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Action Item: KCBS-TV in Los Angeles

Willa:  Greetings! I hope you’re all enjoying a wonderful start to the new year.

I strongly believe that 2015 could be a pivotal year for Michael Jackson and his legacy. On the one hand, it seems that the hysteria surrounding him is starting to subside, and that the mainstream press may finally be ready to consider the actual facts behind the allegations against him. And once you look at the facts, it seems obvious to me that he’s innocent. So this could be the year when the false allegations against him are finally put to rest, and his name is cleared of the scandal that has dogged his reputation for more than 20 years. That is my vision and my hope for what could happen this year.

But this could also be the year when the Wade Robson and James Safechuck allegations set off a whole new round of hysteria. So far, the more respected media outlets have been reluctant to carry the Robson / Safechuck story, but there have been some extremely graphic, sensationalistic, and lurid tabloid articles. Those kinds of stories could become much more common if the case goes to trial, and 2015 could bring a repeat of what happened following the 1993 allegations and 2005 trial.

So I believe 2015 could be a major turning point for Michael Jackson’s legacy, for good or ill. And which direction things go may depend on us, his fans and supporters. As Michael Jackson says in This Is It,

People are always saying, “Oh, they’ll take care of it. The government will do it. Don’t worry, they’ll …” They who? It starts with us. It’s us, or else it will never be done.

And he was right. Whether it’s changing public attitudes about the destruction of the environment, or changing public attitudes about him, it’s up to us – the people who care enough to bring about that change. “It starts with us … or else it will never be done.”

So in this post and the next one, we’re going to do something a little different. We’re going to ask you to participate in two specific action items that we think could play a major role in changing public perceptions of Michael Jackson. And we’re beginning with KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, which is also known as KCBS or CBS2.

Here’s a little history …

On May 3, 1994, KCBS-TV broadcast a short news segment in which a reporter asked Evan Chandler if he had sedated his son with sodium Amytal, a psychiatric drug that has been implicated in producing false memories, especially if patients under its influence are asked leading or suggestive questions. Mary Fischer included a description of that broadcast in her October 1994 article for GQ magazine:

A newsman at KCBS-TV, in L.A., reported on May 3 of this year that Chandler had used the drug [sodium Amytal] on his son, but the dentist claimed he did so only to pull his son’s tooth and that while under the drug’s influence, the boy came out with allegations.

Ian Halperin describes Chandler’s response to the KCBS reporter a little differently in his book, Unmasked: the Final Years of Michael Jackson. According to Halperin, Chandler neither confirmed nor denied the use of sodium Amytal, but did say that Jordan made the allegations while under the influence of “a drug,” without specifying which one.

While Fischer and Halperin disagree about whether Chandler confirmed the use of sodium Amytal specifically, they both state that he told the KCBS-TV reporter Jordan made the allegations while under sedation. That’s crucially important. And actually, I find it significant that Halperin’s version differs slightly from Fischer’s. It suggests that he’s providing an independent description of the KCBS broadcast, rather than simply repeating her article.

It’s also interesting that while Fischer and Halperin both report on what the father said, neither gives an exact quote. That is unusual. I became curious about this in 2011 while working on the “Rereading Michael Jackson” article, in part because I wanted to quote Chandler’s exact words if I could. So I started digging around, looking for actual video footage of the KCBS broadcast, but I couldn’t find any video clips on YouTube or other places like that, or even a transcript or other print quotations anywhere on the web. (I did stumble across some interesting information, however, that I haven’t been able to confirm: I’ve read that the KCBS reporter was Harvey Levin, who later went on to start a celebrity news outlet called TMZ …)

Importantly, while searching for information about the KCBS report, I found a note about it on an advocacy site for victims of sexual abuse – a site that treated Michael Jackson with utter contempt. They were addressing the Chandler case and said that, if Evan Chandler really did tell KCBS that Jordan made the allegations while under sedation, then those allegations are obviously questionable. However, they went on to say they didn’t believe Chandler had said that, and they didn’t believe the KCBS news segment even existed.

That made a big impression on me and started me thinking that this was a lot more important than simply getting a quote. If even an advocacy group with strong biases against Michael Jackson would consider the KCBS report as important evidence that the allegations are suspect, then I really needed to find it.

And actually, Diane Dimond says something similar in her book, Be Careful Who You Love:

Questions about whether or not Dr. Chandler “planted” the molestation in Jordie’s subconscious while the boy was under the influence of the anesthesia first surfaced in a story that ran in GQ magazine in October 1995 written by Mary Fischer….

Had Fischer’s claims been correct, Jordie’s allegations would have to be viewed as unreliable, if not highly questionable.

And I think Dimond’s right. If it can be shown that Jordan agreed to the allegations while under sedation, they “would have to be viewed as unreliable, if not highly questionable.” It therefore seemed very important to try to track down that video footage.

I began with the KCBS website and found a phone number for obtaining old news segments. However, when I called I was connected to a contractor who provides a video archive service to KCBS, and he said the footage they have doesn’t go back nearly that far.

Then I called the KCBS front desk and talked to the receptionist, who passed me on to someone who said I needed to talk to someone else. I got the runaround for quite a while and was disconnected twice, as well as being sent to a couple of full voicemail boxes where I couldn’t leave a message, so had to hang up and start all over. It was very discouraging but I was persistent, and by the end the receptionist was pretty tired of me. In fact, at one point she told me that maybe the people at KCBS just didn’t want to talk to me, which was probably true …

I finally ended up talking with Allan, the KCBS video librarian. (He wouldn’t tell me his last name, and neither would the receptionist when I asked her later, but he did spell his first name for me.) He was the person I needed to talk to, but we didn’t get off to a very good start. He began by giving me a long lecture about how expensive it is to preserve old footage and how TV stations simply don’t have the resources to store everything, and that I was being very naive to expect they’d still have something from 1994.

However, he finally agreed to go look … and was very surprised to find that, yes, they do have a two-minute video segment dated May 3, 1994, with a note that it’s about Michael Jackson and drugs (a rather misleading label). Wow! It seems we’d found it! I was pretty excited about that, but then he told me he couldn’t release a copy without authorization from the assistant news director, a Mr. Paul Button. He gave me Mr. Button’s email address and I sent him a couple of emails, but never heard back from him.

A few weeks later I was talking with a friend and fellow Michael Jackson scholar who teaches at a university in Los Angeles, and told her what was going on. She was intrigued and became involved also. She talked to Allan and he told her the segment was on Beta, and the tape was still sitting right there on his desk. (To be honest, that kind of alarmed me. I had a mental image of Allan accidentally spilling coffee all over it. It would be terrible if, after all those years of sitting lost and forgotten in the archives, it was finally discovered only to be damaged or destroyed.) He directed her to Mr. Button also, so she called him and left a message, but he never called her back. She also tried visiting the KCBS offices in person, but was unable to arrange a meeting.

So then my friend, who is much more media savvy than I am, did a little research and found out about Thought Equity Motion, an independent contractor who handles licensing agreements for CBS. She put me in touch with them, saying they’d told her that “If they have it offline they can send a screener of it for $25.00. If they have it online then they will email a low-resolution copy of it.” That was such exciting news! We really thought that, one way or the other, we were about to get a copy of it.

But then it turned out that CBS, meaning the parent company, didn’t have the rights to it. KCBS-TV is a CBS affiliate but they are also an independent entity, and they retain the rights to any segments that aren’t picked up for national broadcast. This segment wasn’t carried nationally, so CBS doesn’t own the rights to it. KCBS does. That means we were back to dealing with Allan and the elusive Mr. Button. Darn.

Things seemed to be at an impasse, but then I realized that Mary Fischer or Ian Halperin must have seen it so they might have a copy. I emailed Mary Fischer, and she sent back a brief note saying, “I have seen the footage but do not have a copy.” I then emailed Ian Halperin but didn’t get a response.

Since then I’ve tried various other ways of either getting a copy of the segment or having it rebroadcast. For example, I’ve contacted other news outlets and encouraged them to investigate the story, but that hasn’t worked either.

So now we’re turning to you.

We are asking you to contact KCBS-TV, and politely and respectfully inform them that they have an important news story sitting in their own archives. Maybe together we can encourage KCBS-TV to rebroadcast the Chandler footage that has been buried for so long.

To reach them, you can call their news hotline at 818-655-2290, or you can go here and submit your request online, or you can write them a letter at this address:

CBS Studio City Broadcast Center
4200 Radford Avenue
Studio City, CA 91604

If you would like to try contacting specific individuals at KCBS, you can call the station’s news department at 818-655-2299. Here’s a link that provides contact information for the station, and I notice that Mr. Button is still listed as the Assistant News Director – however, trying to talk with him directly seems to have a low probability of success.

If you do contact the station, here are some talking points you may want to consider:

  • We know the tape is there. My friend and I both talked to their video librarian, and he confirmed it was in their archives – at least, it was in late 2011.
  • This story is local and timely, especially in light of the Wade Robson and James Safechuck case, which is now before a Los Angeles judge. Here’s an article from MyNewsLA with the latest information.
  • This story is important. If it’s true that Jordan Chandler agreed to the allegations while under sedation, it casts significant doubt on those allegations, especially given the way the father conducted the questioning.

This last point is especially significant. According to Evan Chandler’s own written chronology of events, which he gave to police, he questioned his son in a very coercive and manipulative way.

First, he asked leading questions and made sexually explicit comments that could have planted false images in the boy’s mind, especially if he were still under sedation. For example, he says he asked Jordan, “Did Michael Jackson ever touch your penis?” and told him, “I know about the kissing and the jerking off and the blow jobs.” These are precisely the acts Jordan will tell the psychiatrist when he goes to see him a month later.

Chandler also admits he lied to his son, saying he “falsely told” Jordan that “I had bugged his bedroom and I knew everything anyway.” This is not true. He had not wiretapped his son’s bedroom, and he was only imagining what might have happened if Michael Jackson were a child molester – imaginings that he explicitly and vividly shared with his son that day in his dental office.

And finally, he threatened to destroy Michael Jackson – “to take him (Jackson) down” – if Jordan didn’t agree with him that the accusations were true. This is very disturbing, and completely inappropriate when trying to uncover the truth about suspected abuse, especially when talking with a child.

We understand that some of you may feel uncomfortable about contacting a television station, and we don’t want to put anyone in an awkward situation. To be honest, I’m pretty uneasy about this myself since I haven’t seen the footage – I’ve only read the descriptions of it by Mary Fischer and Ian Halperin. So if this is something you do not wish to do, we perfectly understand. However, if you do feel comfortable calling KCBS-TV, or sending them a letter, or submitting a written message to their online hotline, we believe this could truly make a difference.

Whatever you decide, we thank you sincerely for joining us here at Dancing with the Elephant, and we wish you a very happy 2015!

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 4: Anything for Money

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on October 31, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Anything for Money

Joie: So, Willa, I’m sure you heard the news about the big Jackson family feud a couple of months ago. Unfortunately it was pretty difficult to avoid; every day it seemed there was a new wrinkle and you couldn’t really get away from it. And it just seemed to get uglier and uglier with each passing day as it became clear that the motivating factor was money. Anger and resentment over the terms of Michael Jackson’s will. And, oddly enough, all that has me thinking about the song “Money,” from the HIStory album.

He never made a short film for this particular song and I’ve always thought it’s such a shame because I would have loved to have seen what he could have come up with for it. It’s one of those songs that really makes you think. One that makes you grab the liner notes and hunker down until you’ve deciphered every word he’s saying. And it has some really fascinating lyrics.

Willa: Wow, Joie! I can’t even believe you’re going there. That’s not just dancing with elephants – more like dancing with cobras. To be honest, I tried not to get caught up in it but it’s hard not to peek sometimes, and sorting out all those conflicting rumors and accusations and hard feelings just seems like negotiating a snake pit to me. It’s complicated even more by the fact that there are so many different sides to it and it’s all so public, and it was plenty complicated enough to begin with.

Anyway, I’m not sure if the main motivation is money or creative control. I tend to think it’s more about wanting to participate in creative decisions – but of course, his songs and his films and his name are all worth a lot of money, so even that’s not a clear distinction. It just seems really, really complicated to me, and I’m very sorry everything became so heated and so public, and people got their feelings hurt.

But I’d love to talk about “Money,” and you’re right – it is fascinating.

Joie: Well, I wasn’t trying to step into a snake pit! And I don’t want to ‘go there,’ as you put it, because you’re right. It is like dancing with cobras, and ultimately, it’s really none of our business anyway.

But it does bring to mind that particular song for me and that’s what I want to focus on.

Willa: I’d love to. And I didn’t mean to be dramatic. I just get really uncomfortable talking about artists’ private lives, though it’s kind of hard to avoid with Michael Jackson because public and private get so tangled up sometimes. Like, I really don’t think we can understand his later work if we don’t know what happened in 1993, but some of that is intensely personal. So how much should be considered public, and how much private? It’s really hard to figure out where to draw that line sometimes. And it’s hard to talk about “Money” without mentioning 1993 also.

Joie: I agree with you. You can’t talk about “Money” without mentioning the events of 1993. Those allegations are at the heart of the song, I think. “Money” was included on the HIStory album, which was released in 1995, just two years after the extortion attempt and the subsequent allegations that ultimately changed his life. In fact, so many of the songs on that album do cover the events of 1993 because he actually used that album to vent his frustrations about the way he was treated – by Evan Chandler, by the police, by the public and by the media. I believe it’s the most personal, honest album in his entire catalog.

Willa: I agree – it’s very personal – but in a way that universalizes his emotions. For example, you can feel his anger on “They Don’t Care about Us,” but it draws on the biased police treatment he’s experienced and then extends that anger beyond his own experiences, so it becomes a commentary on many types of injustice. So it feels personal, but with larger social implications as well.

And even though there are some angry, painful songs on this album – and rightfully so considering the experiences he’d been through – there are also some exquisitely beautiful songs, like “Stranger in Moscow,” “Earth Song,” “You Are Not Alone,” and “Smile.” So it seems like he was in a really interesting place when he put the HIStory album together.

Joie: You know, he was in an interesting place. He had just lived through one of the most difficult periods of his life, his career was in jeopardy, and he had fallen in love and just gotten married. That’s quite a jumble of emotions for anyone to go through in such a short period of time. And he was doing it all in the public eye on top of that so, he had both the media and the public perception to deal with as well. So, you’re right. HIStory is a complex album for all of those reasons. In fact, in his book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, Joe Vogel describes it this way:

“HIStory is Michael Jackson’s most personal album. From the impassioned rage of “Scream” to the pained vulnerability of “Childhood,” the record was, in Jackson’s words, ‘a musical book.’ It encompassed all the turbulent emotions and struggles of the previous few years: it was his journal, his canvas, his rebuttal.”

Willa: Absolutely, and we can really see that in “Money.” It’s a very strong “rebuttal,” as Joe says, to the 1993 accusations. In fact, it’s a counter-accusation, saying in no uncertain terms that he is innocent and those accusing him – meaning Evan Chandler and Blanca Francia and Tom Sneddon, as well as the tabloids and mainstream press who perpetuated and magnified the hysteria – are the ones who are guilty. And their crimes are “lust, gluttony, and greed.”

Joie: I agree with you completely, Willa. The song opens with an ominous, almost sinister chant from Michael proclaiming all the horrifying things that people will do for money: “Lie for it / Spy for it / Kill for it / Die for it.” And he spits the words out as if the thought completely disgusts him. Then he goes on to say,

So you call it trust
But I say it’s just
In the devil’s game
Of greed and lust
 
They don’t care
They’d do me for the money
They don’t care
They use me for the money

I think it would pretty simplistic of us to believe that this song is merely an unflattering critique of greed and materialism. In fact, I think it’s fairly clear from these opening lines who ‘they’ are and how he feels about them.

Willa: I agree, it’s a really strong indictment. But then he makes that classic Michael Jackson move we see in him so often where he suddenly flips the narrative, adopts the persona of those he’s critiquing, and begins speaking from their point of view:

I’ll never betray or deceive you my friend but
If you show me the cash
Then I will take it
If you tell me to cry
Then I will fake it
If you give me a hand
Then I will shake it
You will do anything for money

And then he breaks to the chorus, which pushes this reversal even further:

Anything (anything)
Anything for money
I’d lie for you
Would die for you
Even sell my soul to the devil

So suddenly he’s speaking from their perspective, even going so far as to say he would “sell my soul to the devil.” And the “you” he’s talking to seems to be money itself. If you didn’t know who the “you” was, you might think this was a love song, and these lines were a vow a man was pledging to his lover: I’d do anything for you, “I’d lie for you,” “die for you.”

But this is no love song. Just the opposite. He goes on to suggest that romance can’t compete with greed – so even if a woman were involved, she’d be sold out soon enough if the price were right:

You don’t care
You’d do her for the money
Say it’s fair
You’d sue her for the money

So the beloved he’s swearing loyalty to isn’t a woman but Money itself, and the effect of that personification is really chilling.

Joie: It is chilling. It’s actually a very frightening song if you just sit and really listen to it. The lyrics are not for the fainthearted, and his eerie delivery of those lyrics is somewhat disquieting. And once again, without paying at least a little attention to the details of the events of 1993, I don’t believe one can fully appreciate the message of this song. And unfortunately, that message is that many people worship money and value it above all else.

In the second verse, he makes this accusation plain, asking where our loyalties and priorities are:

Insurance?
Where do your loyalties lie?
Is that your alibi?
I don’t think so

Willa: Oh, that is such an important verse, Joie, and I agree, it clearly connects with the events of 1993. Insurance companies don’t protect their profits by upholding truth and justice, but by minimizing risk – and letting the Chandler civil case go to trial would have been a huge risk for them, financially. Michael Jackson wanted to fight, but his insurance company wanted him to settle, and so did his own lawyers because it’s always much safer to settle than go to court. So he wasn’t just fighting Evan Chandler but the people on his own team, and you can feel his outrage about that throughout this song, especially in a few pointed references, like that one, Joie.

Joie: I agree completely. And it was a pretty bold move for him to put that in a song, I thought. And then he goes on to say this:

Want your pot of gold?
Need the Midas touch?
Bet you’d sell your soul
‘Cause your God is such
 
You don’t care
You kill for the money
Do or dare
The thrill for the money

I think he’s clearly accusing the masses of worshiping money here, and near the end of the song, he begins a chant of “money makes the world go around” that punctuates his point.

Willa: I don’t know, Joie. I’m not sure he’s accusing all of us of worshiping money. I mean, there are some places where he definitely implies that, like the beginning of the final verse:

You say you wouldn’t do it
For all the money in the world?
I don’t think so
If you show me the man
Then I will sell him

He’s implying pretty strongly here that everyone has a price – “If you show me the man / Then I will sell him” – and no one is exempt from that. So I see what you’re saying, Joie, and I definitely think this song has implications for all of us. But the “you” in this song – the person or thing he’s addressing – is very interesting and complicated, and shifts around constantly.

Joie: It is complicated. In fact, I think it may be one of his most complicated songs because, as you said, the “you” does constantly shift. In one voice, he’s clearly pointing his finger and saying “you would do anything for money.” But in the next breath he’s taken on the persona of the “you” and saying he’d “even sell my soul to the devil.” And you know, I believe that ambiguity is exactly what he was going for here. He wanted us to question the “you” in this song. Because questioning the “you” also makes us question what our own feelings and thoughts about money are. Would we do “anything for money” as the chorus states? And does money make the world go around? I believe Michael was trying to prompt us to ask ourselves these hard questions.

Willa: Wow, that’s a really interesting take on that, Joie. I like that interpretation. So it’s like he’s adopting multiple personas so we as an audience have to look at it from all those different points of view and to some degree adopt those subject positions as well, and some of those subject positions aren’t very comfortable. Like, if we sing along with the car stereo – which I tend to do a lot – we find ourselves singing the words, “Anything for money / I’d lie for you / Would die for you / Even sell my soul to the devil,” and what does it feel like to sing that? What happens mentally and emotionally when we sing those lyrics?

Joie: Oh, my God, such good questions, Willa. What does it feel like when we sing those lyrics? I personally wouldn’t know because that line bothers me on a spiritual level. And, as a result, I have never sung those words before. Whenever I’m listening to this song and I’m singing along, I am very aware of that line and usually I end up replacing the word “my” with “your” when I’m singing along to this one. If I don’t do that, then I just avoid singing that line completely. And it’s really interesting to me that I do that, but I just always have.

Willa: That is interesting, Joie, and I think it underscores just how much this song challenges us to question our own actions and values – to the point of making us pretty uncomfortable in some places. I do sing along, but I’m very aware of that line too, and it always pulls me up short.

So it sounds like we both have a powerful reaction to this song, and I think that was intentional – I think he wanted to shake us up and force us to take a hard look at ourselves. This song puts us in some really weird subject positions where we have to ask ourselves a lot of hard questions, as you say. Like “If you show me the cash / Then I will take it.” Every time I sing that out loud I wonder, is that true? Would I? Would I take “the cash” if someone offered it to me? And under what circumstances?

Joie: I know what you mean, Willa. I have the same thought process whenever I listen to this song too. And I think you’re right, that was intentional. And it just proves to me, once again, how intentional he always was in his art and how brilliant he was.

Willa: Oh, he was breathtakingly brilliant – and courageous as well, with that distinctive courage of a true artist. For one thing, he didn’t always try to please his audience. Sometimes he really shook us up and challenged us and made us uncomfortable, like he does in “Money” or “Little Susie” or the You Rock My World video. But that discomfort is never gratuitous. When we take a closer look, we find it serves an important artistic function and often leads us to see ourselves and our world a little differently.

Anything For Money

Joie:  So, Willa, I’m sure you heard the news about the big Jackson family feud a couple of months ago. Unfortunately it was pretty difficult to avoid; every day it seemed there was a new wrinkle and you couldn’t really get away from it. And it just seemed to get uglier and uglier with each passing day as it became clear that the motivating factor was money. Anger and resentment over the terms of Michael Jackson’s will. And, oddly enough, all that has me thinking about the song “Money,” from the HIStory album.

He never made a short film for this particular song and I’ve always thought it’s such a shame because I would have loved to have seen what he could have come up with for it. It’s one of those songs that really makes you think. One that makes you grab the liner notes and hunker down until you’ve deciphered every word he’s saying. And it has some really fascinating lyrics.

Willa:  Wow, Joie!  I can’t even believe you’re going there. That’s not just dancing with elephants – more like dancing with cobras. To be honest, I tried not to get caught up in it but it’s hard not to peek sometimes, and sorting out all those conflicting rumors and accusations and hard feelings just seems like negotiating a snake pit to me. It’s complicated even more by the fact that there are so many different sides to it and it’s all so public, and it was plenty complicated enough to begin with.

Anyway, I’m not sure if the main motivation is money or creative control. I tend to think it’s more about wanting to participate in creative decisions – but of course, his songs and his films and his name are all worth a lot of money, so even that’s not a clear distinction. It just seems really, really complicated to me, and I’m very sorry everything became so heated and so public, and people got their feelings hurt.

But I’d love to talk about “Money,” and you’re right – it is fascinating.

Joie:  Well, I wasn’t trying to step into a snake pit! And I don’t want to ‘go there,’ as you put it, because you’re right. It is like dancing with cobras, and ultimately, it’s really none of our business anyway.

But it does bring to mind that particular song for me and that’s what I want to focus on.

Willa:  I’d love to. And I didn’t mean to be dramatic. I just get really uncomfortable talking about artists’ private lives, though it’s kind of hard to avoid with Michael Jackson because public and private get so tangled up sometimes. Like, I really don’t think we can understand his later work if we don’t know what happened in 1993, but some of that is intensely personal. So how much should be considered public, and how much private? It’s really hard to figure out where to draw that line sometimes. And it’s hard to talk about “Money” without mentioning 1993 also.

Joie:  I agree with you. You can’t talk about “Money” without mentioning the events of 1993. Those allegations are at the heart of the song, I think. “Money” was included on the HIStory album, which was released in 1995, just two years after the extortion attempt and the subsequent allegations that ultimately changed his life. In fact, so many of the songs on that album do cover the events of 1993 because he actually used that album to vent his frustrations about the way he was treated – by Evan Chandler, by the police, by the public and by the media. I believe it’s the most personal, honest album in his entire catalog.

Willa:  I agree – it’s very personal – but in a way that universalizes his emotions. For example, you can feel his anger on “They Don’t Care about Us,” but it draws on the biased police treatment he’s experienced and then extends that anger beyond his own experiences, so it becomes a commentary on many types of injustice. So it feels personal, but with larger social implications as well.

And even though there are some angry, painful songs on this album – and rightfully so considering the experiences he’d been through – there are also some exquisitely beautiful songs, like “Stranger in Moscow,” “Earth Song,” “You Are Not Alone,” and “Smile.” So it seems like he was in a really interesting place when he put the HIStory album together.

Joie:  You know, he was in an interesting place. He had just lived through one of the most difficult periods of his life, his career was in jeopardy, and he had fallen in love and just gotten married. That’s quite a jumble of emotions for anyone to go through in such a short period of time. And he was doing it all in the public eye on top of that so, he had both the media and the public perception to deal with as well. So, you’re right. HIStory is a complex album for all of those reasons. In fact, in his book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, Joe Vogel describes it this way:

“HIStory is Michael Jackson’s most personal album. From the impassioned rage of “Scream” to the pained vulnerability of “Childhood,” the record was, in Jackson’s words, ‘a musical book.’ It encompassed all the turbulent emotions and struggles of the previous few years: it was his journal, his canvas, his rebuttal.”

Willa:  Absolutely, and we can really see that in “Money.” It’s a very strong “rebuttal,” as Joe says, to the 1993 accusations. In fact, it’s a counter-accusation, saying in no uncertain terms that he is innocent and those accusing him – meaning Evan Chandler and Blanca Francia and Tom Sneddon, as well as the tabloids and mainstream press who perpetuated and magnified the hysteria – are the ones who are guilty. And their crimes are “lust, gluttony, and greed.”

Joie:  I agree with you completely, Willa. The song opens with an ominous, almost sinister chant from Michael proclaiming all the horrifying things that people will do for money:  “Lie for it / Spy for it / Kill for it / Die for it.” And he spits the words out as if the thought completely disgusts him. Then he goes on to say,

So you call it trust
But I say it’s just
In the devil’s game
Of greed and lust
 
They don’t care
They’d do me for the money
They don’t care
They use me for the money

I think it would pretty simplistic of us to believe that this song is merely an unflattering critique of greed and materialism. In fact, I think it’s fairly clear from these opening lines who ‘they’ are and how he feels about them.

Willa:  I agree, it’s a really strong indictment. But then he makes that classic Michael Jackson move we see in him so often where he suddenly flips the narrative, adopts the persona of those he’s critiquing, and begins speaking from their point of view:

I’ll never betray or deceive you my friend but
If you show me the cash
Then I will take it
If you tell me to cry
Then I will fake it
If you give me a hand
Then I will shake it
You will do anything for money

And then he breaks to the chorus, which pushes this reversal even further:

Anything (anything)
Anything for money
I’d lie for you
Would die for you
Even sell my soul to the devil

So suddenly he’s speaking from their perspective, even going so far as to say he would “sell my soul to the devil.” And the “you” he’s talking to seems to be money itself. If you didn’t know who the “you” was, you might think this was a love song, and these lines were a vow a man was pledging to his lover: I’d do anything for you, “I’d lie for you,” “die for you.”

But this is no love song. Just the opposite. He goes on to suggest that romance can’t compete with greed – so even if a woman were involved, she’d be sold out soon enough if the price were right:

You don’t care
You’d do her for the money
Say it’s fair
You’d sue her for the money

So the beloved he’s swearing loyalty to isn’t a woman but Money itself, and the effect of that personification is really chilling.

Joie:  It is chilling. It’s actually a very frightening song if you just sit and really listen to it. The lyrics are not for the fainthearted, and his eerie delivery of those lyrics is somewhat disquieting. And once again, without paying at least a little attention to the details of the events of 1993, I don’t believe one can fully appreciate the message of this song. And unfortunately, that message is that many people worship money and value it above all else.

In the second verse, he makes this accusation plain, asking where our loyalties and priorities are:

Insurance?
Where do your loyalties lie?
Is that your alibi?
I don’t think so

Willa:  Oh, that is such an important verse, Joie, and I agree, it clearly connects with the events of 1993. Insurance companies don’t protect their profits by upholding truth and justice, but by minimizing risk – and letting the Chandler civil case go to trial would have been a huge risk for them, financially. Michael Jackson wanted to fight, but his insurance company wanted him to settle, and so did his own lawyers because it’s always much safer to settle than go to court. So he wasn’t just fighting Evan Chandler but the people on his own team, and you can feel his outrage about that throughout this song, especially in a few pointed references, like that one, Joie.

Joie:  I agree completely. And it was a pretty bold move for him to put that in a song, I thought. And then he goes on to say this:

Want your pot of gold?
Need the Midas touch?
Bet you’d sell your soul
‘Cause your God is such
 
You don’t care
You kill for the money
Do or dare
The thrill for the money  

I think he’s clearly accusing the masses of worshiping money here, and near the end of the song, he begins a chant of “money makes the world go around” that punctuates his point.

Willa:  I don’t know, Joie. I’m not sure he’s accusing all of us of worshiping money. I mean, there are some places where he definitely implies that, like the beginning of the final verse:

You say you wouldn’t do it
For all the money in the world?
I don’t think so
If you show me the man
Then I will sell him

He’s implying pretty strongly here that everyone has a price – “If you show me the man / Then I will sell him” – and no one is exempt from that. So I see what you’re saying, Joie, and I definitely think this song has implications for all of us. But the “you” in this song – the person or thing he’s addressing – is very interesting and complicated, and shifts around constantly.

Joie:  It is complicated. In fact, I think it may be one of his most complicated songs because, as you said, the “you” does constantly shift. In one voice, he’s clearly pointing his finger and saying “you would do anything for money.” But in the next breath he’s taken on the persona of the “you” and saying he’d “even sell my soul to the devil.” And you know, I believe that ambiguity is exactly what he was going for here. He wanted us to question the “you” in this song. Because questioning the “you” also makes us question what our own feelings and thoughts about money are. Would we do “anything for money” as the chorus states? And does money make the world go around? I believe Michael was trying to prompt us to ask ourselves these hard questions.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a really interesting take on that, Joie. I like that interpretation. So it’s like he’s adopting multiple personas so we as an audience have to look at it from all those different points of view and to some degree adopt those subject positions as well, and some of those subject positions aren’t very comfortable. Like, if we sing along with the car stereo – which I tend to do a lot – we find ourselves singing the words, “Anything for money / I’d lie for you / Would die for you / Even sell my soul to the devil,” and what does it feel like to sing that? What happens mentally and emotionally when we sing those lyrics?

Joie:  Oh, my God, such good questions, Willa. What does it feel like when we sing those lyrics? I personally wouldn’t know because that line bothers me on a spiritual level. And, as a result, I have never sung those words before. Whenever I’m listening to this song and I’m singing along, I am very aware of that line and usually I end up replacing the word “my” with “your” when I’m singing along to this one. If I don’t do that, then I just avoid singing that line completely. And it’s really interesting to me that I do that, but I just always have.

Willa:  That is interesting, Joie, and I think it underscores just how much this song challenges us to question our own actions and values – to the point of making us pretty uncomfortable in some places. I do sing along, but I’m very aware of that line too, and it always pulls me up short.

So it sounds like we both have a powerful reaction to this song, and I think that was intentional – I think he wanted to shake us up and force us to take a hard look at ourselves. This song puts us in some really weird subject positions where we have to ask ourselves a lot of hard questions, as you say. Like “If you show me the cash / Then I will take it.” Every time I sing that out loud I wonder, is that true? Would I? Would I take “the cash” if someone offered it to me? And under what circumstances?

Joie:  I know what you mean, Willa. I have the same thought process whenever I listen to this song too. And I think you’re right, that was intentional. And it just proves to me, once again, how intentional he always was in his art and how brilliant he was.

Willa:  Oh, he was breathtakingly brilliant – and courageous as well, with that distinctive courage of a true artist. For one thing, he didn’t always try to please his audience. Sometimes he really shook us up and challenged us and made us uncomfortable, like he does in “Money” or “Little Susie” or the You Rock My World video. But that discomfort is never gratuitous. When we take a closer look, we find it serves an important artistic function and often leads us to see ourselves and our world a little differently.

They Thought They Really Had Control of Me, Part 2

Willa:  So I’m just going to be upfront about this and say that working on this week’s post put Joie and me into a terrible funk – the Great Depression, as Joie called it. It deals pretty explicitly with some very painful scenes from our nation’s history, including scenes of racial oppression and sexual abuse. But we felt it was necessary to provide that context to understand what happened in 1993, and everything that followed from that.

Joie:  And Willa’s not kidding when she said it sent us both into a Great Depression. This has been the hardest conversation we’ve ever had and it stirred up some really negative emotions in both of us. For a while we didn’t know if we would get through it; we were even worried about hurting each other’s feelings.

Willa:  We also didn’t want to hurt or upset anyone who reads this, and we’ve been especially concerned about new readers who may not know us too well. We gained a lot of new readers and new subscribers with the sex appeal post a few weeks ago, which was such a fun, feel-good post to write. Joie and I had a blast with it, and we’re planning to get back to some fun topics soon. In fact, we’re treating ourselves with a look back at Off the Wall next week.

But we both strongly believe that sometimes you just have to stand up and speak the truth, even if it’s unpleasant and upsetting. We believe the public’s refusal to look at things that are unpleasant is what allowed District Attorney Tom Sneddon to abuse the power of his office for so long. So while this was very painful to write, and while we tried to be as sensitive as possible, we felt compelled to speak honestly about specific aspects of our nation’s terrible history of racism and abuse.

Joie:  So this week, we continue with our conversation about Michael as a sex symbol and why that was both a significant and a dangerous spot for him to be in. And we ended last week with a discussion of the time period – from the late 1970s to 1982 when Michael’s career really exploded with the release of Thriller – and how the cultural attitudes were in a state of flux. Things were shifting a little bit and the time was right for someone with Michael’s broad-ranging cross-over appeal, and he didn’t hesitate for a second. He stepped up and took full advantage of the moment and became the biggest star the world had ever seen.

Willa:  Then in 1993, a White man, Evan Chandler, falsely accused him of a sex crime. Importantly, in a secretly recorded phone conversation, Chandler admits he has paid people to carry out “a plan that isn’t just mine,” saying,

“There are other people involved that are waiting for my phone call that are in certain positions. I’ve paid them to do it. Everything’s going according to a plan that isn’t just mine.”

He also says, “I’ve been rehearsed about what to say and what not to say,” and says there will “be a massacre if I don’t get what I want,” which is $20 million dollars. This is clearly an extortion attempt.

To understand what happened next, we have to go back in our nation’s history and look at some truly horrifying scenes. And we know this is hard to read. It was incredibly hard to write. But we both feel we can’t really understand what happened in 1993 without this background.

As we’ve mentioned before, there existed a cultural narrative that Black men were a sexual threat to White women, and this narrative was used as an excuse to oppress, demean, and abuse Black men and force them to be submissive. Black men who were not properly deferential could be tortured and killed. Importantly, the torture those men endured tended to focus on the parts of the body we designate as sexual, and their mutilated bodies were often displayed afterwards as a warning to other Black men.

So Black men weren’t just physically abused; they were sexually abused and put on display in very public ways. And this type of sexual intimidation wasn’t restricted to just a few isolated cases. It was systemic, and an integral part of racial oppression in the United States.

In urban areas like New Orleans, there were public whipping houses, and if you were a slave you could be sent there at the whim of your owner for something as trivial as having a defiant look in your eyes. The purpose of those places was to break your spirit and force you to accept the idea that you were a slave. Both men and women were sent to those places, and they did not whip you through your clothes. If you were a woman and were sent to that place, you would have to stand bare chested before a brutal man who made his living hurting people. He would bind your hands over your head to hold you upright as you were whipped, but he could also punish you in ways that were less painful physically but perhaps more damaging psychologically. He could molest you. He could take your clothing. He could force you to stand exposed for hours. He could demean and humiliate you as much as he wanted. And this was a public place with galleries for spectators, so there was likely a crowd of rough, jeering men who gathered in such places just to watch other human beings be hurt and humiliated.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe suggests that the intense humiliation women (and men) experienced in those places was as cruel a punishment in its way as the physical pain they endured from the whip. A beautiful teenager, Rosa, is caught trying on a dress that belongs to her mistress, Maria. As punishment, Maria writes out an order for Rosa to be taken to the whipping house to receive 15 lashes, “lightly” applied. An older woman tries to intervene on Rosa’s behalf, saying, “But could not you punish her some other way, – some way that would be less shameful?” Maria replies,

“I mean to shame her; that’s just what I want. She has all her life presumed on her delicacy, and her good looks, and her lady-like airs, till she forgets who she is; – and I’ll give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!”

The intense shame Rosa will experience in that place is not accidental:  as Maria says, “I mean to shame her; that’s just what I want.” That extreme public humiliation is intentional, and its purpose is to “bring her down” – to scorch her mind as well as her body and make her submissive – by forcing her to accept and internalize the idea that she is powerless, and a slave.

Joie:  You know, Willa, I have not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin since I was in High School but I have to say, just the little snippet you’ve mentioned here makes me remember how uncomfortable – and angry, and indignant, and horrified, and outraged, and hurt – I felt reading it back then. It is not a pleasant or an easy book for a Black person to read.

Willa:  Oh God, Joie. Some of those scenes are just terrible to read. I was in my 40s, and it was still really hard to take. And I can believe that reading it as a Black teenage girl would be a very different experience than reading it as a White middle-aged woman. Most of the worst things happen behind the scenes – for example, a weeping Rosa is sent to the whipping house and we don’t see her again – but still, it’s really painful and uncomfortable. A lot of White people don’t like reading that book either just because it is so painful, and because it can stir up a lot of feelings of collective guilt as well.

I know as a Southern White girl learning about slavery, I felt like I’d found out that my mother was a murderer. I just couldn’t hardly come to grips with it. And it really wasn’t that long ago. My grandmother loved her grandfather, and used to tell me stories about him and how kind he was. Looking back much later, I realized that he was 12 years old when the Civil War began. He was 16 when the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. We tend to think it’s ancient history, but it really wasn’t that long ago. My grandmother’s grandfather was alive during that time, and we’re still dealing with a lot of those attitudes today.

Joie:  No, it wasn’t that long ago. My mother’s great-grandfather was lost in slavery. Sold to another slave owner and never heard from again. That’s just four generations ago.

Willa:  Oh God, Joie. That’s terrible.

Joie:  And even though that book is fiction, it is based on the very real experience of slavery in our country. And it is largely responsible for creating and ingraining most of the racial stereotypes about Blacks that we know today into the collective American psyche.

Willa:  You’re right, it’s fiction but it draws on the experiences of real people. Stowe’s husband visited a whipping house in New Orleans and wrote about what he saw there, including a naked teenage girl – a girl like Rosa – and scenes of just unspeakable cruelty. So a lot of the ideas for Stowe’s novel came from real life experiences.

But a lot of the racial stereotypes you mentioned – especially the stereotype of Uncle Tom – didn’t come from Stowe’s novel, at least not directly. Her novel was incredibly popular – the most popular novel of the 19th Century – and Vaudeville skits based on her novel became very popular as well. Those skits often featured White actors in blackface playing the role of happy slaves, including a happy Uncle Tom, and that’s where those stereotypes came from, but that’s not at all what her novel is like. Stowe’s Tom is no Uncle Tom. In fact, he is tortured and killed by his owner because he refuses to whip other slaves, or tell him where two slaves who escaped have been hiding. Judging Uncle Tom’s Cabin because of those Vaudeville stereotypes is like judging Michael Jackson based on Wierd Al Yankovic.

Joie:  I completely disagree with you. While it’s true that Stowe probably intended for the character of Tom to be some sort of ‘noble hero,’ and the stereotype of him as a subservient old fool who bows down like a good little slave and does everything he can to keep his White master happy was perpetuated by the many stage productions that Stowe had no control over, her novel is completely responsible for many other racial stereotypes. The lazy, carefree “happy darky.” The tragic figure of the attractive light-skinned mulatto female who’s used as a sex object by all the White men. The plump, motherly, dark-skinned “Mammy” with the kerchief wrapped around her head like Aunt Jemima. Even the “pickaninny” stereotype of Black children – “wooly heads and glistening eyes.” It’s incredibly offensive and it came directly from the descriptions and illustrations in that book. And as you pointed out, in its day, it was the single most popular novel of the 19th Century.

I’m not discounting its significance as an invaluable commentary against slavery. I’m just pointing out its complicity in creating and perpetuating all those racial stereotypes that we still struggle with today.

Willa:  You know, I don’t mean to make Uncle Tom’s Cabin sound better than it is. It was written in a very different place and time with a very different mindset, and I admit I winced quite a bit while reading it. But I think Stowe explodes a lot of those stereotypes by taking us inside the minds of those characters and making them real, human, complicated people – especially the women characters. The Mammy figure, Chloe, is a smart no-nonsense woman who says some pretty subversive things, and if Cassie had her way, she’d drive a stake through the heart of the man who forced her to be his mistress. She remains her own person and never becomes what he wants her to be. She’s no sex kitten. And Cassie is a crucial figure. One of the things I find so important about Stowe and the reason I keep referring to her is that, through characters like Rosa and Cassie, she shows the interconnections between slavery and sexuality – specifically, how abuse of power in terms of race, gender, and sexuality is intricately related and interwoven.

Joie:  Ok. First, I never said the mulatto female characters were sex kittens, I said they were sex objects (there’s a big difference) and a racial stereotype. Second, and most importantly, we are obviously never going to agree or even meet in the middle on our opinions of this book so, we should probably just move on.

Willa:  Ok. I shouldn’t have pushed that so hard. I apologize.

The idea I’m trying to get at is that racism and slavery are false ideologies – artificial human constructs – that are deeply abhorrent to the human mind. Everything within us rebels at the thought of being a slave, and it takes brutal measures to break us to the point where we’ll accept it. And in the American South, brutal measures were used.

And here’s the crucially important point, the reason it’s important to look back at all this terrible history:  those false ideologies were “made real” by being “written” on real human bodies. Those ideologies were literally written in the scars of whips or chains or a branding iron, but they were also written in less obvious ways through sexual abuse or even the public gaze of White men who thought they had a right to dominate the bodies of Black men and women, and refused to acknowledge their humanity. And this other type of “writing” on the body is perhaps more damaging to the psyche than physical suffering because it focuses on the areas of the body we tend to designate as sexual. These areas are more intimate and therefore more closely aligned with our inner being and sense of self, so it is more wounding psychologically when those areas are abused.

This is part of our nation’s horrible legacy of racial/sexual abuse, and this is the background for what Michael Jackson faced in 1993. In that secretly recorded phone conversation, Even Chandler says,

“This lawyer I found – I picked the nastiest son of a bitch I could find. All he wants to do is get this out in the public as fast as he can, as big as he can, and humiliate as many people as he can. He’s nasty, he’s mean, he’s smart, and he’s hungry for publicity.”

In other words, Chandler wants to control Michael Jackson – he wants to make him submissive and force him to bow to his wishes – by threatening to publicly “humiliate” him in a sexual way by accusing him of a sex crime. This is simply an extension of what Maria wants to do to Rosa in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As Maria says, “I mean to shame her; that’s just what I want.” And in Michael Jackson’s final meeting with Chandler, when he refuses to pay him the money he wants, Chandler points a finger at him and says, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down.” Again, this is simply a modern variation of what Maria said of Rosa more than a century earlier: “I’ll give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!”

When Michael Jackson refuses to give in to Chandler’s demands, the police are brought in, led by a White District Attorney named Tom Sneddon. Sneddon blindly accepts Chandler’s accusations despite all the evidence that it is an extortion attempt, and he sides with Chandler against Michael Jackson. Sneddon then uses his position as District Attorney to order a strip search. A few days before Christmas 1993, Michael Jackson is forced to stand naked on a platform while the most intimate parts of his body – the areas designated as sexual – are photographed and videotaped. If the civil case goes to trial, those photographs and videotape could be entered as evidence and made public in a courtroom.

The intense humiliation Michael Jackson was forced to endure during the strip search, and that he would have faced during the civil trial, is entirely in keeping with our nation’s horrifying history of racial/sexual abuse. Again, it is merely an extension of the humiliations slaves were forced to endure in the public whipping houses when the most intimate areas of their bodies – areas designated as sexual – were put on public display.

Joie:  You’re absolutely right, Willa. And you know, I have always had a difficult time reading accounts of that strip search, and for the longest time, I thought it was just because it felt so much like reading the account of a rape. And it does. I mean, putting yourself in Michael’s shoes as you read what happened during that strip search, it just feels like he’s being gang raped by everyone in that room – the photographers, the videographer, the DA’s physician, the police officers that were in the room – everyone. It’s just so uncomfortable to read; it feels like such a violation.

But, until we began working on this post, I never realized that perhaps another reason I have so much trouble reading about that incident is because it also feels very reminiscent of a slave being publicly examined and violated and humiliated before being sold or whipped. I believe Aldebaran and I talked about it briefly in the comments section a couple weeks ago.

You know for many Black Americans, reading about, watching on TV, or even just talking about slavery in any deep and meaningful way is very difficult and uncomfortable to do. And, as you know, Willa, I’ve had a very difficult time contributing to this particular conversation. I felt paralyzed by it. When you first mentioned that we talk about this, I avoided it for weeks. And I was very puzzled by it for a long time until I really just sat and thought about the reasons why. Why was I having such a hard time with this one? And finally, I realized that this topic is just so unpleasant for me for so many reasons. Slavery is ugly and I don’t like to talk about it. And rape is ugly and I don’t want to talk about it. And trying to have a meaningful conversation about how someone you love and adore was humiliated and raped and made to feel like a common slave is … unpleasant. To say the least. It’s ugly, and I don’t want to talk about it.

Willa:  You know, I felt that way for a long time. I’ve felt a deep connection to Michael Jackson since I was nine years old, and I always believed he was innocent, but I didn’t want to know any of the details. It was too ugly, plus I always felt his private life should be private. I never read any biographies of him while he was alive – actually, didn’t read anything like that until I was well into writing M Poetica, and noticed his later work kept pointing back to 1993. Then I felt like I had to learn something about what happened, just so I could understand what he was responding to and trying to convey.

And it was shocking. I didn’t know about the strip search. When I read a description of what happened that day, I felt physically sick for hours, just hollowed out inside – I can’t even describe it. And I definitely didn’t know about the photographs and videotape. As soon as I found out about them, I thought, Of course he settled. Of course. I would too.

But I didn’t know about them, or about that recording where Evan Chandler says, “Everything’s going according to a plan that isn’t just mine,” and says he’s paid people to help carry out that plan. I didn’t know Chandler’s son agreed to the allegations after being sedated, and I didn’t know the details of how Chandler interrogated his son – how he lied and threatened and manipulated his son until he finally agreed to the allegations. I kept hoping some evidence would appear that would prove his innocence. I had no idea that evidence was already available, but the police and press were ignoring it.

Looking back, I think Tom Sneddon was able to abuse the power of his office – and abuse and harass Michael Jackson – because a lot of people like me refused to look at the evidence and look at what was happening. You were a lot better about that than I was, Joie – you were working through the fan club to help make people aware, but looking back I feel like I was willfully, woefully ignorant.

Joie:  Well I wasn’t working with MJFC then. There was no MJFC back in 1993.

Willa:  I’m not just talking about 1993. I’m talking about the whole period from 1993 on. Tom Sneddon hounded him for years.

Joie:  Well, that’s very true; he went after him with a vengeance and I truly believe he was obsessed with Michael. But, I was very much plugged in to what was going on, even before I started working with MJFC. I made it a point to follow what was happening. And like you, I didn’t want to know any of the details either. I don’t think anyone really wanted to look too closely into the details because it was such an ugly accusation. And I feel like I keep using that word – ugly – and I apologize for that, but I just can’t seem to get away from it in this conversation.

But in order to prove what we knew to be true – that Michael was innocent – and in order to educate others about the truth (since the sensationalized news certainly wasn’t doing it) we had to look at the facts; we had no choice. And the facts clearly pointed to extortion. And how Sneddon and his minions could ignore that and go on a witch hunt instead still floors me. And there is no doubt in my mind that if it had gone to trial, Michael would have been victorious. But I understand completely why he suddenly stopped pushing for his day in court after the strip search and I can’t blame him. I probably would have done the exact same thing. Even though settling made him look guilty. And it makes me think of that part in Frank Cascio’s book, My Friend Michael, where he talks about how Michael would occasionally bring that up, saying,

“I have the whole world thinking I’m a child molester. You don’t know what it feels like to be falsely accused.”

Willa:  I agree, Joie. I would have settled. If that civil case had gone to trial, think of what that would have been like. Not only would it have been unbearably humiliating, it also would have served as a warning to other Black men of what could happen if they weren’t careful. In other words, it would have been an extension of the message conveyed by the bodies of Black men lynched in the past as a warning to be submissive. As in all those earlier abuses of power we talked about, the purpose of this intense sexual humiliation was to break his spirit – to control him, and subdue him, and force him to accept the cultural position set out for him – by “writing” this ideology on his body, by writing how powerless he was on the most intimate areas of his body.

But it didn’t work. It didn’t break him or control him or make him submissive. Instead, he became defiant – more openly defiant than he’d ever been before. The press called him uncontrollable, outrageous. It’s striking to me how many articles were written saying that someone needed to take control of him – his family, his managers, someone. And this isn’t a person who’s brandishing weapons or threatening people or causing massive property damage. He’s simply making people very uncomfortable through what he calls his “eccentric oddities.”

But his “eccentric oddities” weren’t random – they took a very specific form. He responded to the attempts to write the ideologies of racism and subservience on his body by completely confounding the way we read and interpret his face and body. He manipulated public perceptions of his face until it simply could not be read in conventional ways. Was he Black, or was he White? Was he masculine, or was he feminine? Was he handsome and desirable, a sex symbol, or was he ravaged by plastic surgery? Was he heterosexual? Homosexual? Bisexual? Asexual? Was he a pedophile or a victim? Innocent or guilty? Everyone who looked at him saw something different. We as a culture completely lost the ability to read and interpret his face and body because he scrambled the signifiers we’re used to reading.

And that wasn’t accidental. As he himself tells us rather explicitly through his work, it was an artistic decision. Specifically, the illusion of plastic surgery was an artistic response to the cultural constraints being forced on him, and it’s brilliant. In fact, as much as I love his music and his dancing and his films (and I do love them) I believe his face and body – and the illusions he created with them – are his greatest work of art. I believe future generations will look back at Michael Jackson and see him as a transformational figure, and the most important artist of our time – not the greatest singer or dancer or filmmaker, but the most important artist, period, including poets and painters and playwrights. And I believe they will see his face as his masterpiece.

However, his face isn’t just his most ambitious and most important work of art. It’s also an entirely new kind of art – an entirely new genre of art. It makes us uncomfortable because it is such a new kind of art and we don’t yet know how to interpret it. But it has the potential to “rewrite” the ideologies that have been written on our bodies, and alter the way we make sense of ourselves and our world. And that is truly revolutionary.

Joie:  Willa, I agree with you that everyone who looked at him saw something different. But I tend to think that was our doing, not his. Everyone saw something different simply because people see what they want to see. You yourself told us back during our discussion of “Is It Scary” that “if you look at someone with compassion, you simply see them differently than if you don’t.” And those people who looked at him and believed that he was ‘ravaged by plastic surgery’ or guilty as sin, or crazy as a loon or whatever, simply wanted to see him that way.

But I do agree with you that, in time, the world will come to realize that Michael Jackson was in fact the most important artist of our time. And that statement has nothing to do with his music or his dancing abilities or his short films. Instead, it has everything to do with the fact that he – the most famous man on the planet, the most successful entertainer in the world – was given the great responsibility of proving to the world that Black people and White people are all the same. And that responsibility came with a disease that he was ridiculed for and teased about and tormented with for the rest of his life. But he handled it with so much grace and dignity and humility and bravery. And he tried his best to use it to teach us some very profound lessons along the way. And you’re right. That is very revolutionary.