Willa: Hey Lisha. This week I was wondering if we could talk a bit about the song “Destiny.” To be honest, it’s perplexed me for a long time. But I recently had an idea that opened up a new way of interpreting it, and I wanted to run it by you to see what you think.
What’s puzzled me about “Destiny” is the way it keeps switching genre. It starts off sounding like a country song, but then it gets funkier in the choruses and toward the end it sounds much more futuristic. You can really hear that around 3:20 minutes in: there’s a passage that sounds like a sonic “lift-off” and then at 3:30 it goes into a brief interlude of what I guess you would call “space music,” kind of like what you hear on the radio show Hearts of Space. I feel sure Michael Jackson was switching genres like this for a reason – to create a shift in mood or convey an idea – but what exactly? I’ve pondered this for a long time.
Lisha: Willa, I’m glad you brought it up because I’ve been perplexed by this song as well. If you were to add Clint Black or Reba McEntire’s twangy Southern vocals to “Destiny,” nothing would be out of place. The intro and the verses of this song would fit into any mainstream country music programming. However, by the first chorus, things start getting really urban and funky, and the rest of the song is consistent with 1970s pop/rock and R&B. And even though I hadn’t noticed it before, you’re right, there is that section after the final vocal improv that ends with some new-agey electronic sounds and feedback, almost like the ambient sonic explorations on the Hearts of Space radio show!
Willa: Yes, it’s a real smorgasbord of genres. There’s pop, rock, and R&B as you say, and even a strong hint of disco.
Lisha: Yes, especially some of the string and electronic sounds suggest disco to me in spots as well.
Willa: So the question I keep asking myself is why? Why would Michael Jackson begin a song with acoustic guitar and a bit of twang in his voice, probably the most “country” of any of his songs – his published songs, anyway – and end with synthesizer and a much more futuristic sound?
“Destiny” happened to come on the car stereo the other day, and as I was listening to it an idea struck me. Michael Jackson and his brothers repeatedly said that their mother loves country and western songs and raised them with that music. For example, in Moonwalk he writes, “My first memories are of her holding me and singing songs like ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and ‘Cotton Fields.’” And they’ve also said they started off singing together as a group by singing country songs around the house. I think Marlon and Jackie Jackson talk about that in Spike Lee’s Off the Wall documentary. So I wonder if in some ways “Destiny” charts the Jacksons musical journey, beginning with a country sound but then moving in a new, more futuristic direction?
Lisha: What a fascinating idea, Willa. While the lyrics talk about searching to “find my destiny,” it’s accompanied by music that strongly resembles the Jacksons’ own musical journey. Maybe that’s part of the plan!
Willa: Yes, that’s what I’m wondering. And you’re right, the lyrics themselves suggest the idea of a journey or quest, like when he sings, “I do dream of distant places / Where I don’t know now, but it’s destiny.” And we can interpret that as a physical or spiritual journey, or more specifically as an artistic journey.
Lisha: I really think you are onto something. The songwriting credits include all five brothers who were in the group at that time. It’s reasonable to think they might have wanted to reflect on their own musical heritage and a sense of destiny by creating a song that illustrates their journey musically. Of course, even if that wasn’t their intention, your observation still holds true. It would be hard to deny that the song makes use of the very different musical styles – styles that the family was immersed in and that are generally considered to be worlds apart, both musically and culturally.
Willa: It really does. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another song like it – meaning one that begins with country and then shifts so dramatically to other forms.
Lisha: I can’t really think of a similar move either. Mainstream country music has had strong elements of rock for some time, but that is achieved by blurring genres together, rather than just placing them side-by-side as in “Destiny.” In fact, Country Music Television’s Chet Flippo has said: “Many fans of ’70s rock have discovered that today’s mainstream country is ’70s rock.” He claims genre distinctions are not as rigid as they used to be, which means genre is not the effective marketing tool it used to be either. Today’s listeners just aren’t as loyal to one style over another, as in the past.
Willa: That’s interesting. I’d need to think about that some more, but I think he might be right. But while “blurring genres together” isn’t uncommon, that isn’t what’s happening in “Destiny,” as you pointed out, Lisha. The intro and verses are distinctly “country” so they really sound like traditional country music, and then he’s “placing them side-by-side,” as you say, with other genres in the choruses.
That’s really unusual, but juxtaposing genres in this way is something Michael Jackson experimented with more than once, as you noted in a brilliant analysis of “Black or White” a few years ago:
[T]he white rap section in Black or White uses black hip hop, but runs it through a white perspective, Bill Bottrell’s feel good lyrics and performance. The previous section, “I am tired of this devil” uses white hard rock and heavy metal but runs it through a black perspective and the frustration of racial injustice. He is deliberately confusing musical codes here, attempting to integrate all these perspectives into a single view in a very trans-ethnic way (the way he uses his body). He is autonomously choosing the perspectives he wishes to use, ingeniously expressing the Black or White theme in the song.
I’m still blown away by this! And by the paper you wrote building on these ideas. I think it’s the most insightful analysis I’ve ever read about the musical structure of “Black or White.” It’s so fascinating how he juxtaposes genres to make a statement about race, and that raises another way to approach “Destiny.” After all, country music is coded “white” just as much as hard rock is – maybe even more so. So maybe he’s subtly saying something about racial divisions in “Destiny” also?
Lisha: Thank you so much for your kindness! And I think you’re right about “Destiny.” What I found so fascinating about “Black or White” is that the lyrical content is supported by running musical commentary as well. “Destiny” strikes me as an early expression of that same idea.
Willa: Yes, it seems that way to me too.
Lisha: What is so striking to me about them both is that the rigid boundary between genres is observed, but then that boundary is dealt with by just ignoring it. It’s as if there’s nothing unusual about writing a country song, and then switching to an entirely different genre for the chorus! And even when you listen to the intro to “Destiny” in the context of the album, the country feel is strangely not out of place though I’m not exactly sure why. It doesn’t jar you into thinking, what the heck is going on? It just kind of happens.
It’s the same move in “Black or White,” when the bridge suddenly has eight bars of hard rock/heavy metal, and then it’s followed by eight bars of hip-hop rap. The seamless way the transitions are made, you almost don’t notice it.
Willa: Yes, it fits, even though when you stop to think about it, it’s not clear why. How does he do that? He makes those huge transitions so effortlessly, they seem natural, as if there’s nothing the least bit unusual about jumping genres like this. And I just want to say again that your analysis of race and genre in “Black or White” is so interesting! I’ve thought about it a lot the past couple of years, and it’s just so brilliant what he’s doing there. And I think “Destiny” could be an early experiment in using genre to subtly talk about race, just like he does in “Black or White.”
In the US, genre is divided pretty rigidly along racial lines – for example, country music is labeled as “white,” as if it’s somehow off-limits to black artists and audiences. Michael Jackson alludes to the racial biases surrounding country music in Moonwalk. After saying that his mother liked to sing country songs like “Cotton Fields,” he goes on to say,
Even though she had lived in Indiana for some time, my mother grew up in Alabama, and in that part of the country it was just as common for black people to be raised with country and western music on the radio as it was for them to hear spirituals in church. She likes Willie Nelson to this day.
So he’s using his mother as an example to show that, even though country music tends to be seen as exclusively white, that isn’t really true.
Lisha: You know, the fact that we’re even talking about music in racialized terms demonstrates how strongly music will reflect the society it was created in. What better proof of a divided nation could there be than the fact that American music codes so strongly along black and white racial lines?
Willa: That’s true, Lisha, and it’s a really important point. Musical genre – or how we think about genre – reflects the history of segregation in the US. University of Rochester music professor John Covach offers a series of free online classes through Coursera, and he talked about this in one of his History of Rock classes. He said that Billboard magazine began as a trade journal, and the Billboard charts originated as a way of letting jukebox companies know which records to put in which jukeboxes. The country charts told them which songs were popular with young white rural listeners, so they should put those records in jukeboxes in rural white hangouts. The pop charts told them which records to put in jukeboxes in urban and suburban white areas, and the R&B charts told them which records to put in jukeboxes in black areas. The assumption was that those audiences had very different tastes and didn’t intermingle much, so the jukeboxes serving those audiences each needed their own separate list.
Since that time Billboard has expanded the R&B chart (the “black” chart) to include hip-hop, and they’ve added some new categories (rock, Latin, electronic dance music) but actually this just reinforces that kind of segregated thinking: that whites want pop, rock, and country; blacks want R&B and hip-hop; and now Latin Americans want Latin music.
Lisha: Yes, segregation was the law of the land when Billboard began compiling data in order to better understand how people buy music. It makes sense that marketing people would be very interested in correlating genre and race. But I think genre is a really tricky subject for many reasons.
Willa: It really is. For example, Billboard compiles separate lists for different genres, but R&B and hip-hop are lumped together into one chart. From what I can tell, R&B and hip-hop have very little in common musically, but they have been grouped together for marketing purposes because they are both seen as black or “race music” as Billboard used to call it. So the assumption is that R&B and hip-hop appeal to the same audience or market share simply because they have both been racialized as black, but that’s a big assumption to make.
Lisha: It is. And musicians, musicologists and marketing departments often use the same terms in very different ways, so it creates a lot of confusion.
Willa: That’s true. “Folk” or “funk” or “punk” or any of those labels don’t necessarily mean the same thing to musicologists and the general public, to marketers and the musicians themselves.
Lisha: Exactly. This reminds me of the time in 1963 when a song called “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs hit #1 on the Billboard R&B chart. Because R&B gets used as a marketing term for black music that appeals to black audiences, when you listen to how hilariously white “Sugar Shack” is, it’s hard to believe it once topped the R&B charts! Billboard mysteriously didn’t publish another R&B chart for over a year after this happened, presumably so they could rethink their approach.
I guess my point is that defining genres and demographics is not that straightforward. But we can make some broad generalizations about who consumes what music, and I think that is exactly what “Destiny” is commenting on: musical styles that we recognize as belonging or appealing to different groups.
Willa: Or have been perceived as appealing to different groups, though those perceptions may not be true.
Lisha: Yes, “Destiny” seems to challenge those perceptions.
Willa: I agree. Dave Marsh talks about this in Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream, referring specifically to how country music has traditionally – and wrongly – been seen as exclusively “white.” Marsh raises some important issues about this, but unfortunately it’s part of a rant where he chastises Michael Jackson for not knowing much about music history. Seriously.
Lisha: Oh please! All right, go ahead. Let’s hear it.
Willa: Ok, prepare yourself. It’s long, condescending, and incredibly irritating. This is what Marsh says, and keep in mind that he’s writing this directly to Michael Jackson, in an open letter addressed to “Michael”:
To understand how today’s music really developed, you have to know what Berry Gordy learned from writing for Jackie Wilson; what Jackie Wilson learned from Roy Brown and Al Jolson; where what they all learned came from: the heart of American racial conflict. You have to know that just as the Beatles and Rolling Stones built a musical edifice from the foundation established by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Elvis, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard – black and white performers, but mostly black ones – so did Chuck Berry come up with his style by drawing upon the jump blues of Louis Jordan and and the nasal country harmonies of Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers’ “Ida Red” and Little Richard draw upon the great gospel shouting of Marion Williams and the Ward Singers and the flamboyant costuming and pianistics of Liberace; and Bob Dylan forge his style from Roy Acuff and Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey and Woody Guthrie. And that Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” was a black man and that Nat Cole had to have spent a lot of time listening to Bing Crosby … and that your own grandfather, a black man in Arkansas, where his skin color was an excuse and opportunity for humiliation and degradation all the livelong day, nevertheless tuned in “hillbilly” radio programs not out of perversity but because that music was “his” as much as it was “theirs.” That is, because buried somewhere deep in American cultural memory is the story of your own rise and fall from grace told over and over and over again as a continuing multiracial passion play. And without knowing where your music came from – not from magic and dreams alone, as you’ve been known to claim, but from hundreds of years of such interminglings and attempts to separate and segregate them – you will never, ever be able to make sense of what has happened to yourself.
Lisha: Wow. There is so much going on there I hardly know where to start as far as trying to untangle Marsh’s superior attitude and selective amnesia. It’s revealing that he considers, in all seriousness, that there’s a black American anywhere on the planet who has failed to notice “today’s music really developed” from “the heart of American racial conflict.” That’s funny enough without accusing Michael Jackson of it!
Willa: Oh absolutely. I mean, just think of Michael Jackson’s background. He toured on the “chitlin’ circuit” while still in grade school with some of the biggest names of the day: the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the O’Jays, Sam & Dave, and many others. He played the Regal Theater in Chicago and the Apollo in Harlem. He watched wide-eyed from the wings as his heroes James Brown and Jackie Wilson performed on stage. He talked with Etta James in her dressing room, and lived for a time with Diana Ross. He was groomed by Bobby Taylor and Berry Gordy, and sat in the studio obsessively watching Gordy and Stevie Wonder and others mix an album. He danced with the Nicholas Brothers and Jeffrey Daniels and Michael Peters, and danced on Soul Train and at Studio 54. He worked with Gamble & Huff and Quincy Jones, as well as some of the best songwriters, session musicians, sound engineers, vocalists, dancers, and other performers in the business.
I mean, just think about the amazing life he lived, learning about the history of American performing arts from the people who knew it best – and not just as an eyewitness but as a fellow artist. He didn’t just research the history of performance in America; he lived it.
But Marsh never seems to consider that with this incredibly rich artistic background, steeped as it was in the traditions of previous generations (vaudeville, country, soul, R&B), coming of age at Motown (“the Sound of Young America”) and continuing on through pop, funk, and disco, Michael Jackson might know some aspects of music and entertainment history much more fully and more intimately than he (Marsh) does. It’s unbelievably patronizing.
Lisha: Well said, Willa. To challenge Michael Jackson’s knowledge of the racial divide in music or the industry shows what a naive position Marsh is coming from. He manages to overlook just about everything that Michael Jackson brings to the table, which is a pretty massive blind spot.
Lisha: Interestingly, Marsh’s book was published in 1985, seven years after Destiny. According to Marsh’s own account, he wrote the book in response to Michael Jackson’s breathtaking success in the 1980s, including his “triumph over apartheid broadcasting.” It’s revealing that Marsh specifically cites Michael Jackson’s breach of the racial divide while setting up his book-length rant.
Willa: Yes, that’s true. He praises a few individual songs on Thriller, especially “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” and notes that the album as a whole “crossed over” and appealed to white audiences on a scale that no album ever had before. But then he harshly condemns it precisely because of its crossover appeal, claiming it sells out in a way that harkens back to blackface minstrelsy. Lifting quotes from Robert C. Toll’s Blacking Up and applying them to Michael Jackson and Thriller, Marsh writes,
Why did they [white listeners] find Thriller so attractive? I’d say because both you and your album let them see what they expected, a “lazy, pretentious, frivolous, improvident, irresponsible and immature” black “who loved to entertain whites.” Now Michael, I know you aren’t improvident – you have lots of money. Maybe you aren’t lazy when the chips are down, but intellectually you are a sloth. You go ahead and deny meeting the other standards. There’s no way I can.
Lisha: Wow. I’m sorry, but that really crosses the line from harsh critique to a racially motivated personal attack.
Willa: It feels that way to me too. And by equating Michael Jackson with minstrel show stereotypes and condemning him as a black performer “who loved to entertain whites,” Marsh places him – and in fact all successful black “crossover” artists – in an ironic double bind, as if the mere fact of their ability to entrance white audiences is prima facie evidence that they have sold out their race.
Lisha: That’s a brilliant observation, Willa. I get the feeling that what Marsh ultimately wants is for Michael Jackson to stay on his side of the color line. He put an awful lot of energy into writing a book that attempts to put Michael Jackson back in his place. At least that’s what I take from it.
Willa: Yes, I think you’re right, in the sense that Marsh wants him to “be black” and stay black, but it’s more complicated than that. He actually wants Michael Jackson to be a kind of Moses figure who will lead America out of its racist past and bring about racial healing, and he expresses a mournful dismay that he apparently isn’t Moses and isn’t trying to be. As Marsh says,
Chances are, even if you’d wanted to do it, you could not have crossed an army over into the Promised Land with you. But you could have gotten them to wade in the water.
It’s really manipulative what he’s doing. We could do an entire post on Dave Marsh.
Lisha: Great idea! I think we should devote an entire post to Dave Marsh. His book is such an important document for understanding the fierce backlash Michael Jackson had to face.
Willa: It really is. However, as provoking as Marsh is, he does make an important point in that long passage I quoted earlier when he says that “your own grandfather, a black man in Arkansas, … tuned in ‘hillbilly’ radio programs not out of perversity but because that music was ‘his’ as much as it was “theirs.’” In other words, he’s saying that country music belongs to black audiences just as much as it belongs to whites. That seems to be exactly what Michael Jackson was getting at in Moonwalk when he said, “my mother grew up in Alabama, and in that part of the country it was just as common for black people to be raised with country and western music on the radio as it was for them to hear spirituals in church.”
So maybe one way of interpreting that country-sounding intro to “Destiny” is to see it as reclaiming that heritage.
Lisha: Yes, I think you’re right and that is so important to emphasize. Country music is also called the “white man’s blues” because it too owes a debt to black musicians from the Mississippi Delta. And misconceptions about the origins of rock and roll are abundant, thanks to Elvis Presley and other white artists who covered this music early on. The true architects and pioneers of rock and roll were black musicians coming out of the R&B tradition, like Little Richard for example, who was also influenced by the country music that surrounded him. “Destiny” seems to be questioning why music is still coded black or white at all.
Willa: I agree, and that’s a really interesting way to think about “Destiny,” Lisha. So by placing the genres side by side as he does, maybe he’s emphasizing their similarities and common history.
Lisha: Well at least in theory, it stands to reason that all forms of American music should be a part of our musical heritage as Americans. But as you said earlier, Willa, country music is “somehow off-limits to blacks.” And whites have repeatedly rejected or felt threatened by black music, even while appropriating it as their own.
Record producer Don Was did this amazing project called Rhythm, Country and Blues back in 1994, which addressed the issue of race and genre by focusing on the surprising commonalities between black R&B and white country music. He made some amazing recordings with country and R&B artists working together, and he did it so convincingly that you begin to question how different these genres really are. There is a wonderful documentary film about this project, and I think the segment with Little Richard and country star Tanya Tucker is especially relevant to our discussion. It starts at about 25:00 in:
Wouldn’t “Destiny” be a perfect song to receive the Don Was treatment? It so beautifully illustrates how American music has been racialized and divided, but then really makes you question why that has to be, if you stop long enough to think about it!
Willa: Wow, that is fascinating, Lisha! I remember when that album came out, but I’d never seen the documentary before – didn’t even know it existed. I loved listening to all the duets again!
Lisha: I did too! Aren’t they amazing?
Willa: They really are! What a treat to hear Aaron Neville and Trisha Yearwood sing “I Fall to Pieces” or Clint Black and the Pointer Sisters sing “Chain of Fools” or Gladys Knight and Vince Gill sing “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” or Natalie Cole and Reba McEntire sing “Since I Fell for You” or Marty Stuart and the Staple Singers sing “The Weight.” I’d forgotten how great the music on that album is, and it really shows how the separation between genres – especially between “black” music and “white” music – is “just an illusion / Wrought by the magical lens of / Perception,” to quote a very wise person. We tend to hear Little Richard and Tanya Turner as very different – as belonging to completely different musical spheres – because we’ve been trained to perceive them that way. But our conditioning fools us. They really aren’t that different. And what a wonderful way of showing that, Lisha.
Lisha: I’m glad you thought so. Willa, do you remember the interview Michael Jackson gave John Pidgeon in 1980, the one where Janet sits in and repeats the questions back to him?
Willa: Oh yes. I love that interview.
Lisha: I do too. I wanted to go back and read that again, because it was done just a couple of years after Destiny was released. Here are some excerpts that I thought were especially interesting in this context:
I hate to say it’s a category – pop, jazz. I don’t like that. It’s music. It’s wonder to the ear and that’s what counts. If you can move a person through music, that’s what makes me feel good. That’s what I enjoy about it…
I think secretly and privately, I mean really deep within, there’s a destiny, for me, and just for me to stay on that track and follow it…
Call it disco, call it anything … it’s music. … That is the ugly thing about man – they categorize too much. They get a little bit too racial about things when it should all be together. That’s why you hear us talk about the peacock a lot, because the peacock is the only bird of all the bird family that integrates every color into one.
And that’s our main goal in music, is to integrate every race into one, through music, and we’re doing that. If you go to our concerts you see every race out there, and they’re all waving hands and they’re holding hands and they’re smiling and they’re dancing. And that to me is accomplishing everything. That’s the biggest reward for me, more than money, is to bring those people together and do that. That’s what makes me feel good. You see the kids out there dancing, as well as the grownups and the grandparents. All colors. And that’s what’s great. That’s what keeps me going.
So according to Michael Jackson, integrating race through music was his “main goal.” It’s not just a happy accident that his music ends up so effectively addressing the racial divide. It’s by design. His thought process seems to be, What would happen if these musical categories began to drop? Can artists steer the culture by addressing these issues in their work? What better place to do this kind of cultural work than the music industry – an industry that is already set up to deliver artistic product to a mass audience?
Willa: Wow, Lisha. Those are really important questions. So if we approach “Destiny” from this perspective, then the way it juxtaposes different genres could really be seen as a political statement.
Lisha: Yes, I think so. It also strikes me as a deeply spiritual position, too, as you said earlier. Looking again at what Michael Jackson told John Pidgeon, “I think secretly and privately, I mean really deep within, there’s a destiny, for me…”
In this part of the interview, Michael Jackson was specifically talking about having a vision for how he wanted to push music performance and composition forward in very visual and dramatic way. When I thought about this more, the peacock illustration on the back cover of the Destiny album came to mind.
Michael Jackson said the peacock is “the only bird of all the bird family that integrates every color into one.” So the peacock is used as a visual symbol on the album of integrating all colors through music. The peacock is also featured on the back of the Triumph album, and a peacock feather floats upwards towards the sky at the end of the short film Can You Feel It, followed by a display of peacock feathers imposed on an image of the planet.
Willa: Yes, I was just thinking about that! And Can You Feel It really advances the idea of bringing people together through art, as Joie and I talked about in a post a while back. So it seems significant that the image of the peacock would appear in both Destiny and Can You Feel It.
Lisha: It does to me too. It’s a visual symbol that sums up the spiritual values or philosophy of the music.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha, and it just goes to show how “Destiny” begins as a country song but ends up being so much more.
Lisha: Something else I noticed about “Destiny” is how consistent the thematic content is with the genre of country music. I’m even tempted to think of it as a country song that strays into other musical territory, rather than think of it as a Jacksons’ song that simply tacks on a country section. The lyrics deal with some very familiar themes in country music such as longing for “the simple life,” a desire to get away from the city, a cautious attitude about excessive materialism, a stubborn but highly-valued sense of individualism. I think this holds true for the entire song, but these lines in particular strike me as typical of the country music genre:
And I’ve tasted the city life and it’s not for me…
If it’s the rich life I don’t want it,
Happiness ain’t always material things…
Give me the simple life…
Let me be me
C’mon, let me feel free…
Nobody can change my mind
Willa: That’s true, Lisha. There’s also the idea of constantly moving on, which is a common feature of country music also. For example, the cowboy, alone on the range, is a very old motif – or more recently, the country singer or the gambler moving from one honky tonk to another, playing a night or two and then traveling on. We see something similar in “Destiny,” such as the urge to “up and fly away so fancy free” or the repeated lines “I’m getting away from here / Let me be free / Let me be me.” In fact, the entire song focuses on a quest that may take him around the world as he searches for his destiny.
You know, it would be really easy to interpret this search for his “destiny” as a longing for success – wealth, accolades, a penthouse in the city – but as you pointed out earlier, Lisha, the lyrics contradict that. In the lyrics you just quoted, he emphasizes that “Happiness ain’t always material things.” So while commercial success may be part of his destiny, that doesn’t seem to be his main goal. He’s talking about something deeper and more spiritual when he refers to finding his destiny.
Lisha: That’s an excellent point. It’s clear that the character in this song is not motivated by success in terms of material gain. His motivation is something much bigger: a desire to fulfill his own destiny. He follows his own moral compass and sense of purpose.
Willa: Yes, and the idea of defining success on your own terms is part of the country music tradition also. Success may be a good paycheck, but more often it’s the satisfaction of living life on your own terms, free from constraints. You don’t need a penthouse to be happy – just a pickup truck and the love of a good woman. I’m oversimplifying of course, but that’s the general idea …
Lisha: I’m not sure you can oversimplify when it comes to satisfaction and pickup trucks in country music!
Willa: That’s funny, Lisha. But you’re right that “Destiny” evokes a lot of themes frequently heard in country music, so maybe the country flavor in the intro was also used to help convey those thematic ideas. In fact, you may be right in looking at it more as “a country song that strays into other musical territory” instead of “a Jacksons’ song that simply tacks on a country section.”
Well thank you, Lisha, for another fun conversation! I learn so much every time I talk to you.
Lisha: It’s always great to hear your ideas and talk about Michael Jackson’s work! I loved revisiting this song.
Willa: I did too. I also wanted to let everyone know about a conversation you and your friend, historian Roberta Meek, recently had with Elizabeth Amisu and Karin Merx of the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies. Here’s a link to the podcast, which is a fascinating look at Michael Jackson and Prince. Joe Vogel recently published an article about Michael Jackson and Prince also, and Raven Woods republished a 2011 post about them on her AllForLoveBlog, with an updated ending. It’s an important topic.
Lisha: Thanks for mentioning the podcast, Willa. We had a wonderful time putting that together. I understand Part 2 of the conversation goes up June 7th, so stay tuned.
Willa: Wonderful! I’m really looking forward to it.
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: 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.