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The Ghost of Jealousy

Willa: So Joie, on a number of occasions when asked about the scandals that surrounded him, and the way the media turned against him and really vilified him in later years, Michael Jackson suggested that one cause was jealousy. And I always interpreted that to mean that certain individuals (like Evan Chandler) were jealous of him, and that’s certainly true.

But then Lisha McDuff, Harriet Manning, and I did a post a few weeks ago about blackface minstrelsy and how it was motivated in part by envy – racial envy. And then the other day I was listening to a 2002 phone interview with Steve Harvey, a black comedian and radio host, and I was really struck by the fact that when Michael Jackson talked with him about jealousy, he said “us” – not “me” but “us,” that people are jealous of “us” – and I think that “us” means successful black entertainers.

It’s funny – that one little word opened my eyes to a completely different way of interpreting what he’d been saying all those years. It seems to me now that he’s not talking so much about personal jealousy, though of course that’s part of it, but about racial jealousy – the jealousy of whites against successful blacks. As he tells Steve Harvey,

They hate to see us grow and build and build, and there’s nothing wrong with that [with growing]. They can and it’s ok. What can I do but reinforce the talent that God gave me? That’s all I want to do, is share the love and gift of entertainment. That’s all I want to do. I don’t want to hurt anybody.

Here’s the interview, and the part about jealousy starts about 8 minutes in:

Joie: I had forgotten all about this Steve Harvey interview, Willa. And speaking as a Black American, I agree that he’s talking about race when he makes his jealousy statement.

You know, this is actually an issue that many black people have struggled with and talked about among themselves for many, many years. Michael’s statement that, “They hate to see us grow and build” is a very real phenomenon in our society, and it has been going on since the birth of our nation. Or rather, I should say, since the end of slavery in our nation. And he wasn’t just talking about successful black entertainers. He was talking about any Black American who has found great success in whatever field they happen to work in, whether they’re famous or not. In fact, I believe that it’s one of the prevailing factors for all the backlash President Obama has seen during his time in office.

Willa: I agree. Part of the backlash – against Michael Jackson and Obama as well – is caused by racial prejudice, I think, but I hadn’t thought about it before in terms of jealousy – racial jealousy. That’s interesting, and it’s also interesting that Michael Jackson’s words seem pretty obvious to you and not so obvious to me. I wonder if that’s intentional, and it gets back to the idea of “language and power” that we talked about with Bjørn in a post a while ago – that Michael Jackson is using language in a subtle way so that it means different things to different listeners.

You know, if we look at his exact words, he’s speaking in a pretty indirect way. He never says the words “black” or “white,” and actually never mentions race at all. But still, if a listener is familiar with that ongoing conversation that you’re talking about, Joie – one “that many black people have struggled with and talked about among themselves for many, many years,” as you say – then his words are obvious, but if a listener isn’t aware of that context, then that just goes right past them. So I wonder if he’s speaking in a careful way with two distinct audiences in mind – specifically, if he’s talking in a way that immediately resonates with blacks, but doesn’t alarm or offend whites because we don’t really get what he’s saying.

Joie: It’s interesting to me that you think that, Willa. That he’s talking in some sort of code or something in order to connect with the black audience but not alarm or offend the white audience. Because to me – and probably to any other black person listening to this interview – he’s not speaking in a careful way at all. In fact, when I listen to this interview, I hear him speaking in a very relaxed, very open way. He’s not being cautious and careful with what he says because he knows that there’s no reason to. He’s speaking to another black entertainer, and his two black co-hosts, on a radio show geared toward a black audience. He obviously felt very comfortable with his surroundings in that moment. And he obviously knew that he was among people of a similar background (the Black American experience) who would understand immediately what he was talking about. So there was no need to speak “in a very careful way with two distinct audiences in mind.” So, I’m saying that I don’t think he was purposely talking in code or anything.

Willa: Well, that’s true, Joie – he does sound relaxed and comfortable. But still, a lot of things are left unsaid, like the words “black” and “white.” It’s like there are gaps between his words. And he’s not just speaking to a black audience – radio waves go out to everyone – and whether it’s intentional on his part or not, I think different listeners interpret his words very differently. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they fill in the gaps differently.

There’s a similar situation in the song “Ghosts,” which was written after the 1993 allegations and strip search. Here’s the chorus:

And who gave you the right to scare my family?
And who gave you the right to scare my baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
And who gave you the right to take intrusion
To see me?
And who gave you the right to shake my family?
And who gave you the right to hurt my baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?

You put a knife in my back
Shot an arrow in me
Tell me are you the ghost of jealousy?
A sucking ghost of jealousy?

He’s talking about the false accusations and the strip search (“who gave you the right to take intrusion / To see me?”) as well as the scandals that followed, and once again he suggests the real motivation behind them is “jealousy.” He never mentions race, and I never interpreted it that way – as racial jealousy. I thought he was just saying that Evan Chandler and Tom Sneddon and Diane Dimond and all those other figures working so hard to bring him down were envious of him and his success. But now I’m wondering if I was misunderstanding him – that he was talking specifically about racial jealousy – something Harriet mentioned was part of blackface minstrelsy, and a much larger cultural narrative as well, for more than a century.

Joie: Ok, I guess I see where you’re going with this. And when I think about it, there were no accusers or “other figures working so hard to bring him down” as you say that I can think of who were black. So, maybe you’re on to something.

Willa: Well, that’s true – none of the people working hardest to smear him were black, unless you count Stacy Brown. Just as importantly, it’s very interesting how different people reacted whenever he suggested – however indirectly – that the scandals plaguing him were tinged with racism or racial jealousy.

For example, in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson said that the public persecution he faced “has been kind of a pattern among black luminaries in this country.” When Jesse Jackson asks him, “How are you handling it?” he replies,

I’m handling it by using other people in the past who have gone through this sort of thing. Mandela’s story has given me a lot of strength – what he’s gone through. The Jack Johnson story … called Unforgivable Blackness. It’s an amazing story about this man from 1910 who was the heavyweight champion of the world, and thrust into a society that didn’t want to accept his position and his lifestyle. And what they put him through. And how they changed laws to imprison the man, to put him away behind bars just to get him some kind of way. And Muhammad Ali’s story … All these stories that I can go back in history and read about give me strength.

Here’s a link and the discussion of race starts about 4:15 in. It’s an astute reading of his situation, I think, and places the false allegations against him – and the police and public response to those allegations – within a context of other successful black pioneers who have been targeted by the authorities.

However, his words caused outrage, as well as some pretty snide remarks. In an opinion piece in The Los Angeles Times, a white academic, Elaine Showalter, wrote this:

Although he has tried to present himself as a target of racist envy and malice, comparing himself to Nelson Mandela (the ace of race cards) in an interview with that swiftest of spiritual ambulance-chasers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jackson’s race is as indeterminate and ambiguous as his sexuality.

Elaine Showalter was a groundbreaking feminist scholar in the 1980s – I read some of her work back then and had a lot of respect for her – and I can’t believe she of all people would be so oblivious and write something so simplistic and so snootily patriarchal. This is really troubling, I think, in many different ways – not the least being her assumption that, because his skin is no longer dark, he’s somehow disqualified from talking about race or pointing out the racism that surrounds him.

Joie: Yes, that remark is incredible, isn’t it? And you just want to ask her, you know … if she had suddenly found herself with a disease … let’s say breast cancer for instance, and had to have both her breasts removed, would she suddenly not be a woman anymore?

Willa: Wow, Joie. That’s a powerful question. I never thought of it like that before …

Joie: Or if there was a disease out there that caused a white person’s pigment to darken, would she no longer be allowed to identify herself as Caucasian? I mean, she’s not just saying he’s disqualified from pointing out the racism that surrounds him. She is saying that he no longer has the right to identify with the black race. That he no longer has the right to call himself a Black American. Her very comment is incredibly racist on so many levels.

Willa: That is really interesting, Joie. When you reverse the situation, it really highlights just how much she’s talking from a privileged position, doesn’t it? Why does a white person feel she has a right to decide if a black person is black enough to suit her? That isn’t just incredibly offensive, it’s nonsensical. I can’t imagine a black person ever saying that about a white person.

I mean, picture a person with two white parents who grew up in a white community, as Michael Jackson did with two black parents in a black neighborhood in Gary. And then try to imagine some sort of circumstance where a black person would say that person wasn’t white enough to speak from a white perspective. I just don’t think it would ever happen, and it wouldn’t make sense if it did because we don’t have a cultural history of blacks forcing whites to meet their expectations of whiteness. But we have a very long history of whites forcing blacks to fit white definitions of blackness, as Lisha and Harriet and I talked about.

But I shouldn’t oversimplify this. It wasn’t just whites who reacted badly to the Steve Harvey interview. An opinion piece by Sinclere Lee in Black News Weekly was just as snarky:

If Michael Jackson is guilty of anything and should go to jail, for, it’s when he compared himself to Nelson Mandela. I know Nelson Mandela! I met Nelson Mandela when he came to Washington! Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest freedom fighters in the world! Nelson Mandela spent 27-years in prison to free the Blacks in South Africa, and you can’t do a day in jail! Michael, don’t believe that shit Jesse Jackson is telling you, you are no Nelson Mandela!

Joie: And to me, this is a ridiculous statement because Michael Jackson, and Jesse Jackson for that matter, both knew Nelson Mandela personally as well. Michael didn’t simply “meet” the man when he came to Washington. He knew Mandela very well. He and Mandela were actually very close friends for many, many years.

And Michael wasn’t comparing himself to Mandela in that comment. He was saying that he uses Mandela’s story as a source of inspiration to deal with the blatant racism he was experiencing. There is a huge difference.

Willa: I agree completely, Joie. And what can possibly be wrong with saying that Nelson Mandela inspired him?

But while this article is just as bad as the Showalter piece in some ways, there’s an important difference, I think. While Lee criticizes Michael Jackson for comparing himself to Mandela (which he doesn’t do, as you pointed out), she doesn’t scoff at the idea that racism is involved, the way Showalter does.

Joie: That’s true, she doesn’t. In fact, she never even veers off in that direction. Her main focus is simply the fact that she was personally offended by the thought that Michael was comparing himself to such a great freedom fighter.

Willa: Exactly. And I think that difference is subtle but important. Elaine Showalter seems to think it’s ludicrous to suggest that racism played a role in determining how Michael Jackson was treated by the police and the press (while I think it’s incredibly simplistic to assume racism wasn’t involved) but Sinclere Lee doesn’t make such a naive assumption. While a white academic may think racism played no part in it, Lee knows better.

Joie: That is interesting, isn’t it? You know, Willa, sometimes I wonder if you could take a poll now that everything is over and done with and Michael is no longer with us … how many people today, white and black, would admit that race played a factor in how he was treated by the press and the police? You know, now that we’ve all gotten a little distance and perspective. I wonder what people think today. Does that make sense?

Willa: It does, and that’s another really interesting question, Joie. My sense is that feelings about Michael Jackson have softened a lot since he died, and people are much more likely to see him as innocent now that he’s gone. We talked about that in a post last spring. But I don’t think people in general – and white people in particular – are ready to acknowledge what a huge influence race and racism had on how the allegations were perceived by the police, the media, and the public. The idea of racial prejudice, and especially racial envy, makes whites very uncomfortable, I think, and most whites don’t want to even consider it. But the more I think about this, the more I think Michael Jackson was absolutely right, and racial jealousy was at the heart of it.

I mean, it’s very interesting to really look at what people are actually saying at different points, and how they’re saying it. Look at what Evan Chandler tells him the last time they meet. He points his finger at him and shouts, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down.” The implication seems to be that Michael Jackson has risen too high, and now Evan Chandler is determined to take him down.

Randy Taraborrelli expresses a similar idea in his biography. Based on Chandler’s accusations, the police conduct a strip search, and here’s how Taraborrelli leads into his description of what had to be a humiliating and truly horrible experience:

The bottom line is that Michael has done whatever he wanted to do for most of his life, living in a world of privilege and entitlement simply because of who he is. … However, in December of 1993 Michael was about to experience, if just for one day, what it might be like to live in the real world, where people often have to do things they may not necessarily want to do.

This passage is so shocking to me. You would think Taraborrelli’s focus would be on the evidence, and whether the strip search confirms or contradicts Chandler’s accusations – supposedly that’s the point of it, after all – but it isn’t. Taraborrelli is much more focused on the psychological impact of the strip search, and the effect it will have on how Michael Jackson sees himself and positions himself in the world. Taraborrelli seems very critical of Michael Jackson “living in a world of privilege and entitlement,” and now the strip search is going to bring him back down to “the real world,” and Taraborrelli speaks approvingly of that. He seems to think it’s appropriate that Michael Jackson will be brought down, “if just for one day.” And it really feels to me that Taraborrelli’s words express quite a bit of jealousy.

Joie: Well, you know how I feel about Taraborrelli, and I believe that there are several spots in that book where he comes off as jealous of his subject. So, I agree with you completely on that statement.

Willa: But is it jealousy because of his wealth and his celebrity? Or is it racial jealousy? Or is it a combination of both – is he jealous that a black man, especially, has been so successful? I really wonder about that, especially since both he and Evan Chandler talk specifically about the need to bring Michael Jackson “down.”

That language and imagery of bringing him down reminds me of a horrifying scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin that we talked about in a very painful post a long time ago. Rosa, a beautiful young slave, a teenager, tries on a dress belonging to her owner, Maria. Maria walks in and sees her wearing it, becomes furious, and sends Rosa to the whipping house. Here’s Maria’s explanation for why she orders such an extreme punishment for such a trivial offense:

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!

So Maria isn’t angry so much because of the dress, but because it’s a sign that Rosa “forgets who she is” – that she is a young black woman, and a slave. Maria feels very threatened by that, especially since in many ways Rosa is more truly “lady-like” in her looks and bearing than Maria is. So Maria intends to shame her and remind her of “who she is,” and scorch it into her memory so severely she’ll never forget again. In other words, Maria wants to bring about a psychological change in Rosa, and “give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!”

It seems to me that’s exactly what Taraborrelli is talking about with the strip search – that it will cause a psychological change in Michael Jackson that will “bring him down” from his “world of privilege and entitlement.” And it’s what Evan Chandler is talking about when he points his finger and shouts, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down.” And I think it’s what Michael Jackson himself is referring to in “Morphine” when he sings, “I’m going down, baby.” He’s being brought down by the same impulse that brought down Rosa more than 150 years ago.

Joie: That’s an interesting comparison, Willa. And one you’re probably right about. But, I guess what I’m getting at is, I wonder if people’s attitudes about the whole situation … and really about his whole life … I wonder if their attitudes are truly shifting and softening, or if it’s simply a case of “don’t speak ill of the dead.” Do you know what I mean?

Willa: I do, but I don’t know the answer. And I’m not sure people themselves know why their feelings have changed, or how deeply they’ve changed. Or what truly motivated their feelings against him to begin with. I mean, maybe feelings have softened because he’s gone, and because there’s no reason to feel threatened or jealous of him any longer.

Joie: I don’t know. I’m not even sure why it matters or why that question sort of haunts me. I guess I just feel like here was this special, beautiful, talented, loving man who only wanted to make the world happy, and he was ridiculed and persecuted and hated for it. That bothers me.

Seems That the World’s Got a Role For Me

Willa:  This week Joie and I are excited to be joined by Sylvia J. Martin, a Research Fellow at the University of California at Irvine with a Ph.D. in anthropology. Sylvia’s work focuses on socio-economic relations in commercial media industries, and this research has led her to study Michael Jackson’s art and cultural impact, both here in the U.S. and overseas while living and working in Hong Kong on a Fulbright scholarship. She is interested in the public and media discourse about Michael Jackson, and has conducted interviews with people who worked with him. She recently published an article in Social Science and Modern Society that explores how, in her words, “Like Superman, Michael Jackson is an American icon who went global.” Thanks so much for joining us, Sylvia!

Joie:  Sylvia, can we talk about that word “icon” for a minute? Sometimes I think that we tend to use that word a little bit too much these days and it seems to have become somewhat trivialized. But when someone or something reaches “iconic” status, it really is a big deal in our society, isn’t it? Can you tell us exactly what it means to be an American icon and what that means when thinking about Michael Jackson?

Sylvia:  Great question, Joie. I think that an icon, in the context that we are using it, is someone who captures the sentiment and style of a particular moment, who represents the essence of a specific time and/or place. Objects and places can also be iconic; for instance, the Chrysler building may be considered “iconic” of the Art Deco movement. Yet at the same time, an icon has the potential to transcend its particular time and place, to be noteworthy outside of its immediate context.

Willa:  Like the Mona Lisa has become iconic, or Munch’s Scream? Or even Einstein’s wild hair or Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair? They’re all instantly recognizable outside their immediate context, as you say, and they all seem to evoke specific connotative meanings that transcend their literal meaning. For example, Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair isn’t just something that moves him from place to place – it also seems to represent the poignancy of a brilliant mind trapped inside a failing body.

Sylvia:  Exactly, Willa. Like McDonald’s is iconic of, or epitomizes, the global spread of American products and “values” (fast food for people on the go, affordable meals for families), sometimes at the expense of locally produced food.

So as I discussed in my article, Michael was an American icon because he wasn’t just topping all the charts in his own industry – he was also hailed at the White House, at the Superbowl, at the U.S. military ceremony. Many consider him the quintessential American performer of the 1980s; his domestic success reflects the struggles and accomplishments of the American Civil Rights movement. Yet for decades since, he has found fans in the former Soviet Union and China (some of the U.S.’ Cold War foes), Iran, and India – places with vastly different political and economic trajectories than America’s.

Now, the term “icon” carries religious connotations, in which it is a representation of a deity or revered religious figure, usually in the form of a carving or a mosaic. A comparatively secular, contemporary icon such as Michael may also generate a following, a mysticism. He certainly seems to have! To put fan reverence in context, in India, Bollywood film star Amitabh Bachchan is considered almost divine by many of his fans. And in the south of India, Tamil fans build temples for their favorite stars. So this religious connotation for a celebrity icon is observable across cultures. But it’s also worth pointing out that Michael’s reach isn’t just a result of his tremendous talents; it’s also facilitated by our globalized cultural economy – by global capitalism.

Willa:  I was really intrigued by that aspect of your article, Sylvia, and how you suggest that Michael Jackson’s iconic status abroad served a political function as well. As you wrote,

“Jackson’s music and life narrative were upheld at home and abroad as compelling evidence of the ascendancy of American individualism, entrepreneurialism, multiculturalism, and consumer capitalism.”

Yet at times his work also provided a sharp critique of American life and politics, especially in terms of racial prejudices, as you point out as well. So how do you see these two somewhat contradictory impulses playing out, both globally and domestically?

Sylvia:  It’s challenging to be both a poster boy and a provocateur of sorts. Outside of the U.S., for the most part people seem to appreciate that he spoke for the mainstream and the marginalized. Within the U.S., it was trickier to pull off, but in the 1980s, at the height of his American solo career, his musical critique had a very light touch. His critique became more explicit as he experienced extortion, media slander, and the pursuit of “justice” by American individuals and agencies with considerable state power.

Joie:  That’s a very true statement. Once he experienced the negative side of fame – the extortion, the media slander and the ‘trial by tabloid’ that ensued – he became much more outspoken in his critique of the social ills that plague us.

Sylvia:  Exactly, Joie. And lets look at one of the “American values” Michael came to epitomize – individualism. His reading choices reflect that value (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the writer Ralph Emerson). But Michael also expressed, repeatedly, the need for community; he spoke of caring about and acting for the community, our reliance on each other, and he put that communal value into action. And some of that he did at a time when President Reagan was withdrawing state support for social services for low-income people, and promoting the “Pull yourselves up by the bootstraps” ideology.

Lyrics like “We are the world” and “Make a better place / For you and for me / Heal the world we live in / Save it for our children” – note the references to “we” and “our,” to the collective. There are so many lyrical and visual references to the importance of community in Michael’s work. Sure, he happily collected the many accolades awarded to him personally, but he also acknowledged his predecessors, the community of musicians from which he came, and he was a huge philanthropist. And just this one example – of how he represented individualism and, at the other end of the spectrum, community – shows that he had a very broad appeal. Maybe the people filling up stadiums around the world to hear him perform weren’t always consciously thinking about how broad a spectrum Michael represented, but they were filling them up nonetheless, and empowering Michael’s iconicity (and market value).

Now, when Sylvia Chase asked him in 1980 on a 20/20 interview how it felt to perform for hundreds of people, Michael responded that they held hands and rocked and “all colors of people are there, all races, it’s the most wonderful thing, and politicians can’t even do that.” While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, in general, it is hard for politicians to gather a diverse group of people at venue after venue as Michael did.

Willa:  That’s true, and I don’t know that politicians are able to get them holding hands and rocking the way Michael Jackson did.

Joie:  Yes, I have to say that I don’t think that was an exaggeration on his part at all. It is nearly impossible for politicians to bring people together in that way!

Sylvia:  Well, I think some presidential candidates (not to mention political activists and monarchs) have inspired multicultural groups of people to chant, cheer, clap, salute, and stomp their feet in very large numbers. Fleetwood Mac’s performance of “Don’t Stop” at President Clinton’s Inaugural Ball comes to mind – and actually, Michael was there. He even joined Fleetwood Mac and the Clintons to sing on stage! But no, American politicians probably couldn’t bring people together in the way that Michael was talking about, with actual handholding.

Anyway, to just step back and look at the broader cultural context in which Michael became so prominent in the 1980s, we probably should recall that a few charismatic black male speakers in the U.S., such as Fred Hampton (the activist who formed the Rainbow Coalition) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., met untimely deaths just a couple decades prior to Michael’s American peak. I’m not saying that Michael was a political activist or that he was their protégée, but with racism always just under the surface, or on the surface, there were definite risks for black men who tried to speak to a plurality of people, who reached across boundaries that others have worked hard to keep in place.

So in light of this history, perhaps it’s not surprising that Michael faced some backlash for occupying such a broad spectrum, and for being able to get so many people to congregate in one space, over and over. And this is why I quoted James Baldwin in another piece, “Remembering Michael Jackson: Moonwalking Between Contradictions” – Baldwin identified that such unprecedented success and attention on Michael could not be separable from America’s role as a “dishonest custodian of black life.”

As Michael told Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, a lot of the white press didn’t like that he played to stadiums full of screaming white girls around the world, and I think Michael was right to a large degree. By the way, I spoke with a male photojournalist who covered Michael over the last few years of his life, and the journalist was not only bewildered as to why so many women found Michael and his masculine, androgynous, and feminine aspects so sexually appealing, he was clearly bothered by it.

Joie:  Really? That is so interesting to me. I’m always fascinated by the fact that so many looked at him and saw him so completely differently. Everyone in the media always tried to make him out to be this weird-looking nut-job with a freaky face but yet, millions of others saw him as very handsome and incredibly sexy.

Willa:  I’m fascinated by that too – that different people could see him in such radically different ways. He really did seem to reflect back the expectations and biases that each of us brought to him. And I think you raise an extremely important point, Sylvia, and one that hasn’t been addressed nearly enough. The way he challenged notions of gender and sexuality are every bit as threatening as his transgression of racial boundaries – maybe even more so – and directly tie in with the police actions against him, as well as the media and public backlash.

Sylvia:  Exactly, Willa. Michael profoundly challenged white, American, male heteronormative sexuality, caught up as it is in issues of race and “authenticity.” The “confusion” Michael caused is unforgivable, as Susan Fast also mentions in her article, “Difference that Exceeded Understanding: Remembering Michael Jackson 1958-2009.”

Willa:  Yes, as Susan Fast puts it so well in her article,

“Please be black, Michael, or white, or gay or straight, father or mother, father to children, not a child yourself, so we at least know how to direct our liberal (in)tolerance. And try not to confuse all the codes simultaneously.”

With so many of our most fraught divisions – of race, gender, age, sexuality, family – he didn’t just cross the boundary, but inhabited an in-between space right at the intersection. And that’s what was so “unforgivable,” as you say.

Sylvia:  Yes, he “confused” musical codes (as Lisha pointed out in her discussion of “Black or White“), and he also confused normative social and sexual codes. And it’s that impending confusion that Baldwin referred to in his comment about Michael’s success tapping into America’s discomfort over sexual roles and sexual panic. Anyway, in the process of dealing with backlash over various matters, Michael saw that some of the problems he had identified, particularly in the U.S., were not going away, and in fact deserved more critique (such as racial prejudice and media ethics) which he addressed in his later work. He saw that despite, and in fact maybe because of, his unparalleled success, he was becoming something he probably had not thought he was in danger of becoming: a criminalized black man.

Joie:  I don’t know if I’d agree totally with that statement, Sylvia. I think for every Black American man, the thought that you could one day very easily, and through no real fault of your own, become “a criminalized Black male” is a very real one. So I couldn’t say that thought had never crossed Michael’s mind before. In fact, I’d be willing to bet money that it probably had at some point. I think that’s just a fact that all Black American men live with, no matter how successful you become.

Sylvia:  I totally agree with you that in all likelihood, Michael knew he could be criminalized. However, I didn’t say the thought had “never” crossed his mind but that he “probably” had not thought he was in danger of becoming criminalized. There is quite a difference.

The reason I said he “probably had not thought he was in danger” is that from what I’ve read and heard it was possible he was at times understandably lulled into a false sense of security by having a private security detail (Bill Bray, etc), access to top lawyers, and institutional accolades. In other words, his class location and profession complicates the race issue because he had access to resources that many non-famous and middle to working class people do not. I am not saying that he wasn’t as much of a target as any other black man, nor am I saying that his visibility rendered him immune – in fact in my comment regarding the threat to charismatic black speakers I’m suggesting that Michael was also very much at risk. But, as much as Michael knew he was a target because he was so famous, I still think there were times when he thought he might have access to more protection from being criminalized than a non-celebrity Black man.

Willa:  This is a really complicated issue, I think. In Randy Taraborrelli’s biography, he describes the moment in 1993 when Jordan Chandler’s mother and step-father first warned him about Evan Chandler’s threats:

Michael didn’t take them seriously. “Oh, this kind of stuff happens to me all the time,” he told them. “People are always trying to get money out of me. I’ll have my people work it out. Don’t worry about it.” However, when they played Michael the tape Dave had made of his conversation with Evan, Michael became anxious. “He sounded so angry,” Michael told me of Evan Chandler in an interview months later. “I knew then and there it was extortion. He said it right on the tape. So what I did then,” Michael told me, “was turn it over to [lawyer] Bert [Fields] and [private investigator] Anthony [Pellicano] and I decided to try to forget about it”

When Taraborrelli questions him about this, he responds:

“I don’t think like that,” Michael said bluntly. “I don’t live my life in fear.”

But then I think about something he told Gerri Hirshey in a Rolling Stone article ten years earlier, not long before the Thriller video came out. She wrote,

He is known to conduct his private life with almost obsessive caution, “just like a hemophiliac who can’t afford to be scratched in any way.”  The analogy is his.

That line has always stuck with me – just imagining what it must be like to feel you have to live your life that way, with the “obsessive caution” of a hemophiliac. So I think he tried not to “live my life in fear,” as he told Taraborrelli, but he was a student of history, especially Black history, and the U.S. has a long troubling history of “criminalizing” successful Black men. And he was the most successful Black American man ever. So he was a huge target – for the police, the tabloids, the critics, everyone – and I think he was very aware of that.

Sylvia:  He was indeed aware. And as we see in the example you cited, he turned the issue over to a pretty high-profile lawyer and private investigator, probably hoping it would be resolved without much damage.

Joie:  Willa, I love that Hirshey interview and that comment has always struck me as well. Especially the last sentence – “The analogy is his.” That means those were his words; he described himself as “a hemophiliac who can’t afford to be scratched in any way.” Knowing that this is his description of himself and the way he guards his private life is very telling, I think.

Willa:  I agree, and you know, it’s tragically ironic in hindsight, but several people who knew him have suggested that one reason he spent so much time with children was because he thought they were safe. Adults could betray him – and had – and he was concerned about that, but he trusted children. And I think he was right in feeling he could trust children. If you look at what happened in 1993 and in 2003 leading up to the 2005 trial, the accusations didn’t begin with children – they began with adults.

Sylvia:  I have to quote the Marxist art critic, David Walsh, here who wrote some of the most astute coverage of the 2005 trial verdict right after it was announced. Walsh hones in on what I believe was at stake: Michael’s perceived threat to “American values.” Walsh writes,

In the brutality of a Sneddon one sees in microcosm the character of the American ruling elite: ignorant, reckless, embittered, endlessly pursuing anyone and anything that hints of opposition or the “counterculture.” Why was Michael Jackson actually on trial? Because his lifestyle is different, even bizarre; because he is perceived to be gay; because he is black. In the paranoid, pornographic vision of the extreme right, whose perverse mental life deserves to be analyzed by a Freud, Jackson represents a provocation and threat to “American values.”

So, the man who was once the top-ranking Western pop star in the former Soviet Bloc according to the Voice of America, and who was celebrated by both Republican and Democrat administrations, ends up becoming a threat to “American values.” The King of Popular music and culture becomes the “counterculture.” Look at how he’s now moved (or, been moved) across the spectrum.

Willa:  It’s really pretty shocking, isn’t it? And it’s like a replay of what happened to Charlie Chaplin during the Cold War – in fact, that’s almost the exact language that was used against Chaplin. So this isn’t just a race issue, though race played a very significant role.

Sylvia:  Yes, ideology and larger political circumstances play a role here, too, as they did with Chaplin. The moralizing among America’s “ruling elite” after President Clinton’s affair, which was echoed by some of the media, probably led to greater scrutiny (and distortion) of Michael’s high-profile, unconventional lifestyle. I’m also reminded of the 2003 live webchat with Bjork, when people wrote in questions to her, and Michael was one of them. She responded to his question about the influence of nature on her music, and then extended some support to him remarking, “It’s like in the US right now, it’s illegal to be an eccentric.”

Willa:  What a great quote!

Joie:  It is a great quote!

Willa:  And she’s right.

Sylvia:  And regarding “American values,” here again, we see the contradictions play out; yes, the U.S. valorizes success … but when we are faced with all the complications that it entails and the human frailties behind it, we turn on it. When Michael took the unconventional step of forming surrogate families such as he did with the Chandlers and friendships with kids as a way to compensate for his loss of childhood that was sacrificed in order to attain that “all-American” success, the reaction in many quarters was to immediately sexualize and therefore criminalize it.

The media-entertainment industrial complex in particular has a long history of sexualizing children. (I showed my students Shirley Temple’s 1932 “Baby Burlesks” films and they were rather shocked to see her, in diapers and aged 3, dance in a “playfully” seductive way.) So it’s not so surprising that many in the media-entertainment industry took the easy route and in turn rushed to sexualize Michael’s relationships with kids. I do think that Michael made some unwise choices along the way, but this “beacon” of the post-Civil Rights American dream was made to pay for the full expression of his art, and the humanity that fueled it. And he paid for his multi-faceted iconicity.

Willa:  He really did – he paid for it most painfully. Well, thank you very much for joining us, Sylvia! We’ve really enjoyed talking with you.

We’ve also begun work on the Lyrics Library and just posted the lyrics from the Off the Wall liner notes, so want to invite everyone to come check it out when you get a chance.  We’re hoping it will be a fun and useful place to share ideas and gather information about Michael Jackson’s lyrics.