Willa: This week I am very happy to be joined by Susan Woodward, a psychoanalytically trained clinical social worker. She’s also the author of Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics, a book that provides important insights into the extremely harsh criticism that came to dominate media coverage of Michael Jackson and his work. Instead of simply ignoring or discounting this criticism, as many of us tend to do, Susan has dived right into the worst of it to try to uncover what motivates it. And what she’s found is fascinating!
Susan, thank you so much for joining me to talk about your research and analysis.
Susan: Willa, I am so honored to be invited to talk to you about Michael Jackson. I must note that your book M Poetica was an important inspiration for my book. I really admired the way you waded into the morass of some of the hot-button criticisms – plastic surgery, changing skin color, allegations of child abuse – and calmly, intelligently addressed them. I think that Jackson fans tend to shrink in horror from the most severe critics, and the critics see the fans as fanatics, but you were able to walk the middle ground of being a Jackson defender who was willing to look at the criticisms and deal with them even-handedly and effectively.
Willa: Thank you, Susan. I really appreciate that, and I think your work is so interesting and important. Instead of reacting against that harsh criticism Michael Jackson faced, or simply ignoring it as many of us tend to do, you’ve really tried to understand it. And one of the things you discovered while researching this is that, ironically, the cultural critics who were the most severe when writing about him also seem to believe that he possessed tremendous power. I was really surprised by that.
Susan: I was quite surprised as well.
Willa: So I’m curious, how did you first notice this? And what drew you to this research to begin with?
Susan: After Michael Jackson died I became interested in reading everything I could find about him. Along the way, I read some pretty hateful stuff, which I found increasingly puzzling, and even shocking, as I learned more about him. I’m a clinical social worker, so I’m always interested in what motivates people, and I wondered where all this vitriol came from. There were the child abuse allegations, but they were highly questionable accusations that were never proven, and there were abundant reasons to conclude that those allegations could not be true. And I eventually found that the allegations seemed to have little to do with the hatred that was leveled at him.
Willa: I agree. For example, Woody Allen has been accused of child sexual abuse also, but there hasn’t been the rush to judgment that there was with Michael Jackson, and there hasn’t been the extreme hysteria and antipathy that Michael Jackson faced. So there seems to be something more going on there. It’s almost like the abuse allegations gave people an excuse for expressing strong negative feelings about him that were already bubbling underground.
Susan: Yes. And at the time of the first allegations, in 1993, since he had already endured nearly a decade of inaccurate, exaggerated tabloid stories painting him as “bizarre,” the public was primed to believe that his “bizarreness” could extend to child abuse.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Susan. As Michael Jackson himself said in a speech when receiving a Grammy Legend Award, “I wasn’t aware that the world thought I was so weird and bizarre.” That was on February 24, 1993, a couple months before he met Evan Chandler. Then the allegations hit the newspapers in August, so it appears the press and the public were indeed “primed,” as you say, to see him as “weird and bizarre” – and perhaps guilty as well because of that.
Susan: Oh, yes. I think that the negative press he got had terrible consequences for him. I wanted to understand more about where that hostility came from.
Susan Fast, in her essay “Difference that Exceeded Understanding” (one of the best titles ever), pointed out that much of the hostility toward him was due to racism and a deep-seated discomfort with his “difference,” meaning the ways in which he was unreadable and unclassifiable. His signifiers for race, gender, age, and sexuality were hard to interpret and confusing to many. I call that difference his “otherness.” Although I don’t share in that discomfort with his otherness, at least I could understand that it might motivate some to criticize him. But I just had this nagging feeling that there was something else in the mix that I couldn’t identify.
So I kept reading. As I was reading a particularly hateful, long chapter of The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, one of the three works I analyze in my book, I began to notice that the author, amidst the vitriol, kept referring to Michael Jackson as a king or divine being and using other highly elevated descriptions. Often these terms were used sarcastically, but among the 23 authors included in the book, they all used that sort of language in describing him, along with a roughly equal number of disparaging and hateful terms. When I went back to look at the rest of Resistible Demise and then the other two works that I include in my book, I saw that there was an assumption that he was an extraordinarily powerful person.
And I mean a power that is quite different from the power that any famous, wealthy person would be perceived as having, and unprecedented for a musician. The critics I looked at for my book see him as a royal person or as having almost supernatural power. I cannot think of another figure in popular culture who was seen this way. But at the same time these critics just tear him apart for having those very qualities.
The three works I chose to analyze are Dave Marsh’s 1985 book Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream, Maureen Orth’s 2003 Vanity Fair article “Losing His Grip,” and The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, a collection of 23 essays published about six months after Michael Jackson died. I chose these particular works because they were each overviews of his life and work, rather than addressing just a particular event, and they were all harshly critical, even sometimes quite hateful.
Willa: Yes, though they’re very different, as you point out. In your book you show that, while they are all reacting very negatively to his supposed power, they didn’t all see his power the same way or react against it for the same reasons. For example, Dave Marsh seemed to think Michael Jackson had the power to heal racial divisions, and was deeply disappointed that he wasn’t using that power the way he wanted him to. And I have to say, there’s just something too ironic about a white man criticizing a black man for not doing enough to end racism – especially when that man is Michael Jackson, who has done more than anyone in recent memory to end help prejudice of all kinds, including racism.
Susan: Yes, well put! Marsh says that initially he was a Jackson fan who saw him as almost a messiah figure, someone who could lead America, and maybe even the world, into a new era free of racial, sexual, and political divisions. Marsh writes quite eloquently about that feeling.
Willa: He really does. And in an odd way he’s still a Michael Jackson fan because he sees such tremendous potential in him – not just musically but culturally and spiritually. And he keeps imposing his expectations onto him, the hopes of a white man looking for a powerful black figure to solve the complex problem of racism. For example, here’s a quote from near the end of Marsh’s book:
Michael Jackson is one thing before he is a singer or a success or a star or anything else. He is a black person in America. As a result, he set some old chains to clanking, stirred some ancient ghosts, incited some venerable dreams.
The ghosts of slavery and racism are four hundred years old but their power is fresh and strong. The dreams he incited are equally old – the fantastic hope that we can somehow be brought together long enough to lay those ghosts to rest.
Throughout his book, Marsh expresses tremendous respect for Michael Jackson’s musical talent, but also a longing for him to become a Moses-type cultural figure who will lead America out of racism. And that longing is coupled with a disgust that he isn’t Moses – that he isn’t fulfilling Marsh’s fantasy of who he wants him to be.
Susan: That is a very powerful passage from Trapped. It’s such a shame that Marsh couldn’t see how Michael Jackson’s otherness, which he criticizes so harshly, was the very reason that Marsh and others could project onto him “that fantastic hope.”
Willa: That’s a very good point, Susan. The real irony is that Michael Jackson actually was combatting the roots of racism – and much more effectively than anything Dave Marsh proposes – but he was doing it at a deep, almost subconscious level that Dave Marsh can’t comprehend. But instead of trying to understand what Michael Jackson is doing, Marsh attacks him for what he isn’t doing.
Susan: He should have cherished that otherness.
Willa: I agree. And then there’s Maureen Orth, who wrote some of the most sordid, inflammatory articles ever published about Michael Jackson. She felt he had tremendous power also, but it was the power to manipulate and even control people. So while Marsh believed he had a positive power that he was squandering, Orth believed he had a negative power that he was using all too well.
Susan: Yes, Maureen Orth really seems to be in the grips of that fear of Jackson’s otherness. You get the feeling that she thinks that he was so dangerous that he deserved to be driven to the ends of the earth. While she seems to fear his otherness, she also seems to feel that his otherness was exactly what gave him the power to manipulate others.
Willa: That’s really interesting, and something I hadn’t noticed before I read your book. She definitely seems to fear his difference, as you say – to the point of hysteria. For example, in her article she claims that Michael Jackson paid a Mali witchdoctor $150,000 to conduct a voodoo ceremony in Switzerland, and that as part of that ceremony he “ritually sacrificed” 42 cows. She actually published that in Vanity Fair. I think it goes without saying that that’s ridiculous – it makes no sense, and from what I can tell it has absolutely no basis in fact.
Some friends in Germany contacted the Federal Office of Agriculture (FOAG) in Switzerland for me, and the FOAG told them they have no evidence that anything like that ever happened. The FOAG tracks every cow in Switzerland from the time it’s born until it’s slaughtered and processed – they can tell you exactly which cow or cows are included in every package of beef sold in Switzerland – and they have no records of missing cows, no evidence of anything like this.
Susan: That is one masterful feat of fact checking!
Willa: It really is. I’m so grateful to them for doing that. But even without the FOAG, this story should strike any reasonable person as extremely improbable. For one thing, it goes against everything Michael Jackson stood for. But also, I just don’t think you could hide something like that. Cows are huge – around 1,000 pounds – so 42 cows would weigh about 20 tons. How could you hide 20 tons of dead cows? Where would you put them? How would you move them? You can’t just stick them in the trunk of your car. And yet the most obsessively surveilled man in history somehow did this, and no one knows anything about it? That just doesn’t seem possible. But Orth blindly accepts this wild story and reports it as true without any fact checking, as far as I can tell.
Susan: I found that little fact checking seemed to have been done for many of the things she said in that article. I have to say that I had a lot of fun doing the fact checking that should have been done before publication – and easily finding several glaring errors. She really seemed to want to believe what suited her about Michael Jackson. Along the same lines, she cites numerous sources for the article, but almost all of them are either anonymous, have some obvious motive to want to say bad things about him, or are people (such as plastic surgeons) who had no connection to him.
Willa: That’s true. The question is why she accepted such an outrageous story as true, and I think it’s because she was predisposed to believe it – she saw him as so completely Other that she thought he was capable of anything.
Susan: I certainly agree. I think that it’s significant that she begins her article with this unbelievable voodoo scenario. This story presents him as racially other, foolishly wasteful of large sums of money, and indifferent to the lives of others, in this case animals. Certainly it primes the gullible reader to believe that he was capable of anything.
Willa: It really does. And then there are the many critics in The Resistible Demise. Unfortunately, I haven’t read this collection of essays, but you show that these writers – and again, these are all music and cultural critics who are writing very negatively about him – expressed a belief that he had an almost supernatural power, which is very surprising. That is so unexpected. And while analyzing that you introduced two terms I hadn’t heard before: “angelism” and “beastialism.” Could you explain these a bit?
Susan: The term “angelism” was coined in the 1940s by Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher. Angelism is the erroneous view of humans as being primarily of a divine nature, purely spirit and intellect. Angelism does not refer specifically to angels, by the way. The opposite, and equally erroneous view, is that of beastialism, that humans are only motivated by bodily, selfish concerns, such as greed, lust, envy. These views are erroneous because, of course, we are all driven by some combination of both angelism and beastialism. Michael Jackson came to be seen by many as an angelistic being, someone who seemed to be free of the normal human categories of race, gender, and age. And he was seen by many as beastial, someone who was physically decaying and morally corrupt.
Willa: These are such useful concepts for understanding reactions to Michael Jackson, I think. I hadn’t heard these terms before, but after reading your book and learning about these ideas, I’ve been seeing this angelism/beastialism split applied to him constantly, both by those praising him and those criticizing him.
Susan: Yes, once you’re aware of that angelism/beastialism split, you just see it in so much of how he was viewed.
Willa: You really do. And you know, it’s really interesting how these categories tie in with Eleanor Bowman’s ideas of transcendence, as she talked about with us in a post a while back. Transcendence views some humans primarily in terms of mind – they aim to “transcend” the limits of their bodies – while other humans are seen primarily as bodies. These two categories seem to map pretty directly onto the divisions you’re talking about, with angelism viewing humans primarily in terms of mind – “purely spirit and intellect,” as you said – while beastialism views humans primarily in terms of the body, and its needs and desires. Is that right?
Susan: I would agree with you. The transcendent worldview involves seeing spirit as separate from matter, and matter as inferior to spirit. It’s a polarized way of perceiving reality, very much like the extreme poles of angelism and beastialism. Michael Jackson’s critics used the beastial end of the transcendent spectrum to debase him, to compensate for the angelistic, much more flattering view of him.
Willa: Yes, but while the angelistic view tends to be more positive, it’s just as unrealistic and can be just as problematic. Eleanor sees Michael Jackson as challenging that division, and offering a new vision – one of immanence – where mind and body are fully integrated, indivisible. But the critics you researched seem to fall into that transcendental view of separating mind from body, and see him strictly as one or the other. So what are some examples of critics viewing Michael Jackson through the lens of angelism? And of beastialism?
Susan: The Resistible Demise (I still don’t know what that title means) is very fertile ground for examples of angelistic and beastialistic views of Michael Jackson. Many of the words used on both sides of that polarity were so extraordinary that I included lists of them in my book. For example, on the beastial side, authors of the essays use words and phrases such as “freakish,” “inhuman,” “precious weirdo girl-man,” “not unlike Darth Vader – a degenerating husk of pale flesh kept barely alive by a complex mediating machinery,” “Zombie Jackson,” “auto-castrated asexual,” “creature of absolute soulessness,” “monster,” “genuine beast of the apocalypse,” and “biotic component going mad.” I could go on. There are hundreds of examples in Resistible Demise. Note that many of these terms focus on the body and make an assumption of decay, moral corruption, and insanity – the very opposite of the angelistic view.
Willa: Yes, they do. And in fact, much of the harshest criticism of Michael Jackson focuses on the idea that he somehow corrupted the integrity of the body, like the repeated fallacy that he’d had so much plastic surgery his nose disintegrated. And actually, the allegations of sexual abuse or perversion are another form of bodily corruption, and so are the claims of extensive drug abuse. So this criticism really does focus on a sense of bodily corruption.
Susan: And the angelistic terms used in Resistible Demise are equally extreme and see him as divorced from his body, a creature of pure spirit: “god,” “a creature of youth and lightness whose performance defies emotional gravity,” “otherworldly,” “an angel who fell to earth,” “beyond human law,” “invading savior,” “gravity-defying,” “archangel,” “unearthly,” “uncanny,” and “not matter.” As with the beastial terms, Resistible Demise contains hundreds of similar examples of angelistic terms, in addition to the many references to him as a kingly figure. And this is in a book that is harshly critical.
Willa: Even his dancing is used as an example, which is so ironic. I mean, dancing is the most embodied of all art forms. Yet because he could do things with his body few others could do, he was portrayed as disembodied: “a creature of youth and lightness whose performance defies emotional gravity,” as you quoted before.
Susan: One of the things that comes to my mind when I read these angelistic and beastial terms is, Do the authors really think they were describing an actual human being? You can easily see that both views are erroneous. It’s hard to imagine the sort of decrepit being of the beastial view. But it’s equally difficult to imagine that Michael Jackson was really a divine being. I know, however, that there are people who are absolutely convinced of one view or the other.
There were many reasons that so many came to see Michael Jackson in an angelistic light. Anyone who reads much about him learns that he wanted to give his audience a “magical” experience, and a person who appears to be magical also appears to be an angelistic being. There are abundant examples of magical transformations in the short films he made of his songs. In Remember the Time he appears out of swirling sand and then disappears into the swirling sand. In Black or White he moves effortlessly between scenes of performing with dancers from different cultures, then transforms from a panther to himself, and ends by becoming the panther again. In Smooth Criminal, Bad, and Beat It, his dancing transforms the mood and actions of the people around him. In Billie Jean he lights up the sidewalk as he steps on it.
Willa: Yes, and there’s a suggestion that he transforms into a tiger.
Susan: In the version of You are Not Alone that appears on the DVD collection HIStory on Film, Volume II he appears as an literal angel.
Of course, the degree and range of his talents were positively awe-inspiring and certainly could be seen as beyond the scope of a mere mortal. I have a theory that his dancing did more than his other talents to enhance the view that he was not quite of this earth. I couldn’t substantiate that theory, unfortunately, so I didn’t include it in my book, but I know that every single time I’ve watched him perform my immediate reaction is to feel overwhelming delight and almost a sense of shock that someone could move the way he did. You pointed out that dancing is the most embodied of all art forms. That fact that he could take take a physically strenuous act and appear to do it with ease and with such fluid grace, in a way that stands out even when he performed with other highly accomplished dancers, is certainly “magic.”
Willa: It certainly seems that way, doesn’t it? He told Randy Taraborrelli in the late 1990s that his dancing was hard work, physically:
When I go on stage, people expect a lot. They want the dancing, they want the spins, and all. But I don’t know how much longer I can do it. I don’t know when it’ll just not be possible.
So he was human. But for the audience, watching him dance sure feels magical, doesn’t it?
Susan: It certainly does. And the personal qualities that made him seem “other” to so many people were another major reason that he was perceived angelistically. In Resistible Demise, he is called a “postmodern dream of becoming something new,” “raceless and all races,” and “liberated from mere flesh, destiny, fixed roles of race and sex.” The very unreadabilty of his race, gender, age, and sexuality gave him a shape-shifter aura and made him appear to have left mere mortal life and its limits behind.
Willa: Yes, though that’s just a projection. What I mean is, the issue wasn’t his body so much as what other people projected onto his body, and how they interpreted it. He clearly had a gender and an age, for example. He just didn’t fit preconceived ideas about how his age and gender were supposed to define him.
Susan: Yes, that’s what’s so fascinating about all of this: it’s really just projection.
We’ve been talking about how Michael Jackson was described in words, but there are visual representations of him as an angelistic or beastial being. Some of them are subtle, like this one.
This photograph was taken in approximately 1995, during the era of the HIStory album. His face is very pale, seems almost lit from within, obscuring all facial features except for his eyes, lips and, to a lesser extent, nose. One can’t get a sense of facial structure, such as cheekbones, or detail, such as facial hair. And he appears to be almost perfectly androgenous. This photograph is reminiscent of Italian Renaissance portraits, so it’s even hard to say what time he belongs to. In short, he appears as a somewhat otherworldly being who is free of the bonds of gender, time, and maybe even human flesh. Willa, in your book M Poetica you used the word “ethereal” to describe these luminous, pale images of him during this period, and I think that’s the perfect word.
This next image, however, is a literal, florid example of an angelistic representation.
Willa: Wow, there’s no denying that’s angelistic, is there?
Susan: Yes, it’s really over the top. By the way, if you google “Michael Jackson angel” you’ll find dozens of images of him as a literal angel. This one, however, is probably the most accomplished. I need not comment on what makes this an angelistic representation.
This image works because the Archangel is Michael Jackson and not someone else. Imagine, say, Mick Jagger or Prince as the Archangel. I don’t think that would make the same kind of sense.
Willa: No it wouldn’t, and that’s a really important point, Susan. I read an article once about political gaffes, and why some get a lot of airplay – like Dan Quayle misspelling “tomatoes,” or George Bush not knowing what a grocery store checkout scanner was, or Sarah Palin saying she could see Russia from her house – and others don’t. And the answer was that the gaffes that go viral are the ones that tap into preconceived ideas the public already has about that person – that Dan Quayle wasn’t educated enough to be vice-president, that George Bush was completely out of touch with the everyday world of middle-class Americans, that Sarah Palin tended to believe what she wanted to believe.
If that’s true, it implies there was already a preconceived idea that Michael Jackson was “angelic” in a way that bad boy rockers like Mick Jagger and Prince definitely aren’t. But Michael Jackson was also demonized in the press and public imagination. It’s so interesting that those two contradictory images existed side by side.
Susan: Well, I don’t think that “angelic” is quite the right word. “Angelic” usually means sweet. You could certainly characterize the first image we discussed that way, because in it he appears to have an otherworldly saintliness. But the image of Archangel Michael Jackson isn’t sweet. He is a being powerful enough to subdue Satan, and although his pose is still, he is stepping on Satan and a sword is dropped at his feet, suggesting that a violent struggle had taken place just moments before. And the Archangel’s power is echoed by the stormy skies, dark ocean and craggy rocks behind him. He uses his power for good, but it is a power to be feared.
Willa: That’s interesting, Susan, and reminds me of a YouTube video about Saint Michael the Archangel that Stephenson shared in a comment a few weeks ago:
As you were saying, Saint Michael is an angel but he’s not “angelic” in the usual sense. He’s powerful. And as you said, “He uses his power for good, but it is a power to be feared.”
Susan: And I think that it’s the power represented in this Archangel image that was so disturbing to his critics. The more mildly angelistic Michael Jackson that we see in that first image probably would have been kicked around by critics, but not in the way that the more powerful, threateningly angelistic Michael Jackson was.
And in case anyone thinks that this Archangel image is just an anomaly, please take another look at the angelistic terms I quoted above from Resistible Demise. Those terms were just a random sampling, but there are many, many more used – by very harsh critics – throughout that book that could be applied to this image of the Archangel.
Willa: And this brings up another idea from your book that I found really fascinating: the phenomenon of “flipping.” Could you explain this a bit?
Susan: The contradictory views of angelism and beastialism can sometimes be two sides of the same coin. In some people, especially those with personality disorders, there is a strong tendency to “split,” that is to see everything in terms of extremes of over-idealization and devaluation: all good/all bad, all black/all white. This is said to originate in early childhood as the child begins to make judgments in these simple and extreme terms. Most of us eventually learn to see and appreciate the gray areas, the nuances. By the way, almost anyone who is feeling really angry about something will revert temporarily to that all good/all bad way of seeing.
This splitting, however, is not necessarily stable. The split can “flip,” meaning that something that had been seen as all good can suddenly seem all bad. That often happens after a disappointment that may seem of little consequence to others but seems like a major betrayal to someone who sees the world in such polarized terms. The flip can go in the other direction too, from all bad to all good.
While I certainly don’t want to draw any conclusions about Dave Marsh’s personality, he writes in Trapped about exactly that sort of sudden and extreme reversal of his feeling for Michael Jackson, after experiencing “hairline” (Marsh’s term) cracks in his idealization of Jackson.
Willa: That is so interesting, and I think it’s a really useful and perceptive way of trying to understand the sudden reversal of feeling experienced by Dave Marsh, and maybe others as well. What I mean is, Marsh’s sudden shift also seems emblematic of what happened among critics as a whole. When Michael Jackson was an up-and-coming superstar, the next big thing, it was like he could do no wrong. But once he achieved that goal and was on the top of the peak, perceptions of him changed radically – they “flipped,” as you say – and suddenly he couldn’t do anything right.
So it’s interesting to look at Dave Marsh not only as an individual critic, but also as representing a whole class of critics who “flipped” at about the same time he did, and through him gain some insights into why that may have happened.
Susan: I agree. We have to thank Dave Marsh for being so open about his feelings! I suspect that envy also played a big role in the feelings of Marsh and many of Michael Jackson’s critics, although that’s difficult to prove.
Willa: I agree. Michael Jackson himself seemed to think that envy – in particular, racial envy – was a primary motivation for many of those criticizing him. Joie and I talked about that in a post last February.
Susan: The splitting and the flipping of the split are projections, of course. All I am really talking about here are others’ projections of who Michael Jackson was. Dave Marsh certainly did a tremendous amount of research for Trapped, but his interpretation of what he learned seems to me to be devoid of nuance, as if he had a hidden axe to grind. And none of the other writers I analyzed in my book bothered to do what I would call serious research. They’re projecting, assigning to Michael Jackson qualities that correspond to deep fears and hopes in the one doing the projecting. It’s fascinating that one person could evoke such polarized, strong responses in others.
Willa: Yes it is. I think that’s part of his power as a performer – that people looked at him and saw a reflection of their deepest fears and desires. So it’s ironic that you also see it as the source of a lot of his troubles.
Susan: And here is another projection of who Michael Jackson was. As you note in your book, Willa, the press loved to publish photographs of Michael Jackson that made him appear to have had more plastic surgery than he actually had. This photograph, which was clearly doctored, was published in the Daily Mirror in 1992.
The photograph was accompanied by an article that claimed that he had had so much plastic surgery that his face was hideously disfigured. He sued the Mirror for libel, and the suit was settled in 1998 after the Mirror’s doctors examined his unmade-up face and then issued an admission that they were wrong and an apology.
Willa: I’m glad you mentioned this incident, Susan, because it’s important evidence that the plastic surgery rumors were wildly exaggerated, yet it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. Here’s what a BBC article said about it:
At the High Court in London, Mirror Group Newspapers and the paper’s former editor Richard Stott acknowledged that Michael Jackson was neither hideously disfigured nor scarred.
Mr Jackson’s solicitor, Marcus Barclay, … told the court: “Representatives of The Mirror have since met directly with the plaintiff and have seen with their own eyes that the photographs … do not accurately represent the plaintiff’s appearance.…”
Susan: While this seems like a happy ending, it did nothing to dispel years of rumors that he was grotesquely disfigured by plastic surgery, rumors that were still being repeated years later by Maureen Orth and many of the authors of Resistible Demise.
Willa: And that’s something we see often with him also – that rumors about him receive excessive and unwarranted attention, while follow-up articles debunking those rumors receive almost no attention.
Susan: Yes, it’s clearly so difficult to undo the damage of negative stories once they’re out in the world.
Dave Marsh sarcastically called Michael Jackson “the most special guy in the world.” I think this one statement, sarcasm aside, does a lot to explain the situation Michael Jackson found himself in. Since the 1960s, our society has moved, however imperfectly, towards accepting previously marginalized racial and ethnic groups, and we are now struggling with accepting same-sex marriage and learning to understand transsexual people. But Michael Jackson was in a category all by himself, which is why I think the hatred towards him was so unbridled. In other words, there was no standard of political correctness to reign in critics and make them rethink their reactions. All of the authors I analyzed knew that openly racist opinions were not acceptable, so few of those sorts of opinions are in evidence in their writings. But it was not unacceptable, apparently, to severely criticize Michael Jackson for changing his skin color, acting childlike, and being sexually ambiguous.
This is why I care so much about how Michael Jackson was treated. The negative response he got says so much about the often unquestioning way we react to people who are perceived to be “other” and how quick we are to accept the received wisdom about marginalized people, even if, as in Michael Jackson’s case, the marginalized person happens to also be extremely famous.
Willa: I agree completely. My son is in high school, and there’s a lot of emphasis right now on preventing bullying, especially of kids who are different. Yet apparently it is still acceptable for tabloids to bully and cyberbully celebrities. I see pictures and headlines in the tabloids sometimes and think, if a high school student posted something like that about a classmate, they’d be suspended – and they should be. That kind of bullying behavior is not ok. Yet it is tolerated in the tabloids and even the mainstream press on occasion. It sometimes feels to me that Michael Jackson was bullied to death – that he died as a result of decades of bullying by the press.
Susan: I couldn’t agree more with everything you just said. There are a lot of things I could say about that, but let me just note that none of the writers that I analyzed in my book were tabloid writers. It’s shocking that so much hatred was spewed at him from people who write as if they were offering good reporting and thoughtful analysis. And it is disappointing that so much of the public accepted lies and distortions as the truth. I can’t tell you how many times I have had conversations about Michael Jackson that consist mainly of my trying to correct the other person’s misconceptions about him.
I’m hoping that one day we can all come to a much more rational understanding of who Michael Jackson was. Colby Tanner, a co-author of Remember the Time, recently wrote an insightful article for Slate called “The Radical Notion of Michael Jackson’s Humanity.” In it he addresses the issue of how little attempt has been made to understand Michael Jackson, although he comes at it from a different angle from the one I take.
Willa: It is a wonderful, thought-provoking article that really questions the “beastial” vision of Michael Jackson portrayed in the press. As he says, “The idea of Michael Jackson as a human being remains a radical notion.”
Susan: In a way, this brings me back to Eleanor Bowman’s transcendence / immanence ideas. I think that it is so much more interesting to try to understand Michael Jackson as a human being, one capable of such tremendous artistic achievement and with such highly intriguing personal qualities. I have to admit that I am very drawn into the angelistic view of him, although I know intellectually that that is a fallacy. I’m always trying to move past that transcendent view to the immanent view, to find the flesh and blood person who was capable of making others feel that he was a semi-divine being or a physically, morally decaying monster. For that reason, I find accounts of people who actually knew him well to be absolutely fascinating.
Willa: I agree – I really enjoy stories that show his “human” side also. For example, I have a friend who was a visiting professor at UC Santa Barbara for a while, and she became friends with an elderly woman who owns a shop in town. Her friend was alone in her shop one day when Michael Jackson came in and made a small purchase. Her friend has arthritis and was a little nervous, I think, and she was fumbling with the coins and taking a long time getting the right change out of the drawer. But instead of getting frustrated or angry about that, Michael Jackson just waited patiently and then started singing “Hot Cross Buns.” Do you know that song? It’s an old nursery rhyme:
Hot cross buns
Hot cross buns
One a penny, two a penny
Hot cross buns
What a wonderful way to handle that situation. I love that story!
Susan: That is such a charming story. And I find it so much more interesting than lurid accounts of voodoo rituals or of his supposedly decaying nose. This story is so minor and incidental, but it says something about his character, who he really was. Thanks for sharing that.
Willa: And thank you for talking with me today. I learned so much from your book, Susan, and really enjoyed having the chance to talk with you about it.
Susan: Thank you so much for inviting me to have this discussion, Willa.
Willa: Oh, it’s been a pleasure! I also wanted to let everyone know about an opinion piece by D.B. Anderson in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun. It draws important connections between Michael Jackson and recent protests against police brutality toward black citizens in the U.S. As Anderson says, “Michael Jackson was never afraid to put himself out there for the truth as he saw it.” But as Anderson goes on to say, he paid a terrible price:
What happened to Jackson for his politics was so much worse than losing sales. For in speaking truth to power, Jackson made himself a target, and he took a pounding. The worst shots at him were taken by a white district attorney in California who pursued him relentlessly for 12 years and charged him with heinous crimes that were utterly disproved at trial.
No one ever seems to connect the dots: A very vocal, very influential, very wealthy black man was taken down by a white prosecutor on trumped-up charges.
This is the first time I know of that a major newspaper has allowed the police handling of the allegations against Michael Jackson to be presented in this way: as a backlash to the very real threat he posed to existing power structures. Here’s a link to Anderson’s essay. We’ve also added it to the Reading Room.