Willa: Happy holidays, everyone! For our first Christmas here at Dancing with the Elephant, Joie and I wanted to do something special so we wrote a post about Michael Jackson and his ideas about childhood and creativity. Then the following year, we did a Christmas post about his song, “Childhood,” and the beautiful video he made for it.
We’d like to continue that tradition this year by talking with Veronica Bassil about her warm and insightful book, That Wonder in My Youth: Michael Jackson and Childhood. Veronica has a Ph.D. in English and American literature, and this is actually her third book about Michael Jackson. She’s also the author of Michael Jackson’s Love for Planet Earth and Thinking Twice about Billie Jean.
Thank you so much for joining us again, Veronica!
Joie: Welcome, Veronica. You’ve been busy!
Veronica: Yes, you’re right, Joie – I have. I feel as if I have been Michaeling pretty much nonstop since he left us in 2009. And it’s been great to share that journey with you both and your wonderful blog participants. I’ve learned so much from these discussions. I feel as if we have all been together on this “great adventure,” exploring the various dimensions of MJ’s art and in the process building a better, fuller, and more accurate understanding of who he was and what he was communicating.
So I am very happy to join you now to discuss That Wonder in My Youth, which incidentally I noticed was the title for one of your previous posts. I think it’s such a haunting and powerful line from MJ’s “Childhood” – “I’m searching for that wonder in my youth.”
Joie: It is an interesting line, isn’t it? So I’ve been wondering, what was it that made you want to write about this aspect of Michael’s life? Can you tell us a little about what drew you to focus on his childhood?
Veronica: Sure, Joie, I’d be glad to. I considered that removing the encrustations of media disinformation that had constructed a false picture of who MJ was and what his art was about was critical to revealing his true stature as an artist and a person.
For example, in terms of his music, he was to a large extent portrayed as just a lightweight pop star, and then later as a has-been lightweight pop star, when he is in reality a powerful musical innovator, poet, and philosopher (by this I mean a visionary thinker on the deepest level). He is a modern-day Socrates who questioned and challenged the status quo, the beliefs of “Normal Valley.” His challenges provoked discomfort, and like Socrates, he became a thorn in the side of those who wanted to maintain existing social norms and beliefs. Interestingly, Socrates was also accused of corrupting the young and put on trial. Found guilty, he was sentenced to death as an old man in his 80s.
MJ’s work to focus our attention on the plight of children worldwide was distorted or disregarded. Instead of investigating our real-world commitment to children, many found it easier to attack the messenger and criticize his very being.
In an effort to correct this false media persona, my first book discussed MJ’s passionate environmentalism, which I saw (as did others, Joe Vogel especially) as central to his work. Then the allegations of course were and sadly still are a huge stumbling block that keeps people from appreciating him and his art. So that was my second book, using the accusations in “Billie Jean” as an access point. In this recent book, I tackled the third major stumbling block when it comes to MJ – namely, his views on children and childhood, including his own experiences as a child.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Veronica. I’ve read all three of your books and enjoyed them individually, but hadn’t put that together – that each one is addressing a “major stumbling block” to understanding and appreciating Michael Jackson and his work.
Veronica: Thanks so much, Willa, for reading my work! Yes, the three books tie together. MJ has been so profoundly misunderstood and misinterpreted, and his effort to focus the world’s attention on the need to care about children and learn from them, seeing them as teachers and guides, is at the top of the list. His philosophy grew out of his own childhood experiences, which he saw as deprived of the normal pleasures and carefree days of childhood, and this gave him insight into the sufferings and neglect of children worldwide.
By the way, I have been reading the book Michael Jackson, Inc. by Forbes writer Zack O’Malley Greenburg, and he says that in 1966 (when MJ was 7 or 8), he was doing 5 sets a night, 6 nights a week, on top of going to school and rehearsing! That is so amazing.
Willa: Really? I had no idea. I mean, I knew he and his brothers worked very hard to succeed – were forced to work hard to succeed – but that’s really troubling that a second grader would be working that much. I’ve read Greenburg’s book also, but somehow that went right past me – or maybe I just didn’t stop to think about what it meant. He really didn’t have time to experience childhood in a normal sense, did he?
Veronica: No, he didn’t, and I think even we, his fans, don’t fully grasp what that kind of childhood work was like and how it affected him.
Willa: Yes, and I’m afraid I’m one of those people. I try to understand, but just when I think I’m starting to get a good picture of what his life was like as a child star, growing up with that extreme level of fame and hard work and harsh discipline from his father, I hear something like that and realize, no, I still don’t get it. I still have no concept of what it was like for him.…
Veronica: MJ talked about it quite a lot – for example, in his autobiography Moonwalk – and he makes this point again in “Childhood” when he sings about “the painful youth I’ve had.” But I think it’s easy to underplay or discount it, perhaps because his experience is incomprehensible in that it is so far from our own.
In terms of MJ’s awareness of the plight of children in general, I’ve been reading Losing Our Way, an important book recently published by former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, and he talks about how the USA was for a time number 1 in child poverty of all industrialized countries. It is now number 2 after Romania.
Willa: That’s shocking. I didn’t know that.
Veronica: Yes, it is scandalously shocking. One in 5 children (23 percent) in our nation live in poverty today.
Joie: I’m actually aware of that statistic, and it is shocking.
Veronica: Yes, Joie, I agree. Herbert also writes that since the recession of 2008, billions upon billions of dollars have been cut from our public school budgets. This means eliminating or curtailing supposedly “nonessential” programs that are actually vital, such as music, art, band, foreign languages, sports, and early childhood education programs. This lack of care and nurture of children is what MJ wanted to draw our attention to on a worldwide scale, as well as his focus on the enormous value of children, how they can show us a new way. As he says so wonderfully in his Grammy Legend Award speech of 1993:
The magic, the wonder, the mystery, and the innocence of a child’s heart are the seeds of creativity that will heal the world. I really believe that. What we need to learn from children isn’t childish. Being with them connects us to the deeper wisdom of life, which is ever present and only asks to be lived. They know the way to solutions that lie waiting to be recognized within our own hearts.
I absolutely love this speech, and his reference to “a child’s heart” is so important. Incidentally, the Immortal version of “Childhood” includes 2 passages. Here’s a link to the full speech:
Willa: I agree – what he is saying in this speech is crucially important, and I think this is one way critics really misunderstood what he was saying. When he talked about wanting to retain the childlike part of himself, critics tended to interpret that as meaning he was reluctant to grow up and be a responsible adult. But that wasn’t what he was saying at all. He felt very responsible about trying to help solve the many problems that face our world.
And this is the critically important part: he felt that connecting with the creativity and “deeper wisdom” of childhood would help us solve those problems. Susan Fast talks about this in her Dangerous book:
In the collection of short films that accompanies Dangerous, Jackson says in a preamble to “Heal the World”: “Being with [children] connects us to the deep wisdom of life, the simple goodness shines straight from their hearts.”
Many conventional ideas about childhood link it to the future through the belief that children enter the world as empty vessels, that there is, therefore, an opportunity – or obligation – to educate them, “fill” them, shape them, in order that they will hopefully produce a “better” future … that they will fulfill the dreams of their parents, and that they will carry on family lines.
But Jackson rarely talks or sings about children in this conventional way … For him, there was a utopian impulse in children not because they represent the future, the hopes and dreams of adults, the continuation of a “normal” progression of time and family, but because their honesty, simplicity and innocence center adults, bring us back to feeling, to good affect; “now, when the world is so confused and its problems so complicated,” he says in the same preamble, “we need our children more than ever.”
So as Susan emphasizes, Michael Jackson isn’t saying that we can create a better future by molding children into better people – into the people we want them to be. Just the opposite. He’s saying that when we spend time with children, it “connects us to the deep wisdom of life” and makes us better people.
We really see this in the Heal the World video, where we see children playing in war-torn areas around the world as soldiers watch, and then the soldiers throw down their rifles. And we see it more subtly in the Jam video, where he juxtaposes images of children playing, dancing, making music against images of urban poverty. Importantly, he explicitly talks about solving the world’s problems in the lyrics of “Jam,” like in these opening lines:
Nation to nation
All the world must come together
Face the problems that we see
Then maybe somehow we can work it out
And in the chorus he goes on to say that the way to solve these problems is to “jam” – meaning to play like children, to connect creatively with one another and find innovative solutions. So he seemed to see this childlike wonder and playfulness as a powerful force for social change, and thought it was very important for adults to reconnect to the childlike parts of themselves to tap into this creative force. As he says in the passage Susan quoted, “now, when the world is so confused and its problems so complicated, we need our children more than ever.”
Veronica: Amen to that, Willa! I agree with what you just said so well and with what Susan Fast wrote. The word “center” here is very important: “their honesty, simplicity and innocence center adults, bring us back to feeling.” This is one place where we can see MJ as a philosopher. When he talks about the “playfulness of life” and the “deeper wisdom of life” in the Grammy speech, what is he really telling us? We need to look closely at this speech, which is a condensed form of insights that are reflected elsewhere – for example, in the Heal the World introduction, in Dancing the Dream, and maybe throughout his entire work.
Here I’d like to quote from a wonderful book, The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. In the final chapters, he talks about the Tao of Lao-tzu and the Tao te Ching. The Tao (pronounced “dow”) is translated as “the Way,” a way of balance, or being at the center of extremes, also called The Middle Way. Singer uses the example of a pendulum that will, when pushed, swing one way to one extreme and then back again to the other extreme to the same degree. Eventually it will come to center, to a balance point, where it rests. Singer also uses the analogy of sailing, where the balance point of the energies is more complicated because it involves the wind, the sail, the rudder, and the tautness with which sailor holds the ropes.
He suggests that our entire planet lives within a balance of energies known as “The Way” and that if we humans can stop going from one extreme to the other and find the center, we can reach our full potential.
First you have to realize that since everything has its yin and yang, everything has its own balance point. It is the harmony of all these balance points, woven together, that forms the Tao. This overall balance maintains its equilibrium as it moves through time and space. Its power is phenomenal.
If you want to imagine the power of the Tao, examine how much energy is wasted swinging sideways. Suppose you want to go from point A to point B, but instead of walking there directly, you move from side to side like a sine wave. That would take you a long time, and you would waste a lot of energy…. When you spend your energy trying to maintain the extremes, nothing goes forward. You get stuck in a rut. The more extreme you are, the less forward movement there is…. In the Tao of sailing, the balance point is not static; it’s a dynamic equilibrium. You move from balance point to balance point, from center to center. You can’t have any concepts or preferences; you have to let the forces move you.
In the Way, nothing is personal. You are merely an instrument in the hands of the forces, participating in the harmony of balance. You must reach the point where your whole interest lies in the balance and not in any personal preference for how things should be.
How does this relate to MJ and his feelings about children? Children, MJ believed, were fully present to life – they were in effect living the Tao, the Way. He expressed some of these ideas regarding what might be called philosophical Taoism before, for instance, in 1983:
In this interview at Hayvenhurst, Michael describes his creative inspirations and how he “plays off of life”:
You can feel the energy, everything around you. You can feel it. The energy from the moon, or the plants, everything around you. It’s wonderful.
I mean, nature, animals, and all those things, are very inspirational to my work. I play off of those things, and children, and it stimulates ideas, creates all kind of things. I just can’t tell you. I think the majority of my success is from these sources. Some people say, “Well, go into detail.” But it’s hard. You really can’t. It’s just the whole world. You just play off of life.
I think it’s the same for what inspires painters, sculptures, and people of the arts. It’s the whole world, though. It’s magic.
Willa: That’s a wonderful description of his creative process! And it really does go hand in hand with Singer’s description of “dynamic equilibrium,” doesn’t it? – where, he encourages us to be in tune with “the energy, everything around you,” as Michael Jackson describes it.
Veronica: Singer writes about moving in sync with the forces of the Way. He compares the Tao to the eye of a hurricane, a balance point of forces that swirl around it. The forces of movement outside and the balance inside are part of this centering. MJ spoke about the need to “keep moving” – to keep growing, evolving, and creating – and he repeatedly advised musicians to let the music create itself. He said if I try and write a hit song, nothing will happen – I have to let it “drop into my lap.”
When I create my music, I feel like an instrument of nature. I wonder what delight nature must feel when we open our hearts and express our God-given talents. The sound of approval rose across the universe and the whole world abounds in magic. Wonder fills our hearts for what we have glimpsed for an instant: the playfulness of life….
MJ calls himself “an instrument of nature” – echoing the idea he expressed before about “playing off of life.” In both passages, he appears to be speaking about the Way, the balance, the harmony of life that children are more in tune with, when he speaks about “the deeper wisdom of life” and the “playfulness of life.”
Here we come back to that key word “wonder,” one that appears so significantly in the line in “Childhood.” Wonder, mystery, magic, creativity, a child’s heart, nature – all these seem connected to something MJ called “the playfulness of life” and that he saw as a gift that children had to offer our “wounded world.”
Willa: Yes, that phrase “the playfulness of life” is interesting, isn’t it? And the fact that he attaches such importance to it – to this spirit of play. We don’t usually think of play as important, but repeatedly we see him linking this spirit of playfulness with creativity and a sense of personal well-being – and with global well-being as well.
Veronica: The importance of play in our lives, from children to adults, is undervalued. In my research I came across the work of Dr. Stuart Brown, co-founder of the National Institute for Play, who affirms that play is as biologically essential as sleep or dreams, and equally necessary for adults and children. Play is a universal language of higher intelligence species and is important for neurological and social development. Play promotes memory, stress management, and resiliency, and is one of the Rights of the Child adopted by the U.N.
In the USA, maybe because of the strong influence of the Puritan work ethic, we are just way too serious! We need to play more, and MJ promoted this in his own life – for example, in the creation of Neverland and in the way he brought children and children’s issues to the forefront, perhaps more than any other performer has ever done. Dr. Brown also says that we must incorporate play into our lives fully, and realize that the opposite of play is not work but depression.
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting. I never looked at it that way. Maybe instead of prescribing anti-depressants, doctors should encourage their patients to play more!
Veronica: Sounds good to me! In so many ways, our lives are impoverished by a lack of play.
But seeing the problem, as MJ sings in the lines from “Jam” you quoted, Willa, is what we tend to avoid, because it’s sometimes painful to see “what’s going on” (to quote Marvin Gaye), and the corporate mass media is an all-too-willing vehicle to distract us (via consumerism, celebrity gossip, scandals, and so on). MJ, however, was not afraid to “speak truth to power.” In the Grammy speech he goes on to connect worldwide problems, such as wars, terrorism, and incarceration, with the fact that “children have had their childhood stolen from them.”
Willa: Yes, and this is another critically important point, I think. Michael Jackson not only tells us that reconnecting with childhood can help solve the world’s problems but, on the flip side, that many of those problems directly result from a loss of childhood, as you say.
Veronica: Yes, absolutely. MJ had made the same point earlier in “On Children of the World” from Dancing the Dream:
We have to heal our wounded world. The chaos, despair, and senseless destruction we see today are a result of the alienation that people feel from each other and their environment. Often this alienation has its roots in an emotionally deprived childhood. Children have had their childhood stolen from them. A child’s mind needs the nourishment of mystery, magic, wonder, and excitement. I want my work to help people rediscover the child that’s hiding in them.
Willa: I’m so glad you shared this quote, Veronica, because this is the crux of the issue, isn’t it? We live in a “wounded world” because “of the alienation people feel from each other and their environment.” I think that’s exactly it.
And as he says, “Often this alienation has its roots in an emotionally deprived childhood.” Or this alienation can appear in adults who may have had happy childhoods but have lost the “deeper knowledge” they had as children. In fact, often we find ourselves encouraged to cast aside that “deeper knowledge” as childish, and focus on adult concerns like earning money, building a career, being respectable.
Veronica: This is so true, Willa. In terms of Singer’s analysis, we go to an extreme and lose the balance point. This “senseless destruction” and alienation cause great pain. Too many of us have some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from not being nurtured or encouraged enough as children or from feeling pressured by social norms to abandon our childlike values, like spontaneity, creativity, magic, open-heartedness, as we grow up. Michael wanted to recast our social and personal tendency to disregard children into a deep respect and appreciation for what they have to offer.
It’s interesting that an artist so extraordinarily gifted himself would be disregarded in the same way children are often disregarded. There is an irony in that, while asking us to see children and their gifts more clearly, he himself was misperceived precisely for his very playfulness in his personal life and in his art.
Willa: I agree.
Veronica: To get back to the song “Childhood,” it is so poignant to me when MJ sings,
No one understands me
They view it as such strange eccentricities…
‘Cause I keep kidding around
Like a child, but pardon me …
He was actually modelling for us the values he wanted to see. It’s interesting too that in “Childhood,” he gets really animated and excited when singing about play:
Have you seen my childhood?
I’m searching for that wonder in my youth
Like pirates in adventurous dreams,
Of conquest and kings on the throne …
Have you seen my childhood?
I’m searching for that wonder in my youth
Like fantastical stories to share
The dreams I would dare, watch me fly …
The fact that we, as adults, often no longer experience play, adventurous dreams, and wonder was something MJ spoke about a lot, particularly in conversations with Schmuley Boteach. (He refers to a book on childlike values that he was working on with Boteach in his Oxford Union Speech of 2001. Boteach published these conversations in Honoring Child Spirit, a book I might not have read but someone I respect recommended it, so I took a look and discovered a lot of valuable discussion there.)
MJ reveals to Boteach how much he thinks adults have shut down and lost the natural playfulness and creativity that they once had as children. He even persuaded Boteach to climb a tree with him and sit in its branches to recapture those lost feelings!
MJ: The world is gift-wrapped for them [children] and everything is a new experience and they know it is all out there waiting for them and all these different categories of fun, a wonderful fantastical mission to take. Why do they [adults] lose it? Why does it go away? You felt that way, you remember feeling that way. Can you go back to that place?
SB: The only time I felt like that again is when I was with you watching Toy Story on Thanksgiving, and at Neverland, when we went to the tree that morning. We climbed up and spent a full hour there, just hanging out. And I have to say, it was pretty liberating. Two grown men, hanging out in a tree house. It was memorable.
MJ: Isn’t that wonderful? Everybody should have that experience and never feel that I am too old to climb a tree.
Willa: And he invited Martin Bashir to have that same experience. Near the beginning of Living with Michael Jackson, he climbs his “Giving Tree” and encourages Bashir to climb with him. Here’s a clip:
It’s interesting that in talking to Bashir, he explicitly links the childlike joy of climbing the tree with his creativity. As he tells Bashir, “I’ve written so many of my songs in this tree. I wrote ‘Heal the World’ in this tree, ‘Will You Be There,’ ‘Black or White,’ ‘Childhood.’”
As he climbs he calls down to Bashir, “Aren’t you coming?” but Bashir says, “No way.” He’s intrigued, though, and does end up climbing a short way, but then stops – either because he’s worried about falling, or worried he’ll look ridiculous on camera. Later, when they’re both back on the ground, Bashir quizzes him about it in a somewhat mocking way, and then in voiceover asks, “So how had this singing and dancing genius arrived in this surreal place that is his life today?”
So Bashir doesn’t understand what Michael Jackson is saying – and more importantly, he doesn’t seem to want to understand. He wants to look down at him from the privileged position of a respectable adult and criticize him.
Veronica: Thanks for this comparison, Willa. What a contrast between MJ and Bashir here! Bashir had closed down to childlike value to a huge degree and had become a stultifying, judgmental adult. That was what was truly “surreal.” MJ looks so peaceful and happy sitting up high in his “Giving Tree.”
Willa: Though he also seems a little self-conscious to me, like he knows Bashir is judging him.
Joie: You know the truly interesting part in all of this? At least, to me anyway … is the fact that he understood that no one was taking him seriously, and that no one was going to take him seriously in this endeavor. He even addressed it in “Childhood” when he sang the simple words,
Before you judge me
Try hard to love me
He knew that people were going to listen to that song and roll their eyes in a sort of, “Oh, he’s at it again” attitude.
Veronica: Yes, that’s a good point – he sure did perceive and anticipate that judgmental criticism. But the next line of the song is an instruction (these lines are in the imperative, or command, form) to “Look within your heart, then ask / Have you seen my childhood?” I think MJ took a heart-centered approach and tried to speak to people on that level and ask them to respond on that level. And look at the fans and how much they responded to that. When he says in This Is It, “Love is important,” he knew that love was the way to reach people on the deepest levels.
Here is another snippet from Honoring Child Spirit:
SB: You are very successful, so you can afford to forgive people and remain childlike. “But me?” someone can say, “I live in a trailer park. How can I forgive people? Life is bitter for me. G-d has let me down. I have no time for my children. I am a single mother with two jobs to support my kids.” What would you say to someone who says, “Come on, Michael. This is not realistic. You want to be like Peter Pan? You want to take me to this fantasy land called Neverland. Get real. I can’t go to fantasy land. I have children to support. My husband beats me.” What would you say to someone like that?
MJ: I would think they should try to find the truth about the power of love, and the way that I think it should be done, without sounding selfish, the way I have discovered what real bliss is. I think if they even gave it a chance they would feel it.
Willa: That is so interesting! I haven’t read this book but I looked up this passage in Google Books, and here he’s specifically talking about “a childlike way of being,” right? So he seems to be saying that maintaining those childlike qualities within ourselves not only can help solve problems on a global scale, but on a personal level as well. As he tells Rabbi Boteach, it can lead to “real bliss.”
Veronica: Yes, it’s in the chapter called “Love and Guidance,” where MJ and Boteach discuss loving children and guiding them, and learning from them too. MJ says, “They are my teachers. I watch them and I learn. It’s important for us to try and be like them and imitate them. They are golden.” In another place he says, “They are the sunshine of the world.”
Joie: Here’s a question that I’m fond of asking during these types of discussions. Do you think, ladies, that the public at large will ever “get it”? Will they ever open themselves up and receive the message that he tried so hard to impart? Because I have to be honest and say that, sadly, I don’t think they will. I always wonder if the tide will ever turn where Michael is concerned. If he will ever be seen as the truly remarkable artist, thinker, and visionary that he was, or if his image and his legacy are tarnished forever. And I’m actually an optimist in my everyday life, but about this, I’m just not sure anymore.
Veronica: Well, I think the general public, and by that I mean people who are not MJ fans and advocates, are lacking a true picture of who MJ was. They are lacking information. They have been fed lies from the tabloids for decades. Remember how MJ called it junk food? They have been eating all that junk food and don’t have the real nourishment that would come from eating healthy food – meaning true information.
Recently, I gave a talk at a gallery about my book. I was a bit worried that some media-indoctrinated people would show up and harass me, but luckily, it was my friends who came. But few of my friends have read my books, and they don’t know much about MJ either. During the talk, one person commented that Michael had “mutilated” his face. I recognized that this came from the relentless tabloid-type stories (for instance, see Susan Woodward’s reference to the Daily Mirror article that MJ sued them over), but I stayed calm and just said, “Well, plenty of women love ‘mature Mike’ and if you go on YouTube you can find videos about that.” I also referred to This Is It, which some people had seen. And I kept going. This same person just sent me an email, which I quote, unedited:
Thanks for sending this beautiful video [a link to the Childhood video]. Veronica, I have a new perception of who Michael was and an understanding of what happened to him that, perhaps, explains his actions. His is a very sad story …
Thanks again. Your presentation was far more enjoyable than what I expected. At first I wanted to come because I was interested but, primarily, because I wanted to be there for you. After hearing your talk, I was very glad I attended because I learned so much!
So many misperceptions about MJ can’t be changed in a short talk, but we can open up fissures in the biases that people have absorbed from the media. As MJ advocates spread their knowledge outside the fan community more and more, it slowly ripples out.
I remember when, in the early 90’s, Bill Moyers asked Oren Lyons, the Onondaga Faith-Keeper of the Iroquois nation, if the Native American tradition was basically finished in the modern world, and Oren replied (I am paraphrasing here), “As long as there is one person to talk and one person to listen, the stories will continue.” That is so hopeful – and true.
In my opinion, it is on this fundamental level of person to person, heart to heart, where deep change occurs. Yes, there is a lot of doubt and skepticism out there, but with true information, people can learn. And the other hopeful thing is of course MJ’s music: “If you want to know me, listen to my music. The love is stored there and will not die.”
Willa: That’s beautiful! I hadn’t heard that before: “The love is stored there and will not die.” So he must have believed that his image would be redeemed someday, and that his ideas might spark significant change in the future.
Veronica: In my talk, I emphasized the reasonableness of MJ’s thinking – namely, that if we want a better world, we have to take better care of our children. We have to love and value them, nurture them, and learn from them. We have to honor them and listen to them. I read some passages from the beautiful conclusion to MJ’s Oxford Union speech – here is a link to that speech:
Someone commented afterwards how impressed she was with his “intelligence and articulateness.” Well, this is no surprise to us, but it is for people who have been told lies for decades. I remember being shocked after MJ’s passing when Larry King asked someone, “Was Michael Jackson intelligent?” I mean, it blew my mind that he even had to ask that question! We have our work cut out for us, but I think people are becoming more receptive to MJ’s messages, particularly on subjects like children and the environment. He was so advanced in his thinking, light-years ahead, and we are starting to catch up at last.
Willa: Yes, I think so too, and I strongly believe that someday he will be seen as the most important artist of our time. And that day may not be too far away. I mean, perceptions of him seem to have changed dramatically since he died, and they’re continuing to evolve as people like your friends, Veronica, learn more about him. Thank you for sharing that story. We just need to keep “Michaeling,” as you say, until everyone “gets it,” as you put it, Joie.
Joie: Well, that’s all for this post, and we want to thank Veronica for joining us. Willa and I also want to thank you for your continued support over the last three years.
As some of you may remember, when we began this blog it was a weekly feature, and we were so overwhelmed with all the love you guys heaped on us. We were truly surprised at the reception we received, and we quickly came to recognize what an awesome platform we had built for exploring new and thought-provoking ideas about the way Michael Jackson’s art is perceived. But after that first year, we also realized that in order to do it justice we couldn’t keep up the weekly schedule and still bring you the quality posts we wanted to. So we switched to posting on a bi-weekly schedule, and that worked well for us for a time. However, as the circumstances of our lives change, we need to acknowledge that this blog needs to adapt to fit our changing lives.
So we have decided to take a more laid-back approach and post when the inspiration strikes. We have some fun and interesting topics lined up for the coming year, and we still hope to post fairly frequently – we will just have a less structured posting schedule. We hope you understand, and we look forward to your continued support in the new year. Thanks again!
Willa: Yes, and thank you, Veronica, for joining us for this special holiday post. We really appreciate it, and hope you have a warm and wonderful Christmas today, and a very happy new year.
Veronica: It was my honor and pleasure to be with you, and I look forward to more great discussions ahead. Happy holidays to you!
Willa: So a recent article, “Who Is Peter Pan,” in The New York Review of Books mentions Michael Jackson’s identification with Peter Pan, and it rather nonchalantly drops this little bombshell:
Occasionally, young boys slept over in Jackson’s mansion; he was twice accused of having abused them, but never convicted. Today, the consensus seems to be that he was innocent.
Joie, I know I should be thrilled that people are finally coming to their senses, and I am. But I have to admit, I’ve been storming around ever since I read that, muttering to anyone who will listen about the fickleness of public opinion. When he died, the overwhelming “consensus” was that he was guilty. If he wasn’t guilty of molestation exactly, though most people thought he was, he was suspiciously weird and almost certainly guilty of something. Now, three years later, “the consensus seems to be that he was innocent.” Why the change? No significant new evidence has emerged. There is no logical reason for people to have changed their minds, but they have. Millions of people have changed their minds. Why?
Joie: I don’t know, Willa, but I understand exactly why you’re upset about it. It’s very distressing to know that this beautiful man, who only ever had love in his heart and compassion for his fellow man, was so tortured and ridiculed and falsely accused during his life. But now, in death, so many of those who were doing the maligning seem to have changed their tune. Now, when it’s much too late.
Willa: I know. I just keep feeling this deep regret that the change couldn’t have come about while he was still alive. But the most vexing part of all this is that it couldn’t have, because his death is what triggered the change. There’s no logical reason for public opinion to shift just now. People aren’t changing their minds because of startling new evidence. The only difference between now and three years ago is that he’s gone. He had to die before public sentiment could change. And for me, one of the most distressing aspects of all this is that he knew it – he knew he had to die before people’s attitudes would change. He told us so in Ghosts.
Ghosts is such a fascinating short film in so many ways. In M Poetica I said it was like a seminar on art theory, and it is. We could use it as a springboard to get into some really fascinating theory, like Lewis Hyde’s ideas about trickster figures, or Elaine Scarry’s ideas about the body, or Julia Kristeva’s ideas about the abject, or Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas about carnival and the power of the grotesque to disrupt and defy authoritarian power structures. That’s one of the core ideas of Ghosts. We could spend months just talking about this one short film.
But we can also look at Ghosts as an artistic response to the 1993 allegations and scandal, and that’s the approach I wanted to take this week. There is so much in Ghosts that directly corresponds to what happened in 1993, and the media firestorm that followed.
Joie: You’re right, Willa. Both the song and the short film are virtually all about the events surrounding the extortion attempt of 1993, and it’s not even hidden; it’s all right there on the surface. All anyone has to do is simply pay close attention, starting with the three songs he chose to spotlight in the short film itself – “Is It Scary,” “Ghosts,” and “2Bad.”
Willa: It’s true – all three of those songs deal very explicitly with the 1993 allegations – and the plot of Ghosts reinforces that. It opens with a mob of angry villagers invading the home of an artist, a Maestro. He’s become friends with some of the village children and has been telling them ghost stories, and the villagers think that’s inappropriate. As one mom from the village tells him, “Aren’t you ashamed? Young people are impressionable.”
And of course, that precisely parallels what was happening in real life: he was an artist who developed close friendships with children, and a lot of people thought that was inappropriate. And they responded by obtaining a search warrant and invading his home.
Joie: You know, Willa, it really is very difficult to watch Ghosts and not see the parallels to his real life. If you had been paying attention to what was going on in his life at all – and let’s face it, the world couldn’t help but pay attention because the news media was obsessed with “the scandal” – you don’t have to wonder where he got his inspiration for the storyline. It mirrors exactly what happened to him, and I think it’s wonderful that he chose to channel his frustrations in such a creative way. And I think that says a lot about his character that he was willing to put his personal pain on display in order to try and educate the rest of us.
Willa: I agree, Joie. I think he was working through a lot of emotions as he created and developed this film. But he was also helping us as an audience work through our emotions as well. As an artist deeply committed to social change, he didn’t just express his feelings through his work. He was also very interested in how his work influenced us as an audience and how it helped us work through our feelings – how it evoked and redirected our emotions and altered our perceptions, as we talked about in the on-screen audience posts a couple weeks ago. And the way he approaches that in Ghosts is fascinating.
When the villagers invade the Maestro’s home, the first thing he does is appear to them in a frightening mask: instead of seeing his face, the villagers see a skull. They gasp and retreat from him in horror. But as soon as they back off, he drops the mask and reveals it’s just a disguise. The villagers then breathe a sigh of relief, start to relax, and reapproach him in a more friendly way.
It’s very interesting what’s just happened, both dramatically and psychologically. The villagers have invaded his home, which is a very aggressive act, but he immediately flips that dynamic so they are the ones feeling threatened – not him – and then he removes that threat, so they actually feel kind of grateful to him. Importantly, the villagers have invaded his home because they see him as a kind of monster – the kind who would hurt children – and he responds by appearing to them as a monster. So through the mask he evokes the precise emotions they already feel about him. But then he reveals it’s just an illusion: he’s not a monster. So there’s a very quick up-and-down movement of crisis and release that functions on several different levels.
Joie: Hmm. I never really examined that before, but you’re right. The villagers have invaded his home – they are the ones who are threatening him. But even before they actually enter the house, they are made to feel very frightened and apprehensive. They haven’t even met him yet, but they already feel afraid of him; it’s all in their minds!
Willa: Exactly, and he reflects those emotions back at them through the mask, but then undoes them in a way. So through the mask, he encourages the villagers to vent their emotions and then subtly reconfigures those emotions.
The Maestro and the villagers begin to talk, and as they talk the Mayor gradually builds a case against the Maestro. He says, “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids. We don’t need freaks like you telling them ghost stories.” He then becomes more aggressive, saying, “You’re weird, you’re strange, and I don’t like you. You’re scaring these kids, living up here all alone.” He even begins to threaten the Maestro, saying, “Back to the circus, you freak. And do yourself a favor, OK? Don’t force us get rough with you because we will, if we have to.” Finally, he gives him an ultimatum, saying, “Are you going to leave, or am I going to have to hurt you?”
Joie: That’s very interesting, Willa, particularly in terms of the language he uses in the dialogue between the Mayor and the Maestro. As you pointed out, the Mayor’s words are very specific. “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids.” And, of course, that was always the main accusation leveled against Michael himself – he wasn’t “normal.” He was called “weird” and “strange.” Many people thought of him as a “freak.” So, it’s very telling that these are the words Michael would choose to use for this particular exchange. It makes me think of Joe Vogel’s article, “Am I the Beast You Visualized: The Cultural Abuse of Michael Jackson,” which we talked about back in November, where Joe referred to all of those hurtful words as “slurs.”
Willa: That’s a really important point, Joie, and I think you’re right. I think he chose those words very deliberately. As you say, they are exactly the words that were used against him so often in the later years of his life. So what’s happening on screen is precisely reflecting what’s happening to him in real life off screen. Just as the mask reflected the villagers’ emotions back at them, his word choices reflect our emotions back at us.
Importantly, the Maestro responds to this aggression exactly as he did before, only more intensely this time: he distorts his face beyond recognition and then rips it off altogether, so once again his face appears as just a skull. Once again the villagers retreat from him in terror, just as they did before. And once again, as soon as they back off, he restores his face and reveals it’s just an illusion, exactly as he did before. So once again there’s that very quick up-and-down movement of crisis and release that gives vent to the villagers’ emotions by evoking their fears and reflecting them back at them, and then resolving those fears by showing it’s just an illusion.
Joie: The message here is very clear, I think. He’s pointing out the parallels between the Maestro character and his own personal life. So, by showing that it’s just an illusion, as you say, he’s telling us very clearly that all the perceived “weirdness” surrounding his personal life is also just an illusion, and what we – the public and the media – think we see, isn’t actually the real story.
Willa: I think so too, though there’s also a lot going on psychologically as well. We see that when he repeats that same up-and-down movement of crisis and release a third time. It’s even more extreme this time – instead of his face becoming a skull, his entire body becomes a skeleton – but the villagers reactions are rather different this time around, so there’s been a psychological shift. They’re surprised but they aren’t terrified, and they don’t retreat this time. They stay and watch what he has to show them, and when the skeleton begins to dance, they smile and enjoy his performance. In other words, they aren’t having such a fearful response to the “strange” and the “weird” as they were before. They’re still wary, but they’re becoming a little more accepting of difference.
And then he repeats this up-and-down pattern of crisis and release a fourth and final time, and this is the most intense of all: he destroys himself. He asks them, “So, do you still want me to go?” Many of the villagers, the children especially, shake their heads no, but the Mayor affirms, “Yes! Yes!” So the Maestro says, “Fine. I’ll go.” He drops down and smashes his hands into the floor, then his arms, and then his face. His nose drops off, his entire face disintegrates, his body turns to dust, and an unearthly wind blows it away.
The villagers are horrified, but for a completely different reason than before: not because they’re scared of him, but because they’ve started to feel a connection to him and are horrified that he’s destroying himself. So their feelings over the course of the film have undergone a complete reversal. He’s left, so he’s done what they said they wanted him to do, what they invaded his home to force him to do. But by this point they no longer want him to leave, and as soon as he’s gone they feel a sense of loss and want him back.
Joie: Just like what we’re seeing now that he’s no longer here with us. Wow. That’s very compelling, Willa. So you believe he understood that both he and his art would only be truly appreciated after his death?
Willa: I do. But I also think there’s more going on than that. I’m still struggling to figure this out and articulate it for myself, but I keep coming back to these lines from “Is It Scary”:
I’m gonna be Exactly what you wanna see It’s you who’s taunting me Because you’re wanting me To be the stranger in the night Am I amusing you? Or just confusing you? Am I the beast you visualized? And if you wanna see eccentric oddities I’ll be grotesque before your eyes Let them all materialize … So tell me Is that realism for you, baby? Am I scary for you?
You know, after he died, a lot of commentators expressed surprise that there was such an outpouring of grief for him considering all the years of scandal and controversy – of “eccentric oddities,” as Michael Jackson calls them in “Is It Scary.” But I’m starting to believe just the opposite: that the public outpouring of grief wouldn’t have been possible without all those years of “eccentric oddities.” Those eccentric oddities performed a crucial function – they provided a series of mini-dramas of crisis and release – just like that repeated up-and-down movement in Ghosts. As in Ghosts, those eccentric oddities allowed us to vent our emotions about him following the molestation accusations and encouraged us to work through them. So when he died, we’d already dealt with a lot of those negative emotions, and once he was really gone it was revealed to us that those negative emotions were an illusion – as The New York Review of Books article says, “Today, the consensus seems to be that he was innocent” – and we were brought back to our true feelings, which is how much he meant to us.
Joie: That’s a fascinating take on all this, Willa. I’ve never looked at it in this way before.
Willa: You know, I’m still working my way through this, and I could be completely wrong about this, but it feels to me that something very significant was happening through those “eccentric oddities,” both culturally and psychologically, and I think Ghosts is the key to understanding it. He had a very sophisticated aesthetic – I’m convinced his work functioned at deep psychological levels – and he was dealing with some very difficult issues of group psychology after the 1993 scandal broke. Basically, he was dealing with mass hysteria and the fear of the unfamiliar, just like the Maestro, and he responded in a way that directly addressed that group hysteria.
His response may not seem logical at first, but the subconscious mind isn’t logical – or rather, it has a logic of its own that differs from the logic of the conscious mind – and I believe that, through his “eccentric oddities,” he’s speaking directly to the subconscious mind. As he tells us in Ghosts, those repeated mini-dramas of crisis and release had a very specific psychological effect, and they were deliberately created to produce that psychological effect. In “Is It Scary” he tells us very explicitly what he intends to do: “I’m gonna be exactly what you wanna see” and “If you wanna see eccentric oddities, I’ll be grotesque before your eyes.”
Joie: I agree with you about the deliberateness of his art, Willa, and I really do believe the three songs featured in the short film (“Ghosts,” “Is It Scary,” and “2Bad”) were chosen very deliberately. I think you and I could probably spend an entire blog – maybe even two – just talking about those three songs in detail and how they relate both to the film and to what was going on in his life at the time.
You know, since we have been working on this blog, I have come to understand that there really wasn’t much about Michael Jackson’s art that was not done deliberately. He usually had a very calculated reason for everything he did and it just leaves me in awe. Wouldn’t you love to be able to get inside the mind of a truly great artist … just to try to understand their passion and fire for their art? That thought is so fascinating to me for some reason and I would just have loved to talk with him about his art. I can’t believe that so many journalists, like Bashir for instance, wasted the precious time they were granted with him by talking about such trivial things like his skin color and his perceived odd behavior. What a colossal waste of an opportunity!
Willa: Oh I know! That’s what strikes me most about the Bashir documentary as well – that he was given this incredible opportunity and completely squandered it. Imagine if you could go back in time and talk to Van Gogh for eight months and learn more – maybe not about how to interpret specific works, since artists tend to be very reluctant to limit their work to just one interpretation – but about his worldview and how his art fit within that worldview. What an amazing opportunity that would be. And Bashir was given that opportunity and completely wasted it. And the really sad thing is that Bashir has fed his mind on a diet of scandal for so long he doesn’t even seem to realize there’s a bigger world out there. Michael Jackson is wrestling with complex issues of social justice and perception and how we make meaning, as well as art’s ability to profoundly influence how we perceive and make sense of the world, and Bashir spends the entire eight months asking tabloid-type questions. It’s just stunning.
Fortunately, Michael Jackson left a lot of clues to help guide us in developing ways to approach his work and understand his worldview. And as we see in Ghosts, there is so much to discover and explore.
Joie: This past weekend, Willa and I met up in Las Vegas to take in the Cirque du Soleil IMMORTAL show and, while we were there we couldn’t help thinking about Michael’s children, each of us for our own reasons. The kids were on my mind because they had made headlines recently when they saw the show, and Willa was thinking about them because Vegas is where Martin Bashir met them and filmed them for his infamous “documentary.” And before going to Vegas, we had already decided that we wanted to talk about Michael’s ideas about childhood for our Christmas post – it just seemed fitting somehow. So this week, since we were already thinking about children, and Michael’s children in particular, we wanted to share our thoughts on the subject.
Willa: This is a really hard topic for us, though, because it is so very important to both of us to respect his children’s privacy. At the same time, childhood – and his own lost childhood, in particular – was a very important issue for him, and we can gain insights into what childhood means to him through his role as a parent. So this week we’re kind of walking a tightrope and trying to talk about this in a way that lets us elucidate some of these ideas without being too personal or invasive.
Joie: That’s so funny, Willa. You said we’re walking on a tightrope and all I can picture is you and me and three baby elephants up on a tightrope, attempting to dance with each other! I just love that image; how cute! But, in all seriousness, it is very important to respect their privacy for many reasons. Mostly because that’s what Michael would have wanted.
Willa: So I don’t want to go too much into personal matters, but there’s a scene in Martin Bashir’s documentary where he tells us we’re going to meet Michael Jackson’s children, and to be honest, as soon as I heard that I just dreaded the idea. I was streaming the interview in on YouTube, and I actually clicked the Pause button so I could get some water and prepare myself for it. From what we see of Bashir in the documentary, he is incredibly judgmental (that ceiling is “tacky,” that vase is too expensive, your lips look “very different” from when you were younger, and on and on). He can’t seem to observe anything without judging it, often in rather superficial ways, so you know what this meeting is going to be like. He’s going to pass judgment on these young children (you’re so pretty and handsome, your hair is so blond, you don’t look much like your daddy) and they’re going to feel self-conscious and awkward and weird, and I just dreaded it. I hate it when kids are put in uncomfortable situations like that, and to be honest, I was disappointed in Michael Jackson for allowing it. I thought it was a really bad decision.
Joie: I was disappointed in him too, for the entire “documentary.” I just don’t understand how he could have been so taken in by that sleaze bag and allowed him such access to his life, to his children…. it just turns my stomach now when I think about how it all played out and, of course, what that whole association with Bashir eventually led to.
Willa: The whole documentary is really hard to watch, and if I hadn’t been writing the book and felt like I needed to watch it, I wouldn’t have made it through – especially when Bashir announces he’s going to film his children. I really had to step away for a minute then. So I went and drank some water, came back to my computer, clicked the Play button, and watched with trepidation as Bashir met Michael Jackson’s two older children, who were about 3 and 4 years old at the time.
But it didn’t turn out at all the way I expected. There was a surprise: the children were wearing masks. Bashir says to Prince, “That’s a really great mask” (a value judgment, of course – Bashir is so judgmental) and Prince replies in an excited voice, “It’s a butterfly!” and they have this discussion about Prince’s mask. To me, what’s most striking about this scene is that Prince seems perfectly comfortable talking to Bashir. He doesn’t seem embarrassed or self-conscious at all because Bashir isn’t passing judgments on him and his appearance, but on the mask he’s wearing. I watched that scene and thought, Michael Jackson was the wisest parent those kids could possibly have had for the very public life they were born into.
A lot of commentators have been talking about how centered and grounded his children are, typically adding that celebrity kids are rarely as well-adjusted as they are. And it seems obvious to me that this strong sense of self didn’t happen by accident. Rather, they had a thoughtful father who knew what it was like to grow up in a white hot spotlight, and he protected them as best he could. And I personally think those masks were one of the kindest things he ever did for his kids. Those masks protected their identities from kidnappers, but even more importantly, they protected their psyches from the intrusive comments of insensitive people like Martin Bashir.
Joie: You know, Willa, I am so happy you brought that up because this is something that I have felt for a very long time. The general public – and the media for sure – always tried to make that such a weird, bizarre thing. Some even went so far as to call it cruel of Michael to force his children to wear masks or veils over their faces in public.
Willa: Though his kids have said they thought it was fun, and enjoyed trying out different masks.
Joie: That’s true, they did find it fun when they were little. But to me it was always the smartest, most compassionate thing he ever could have done for them. You mentioned that the masks protected the children’s identities from kidnappers – and that was the explanation originally given by both Michael and Debbie when the children were very young. But knowing that Michael usually had a very sane and logical reason for every perceived crazy thing he did, I always suspected there was more to it than that.
In essence, Michael was completely aware that his children were in danger of living their lives in a fishbowl like he did, simply because he was their father. So in order to give them some tiny semblance of normalcy, he covered their faces when they went out in public with him. And this was a brilliant move because whenever the children ventured out in public without him – which they frequently did with the nanny – they didn’t wear masks. There was no need to because no one knew they were his children! Michael understood that it would be difficult for the paparazzi to stalk his kids if they didn’t know what his kids looked like, so he made sure that they didn’t! And everyone got so caught up in the “bizarre” way these children were being raised and they questioned Michael’s parenting abilities. But meanwhile, no one ever saw a snapshot of Prince or Paris on the cover of some tabloid when they were little, did they? I mean, did the world really need to know what 3-year-old Suri Cruise was wearing or who Shilo Jolie-Pitt played with on her playdate? Give me a break! There was a certain brilliance to Michael’s madness when it came to protecting his children’s privacy and I thought it was an amazingly smart thing to do. It wasn’t until people began paying attention to the nanny and watching for her to be out with her charges that pics of their faces began to trickle out, and even then it was sporadic at best.
And I love what you said about commentators taking note of how grounded and centered Michael’s children are and I agree with you completely. That doesn’t happen by accident. Children have to be taught how to be respectful and polite and Michael really did that. Since his death, we’ve heard report after report from various people about how truly unspoiled Prince, Paris and Blanket are and that says a great deal about Michael’s parenting skills. You know, in his book, Frank Cascio talks a lot about how Michael went out of his way to be a ‘hands on’ father and raise his children right – even, at times, sending the nanny away in order to take care of them all on his own. It was obviously very important to him.
Willa: I agree. He approached parenthood in a very considered and thoughtful way, just as he approached most things he did. You know, Michael Jackson had an incredibly expressive voice with an amazing range and timbre and texture, but there are other singers with beautiful voices. He was also a wonderful dancer who inspired a whole generation of young dancers, but again, there are other dancers who can move their bodies somewhat the way he moved his. He was an innovative and intelligent filmmaker, but while others may not have the same vision he had, there are other intelligent, innovative filmmakers.
But for me, what sets Michael Jackson apart from every other artist is his tremendous empathy for those without a voice (and as Julie commented several weeks ago, “Children have always been the most voiceless and marginalized human beings in every culture around the world”) and his immense emotional intelligence. He could touch an audience in ways no one else could because he had deep psychological insights into the workings of the human heart and mind. And we see this emotional intelligence in the thoughtful way he raised his children.
I’m going to go off on a tangent for a minute, but I think it’s important. There was a French psychoanalyst and theorist named Jacques Lacan who developed a new model of human psychological development. His ideas are pretty complicated and I’m not a Lacan scholar by any means, but as I understand it, one aspect of his model is that our personalities are formed by a series of losses.
The first is the loss of the mother, or other primary caregiver. When we’re first born, our world is undifferentiated, without borders or boundaries. We don’t know that we are a person – we don’t know where “I” as a person ends and “you” as a person begin – we simply experience the world as a fog of sensory inputs: I’m warm, I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m fed, I’m wet, I’m dry, I’m content, I’m discontent. Except there is no “I” – just sensation.
Gradually the infant becomes aware that his or her mother is a separate being, a separate entity. That’s a profound moment in the child’s development and helps initiate the infant’s sense of identity. But it’s also a huge loss because if your mother is separate from you, that also means she can go away and leave you. So this loss creates anxiety as well as identity.
The second big loss is the loss of a unified sense of self, though it’s complicated since the sense of self is still being formed. But as I understand it, Lacan suggests that around 6 to 18 months of age, a baby first enters the mirror stage. This mirror can be a literal mirror or it can be the gaze of the mother or father or caregiver, but in many different subtle ways, babies this age become aware of themselves as reflected in mirrors and in the faces and minds of those around them, and this creates tremendous joy as well as anxiety, and a different level of consciousness.
This process begins in infancy and extends throughout our lives to some degree, and Lacan suggests that the “gaze” and our awareness of how we appear to other people is very significant in our psychological development. My son is 13, and I can see a new self-consciousness in him that wasn’t there when he was younger. A friend his age was always a very confident little girl, but now she’s going through an awkward phase where she’s painfully self-conscious. In fact, it seems that a lot of the gawkiness of teenagers isn’t just their changing bodies but their growing awareness that other people are looking at them. It’s like they are developing a double consciousness – a growing sense of how others see them as compared to how they see and experience themselves. As with the loss of the mother, this loss of a unified sense of self is very painful, but it’s a loss that helps create identity as well as anxiety.
Joie: That’s all very interesting, Willa. And it certainly explains that awkward stage we all go through as pre-teens and teenagers. I remember my own young-adulthood and how difficult that time was. I was all legs and arms back then and not exactly part of the ‘in’ crowd. Yikes! And it makes me think about Michael and how difficult that time was for him too with his acne. He said that during that time in his life he actually stopped looking in mirrors because he hated the way he looked. But if we look at this according to Lacan’s model, Michael probably also hated the way he felt others saw him, not just the way he saw himself. I know that for me, this was certainly the case.
Willa: Oh boy, Joie, I know what you mean about “all legs and arms.” My mom actually started calling me “Grace” for a while because I could hardly walk across a room without tripping over my own feet, and I went from being one of the best gymnasts on my gymnastics team to one of the worst. There’s a reason Olympic gymnasts tend to be 12 years old. I just couldn’t seem to keep track of all these long arms and legs I was suddenly supposed to use. And imagine what it must have been like for Michael Jackson, to have to sing and dance on stage with all those people watching his every move. Talk about being hyper aware of a public “gaze” – he was the object of worldwide attention at a terribly self-conscious life stage. That had to be an incredibly difficult time for him, on many different levels.
So I’ve been thinking about all this a lot lately, especially in terms of Lacan’s ideas of the “gaze” and the huge impact it has on our sense of self, because I think for child stars like Michael Jackson or Elizabeth Taylor or Shirley Temple or Emmanuel Lewis or Liza Minnelli or Jane Fonda or Tatum O’Neal or Brooke Shields or Sean Lennon or Macaulay Culkin or a lot of the child stars Michael Jackson befriended over his life, this process happens far too quickly and far too intensely, and it’s extremely painful. Child stars don’t just see themselves reflected in mirrors but on movie screens and tabloid photos – not just reflected in the eyes of parents and grandparents who love them, but also in the eyes of snarky critics who may dislike them or audiences who may grow tired of them and turn against them.
Macaulay Culkin talked about the pressures of being a child star in an interview about his close relationship with Michael Jackson:
“I can describe our friendship and I can explain Michael’s bond with children, but no matter what I say, you can never understand. Unless you have been through what Michael and I have been through, you just can’t comprehend what it’s like… We understood each other because we’ve both been there.”
I think this intense pressure and intense awareness of the public “gaze” is a large part of what Michael Jackson was talking about when he said he lost his childhood. It’s not just that he didn’t have time to play, but that to some degree he lost his ability to play – to experience life in a carefree way without constantly wondering what other people thought of him – and once you become self-conscious like that, you can never truly shake it. It’s a one-way street, and child stars are forced to experience it too early and too intensely. Remember, Michael Jackson began performing at 5 and had a Motown contract by 10, and Motown groomed him and his brothers very thoroughly, telling them to always act properly because the public was always watching them, and drilling them with lessons on how to speak and dress and behave so the public would perceive them in a positive way and like them.
As an adult Michael Jackson said he loved being with children because they didn’t judge him, either positively or negatively. They just accepted him and played with him, and he could lose that painful self-awareness for a time. When he was with children, he could regain some approximation of that experience of childhood that he lost way too soon. And I think he fiercely tried to protect his children from losing their childhoods the same way he lost his.
Joie: I think you’re right; he did try extremely hard to give his children the carefree childhood he missed out on, and that process of self-awareness does happen way too quickly and too harshly for child stars.
You know, Paris has been in the news a lot the past two weeks because it’s been announced that she’s landed her first film role in a movie called Lundon’s Bridge and the Three Keys. And every time I post a new piece of news to the MJFC website about it, I can’t help but think about Michael and wonder how he would feel about his only little girl, his baby that he tried so hard to protect from the harshness of the entertainment industry, suddenly stepping so blindly into that spotlight at such a young age. I know that he would be so proud of all of her accomplishments; but I also think that part of him would just cringe at the thought.
Willa: I know what you mean, Joie, though I remember he specifically said at some point that he wouldn’t push his children to become performers, but if it were something they wanted to do, he would let them. It’s always so difficult as parents to find that balance between protecting your kids and supporting them as they stretch themselves and try new things. You hate to see them get hurt, but if you never let them run the risk of failure, then they’ll never learn what they’re truly capable of and they’ll never reach their full potential. So you have to let children push themselves to the limits of what they can do – and maybe push too far and fail sometimes – but you also want to protect them and do everything you can to help them succeed. It’s just a constant negotiation. And I imagine it’s all the more difficult with celebrity children because their successes and failures are so public, and the stakes so much higher.
Joie: Yes, that was during his interview with Barbara Walters right after the death of Princess Diana that he made that comment. And he also said during that interview that he would make very certain that his children understood exactly what they were in for if they decided to go down that road. Only he’s not here anymore to help guide them and advise them and that thought just makes me very sad for so many reasons.
But, I understand what you’re saying about it being a constant negotiation. I’ve never raised children but, I can imagine how your heart would simply bleed for them as you watched them work and strive and struggle toward some goal, whatever that goal may be. And Paris is such a beautiful girl and she seems like a very smart, very capable young lady to me. And she appears to have inherited her Daddy’s charisma and charm so, I’m sure she’ll do very well. And again, I know Michael would be incredibly proud of her.