October 27, 2016 – November 28, 2016
Previously (in The Dangerous Diaries – Part 1, October 7 – 21, 2016), we discussed the concept of promiscuity in Michael Jackson’s femmes fatale songs, including “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” “Dangerous,” and “Blood on the Dancefloor.” However, I think this topic fully rewards a little more scrutiny than we afforded it in that discussion. In order to delve a little more deeply into this subject, we need to define the term as it is being used.
Miriam-Webster defines promiscuous as: 1. Having or involving many sexual partners; 2. Including or involving too many people or things: not limited in a careful or proper way. One of the synonyms listed for the word is indiscriminate; another is profligate, which has the definition: 1. Recklessly extravagant or wasteful in the use of resources, 2. Licentious, dissolute … and which lists promiscuous as a synonym.
If one searched for decades for a word to describe the early 21st Century, I suggest it would be difficult to find a more apt description than indiscriminate. As a matter of fact, I would like to propose that the term “Generation X” as a moniker for our cultural and societal afflictions be changed to “Generation I” with “I” being derived from the word indiscriminate while also describing our ego-based culture … or “Generation P” for promiscuous.
Let’s be totally honest and take a good, realistic look “in the mirror” for a moment: Ours is a promiscuous society. Many of our world’s problems, which are reaching (if they have not already surpassed) the critical stage, stem from our indiscriminate, profligate behavior. Many of Michael Jackson’s songs point to this definition of promiscuous.
We are promiscuous exploiters of the earth’s natural resources, rather than being careful, responsible stewards, which has led us to the brink of disaster he warns us about in “Earth Song” and “Heal the World” and “Planet Earth,” his beautiful love sonnet to the planet from which we all spring. “The planet is sick … like a fever,” he warned us in his last rehearsal for his O2 residence, This Is It. Instead of finding ways to feed our hungry, we waste billions of dollars transporting and sending millions of tons of unused food to the bottom of the ocean, thereby harming those we could feed as well as polluting the ocean with our unwanted surplus. Portion sizes in the United States are enough to feed two or three and what is not eaten is thrown away.
We are promiscuous, indiscriminate consumers of all manner of things from violence to food to drugs to sex to mind-numbing videogames, to media propaganda, all of which Michael Jackson warns us against in “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” through “Blood on the Dancefloor;” (the femmes fatale songs already treated in Part 1) from “Tabloid Junkie,” “Privacy,” “Scream,” “Why You Wanna Trip on Me” to “Is It Scary;”from “Morphine” to “Superfly Sister,” from “Money” to “They Don’t Care About Us.”
When we do use our powers of discrimination, we use them irresponsibly against fellow members of our human family who aren’t like “us” for whatever reason – race, phenomenal talent or ability, creed, otherness, geographical location, economic viability, sexual orientation or difference. Michael Jackson does not back away from asking us to look at these issues with depth and sincerity while encouraging us to “make that change” in “Man in the Mirror,” “Black or White,” “Will You Be There” and “Keep the Faith.”
As a matter of fact, this promiscuous, indiscriminate, profligate consumption forms the basis and motivation of much of Jackson’s later work and he does not shy away from calling it what it is in his creative repertoire – promiscuity – although that fact seems to have escaped much of the world’s attention by an almost universal over-simplification of his work as displaying “paranoia,” “fear of women,” “childish rants and tantrums,” “sappy sentimentality,” “naïve idealism,” or “megalomaniacal tirades.” In my opinion, those ill-considered readings are interpretations which have long outworn their usefulness, if they ever had any relevance in the first place. When viewed from a slightly different perspective all of the songs listed in the above paragraphs (and possibly many others) have a foundation in warning us about our society’s indiscriminate waste and consumption … its promiscuity.
One of the most fascinating and socially relevant ways to understand the complexity of Michael Jackson’s creative process, music, and short films is by analyzing it in the atmosphere in which each of his releases was composed and compiled and it is this concept that many of the most recent academic authors have done such a wonderful job of exploring in considerable depth and with the clear 20/20 vision of hindsight.
This trend began with Armond White upon the release of the short film for Black or White. I must confess that I was somewhat surprised to see Mr. White quoted so frequently by all of the more recent authors in the field of Michael Jackson Academic Studies. When I first read his collection of articles entitled Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles, I was unimpressed.
As a matter of fact, I must ashamedly confess to having fallen prey to the fault of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. His first article in the collection was entitled Janet, the Last Black Jackson and it and the next article focused almost entirely on Michael Jackson’s appearance and not in a favorable light. Mr. White attributed the changes in Michael’s physiological appearance as conscious efforts to satisfy the needs of a white-dominated industry … his tacit requirement to accommodate and assimilate into the white, patriarchal and hierarchical music industry as part of the “Black performers’ understood contract with the white-controlled world of show business.”
While I do not discount the fact that black entertainers certainly had to jump through many more hoops to achieve success in these industries than their white counterparts (and the publishing world often appropriated Black innovative expressions as originated by white artists and still does, i.e. Elvis Presley), I also have to remind myself that this article was written prior to the 1993 Oprah Winfrey interview (Ninety Prime Time Minutes with the King of Pop) during which Michael admitted to suffering from a “skin disorder that destroys the pigmentation of my skin. It’s something that I cannot help.”
In all fairness, I must confess that Mr. White does, later, mitigate his earlier opinion somewhat with the words, “After viewing this [morphing] sequence [in the Black or White short film], it’s impossible to think of Jackson’s own facial changes as anything other than an attempt at transcendent humanity.”
In any event, I believe I may have just put Mr. White’s collection aside after reading the first two articles, failing to even read the remaining eighteen, in the belief that his offerings (like so many journalistic essays on Michael Jackson) bore very little in the way of factual information or any claim to actually deciphering his musical intentions with any degree of objectivity. I misjudged Keep Moving based on the first two offerings and put it aside as irrelevant.
So, I thought it would be fitting to begin this self-directed curriculum of study with an in-depth re-reading of the articles included in Mr. White’s booklet entitled Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles from a more objective, unprejudiced perspective. I am very glad to say that my re-reading has been fully justified and rewarded. In an academic study, it is not necessary to agree with every word an author writes; it is much more important to come to the study with an open-minded and unbiased willingness to give the author’s meaning the chance to be heard, sink in, and become part of the discussion between author and reader. Mea Culpa!
Mr. White admits that his perception of Michael Jackson changed over the years of his coverage of his career (approximately 1991 to 2009); addressing the change in the timbre of the articles included in his collection within the Introduction called “Moving Forward.” Unlike so many in the field of musical critique, Mr. White was little impressed with Thriller and BAD. With the release of Dangerous, however, he describes his relationship with Michael Jackson as “changing from critical skepticism to sincere awe” and this transformation is manifest as a prominent feature in the articles included in the latter part of this compilation. The tone of “sincere awe” develops over the span of his coverage of Jackson’s releases throughout the 1990s.
Beginning in 1991 with his critique of the Black or White musical release and globally-broadcast short film, White’s critiques were, indeed, much more focused on Michael Jackson’s art, his delivery, his performance, his conviction, and his genius; calling the short film and the “panther coda” which accompanied its debut “the most significant gesture any American artist has made in years,” and “the best cinema of 1991 … easily superior to any short or feature length film released to the public that year.” He refers to Michael’s much-publicized apology and removal of the coda from subsequent broadcasts following the media-generated furor to the worldwide broadcast of the film as a capitulation to the “forces of repression” and calls the coda “Michael’s truth.” White ends his critique of the short film with the words, “He’s already charmed the world; Black or White shows he has the courage to shake it up.”
In that last statement, Mr. White effectively, albeit obliquely, refers to the change to which I pointed in the introduction to this study, which, in my opinion, was not so much a “coming of age” as an “expansion of consciousness.” He does not offer to what he attributes this change in the direction of Jackson’s art, but notes the more socially conscious “courage” required to “shake up” the world in passing, almost as an afterthought.
By the time of the release of Dangerous, Michael Jackson had discovered a supremacy and celebrity few have ever known with his early solo releases. Through the development of his God-given talents, his unwavering faith in those gifts, his punishing work ethic, his predatory curiosity, and his unstinting devotion to perfect execution, he had achieved a hitherto unparalleled success. However, with the release of the Dangerous album, Jackson looks around him at the world he inhabits and makes a conscious decision to address the many challenges he observes in his art … to use that celebrity in such a manner as to call attention to what he observes in the hopes of improving the condition of the human family.
In other words, there is a new commitment implied in Jackson’s later body of work. It’s no longer just about the sexy, young man with the golden voice dressed from head to toe in sequins. He has assumed the rasp of the voice of the voiceless, the primal scream of the marginalized, the cries of the systematically oppressed. Through keen and astute observation, he has bonded with the human family in a much more telling way, calling to each listener to transcend the system from within the system.
I find in this observation/influence trait, as displayed in Michael Jackson’s art, an enormously fascinating correlation to what our best scientific minds are telling us in the field of quantum physics: that through our act of observation we influence sub-atomic behavior, thereby bending the hitherto sacred laws of Newtonian physics, which demand that sub-atomic behaviors are predestined and unable to change.
The very act of observation changes a particle to a wave as demonstrated in double-blind tests. Michael Jackson’s observations of the world, therefore, bear the possibility of influencing and changing it. That possibility is magnified enormously through his artistic attempts to paint the world he observes with his vision, offering the world a chance to view its reflection in rhythm and song, bodily movement and theatrics and be entertained at the same time. It is, often, a subliminal message he imparts just under the backbeat … a subliminal message of peace, hope, faith, and love. Is it just a “coincidence,” then, that this new commitment comes to the fore in an album entitled Dangerous? I don’t think so.
White is similarly open-minded in his commentary on some of the other short films derived from the Dangerous album (“Remember the Time,” “In the Closet” and “Jam”), but some of his most scathing criticism is not directed at Michael Jackson at all. Rather, it centers on what he considers to be the racially-motivated media manipulation to which Michael Jackson was subjected in the latter half of his life. Like many of the more recent authors, Mr. White perceives race as a significant factor in the Michael Jackson story, prompting much of the critical commentary and persecution to which Jackson was a victim post-Thriller. In other words, he plays the “race card” (which the American establishment, as represented by its media, claims doesn’t exist and unanimously dismisses) unashamedly and without apology.
The release of the HIStory trailer as a nationally-broadcast television ad opens one of the most anticipated and castigated periods of Michael’s life. Everything he did was criticized on a monumental, global scale from the statues advertising his imminent arrival at tour stops … to the trailer (described as the “most vainglorious attempt at self-deification a pop star ever made with a straight face”) … to much of the new music on the album. Michael was the media’s favorite “whipping boy.” For those of us caught in the vitriolic backlash aimed at diminishing Michael’s relevance, it was an emotional rollercoaster ranging from excitement to rage as each single and/or short film in the campaign was released. Ironically enough, the universal, monumental scale of the critical commentary seemed to match (and possibly even drive) the monumental, global, nearly ubiquitous reach of Michael’s music, which seemed to be growing exponentially throughout the 1990s.
White may have been one of the … if not the … only voice alerting the public to the fact that there was much more here than an overly-simplistic narrative of megalomaniacal paranoia (as was the gist of almost every other critic and journalist, including Diane Sawyer as exhibited in her interview with Jackson and then wife, Lisa Marie Presley in 1995.) He comments, “All the media’s suspicion over Jackson’s “egomania” disregards its own” and “To nag about ‘self-pity’ in Jackson’s movingly tender “Childhood” is just a chance for reviewers to show off snideness instead of thoughtfulness.” He goes on to state, “That’s the way white journalists deny the complexity of Black artistry.”
White claims of the accusations of anti-Semitism over the “They Don’t Care About Us” release: “Black-Jewish relations are distorted by the arrogance of editorialists who aim to control (or else condemn) Black expression” and “censorship-by-editorial.” Of “They Don’t Care About Us,” itself, Mr. White views it as an “extremely conscientious composition. Jackson shows intelligence and courage by obliquely characterizing anti-Jewish language exactly for what it most often is, the expression of corrupted power.”
In Earth Song, White comments: “The eloquent layers of feeling put Black and human history in this chorus’s thunder.” Indeed! When speaking of “censorship-by-editorial,” this is yet another case in point. Earth Song, hugely popular in much of the world and referred to by Joe Vogel as Michael’s “Magnum Opus,” was not even released within the borders of the United States. Quoting Bill Bottrell, Vogel attributes this omission to the song being “anti-corporate, anti-nature-raping … so it was prone to censorship.” So much for freedom of speech, one of the basic freedoms upon which this country was founded and guaranteed to all its citizens (not just newspaper and tabloid publishers), unless, of course, you just happen to be Michael Jackson.
Overall, White’s comments on the HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1 album are some of the most erudite and thought-provoking I have read. His reading of some of the short films made to accompany the music from the album and make it a multi-media, visceral experience is also eye-opening and thoughtful. He sees in it Michael’s “personal expression of social awareness” and attributes a personal message of “noblesse oblige – a class-based beneficence that many would deny to African Americans” in the final track on the album, “Smile:” “Michael indicates the gentle touch that ought to come with power …”
Subsequent authors in the field of Michael Jackson Academic Studies have, rightfully, followed the trend begun by Mr. White in 1991. Most notably, Joe Vogel, Elizabeth Amisu, Susan Fast and Isabel Petitjean have further focused on the historical, social, and cultural situations to which Michael Jackson was responding in his artistic life.
In his Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, Mr. Vogel precedes each chapter (each of which focuses on one of Michael’s solo album releases) with a lengthy introduction examining some of the contemporaneous social, political , cultural events and musical trends to which Jackson was responding in his musical compositions and short film releases.
Further, in an article entitled I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White. [Journal of Popular Music Studies, March 2015], Mr. Vogel places the release of the Black or White song and short film firmly within a framework of historical racial segregation marked by mutilations, beatings, hangings and cross burnings and bookended by the nationally televised beating of Rodney King, the acquittal of the police officers who perpetrated it, and the riots in Los Angeles that resulted from that verdict. This makes Jackson’s angry retort in the “panther coda” much more understandable; without these ties to historical and contemporary current events, the film could very easily be misinterpreted as “gratuitous sexual and violent behavior,” which is the overall simplistic narrative applied to his work by many in the fields of journalism and music critique at the time.
By decontextualizing Jackson’s work, Vogel argues, media effectively emasculates it (metaphorically referring to the actual physical mutilation of Black men in the not-too-distant past in retaliation for perceived violations of white/Black boundaries), removing its creative power, and sways public opinion against the voice of one crying out against the inequities he observes within the system he occupies. Within this contextual framework, however, Michael Jackson’s song and short film (including the “panther coda”) indicates a justifiable response to the events and circumstances he saw in the world around him.
That is the artist’s entire purpose and one can surely understand Michael Jackson’s angst at being so roundly misjudged. However, as Mr. White claims: “Crusading journalists aren’t merely on the side of power – after all, Jackson’s got power – they’re on the side of white.” and “ …[They] come down to white, middle-class spokespeople saying: ‘Shut up and entertain us.’” In other words, they prefer Black performers docile and frivolous, neither of which adjectives could be applied to Michael Jackson in the Dangerous and subsequent campaigns.
Chapter 10: “Recontextualizing Michael Jackson’s Blackness” in The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona and His Artistic Afterlife by Elizabeth Amisu is devoted to placing Michael Jackson’s musical and cultural contributions within the significantly checkered history of slavery in the United States of America, particularly in the southern states where the white supremacist movement gave birth to the Ku Klux Klan and its vehemently anti-black, racially-motivated violence. Unfortunately, such history is not limited to history, as recent shootings of unarmed Black youths in several cities in America clearly exhibit. She quotes Ania Loomba that this system of “assigning different values to human beings” is complex and “twisted” in the American psyche and states: “The very notion that English, Dutch, and Spanish people came to the conclusion that the dark-skinned people of the African continent were, by virtue of their complexion, uncivilized, beastly, and oversexed, making them inherently less human than their white counterparts, remains at the heart of any debate …”
The very fact of the almost universally popular performative of “black face minstrelsy” in the 19th Century, which fed upon that notion and the stereotypical view of African masculinity which proceeded from it, was even further complicated, in Jackson’s case, by his anomalous skin disorder, which changed the color of his skin from brown to white, thereby defying touted European (read white) racial superiority. The fact that this transformation resulted from a pathology (a disease) in Michael Jackson’s case just added further insult to injury and showed how truly irrelevant such inferiority/superiority concepts in the American psyche really are. Yet, they persist; they exist; and ignoring them or denying them is not helping to eradicate such antiquated notions.
It is this notion that Michael Jackson addressed with his customary incisiveness in the short film for “Remember the Time,” a film in which Michael reminded his viewers of the historically-proven, accurate fact that the African continent is, indeed, the “cradle of civilization;” that Egypt (and, therefore, its remarkable mathematical, architectural, scientific, and governmental achievements) is a part of that continent; and that those achievements were, as a result, much more likely to have been realized by Black people than by white, blue-eyed actors, as is so often depicted in films. With an all-Black cast (as a matter of fact, Michael’s was the “whitest” presence on the screen), mesmerizing special effects, and historically authentic sets and costumes, Michael sang and danced his way through Ancient Egypt in a non-confrontational, Ghandi-esque depiction of Black pride and “peaceful resistance.” God bless him!
Similarly, Elizabeth Amisu has entitled Chapter 15 in her wonderful book The Dangerous Philosophies of Michaael Jackson: His Music, His Persona and His Artistic Afterlife “Horcruxes: Michael (Split Seven Ways) Jackson.” Prior to the popular series of books and films in the Harry Potter saga, the word horcrux would have been little understood by the academic community or general public. However, placed in the context of this saga, it becomes very descriptive and commonly understood, which further underscores the importance of context as it relates to many of Michael Jackson’s artistic offerings.
While I love Ms. Amisu’s allusion to J. K. Rowling’s epic Harry Potter wizarding world (having often perceived Michael Jackson as the ultimate wizard, who, in my opinion, would have been right at home within the confines of the narrative), I believe that the chapter, which goes on to examine Michael Jackson’s life in light of the lives of seven other well-known artists, including Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, James Brown, David Bowie, and Stevie Wonder, would have been better called “Lenses” or “Filters.” Her second choice, “prisms,” would also work. A lens is an instrument through which we view a subject in order to bring that subject into clearer focus or more perfect understanding and a prism splits a single beam of light into the full visible spectrum.
In contrast, a horcrux (as used in the Harry Potter saga) is an object or animal into which a wizard places a part of himself (a fraction of his consciousness … his soul, if you will). In this way, even if one part of his consciousness does not survive, the wizard can, indeed, still claim immortality and, in the saga, can be resurrected from the portions that still survive. Wizard though he might be, it would be extremely difficult for Michael to have placed a portion of his soul into Bach and Mozart as they both lived centuries before Michael was born. Therefore, in the context of its usage in the story in which the word was introduced and understood, it would be much more appropriate to use the word “horcruxes” to describe Michael Jackson’s songs, books, and films … and in his afterlife, his fans and followers, including those who have been attracted to delving more deeply into his creative process in the field of Michael Jackson Academic Studies.
Michael Jackson often referred to Michelangelo’s quote: “I know the creator will go, but his work survives. That is why, to escape death, I bind my soul to my work.” This is a perfect description, from the artist’s own mouth, of a horcrux as understood in the original narrative of Hogwart’s School of Wizardry. Therefore, by his own admission, Michael Jackson’s music, performances, literary works and visionary short films are his horcruxes, his claim to immortality, from which many of us resurrect him on a daily basis.
Further, his death and its aftermath were seminal moments in many lives across the world. Tales abound within the on-line fan community of life-altering experiences (including unexplainable, uncontrollable grief) in the wake of Jackson’s death and/or upon viewing the filmed rehearsals of his last creative endeavor, the This Is It documentary, released just a few short months following his death. That moment has been described by some of those affected as an “explosion” of energy during which a small spark of Jackson’s unique energetic footprint (for lack of a better or more descriptive term) entered their awareness and awakened them to his artistic genius and his loving presence, which would make all those so affected his horcruxes, myself included. Personally, I kind of like being one of his horcruxes.
One of the most commented upon facets of Michael Jackson’s life is his so-called androgyny and some of the most vitriolic commentary proposed that Michael Jackson was “confused” about his gender. I find such commentaries ludicrous. Anyone who has ever viewed one of Michael Jackson’s performances can be left in very little doubt of his gender. I, myself, was never in any doubt that Michael Jackson was decidedly and gloriously masculine in every way; I’m sure he wasn’t either. As a matter of fact, I wish more men would subscribe to his sensitive and nurturing performance of gender identification instead of the preposterous, aggressive machismo that currently defines masculinity in our culture. In my opinion, such commentary could only be suggested by authors with extremely limited definitions of gender and who are, themselves, therefore, gender confused. There are as many definitions of gender as there are people walking this earth (approximately 7 billion, I believe … that’s billion with a “b”.)
One of the best treatments of this facet of Michael’s presentation I have found appears in Dangerous by Susan Fast. She examines the androgynous quality of Michael’s voice, his appearance, his dance, and his performance with a wonderful lack of judgment which I have found refreshing. She refers to his vocal characteristics, particularly in “Remember the Time” as a “relaxed tenor … the smoothest Jackson has sounded so far on this record [Dangerous] …” and notes, “But the emotional landscape Jackson paints … is more intense and extreme than most soul man singers and this can quite easily be gendered as ‘feminine.’” Further, she states:
“I’ve wanted to dwell on how Jackson’s performances line up with conventional masculinity because this issue is mostly overlooked or denied in commentary on his gender. Even in his visual appearance and performance, there’s plenty that fits within the realm of the masculine – including his tough-guy gangster persona – but in order to understand that, it’s important to focus on the details at specific times in his career (you can’t talk about it all in one fell swoop. )”
I applaud Susan Fast’s comment here as being very perceptive. Forty-plus years is a long career and Michael’s performance of gender was in flux and, therefore, loosely defined and subject to change, particularly in the earlier parts of that span (as is all young teens and twenty-somethings’). Through familiarity, we have a tendency to forget that an 11-year-old boy’s performance of gender will, inherently, be different than that same young man at the age of 19 … or at the age of 40-plus. Change, in this regard, is inevitable.
In addition, societal “norms” have a tendency to fluctuate over such a span and that, too, must be taken into account. The decades encompassed within Michael Jackson’s career (late 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s) were periods of tumultuous fluctuation by anyone’s standards, during which many societal “norms” were re-examined (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation movement, the Woodstock generation, the war in Vietnam and the riots that ensued on many university campuses as a result, etc.)
Fast refers to Meredith Jones as making “the compelling argument that Jackson’s facial features marked him as ‘intergender’ because he incorporated – side by side – signifiers of both conventional masculinity and femininity. His wide, made-up eyes and small, thin nose read as conventionally feminine,” she claims, “while his relatively wide, cleft chin reads as masculine.” She goes on to state that he always wore prominent sideburns while, for the most part, being clean-shaven. “Markers of masculinity do not disappear. In fact, these characteristics, particularly the square jaw line and cleft chin, became more pronounced as he aged…” and she does not devote a whole lot of time speculating on how or why they became more pronounced “… perhaps through procedures, perhaps through fluctuating weight, or perhaps, again, simply through the natural process of aging. “
I would suggest that, perhaps, the toll of constant, unrelenting criticism might be another factor to consider. Having to constantly respond to inane comments would tend to “haggardize” anyone.
“His body was slight, without developed muscles, but straight, angular and strong – not a feminine thing about it, including the way he moved, right down to his walk … In his costume for the Dangerous tour, however, the gold fencing shirt drew attention to his bulging groin … left very little to the imagination.” [I can’t help but wonder if Ms. Fast saw the Gold Pants of the HIStory tour. OUCH!]
Regarding Michael’s oft-criticized “crotch grabs,” Ms. Fast states:
“But they weren’t ever really ‘grabs’ so much as stylized and often downright elegant gesturings towards … Those moves are controlled, deliberate, flirtatious, daring. It’s provocation.”
I don’t think I have ever seen another author notice that most of these graceful gestures, performed as part of Michael Jackson’s dances, only conformed to the word “grab” on fairly rare occasions (such as the BAD short film and the “panther coda” of the short film for Black or White) and only after he had been roundly and unanimously castigated for them for years. There are few gestures that so accurately represent defiance.
She, then, quotes Joe Vogel that he is “protesting the cruel history of mutilations by flaunting the symbol of his creative power and identity as a black man,” thereby bringing the history of racially-motivated violence right back into the discussion. I see all of the above factors as relevant in any discussion of Michael Jackson’s alleged androgyny.
Ms. Fast also brings the concept of “balance” into the equation, attributing it to the writings of the influential Enlightenment historian Johann Winckelmann. According to him, she states, “beauty was nothing other than the middle between two extremes.” Regardless of gender, all humans have feminine and masculine qualities, in varying degrees; balancing these seemingly disparate traits in our personalities forms much of our maturation process as we age.
Ms. Fast just barely skirts the issue here of “unification” which, in my opinion, so predominates in Michael Jackson’s creative output from his mid-teens to his last breath. He embodied the polarities of white/black, feminine/masculine, child/adult as well as the genre-bending of pop/rock/soul/R & B/hip hop/ heavy metal/classical … and jazz/pop lock/Broadway/ballet/urban contemporary within his own frame, bringing them all into closer alignment within his creative body of work. He blurred the hard lines between them, showing, in the process, that those lines are mobile, depending on our perceptions of them … not carved in granite. He balanced them; he reconciled them; he mediated them for us; he gifted all of us with his vision of altering our narrow definitions of all of them. In doing so, he de-polarized them.
This concept of de-polarization is something we navigate every day without even being conscious of doing so. We de-polarize hot/cold by turning on both to produce warm water for bathing or by centrally heating and cooling our homes. We de-polarize dark/light by flipping a switch and turning on a lamp as dusk turns to night. We reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable polarities on a daily basis.
Within his creative output, Michael Jackson shows concretely that Beethoven can coexist with R&B and Gospel, peacefully, harmonically, creating a new definition by eradicating the space between them, not just on one album but within one song. If they can coexist in harmony, Jackson implies, why can’t we? “Music is music and it’s all beautiful.” He demonstrated with his own body that even a movement as simple as a hand gesture can be stunningly beautiful and graceful regardless of genre; that dance does not have to conform to any preconceived definition.
It is just such a mediation that Michael Jackson’s artistic work indicates is possible for the many limiting and restrictive definitions we apply to people, conditions, and events in the world we see around us. And it is this de-polarization that he demonstrated within his creative output.
“I’m wary of trying to label Jackson’s performance of gender and sexuality because his idea, as I see it, was to get us to question – especially to question the parameters of masculinity and heterosexuality.”
I think Ms. Fast has captured in that sentence the whole of Michael Jackson’s body of work. He wanted us to question our labels, our standards, our societal ‘norms,’ our perceptions, our illusions, our ideas of beauty, and our definitions of ourselves. As Michael Bush stated quite clearly in his wonderful book King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson, “Michael loves people asking, ‘Why?’ … Michael loved the idea that he could make people question, notice, and search for meaning.” And it is in this search for meaning where the parameters of such definitions, labels, and stereotypes reside; therefore, it is only here that they can be changed.
As Michael Jackson states himself in “Innocence,” Dancing the Dream: Poems and Reflections:
“If you are locked into a pattern of thinking and responding, your creativity gets blocked. You miss the magic of the moment. Learn to be innocent again and that freshness never fades.”