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:

Call for Papers

And here’s a link to the posting at

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.

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 August 6, 2015, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 35 Comments.

  1. Intro to Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough

    “ya know, I was wondering, ya know, if we should keep on, because the Force, it’s got a lot of power, and it makes me feel like ……it makes me feel iike …… woooow ”

    Without knowing it – in those words – That is Michael Jackson describing his own influence …

    his FORCE- You speak of how people can’t help but dance and sway when his music is playing on PA systems – even if in a slightly restrained way, this is a phenomenon many of us have witnessed as well.

    I have sat at dinner engagements with suited up, seemingly straight laced executives and when the subject of Michael Jackson is introduced, as it inevitably is, it is at first with a bit of trepidation- I never know how they will react to find out I’m a stauch advocate of his innocence. But as I speak of the “set-up” and how his innocence is all but a foregone conclusion there is almost an audible click- the air becomes lighter and then they say “well, I never believed it anyway” or “media blew it out of proportion” but there WAS a cautionary pause before they felt it was OK to admire Michael .. .. and that is what the restraint in their dancing is all about.

    but the Force.. it’s got a lot of power ..

    In concert he was so filled with the Force he sometimes couldn’t verbalize in proper words it was a mixture of preach and scat —

    Michael Jackson, the messenger, the preacher man was filled with the Force- and he presented to us and as the old saying goes “pearls to swine” the majority did not realize the value of his art – until after his untimely demise.

    This Call could not be more better timed — it is as if finally all the elements are working in unison to get the larger conscience of people to understand what a blessing Michael Jackson was to earth’s inhabitants. Just last night was involved with H. Lewis Smith in diaglogue about the use incessant use of the N word in today’s black music and how the use of it by young black rappers, hip hop artists is NOT empowering but in fact detrimental to the psyche of blacks and part of a much larger problem of self-defeated hopelessness and isolation.

    Michael’s music was not filled with the N word and as we know he called out music executive Tommy Motolla for using it as racist terminology – He was filled with God’s glow and his mission was to teach principles of life – even though his own personal situation was a necessarily secluded one, he understood that life was both a mixture of defeats and rising up from the ashes on a daily basis.

    Michael’s multidimensional music is not only filled with symphonic layering that creeps into different levels of the brain conscienceness, but within those layers is a power that emboldens the spirit and encourages the heart.

    Michael Jackson music was always uplifting, even the bits whereby he was alerting us to dangers – societal ills – personal challenges – there was always an underlying essense of “we can forge thru it” finding a way to stumble through a dark time – and the You are not Alone theme running in an underlying current through it all.

    “she questioned why her father had to die” … is personal ….yet the chorus “WE’VE had enough, WE can’t take it anymore” is a collective call for CHANGE –

    Dancing with Michael Jackson .. or In Tune With Michael Jackson At Last –

    Are we finally, as a society going to LISTEN to him?

    Am looking forward to reading the papers that the Call fo Action will solicit.

    We will certainly share this call on all forums available to us and

    May the Force be with you.

  2. Well done, I am handicapped-not in a wheelchair yet but, that’s another story- and while I could never dance in the traditional way, I always felt compelled to move and groove when listening to MJ’s music. I think Michael loved to move aliongside others because he felt (sadly) that it was his only way to connect with the general population-felt too awkward socially to strike up a conversation etc.

  3. Another inspiring article. Thank you both for commenting on how white folks (I’m one of them) need to both support people of color (not lead) responses to racism, but that we also need to look at ourselves, step up to the plate and help other white folks understand race and how to take responsibility for ending white supremacy, because we’re the primary perpetuaters of it.

    It is an extremely challenging task, a very delicate area, but I find that suddenly I’m not afraid of it any more, thanks to watching Michael rise up from the ashes over and over again, always finding more effective ways to challenge the system. (I too am a new Michael fan, and am thrilled to see the changes in me as I learn from Michael).

    Willa I am especially appreciating M Poetica right now, and the way that you look at how Michael chose at times to address racism indirectly to discharge a lot of the uncomfortable emotions without causing a backlash. I was trying to figure out how he created such vast cultural shifts and your book is full of astonishing insights in this regard.

    Toni, I couldn’t agree more that Michael was seen as a threat to white supremacy in this country. You ask a really important question when you say “who is racism serving?”.

    I see racism as a “divide and conquer” tool used by the one percent. The purpose of the the white supremacy myth is to divide us so that the powerful can further exploit ALL of us. The concept of “whiteness” first appeared in the colonies, when black slaves and white indentured servants (basically treated as slaves) formed alliances against the landowning elites. Faced with a possible revolt, the elites broke up the alliance by giving the indentured servants just a little more power and rights (and significantly more prestige) and said “we white people have to stick together”.

    In other words, we were convinced that our true interests lay in our skin color privilege, not our economic need. The same thing is happening today. Indeed there is a civil rights emergency, and it serves to deflects attention from the the one percent sucking out the resources from ALL of us to different degrees (conquer). It’s important to acknowledge this, because then white folks understand their own stake in ending racism.

    One last thought on the political power of dance (and particularly the fully-embodied way Michael danced): it relieves trauma and PTSD, and PTSD is one of the greatest challenges social change organizers face in this country. It keeps us locked in fear, unable to effectively defend ourselves, or lashing out against people who don’t deserve it. Fully-embodied dancing (letting the body decide how to move) is a part of what made Michael so resilient in the face of oppression, and it can do the same for us.

    I’m a trauma educator, and have a lot more to say about this, and just might offer up an article for your book on that topic.

    Thanks again!

    • Hmmm, last night I was thinking that I don’t like how I said the civil rights emergency “deflects attention”. We are focusing on a symptom of a larger problem, but I don’t want to minimize the horror and injustice that is happening, or make it seem somehow less important than anything else the one percent is doing.

      So I want to rephrase that as “Indeed there is a civil rights emergency, and it is part of the divide and conquer strategy enables the one percent to steal resources from everyone around the globe: pensions, homes, life savings, access to water and other city services. It’s important to see the big picture, so that we white folks understand our own stake in ending racism.”

      I’m still learning!

  4. I rarely share such personal experiences online, but Toni, your story about dancing struck a chord. I have only danced socially most of my life, and rarely at that. Then in April of ’14 I fell and broke both of my ankles. After 6 weeks of being able to take only a few steps, enough to tend to essentials, I was finally healed. But during that time, I promised myself I would never take my legs for granted again. With my 65th birthday approaching, I decided to celebrate it by doing something WAY outside my comfort zone: I wanted to dance the “Thrill the World” dance for my birthday (which is Halloween). I had never done anything like that before, and I started working on it as soon as the doctor cleared me. I worked on it every day, just learning a bit at a time. The closest group doing the dance was an hour away, but I can’t tell you the JOY that being able to do that dance brought me. I plan on doing it every year now! So thank you for sharing your experiences. We all need to dance more!

  5. you are on point with jackson and america ,as the old saying goes- “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town”.

  6. As always, a thought-provoking discussion. As stated in other forums and in my own MJ group, I am uncomfortable with the focus on the issue of racism in the US and all its associated ills when discussing Michael and his work – even though he obviously suffered from examples of racism, overt or otherwise, during his life. However, in order to be inclusive and speak to not only his global fan base, but humanity generally (i.e. non-fans – or not-yet-fans, shall we say) I think it important to look more at his message as one for all races, creeds, and nations. I think that message comes across loud and clear in his songs, whether or not we use them to support our own deserving causes. While he certainly addressed racism in “Black or White” (especially in the full-length short film), he went on to sing against oppression and marginalization generally (They Don’t Care About Us); he sang about loneliness, and what it was like to be ‘a stranger in a strange land’, to be viewed with fear, suspicion, even adoration, which can be just as isolating (Stranger in Moscow); he sang about saving the planet, stopping wars, the raping of the earth, the killing of animals, the folly of unbridled exploitation of natural resources, lest we destroy ourselves (Earth Song); the abuse of ‘freedom of the press’ and loss of personal privacy (Scream, Privacy, Tabloid Junkie); greed and the false accusations themselves (Money, This Time Around, D.S.). He did not restrict his message to one group or ideology. Part of the enduring (and growing) global appeal of Michael Jackson is his inclusiveness. While it is rather wonderful to see the way people involved in the “Black Lives Matter” protests have used his music as a rallying cry for meaningful change (hopefully PEACEFUL change), the tendency to focus on racism is to miss the bigger picture that Michael addressed. It also can lead to what I consider to be (based on my own observations, anyway) a misapprehension that a ‘majority’ of ‘black’ Americans never turned their backs on Michael, compared to the number of ‘white’ Americans who did. I think suggestions like this are scarily close to being a part of the problem we would all like to eradicate. Quite honestly, I don’t know what the stats are on that, and unless we have actual, reliable figures to prove it one way or another, we are doomed to generalizations – and as we’ve all learned, they can be deceptive and dangerous, and we all suffer as a result. Michael certainly did (and his legacy still does). These comments are by way of explaining my discomfort at the focus on racism in discussions on Michael’s life and artistic achievements. I think creatively he was such an exception to just about every ‘norm’ of modern humanity (irrespective of race) especially with the world views he openly espoused, and SO successful internationally, and hence perceived as powerful and certainly influential – he was sadly destined to become viewed as ‘dangerous’, too big for his own boots and ‘subversive’. That is the nature of misunderstood genius. The way society in general deals with them is to cast doubts on them – and if that doesn’t work, to openly and aggressively attack them (without evidence). Our assessment of each other and subsequently the way we treat each other is often based on subconscious (or sometimes, overt) fears of anyone who appears ‘Other’ than ourselves. This is not restricted to those of another colour or belief system, but rather to those who do not, will not conform, who refuse to be submerged in the mediocrity of mainstream society.

    • I agree with Kerry. I haven’t been enjoying DWTE posts as much lately because of the heavy emphasis on personal agendas. Michael was above all that.

      • Hi Kerry and sfaikus —

        It is true that the blog has been talking about racism lately. And, when you say that many of us who post on DWTE have personal agendas, I agree. 100%. But, this is a blog about “his art and social change.” And I believe that Michael Jackson, himself, had a personal agenda, he wanted to “heal the world, make that change.” And, given the world MJ grew up in, where he, himself was the victim of racism, it is hard to believe that a large part of that healing wasn’t about healing racism.

        Add that to the fact that liberal America, which I believe myself to be to the left of, had deluded itself into believing that racism was a thing of the past (like sexism).

        Add that to the killings of black youth by police officers or white guys” standing their ground “in Florida. Killings that had been going on unnoticed for quite some time and accepted as routine.

        Add that to the fact that the protesters were using Jackson’t music to rally round, a clear recognition on their part that Jackson’s music had deep social significance, that MJ was as serious an artist, as say, Bob Dylan, when both he and his art had been trivialized during his lifetime.

        And you have the reasons why writing about MJ in connection to racism seems appropriate.

        I also agree that racism was certainly not his only concern, it was part of a pattern of cultural self-destruction he recognized and wanted to change. And, as a black man in a dominant white society, a member of a class oppressed because of membership in the class, he identifies with all those people around the world who were similarly situated,

        I also think that he did not view racism or sexism or the destruction of nature as cultural aberrations, but cultural characteristics, as systematic — which is why it is almost impossible to make that change without overhauling the culture altogether, but I, personally, believe that was Michael Jackson’s agenda, and I have such faith in the power of his art that I think he can still do it.

        However, for his art to work, it has to reach as many people as possible, and, still, there are so many people who dismiss him out of hand as shallow, when nothing could be farther from the truth. So, it is my personal agenda to prove to people that he was the greatest artist of the 20th century (at least) and to do that I have to demonstrate his cultural impact, and I can’t leave racism out of the equation for change, when it is such an important part of it.

        • I appreciate and understand your point of view, Eleanor. Racism exists. Hatred exists. Michael suffered because of it. My point is that I believe Michael’s aim was much higher than defeating racism in the USA. He wanted everyone in the world to see themselves as members of one race, the human race, and to love the planet as we would love our mother. He fought hatred and racism with love and words of unity. Perhaps I misunderstood him, perhaps my view is too simplistic. But this is my personal agenda: I am not gonna live my life being a color.

        • I have no argument with your personal agenda – in fact I applaud it. I just believe that it is limiting, in that a serious assessment of Michael’s impact on contemporary culture requires a much broader view than confining the discussion to racism and the US. Socio-economic factors contribute so much towards views that are exhibited as racist, sexist or discriminatory in other ways which are an infringement of basic human rights (as per the United Nations ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’). My view (and experience) is that the ‘us vs. them’ mentality that results in so much discontent – and violence – transcends racism.
          In agreeing with your comment: “…for his art to work, it has to reach as many people as possible, and, still, there are so many people who dismiss him out of hand as shallow, when nothing could be farther from the truth” I suggest that ‘as many people as possible’ requires an approach that is not limited to one issue or a single nation.
          Broadening the scope of the discussion of Michael’s impact would surely help to make the discussion more relevant for many of us, no matter how sensitive we are about the inequalities exhibited in parts of US society.
          Obviously I too have great faith in the power of Michael’s art – else I would not be discussing it so passionately nor advocating a broader focus for assessing his impact.

          • Dear Kerry and sfaikus

            Gosh. I have to say that I am thrilled to see racism discussed here so much. I think it deserves to be discussed this much, and know that it makes a lot of white folks uncomfortable. It’s much easier to focus on Michael’s calls for love, or generalize and say that he was against all oppression, which he was.

            But his message around race was not comfortable. He challenged injustice, and challenged his fans to challenge injustice, in addition to calling for love. He was massively criticized in the press and in the streets, by white folks, for the panther dance in Black or White. He paid a huge price to get that video in front of us, because we white folks don’t want to talk about race.

            But right now almost 3 black people per DAY are being killed by the police in the US…over 600 so far this year. It’s quite likely that that has always been the case, but cell phones are making it visible. And that gives us a unique OPPORTUNITY to start untangling the structural racism, to say “This is NOT okay.” That’s why it is so important to talk about right now.

            White folks don’t have to respond defensively, as if we are personally at fault. Guilt gets us nowhere. But don’t you think that Michael would want us to be using this opportunity to change the structures that cause it? Aren’t you curious about how Michael would be responding to this opportunity if he were alive? Do you think he’d want us to ignore it?

            Or, would he want us to be studying it, trying to understand how it works, so we can figure out how to change it? Use your privilege–your relative safety–to make a difference? Inspire people to change the system? It’s REALLY hard work, and scary to speak up. It’s scary for me to drive around with a “Black Lives Matter” bumper sticker, but I’m white. What would it feel like if I had black skin? I can’t imagine how hard that would be. But Michael was a black man. In many ways, I’m speaking up for him. As Toni Bowers observes, the structures that attacked him are the same structures that are attacking people of color in the streets of America.

            I’m also speaking up for myself, because racism is an integral part of the system that exploits all of us, and that destroys the earth. We can’t really change the rest of it without paying attention to this as well.

            So invite you to be curious, to see what you can learn here. I know Michael was always good at making his work entertaining, or deeply moving, even if it was challenging. Honestly, I’m working on that, and maybe we all need to find ways to work on that.

            I didn’t mean to lecture. I hope you can consider this an invitation to look more deeply at this issue.

          • “It’s much easier to focus on Michael’s calls for love, or generalize and say that he was against all oppression, which he was.”
            Yes, he was, and yes, it probably is, but if you read what I am saying in my respective comments, I’m not advocating that. I am suggesting that it makes more sense to treat discrimination in all forms – and on a global scale, rather than isolating one part of it in one location.
            Your comment “I’m also speaking up for myself, because racism is an integral part of the system that exploits all of us, and that destroys the earth. We can’t really change the rest of it without paying attention to this as well.” further emphasizes my point that the real issue is much bigger than racism alone. Racism is but one product of the socio-economic issues that give rise to many types of discrimination. I believe that the reason Michael’s global audience of many nations and many creeds and races can relate to what he is saying because it IS inclusive of the human condition under all forms of social repression/discrimination, only one of which is racism. So, I am saying, again, why exclude the others to focus on just one?
            This seems to me to be the wrong way to go about improving the situation – tackling problems (or one problem) in isolation of each other. As I have said before, it is this focus that I consider too limiting – both in terms of promoting effective, positive social change, and in gaining due recognition for Michael’s genius.
            The only analogy I can think of on the spur of the moment is a bit trite, but here goes – consider that discrimination is a very large leaky bucket which needs fixing. Patching one hole in one quadrant is not going to do it. We need to ‘build’ a whole new bucket!
            I re-iterate that I would prefer a discussion of Michael’s impact to be more inclusive in subject and international in scope as were the many social ills he spoke/sang out about. That way we can all contribute – whether we’re in the US, Canada, Australia, Europe of Asia etc.
            But I’ve said enough now, I think.

          • Kerry —

            Although I am not speaking for the blog, I am only an occasional contributor, it has been my experience that DWTE deals with a multitude of issues, and only in recent months have posts centered on racism, which, let me hasten to say, I have no quarrel with — I think it needs to be dealt with.

            Michael was devoted to many issues, and I think the environment was at the top of his list, but western society does not just routinely and systematically exploit nature, it exploits blacks and women, because both blacks and women are identified in our culture as more animal than human, more body than mind, as part of nature and as such having no or little value; we/they are fair game. A different set of morals applies when dealing with blacks and women — or perhaps no morality at all.

            I define our culture as a culture of transcendence — and for me transcendence is a dirty word. We want to transcend nature and other peoples in order to exploit them — we want to separate ourselves out from, rise above, in order to control.

            To me, Michael was the avatar of immanence, he put humpty dumpty back together again, restoring mind to body, humanity to nature, and blacks and women to humanity. He represented what I call the philosophy of immanence.

            When people talk about the human race, honestly, I don’t know what that means. What does it look like? How does it act? What culture is human culture?

            The reality of the world is that it is multicultural. But in the eyes of the West, only one culture counts. Ours. We look on our culture as the highest and best of what human nature has to offer, and we believe that everyone ought to adopt our worldview and value system. But, if every one lived like us, the planet couldn’t support us all. And in spite of our lip service to human rights, our record isn’t so great.

            We need an alternative. I think Michael Jackson offered that alternative.

            Unless we unmask the current standard and become conscious of it as structurally, systematically racist, sexist and destructive of nature, how can we even begin to solve these problems?

            In 2009, Michael Jackson changed my life, transformed me. And if he was able to do that, after he passed away, given my background and values, he can change the world — one person at a time.

            I love this blog; I was searching and searching for a group of people who were talking about the Michael Jackson I had come to know and love because the MJ described in the media was someone I didn’t recognize. And I found that community here. Most of us are passionate about our causes, our agendas, and that is a good thing. I love it.

            But passion so often ignites antagonism which leads to even stronger feelings. I’m not sure how we go about fixing that. Because one person’s vision of healing the world is not another’s.

    • I couldn’t agree more Kerry. Michael is a multi-national, multi-racial, multi-cultural
      genius, and yes of course he was ‘black’, but he is sooo much more as well.

      • Hi Caro —

        Glad to see you back. In fact, just this morning I was wondering where you were!

        But — actually — Michael Jackson was a black man, an African American, who brought African American culture into black and white living rooms all over the world and made us love it. We fell in love with him and fell in love with it. Why did he need to be more than black to have broad appeal? Bach has broad appeal, but do we say he was more than white or more than German?

        White culture needs some help and we need help from outside our culture. He gave it to us — and to the world. What a gift!

        • dont really think bach has as much appeal as mj, (i havent even heard who that was before mj), coming from someone in asia, the only person whom i have known before learning english was probably (other then politician/religious personas) mj.

  7. I mostly agree with Keely Meagan here. I would say that we have not only an opportunity, but an *obligation* to look more deeply at the ways race is inscribed in Michael Jackson’s work, and to let our reflections guide further dialogue and action in the world *beyond* Michael himself. This, it seems to me, might be a reasonable end, if we are interested in “making the world a better place.”

    But for me, it’s not even necessary to engage in any speculation about what Michael himself would be likely to say or do in any given situation. Sacrilegious as it may seem—- I don’t care! I’d rather proceed independently, *without* his imprimatur, simply because *I* feel it’s the right thing to do. (I don’t always agree, anyway, with Michael Jackson’s own stated political views and strategies!) To view Michael’s body of work through the lens of racial justice (among many, many other things) is, in my view, not at all a luxury when the police are killing black people—our fellow citizens—-with total impunity, and injuring countless others.

    By my lights, an unflinchingly honest approach to what is taking place in the world and how we might understand Michael Jackson’s body of work in relation to it cannot be encompassed by the rather disparaging term, “personal agenda.”

    Engagement with the pressing issues of our time *does not* exclude an analysis of the formal and/or artistic concerns that are so important to Michael Jackson’s work! On the contrary: these considerations can mutually enhance each other. My understanding of aesthetics includes both these aspects of any work of art at any time; and much more.

    The notion of a “personal agenda” or “political agenda” is often used to disparagingly to describe people who are perceived as viewing Michael exclusively through a scrim that is in some way *impure.* But I’d like to suggest that instead of “agendas,” we instead discuss our passions, and our assumptions about the world: especially as these relate to MJ. What moves us? What makes us angry? When we are thinking about Michael, what are our deepest wishes, hopes, and desires for the way he will be remembered? And our anxieties about what would happen if our wishes weren’t met?

    I think this might serve as a point of departure….

  8. WOW!!!! have been to England for the last 5 weeks and come back to read this fabulous blog again, and find this fascinating one.

    I just loved Toni’s comment – 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.

    That is exactly how I have been affected by Michael since my discovery of him in 2010. I have lived my life so differently since I ‘met’ Michael and certainly dance more in many waysl.

    I went to see Thriller Live while in London last week (saw it in Cape Town 4 years ago) and was interested in the different reactions. In Cape Town we all went mad and in fact I couldn’t speak the next day I had screamed so much – quite something for a 60 year old who had never been a groupie before!! Yes Michael did indeed change me!! The London audience who were multi-cultural (people from all over the world), and multi-aged were much more subdued, though some of us were very vocal given the opportunity ha ha, but everyone thoroughly enjoyed the show. I too cannot sit still when listening to Michael – I don’t see how you can. I also heard his music when I boarded the plane here in Cape Town – Lady in my Life was playing and I heard that as an omen, and in Selfridges he was singing away, and of course I stopped to listen and boogied a little, which got me a few strange glances until I pointed out that Michael was singing – got a lot of smiles.

    His panther dance at the end of Black or White comes to mind, as a dance completely misunderstood and even banned at the time, because as you so rightly state, such physicality was frowned on, and in some ways still is, certainly from a religious standpoint. Can still see the reaction of that stupid woman who was one of the censors on the DVD I have about the Dangerous Short Films. When I first watched it, I didn’t understand it at all, but instinctively just loved it for what it was – a fantastic exhibition of dancing. Since then I know much more about it and love it even more, largely thanks to information gained on this blog.

    I think the whole idea of such a book as you propose if wonderful and I wish you both everything of the best with it. I will be first in Amazon’s queue to buy it once there is a date of publication. Good luck guys.

  9. Hi again, Kerry —

    I love your analogy.

    “The only analogy I can think of on the spur of the moment is a bit trite, but here goes – consider that discrimination is a very large leaky bucket which needs fixing. Patching one hole in one quadrant is not going to do it. We need to ‘build’ a whole new bucket!”

    I couldn’t agree more. But how do you get people to see that they need a whole new bucket?

    Without pointing out that patching this hole and that hole is not going to work because the whole design of the bucket is wrong? That is the point of saying that racism and sexism and environmental destruction and degradation are systemic, are structural, not individual issues but problems that are built into the overall design — that they are actually essential to how this particular bucket functions or doesn’t. I believe that the success of western culture is dependent on these injustices and on the destruction of the earth. That these evils are essential to what we unfortunately believe to be the common good.

    And why focus on Western culture? Because it is so seductive and so powerful and its agenda is to take over the world.

    Is that a drone I hear, hovering over my house?? Scary.

    MJ was pointing all this out and that is why he had to be destroyed. Only, they didn’t and he wasn’t and I think he knew it.

  10. Hmmm… the more I read the responses the more obvious it is that we are all after the same thing here, but some of us just have a different focus, perhaps because we come from different nations or different disciplines, experiences, all or both. Yet what a joyous thing it is that we all share the passion and appreciation for Michael’s life and art as tools for positive change!

    I had to make my self stop following the discussion here for a while because I was getting frustrated – unnecessarily. I don’t believe there are any dissenting voices here. We all want a better world, and we all want Michael’s art and influence to be acknowledged for the powerful and transforming force that it is.

    The disparity of our views on how this can be done is a pretty incredible illustration of the great diversity of individuals who love Michael Jackson. This thought tends to make me feel less frustration/more celebration, and that’s got to be a healing thing right there! (Time to turn up the music, I think !)

    • Thanks for that thought, Kerry. I was getting pretty down. I cleared my mind a little bit by watching MJ videos last night. One Caro had recommended was great. And fitting. Come Together.

      • “Blood on the Dance Floor” (album and video) and HIStory tour gold pants (videos) always do it for me! And on the subject of different perspectives, I’ll let Michael have the last word, I think:

        “You and I were never separate

        It’s just an illusion

        Wrought by the magical lens of


        – Michael Jackson, “Heaven is Here”

  11. Hi! I got another question for people here. I`m writing an article about MJ hoping to get it in print in the paper in town, for his birthday ( 🙂 ). It`s a small paper, but it can still reach thousands of people if I manage to do it. I`m writing about Vitiligo and the allegations, and I seem to remember reading someplace on the internet about two famous white men coming out and telling the world that they had a disease around the time Michael told the world that he had vitiligo. The two white guys were praised for their courage. I really don`t have a prayer of finding out whether that`s true or the names of those two guys, cause I don`t know any names from that period (wasn`t alive yet) and I don`t remeber wich of the hundreds of articles I have read that contained that little peice of information. The question is whether any of you know something about this?

    • Hi Irene. I’m afraid I don’t know the names of the two men you’re looking for, but I just did a quick Google search and discovered that Steve Martin, Dudley Moore, and Jon Hamm all reportedly have vitiligo – and a number of other celebrities have it as well. I didn’t know that. There are several sites that mention this, but here’s one of them:

      I hope this helps – it sounds like you’re working on an interesting article!

  12. I can’t help Irene with her question, but on the subject of the media, what and how it reports and how that influences society for better or worse (!) I have an interesting article to share from the Australian Broadcasting Commission website’s Religion and Ethics page on what ‘the news’ would look like in a wiser society. I so relate to one statement I came across when I started reading it…

    “One thing is for sure: we don’t yet have the news we deserve.”

    Amen to that.

    For anyone who is interested in this article you can access it here:

  13. Interesting, thank you!

  14. Thanks for this interesting and enlightening discussion. IMO Michael was getting deep into the underlying structures of the way we think and this, also IMO, is what he came to understand needed profound change.Ultimately, I believe he came to the conclusion that there were 2 essential priorities in undoing this misguided thinking: 1) our relationship to children and 2) our relationship to nature. I have read from a number of sources that Michael’s favorite author was Ralph Walso Emerson, the American poet and philosopher who wrote a seminal lecture (he was a Unitarian minister) called “Nature.” He also wrote other essays on this topic (“Correspondence” for example). These were written in the early to mid 1800s and were highly influential to writers like Thoreau (a neighbor of Emerson’a in Concord, MA) and to the creation of the public parks in USA, like Yellowstone and so on, to preserve and protect the spectacular beauties of nature.

    As we see from This Is It, Michael was honing in on and deepening his messagr on the environment in both his comments to the crew and in his spoken words to narrate the nature video that preceded the performance of “Earth Song,” the last song his sang in his lifetime. The recording of him reading his poem “Planet Earth” was finally released on the This Is It album. His conversations with his co-producer for that tour, Kenny Ortega, also bear this out as a primary focus.

    As Marx focused on ‘the means of production,’ I believe Michael focused on the same thing in terms of our relationship with nature–the ultimate ‘means of production.” The ways we treat nature, the ways we treat all animals, and females–whether human, or female animals that we impregnate for their offpspring or use to obtain other ‘products’ (eggs, the hormones from pregnant mares, etc)–are intimately tied up in the mindset that dominates way we treat the world of nature. It is a rapaciousness that does not honor the life-force and the various life-forms on our planet. I believe Michael saw this with complete clarity as at the basis of the fundamentalchange needed. If we continue to mistreat, indeed torture, nature and animals (as we do in factory farms, for example, and in many other ways), it invariably contaminates the entire culture of human society. This argument is made in a book called The Human Savage (I think this is the title–will check).

    In our reinterpreting and reimagining a new relationship with nature, I think we need to go back to the view the Native Americans in the New World, for example, had regarding “Wakan-Tanka”–or the Great Spirit, also called The Great Everything or the Holy All. As we know, Michael had Native American ancestry and included Native Americans in his videos and in his personal relations. Interestingly, there is, supposedly, a Native American burial site of the Chumash Indians on the grounds of Neverland.

    As humans, we tend to be hubristic, thinking we can with our intellects, discover the source of Wakan-tanka (also called The Great Mysery) but this source is ultimately beyond the intellect–it is by definition, outside, and this is why it was revered as the source of life. I believe when Michael wrote Planet Earth and Earth Song he was asking us to reframe and in fact, rediscover, a new relationship with the earth and our planet and all the beautiful life-forms upon it. We need wonder and awe, and not this grasping effort to control and harness.

    • Absolutely, stephenson!

      “Michael was getting deep into the underlying structures of the way we think and this, also IMO, is what he came to understand needed profound change.”

      Change in how we relate to the earth and nature, which we are a part of, not outside of, as we “hubristically” like to think of ourselves, a “separate creation.”

      The life force is definitely not in our misguided intellects, but in nature and our bodies, especially MJ’s body electric. His energy is so powerful that it invades every cell of our bodies, changing our cultural DNA. .

      “I believe when Michael wrote Planet Earth and Earth Song he was asking us to reframe and in fact, rediscover, a new relationship with the earth and our planet and all the beautiful life-forms upon it. We need wonder and awe, and not this grasping effort to control and harness.”

      Couldn’t agree with you more.

  15. Checked and discovered the book title I had in mind is The Modern Savage by James McWilliams.

  16. When i read stephenson’s contribution I wanted to cheer… this is what I was getting at (but not getting across clearly, I fear).

  17. Earlier in this thread I posted that I believe Michael’s message was for the entire world and all of humanity, not just one race or nation. Here is an example of his power worldwide: A Kurdish pop star believes that Michael’s message was for her, and she is using MJ as her inspiration in fighting ISIS. “Michael Jackson was the “biggest influence in my life because he used his music to deliver messages, be that fighting for humanity or poverty or animal rights,” she said. “The world needs more artists who speak about issues instead of just clubs and women.”
    This woman is using Michael’s message in her music to rally Kurds. Here is the article:

  18. Thanks, Eleanor, sfaikus, Kerry, for your comments (glad we are on the same page in more ways than one!). That is so great about the Kurdish pop star inspired by Michael to fight ISIL (I prefer to use that abbreviation instead of ISIS, an Egyptian goddess). I also came across an article about an award-winning teacher who used Billie Jean to reach the refugees from various war-torn countries (like Somalia) who were relocated to Texas.

    Here is a quote and a link:

    “She has deep appreciation for the late pop star, who somehow managed to “penetrate the jungles of Myanmar and refugee camps in Kenya. When these kids sang ‘Billie Jean,’ it blew my mind — and really showed us that there were things we could do with them.” From that starting point, she said, the students were able to take their first steps towards fluency and, hopefully, literacy.”

    read more:

    I also came across an interesting blog about “humane leadership” (as the blogger called it). He argued that there is a dearth of ‘humane leadership’ going on now, and we desperately, desperately need it. Michael was such a leader, and I think people increasing see him as that and are following his message. Thank goodness!! I will look for the link to that blog.

  19. Well, I found this to be a very interesting article. And I would agree with just about every thing said about Michael. But have a few comments about the other things that were mentioned esp. the ones that pertained to dance and religion. I to come from a conservative religious background probably even more conservative than the author of the article that was being discussed, namely Pentecostal. And in their defense so to speak they would not have complained about square dancing or minuets, they may have even allowed ballet provided the costume was appropriate. It is the sexually suggestive dances that they have a problem with and there are some dances that are. After all they were always dancing in the old testament and the Psalms (140-150) tell us to praise God with dancing. So the God of the Bible is not against dancing. Also to say that the Judeo-Christian denominations favor the Spiritual over the Body-Physical is sort of redundant, that is what religions do focus on the spiritual. and to be accurate it is more the norm of Eastern Religion to ignore the physical more so than any Judea-Christian denominations. I think Eleanor Bowman if you stated what she said correctly is in serious error(.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,) I do not think that the Bible is the cause of our entrenched problems in America but non-adherence to its principles are, such as love thy neighbor as thyself. I also think that the non-repentance of slavery by this nation is the prime problem. If this nation did repent as a whole then the majority would not feel guilty or so afraid anymore. Is not this the prime statement that police and others say when they shoot unarmed Black men, that they were afraid for their lives? Why were they afraid? Because they felt guilty.This reason has been given over and over. It has also been shown in cases where white suspect have had guns and have even fired on the police and the police did not shoot them dead. Or have resisted arrest or have led them on a car chase. Why were they not afraid then? Why did they not shoot them? Because they were not afraid. And wasn’t this the same thing Adam said when he sinned I Was Afraid. and how does one get rid of this fear? by repenting.

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