it nearly as well, in my humble opinion). I listened again and again to “Smooth Criminal,” “They Don’t Care About Us,” “Fall Again,” “Don’t Walk Away.” And of course, because this was YouTube, instantly I was watching him dance – another amazing, astounding revelation. Then I watched the Bucharest concert and found that I was just sitting forward in the chair with my mouth open. I really had had no idea.
My response to being interested in something is always to do research, one of the great joys of my life. I just love to uncover and learn and put the pieces together. So I dove in really deep, and learned a lot fast.
Willa: You really have. I would never have guessed you were such a recent convert! I’ve been a Michael Jackson fan most of my life – since I was nine years old – and you’ve taught me some things I didn’t know.
Toni: I am still learning. I’ve read a lot, and watched and listened a lot, and memorized a lot, and corresponded with a lot of people. (Even John Branca very graciously wrote back to me.) I wrote that LARB essay, and – this makes me very proud – I’ve started learning to dance.
It was also in January that I returned from an extended time abroad, and began to catch up on the racist horrors that were happening here. And for once it all just came together in my mind. In fact, I’d like to make clear that I think of the LARB article not as something primarily about Jackson (though that’s how it’s been received, and being welcomed by the huge variety of communities of people who think about Jackson has been a really great experience) but about the racism and brutality that persist in the United States. Jackson is not only a representative for me – he matters in himself, as a person, for his brilliance, his courage, and the careful, responsible uses he made of his gifts. But he is representative, too. His experience seems to me to clarify the suffering that majorities inflict on minorities, the cruelty so easily practiced against anyone who draws outside the lines, and the degree to which we who have (entirely unearned) racial privilege are willing to put up with all kinds of ugliness in order to protect it.
Willa: I really like the way you explained that, Toni – that he’s “not only a representative for me – he matters in himself, as a person … But he is representative, too.” I feel that way also. His story is important because he matters – as an individual human being and as an artist – but also because it provides insights into larger cultural issues as well. His story forces us to take a hard look at race and difference and the American judicial system, as well as the media and public perception. What was it exactly that allowed perceptions of him to be so distorted for so long? That can really take you down the rabbit hole, raising questions about how we conceptualize black and white, masculine and feminine, adult and child, and a whole host of other rather artificial binaries – and also why we as a culture are so uncomfortable with those who dare to challenge or blur those distinctions.
So Toni, listening to you talk about your own shifting perceptions of Michael Jackson – your childhood love for “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” and “I’ll Be There” (three of my favorites as well), your drift away in the 80s, your acceptance of the dominant narratives about him in the 90s, and then your rediscovery of him recently – helps explain something that really struck me while reading your article. Academics like yourself seem to be increasingly drawn to his work – drawn to explore the depth and power and complexity of his work – and that’s a fascinating intellectual exercise. I can see why academics are so intrigued by him. But the best new articles not only engage with his work intellectually but also emotionally and even physically. I really sensed that in your article – that you feel a deep connection to his music and his dancing. For example, I love the way you talk about the sheer joy of his dancing. And now you’re learning to dance! Is that related to your interest in Michael Jackson?
Toni: Yes, entirely. It’s the joy and exuberance of his dancing that hooked me, fully as much as the artistic and intellectual excellence. It just looked like so much fun! Even though it was work for him, he obviously loved it. I liked that he experimented and practiced really hard, and that encouraged me to experiment and practice. Dancing at all was a totally new experiment for me, which I know is weird. I’ve found Michael Jackson’s music and dancing to be one of the most joyful places (as it were) on Earth. I’m grateful I finally got there.
Should I explain my background?
Willa: Yes, please.
Toni: Well. I was raised in an evangelical Christian home, and there were lots of rules designed, basically, to tamp down physical pleasure, confidence, and spontaneity. One major rule was No Dancing Ever. I never went to a high school dance, never danced at a party (no parties), never saw dancing at a wedding (if there was any, I guess we left first), never went to a concert that wasn’t classical music or something at church. I had to check with my parents to be sure it was okay to learn square dancing in gym class. All my socializing was at the church, and dancing was out for the kids there, too.
I was a serious violinist, gave piano lessons, loved music theory and how music is put together – how it works – and all that was approved at home. I loved, and still love, Protestant hymns, ethnic folk music (Jewish, British, Spanish, Mexican), spirituals and gospel; I’ve sung in a lot of choirs, first at church and then madrigals and renaissance music, Welsh music, much more sophisticated liturgical music in Episcopalian churches, lots of stuff. I deeply appreciate all the music I’ve had in my life, and I wouldn’t be me without it.
But a lot was missing, too, especially dance. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t lived in a subculture like that, but it probably never even occurred to me to dance. My world was a (softer) version of the Mennonite community Miriam Toews describes in her wonderful recent novel, All My Puny Sorrows. A lot more children than most of us recognize are growing up in repressive worlds, and those places tend to be especially repressive toward girls.
Anyway, by the beginning of 2015 when I noticed Michael Jackson at last, I’d long listened to lots of kinds of music, and though I still try to be a person of faith, my evangelical upbringing was firmly in the past. Even so, actually listening to Jackson changed something: it made me dance for the first time. I found that I could not watch his concerts (those I’ve been able to find on DVD) or even listen to his music without dancing, even though I knew nothing about dancing and had never danced. It was just impossible not to. So, I gave in. Now, many nights I spend an hour in front of the mirror trying to teach myself to dance a little bit more elegantly, with the volume way up. I’ve rediscovered Motown, and have found Stax and Chess records, and a lot of more recent voices that I won’t name-drop, but really, it’s mostly Jackson. He’s the one who gets me dancing. His is such a wide, deep corpus, and the recordings are of such amazing musical complexity, creativity, and craft. It’s just beautiful stuff.
Willa: It really is.
Toni: I do sometimes wish he’d used more time signatures, though. Anyway, I’ve been taking ballroom classes for a few months now, and am lined up for tap toward the end of the year. My ballroom teacher has even promised to teach me to moonwalk!
So yeah, Michael Jackson “taught” me to dance! (Ha ha, if only)
Willa: That’s awesome! So it sounds like, for you, dancing is truly an expression of personal liberation – from your own past, the repression you internalized in childhood that continued into your adult life. But in your article, you also suggest a number of times that dancing is a communal act, and a powerful political act. For example, I love the way you end your article:
To dance with Michael Jackson, to take his outstretched hand, is about more than honoring a difficult, extraordinary life and immense gifts — though it is high time we did that without grudging, judging, or telling lies. It is something we must do for ourselves and for each other — not in an attempt to keep ourselves safe from the present pain and danger, but to move farther into the most perplexing aspects of our own lives, and confront them with joy. It is a way of choosing the kind of future we want, and the kind of people we want to be.
Dancing with Michael Jackson will mean letting go of hatred and fear, acknowledging beauty in what seems strange to us, and being willing to take a chance. It will demand that we deal with other people imaginatively, empathetically, in what we think of as our own space, and with respect. In these ways, the dance Jackson invites us to dance is a kind of ethical practice. It is a way of living up to our creeds and professions, and of taking responsibility for our privileges.
Got the point? Good. Let’s dance.
Toni: Yeah, you’re right, I’ve learned that dancing is an “us” thing, not an “I” thing. It’s a leveller and a way of welcoming difference. As soon as I realized that, I became less self-conscious and found a whole new kind of joy.
And thanks, by the way, for giving the article so much space in your blog. (The quotation, apparently, is not quite correct: it should be “Get,” not “Got.” The commenters on the LARB site let me know that, so many thanks to them.)
The truth is that when I started watching/listening to Jackson, I wasn’t sure I could accept his ideas about popular music’s potential as a social catalyst for change. It wasn’t that the idea itself seemed wrong or untrue – as a materialist literary critic I am absolutely convinced of the power of art to change attitudes and practices, and I had no trouble accepting that popular music is indeed art – but there was a kind of quantity problem for me: all those thousands of waving arms, and where was the change? Also in terms of scale, there was the grandiosity of some of the productions, which it took me a while to realize were not designed for my little TV, but for stadiums seating 90,000 people. Still, I wondered: was dancing on stage, in these mass venues, for millions of dollars, really a political act?
So of course, time for more research. I found Jackson’s own words – in his books, songs, interviews – very helpful. But reading his writing also made me realize that in his case, words are only part of the picture: the meaning is in the whole thing – words, music, dance, his mysterious, perfect-pitch physical language of gesture and restraint. Critical writings like your close readings in M Poetica and Joe Vogel’s essay on Black or White demonstrated more than I had imagined, and were responsible to the whole picture in a really productive way.
Then getting into the biography, it became clear to me that Jackson didn’t just claim to be a political agent; he was really perceived as a threat to white supremacy in this country. Here he was, a young, working-class black man with epic-scale musical gifts and never-before-seen professional success. He was richer than Paul McCartney, for goodness sake, and he was so young! The very smart business decision to buy McCartney’s songs as part of that ATV catalog is still an affront to many people, even though Jackson first took the unusual step of making sure that McCartney and Yoko Ono weren’t buying. I had to ask myself: where does such violent and lasting resentment and disapproval come from? Does anybody blame other businessmen for making stupendous coups? I learned that the problem is not what Jackson did, but the racism that was always harbored against him, and the danger lurking in his really pioneering challenges to the identity categories that organize and limit our lives (as you mentioned above) – gender, race, age. Only that peculiarly combustible combination, I think, can explain the level of malice directed at such a gentle man.
So it dawned on me – I, a person who wanted to see a reorganized and more just world, was doubting the power of Jackson’s art to bring it about, but those who didn’t want their own supremacy to change understood very well that they were threatened by his work, and they really, really wanted to hurt him.
Willa: Exactly. Perhaps the strongest empirical evidence of the power of his work is the howling reaction it provoked …
Toni: … again and again.
It’s instructive to notice, in visual footage, how open Jackson was to people stepping up spontaneously to dance with him. I’m not talking about the selected fans who had those staged moments of closeness at concerts. (Those scenes have different kinds of significance that I would like to examine in an essay sometime.) I’m thinking now of tiny moments when somebody just steps up to dance with him, not to grab him or shout at him or demand something. Jackson looks simply delighted, and does everything possible with his body to welcome and include these ordinary people and their happy-but-not-brilliant dancing.
It’s similar to the delight he showed when Diana Ross struggled to keep up with him at the 1981 Diana Ross special. Here’s a video of the entire show, and their dancing begins about 8 minutes in:
Ross was obviously self-conscious about dancing next to him on this show, but he was just so happy to dance with her. (Yes, he is in love with her, but that’s part of the point, I think. He loves all the happy amateurs as well, and he just loves, loves, loves to dance with other people.)
I think that Jackson’s joy in dancing and his welcome to others are connected – mutually generative – and I think they’re political. What I’ve experienced has been a kind of political process – Jackson’s art changes me; it makes me think in new ways and risk new undertakings. And of course my experience is not unique: lots of people have had it, and will have it in the future, I think. So, yes – I’ve learned something new about an idea that I already believed in, but perhaps in a too-abstract way – that art has a peculiar potential to make people more complete, more accepting and imaginative. It offers new ways to experience and communicate joy with other people. I saw dance’s joyful welcome enacted by one of the most accomplished and imaginative dancers ever, without snobbery or calculation. The political potential of that kind of gesture is just immense.
Willa: It really is, and Toni, I love the way you phrased that. It was beautiful. I agree completely – in part because I’ve experienced the same kind of awakening through him – and it’s really wonderful to see that in action.
For example, just think of how he inspires communal dancing. A friend was planning a wedding a few years ago, and the DJ for the reception strongly advised her to include some Michael Jackson songs in the playlist. As he said, “No one gets people on the floor like Michael Jackson!” And then there are the Philippine prisoners dancing to “Thriller” – hundreds of prisoners in their orange jumpsuits dancing together. Through his spirit of dance, they were able to find joy and a creative outlet, even in prison. And of course there are the flash mob dances that continue to break out around the world, such as this enormous one in Mexico not long after he died:
Toni: Another thing that has taught me that the power he claimed for his art really is there is the truly amazing international reach his work has achieved, and how his songs continue to motivate and accompany and encourage political action around the world. I have been thrilled to be corresponding with people in Spain and Germany who saw and translated my essay, and to see #BlackLivesMatter marchers blasting out “They Don’t Care About Us.” Maybe it’s really only in mainstream (a.k.a., white) USA that we have all this tabloid baggage distancing us from the solidarity and beauty and joy that Jackson made available.
Willa: Maybe, though the British tabloids have been pretty awful as well – after all, they’re the ones who coined the phrase “Wacko Jacko.” And there have been tabloid articles printed about him in Moscow, Australia, Asia, … But I get your point – the way his work has touched people around the world is truly awe inspiring.
Toni: I see what you mean. It would be interesting to actually test my impression that people in this country are particularly reluctant to honor Michael Jackson. The British tabloid press is, if anything, even slimier than ours; maybe I’m being too categorical about the US. But even if it’s just as bad elsewhere (qualitatively; I doubt it could possibly be as bad as it was here in quantitative terms during what you elegantly call “the allegations” and I just think of as “the set-up”), it’s still true that Jackson remains noticeably without honor in his own country.
Willa: That’s true – tragically, shamefully true.
So thinking about your statement that “Michael Jackson taught me to dance” suggests another way in which his dance is political. The way he invites us to dance, almost compels us to dance, reconnects us with our own bodies, as you pointed out in your own story, Toni. And that can have profound implications.
For example, Eleanor Bowman feels that many of the most entrenched problems facing us today can be traced back to the way the Judeo-Christian tradition privileges mind over body, the spiritual world over the material world, as she explained in a post with us a while back. So by reconnecting us with our own bodies, and with materiality more generally, dance could fundamentally alter our relationship with the physical world – not just as a source of resources to be exploited, or carnal enticements to be overcome, but as something to be honored and celebrated and revered.
Toni: I’m familiar with that posting and Eleanor very graciously contacted me not long ago. It’s interesting to watch her thinking about dance, and about Jackson, through the old platonic split. I love the spiritual dimensions she explores, and how she shows Jackson’s work to be a challenge to the hierarchies and losses that kind of bifurcated thinking necessitates.
Willa: I agree, and I wonder if this disconnect with our own bodies is part of what’s behind that “odd furtiveness” in the way many people – especially people of privilege – react to his music, as you describe so well in your article:
On the same day as Reeves’s first videotaped dance, I was pacing around an expensive “specialty” grocery in Philadelphia. The muzak must have been buzzing away unnoticed until suddenly there it was: the air filled with an ageless, raucous beat, and “Thriller” came on. In an instant, everyone was moving. The man slicing the meat swayed ever so slightly left and right. The face of the armed guard at the entrance (the only person of color in the store) softened; he began to nod. A woman near me paused and gazed away. Feet tapped. For a mysterious instant, something that we needed and had lost became present again.
It was a great moment, but there was something missing, too. Though everyone responded to the music, it was with an odd furtiveness — not openly, communally, or with the infectious jubilation going on in Baltimore. No eyes met, no one laughed or sang, no one moved without restraint or melted into the beat. Another song came on. We went back to shuffling behind our carts and examining artisan cheeses. Nothing changed.
I immediately recognized what you were talking about, Toni, though I had never conceptualized it into words – and certainly not as evocatively as you did here. But you’re absolutely right – there is something “furtive,” almost shamefaced, in the way many people respond to him, as if they have been caught in a guilty pleasure.
I imagine partly that’s because of the allegations. (As the young friend you quote in your article told you, “Great music … but when someone got up to what he did with little children, he’s better forgotten.”) But I wonder if that “furtiveness” also arises from conflicted feelings about our own bodies – if too many of us have been taught that our own bodies are “better forgotten.” And his music insistently reminds us that, yes, we do have bodies, and they want to dance …
Toni: Right, yes. Though I still think it matters that there is a special kind of hesitation when it comes to Michael Jackson. People can’t resist the music, but as I saw in the Philadelphia grocery store, the joy is weirdly stifled and directed inward rather than outward to the world, as it was in Baltimore. The healing available in Jackson’s work so often is not shared, and that’s a way of diminishing it, or taming or denying it.
I think there’s a lot to be said about why it’s so difficult for so many Americans to look straight at Michael Jackson, and recognize and celebrate what he gave us – there are lots of reasons. But for me, our peculiar, venomous American racism is at the bottom of all the other explanations even when they’re right. Racism is just so hard to kill. It keeps morphing like a virus just when you thought it was conquered. Who is it serving, at this point? We need to ask that in this country.
One more thing, as far as the political functions of Jackson’s music goes – as you’ve mentioned already, we’re witnessing his voice’s power and ubiquity in the #BlackLivesMatter struggle. His work lives in public space, at this moment, more than it has in many years, and it is making a difference. To me, that’s just so, so great!
Willa: Absolutely. Well, thank you for joining me, Toni, and for allowing me to join you on the big adventure of collecting and selecting essays and assembling this new book. I sincerely hope it will awaken a much larger audience to the power and importance of his work.
Posted on August 6, 2015, in Michael Jackson and tagged #BlackLivesMatter, Call for Papers, Dancing with Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson: Artist Advocate Provocateur, Toni Bowers. Bookmark the permalink. 35 Comments.