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A Conversation about Queerness with Susan Fast

Willa:  This week Joie and I are excited and honored to be joined by Dr. Susan Fast, Professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University and Director of their graduate program in Gender Studies and Feminist Research. And, in addition to all that, you’re a musicologist and study popular music as well. Is that right?

Susan:  Studying popular music is really the main thing that I do!

Willa:  Really? Well, then we definitely want to have a nice, long chat with you!

Susan:  Well, I want to begin by thanking you both for inviting me to be part of the rich conversation about Michael Jackson that you have on this blog. I’m so glad that there are, increasingly, spaces devoted to the serious discussion of his work and cultural impact.

Joie:   Yes, so are we. It’s way overdue.

Willa:  That’s true, Joie. And Susan, you’ve done so much interesting work with Michael Jackson’s music and stage performances. There’s “Difference That Exceeded Understanding: Remembering Michael Jackson, 1958-2009,” a popular article in our Reading Room, and the recently published “Michael Jackson’s Queer Musical Belongings.” You also co-edited the special Michael Jackson issue of Popular Music and Society that came out a few months ago, and you’re currently working on a book about the Dangerous album, which will be published by Bloomsbury Press next year, right?

Susan:  Yes, I’m really thrilled to be able to write a book on Dangerous as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, in which an entire book is devoted to the study of a single album. Remarkably, there is no book in that series about any of Michael Jackson’s records! You can go here to see which albums have been written about, and which books are forthcoming.

Willa:  That’s really exciting!

Joie:  It is exciting. And again, it’s long overdue. Susan, here’s a question for you, and it’s one that I know really puzzles and frustrates so many fans. Why do you believe there haven’t been more publications of serious study of the work and artistry of Michael Jackson?

Susan:  This is quite puzzling, Joie. I remember looking for scholarly work right after his death and I was stunned at how little there was; it was one of the things that made me want to write about him. There is a little bit from the 1980’s and early 90’s – a wonderful article on “Thriller” by Kobena Mercer, a chapter of a book called Invisibility Blues by Michelle Wallace, and one in Michael Eric Dyson’s book Reflecting Black, etc. And then there was Margo Jefferson’s rich book On Michael Jackson from 2006. (Joe Vogel has a good bibliography on his website.) But considering what an important cultural figure Michael was, it’s a pitifully small amount, and some of it isn’t all that sound in terms of scholarship. Scholars of popular music have been much more interested in MJ’s contemporaries, Prince and Madonna, because they saw there a more radical questioning of gender and, in the case of Prince, racial norms.

My sense is that MJ’s lack of irony played a key role in scholars’ disinterest in his work; this is a perpetual problem in popular music studies: one is just not hip if one is playing it straight. He was not considered oppositional enough, in a counter or subcultural way – at least not on the surface of much of his work.

I also think that the accusations of child molestation played a role in scholars staying away from him as a research subject. There have only been a few scholarly articles that have taken up the accusations, and then not particularly well. This is beginning to change; unfortunately it took his death to make it happen.

Willa:  It’s terribly unfortunate. And I agree the lack of irony in his work was a big factor – one that hasn’t been examined nearly enough. The postmodern aesthetic tends toward irony, and since his work is so earnest and sincere, it was seen by many as simplistic and harkening back to an earlier, outdated and discredited point of view. However, as you and other critics are starting to reveal, his work is far from simple. And if one of the goals of postmodernism is to expose the constructedness of our beliefs and perceptions – in part by undermining binary oppositions such as black/white, masculine/feminine, gay/straight – then Michael Jackson wasn’t just in touch with the times but at the forefront, pushing the envelope.

I also wonder if another factor was his refusal to interpret his work for us. He always resisted attempts to draw him out about what his work meant, and many critics took that as a sign that it didn’t mean anything – or if it did, it was purely unintentional. Here’s a quote from Randy Taraborrelli, and while I know he’s not really a critic, it expresses a feeling shared by many critics, I think.

Even if [Michael Jackson’s publicists] could fathom a way to promote him as an accessible human artist with goals that were artistic instead of just commercial, it would never work. No one would believe it; Michael simply wasn’t that way and didn’t even know how to act that way.  

Michael has always been myopic in his thinking about the music business: how many records are being bought by the fans? How long does it take to get to number one? How many records are sold? For Michael, commercialism is key, and he doesn’t understand any artist who doesn’t get that. …  

For instance, Michael has never been a fan of Madonna, a woman who has managed to combine commerciality with artistic vision because, from the start, she has had something she wants to communicate with her music and, usually, a clear-eyed vision as to how to go about it. She gives interviews; she has a point of view. Other than lamenting about his lost childhood and his victimization at the hands of the media, Michael has never had much of a public viewpoint about anything. He’s not what one would call articulate, not by any stretch of the imagination.

I shouldn’t pick on Taraborrelli because he isn’t a critic and for the most part doesn’t pretend to be, but this just makes me crazy. Thank goodness there are critics and academics and musicologists like you, Susan, who are starting to lead us to a deeper understanding of Michael Jackson’s work, and just how complex and meaningful it really is.

Susan:  Same with your work, Willa, which is also giving us new ways to think about his work and life. You’re so right: Michael’s reluctance to give interviews and really talk about his work left the door wide open for critics to dismiss or misconstrue it – although Prince doesn’t talk about his work much either and there hasn’t been the same problem, I think because there isn’t the same kind of cultural and artistic illegibility and confusion as there is with MJ.

Willa:  That’s another reason pioneering work like yours is so important. It not only provides insights into his music and performances, but also legitimizes the serious study of his art and helps frame his work in new ways.

So I wanted to ask you about the title of your most recent article. Generally when we hear the word “queer,” it brings to mind sexual orientation as well as a specific political stance. Basically, it means gay and proud, and opposed to any attempt to cast shame onto anyone’s sexual orientation. But that isn’t what your article is about. It’s a wonderfully insightful analysis of how Michael Jackson incorporates and juxtaposes and plays with and off of different genres in his music and concert performances. So what does the word “queer” mean to you in terms of his work, and why did you choose that title for your article?

Susan:  I chose to situate Michael’s genre-crossing in terms of queerness in order to, hopefully, shine a new light on the powerful cultural politics of his work. I’m not the only one to have used this frame to think about MJ – there are two other recent articles and one older one that look at him through this lens, but in ways very different from my approach. Queerness is not only about subverting, and thereby questioning, norms, but about the creation of ambiguity, of de-stablizing binaries, especially around gender and sexuality. It’s meant to be an empowering idea in that it gets us away from the notion that our identities need to be pigeon-holed into tidy, rigid categories. An important queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, put it this way: queer is “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” when someone’s gender, sexuality, or race can’t be made to “add up” in the way we’re used to, or isn’t stable.

Willa:  That’s a wonderful definition, and very applicable to Michael Jackson.

Susan:  Queerness often refers to sexuality, but it has also been used more broadly – in my article I also talk about race, and others have used the term to refer to the “non-normal” more broadly, although this can have the effect of diluting the concept. So … I’m not interested in MJ’s private life at all in this essay, but rather in the way he played with gender, sexuality, and race in his work in order to make us think about these categories and in order to subvert them, mess them up, and shift normal power relations in the process.

Willa:  And we definitely see that urge to subvert categories and in that way “shift normal power relations” running throughout his work – in his music, dance, fashion, films, stage performances, and even public perceptions of his own body. And in your article you take a really detailed look at how this “queering” of established categories and genres functions in his music and live performances, especially.

Susan:  Yes, that was my goal. Everyone knows how skillful he was at combining elements of pop, rock, soul, R&B, Tin Pan Alley and later hip hop in his work; his ability to cross genres is partly what made his music accessible to a wide audience. That’s a story that’s often been told about him. What I wanted to examine is what that “crossover” really looks like in particular songs and performances of those songs. Musical genres are deeply connected to ideas of social belonging, of ideas we have about race, gender, sexuality, class and so on. We already understand this in the well-known narrative about MJ and genre:  his inclusion of elements of pop and rock made his music reach into the white mainstream, while the music of his idol, James Brown, remained deeply connected to black musical forms and didn’t have the same crossover appeal. When one begins to cross musical genres, one recognizes these categories more forcefully:  they become denaturalized, and what gets called “normal” comes into question.

Joie:  Susan, I love what you just said about musical genres being deeply connected to our ideas of social belonging and the ideas we have about race. I think that’s so unfortunate, but it is also so very true. I can think of so many instances where a person was harassed or just made to feel really uncomfortable because of the type of music he or she liked to listen to, and it was all because it just didn’t fit into the racial “norm.” Black kids aren’t supposed to like rock or country, and white kids are ridiculed and made fun of everyday for having an affinity for rap and hip hop. It just doesn’t make sense; music should be universal. And I have always believed that striving for that was one of Michael Jackson’s goals.

Susan:  Yes, I agree, but on the positive side, music gives us such a powerful way to feel connected to others, to feel a sense of belonging when we might otherwise feel socially isolated; feeling part of a social scene organized around genre is one way that that happens. We could also think of genre as a way of celebrating difference. And it’s certainly a means through which artists cultivate their audience, which makes MJ’s successful crossing of generic boundaries all the more interesting. I think his musical virtuosity is what made that possible; people sometimes write about his genre-crossing as a brilliant marketing ploy:  sure, but there aren’t many artists who can pull off moving so easily among very disparate musical genres convincingly.

Joie:  Well, I agree with you that music is a great way to feel connected to and accepted by others, but I believe strongly that we shouldn’t allow it to close us off from other genres either. I believe that Michael was constantly trying to educate us – on so many different subjects – and I think this is one of his lessons. And you’re right, there aren’t many other artists out there who could move between genres so convincingly.

Susan:  I recently watched his 1989 performance at the Sammy Davis Jr. TV special, a song he wrote for that occasion called “You Were There,” which could have come right out of a Broadway musical, and tried to reconcile this with, for example, a song like “Jam,” or “Give Into Me.” He internalized generic codes so that somehow he was as convincing as a rock star as he was a Broadway or soul singer. And I agree with you, Joie, exploiting this incredible skill was probably an extension of MJ’s desire to blur, or queer, all kinds of boundaries.

In my essay on MJ’s queer musical belongings, I look at a lot of different songs, but one of my favorite examples is the live performance of “Working Day and Night” from the 1992 Bucharest concert.

Here’s a song that first appears on what is often considered to be the finest disco album ever made, Off the Wall, transformed from its glossy production values into quite a raunchy R&B/funk number (by punching up the groove, emphasizing the slap bass part and, especially, through MJ’s gritty vocals – completely transformed from the album version). In live performance this song really ends up being quite the homage to James!

So MJ has already messed with genre and, in the process, social relations here, by highlighting the black roots of disco in soul and funk, a connection that often got lost as disco entered the mainstream in the late 1970’s. The part of this performance that truly blows my mind, however, is Jennifer Batten’s metal guitar solo. What on earth is this doing in the middle of “Working Day and Night?”

Willa:  That is so interesting, Susan, and you know, looking back at that clip I see exactly what you’re saying – that guitar solo really is quite a disruption – but I never thought about it until I read your article. The guitar solo sounded perfectly “natural” to me, so I didn’t question it. And in talking to you, Susan, I feel like I have to put that word “natural” in quotation marks because as you point out so well, he’s really calling into question so many things we tend to think of as “natural.”

But you’re right. That guitar solo is like a sudden intrusion of “white male” rock by a female guitarist into the middle of a black R&B/funk/disco song – just a classic Michael Jackson situation!

Susan:  It does seem “natural” at first because both the hard-driving funk groove and the metal guitar solo are high-energy, but when you start to take it apart, it’s pretty camp and queer!  Of course it could be argued that the guitar solo adds to the spectacle of the performance – it’s near the end of the show and MJ clearly wanted to ramp the energy up – but this could have been done without creating such genre dissonance. What’s interesting is that musically, Batten’s guitar solo is never really integrated into the rest of the performance:  it’s left as a disturbance, a generic dissonance – that’s partly what makes it queer. The loose ends aren’t neatly tied up. Metal (the white genre) “serves” the larger R&B/funk (black) genre.

MJ liked to queer rock music in particular: it’s a genre of music that really (even still) belongs to white men, who control so many things in our culture. He was clearly aware of rock’s cultural power and turned it on its head. First, he chooses one of the only women guitarists in the 80s and 90s who is a heavy metal virtuoso; Batten is an excellent guitarist, but so are plenty of men:  why choose a woman, when you know that it’s unusual, unless you want to point to how unusual it is?

Clearly MJ was interested in questioning genre expectations in this respect. And he was going to do it again in the This Is It concerts, for which he chose Orianthi Panagaris, another blonde, white, woman rock guitarist. MJ dressed Batten up to parody the typical rock guitar god (and the look was his idea); although other musicians in his band wore costumes, none of them were as camp as Jennifer.  He wanted to point to the genre of rock/metal in a particular way, a way that, I suggest signifies his control over it. So he makes sure that rock’s whiteness is represented in the figure of the metal guitar player (Batten is one of the very few white musicians in his touring band, and in this show, the only one who takes center stage with him, representing the genre of rock music), but subverts genre expectations by choosing a woman. Brilliant!

Joie:  Susan, it is so fascinating to go back and watch the footage of that performance keeping in mind your comments here. And really, all of his live performances where Jennifer Batten was featured very prominently. You’re correct in saying that she was always the only member of his band that he routinely presented center stage during performances. And as Willa and I have learned during the course of this blog, Michael rarely did anything without having a very good reason for it.

Willa:  That’s true, Joie – it does seem like this was a deliberate artistic decision on his part because we see it repeatedly in his work. Lisha McDuff described a similar inversion and disruption of genres in the post we did with her about the Black or White video.

“I am tired of this devil” is sung to the hard rock and heavy metal styles that have been overwhelmingly consumed by white audiences. … But they are not coming from the viewpoint of the white musical style being offered. The lyrics are coming from a black perspective of frustration and the horror of racial injustice, even invoking an image of the KKK with a reference to “sheets” …

The next section is hip hop rap, a black musical style, but the rap lyrics are unmistakably white in tone and perspective … This rap section flies at a completely different altitude than we might expect. The message is uplifting and inspirational, and in the short film it is lip synced by Macaulay Culkin, the same white child who appears in the opening drama. Instead of appearing in a lily white suburb as he does earlier, the child is now in an urban melting pot and his clothing and mannerisms register black.

So in the Black or White video as well as the “Working Day or Night” concert performance – and Susan, I love your analysis of that – he’s inverting the norms of white male rock so it becomes very self-referential and kind of a critique of itself, and he’s doing it in both a musical and visual way, as you say.

Susan:  That’s a very perceptive analysis of “Black or White,” one that made me go and read the entire blog you did with Lisha. Her reading of the song and video is terrific – it begins to get at how complicated MJ’s music is and how we need to dig beneath the surface to really understand it.

In the issue of Popular Music and Society that I co-edited, there’s an article by musicologist David Brackett in which he talks about “Black or White” and his analysis moves in the same direction as Lisha’s. One of the points he makes is that the main guitar riff sounds remarkably similar to the Rolling Stones’ song “Soul Survivor,” off of Exile on Main Street.

The riff incorporates, generally, sounds that are central to Keith Richards’ rhythm guitar style. David’s point is that Michael chose what has become an archetypal rock riff, from an album that is central to the rock canon: it’s not some random “rock-like” sound, but one that goes to the heart of white blues rock; it’s also an interesting re-appropriation of blues-based white rock by a black musician. Touché, Michael!

What makes this even more interesting is that this guitar riff is combined with a bass guitar part that comes out of the R&B/funk tradition, rather than the straight-ahead rock bass part that is used in “Soul Survivor” (or other Stones’ songs).  So from the very beginning of the song, two generic, racialized and gendered worlds are brought together.

Willa:  And he does something similar in the Bucharest performance of “Working Day or Night,” right? There’s a very funky bass guitar solo right before Jennifer Batten’s hard rock guitar solo.

Susan:  Yes, that’s right:  Don Boyette, his touring bassist, takes centre stage for a slap bass solo, but it’s not nearly as lengthy or developed as Batten’s solo, and there are no theatrics associated with it. Boyette just comes to centre stage and plays.

Willa:  You talk about those theatrics quite a bit in your article, pointing out how important the onstage visual drama between Michael Jackson and Jennifer Batten is to the meaning of the performance. I was so intrigued by that.

Susan:  The interaction between MJ and Batten during the solo is fascinating. It’s quite complex – there’s an awful lot going on. But one of the things that’s striking is that MJ seems to control the performance. Batten follows him back and forth across the stage and when he’s watching her play, it sometimes appears that he is conjuring the sounds out of her guitar himself. Often in rock performances, the relationship between singer and guitar player is quite different: the guitarist (the virtuoso) controls the performance. My reading of this performance is that Batten stands in for hegemonic, or controlling, white power, albeit queerly because of her gender, and that MJ ends up mostly controlling that power. A pretty significant social statement.

Willa:  That is such a fascinating interpretation!

Joie:  It really is. I’m blown away! I had never thought of it in this way before but it makes so much sense knowing what we do about the way he liked to blur the lines.

Susan:  Yes, and while I’ve mentioned the racial politics here, it’s also pretty interesting to consider what’s happening in terms of gender. Batten’s appearance points in a complicated way both to the feminization we see in glam rockers of the 80’s and earlier 90’s and the understanding that these were generally not female bodies:  so we get all the expected “hard” and aggressive moves associated with rock from Batten. At the same time, there is MJ’s quite complicated gendered body playing against this. He is androgynous, somewhat feminized, but still performs traditional masculinity through some of his moves, and the fact that he’s in control of Batten’s performance. While many of these kinds of exchanges between singers and guitarists in rock bands have an erotic element to them, I don’t see that in the performance here. MJ was certainly capable of creating eroticized spectacle on stage (think of some of those steamy encounters with Sheryl Crow or Siedah Garrett during performances of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” for example), but that was not the intent here.

I think this is one of many instances where MJ queered all kinds of normative social and musical relations. Willa, your analysis of “Ben” in your book, M Poetica, including the pictures you offer of MJ with rats on his shoulder and his pet snake draped over him can similarly be thought of as queering human/animal relations, of rethinking ideas of kinship, for example.

Willa:  That’s an interesting way to look at that, Susan, and it’s significant in that context that the animals he’s holding aren’t traditional pets. Just the opposite – they’re animals that are viewed with fear and loathing by many people. It wouldn’t be “queering” the human/animal relationship in the same way if he were holding a cat or dog or riding a horse. And of course we see this again in his very public relationship with Bubbles.

Susan:  Exactly. These are examples of what can be called queer kinship; whatever might have been going on in his private life, the vision of family that he presented as part of his public self included children (some his own, some not), animals, and various adults, like Elizabeth Taylor. He eschewed the normative nuclear family structure, creating instead a more and less fluid chosen family consisting of both humans of various generations, as well as non-humans. There has been a lot of interesting scholarly work done on the role of the nuclear family as a primary means of structuring power – patriarchal power, for one, but also integral to such things as the smooth running of capitalism. Queer kinship threatens patriarchy as well as all kinds of other power structures.

Joie:  Now I find that truly fascinating because I believe we are increasingly seeing this ‘queer kinship’ becoming the norm in our society. More and more, people are creating their own versions of what we know as the nuclear family. And yet, Michael Jackson was severely criticized and ridiculed for such behavior.

Willa:  He really was. In fact, while he resisted social normalization on so many fronts – norms of what it means to be black, to be a man, to be straight, to be a pop artist, to be a father figure – it was this last transgression that proved intolerable. As threatening as they were, those other transgressions could still be accepted more easily than his defiance of the traditional family unit. Even people who concede that the evidence shows he was not guilty of abusing children still see something damning in his creating familial relationships with children who were not related to him. It shows just how deeply engrained the idea of the nuclear family is. Of all the boundaries he crossed, that was the line that could not be crossed. And as you said so well, Susan, the nuclear family plays an important cultural role – politically, legally, psychologically – in “structuring power.”  No wonder that transgression was so threatening.

Susan:  Absolutely.  Judith (Jack) Halberstam has written beautifully about time, space and normativity, citing, for example, reproductive time – the biological clock for women – and the “bougeois rules of respectability and scheduling for married couples” and how these have become not only normalized, but naturalized and desirable. She talks about how everyday time gets regulated – when to eat, sleep, play, for children, etc. – and how this gets tied to normative morality (I think of MJ’s sleepovers with a bunch of kids here and how many normative lines this crossed). She also talks about the time of inheritance, meaning how generational wealth, including both goods and morals, pass through the family – so if you aren’t part of a traditional one, heaven help you – and how this also connects the family to the history of the nation and forward to the nation’s future (the book is In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives).  MJ transgressed these rules about family, space and time in almost every way.  I think the narrative that we constantly hear about how his children could not possibly be his biological offspring is partly a way of striking back at his threat to the normative family unit, along with a general desire to emasculate him whenever possible.

Halberstam and other queer theorists claim the queering of space and time for the LGBTQ community and it’s tricky to talk about queerness – as I do in my article and as we’ve done in this blog – in a context that isn’t explicitly queer in terms of sexual orientation, although other musicologists have done so (for a wonderful example, see Freya Jarman-Iven’s book Queer Voices: Technologies, Vocalities and the Musical Flaw). There’s the risk that the political potential of the term could be watered down and re-appropriated for straight culture. But I actually don’t think it’s inappropriate to talk about MJ in these terms, because he so messed with heteronormativity and with race and left the reading of his work and life so open and unsettled. I’ve never really understood why he hasn’t been claimed by the queer community, although I suspect that his more-or-less insistence that he was straight, as well as the accusations and trial tempered enthusiasm for this.

Willa:  This is such an important issue, Susan, and I’m so glad you raised it. I’ve asked myself a similar question many times. If ever there was a champion of difference it was Michel Jackson, so why didn’t the groups who’ve traditionally advocated tolerance for difference support him when he was under attack? He had no constituency other than his fans – which, granted, is a lot of people, but it’s not a political constituency. So why didn’t certain political advocacy groups support him?

I think partly it’s because the accusations were so ugly that many saw him as a tainted messenger, and that “tempered enthusiasm” as you say. But I wonder if there isn’t another reason also, which is that tolerance for difference, at least as a political stance, has itself been normalized, and Michael Jackson refused to express his difference in proper ways. While we like to believe we’ve moved beyond the White male stereotypes of the past, they still exist and have been joined by stereotypes of diversity that in many ways are just as constraining. For example, Black kids are supposed to show pride in their race by identifying with the approved genres for their demographic and “aren’t supposed to like rock or country,” as you pointed out earlier, Joie. And “queer,” which by definition should be a celebration of difference, has been politically codified as well.

You express this so well in your “Difference that Exceeded Understanding” article, Susan, when you write,

Michael Jackson’s subjectivity off the stage was disquieting … racial, gendered, able-bodied/disabled, child/teenager/adult, adult man who loved children, father/mother. These differences were impenetrable, uncontainable, and they created enormous anxiety. Please be black, Michael, or white, or gay or straight, father or mother, father to children, not a child yourself, so we at least know how to direct our liberal (in)tolerance. And try not to confuse all the codes simultaneously.

I love this quote, and I think it really gets to the heart of why he wasn’t supported by those who traditionally support the disenfranchised – namely liberals.

Susan:  We desperately want categories in order to make sense of the world; there’s safety in being able to say someone is this or that. It bothered many people that this was not possible with MJ. And that’s exactly why I think “queer” is a productive way to think of him (partly because it names the confusion – very unqueer!). Queer is a process, a constant becoming (of something else); by its definition, as musicologist Freya Jarman argues, it cannot be and does not want to be contained. It is “anti-normal.”

Joie:  I like that. “Anti-normal.” What a great way to put that!

Susan, thank you again, so much for taking the time to sit and chat with us. Willa and I really appreciate it and we had so much fun talking to you. We hope that you’ll join us again some time!

Susan:  And thanks again for inviting me to blog with you! It was really a pleasure.