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Archive for December, 2015

Installment #98

December 4 through December 11, 2015

Beloved, I have been re-reading our Conversations over the last several months to a friend who has been experiencing some health-related issues. In the process, I have remembered that we really did not discuss my course in “Michaelology 101” in any great depth. And there has been a new wrinkle in the topic that I wanted to tell you about.

Yes, that’s true. I’ve been meaning to ask you about that. I remember that you promised to keep me posted about how it all went. At the time, you were just beginning the course and we were talking about a whole lot of other things, but you mentioned it in passing in one of our earlier dialogs.

Yes, my dear, I always blurt out a bunch of different topics. I think I always feel like, “I’ve got him tied down for a few minutes. Let’s hit him with a whole bunch of things at once.”

[Michael laughs.] I’ve told you … I’m not going anywhere.

I know. God bless you.

If I recall correctly, we sandwiched our discussion of “Michaelology 101” in between brief discussions of the AEG Trial and an upcoming pilgrimage. I am always overjoyed when a serious attempt is made to discover meaning in your work. We mentioned several books which had been newly-published  at that time, including Joe Vogel’s wonderful album by album and song by song analysis, “Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson;” Dr. Willa Stillwater’s “M Poetica: Michael Jackson’s Art of Connection and Defiance;” and Ronan Ryan’s  “Michael Jackson: The Seven Secrets of His Success.”

In March 2013, I was in the opening weeks of a 13-week course of scholarly study on the subject of Michael Jackson entitled “Troubadour of a Generation,” but only made a brief mention of the impact it was having on me. In Installment #72 – March 22 through March 29, 2013, I said:

I’m serious. One of those pre-eminent educational institutions is Duke University and one of its most recognized and highly-acclaimed professors of African-American Studies has put together a syllabus of readings and discussions aimed at examining your music and performances and films in a broader cultural, societal and historical context.

One of my good friends who is on hiatus from teaching at the college level has taken that syllabus and adapted it for use with non-traditional students who have busy lives working full-time jobs, raising families and who spend a fair amount of their free time “Michaeling” on social networking sites. These non-traditional students often don’t have a lot of money to invest in scholarly research and my friend has offered to find readings and videos on the internet at no cost that address the syllabus’s main themes and closely approximate the optimum targeted points of discussion for each topic. A few of us have undertaken to avail ourselves of the opportunity to learn more about you from this scholarly viewpoint; I am one of them. And I have to admit that I am being constantly forced to broaden my perspective … and I am only on the second lesson.

To be totally honest, here, Baby … you continually AMAZE ME!

I liken the tendrils of reference to 19th Century popular entertainments and the far-reaching impact upon the culture from which you sprang to the ripples we have talked about so frequently in these conversations. In studying the paths of those ripples and the extent to which they correlate to the topics I’ve studied, so far, I am constantly floored by your relevance to … and influence on … the culture that gave rise to you. With that expansion comes a ballooning of my respect and admiration for your intelligence, strength, perseverance, grace and beauty. In other words, Michael Jackson, YOU ROCK MY WORLD!

And you replied:

You know, that was all I ever wanted … to have my work stand on its own … to be taken seriously … to see my work analyzed fairly … without all the nonsense … and controversies … and lies and media hype.

Any artist, regardless of the medium of his expression, uses her art to examine and comment on the world he experiences, to communicate his emotions and thoughts … his pain and his fears as well as her joys and her sorrows … and to form a link with those same emotions and thoughts in his audience. His success or failure is in direct proportion to the strength and durability of that connection. And she always wants to breathe LIFE into her expressions. He wants it to LIVE … forever … to continue to form linkages with generations not yet born.

In order to do that, the artist has to give it everything he has, put it ALL on the line … all his experience and talent and knowledge … his heart, soul, body, mind … and be willing to be fully exposed, holding nothing back. Of course, full exposure results in vulnerability and the possibility of rejection, but the artist must continue to move forward and express or there is no point to his art. “I know that the artist will die, but his work lives on. That is why to avoid death I attempt to bind my soul to my work.” Michelangelo said that. It was true then … and it is true now.

Well, I am happy to report that this trend continues and that your work and cultural impact continue to be studied. Of course, there are still books being published which rely heavily on the myths and urban legends that grew up around you, but in universities in these United States and across the world Michael Jackson is a topic for serious discussion.

Good! “Pop” music has always been given a bad rap. It has been dismissed as “not really serious,” as “inferior,” as “not socially relevant,” and as too “commercialized.” And the more popular It became, the more copies it sold, the less serious it became. I could never really separate “pop” from “soul” or “rhythm and blues” or “jazz” or any of the labels and categories the critics like to use to classify music. I used them all. Music is music to me and it is all beautiful. Debussy is just as socially relevant as Nirvana; Mozart is as soul-lifting as The Beatles. “My Favorite Things” can lift your mood as quickly and easily as “Clair de Lune.” It’s music.

But tell me more about your course.

The course, my Beloved, was an amazing experience in so many ways and I am eternally grateful to my friend who taught it for the valuable lessons it contained. It was an opportunity to view your art and your life in a whole new light.

To begin with, your comment above leads me directly into one of the first and most important themes that impressed me in my study of “Michaelology 101.” That theme is unification.

“Throughout the ages, the peacock has been honored and praised for its attractive, illustrious beauty. Of all in the bird family, the peacock is the only bird that integrates all colors into one, and displays this radiance of fire only when in love.

“We, like the peacock, try to integrate all races into one through the love of music.”

With these words, you and your brother, Jackie, announced the formation of “Peacock Productions,” The Jacksons own production company, which resulted in the “Destiny,” “Triumph” and “Victory” albums while you were still in your mid-teens and those words carried through the rest of your career.

In all your work, you brought elements together which are commonly thought of as separate and held apart. You blended Beethoven and gospel into a seamless and beautiful sacrament in “Will You Be There.” It was this song, more than any other that originally got my attention. Its beauty and prayerful tenor and your performance of it in Bucharest just staggered me out of my complacent, comfortable, little life and sent me off on a journey that I am still engaged in more than twenty years later. Of course, the entire concert was phenomenal, but “Will You Be There” was, for me, a standout, a turning point, and a monumental blessing.

You merged hard rock with rhythm and blues in “Beat It,” “Dirty Diana” and “Black or White,” showcasing prominent, contemporary guitarists in the hard rock genre, like Eddie Van Halen and Slash, for example, and tied it all together with your vocal virtuosity. No one had ever done this before and, initially, this ability to combine musical genres both in one song and on one album is one of the things that set your musical releases apart from your contemporaries in the recording industry.

In your dance performances, you brought Bo Jangles and the Nicholas Brothers into disco with “Off the Wall,” Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly into urban contemporary in “Smooth Criminal” and “Billie Jean,” and “West Side Story” and ballet into “BAD” and “Smooth Criminal.” You merged all the different styles into a contemporary and unique signature encyclopedia of physical movement and employed both street and classically-trained dancers in both film and stage performance to bring your vision to life.

With your short films, you wedged your foot in the door of the color barrier on MTV and unified music television (when it was still music television.) Prior to “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” music television meant “white rock ‘n roll television,” but your music was so popular and the faith the music executives at your label had in you to produce cutting-edge, state-of-the-art entertainment made this traditionally white enclave sit up and take notice. They had to broaden their perspective. Very soon, you were in very heavy rotation on MTV and VH1.

When you were little more than a baby, you represented a new kind of African-American youth to a television viewing public, which had been raised on the “Buckwheat” and weaned on the “Amos and Andy” and “Aunt Jemima” stereotypes. This new youth was not involved in the drug culture, gang warfare, degradation of women, or criminal or destructive activity. In contrast to the stereotypes the general viewing public was fed at the time, you and your brothers were young, attractive, energetic, intelligent, clean cut, bubbling with effervescence, and astronomically talented. By doing so, you paved the way for new understandings and brought diametrically opposed viewpoints into more alignment and integration in the same way that Sidney Poitier did in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

In your concert performances, you brought all of these elements into a stage production enhanced by pyrotechnic explosions, film, magic, and visual effects. As Michael Cotton stated in the Special Features of the “This Is It” release, your concerts were much, much more than just concerts; they were multi-media extravaganzas, with stunning visual effects and underlying messages. You also brought thousands upon thousands of people in every part of the world into a sense of community, unifying them in their love for you and your music, which we have mentioned often and examined thoroughly in these Conversations.

This unification theme is a brightly colored thread that weaves through the entire four decades of your career, beginning with Motown and ending with “This Is It.” It was the first and most lasting impression that I took from the course.

I find it memorable that you brought an end to polarization so often in your work and in your life, but, at the same time, became such an object of polarizing opinion to the world (represented by its media) that you inhabited. To me, that is a very interesting phenomenon.

What’s even more remarkable is that this thread of unification continues to run through the 77 months since “the day the Earth stood still.” You are still bringing us all together in our love for you and in our efforts to heal the world with these Conversations and many others.

Of course, we are all ONE. Music is all ONE. Dance is all ONE. Art is all ONE.

All art is an attempt on the artist’s part to portray his inner life, his thoughts and emotions. Inner life is just another term for God and man’s relationship to Her. God is ONE … complete union. God is male and female, black and white, Israeli and Palestinian, Muslim and Jew and Christian. God is ineffable Union.

The divisions and polarities that exist between nations and religions and races are all conceived of, instituted and maintained by man. The TRUTH is: They are not real. They exist only in the minds of the men who believe in them. God did not create separation or division from Her or among His creations; men did. And only men can end it, first in their own hearts and minds. The world will follow as night follows day when enough of us end our belief in and acceptance of separation and division and recognize, at last, that we are ONE.

You and I
Were never separate
It’s just an illusion
Wrought by the magical lens
Of Perception

That is so beautifully stated, my heart.

The next thing I took away from my 13-week course in “Michaelology 101” is the many, many layers of meaning and interpretation and understanding that can be found in your body of work. It’s a totally staggering concept. Like an onion, when you peel one layer you find another awaiting your exploration. And the layers never end. They are bottomless, infinite.

[Michael laughs.] Okay, you lost me. What do you mean?

Let me see if I can explain. Because these weekly lessons were being taught in their original context as part of an African-American Studies curriculum, there is an overarching adherence to the African-American cultural perspective. That culture has arisen from the very real experience of the first Africans brought into this country as slaves and emancipated only as recently as the 1860s with the words “that all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free” spoken by President Abraham Lincoln January 1, 1863.

Shortly before Lincoln spoke those words (the 1830s approximately), one of the most popular forms of entertainment in America was “black minstrelsy,” which was performed by white entertainers who painted their faces black (before emancipation) and black entertainers after the Civil War ended. This art form “lampooned black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky, and musical.” (Wikipedia) “Black Minstrelsy” initiated the stereotypes so commonly found in the entertainment industry until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s (over 100 years after Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation.) This form of entertainment spread to England and Europe but was the pre-eminent art form of the entertainment industry in the United States during and immediately following the end of slavery, with traveling “minstrel” shows touring the country in vaudeville circuits in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Those stereotypical traits continued to be the benchmark for black entertainers in motion picture, radio, and television broadcasting through the 1950s, at least. Those were the only kinds of roles black actors were considered appropriate to portray. I remember watching “Aunt Jemima” pancake commercials and “Amos and Andy” with my parents laughing at their antics on a black and white television set in my girlhood home in the late 1950s. As I recall, my step-father found “Amos and Andy” particularly uproarious and used the “n” word in all kinds of interesting and inventive ways. In the 1960s, The Civil Rights Movement swept the country and my step-father used that word with much more frequency to describe its leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. among them.

Enter … stage right … the Jackson 5. These were young, African-American performers. Far from being dim-witted or buffoonish, these young men were attractive, intelligent, poised, and well-dressed. Far from being lazy, these boys were burning up the stage under their feet with their ebullient energy and playing the audience like pros. And, as Ed Sullivan said in 1969, “that little fella in front is amazing.” Or was it “incredible?” Either way, the statement was true. On Saturday mornings the country’s children, black and white, could tune in to a cartoon that depicted young African-Americans as funny, smart, well-spoken, successful, talented, and approachable. These young men gave children of color confidence and pride that had heretofore been denied them.

Yes, they were musical, pouring all their energy into song and dance, but they were also able to discuss a variety of topics with interviewers and they buried the “Buckwheat” and “Amos and Andy” stereotypes with their charm and youthful exuberance. They brought a new tone to “black minstrelsy.” They were minstrels, yes, but gone was the lazy, plodding dim-wittedness … as well as the degrading comic skits that belittled African-American intelligence. They brought a new maturity to the role of the black entertainer, as young as they were at the time. And there you were, right in front of your brothers, in your fringed vest and pink hat!

Through this course of study, too, I became much more sympathetic to your dissatisfaction with “The Jacksons Variety Show,” as stated in your autobiography, “Moonwalk.” Interspersed among the amazing songs and dance routines performed by you and your brothers on the show, was a reprisal of the comic skits, harkening back to the degrading performances of the “black minstrelsy” tradition. Most of them were pretty lame. I was able to understand much more readily your aversion to the show after studying “Troubadour of a Generation.”

Later, you debuted the moonwalk on the “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever” broadcast. By this time, you were a beautiful young twenty-something with rubber bones and energy out the wazoo!

In the 1980s, the United States is congratulating itself on its progress in racial integration, but in reality there are still huge bastions where white supremacist bias is barring that progress. Prominent among them are the publishing as well as the entertainment and recording industries and MTV. Broadcast on national television and watched by many millions of viewers, you sing and dance with your brothers. Then, they leave the stage and you are alone. The heavy beat of “Billie Jean” is almost drowned completely by the thundering applause of the audience. With pelvic thrusts, martial arts kicks, and sliding feet all timed unerringly to accent each sensual beat of the song (I mean you don’t miss a single beat; some part of you hits each and every one … how the heck do you do that?) …

[Michael laughs.]

… your performance keeps us all glued to our television sets (even now). We are being treated to the BEST doing what he does best while a subliminal message is imparted. I am reminded of the song from “Mary Poppins.”

Just a spoonful of sugar
Helps the medicine go down

You appear from your stance to be moving forward, but the reality is you’re moving backward! LOL! Was that a barely hidden social comment? Was it unconscious or Intended? Either way, it really doesn’t matter at all. The fact is: it is there for the entire world to see.

I told you before. Any artist just expresses his or her own thoughts and emotions. I was not political. I had nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement. At the time, my music was being rejected by MTV and VH1 and that rejection was uppermost in my mind. I sang and danced. Those were just elements of the culture and time in which I was born.

I know, my Anam Cara, I know. However, that’s another thing that struck me right between the eyes in my study of “Troubadour of a Generation.”

What’s that?

How doggone often God walked into the room in your life and in your art. To me, it’s totally amazing. You debuted with your brothers in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement on the Ed Sullivan Show. You performed in Berlin just two years before the Berlin Wall came down, dismantled by the very people it had separated for so long and re-unifying a Germany that had been divided after World War II (and there’s that unification theme again.) Your music opened the door to a new curiosity and freedom of thought between east and west and the resulting end of the totalitarian Soviet Union. When looked at with hindsight, there were an awful lot of incidences of God walking in the room in your life, my love.

I had no control over any of that.

Do any of us control what God sends our way? As you’ve told me repeatedly, our only control is how we respond to the circumstances and events that make up the moments of our lives. In each case cited above and many more, your response to the circumstances in which you were placed was optimal for Her Plan.

God bless you! Hoist with my own petard, huh? [Michael laughs.]

Exactly, Michael. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Another concept that just blew me away in the “Troubadour of a Generation” was the concept of the “dream ballet.” When we dream, we are freed from the limitations imposed upon us by the culture in which and the significant others by whom we are raised. We often find suppressed memories and emotions being expressed in dream sequences that we remember later. It is a way that our subconscious minds help us to cope with the sometimes overwhelming pressures of our lives. Even physical laws such as physics, gravity and time are suspended in the dream state.

The same applies in the “dream ballet.” In the field of dance, a “dream ballet” refers to a section of dance in which the dancer can express his feelings in a freer, less inhibited way … with more directness and in-your-face bluntness. It is generally a section set apart from the main progression of the performance and you used this concept in your art on many occasions.

The most obvious, of course, is the Panther Coda in the “Black or White” short film which was so roundly criticized by so many of your critics. Of course, they were ignorant of the concept. I have to admit that I, too, was ignorant of the concept until I took my course in “Michaelology 101.” In the “Black or White” short film, you are seen dancing with various ethnic groups as one of them and representatives of those various ethnic groups are seen morphing into one another. Then, there is an obvious break during which no music is played and a black panther walks away from the set to institute the dream ballet sequence, during which you smash car and store windows and generally let your feelings about racial segregation loose in a very direct and hard-to-overlook way. This sequence is a masterful use of the “dream ballet” concept and, in my opinion, showed how much smarter you were than the talking heads who criticized the film as violent and overly sexually explicit.

However, this is not the only example from your short films and performances. The concept can also be applied to the section of the “Smooth Criminal” short film where the music stops and all the dancers move in slow motion with shrieks, squeals and squawks. In performance, “Earth Song” the moment the tank rolls onto the stage and you stand in defiance as it approaches could by no stretch of the imagination also be called a “dream ballet.” The ending sequence of “Billie Jean” in performance, too, adheres to these parameters.

One of the layers that surprised me the most was the discussion of your art as “carnivalesque.” Being an amateur history sleuth, that connection just thrilled me.

Carnivalesque?

Yes, the tradition of “carnival” as a welcome break from everyday life whose vestiges remain to this day in the celebration of “Mardi Gras” in New Orleans and known by various names in some European cities, South America, and Mexico.

Carnival in this context refers to an ancient tradition. In Medieval times, carnival represented very overt and blatant challenges to established traditions, beliefs and authorities, providing opportunities for rapid, sweeping and far-reaching changes that, for the most part, moved cultures and civilizations forward … in many cases, by leaps and bounds.

On carnival days, village life (often downtrodden by religious and secular authorities for most of the year) was overturned. All rules and regulations were null and void. The work of serfs in the fields and monks in the monasteries was suspended. Cardinals, bishops and priests held no sway and sin was nonexistent. It was carnival. The king was deposed and the jester (prankster) ruled in splendor, enacting laws and partaking in Bacchanalian feasts. Religious leaders were mimicked, ridiculed and forced to do penance for their many transgressions. Kings and queens were parodied; treason was unknown. Feudal overlords were pilloried and forced to serve their serfs. Civil law was suspended. Courts were presided over by released criminals and acknowledged outcasts.

Many of the well-known institutions and social movements of the past had their genesis in carnival. The Renaissance grew out of this challenge to religious and secular authority and, in turn, supported it. The rise of science and The Age of Reason were seeded in carnival. The confidence of Martin Luther and the Reformation had its foundations in carnival as did the Magna Carta and the Constitutional Monarchy.

And how does this “carnival” atmosphere tie in to my life and my art?

Oh, Baby, you’re not serious? Of course, it ties into absolutely everything you did! You challenged EVERYTHING!

From the time you were a little, tiny boy performing on Ed Sullivan, you challenged the stereotypical view of African-American possibility, but not by confronting those expectations. There was no confrontation. Just by breathing and doing what you did, you showed that those stereotypes no longer applied. You defied them by not conforming to them and not letting them define you.

You challenged what most of us thought a child was capable of in the recording industry when you broke onto the scene simply by surpassing those expectations … by transcending them. Smokey Robinson thought you were a “40-year-old midget.” You continued to challenge those expectations throughout your tenure with Motown and beyond.

With your art and your person, you challenged the role of masculinity in society, in the home, in personal responsibility for the world’s welfare. The aggressively macho, urban tough was displaced in the hearts of young women the world over by a tall, lean, sensitive, artistic, beautiful young man dressed from head to toe in sequins and wearing makeup, singing and dancing his way across the world. In “Beat It” that beautiful young man was joined by the gang-oriented, urban toughs brought together for a “rumble” and you choreographed them rising above the hyper-masculine image by dropping their weapons. You challenged the expectations of the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” lifestyle by your fascination with “elementary things” and “kidding around like a child,” the commonly accepted definition of beauty, and in the role of fashion and wearable art. In all of these areas, your style was not confrontational. You didn’t pugnaciously throw society’s expectations back in its face. You just lived your life your way and with every breath you rubbed its nose in its own excrement. God bless you! It’s the “Gandhi School of Peaceful Resistance” applied to living a life of stunning accomplishment on a grand, grand scale.

Throughout your adult life, at least, you challenged everyone who ever told you it couldn’t be done … by doing it! You challenged every boundary you ever encountered, every limitation you ever faced, every obstacle thrown up to contain you, and every restriction the world tried to impose on you with energy, commitment, hard work, grace, and great, great love. Just by continuing to move forward on the trajectory you had chosen, you challenged the society and culture and times into which you were born. What a remarkable way to turn stereotype into one-of-a-kind invention.

I just love all of these different layers of understanding. There is the pure entertainment value of your music, films, and performances, which is not to be undervalued in any way.

However, in addition, a rudimentary knowledge of the institution of slavery and the entertainments it spawned reveals a new layer of understanding hiding below the surface of your catalog of work for those interested enough to explore it. With a cursory look at the world of dance and physical expression another layer is unearthed for those who prefer a diet of inspiration to the pablum they are fed by a media bent on misrepresentation and the same kind of degradation found in the “black minstrelsy” tradition carried to extremes. From a very amateurish study of Medieval history yet another layer is added. And we haven’t even counted the spiritual dimension that underpins the entire structure from your very earliest days in the entertainment industry, which we have examined in great depth and detail in these dialogs. This onion fully rewards anyone who peels it layer by layer.

It’s totally amazing. Of course, these are just a few points that caught and held my attention. There were many different videos and readings that I have not covered in this Conversation. For my readers, let me just state that if you are ever offered an opportunity to participate in a course in “Michaelology 101,” you will find it a fascinating study, a rewarding educational curriculum, and an uplifting, eye-opening experience.

It sounds like you had a good time with this course.

I did, indeed, my beautiful one. My only regret is that the 13 weeks ended. I could have gone for another … and another after that.

But, you said at the beginning of this Conversation that a new wrinkle had been added.

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Nothing Can Come Between Us

Oh, yes! I almost forgot. Thank you for reminding me. The new wrinkle that has been added in recent months is simply that the serious study of Michael Jackson, his life and his art, has been expanded to include your fans. A graduate student in the Netherlands has undertaken a serious study of the phenomenon of the “Michael Pilgrim” for her Master’s Thesis. In order to research her topic, she interviewed several self-confessed Michael Pilgrims, myself included. Respondents ranged from the United States and Canada to Europe. She requested information from people who visit places associated with you like Forest Lawn, Neverland Valley Ranch, your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the Munich Memorial, even visiting the Munich Memorial herself. Unlike previous reportage of your children’s fascination with congregating en masse at such sites during important anniversaries in your life, which is commonly dismissive if not downright malicious, her findings are presented in her paper with a degree of respect that is generally not found in accounts of the fans’ journeys. Common traits among the respondents, whose names were changed for their protection and privacy, are their sense of ongoing spiritual inspiration and connection, increased awareness of social problems, and a willingness to contribute to their solutions.

I was thrilled to receive the chapter of her paper which presented her findings.

Wow! Watch the ripples as they radiate across that still pond.

You know, during my physical life I often instructed my security people and staff to be kind to my fans and treat them with respect. I even told paparazzi to be careful not to hurt my fans because I love you all more than you will ever know. This latest wrinkle makes me very, very happy.

God bless her and God bless you all.

 

 

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