Willa: Two of the most recent biographies of Michael Jackson were written by writers for Rolling Stone magazine – namely, Randall Sullivan and Steve Knopper. Both authors conducted extensive research, including hundreds of interviews with people who knew and worked with Michael Jackson, and both authors seem to believe they’ve written a fairly positive portrait of him. For example, both say that after looking at all the evidence, they are convinced he was innocent of the molestation allegations. Yet many fans were disappointed by their books.
D.B. Anderson and I were talking about this recently, after she published a review of Knopper’s book, and she pointed out that this has been a long-running problem at Rolling Stone. So this week we are looking back at Rolling Stone‘s coverage of Michael Jackson to see if we can uncover some of the root causes behind their mixed reporting on him. And maybe that can help us understand some of the resentment and ambivalence toward him in the mainstream media as well.
Thank you so much for joining me, D.B.! This is a very important topic, I think.
D.B.: Nice to be with you again, Willa! It’s enlightening to shift the focus away from Michael and instead look at the cultural, political, and economic factors that influence the media ecosystem. These influences go far beyond just one publication, but Rolling Stone magazine is an interesting case for several reasons.
When we were talking about Genius, you remarked that it was “amazingly thin, mostly just adding a few new details to a story that’s been told a hundred times already,” and I agree. We wondered about publishing houses and what value they think they are adding to the conversation. Increasingly, I’m focused on what you said in M Poetica about how things get storified:
Once a narrative has been accepted, our minds shape our perceptions to fit that narrative to such an extent that we no longer see what’s right in front of us. We don’t even feel doubt.
Does this explain why these authors, editors and publishers feel that they created positive portraits? I’m thinking it does.
Maybe if you work in publishing (or have more patience than I), these two books are considered brave and remarkable because they assert that Michael was probably innocent. From that point of view, maybe they represent progress.
Willa: Yes, and actually, I think they do represent progress. I’ve noticed that Knopper’s book has been getting some very positive reviews, mainly from readers who don’t know much about Michael Jackson, so Knopper is helping to reach people outside the fanbase. That’s important.
He’s also been outspoken in saying that Michael Jackson was innocent – for example, in this interview in The Denver Post where he says, “I didn’t expect to be so thoroughly convinced of his innocence on child molestation charges.” Randall Sullivan made similar statements after his book came out, and to me, that’s huge. That writers like Sullivan and Knopper are reviewing the evidence – and in Sullivan’s case collecting quite a bit of new evidence – and concluding that Michael Jackson was innocent is very significant and should be applauded by fans. Each of these books is an important step toward vindicating him.
One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that Knopper has been much more emphatic about asserting his innocence in interviews than he is in the book, where he merely writes, “All evidence points to no – although sleeping in bed with children and boasting of it on international television did not qualify him for the Celebrity Judgment Hall of Fame.” I don’t know if his editors at Scribner reined him in, or if he reined himself in, but it would be refreshing if his book were as outspoken as he seems to be.
D.B.: You’re exactly right, the book isn’t as warm and positive as his interviews. I find that sentence you just quoted to be dismissive and problematic. It is laid at Michael’s feet for having bad judgment. If Trayvon Martin had only submitted to George Zimmerman he wouldn’t be dead. No. Michael said that on national TV because he had nothing to hide. “He had a fair trial,” wrote Knopper. No mention that having a trial in the first place was profoundly wrong, and completely insane.
Willa: It really was. I recently talked with Tom Mesereau (which was fascinating – what an incredible mind) and he put me in contact with his lead investigator, Scott Ross. Mr. Ross spent hundreds of hours tracking down evidence, interviewing leads, and basically conducting the investigation the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office should have conducted. And that was his point exactly: it was a travesty the case ever went to trial.
Scott Ross has 37 years of experience, and during that time he’s really had to deal with the dark side of human nature – like investigating the Laci Peterson murder. To be honest, I expected someone with his background to be pretty jaded and skeptical of anyone’s innocence. But he was adamant that Michael Jackson had done nothing wrong. As he said, “Nothing happened. It never should have gone to trial. It should have been thrown out during discovery.”
D.B.: You spoke with Mesereau? That’s fantastic. I admire him for his integrity and continued willingness to speak on Michael’s behalf. But there you go: Ross conducted the investigation that the DA should have done. And apparently, others are still going to have to do the writing that journalists should have done.
Willa: Exactly, and Mesereau thinks Randall Sullivan has done precisely that. When I talked with him, he strongly supported Sullivan and felt fans should support him also. For example, he said Sullivan had uncovered evidence that the Santa Barbara DA’s office began investigating Michael Jackson on drug charges as soon as the Arvizo trial was over. That’s very important information. It suggests the police really were targeting him, and were not unbiased in their handling of the allegations against him. It also suggests Michael Jackson was right to leave Neverland – that his exile wasn’t a sign of paranoia, as quite a few articles have implied, but of wisdom. He was wise to leave his home when he did, and Mesereau said he strongly advised him to leave.
My feelings toward Sullivan’s book are more mixed than Mesereau’s, but I really value the information he gathered. I quoted Sullivan a number of times in my “Monsters, Witches, Ghosts” article because he provides new and important evidence that simply isn’t available anywhere else.
D.B.: Sullivan’s book does have some good information in it, particularly around the trial, and I am aware that Mesereau endorses it, which means something. I have a copy of Sullivan’s book and refer back to it sometimes. It is really a shame that he got sloppy with his sources on other topics because it hurt his credibility. Did you know, the missing nose at autopsy story actually was written by another Rolling Stone writer first?
Willa: No I didn’t. I remember reading that article, but didn’t remember that part. I know Fox News promoted that rumor quite a bit – that he didn’t have a real nose, and had come to the hospital with a prosthetic nose but the morgue lost it – until Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon, Steven Hoefflin, came forward and said it wasn’t true. And the autopsy report, which came out several months later, supports Hoefflin. It’s troubling that Rolling Stone was spreading that rumor also.
D.B.: Claire Hoffman at Rolling Stone published the autopsy lie on August 6, 2009. Then it was regurgitated around the world. Fox News website shows they got it from the New York Post, and the Post was quoting Rolling Stone. For his book, Sullivan probably relied on the previous Rolling Stone report and got burned because by then, the autopsy itself had been released and disproved all of it. It wasn’t cross-checked.
There is a systemic issue at Rolling Stone. They published the original missing nose story, which you quote in your book, in 1995. The myth-making that goes on over there is just unacceptable. Now they imply Michael somehow stole the Moonwalk. There is no excuse for this. It’s a pattern with them: Jackson didn’t earn his place fair and square. These are narratives designed to appeal to their white male audience, but they are not truth.
My review puts the two book excerpts side by side because I saw an example of a deliberate content strategy by the two magazines. It was interesting to me on that level, and also I thought people could freely read the excerpt and decide if my review felt accurate or not. Yet the two books are very different. Genius disturbs me a lot more than Untouchable, frankly.
When I said “someone else is going to have to write it” I did not mean the trial, which Sullivan did do. I meant the story of how the press contributed to his being charged in the first place. There isn’t much self-reflection. I don’t see them recognizing and destroying their own myths and biases. I see them trying to shoehorn new data into an old mold.
Willa: That’s a very good point, D.B. I see what you’re saying, and I agree with you. Long before the allegations were made, the reporting on Michael Jackson had created a climate of suspicion about him, that there was simply something wrong about him. So when the allegations hit, many people were predisposed to believe he was guilty of something – if not molestation, then something – just being odd, maybe. And then, of course, a type of hysteria developed, and the reporting tended to be not very insightful or self-reflective at all after that, as you say. Publications didn’t want to look at how they may have contributed to the hysteria, and they still don’t.
But I also think that change is going to come incrementally, and these books are important first steps – albeit baby steps – toward shifting the narrative about what happened to Michael Jackson. It’s important to get the big picture about systemic racism in the U.S. – especially the deeply ingrained narrative of black men as sexual predators – and how that contributed to police and public perceptions of the allegations against Michael Jackson. That’s very important. But that type of deep reappraisal will take some historical distance, I think, and the widespread realization that he was in fact innocent. And I’m encouraged that things are already moving in that direction, as we see in these two books. Attitudes have changed more quickly since his death than I would have expected.
D.B.: Really? You are much more tolerant than I, Willa! I’m not inclined to be grateful for tardy conclusions that he was innocent the entire time unless accompanied by some expression of horror that it happened at all.
You may be right that this book represents a crack in the foundation. But it’s a foundation built by the press themselves. To misquote Princess Diana: “There were three of us in this marriage – Michael, the press, and the police.” Come on, you know? It’s just not that complicated. It really isn’t. There are millions of people who knew that Michael was innocent the entire time, and that the case was malicious. “Fair trial” – those words made me want to throw the book across the room.
Willa: It was fair in the sense that he was found innocent of all charges – not that he was made to go through it.
D.B.: Precisely. Did the justice system work? Absolutely not. It should never have gone to trial, as Ross said. And the media is directly responsible for it. They own this. You can’t blame it all on Sneddon. He was influenced by them. He believed their narrative. Mesereau is not wrong but he’s just not focused on this part. There was lots of post-trial coverage about how the jurors got it wrong and were swayed by Michael’s celebrity. This shouldn’t get lost.
Willa: That’s true.
D.B.: What really bothers me about Genius is this. It starts out with a prologue about racism, but still manages to impugn Michael when it tries to separate him from an important aspect of black culture, the street dance. Still manages to avoid discussing prosecutorial misconduct or the viciousness of the press. This is not intellectually consistent. This is not self-aware. This is maybe even pandering, giving lip service. I’m sorry, but I call bullshit.
To paraphrase the prologue: There was racism in Gary during the first six years of Michael’s life and therefore he became egomaniacal and that’s why he built that weird HIStory statue. It’s worse than not bringing up racism at all. This is mockery.
I want to be clear that I’m not attacking the author personally. But he is part of a system, the book is part of a system, which includes the publisher’s marketing department. Maybe Scribner tried to turn the book into something it isn’t and Knopper didn’t have control over that. I am not telling anyone to buy or not buy books; I read them all. I’m just sharing my response.
There are many factors operating in the system: a historical white-male-centered perspective, a profit motive, and institutional self-justification. When Genius debuted last month and was getting a lot of press, Bill Whitfield (who struggled to get coverage of Remember The Time, which he wrote with Javon Beard and Tanner Colby), tweeted the following:
The national media has not publicized RTT because they would owe Mr. Jackson and his fans an apology. https://t.co/RPnErzt4gj—
Bill Whitfield (@MJBODYGUARDS) October 21, 2015
Willa: Thanks for sharing this, D.B. I hadn’t seen it before, and I have to say, I think there’s a lot of truth to what he’s saying …
D.B.: Remember The Time is chock full of new, never-before-heard information.
Willa: Yes, and it presents a very different portrait of him, as caring, intelligent, playful – very different than the wacko narrative that was so dominant the last two decades of his life.
D.B.: It really does. It deserved a much bigger splash than it got. So why is Genius getting so much play? You can’t avoid noticing that the press is much happier to promote a book by one of their own – one that doesn’t require them to consider their own accountability.
The history re-writing has begun, but according to Genius, Jackson is still a liar and “the weirdest pop star in history.” The original premise hasn’t changed one iota. No thank you.
Willa: And you believe much of that bias can be traced back to Rolling Stone magazine, right?
D.B.: During the period of time when I was struggling to understand my conflicted response to the latest book, I did wonder, just what exactly is the deal with Rolling Stone as an institution? The prejudice seems so baked in. So many untrue stories, and two books by writers from that magazine. No wait – three books, counting Dave Marsh. This is a publication focused on music, so you would expect more from them than a tabloid or a regular newspaper. Yet, their coverage has been some of the worst.
Rolling Stone was founded by Jann Wenner in 1967 in San Francisco and it was identified with the hippies counterculture of the sixties. It has been criticized by others for having a generational bias towards musicians of the 1960s and 1970s, for example, they panned Nirvana and rap.
Douglas Wolk wrote in the Seattle Times in 2006:
The basic DNA of popular-music criticism came from the people who wrote for Rolling Stone and Creem in the ’60s and ’70s. They were the first to write about pop interestingly and at length; they loved rock of that pop-historical moment’s Beatles/Stones/Dylan school more than anything else; and their language and perspective and taste have been internalized by pretty much everybody.
Wolk references this 2004 article by Kelefa Sanneh that explains a particular way of writing about music, “rockism”:
Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video….
Rockism isn’t unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices — that’s part of why it’s so powerful, and so worth arguing about….could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it.
Quite a mic drop, isn’t it?
Willa: It really is, and it provides a fascinating lens for looking at all this, doesn’t it? I think there definitely is a “rockist” bias that “means idolizing the authentic old legend,” with strong emphasis on the word “authentic” – meaning “straight, white men” with guitars who spend their lives on the road, singing songs they wrote themselves on a napkin in some shabby diner, and who make very little money doing it. This notion of authenticity is very important to the bastions of rockism.
D.B.: Lol. What an outstanding description. You left out the roach clips and the girls in every town, but otherwise perfect.
Willa: Ha! That’s funny. Thanks, D.B. But while I agree there’s a rockist bias, it’s not altogether true that Rolling Stone has shown unwavering loyalty to the “Beatles/Stones/Dylan school.” I’m a little older than you are, and I can remember when John Lennon was considered an embarrassment. Like Michael Jackson, he was too idealistic (meaning too naïve, too simplistic) and too uncool, and it made people uncomfortable. There was also a suspicion that he had become too wealthy and may have sold out. Do you remember the stories about Yoko Ono investing in dairy cows and selling a bull for a quarter-million dollars, or something crazy like that? It was big news for a while. And I need to double-check this, but I seem to remember a completely false Rolling Stone article published a year or so before Lennon died that implied he’d become a chubby real estate developer in Florida.
Rolling Stone even had their doubts about Bob Dylan, especially after he became a born-again Christian. I think that caused a lot of angst over at Rolling Stone. That just isn’t what the rockists wanted their heroes to be.
So I agree there has been a strong “rockism” bias at Rolling Stone, and they’ve tended to see themselves as cultural gatekeepers, but it’s more in support of an ideal than specific people, I think. They want their rock heroes to fit a certain mold. And if a revered figure like Bob Dylan doesn’t measure up – someone who helped shape their notions of what an authentic artist should be – what are they going to think of Michael Jackson, who wore lipstick and danced brilliantly (most rock stars don’t dance – maybe a little shuffle, but not dancing), whose concerts were an extravaganza, who made short films that defy the supremacy of music over image, who worked collaboratively and challenged preconceived notions about authenticity and individuality? He simply didn’t fit the rockist model, and he refused to limit himself to their expectations.
D.B.: Yes, that’s true. It’s an ideal they are after. Keeping the 1960s hippie dream alive, or something. They gave Lennon a very hard time when he dropped out, around 1975, to become a househusband and raise Sean. That was unheard of back then, and very threatening to their masculinity, I believe. Dave Marsh was a Rolling Stone writer who castigated Lennon in an open letter for failing to perform his duties to the world. The same author wrote a book about Michael in 1985 called Trapped: Michael Jackson and The Crossover Dream. Here is a quote from that one, on why Michael has failed his people:
It’s the difference between Jackie Robinson, whose personal emancipation within the world of baseball inspired not only black Americans but the whole country, and Michael Jackson, whose triumphs in the world of popular music were so private that they were ultimately never shared with anyone and as a result, curdled, turned sour and evaporated into a sickly residue of their original potential.
There must have been a big sale on weed that week. I mean, seriously. Where do you start.
Willa: Yes, I’ve read Marsh’s book, and it’s written from the perspective of a betrayed idealist. He thinks Michael Jackson has the potential to be a Moses figure who can lead Americans, black and white, out of the swamp of racism and onto higher ground. And he is outraged that Michael Jackson isn’t fulfilling his (Marsh’s) fantasies. There’s never any suggestion that maybe Marsh himself should or could do something to help end racism – just condemnation of Michael Jackson for not doing more.
D.B.: Well, if there was ever a clear cut example of white privilege, this is it. White man gonna tell the black boy how to fix the white man’s problem. It’s weird, Marsh actually wasn’t wrong about Michael’s potential. I have seen so many people commenting that they are amazed how “woke” Michael was. Yet, Marsh is beating Michael up, and this even before he released Bad.
Willa: Yes, he doesn’t seem to understand or appreciate what Michael Jackson was accomplishing – through his art, as in Beat It, or through his position as a globally recognized cultural figure, or through his very being – and instead rebuked him for what he was not. It’s the same phenomenon you were talking about before, D.B., but measuring Michael Jackson against a messiah-type ideal rather than a rockist ideal. It’s interesting to look back through Rolling Stone and see where that impulse comes from.
D.B.: Just mind blowing. Marsh even blames Michael for the negative press he received in the very pages of his own employer, Rolling Stone. That’s how it works: blame the victim. If only Trayvon had listened to George.
It’s interesting, Rolling Stone has recently made available an archive of all their covers. And I think you can see the rockism happen, visually, when you look back at the covers of Michael. Not even the articles, just the covers. There were two of Michael in 1983; the first was an interview done before Thriller became dominant and the second was a commentary on MTV. This would have been two years before Marsh’s book. The second cover is where the rockism really starts to become obvious:
Many things about this cover stand out. First, it’s cartoonish – the only non-photograph cover of 1983. Second, the subhead: “The Selling Out of Rock & Roll.”
There is a poignant subtext having to do with John Lennon being absent. This was published only three years after Lennon was murdered. And what you see is Michael Jackson literally inhabiting Lennon’s “rightful place” next to Paul McCartney (as the rockists would have seen it). Even though the Beatles had broken up long before Lennon died, this would have been painful.
Willa: That’s a fascinating way to interpret this, D.B. I really think you’re on to something, though I think the story is a little more complicated than that. It’s true that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were beloved by Rolling Stone, and by millions of fans around the world. But then things got ugly, the Beatles broke up, people took sides, McCartney was unfairly cast as a light-weight, Lennon was unfairly cast as someone who’d lost his way, Yoko Ono was treated abominably. It was terrible …
D.B.: I do remember parts of the controversy. McCartney had already written “Silly Love Songs” by this point, in answer to that criticism:
Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that?
I’d like to know
‘Cause here I go again
D.B.: And the drama about Yoko was intense. She was accused of breaking up the Beatles (it wasn’t true) and the vitriol that was hurled her way was astonishing. She and John left the U.K. because the British tabloids were so absolutely hideous towards her. They moved to New York, but it didn’t stop. In 1969 Esquire ran a story called “John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie.” These rockists were brutal racists and misogynists. John and Yoko “dropped out” for about five years, until 1980.
Willa: Yes, they did, and then Double Fantasy came out – Lennon’s first album in years – and it was amazing, alternating tracks by Lennon and Ono. To be honest, a lot of critics weren’t quite sure what to make of it. Then three weeks later John Lennon was gone, murdered, and I can still remember that night – how my friends and I just couldn’t take it in.
After that a kind of nostalgia set in that sort of swept the complexities and complications under the rug and replaced them with hazy, idealized memories of Lennon and McCartney. And then, suddenly, right in the midst of that nostalgia, here’s a cover of Rolling Stone, with Michael Jackson in John Lennon’s “rightful place,” as you say, and a headline about “The selling out of rock & roll.” That’s really significant – I think you’re right, D.B.
D.B.: It is so interesting to look through the archives with the perspective of time. Back then, everyone was traumatized. Lennon was cut down right at his comeback, just as Michael was. That very day he was killed, John and Yoko had posed with Annie Leibowitz for a Rolling Stone cover. The same day.
So you can empathize with the difficulty that Rolling Stone would have been having at seeing anyone in John’s place. Who, this black kid? Who used to do Alpha-Bits commercials? Similar to how we might respond to anyone daring to step into Michael’s place, as Michael Arceneaux expresses in a this piece for VH1: “Let’s Stop Comparing The Weeknd, Chris Brown, + Anyone Else To Michael Jackson.”
But Rolling Stone was also predisposed to be generally hateful anyway. And they had not got their heads around the difference between mourning and the rockist worldview. So right here at this moment in 1983, when he is on top of the world, you see Michael being thrown into the Paul box that existed at that time, classified as a slick, commercial, non-serious artist.
Willa: Yes, and that’s evident in the article itself. It’s mostly about MTV, but everyone even remotely associated with MTV is tainted. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the Rolling Stone writer, Steven Levy, privileges music over all else, and sees videos simply as marketing. As he writes, “After watching hours and days of MTV, it’s tough to avoid the conclusion that rock & roll has been replaced by commercials.” So while I see Michael Jackson as an incredible multimedia artist whose films were amazing and a crucially important part of his art – perhaps the place where his art reaches its fullest expression – Levy looks at those videos and sees nothing but “commercials.” And he sees the artists who participate in creating videos as sell-outs – one of the worst labels a rockist can slap on a musician.
D.B.: I think this is where Rolling Stone and others completely went off track, because Michael was a socially conscious artist in the best Lennon tradition.
D.B.: You know, every time there is a Playlist for Peace after a tragedy, Jackson and Lennon are always on it together.
Willa: That’s true.
D.B.: This has all got me thinking a lot about Michael’s relationship with Yoko and Sean. I wonder if it is a more significant factor than we realized in how Michael was viewed, personally and symbolically. We knew that there was resentment among the rockists around buying the Beatles catalog, but it’s likely much deeper and more emotional than that.
And Michael himself: what did the relationship mean to him personally? Did he relate to the unfair treatment she’d received? Yoko and Sean were the first mother-son combo that he was close to, right? Was Michael inspired artistically by Yoko, the way John was? McCartney has given Yoko the credit for John’s peace song period – “Imagine,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “War Is Over.” Did Michael promise Yoko he would carry on for John?
Willa: Those are interesting questions, D.B. I don’t know how to answer them, but I do think Michael Jackson wanted to help Sean Lennon after his father died and took on something of a fatherly or big brotherly role with him. They spent a lot of time together for several years, and I’m struck by the concluding scenes of Moonwalker. Sean plays a street kid named “Sean” (that seems significant) who is befriended by the main character “Michael.” Near the end of the movie Michael tells Sean, “I want to show you something special,” then goes onstage and performs a John Lennon song: “Come Together.”
To me, it seems he’s showing Sean that his father’s work is important, that it’s respected by other artists, and that his music lives on even though he himself is gone. That’s a pretty powerful message for a “commercial.”
D.B.: Oh I had forgotten they used their real names.
Willa: Yes, and they are the only two characters who did.
D.B.: This is sounding more like the personal promise I wondered about. Michael’s performance of “Come Together” was also included in a 1990 broadcast called Lennon: A Tribute. And of course later Michael combined “Come Together” with “D.S.” in performance, which is connected thematically, because Lennon had been a target of the Nixon administration and was also investigated by the FBI. The INS even tried to deport Lennon.
Willa: That’s true. I hadn’t connected “Come Together”/“D.S.” with the FBI investigations of Lennon and the deportation attempt (which is so reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin) but you’re right. It all fits, doesn’t it?
D.B.: It certainly seems to. It seems like classic Michael; there is always a reason for what he does. And Yoko wanted Michael to have the catalog, even over herself and Paul. That says a lot about her trust in him. I’d guess it made Michael more of a target to the rockists, given that he was associating with this woman who was hated. Not just that he got the catalog, but did it with her blessing.
Willa: Yes, Randy Taraborrelli quotes a November 1990 interview where Yoko Ono said this about the acquisition:
Businessmen who aren’t artists themselves wouldn’t have the consideration Michael has. He loves the songs. He’s very caring. There could be a lot of arguments and stalemates if Paul and I owned it together. Neither Paul nor I needed that. If Paul got the songs, people would have said, “Paul finally got John.” And if I got them, they’d say, “Oh, the dragon lady strikes again.”
So she has been supportive of his ownership of the songs. But there have been a lot of snide comments about it among white critics, especially, implying that Michael Jackson did something sneaky, something that wasn’t quite cricket in buying the songs of a fellow artist.
D.B.: Yes. There it is again. Everything Michael does is somehow illegitimate. So, let me ask a question … if the cover shows discomfort with Michael in John’s “rightful place” next to McCartney, and we know people were upset about Michael owning Lennon-McCartney songs, then how might the rockists have felt about Michael taking John’s “rightful place” next to John’s wife and son?
You see where I am going with this? It could get very nasty….
Willa: Yes, and it did get nasty. You know, it’s interesting, D.B. I never connected this back to John Lennon before, but in reading coverage of the 1993 allegations, I’ve frequently been struck by the feeling that writers accused Michael Jackson not so much of molestation – though of course that suspicion was always there in the background – but of stealing a white man’s son, a white man’s family, away from him.
D.B.: Yes they did! I had forgotten! In the beginning it was only – Michael is taking this man’s son. Oh my goodness. Oh. wow.
Willa: Yes, and there are strong racial overtones in the media’s handling of his own children also – that they are not legitimately his, but instead belong to some as-yet-unknown white father: maybe Mark Lester, maybe Arnold Klein, maybe Marlon Brando. I honestly believe the paternity of his kids is only an issue because of race. The underlying narrative seems to be that he was a black man raising “white” children, and that wasn’t a legitimate role for him. It wasn’t his “rightful place,” to use that phrase once again.
D.B.: Right. Knopper does go after the children in Genius, too. I am paraphrasing, but he says only Jackson’s family think the children are his, and that’s just because they come with money attached. I agree with you; this type of attack just fits with everything else we have seen from the white male heterosexual press. It is necessary to diminish someone else only if you are trying to establish or maintain your own dominance. If that person happens to be an extraordinarily potent black man…
Willa: … then there’s an impulse to trivialize his accomplishments. Yes, I agree.
D.B.: Or throw him in jail.
Willa: Or publicly humiliate him and drive him from his home.
This reminds me of something else in Levy’s Rolling Stone article. Levy begins by providing important evidence of MTV’s exclusion of black artists, which I found really interesting, and he specifically talks about the struggle to get Billie Jean on the MTV playlist. But then later he singles out Michael Jackson as a prime example of MTV. So according to Levy, Michael Jackson is both excluded from and epitomizes MTV – both an outsider and the ultimate insider. That doesn’t make sense.
D.B.: Maybe they were just throwing anything that would stick. But you’re right, it’s very conflicted. Levy says MTV should have expected criticism for not playing black artists because the channel was behaving like a place “where Reagan’s values are honored more than John Lennon’s.” But then there is a sidebar story: “Jackson and McCartney’s Supervideo: Say What?”
Willa: Yes, which is basically a conversation with director Bob Giraldi on whether or not videos are “advertisements.” So we’re back again to the rockist obsession with not selling out.
On a little side note, I was in California last week and visited the Union Hotel in Los Alamos, where some scenes from Say Say Say were filmed. Here’s the bedroom where they shot the shaving scene:
And the pool table, though it’s been moved to a different room:
Here’s the bar where Michael Jackson’s character sees LaToya’s character (notice all the money stuck to the ceiling):
And the swinging doors where they leave the bar:
And here are the back stairs they run down to escape from the police:
D.B.: Oh I am so jealous. No fair, lol. How did you feel being in those rooms?
Willa: Well, I hate to gloat, but it was fabulous! It’s a beautiful building from the 1880s, and I absolutely loved it. And if you look closely in this picture, you can see the Rolling Stone magazine cover we’ve been talking about. They have it in a glass case:
D.B.: I’m so happy you had the opportunity to go.
Willa: So am I! It was really fun. Well, thank you so much for joining me, D.B. As always, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I gain so much from our conversations.
D.B.: Thank you so much for inviting me, Willa. It’s always a pleasure and this has been fascinating.
Willa: In our last post, D.B. Anderson and I talked about the idea of “citizen journalism.” Just yesterday the Los Angeles Review of Books published a wonderful article, “Dancing with Michael Jackson,” that D.B. calls “citizen journalism at its finest.” Beautifully written by Dr. Toni Bowers, it explores the power of his music, his dance, his message, and his life, and places it all within the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. As Dr. Bowers writes:
In the United States, we tend to understand difference as pathology. We are uncomfortable with anyone who exceeds our categories, disturbs our prejudices, or calls the bluff on reigning platitudes. Michael Jackson and his music did all that at once, on many levels. What is most important, though, and should not be forgotten, is that he did it with joy. To dwell over-long on Jackson’s suffering would be to forget his indomitable playfulness and strength of will. The amazing thing is not, finally, how weird Michael Jackson was or how difficult his life was, but how great was his capacity for delight, his generosity, his ability and determination to bring joy to others. Endlessly curious, delighted with people, and thrilled by the beauty of the world, he just had so much fun. He suffered, yes; he faced down and endured painful experiences. But that’s what makes his exuberance so remarkable, and makes the fact that he brought (and continues to bring) pleasure to other people so precious. No matter what, he danced. We need to remember and honor that, and dance along.
I strongly encourage everyone to read Bowers’ article. Here’s a link.
In addition, I just have to share a Reuters article that came out yesterday also. It begins with a video of NATO ministers singing “We are the World.” Here’s a link to that.
Willa: This week I am so excited to be joined by D.B. Anderson, author of two of the most popular articles in our Reading Room. “The Messenger King: Michael Jackson and the Politics of #BlackLivesMatter” is an opinion piece published by The Baltimore Sun that places Michael Jackson’s activism within the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And “Sony Hack Re-ignites Questions about Michael Jackson’s Banned Song” is a self-published article that went viral, becoming the most popular independent post in all of Gawker Media for 2014 – and it wasn’t even published until mid-December. Thank you so much for joining me, D.B.!
D.B.: Thank you so much for having me, Willa! I’ve been reading Dancing with the Elephant for a long time and I always walk away with new insights, so it’s quite an honor to be here myself.
Willa: Oh, it’s an honor to talk with you. And your Baltimore piece seems especially timely right now, with the Freddie Gray protests rocking the city. As you point out, #BlackLivesMatter protesters have been drawing on Michael Jackson’s work from the beginning of the movement:
On Twitter, #TheyDontCareAboutUs is a hashtag. In Ferguson, they blasted the Michael Jackson song through car windows. In New York City and Berkeley last weekend, it was sung and performed by protesters. And in Baltimore, there was a magical moment when the Morgan State University choir answered protests with a rendition of Jackson’s “Heal The World.”
We see that trend continuing in Baltimore, with protesters singing “They Don’t Care about Us” and recent videos of one resident, Dimitri Reeves, responding to both the police and the rioters with performances of “Beat It” and “Man in the Mirror.” Here he is dancing on a truck, with sirens in the background and a police helicopter swooping overhead:
And here he is in front of police in riot gear:
He talked about the experience in a National Post article:
Reeves, who has been dancing since age five, said a particularly nerve-wracking moment came during “Man in the Mirror,” which he performed in front of a line of riot police. To his amazement, after a while the cops slowly backed away. “It was beautiful.”
D.B.: This was fantastic, and what really made me happy was the number of media outlets who covered it, even Billboard.
Willa: Yes, and NBC, Fox, USA Today, Rolling Stone, Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, and a lot more, including the newswire service United Press International.
D.B.: I’ve heard that this gentleman actually does this regularly, and it wasn’t a one-off performance. And maybe it was just filler content, but I have a tiny hope that some media featured it because they understood a political significance.
Willa: I hope so. I know some of the articles I read focused on the fact that he was trying to calm the violence while giving voice to the frustrations of the rioters. That’s a difficult assignment, and Michael Jackson is one of the few artists whose work is up to the task – who can provide an impassioned cultural critique while promoting nonviolent solutions.
So D.B., today we’re going to talk about strategies for effectively engaging with the media, something you’ve accomplished with both of your recent articles. But maybe we should begin by talking about how you came to write these articles. What’s the story behind them?
D.B.: I suppose everyone who writes about Michael does so because he deeply touches them in some way, and I am no exception. No, let me rephrase that – everyone who writes thoughtfully about Michael. You know what I mean!
Willa: Yes, I know what you mean …
D.B.: Anyway, I’ve been reading extensively about Michael for several years, and I’ve been so deeply impressed by works like Remember The Time (Whitfield) and Man in the Music (Vogel), as well as many websites and blogs like yours. And I have had great and not-so-great conversations with people all over the world, and learned so much from them.
After a while I began to feel strongly that I had something to say about and on behalf of Michael to the world, but I didn’t know what it was, if that makes any sense. I started and then stopped writing several things because I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Did the world need another blog about Michael? I couldn’t figure out a way to add value. So I had ideas about Michael swirling around in my brain wanting desperately to get out, but I wasn’t sure where to put them.
Meanwhile, on a parallel track, I live near Washington DC, which is sort of ground zero for the media. You can’t avoid news and talk shows, and by listening to NPR and CNN all day – which I do just to have company – you become educated on how the media thinks of itself. I noticed some commentators being very critical of other media people. And there’s a giant divide between the cable news networks – they are always talking smack about each other. In particular, I started to study Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, who have developed media criticism into an art form. This became a bigger and bigger idea for me, that somehow this fit. So these two tracks started converging in my mind and I was pretty sure that “Michael and the media” would be my focus.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, D.B. Michael Jackson criticized the media for years, both in interviews and in songs like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Leave Me Alone,” “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” “Tabloid Junkie,” … In fact, it seems every album has at least one song taking on the media. And of course, many cable news personalities seem to take great delight in “talking smack about each other,” as you pointed out. But I hadn’t put those two threads together before, or considered that the way the media criticizes itself could provide an opening for Jackson’s supporters to join in and get their views across.
D.B.: Michael certainly did criticize them, and for good reason. And the one constant you find is utter frustration at the journalistic malpractice that was committed with no accountability, and as far I know there has never been a loud enough, satisfying, and sincere mea culpa.
So as I was listening and studying the media it dawned on me that there is a new generation of journalists out there, ones who have no reason to be invested in covering up what happened before, and who are willing to challenge each other. So the environment is ripe for revisiting Michael’s whole story.
Willa: And that’s an important point. Many of the commentators out there are surprisingly young, and do seem more open to questioning conventional wisdom and seeing Michael Jackson in new ways.
D.B.: Yes! But then there is still a subject matter knowledge problem, because how many journalists truly understand the facts? They learned about Michael through news, too. So, the other important development in my own thinking was realizing it was pointless to wait for some journalist to write what I wanted to read.
Willa: Yes, very few journalists really know the circumstances surrounding the allegations, and few seem to understand his true significance as an artist and cultural leader. I gradually came to that realization also. After he died I kept reading all these tributes, but to my mind even the positive ones seemed to miss the point about what was so special about him. It’s true he was an awe-inspiring singer and dancer, but he was so much more than that – he meant so much more than that – and none of the tributes I read seemed to get that. I kept looking for something that expressed what I felt, but it just wasn’t there. Nothing even came close. And finally I started writing about him, without really intending to, just to express what I was searching for and couldn’t find.
D.B.: I’m very glad you did. I probably owe you rent for the time spent on your pages! The pieces you’ve done on analysis and interpretation of his lyrics and imagery are the ones that stick with me the most. I’m sure that much of my understanding of “They Don’t Care about Us” was informed by your posts about the HIStory album.
In thinking about the media I came to appreciate that citizen journalism is widely practiced today – for example, most of the original reporting on the ground in Ferguson came not from reporters but from ordinary people who set up their own live streams and tweeted events.
CNN was literally days behind the activists in Ferguson. And everyone on social media knew it, and was complaining about it. The entire series of protests we’ve had over the last year – all of them – if you want to know what’s happening, you go on Twitter. Realizing this was a crucial turning point in my thinking. It was one of those ordinary citizens on the ground in Ferguson who first posted a clip of protesters blasting “They Don’t Care about Us” through open car windows. And it got passed around on social media among protesters, and then among fans, and that clip was really the first spark in what became “The Messenger King.”
The protesters continued to embrace and expand their use of “They Don’t Care about Us” throughout the fall and it was so energizing to me, that these young people found meaning in a song that was released when they were toddlers or maybe not even born yet. And I could not stop thinking how understood Michael would feel, that someone finally gets it, what this song was all about. To me, it was a vindication in many ways. You know, Michael always played a long game.
Willa: That’s true, he did. And “They Don’t Care about Us” does seem to be a perfect channel for expressing the cultural zeitgeist right now – especially among young people – at this pivotal moment in history. For example, 2Cellos just released a video of their reinterpretation of “They Don’t Care about Us,” and it blew me away. Here it is:
Even without lyrics, this video superbly captures the underlying idea that we are just pawns in a game between superpowers who “really don’t care about us.”
D.B.: By now I’m convinced that Michael understood that “They Don’t Care about Us” was a critical piece of art. It explains why he fought so hard for it. He wanted it to live, and it is living. I suspect that Michael knew The New York Times would not have the last word, you know? He was a really long-term strategic thinker.
The protesters just organically reached for this music over and over through the months. So when “where are all the celebrities?” became a topic of conversation, and Questlove held up the Dixie Chicks as an example, I got angry, to be honest! I mean, I didn’t see any clips of Dixie Chicks songs at the rallies! Are you kidding me? No. Just no. Now Questlove had a very valid point – that it is very risky to speak out – and I totally agreed with his point. It just felt to me that he had opened the door with an excellent example, but if you want to talk about brave risk-takers, let’s get down to real. He was exactly right, and he set up my premise perfectly. But at first it made me mad, and that was the juice.
Everything finally gelled after an event on December 5, and that night I sat down and wrote “The Messenger King” in about four hours. The context was, Rolling Stone had just acknowledged that their “Rape on Campus” story had serious inaccuracies, but their statement did not accept responsibility and they said they’d been misled by their source. And then this happened:[tweet 540962876333506560 hide_media=’true’]
A media professional calling out other media for not verifying the source’s story. Publicly. In writing. With profanity for emphasis, no extra charge. When this clicked into place, I knew: The world is open to receive. This is the right moment; this is Michael’s time. Go.
And so I did. Well I didn’t write it, so much as channel it. Wrote it on Friday, spent the weekend figuring out where to submit it, submitted it on Monday, and it was published on Tuesday.
Willa: Wow, D.B., that’s amazing.
D.B.: I am as amazed as anyone else, really!
And then just days after that, the Sony hack happened and there was another opportunity on a silver platter. I would never have recognized Bernard Weinraub’s name had I not just fact-checked myself for “Messenger King” by re-reading Vogel. He is mentioned in Joe’s commentary on “They Don’t Care about Us,” so when I saw Weinraub in the early hack coverage, his name was fresh on my mind. I was blown away because here was a chance to go deeper into the meaning of “They Don’t Care about Us” and answer Weinraub and put that whole controversy into the “ridiculous” department where it belonged. I knew I had to write it while the iron was hot. It was a very frenzied December! I never got my Christmas things out of storage, at all.
Willa: And I’m so glad you seized the moment like you did. It obviously struck a nerve – just look at all the attention it received! So it seems like, for you, one key lesson from all this is timeliness. To have impact, “citizen journalists” as you put it, have to get their message out at just the right moment – when a relevant story is a hot topic, and news outlets are receptive to what they’re trying to say.
D.B.: Yes. Neither story would have had as much impact without the timing. Sony and the protests were in the news, and I didn’t want to write just for fans. I wanted to reach the protesters and the media and the music industry and regular people. There was only a short window to catch a wide audience.
But just as crucial is to be ready when the opportunity comes by being prepared – you never know when it will appear. So all the thinking and writing and reading prepared me for the moment. The opportunity was there for anyone to take, but no journalist got either story, because they were not prepared.
First, they just don’t know all the history. Second, they don’t know that they don’t know it. And third, they’re already very busy. But I got some great comments from members of the press after they read my pieces. So contrary to popular wisdom, I feel like the press now generally has open minds to Michael.
Willa: And that’s a really important insight, and an important opportunity. But you have me very curious, B.D. What were some of the comments you received? And who sent them?
D.B.: After “Messenger King” was published, I got a phone call from a popular columnist. And he asked me, “did you really just say that Michael Jackson was framed by a white prosecutor? That he was a victim of police brutality?” And I thought he was going to rip into me. But instead he told me, “You have said what everyone else has been afraid to say.”
Willa: Really? He actually said that?
D.B.: He did! Willa, I was shaking, because you don’t get calls like this every day. And you know, his remark was so profound. A lot of journalists know there is something rotten in Denmark. They know it. Oh, they know – it’s saying it out loud that’s the problem. But as I say, the younger journalists, they are not invested in the old status quo. Changes will be made.
The biggest compliment I got was the estate posted a link to “Messenger King” on Michael’s official website. That will always be special to me. But for purposes of this discussion, their doing so has a message: “We endorse and agree with the position. This is who Michael was.” I think they’re telling us how we can help them.
Willa: That’s interesting. So you took the initiative and wrote that first article and got it published, and at just the right time when it would garner a lot of attention. But then once it started gaining momentum, the Estate helped push things along?
D.B.: I’m not sure how it occurred exactly. I just know that after, maybe 4 days or so, someone contacted me and said, go look at Michael’s Facebook page. The estate had seen the article – whether they are always scanning the media or whether someone sent it to them, I don’t know – they had seen it and posted about it on his website and then promoted it through his social media. And I was just stunned because I haven’t ever seen them do this before.
Since then, the estate has taken the social justice theme and run with it several times. They posted about Michael’s work during Charlie Hebdo attacks, when people were singing “Heal The World,” things like that. And, Willa, since we began this conversation yesterday, the estate has just done a post on the Baltimore dancer we spoke of! So it’s clear to me, this is where they most want the global conversation to go, in terms of his image, and well it should, because it’s absolute truth about him as a person.
Willa: And as an artist. It’s moments like these when the power of his art really shines through.
D.B.: Oh yes. This is why he did what he did. Exactly for this.
Willa: So what about your second article? Did you receive feedback from the press about it as well?
D.B.: On the piece about The New York Times, I’ll let them speak for themselves. Here’s S.I. Rosenbaum, Senior Editor at Boston Magazine:
Then there’s Wesley Lowery, national reporter covering law enforcement and justice for The Washington Post:[tweet 545945720403263488 hide_media=’true’]
And Bomani Jones, sports journalist at ESPN:
Willa: Wow, D.B. Reading these just does me a world of good! It’s like a tonic. And it’s really motivating.
And I see what you’re saying … it does seem like some people in the media are open to taking a closer look at the controversies surrounding Michael Jackson, and at the media’s complicity in perpetuating them – and even creating them, as in the Weinraub case.
D.B.: It was a very eye-opening and encouraging experience. You know, how many times have people said, “when are journalists going to write the truth about Michael?” And there has been a perception that the media is united in its intent to give MJ a bad rap. But this really taught me this isn’t the case nowadays. My articles were news to them!
The journalists who read the pieces – and there were more of them than I have named here – are now, I hope, more likely to consider Michael thoughtfully in the future. Over time, I think if Michael’s advocates continue to take ownership on getting the history out, the press will delve deeper and do the parts that only they can. So I really hope that more of your readers will step out into citizen journalism too, speaking to an audience beyond the fan base, because they have the power to effect change. We can be the “live streamers” and point the way.
Willa: I agree, and this idea of citizen journalism is really exciting. Did you have any worries or concerns?
D.B.: I did have some real trepidation about doing the Weinraub/“They Don’t Care about Us” story. I was concerned that people would think I was attacking Sony – it wasn’t my goal. It’s about Weinraub, and what he was possibly up to with David Geffen, and lack of professionalism in journalism, and the very self-centered, dare I say racist, view that Weinraub took. Sony was not my target but I rode the wave. I felt slightly uncomfortable about that, but I knew that’s how the headline game is played. I was a little nervous too about taking on The New York Times, and I obsessed over making the story as bullet-proof as I could.
Willa: So have you heard from anyone at the Times?
D.B.: Not a word! I never expected the story to take off the way it did. It was helped greatly when Max Read, the editor at Gawker, included it in the Sony Hack pop-up blog, which was an enormous source of new readers. It had gotten, I think, a couple thousand page views already, so I emailed Max cold, and he said (I’m paraphrasing) “Fantastic; stories like this are exactly why we are publishing the emails. I am adding your story and apologize in advance for the trolls you will get.” And this is not to be believed, but I swear it is true – I got virtually none of the usual MJ haters. Interacting with readers in the comment section at Kinja was my favorite part.
Willa: That’s wonderful! Perhaps I’m being naive, but I really hope that we’ve moved past that intense stage of the hysteria, with all the mindless name-calling and saying terrible things without any sort of substantive evidence. It does seem that, in talking about Michael Jackson now, the conversation tends to be a little more restrained, and a little more nuanced and open-minded. But I’m very worried that the Robson-Safechuck allegations could set off a whole new round of hysteria. I worry about that a lot, actually.
D.B.: Willa, my experience shows that the majority of people believe he is innocent, or want to believe it. There is an awakening. What people still need in order to seal the deal in their minds, are facts. And when they are reading a reasonable story, they respond in a reasonable way. Michael’s story becomes a much less complicated one when you see the obvious – that he was a rebel and a social justice fighter in the style of Gandhi, and that he was persecuted by racist law enforcement. No voodoo in sight. It’s an easier thing to believe.
I think a good strategy is to completely ignore Robson/Safechuck. Don’t feed that beast. Instead, I would like to see advocates creating their own content, really good content that calls attention to the true issues: his philanthropy, or the use of his music in times of trouble, like in Paris – or interview ten children who were assisted with their medical issues by Michael. Write about how MJ put on the 9/11 concert but no one knew it. Write about AIDS. Write about South Central LA and school shootings. Lots and lots of possibilities. But with Robson, it’s different. In my opinion the current tabloid stories need to be starved of oxygen. No clicks, no commenting, no yelling at the author, just … radio silence. That is the kiss of death for a story and a reporter.
Willa: I see what you’re saying, but it also feels risky to let false claims go unanswered. Some pretty wild rumors have been circulated about him, and sometimes they get a lot of attention – even when there is concrete information contradicting them – because that information doesn’t get out. But I understand your point that giving those stories attention helps perpetuate them. It’s complicated.
D.B.: Robson’s lawyers are intentionally leaking stuff to the tabloids, as a strategy to get the estate to settle.
Willa: It does seem that way, especially with the timing of how they’ve announced the allegations. The Robson accusations were made public during the AEG trial, and the Safechuck allegations came out the day before the release of Xscape. And then there are all the really lurid leaks to the tabloids. It seems to me that Robson and Safechuck’s law firm – and they have the same law firm working for them – is engaged in a pretty sophisticated media campaign to embarrass and harass the Estate and force them to settle, as you say.
D.B.: Exactly. I’m not buying. No one believes Wade Robson. And I have more faith in journalism than I did before.
But never underestimate tabloids. So if it does get to the state where hysteria goes around, that is the moment when one of us needs to pounce on it with a story, which I hope someone is already working on right now, about Robson not getting the job at Cirque du Soleil which apparently caused his “remembering.”
And I would go for it right out of the gate with an opening sentence like “It’s widely believed that Michael Jackson was the victim of malicious prosecution by a zealous and bigoted district attorney in 2005. Now another has tried …” That story should be ready and waiting to be published at the critical media time, with last minute edits where needed, no matter which way the case ends up. In other words, I’d love to see a citizen journalist with a story on why Wade lost. But either way, a citizen journalist story can give the rest of the press some factual nutrition. Otherwise they’re just looking at a giant void filled with tabloid trash. Citizens are the anti-tabloid. We give the press choices.
Yes, now that you mention it, it would be very strategic to do a victory lap story, one that drives the final stake into the heart of this nonsense forever.
Willa: Sounds like you’ve already started writing it, D.B.! … at least in your head. And I hope you do.
D.B.: I enjoy thinking about strategy but don’t think the Robson story is in my wheelhouse. I am certain there are others more qualified to do a Robson story. Maybe we will get some volunteers in the comments section!
Willa: Maybe so – you’ve certainly motivated me to think about new ways to work within the media. And I hope you’ll join me again to talk more about citizen journalism. This has been so enlightening as well as inspiring. I feel like you’re helping to chart a course for how we really can change the world. Thank you for joining me and sharing your insights!
D.B.: Thank you very much for having me, Willa. I enjoyed talking with you.
Willa: In response to recent high-profile cases of white police officers killing unarmed black men – a terribly familiar story whose latest victims include Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City – #BlackLivesMatter protesters have been organizing demonstrations and staging protests across the nation, including shutting down roads in cities and towns from Massachusetts to California, Illinois to Georgia. And as D.B. Anderson pointed out in an insightful article in The Baltimore Sun, many of these protesters have been singing Michael Jackson’s anthem giving voice to the voiceless, “They Don’t Care about Us.”
However, as our friend Eleanor Bowman pointed out in a recent email, there’s another Michael Jackson song, less well known, that speaks directly and powerfully to this abuse of power. It’s “We’ve Had Enough,” whose haunting lyrics tell stories of innocent people killed by men in uniform. For example, it begins with this story:
She innocently questioned why
Why her father had to die
She asked the men in blue
“How is it that you get to choose
Who will live and who will die?
Did God say that you could decide?
You saw he didn’t run
And that my daddy had no gun”
Eleanor, you’re right – this song could have been written today. It’s chilling how closely the stories it tells parallel recent events. But then, this is a very old story, as Greg Carey, a professor of theology, posted in an article on The Huffington Post.
Eleanor: Hi Willa, and thanks for inviting me to join you in this discussion of “We’ve Had Enough,” one of Michael Jackson’s most powerful protest songs.
Willa: Thank you for joining me!
Eleanor: And thanks for linking to D.B. Anderson’s great column about “They Don’t Care about Us,” which is so closely related to “We’ve Had Enough.” I was glad that D.B. pointed out that the protesters were singing Michael’s song, because nowhere else in the news media did I see Michael’s name or “They Don’t Care about Us” mentioned in relation to the protests.
Willa: Actually, I saw it mentioned several times, though some reporters seemed surprised that the protesters were singing a Michael Jackson song. But D.B. wasn’t. And actually, if you know his history and how he was targeted by prosecutors – charged with crimes based on very shaky evidence, presumed guilty by the police and the media, forced to endure a humiliating strip search and very public trial, and ultimately driven from his home – it makes perfect sense that those protesters would be singing his music, especially “They Don’t Care about Us.”
Eleanor: I think the “they” in “They Don’t Care about Us” is the same “they” he sings about in “We’ve Had Enough” (“They’ve gotta hear it from you … me … us”), just as the “us” in “They Don’t Care about Us” is the same “us” he sings about in “Earth Song”: “What about us?” And possibly the “we” in “We’ve Had Enough” unites the “they” with the “us” – just a thought. But, no matter how you look at it, Michael Jackson gets a lot of mileage out of pronouns.
Willa: He really does …
Eleanor: “We’ve Had Enough” really gets to me, right from the start – that beautiful voice filled with sadness and outrage singing that incredible opening line:
Love was taken
From a young life
And no one told her why
Willa: Yes, and then we learn soon after that the “love” that “was taken” from this young girl was the love and protection of her father, who was killed in “one more violent crime.” But ironically and tragically, this “violent crime” was committed by the police. So the “men in blue” who should have protected him were the ones who killed him.
Eleanor: Right, and the lesson, the dim light, from that violent crime is what will give direction or misdirection to her life. Given recent events, “We’ve Had Enough” is a painful reminder that the more things change, the more they remain the same. In fact, just recently I received a link to news of a similar heartbreaking event. A life was not lost, but the love and care of a grandfather was taken from other young lives, hopefully only temporarily.
And, then there’s the son of New York Times’ columnist Charles Blow, who was accosted by a police officer at gunpoint as he was exiting the Yale library. In the case of Charles Blow’s son, both the young man and the officer were black, so the significant point was that the officer was wearing a uniform, and therefore, acting officially.
As Carey says in the article you linked to:
Race dynamics have indeed changed in our society. But the basic pattern: an unarmed but anonymous black man (or boy), a confrontation with law enforcement, something goes wrong, and the law enforcement officer empties his weapon. So familiar.
And soooo depressing … and so unjust. (Are we beginning to feel the outrage yet? Can you feel it?)
But the first verse of “We’ve Had Enough’ doesn’t tell the whole story – or at least the story Michael Jackson wants to tell. So he includes a second verse where another child, perhaps in Iraq or Afghanistan, is also orphaned, but this time the uniform is military. And this story, too, is depressingly familiar:
In the middle of a village
Way in a distant land
Lies a poor boy with his broken toy
Too young to understand
He’s awakened, ground is shaking
His father grabs his hand
Screaming, crying, his wife’s dying
Now he’s left to explain
He innocently questioned why
Why his mother had to die
What did these soldiers come here for?
If they’re for peace, why is there war?
Did God say that they could decide
Who will live and who will die?
All my mama ever did
Was try to take care of her kids
In “We’ve Had Enough,” Michael Jackson has described two tragic and all-too-familiar situations – an innocent man killed by police and an innocent woman killed by a bomb or a missile, both victims of “impersonal” state actions.
Willa: Yes, and that’s a very important point, Eleanor. By paralleling these two stories the way he does, Michael Jackson draws a connection between them – and forces us to see that connection also. Through juxtaposition, we are forced to see the similarities between the girl whose father is killed by a policeman on a city street, and the boy whose mother is killed by a soldier.
Eleanor: Right. And in revealing these similarities, he shows us that these events are not isolated incidents but part of a larger cultural pattern, a pattern of behavior in which an agent of the state takes an innocent life, apparently by mistake, and no one does anything about it. And the children left behind, also victims, bereft of their parents’ love and care, seem to be the only ones asking why.
But you know something interesting, Willa? In each story he deliberately leaves a critical piece of information out, brilliantly relying on us to fill in the blanks.
In the first story he doesn’t specify the little girl’s race – all we know is that love was taken from a girl’s life for an unknown reason. She could be any race; she could be anyone’s daughter. We all immediately feel for her. No race, no prejudice. But then the circumstances (an urban environment, a man killed by police – those whose job is to serve and protect) suggest that she is African-American.
And in the second, the song doesn’t specify the boy’s nationality – he only is a poor boy in a distant land to whom some unknown horror has happened. So we are drawn in and our sympathy is aroused. But again, the circumstances (a war zone, a woman killed by soldiers – peacekeepers – a Peacekeeper missile? – whose mission is to bring peace) suggest that this isn’t just any foreign child. He is Iraqi or Afghani, at any rate an inhabitant of some country that the US is taking an unhealthy interest in, and very possibly, he is Muslim.
MJ’s knowledge that he can rely on us to fill in the blanks, itself, speaks volumes – revealing both his understanding of human nature and his knowledge of our awareness of these atrocities. These stories, or stories like them, are old news to us, and he knows it. He also knows that by not identifying the girl’s race or the boy’s nationality that we are more likely to identify with and sympathize with them, but that once the circumstances of their parents’ deaths are revealed, whether we are black or white, we will have a pretty good idea of the girl’s race and the boy’s nationality, which proves that we are well aware of the fact that both innocent black lives and innocent Iraqi or Pakistani lives are taken. We know who these people are by the way they are treated! We cannot claim to be innocent of this information. The reckless taking of innocent lives like these has become business as usual (or not our business).
Willa: I don’t know, Eleanor. I mean, a boy from my high school was killed by police our junior year, and he was white.
Eleanor: But you still remember it because it was not routine, the way the killing, and incarceration, of black men and boys has become. I thought it was interesting that at the Oscar ceremony earlier this week, Common brought up the fact that there are more black men incarcerated in US prisons today than were enslaved before the Civil War.
Willa: Yes, and those incarceration rates are a national tragedy.
But I think I remember Brad’s death because it was so terrible. I mean, I had known him since third grade. He had a very lively sense of humor that got him into trouble sometimes, but teachers still really liked him. You could tell. And other kids liked him too. So he wasn’t mean or anything like that – just a really funny guy. But he was going through kind of a wild phase in high school and went out joyriding with a friend one night, and the police became involved and he was killed. There was an inquest and the review board determined that the police acted appropriately.
And a few years ago a young white man from my town – the father of a 2-year-old girl – was killed by police while stopped at a rest area on the interstate. He got into some sort of altercation with state troopers and had a gun in his hand and refused to drop it, and they shot and killed him. They later discovered the gun wasn’t loaded. I was talking to a friend who knew him well, and he said they called it “suicide by police” – that they thought he actually wanted to be killed by the police. And my friend said, as horrible as it sounds, he thought that might be true. He had known this young man since he was a kid and was just torn up by his death, but he said he’d been really depressed lately and acting kind of reckless, and he thought what happened really might be a kind of suicide.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s really complicated. The police have a very difficult job, and it isn’t just a black-and-white issue. As you mentioned earlier, the policeman who pulled a gun on Charles Blow’s son was black, and young whites – especially those who are poor or homeless or abused or struggling in some way – are killed by police, though blacks are much more likely to be targeted than whites are. Much more likely. And whites are not immune to bombs either – just look at all the innocent lives lost in northern Ireland. So while race is definitely a huge part of the picture, we’re all living in a very militarized time and we are all potential targets – though some are much more likely targets than others are.
Eleanor: But, Willa, it doesn’t sound like these deaths were in any way routine. And that’s the point I was trying to make, and that’s what I think Michael Jackson is trying to point out – that the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police in the US have become so routine that they have ceased to matter. #BlackLivesMatter indicates things haven’t changed, which is what all the recent protests have been about.
“We’ve Had Enough” focuses specifically on tragedies that are the result of the state taking actions against people who are not enemies of the state, but US citizens or citizens of other countries which we are not formally at war with. It tells the stories of gratuitous, careless killings of the poor and vulnerable, carried out by powerful state agents, armed to the teeth. The people in these stories are killed for no reason: the girl’s father is no criminal, and the boy’s mother is no enemy combatant. In fact, if he is referring to Pakistan or Afghanistan, we are not at war with her country, but only with the enemy combatants within it. MJ is telling us that from the state’s point of view, it doesn’t matter whether or not they represent any real threat because their lives don’t matter, and then he is asking us why.
Depending on the states, different groups are expendable. Which is another reason the song leaves both race and nationality out. Because, although in terms of the US, blacks are disproportionately on the receiving end of police action, and post 9/11, Muslims have become military targets, depending on who you are and where you live, you would fill in the blanks differently.
Willa: And we might fill in the blanks differently at different times in history also. At different times in American history, for example, recent immigrants from Mexico or Japan or Ireland or Italy or the Mideast or Korea or Poland or Puerto Rico or China or wherever have been discriminated against and treated as if their lives don’t matter. And American Indians have certainly been treated as if their lives don’t matter.
And I think Michael Jackson is speaking up for all those who are outcast, for whatever reason, though I certainly agree that a disproportionate number of police victims in the US are black, and a disproportionate number of bombing victims are somehow “Other” – other races, other religions, other nationalities and ethnicities. In fact, I’ve heard some very troubling discussions about the fact that the US dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities but never on a European city. If Germany or Austria or Italy had still been in the war in August 1945, would we have dropped atomic bombs on them? Or is that unthinkable to Americans?
Eleanor: Interesting. And I am having a hard time imagining the US using drones to bomb targets in Europe, even if there was strong evidence of concentrations of Islamic extremists there.
Willa: Yes, it’s like American policymakers use different rules for those who they see as similar to themselves, and those they see as Other.
So I think the issue of race hangs heavy over these two stories that begin “We’ve Had Enough,” but I also think it’s significant that it’s left unspoken. In some ways, it makes racial prejudice an even more potent part of the story precisely because it’s unspoken, forcing us to work through that complicated history in our own minds.
Eleanor: Exactly. But I would say race is the issue in the first, but nationality is the key to the second.
Willa: Yes, or religion or ethnicity or some combination of those divisions. But however we interpret it or mentally picture it in our own minds as we hear these stories, Michael Jackson just sounds heart-sick as he sings these verses, and I think he would be just as saddened by a child who lost a parent in northern Ireland as by a child who lost a parent in Iraq or the Sudan or Serbia or Israel or Southeast Asia. From the child’s perspective, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the loss of the mother or the father – and “We’ve Had Enough” encourages us to consider the perspective of that child who’s lost a parent.
Eleanor: Of course, he would. But I think he’s trying to get us to look at the loss of these two lives as representative of specific types of situations – where lives are taken recklessly and casually – as if they don’t matter, because to so many of “us” they don’t.
Willa: Yes, I would agree with that. And I think that’s the message of “They Don’t Care about Us” as well, as you mentioned earlier.
Eleanor: And to focus our attention on these events, he shows us just how much they do matter to him, singing each story in a voice loaded with sorrow and loss and telling each story from the perspective of the child whose life has been destroyed – a child who has not yet been programmed to unquestioningly accept her or his fate as par for the course or the natural order of things. His voice reflects their pain and confusion.
These children, understandably, want to know “Why?” (Even if we don’t, even if we think we know why.) Why would a policeman (whose mission is to serve and protect) shoot an unarmed man – and deprive a little girl of a loving father? Why would soldiers (whose stated mission is peace) take the life of a poor boy’s mother, a woman who spent her days taking care of her kids, leaving his father devastated, “screaming and crying [as] his wife’s dying”?
And, he wants us to focus on a second question, which the children also raise: who or what gives these men in uniform the right to take their parents’ lives? What role does God or religion, if any, play in these events? Has God decided that these lives don’t matter?
Willa: Eleanor, I think you’ve just zeroed in on the key issue at the heart of this song: what gives one person the right to kill another person? And Michael Jackson’s answer seems to be that nothing does. Nothing gives them that right. As he sings, “Did God say that they could decide / Who will live and who will die?” He seems to be saying that only God has the right to make that decision, so only God can confer that right – not the state, not a badge, only God. If that soldier and that policeman weren’t given the right to kill directly from God – and they weren’t – then they don’t have that right.
Eleanor: Well, I agree, he certainly seems to be saying that. But I’m not convinced that’s where he’s going with this. For one thing, we don’t know whose god the children are talking about or even if it is the same god. Is it the god of white supremacists or the god of the black church? Is it a Christian god or a Muslim god? Is it your god or mine?
And, so far, all he’s given us is questions, not answers. But, by having the children ask these questions, he both raises some very serious issues and ups the emotional ante, arousing the outrage most people would feel when innocent children are victims.
Willa: That’s true, it is children asking these questions, and children are among the most defenseless and voiceless. So the image of a small child asking a towering man in uniform “Why?” – why did you kill my father? why did you kill my mother? – is incredibly moving.
Eleanor: Yes, it is. And it works. We are moved and we are outraged, at least for the moment and for the fictional children in the song, who, through Michael Jackson’s artistry, are brought fully alive. But once we get into grappling with the questions they raise, we get into the area of blame and we get into trouble.
Hearing either story by itself, we might place the blame on the policeman who fired the shot or the soldier who released the missile or dropped the bomb. But, showing us that these stories are part of a larger pattern characterized by the repetition of violent acts resulting in the taking of innocent lives carried out by agents of the state, Michael Jackson begins to redirect our rage away from the police or the military, who in the larger sense didn’t make the fatal decision, and toward the states they represent, the states who have apparently decided that these lives don’t matter.
And then he complicates things even more: through the children’s questions about God, he opens up the related questions. If God said that the state “could decide who would live and who would die,” then does that make the state God’s agent, and does being an agent of the state imply that one is an agent of God? And if God said that the state “could decide who would live and who would die,” does that mean that God allows the state to decide which lives matter and which ones don’t? Who or what bears the ultimate responsibility for this insanity?
Willa: I think I see what you’re getting at, Eleanor. So when the children say, “Did God say you could decide?” you think they aren’t just questioning the men in uniform but the idea of a loving God also, for letting this happen. That’s interesting – I hadn’t thought about it that way.
Eleanor: Well, their questions do introduce the topic of God and raise the issue of the relationship between God and the state. The little girl seems to assume that the state acts without God’s blessing. She is issuing a challenge:
How is it that you get to choose
Who will live and who will die?
Did God say that you could decide?
While the little boy seems to be asking the more philosophical question:
Did God say that they could decide
Who will live and who will die?
Willa: I see what you’re saying. I only saw one interpretation before – the girl’s implied statement that the police didn’t have the right to take her father’s life. And I saw the boy as simply repeating that. But you’re right, there’s a subtle but important difference between them.
For one thing, the girl is challenging the police directly (“Did God say that you could decide?”) while the boy is asking his father to explain what happened (“Did God say that they could decide?”). And that subtle shift in pronouns from “you” to “they” really changes the situation and how we interpret it. So once again we’re back to pronouns … And like you, I think Michael Jackson’s sophisticated use of pronouns to shift perspective is nothing short of brilliant – and something we see throughout his work.
So as you pointed out, Eleanor, the girl is standing up to the police in the heat of the moment and asking them to justify their actions, while the boy is genuinely struggling to understand, perhaps days or weeks or even years later, and is asking his father to help him understand.
Eleanor: Yes, and the mental image of his poor father, who was powerless to save his wife’s life and who is left to explain the unexplainable to his now motherless son, is so heartbreaking.
Willa: It really is. My father lost his father when he was five years old, and I know from personal experience that it can take a lifetime to come to grips with that loss. Few things are more devastating to a child than the loss of a parent.
Eleanor: That’s so sad, Willa. I can’t even imagine it.
But let’s distance ourselves from the emotional content of these stories for a minute and look at the underlying logic. Both stories make clear that the men in uniform, agents of the state, are directly responsible for the deaths of the children’s parents, and both children seem to assume that only God has the power to decide who will live and who will die, so it appears that the only explanation is that God gave the state permission to take their parents’ lives. Which makes no sense at all to either child.
If their parents are innocent, then either God is evil or the state has somehow usurped God’s power, both of which are theological impossibilities. The only other logical explanation is that the children are lying and their parents are guilty of something. But this is Michael Jackson singing this song, and in MJ’s world, children don’t lie and children see clearly. It is this quality of wise innocence that MJ cherished and that these children represent. These children are the real deal.
Although adults may rationalize evil into good, the deep wisdom of children allows them to get to the heart of the matter. No matter how you look at it, in this song, they are telling us, something is rotten, something doesn’t make sense, something doesn’t add up. If “God” gave these men the right to take these innocent lives, what kind of god is that? (With friends like these…??) The children see an inherent contradiction. They are not confused by convoluted political – or theological – sophistry that turns good into evil and evil into good, such as arguments that might claim that merely being black or being born in a distant land, now defined as enemy territory, makes their parents guilty, and justifies their killing. They are not calloused or inured or jaded or brainwashed. They are truly innocent. And they know, when things like this happen, something (our understanding of the nature of reality or even our understanding of the nature of “God”) is “out of joint.”
The children’s heartbreaking stories and their simple, straightforward, and perfectly natural questions reveal inherent contradictions in conventional assumptions about the nature of God (at least the God of the Abrahamic religious traditions) who is conventionally assumed to be both all good and all powerful. And, these contradictions suggest that this God is not God, that the God of most organized religions, is not what it is cracked up to be.
Willa: And that brings up a question people have struggled with for millennia: why would a loving, all-powerful God allow terrible things to happen? Why would a loving God allow the Holocaust to happen, or war or famine or disease or torture? We see Michael Jackson grappling with this question in his talks with Rabbi Schmuley Boteach – for example, in a chapter of The Michael Jackson Tapes called “Karma and Justice”:
MJ: I don’t believe in karma. I think that is a bunch of crap, because so many mean-spirited, evil people are on top of the world and doing well and people love them, no matter how evil they are.
SB: I love it when you make strong statements like that.
MJ: Well, I’m sorry, it’s crap. Karma is a theory like any other theory that some human made up.
SB: Well, “what goes around comes around” is ok, because there’s great truth to that. But karma could actually be evil because karma says that handicapped children did something bad in a previous life.
MJ: That’s a fine line and I’m sorry for talking like that. But I hate whoever says something like that. A child did something in a past life so God is going to handicap them? There were all these orphans in this one country coming to America to be adopted. The plane crashed. Every child on the plane died. Why? If you could save those kids, if you were in Heaven, you would say, “This one is not going down. Maybe another one, but not this one.” I know I would.
Eleanor: That’s a really interesting exchange, Willa. It clearly shows Michael struggling with these issues and shows that he wasn’t willing to accept “off-the-shelf theology.” If we believe an all-powerful god is responsible for everything that happens, and we are morally outraged by many things that happen, as MJ was, then we are adopting a position that says humans are more moral than God, which in conventional religious thought is a no-no.
But regardless of the flaws in theo-logic, someone’s god is often given as an explanation for those things which otherwise are inexplicable, and someone’s god generally is thought to have the power of life and death, and someone’s god’s will has often been invoked as the reason behind state actions. And I think Michael Jackson really wants us to focus on and question the assumption many people make concerning the relationship between state actions and the will of God, how an assumption of such a relationship, even if unconscious, seems to paralyze our will and absolve us of personal responsibility. I think he wants us to think about exactly who “the state” is, whose will the state is really carrying out – and how anyone could believe that any lives don’t matter.
Willa: I agree. While “We’ve Had Enough” talks quite a bit about God in a way that may lead us to question conventional wisdom and even our own beliefs, I don’t think the focus of this song is on the concept of God – not really. I think it’s on us, and how people have appropriated the concept of God to advance their own ideology, whatever it may be.
Eleanor: And there is certainly a long history of exactly that. In ancient Greece and Rome, the emperor often was worshipped as a god, so his will in the arena of state actions was viewed as the will of a god. Then over time, this idea of the emperor-god evolved into the divine right of kings, which pretty much gave free rein to European monarchs and covered a multitude of sins and has fueled endless religious wars. And even today, there is plenty of evidence that suggests that states continue to believe, or act as if they believe, that they are instruments of divine will. Some god or other is a very convenient authority to appeal to for self-serving (in)human actions.
An argument could be made that the gods of organized religions, which have traditionally worked hand in glove with states, are actually thinly veiled “agents of the state” – a psychological construct that states have used for millennia to justify their actions and manipulate their citizen/subjects – especially in the area of sorting out the lives that matter from those that don’t.
Willa: Wow, Eleanor, there’s a lot to think about here. I think it’s true that “some god or other” is often “a very convenient authority to appeal to for self-serving (in)human actions.” In other words, nations or religions (or even football teams) frequently like to claim that God is on their side, and that their actions, no matter how violent, are carrying out God’s will.
Eleanor: And, don’t forget races. White supremacy and Christian fundamentalism often go hand in hand.
Willa: Unfortunately, that often seems to be the case. But I think you’re raising a very important point about the tendency for nations or other groups based on religion or race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or whatever to appropriate the idea of God and God’s will to justify their actions – especially when those actions are violent and repressive.
That’s something we see Michael Jackson struggling with in “All in Your Name” as well, as Joie and I talked about in a post last March. According to an article in The Guardian, “Jackson showed up at [Barry] Gibb’s doorstep with the unfinished song … about three months before the United States invaded Iraq.” In that song, he isn’t just questioning the looming war but all the things that are done “in Your Name.” He is so angry and upset with the terrible things that are being done in God’s name that he questions the very existence of God. But the idea of living his life without his strong belief in God deeply troubles him also, as he and Barry Gibb sing in the dual choruses:
So what is my life
If I don’t believe
There is someone to watch me?
Follow my dreams
Take all my chances
Like those who dare?
And where is the peace
We’re searching for
Under the shadows of war?
Can we hold out
And stand up
And say no?
Only God knows
It’s all in your name
Follow me to the gates of paradise
They’re the same
It’s all in your name
It seems to me that Michael Jackson’s belief in a loving God was one of the foundations of his life. He grew up in the church, and his religious beliefs helped guide him and keep him sane through all the craziness he went through. He can’t imagine life without it – as he repeatedly sings, “What is my life / If I don’t believe?”
But at the same time, such horrible things have been done and continue to be done in God’s name: “where is the peace / We’re searching for /Under the shadows of war? … It’s all in Your name.” And we continue to see the spread of religious intolerance and holy war throughout the Mideast, and in other parts of the war. That’s intolerable to him also.
Eleanor: So interesting, Willa….“Where is the peace?” is similar to a line out of “Earth Song” (“What about all the peace/That you pledge your only son?”), which was written years earlier. He had been dealing and struggling with these issues for such a long time.
Willa: Yes, I think so too. And so he finds himself at a crossroads, trying to understand what he should believe and what he should do. And in “All In Your Name” he seems to resolve that conflict by deciding to rise up and take a stand against religious wars and religious intolerance, while still maintaining his belief in a benevolent God. As he and Barry Gibb sing,
Can we hold out
And stand up
And say no?
Only God knows
Eleanor: I remember that discussion well, Willa, and that song so perfectly expresses the terrible dilemma he found himself faced with, given his own deep compassion and his deep feeling of connectedness to a power that he often referred to as L.O.V.E. It shows how deeply troubled, how desperate he felt at that time – and remember, he was in New York on September 11 and had witnessed that horror.
The song, and the accompanying story, also show that the “God question” and the problem of evil was an abiding concern of his. And his dilemma is exactly the dilemma faced by the children in “We’ve Had Enough.” At the core of their being, they know that their God, understood as love and a force for good, couldn’t be responsible for the evil that has befallen them and their parents; and God, understood as all powerful, wouldn’t allow such terrible things to happen. And yet they do happen. So what is the answer?
I think Michael Jackson found the solution to his dilemma in the clear-eyed innocent wisdom of children, like those in “We’ve Had Enough.” There, he found the evidence for the existence of, not an imperial god out there backing state actions and calling the shots and deciding that some lives matter while some do not, but what in some circles is called the god within – a powerful force for good, for the common good – that is accessible if we seek it, and that is all powerful if we unleash its force. But what a big “if.” Because we adults can, and in most cases do, choose to ignore it.
Unlike the rest of us, who in adulthood lose touch with our own wise innocence, MJ kept the channel wide open, keeping every emotion, every nerve ending alive, giving emotional depth and power to his work, and through this power, he was able to reach deep into our souls and touch our own innocence – the love and compassion which binds people together, rather than the fear and anger that drives them apart, and which he continued to believe was still there somewhere, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.
Willa: I agree, Eleanor, and I think he beautifully expresses this idea in “Heaven is Here,” a poem from Dancing the Dream. Here’s a wonderful reading of it:
There’s actually a whole series of these readings and I don’t know who’s creating them, but I love his voice. Anyway, as Michael Jackson says in the opening lines of this poem:
You and I were never separate
It’s just an illusion
Wrought by the magical lens of
There is only one Wholeness
Only one Mind
We are like ripples
In the vast Ocean of Consciousness
Come, let us dance
The Dance of Creation
Let us celebrate
The Joy of Life …
Eleanor: And that beautiful poem speaks to another recurring theme in his work, the idea that we are not separate beings, that “You’re Just Another Part of Me.”
Eleanor: Like the children in “We’ve Had Enough,” Michael Jackson was in touch with that inner power, that tie that binds. It informed his vision, giving him the ability and wisdom to see clearly and recognize the cruelty, the barbarity and utter senselessness – the insanity – of the type of acts described in “We’ve Had Enough.”
The children feel the deep wound of their losses – and the injustice – and so does he … and so should we all. But, as he points out in the next lines of the song, we don’t. Instead,
We’re innocently standing by
Watching people lose their lives
It’s as if we have no voice
If we are watching people lose their lives, how could we be “innocently standing by”? He could be using irony, or he could actually see us as innocent victims of religious and cultural brainwashing. My guess is that he means it both ways. That we are both innocent bystanders and guilty as sin.
And the outrage aroused at the beginning of the song, which seemed at first to be directed at the police or the military, we now find directed at the systems that have brainwashed us, and at us for allowing ourselves to be brainwashed. After all, we do have a voice, but we choose not to use it. It is our responsibility to put a stop to these acts, but we are shirking it. As Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Willa: He also seems to be suggesting that if we stand idly by “watching others lose their lives” then that disempowers us as well. It silences us: “It’s as if we have no voice.”
Eleanor: If we are standing by, believing ourselves to be innocent bystanders, while people lose their lives, clearly something is seriously wrong. To paraphrase “Earth Song,” “we don’t know where we are / but we know we’ve drifted far….” In other words, we’ve lost our moral compass.
On the other hand, we could do something instead of nothing, and MJ is telling us it is long past time for us to act:
It’s time for us to make a choice
Only God could decide
Who will live and who will die,
There’s nothing that can’t be done
If we raise our voice as one
They’ve gotta hear it from me
They’ve gotta hear it from you
They’ve gotta hear it from us
We can’t take it
We’ve already had enough
Deep in my soul, baby
Deep in your soul and let God decide
I think he is suggesting that we need to recognize that we are the medium for the expression of “God’s” will, and so he implores us in a voice filled with urgency and desperation to make that choice to open our hearts to that power “deep in [our] souls” and “let God decide.” And note the change from “only God could decide” to “let God decide” – putting the ball in our court.
Willa: Yes, and that’s an important distinction. It reminds me of the famous line by Abraham Lincoln that Barack Obama has quoted a number of times: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” In other words, he’s saying we should look within and try to use our understanding of God to guide us to do what’s right, rather than using God as justification to do what serves us best.
Eleanor: If we look deep in our souls and consult and access “the god within, the life force, the drive for the common good,” a global, rather than a national or a racial common good that includes us all, that does not sacrifice the good of one group to benefit another – if we “let God decide” – it will restore our moral compass and unleash all the power that has been blocked by our inner conflicts. I think Michael Jackson sincerely believes that this energy exists, and if we let this energy guide us, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.
And the title of the song suggests that once we get our heads on straight and restore the connection between heart and brain, we should feel these injustices as if they were happening to us. Because they are; we all suffer as a consequence of these actions. And he wonders when we will decide “We’ve Had Enough” and do something.
Willa: I agree, and I think that’s the meaning he’s trying to convey in the ad libs near the end of the song, beginning about 4:10 in:
They’ve gotta hear it from me
They’ve gotta hear it from you
They’ve gotta hear it from us
We’ve already had enough
(He’s my brother)
We’ve already had enough
(Dear God, take it from me
It’s too much for me
That’s my brother
It’s too much for me
That’s my brother, baby
That’s my lover)
We’ve already had enough
When an unarmed man – a father – is killed on the streets by a policeman, or a wife is killed in her own home by a bombing raid in a distant country, Michael Jackson doesn’t want us to think of it as something distant that doesn’t affect us. Instead, he wants us to take it personally, as if “That’s my brother” or “That’s my lover.” It’s happening to all of us.
Eleanor: And in choosing not to act, we are dooming ourselves.
Eleanor: I don’t know when “We’ve Had Enough” was written, but it was released with the Ultimate Collection in 2004, during that period leading up to his trial, a trial that could have ended with his imprisonment and the loss of his children – an intensely painful period that had begun ten years before, and it has the same feel – anger and desperation mixed with deep sadness and compassion and frustration – of much of his later work.
And something about the level of desperation in his voice leads me to believe that not only does he feel the pain of these children and thousands like them, but he views himself – and all of us – ensnared in the same vicious pattern, a pattern that in one way or another diminishes all of us, a pattern that he believed could be broken and must be broken.
But, tragically, shockingly, we still haven’t had enough. Years after this song was first recorded, the innocents continue to die in confrontations with police and military – especially since police forces have become increasingly militarized and military actions become more and more impersonal, young soldiers sitting at consoles, playing video games that take real lives.
But perhaps the stakes are too high. Speaking up can exact a high price, which he alludes to late in the song: “It’s up to me and I’m still alive.” But, tragically, today, he isn’t. Like the children in the song, he knew the difference between right and wrong, he confronted the state with incredible strength and courage, he opened his heart and let the power of the life force come through, and he encouraged us in his life and in his art to raise our voices against injustice. He never gave up. He never backed down. And, he paid the ultimate price.
Willa: Yes, and that’s something D.B. Anderson talks about as well, in that article we mentioned at the beginning of this post:
Michael Jackson was never afraid to put himself out there for the truth as he saw it. We could always count on Jackson to be the global leader of the band, to give voice to everything we were feeling. His adult catalog is a trove of social activism. Starvation. AIDS. War. Gang violence. Race relations. The environment. It was Jackson who put on concerts for war-torn Sarajevo. It was Jackson who put together a group charity song and concert after 9/11. It was Jackson who used every ounce of his global celebrity to make a difference. He was there.
What happened to Jackson for his politics was so much worse than losing sales. For in speaking truth to power, Jackson made himself a target …
And D.B. Anderson is right. He did make himself a target, and he paid a terrible price for it.
Eleanor: But he left us with that powerful truth that the stakes are too high not to act, and that desperate call to action:
They’ve gotta hear it from me
They’ve gotta hear it from you
They’ve gotta hear it from us
We can’t take it
We’ve already had enough
Willa: This week I am very happy to be joined by Susan Woodward, a psychoanalytically trained clinical social worker. She’s also the author of Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics, a book that provides important insights into the extremely harsh criticism that came to dominate media coverage of Michael Jackson and his work. Instead of simply ignoring or discounting this criticism, as many of us tend to do, Susan has dived right into the worst of it to try to uncover what motivates it. And what she’s found is fascinating!
Susan, thank you so much for joining me to talk about your research and analysis.
Susan: Willa, I am so honored to be invited to talk to you about Michael Jackson. I must note that your book M Poetica was an important inspiration for my book. I really admired the way you waded into the morass of some of the hot-button criticisms – plastic surgery, changing skin color, allegations of child abuse – and calmly, intelligently addressed them. I think that Jackson fans tend to shrink in horror from the most severe critics, and the critics see the fans as fanatics, but you were able to walk the middle ground of being a Jackson defender who was willing to look at the criticisms and deal with them even-handedly and effectively.
Willa: Thank you, Susan. I really appreciate that, and I think your work is so interesting and important. Instead of reacting against that harsh criticism Michael Jackson faced, or simply ignoring it as many of us tend to do, you’ve really tried to understand it. And one of the things you discovered while researching this is that, ironically, the cultural critics who were the most severe when writing about him also seem to believe that he possessed tremendous power. I was really surprised by that.
Susan: I was quite surprised as well.
Willa: So I’m curious, how did you first notice this? And what drew you to this research to begin with?
Susan: After Michael Jackson died I became interested in reading everything I could find about him. Along the way, I read some pretty hateful stuff, which I found increasingly puzzling, and even shocking, as I learned more about him. I’m a clinical social worker, so I’m always interested in what motivates people, and I wondered where all this vitriol came from. There were the child abuse allegations, but they were highly questionable accusations that were never proven, and there were abundant reasons to conclude that those allegations could not be true. And I eventually found that the allegations seemed to have little to do with the hatred that was leveled at him.
Willa: I agree. For example, Woody Allen has been accused of child sexual abuse also, but there hasn’t been the rush to judgment that there was with Michael Jackson, and there hasn’t been the extreme hysteria and antipathy that Michael Jackson faced. So there seems to be something more going on there. It’s almost like the abuse allegations gave people an excuse for expressing strong negative feelings about him that were already bubbling underground.
Susan: Yes. And at the time of the first allegations, in 1993, since he had already endured nearly a decade of inaccurate, exaggerated tabloid stories painting him as “bizarre,” the public was primed to believe that his “bizarreness” could extend to child abuse.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Susan. As Michael Jackson himself said in a speech when receiving a Grammy Legend Award, “I wasn’t aware that the world thought I was so weird and bizarre.” That was on February 24, 1993, a couple months before he met Evan Chandler. Then the allegations hit the newspapers in August, so it appears the press and the public were indeed “primed,” as you say, to see him as “weird and bizarre” – and perhaps guilty as well because of that.
Susan: Oh, yes. I think that the negative press he got had terrible consequences for him. I wanted to understand more about where that hostility came from.
Susan Fast, in her essay “Difference that Exceeded Understanding” (one of the best titles ever), pointed out that much of the hostility toward him was due to racism and a deep-seated discomfort with his “difference,” meaning the ways in which he was unreadable and unclassifiable. His signifiers for race, gender, age, and sexuality were hard to interpret and confusing to many. I call that difference his “otherness.” Although I don’t share in that discomfort with his otherness, at least I could understand that it might motivate some to criticize him. But I just had this nagging feeling that there was something else in the mix that I couldn’t identify.
So I kept reading. As I was reading a particularly hateful, long chapter of The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, one of the three works I analyze in my book, I began to notice that the author, amidst the vitriol, kept referring to Michael Jackson as a king or divine being and using other highly elevated descriptions. Often these terms were used sarcastically, but among the 23 authors included in the book, they all used that sort of language in describing him, along with a roughly equal number of disparaging and hateful terms. When I went back to look at the rest of Resistible Demise and then the other two works that I include in my book, I saw that there was an assumption that he was an extraordinarily powerful person.
And I mean a power that is quite different from the power that any famous, wealthy person would be perceived as having, and unprecedented for a musician. The critics I looked at for my book see him as a royal person or as having almost supernatural power. I cannot think of another figure in popular culture who was seen this way. But at the same time these critics just tear him apart for having those very qualities.
The three works I chose to analyze are Dave Marsh’s 1985 book Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream, Maureen Orth’s 2003 Vanity Fair article “Losing His Grip,” and The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, a collection of 23 essays published about six months after Michael Jackson died. I chose these particular works because they were each overviews of his life and work, rather than addressing just a particular event, and they were all harshly critical, even sometimes quite hateful.
Willa: Yes, though they’re very different, as you point out. In your book you show that, while they are all reacting very negatively to his supposed power, they didn’t all see his power the same way or react against it for the same reasons. For example, Dave Marsh seemed to think Michael Jackson had the power to heal racial divisions, and was deeply disappointed that he wasn’t using that power the way he wanted him to. And I have to say, there’s just something too ironic about a white man criticizing a black man for not doing enough to end racism – especially when that man is Michael Jackson, who has done more than anyone in recent memory to end help prejudice of all kinds, including racism.
Susan: Yes, well put! Marsh says that initially he was a Jackson fan who saw him as almost a messiah figure, someone who could lead America, and maybe even the world, into a new era free of racial, sexual, and political divisions. Marsh writes quite eloquently about that feeling.
Willa: He really does. And in an odd way he’s still a Michael Jackson fan because he sees such tremendous potential in him – not just musically but culturally and spiritually. And he keeps imposing his expectations onto him, the hopes of a white man looking for a powerful black figure to solve the complex problem of racism. For example, here’s a quote from near the end of Marsh’s book:
Michael Jackson is one thing before he is a singer or a success or a star or anything else. He is a black person in America. As a result, he set some old chains to clanking, stirred some ancient ghosts, incited some venerable dreams.
The ghosts of slavery and racism are four hundred years old but their power is fresh and strong. The dreams he incited are equally old – the fantastic hope that we can somehow be brought together long enough to lay those ghosts to rest.
Throughout his book, Marsh expresses tremendous respect for Michael Jackson’s musical talent, but also a longing for him to become a Moses-type cultural figure who will lead America out of racism. And that longing is coupled with a disgust that he isn’t Moses – that he isn’t fulfilling Marsh’s fantasy of who he wants him to be.
Susan: That is a very powerful passage from Trapped. It’s such a shame that Marsh couldn’t see how Michael Jackson’s otherness, which he criticizes so harshly, was the very reason that Marsh and others could project onto him “that fantastic hope.”
Willa: That’s a very good point, Susan. The real irony is that Michael Jackson actually was combatting the roots of racism – and much more effectively than anything Dave Marsh proposes – but he was doing it at a deep, almost subconscious level that Dave Marsh can’t comprehend. But instead of trying to understand what Michael Jackson is doing, Marsh attacks him for what he isn’t doing.
Susan: He should have cherished that otherness.
Willa: I agree. And then there’s Maureen Orth, who wrote some of the most sordid, inflammatory articles ever published about Michael Jackson. She felt he had tremendous power also, but it was the power to manipulate and even control people. So while Marsh believed he had a positive power that he was squandering, Orth believed he had a negative power that he was using all too well.
Susan: Yes, Maureen Orth really seems to be in the grips of that fear of Jackson’s otherness. You get the feeling that she thinks that he was so dangerous that he deserved to be driven to the ends of the earth. While she seems to fear his otherness, she also seems to feel that his otherness was exactly what gave him the power to manipulate others.
Willa: That’s really interesting, and something I hadn’t noticed before I read your book. She definitely seems to fear his difference, as you say – to the point of hysteria. For example, in her article she claims that Michael Jackson paid a Mali witchdoctor $150,000 to conduct a voodoo ceremony in Switzerland, and that as part of that ceremony he “ritually sacrificed” 42 cows. She actually published that in Vanity Fair. I think it goes without saying that that’s ridiculous – it makes no sense, and from what I can tell it has absolutely no basis in fact.
Some friends in Germany contacted the Federal Office of Agriculture (FOAG) in Switzerland for me, and the FOAG told them they have no evidence that anything like that ever happened. The FOAG tracks every cow in Switzerland from the time it’s born until it’s slaughtered and processed – they can tell you exactly which cow or cows are included in every package of beef sold in Switzerland – and they have no records of missing cows, no evidence of anything like this.
Susan: That is one masterful feat of fact checking!
Willa: It really is. I’m so grateful to them for doing that. But even without the FOAG, this story should strike any reasonable person as extremely improbable. For one thing, it goes against everything Michael Jackson stood for. But also, I just don’t think you could hide something like that. Cows are huge – around 1,000 pounds – so 42 cows would weigh about 20 tons. How could you hide 20 tons of dead cows? Where would you put them? How would you move them? You can’t just stick them in the trunk of your car. And yet the most obsessively surveilled man in history somehow did this, and no one knows anything about it? That just doesn’t seem possible. But Orth blindly accepts this wild story and reports it as true without any fact checking, as far as I can tell.
Susan: I found that little fact checking seemed to have been done for many of the things she said in that article. I have to say that I had a lot of fun doing the fact checking that should have been done before publication – and easily finding several glaring errors. She really seemed to want to believe what suited her about Michael Jackson. Along the same lines, she cites numerous sources for the article, but almost all of them are either anonymous, have some obvious motive to want to say bad things about him, or are people (such as plastic surgeons) who had no connection to him.
Willa: That’s true. The question is why she accepted such an outrageous story as true, and I think it’s because she was predisposed to believe it – she saw him as so completely Other that she thought he was capable of anything.
Susan: I certainly agree. I think that it’s significant that she begins her article with this unbelievable voodoo scenario. This story presents him as racially other, foolishly wasteful of large sums of money, and indifferent to the lives of others, in this case animals. Certainly it primes the gullible reader to believe that he was capable of anything.
Willa: It really does. And then there are the many critics in The Resistible Demise. Unfortunately, I haven’t read this collection of essays, but you show that these writers – and again, these are all music and cultural critics who are writing very negatively about him – expressed a belief that he had an almost supernatural power, which is very surprising. That is so unexpected. And while analyzing that you introduced two terms I hadn’t heard before: “angelism” and “beastialism.” Could you explain these a bit?
Susan: The term “angelism” was coined in the 1940s by Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher. Angelism is the erroneous view of humans as being primarily of a divine nature, purely spirit and intellect. Angelism does not refer specifically to angels, by the way. The opposite, and equally erroneous view, is that of beastialism, that humans are only motivated by bodily, selfish concerns, such as greed, lust, envy. These views are erroneous because, of course, we are all driven by some combination of both angelism and beastialism. Michael Jackson came to be seen by many as an angelistic being, someone who seemed to be free of the normal human categories of race, gender, and age. And he was seen by many as beastial, someone who was physically decaying and morally corrupt.
Willa: These are such useful concepts for understanding reactions to Michael Jackson, I think. I hadn’t heard these terms before, but after reading your book and learning about these ideas, I’ve been seeing this angelism/beastialism split applied to him constantly, both by those praising him and those criticizing him.
Susan: Yes, once you’re aware of that angelism/beastialism split, you just see it in so much of how he was viewed.
Willa: You really do. And you know, it’s really interesting how these categories tie in with Eleanor Bowman’s ideas of transcendence, as she talked about with us in a post a while back. Transcendence views some humans primarily in terms of mind – they aim to “transcend” the limits of their bodies – while other humans are seen primarily as bodies. These two categories seem to map pretty directly onto the divisions you’re talking about, with angelism viewing humans primarily in terms of mind – “purely spirit and intellect,” as you said – while beastialism views humans primarily in terms of the body, and its needs and desires. Is that right?
Susan: I would agree with you. The transcendent worldview involves seeing spirit as separate from matter, and matter as inferior to spirit. It’s a polarized way of perceiving reality, very much like the extreme poles of angelism and beastialism. Michael Jackson’s critics used the beastial end of the transcendent spectrum to debase him, to compensate for the angelistic, much more flattering view of him.
Willa: Yes, but while the angelistic view tends to be more positive, it’s just as unrealistic and can be just as problematic. Eleanor sees Michael Jackson as challenging that division, and offering a new vision – one of immanence – where mind and body are fully integrated, indivisible. But the critics you researched seem to fall into that transcendental view of separating mind from body, and see him strictly as one or the other. So what are some examples of critics viewing Michael Jackson through the lens of angelism? And of beastialism?
Susan: The Resistible Demise (I still don’t know what that title means) is very fertile ground for examples of angelistic and beastialistic views of Michael Jackson. Many of the words used on both sides of that polarity were so extraordinary that I included lists of them in my book. For example, on the beastial side, authors of the essays use words and phrases such as “freakish,” “inhuman,” “precious weirdo girl-man,” “not unlike Darth Vader – a degenerating husk of pale flesh kept barely alive by a complex mediating machinery,” “Zombie Jackson,” “auto-castrated asexual,” “creature of absolute soulessness,” “monster,” “genuine beast of the apocalypse,” and “biotic component going mad.” I could go on. There are hundreds of examples in Resistible Demise. Note that many of these terms focus on the body and make an assumption of decay, moral corruption, and insanity – the very opposite of the angelistic view.
Willa: Yes, they do. And in fact, much of the harshest criticism of Michael Jackson focuses on the idea that he somehow corrupted the integrity of the body, like the repeated fallacy that he’d had so much plastic surgery his nose disintegrated. And actually, the allegations of sexual abuse or perversion are another form of bodily corruption, and so are the claims of extensive drug abuse. So this criticism really does focus on a sense of bodily corruption.
Susan: And the angelistic terms used in Resistible Demise are equally extreme and see him as divorced from his body, a creature of pure spirit: “god,” “a creature of youth and lightness whose performance defies emotional gravity,” “otherworldly,” “an angel who fell to earth,” “beyond human law,” “invading savior,” “gravity-defying,” “archangel,” “unearthly,” “uncanny,” and “not matter.” As with the beastial terms, Resistible Demise contains hundreds of similar examples of angelistic terms, in addition to the many references to him as a kingly figure. And this is in a book that is harshly critical.
Willa: Even his dancing is used as an example, which is so ironic. I mean, dancing is the most embodied of all art forms. Yet because he could do things with his body few others could do, he was portrayed as disembodied: “a creature of youth and lightness whose performance defies emotional gravity,” as you quoted before.
Susan: One of the things that comes to my mind when I read these angelistic and beastial terms is, Do the authors really think they were describing an actual human being? You can easily see that both views are erroneous. It’s hard to imagine the sort of decrepit being of the beastial view. But it’s equally difficult to imagine that Michael Jackson was really a divine being. I know, however, that there are people who are absolutely convinced of one view or the other.
There were many reasons that so many came to see Michael Jackson in an angelistic light. Anyone who reads much about him learns that he wanted to give his audience a “magical” experience, and a person who appears to be magical also appears to be an angelistic being. There are abundant examples of magical transformations in the short films he made of his songs. In Remember the Time he appears out of swirling sand and then disappears into the swirling sand. In Black or White he moves effortlessly between scenes of performing with dancers from different cultures, then transforms from a panther to himself, and ends by becoming the panther again. In Smooth Criminal, Bad, and Beat It, his dancing transforms the mood and actions of the people around him. In Billie Jean he lights up the sidewalk as he steps on it.
Willa: Yes, and there’s a suggestion that he transforms into a tiger.
Susan: In the version of You are Not Alone that appears on the DVD collection HIStory on Film, Volume II he appears as an literal angel.
Of course, the degree and range of his talents were positively awe-inspiring and certainly could be seen as beyond the scope of a mere mortal. I have a theory that his dancing did more than his other talents to enhance the view that he was not quite of this earth. I couldn’t substantiate that theory, unfortunately, so I didn’t include it in my book, but I know that every single time I’ve watched him perform my immediate reaction is to feel overwhelming delight and almost a sense of shock that someone could move the way he did. You pointed out that dancing is the most embodied of all art forms. That fact that he could take take a physically strenuous act and appear to do it with ease and with such fluid grace, in a way that stands out even when he performed with other highly accomplished dancers, is certainly “magic.”
Willa: It certainly seems that way, doesn’t it? He told Randy Taraborrelli in the late 1990s that his dancing was hard work, physically:
When I go on stage, people expect a lot. They want the dancing, they want the spins, and all. But I don’t know how much longer I can do it. I don’t know when it’ll just not be possible.
So he was human. But for the audience, watching him dance sure feels magical, doesn’t it?
Susan: It certainly does. And the personal qualities that made him seem “other” to so many people were another major reason that he was perceived angelistically. In Resistible Demise, he is called a “postmodern dream of becoming something new,” “raceless and all races,” and “liberated from mere flesh, destiny, fixed roles of race and sex.” The very unreadabilty of his race, gender, age, and sexuality gave him a shape-shifter aura and made him appear to have left mere mortal life and its limits behind.
Willa: Yes, though that’s just a projection. What I mean is, the issue wasn’t his body so much as what other people projected onto his body, and how they interpreted it. He clearly had a gender and an age, for example. He just didn’t fit preconceived ideas about how his age and gender were supposed to define him.
Susan: Yes, that’s what’s so fascinating about all of this: it’s really just projection.
We’ve been talking about how Michael Jackson was described in words, but there are visual representations of him as an angelistic or beastial being. Some of them are subtle, like this one.
This photograph was taken in approximately 1995, during the era of the HIStory album. His face is very pale, seems almost lit from within, obscuring all facial features except for his eyes, lips and, to a lesser extent, nose. One can’t get a sense of facial structure, such as cheekbones, or detail, such as facial hair. And he appears to be almost perfectly androgenous. This photograph is reminiscent of Italian Renaissance portraits, so it’s even hard to say what time he belongs to. In short, he appears as a somewhat otherworldly being who is free of the bonds of gender, time, and maybe even human flesh. Willa, in your book M Poetica you used the word “ethereal” to describe these luminous, pale images of him during this period, and I think that’s the perfect word.
This next image, however, is a literal, florid example of an angelistic representation.
Willa: Wow, there’s no denying that’s angelistic, is there?
Susan: Yes, it’s really over the top. By the way, if you google “Michael Jackson angel” you’ll find dozens of images of him as a literal angel. This one, however, is probably the most accomplished. I need not comment on what makes this an angelistic representation.
This image works because the Archangel is Michael Jackson and not someone else. Imagine, say, Mick Jagger or Prince as the Archangel. I don’t think that would make the same kind of sense.
Willa: No it wouldn’t, and that’s a really important point, Susan. I read an article once about political gaffes, and why some get a lot of airplay – like Dan Quayle misspelling “tomatoes,” or George Bush not knowing what a grocery store checkout scanner was, or Sarah Palin saying she could see Russia from her house – and others don’t. And the answer was that the gaffes that go viral are the ones that tap into preconceived ideas the public already has about that person – that Dan Quayle wasn’t educated enough to be vice-president, that George Bush was completely out of touch with the everyday world of middle-class Americans, that Sarah Palin tended to believe what she wanted to believe.
If that’s true, it implies there was already a preconceived idea that Michael Jackson was “angelic” in a way that bad boy rockers like Mick Jagger and Prince definitely aren’t. But Michael Jackson was also demonized in the press and public imagination. It’s so interesting that those two contradictory images existed side by side.
Susan: Well, I don’t think that “angelic” is quite the right word. “Angelic” usually means sweet. You could certainly characterize the first image we discussed that way, because in it he appears to have an otherworldly saintliness. But the image of Archangel Michael Jackson isn’t sweet. He is a being powerful enough to subdue Satan, and although his pose is still, he is stepping on Satan and a sword is dropped at his feet, suggesting that a violent struggle had taken place just moments before. And the Archangel’s power is echoed by the stormy skies, dark ocean and craggy rocks behind him. He uses his power for good, but it is a power to be feared.
Willa: That’s interesting, Susan, and reminds me of a YouTube video about Saint Michael the Archangel that Stephenson shared in a comment a few weeks ago:
As you were saying, Saint Michael is an angel but he’s not “angelic” in the usual sense. He’s powerful. And as you said, “He uses his power for good, but it is a power to be feared.”
Susan: And I think that it’s the power represented in this Archangel image that was so disturbing to his critics. The more mildly angelistic Michael Jackson that we see in that first image probably would have been kicked around by critics, but not in the way that the more powerful, threateningly angelistic Michael Jackson was.
And in case anyone thinks that this Archangel image is just an anomaly, please take another look at the angelistic terms I quoted above from Resistible Demise. Those terms were just a random sampling, but there are many, many more used – by very harsh critics – throughout that book that could be applied to this image of the Archangel.
Willa: And this brings up another idea from your book that I found really fascinating: the phenomenon of “flipping.” Could you explain this a bit?
Susan: The contradictory views of angelism and beastialism can sometimes be two sides of the same coin. In some people, especially those with personality disorders, there is a strong tendency to “split,” that is to see everything in terms of extremes of over-idealization and devaluation: all good/all bad, all black/all white. This is said to originate in early childhood as the child begins to make judgments in these simple and extreme terms. Most of us eventually learn to see and appreciate the gray areas, the nuances. By the way, almost anyone who is feeling really angry about something will revert temporarily to that all good/all bad way of seeing.
This splitting, however, is not necessarily stable. The split can “flip,” meaning that something that had been seen as all good can suddenly seem all bad. That often happens after a disappointment that may seem of little consequence to others but seems like a major betrayal to someone who sees the world in such polarized terms. The flip can go in the other direction too, from all bad to all good.
While I certainly don’t want to draw any conclusions about Dave Marsh’s personality, he writes in Trapped about exactly that sort of sudden and extreme reversal of his feeling for Michael Jackson, after experiencing “hairline” (Marsh’s term) cracks in his idealization of Jackson.
Willa: That is so interesting, and I think it’s a really useful and perceptive way of trying to understand the sudden reversal of feeling experienced by Dave Marsh, and maybe others as well. What I mean is, Marsh’s sudden shift also seems emblematic of what happened among critics as a whole. When Michael Jackson was an up-and-coming superstar, the next big thing, it was like he could do no wrong. But once he achieved that goal and was on the top of the peak, perceptions of him changed radically – they “flipped,” as you say – and suddenly he couldn’t do anything right.
So it’s interesting to look at Dave Marsh not only as an individual critic, but also as representing a whole class of critics who “flipped” at about the same time he did, and through him gain some insights into why that may have happened.
Susan: I agree. We have to thank Dave Marsh for being so open about his feelings! I suspect that envy also played a big role in the feelings of Marsh and many of Michael Jackson’s critics, although that’s difficult to prove.
Willa: I agree. Michael Jackson himself seemed to think that envy – in particular, racial envy – was a primary motivation for many of those criticizing him. Joie and I talked about that in a post last February.
Susan: The splitting and the flipping of the split are projections, of course. All I am really talking about here are others’ projections of who Michael Jackson was. Dave Marsh certainly did a tremendous amount of research for Trapped, but his interpretation of what he learned seems to me to be devoid of nuance, as if he had a hidden axe to grind. And none of the other writers I analyzed in my book bothered to do what I would call serious research. They’re projecting, assigning to Michael Jackson qualities that correspond to deep fears and hopes in the one doing the projecting. It’s fascinating that one person could evoke such polarized, strong responses in others.
Willa: Yes it is. I think that’s part of his power as a performer – that people looked at him and saw a reflection of their deepest fears and desires. So it’s ironic that you also see it as the source of a lot of his troubles.
Susan: And here is another projection of who Michael Jackson was. As you note in your book, Willa, the press loved to publish photographs of Michael Jackson that made him appear to have had more plastic surgery than he actually had. This photograph, which was clearly doctored, was published in the Daily Mirror in 1992.
The photograph was accompanied by an article that claimed that he had had so much plastic surgery that his face was hideously disfigured. He sued the Mirror for libel, and the suit was settled in 1998 after the Mirror’s doctors examined his unmade-up face and then issued an admission that they were wrong and an apology.
Willa: I’m glad you mentioned this incident, Susan, because it’s important evidence that the plastic surgery rumors were wildly exaggerated, yet it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. Here’s what a BBC article said about it:
At the High Court in London, Mirror Group Newspapers and the paper’s former editor Richard Stott acknowledged that Michael Jackson was neither hideously disfigured nor scarred.
Mr Jackson’s solicitor, Marcus Barclay, … told the court: “Representatives of The Mirror have since met directly with the plaintiff and have seen with their own eyes that the photographs … do not accurately represent the plaintiff’s appearance.…”
Susan: While this seems like a happy ending, it did nothing to dispel years of rumors that he was grotesquely disfigured by plastic surgery, rumors that were still being repeated years later by Maureen Orth and many of the authors of Resistible Demise.
Willa: And that’s something we see often with him also – that rumors about him receive excessive and unwarranted attention, while follow-up articles debunking those rumors receive almost no attention.
Susan: Yes, it’s clearly so difficult to undo the damage of negative stories once they’re out in the world.
Dave Marsh sarcastically called Michael Jackson “the most special guy in the world.” I think this one statement, sarcasm aside, does a lot to explain the situation Michael Jackson found himself in. Since the 1960s, our society has moved, however imperfectly, towards accepting previously marginalized racial and ethnic groups, and we are now struggling with accepting same-sex marriage and learning to understand transsexual people. But Michael Jackson was in a category all by himself, which is why I think the hatred towards him was so unbridled. In other words, there was no standard of political correctness to reign in critics and make them rethink their reactions. All of the authors I analyzed knew that openly racist opinions were not acceptable, so few of those sorts of opinions are in evidence in their writings. But it was not unacceptable, apparently, to severely criticize Michael Jackson for changing his skin color, acting childlike, and being sexually ambiguous.
This is why I care so much about how Michael Jackson was treated. The negative response he got says so much about the often unquestioning way we react to people who are perceived to be “other” and how quick we are to accept the received wisdom about marginalized people, even if, as in Michael Jackson’s case, the marginalized person happens to also be extremely famous.
Willa: I agree completely. My son is in high school, and there’s a lot of emphasis right now on preventing bullying, especially of kids who are different. Yet apparently it is still acceptable for tabloids to bully and cyberbully celebrities. I see pictures and headlines in the tabloids sometimes and think, if a high school student posted something like that about a classmate, they’d be suspended – and they should be. That kind of bullying behavior is not ok. Yet it is tolerated in the tabloids and even the mainstream press on occasion. It sometimes feels to me that Michael Jackson was bullied to death – that he died as a result of decades of bullying by the press.
Susan: I couldn’t agree more with everything you just said. There are a lot of things I could say about that, but let me just note that none of the writers that I analyzed in my book were tabloid writers. It’s shocking that so much hatred was spewed at him from people who write as if they were offering good reporting and thoughtful analysis. And it is disappointing that so much of the public accepted lies and distortions as the truth. I can’t tell you how many times I have had conversations about Michael Jackson that consist mainly of my trying to correct the other person’s misconceptions about him.
I’m hoping that one day we can all come to a much more rational understanding of who Michael Jackson was. Colby Tanner, a co-author of Remember the Time, recently wrote an insightful article for Slate called “The Radical Notion of Michael Jackson’s Humanity.” In it he addresses the issue of how little attempt has been made to understand Michael Jackson, although he comes at it from a different angle from the one I take.
Willa: It is a wonderful, thought-provoking article that really questions the “beastial” vision of Michael Jackson portrayed in the press. As he says, “The idea of Michael Jackson as a human being remains a radical notion.”
Susan: In a way, this brings me back to Eleanor Bowman’s transcendence / immanence ideas. I think that it is so much more interesting to try to understand Michael Jackson as a human being, one capable of such tremendous artistic achievement and with such highly intriguing personal qualities. I have to admit that I am very drawn into the angelistic view of him, although I know intellectually that that is a fallacy. I’m always trying to move past that transcendent view to the immanent view, to find the flesh and blood person who was capable of making others feel that he was a semi-divine being or a physically, morally decaying monster. For that reason, I find accounts of people who actually knew him well to be absolutely fascinating.
Willa: I agree – I really enjoy stories that show his “human” side also. For example, I have a friend who was a visiting professor at UC Santa Barbara for a while, and she became friends with an elderly woman who owns a shop in town. Her friend was alone in her shop one day when Michael Jackson came in and made a small purchase. Her friend has arthritis and was a little nervous, I think, and she was fumbling with the coins and taking a long time getting the right change out of the drawer. But instead of getting frustrated or angry about that, Michael Jackson just waited patiently and then started singing “Hot Cross Buns.” Do you know that song? It’s an old nursery rhyme:
Hot cross buns
Hot cross buns
One a penny, two a penny
Hot cross buns
What a wonderful way to handle that situation. I love that story!
Susan: That is such a charming story. And I find it so much more interesting than lurid accounts of voodoo rituals or of his supposedly decaying nose. This story is so minor and incidental, but it says something about his character, who he really was. Thanks for sharing that.
Willa: And thank you for talking with me today. I learned so much from your book, Susan, and really enjoyed having the chance to talk with you about it.
Susan: Thank you so much for inviting me to have this discussion, Willa.
Willa: Oh, it’s been a pleasure! I also wanted to let everyone know about an opinion piece by D.B. Anderson in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun. It draws important connections between Michael Jackson and recent protests against police brutality toward black citizens in the U.S. As Anderson says, “Michael Jackson was never afraid to put himself out there for the truth as he saw it.” But as Anderson goes on to say, he paid a terrible price:
What happened to Jackson for his politics was so much worse than losing sales. For in speaking truth to power, Jackson made himself a target, and he took a pounding. The worst shots at him were taken by a white district attorney in California who pursued him relentlessly for 12 years and charged him with heinous crimes that were utterly disproved at trial.
No one ever seems to connect the dots: A very vocal, very influential, very wealthy black man was taken down by a white prosecutor on trumped-up charges.
This is the first time I know of that a major newspaper has allowed the police handling of the allegations against Michael Jackson to be presented in this way: as a backlash to the very real threat he posed to existing power structures. Here’s a link to Anderson’s essay. We’ve also added it to the Reading Room.