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Archive for October, 2016

The Dangerous Diaries

The Dangerous Diaries –

October 7 through October 21, 2016

When I first became enamored with Michael Jackson (my muse), one of the remarkable facts that I discovered was that for an artist of his caliber, popularity, unprecedented achievements and fame, there was very little reliable, factual information to be found, regardless of where one looked, that dealt with his life, his art or his humanitarian efforts. His was the most recognized face and silhouette in the world, while at the same time being the least known of men. While seemingly contradictory, both statements are true.

I love Michelangelo. If I had the chance to talk to him or read about him, I would want to know what inspired him to become who he is, the anatomy of his craftsmanship … not about who he went out with last night or why he decided to sit out in the sun so long. That’s what’s important to me.

Michael Jackson, Ninety Prime Time Minutes with the King of Pop, 1993

While reams and reams of words circulated endlessly about his eccentricities, endless speculations abounded about the number and extent of his plastic surgeries. His appearance was covered from every possible angle ever cooked up and diagnosed by the ever-popular “expert testimony” of plastic surgeons who had never met the man; his ever-lightening complexion was the talk of every yellow journalist of note and his allegedly strange lifestyle had become fodder for late night comedian monologues. But to really learn anything valuable or instructive about the man, his music, his uncanny ability to use his body to communicate his artistic vision in film and performance, one was entirely lost in a maze of speculation, innuendo and character assassination.

Michael Jackson in 1991 and 1992, was the media’s favorite scapegoat for many of the world’s ills while, at the same time, he was one of the most popular figures in recent history. Any public appearance was attended by throngs of admirers, his recordings sold in unbelievable numbers not just in his homeland but on a global basis and rumors of his attendance at Presidential Inaugural Galas peaked more public interest than the newly-elected President, himself. Television ratings soared into the stratosphere when he was scheduled to appear at award shows, personal interviews or Super Bowl Halftime extravaganzas. But much more was made of his personal life in the press of the time, and in the most sensational way possible, while little to no attention was paid to his ART … to the manner in which he bared his soul to his public through his music, passionate performances and state-of-the-art short films. Few music or film critics were covering his musical releases with anything that resembled objectivity; it was far easier to dismiss his contributions than it was to buck the system and actually produce intelligent, meticulously-vetted or researched prose related to his body of work. Investigative research and verification were almost unheard of in the coverage of Michael Jackson.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was not alone in my confusion over these discrepancies. The Dangerous Diaries is my attempt to examine some of the reliable, serious, academic work that has been published since my muse’s transition seven years ago (88 months to be precise.)  Since his untimely death in 2009, there has been a delayed knee-jerk reaction … an avalanche of renewed interest in what Michael Jackson was trying to tell us in that music and those performances. This trend is long overdue, but better late than never. Armond White may be the only voice raised with the statement: “Wait a minute! Take another look!” God bless him for it. That took courage, particularly being printed contemporaneously to the release of the albums Dangerous, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1, Blood on the Dancefloor: HIStory in the Mix and Invincible.

I have just finished my first reading of a newly-published book entitled The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson (in eBook format since my print copy of the book has not yet been delivered from Amazon.com despite my having pre-ordered it over a week prior to its release date of September 30, 2016) by Elizabeth Amisu, a lecturer at Kings College London. Past experience has taught me that I need to read these books at least twice, if not many, many more times, to fully extract all the richness they offer. However, my first reading has inspired a curiosity to study Michael Jackson’s later musical contributions from the numerous angles represented by my growing library of serious, reliable Michael Jackson Academic Studies.

I will be proud to add her print version when received to my growing collection of serious academic materials which deal fairly with Michael Jackson’s contributions to our cultural heritage. That collection currently includes:

Joe Vogel’s

Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus,
Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson and
Featuring Michael Jackson,

Dr. Willa Stillwater’s M Poetica: Michael Jackson’s Art of Connection and Defiance,

Susan Fast’s Dangerous,

Isabelle Petitjean’s  Dangerous: From Mark Ryden to Michael Jackson: Pop Culture in the Pantheon of Fine Arts (at this writing unpublished),

Armond White’s Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles, 

as well as my muse’s own works: Moonwalk, Dancing the Dream: Poems and Reflections, and HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1(which Elizabeth Amisu has included as one of her primary sources in The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson, page 34 calling it “a musical autobiography, which gives his account of the events that transpired between 1989 and 1995.”)

Let me state unequivocally for my readers: I AM NOT A SCHOLAR. However, as many know, I am a rabid, voracious reader. Having no academic credentials, I have never done anything like this before, and, therefore, I am not exactly sure how I should begin this self-directed study – how it should be structured or formatted. Perhaps, the best way to begin would be to discuss Elizabeth Amisu’s inclusion of HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book 1 in her listing of primary sources and what an unusual, and possibly controversial, decision that is.

HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1(released 1995)

Ms. Amisu lists HIStory as Michael Jackson’s most autobiographical work, addressing much of the public vilification to which he had been subjected in the wake of the media backlash which had followed the Thriller and BAD releases as well as his public stoning at the hands of a seethingly vengeful and persecutory District Attorney in Santa Barbara County reminiscent of “running that [insert derogatory here] out of his county” which resulted in Michael Jackson being unjustly pilloried for criminal trespass against a child not once but twice (in 1993 and 2003) and in Jackson’s self-imposed exile from his fabulous home, Neverland Valley Ranch. In both cases, the resulting media frenzy to convict in the court of public opinion resulted in what Charles Thomson called The Most Shameful Episode in Journalistic History in an article of the same name in the on-line journal The Huffington Post.

The first set of allegations in 1993 hit very early in my ongoing love affair with Michael Jackson (ten months to be exact) and was largely responsible for my learning how to use a computer to aide me in writing my first book, taking to the internet as well as my one-woman-letter-writing-campaign, voicing my consternation over the thirteen months of rampantly vitriolic “schoolyard” bullying tactics Jackson endured during the almost daily media onslaught against his artistic output, his person, his appearance, his ethnicity, his facial characteristics, his sexuality, and every other facet of his life that could be squeezed into a four inch headline and cover story and made available to all on a global basis at every grocery checkout stand in the United States of America and around the world. Of course, news of his lifelong contributions to 39 charities, which resulted in him being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most charitable celebrity was conspicuously absent from all reports.

In the track listing for the HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1, Ms. Amisu sees Michael Jackson’s response to the unrelenting and increasingly pervasive critical commentary that had accompanied his every move for roughly a dozen years (by that time) and as largely contributing to the “reductionist” framework from which each release after Thriller suffered (and continues to suffer) a monumentally dismissive overall reading in nearly all music critique forums.

Yet, from the primal scream of “Scream” to the determination of “Smile,” Jackson shows that he is still very much a force to be reckoned with, that he refuses to “go quietly” into the oblivion being foisted upon him by his detractors. His voice still hits highs and lows full on with no hesitation, still emotes all over the grooves, its purity, versatility, strength and virtuosity undeniable, and his “staying power” still laudable. He is “standing though you’re kicking me” on this record, exhibiting an endurance and sense of purpose that was little understood at the time, but is becoming a bit more recognized in the field of posthumous Michael Jackson Academic Studies.

Ms. Amisu’s use of an audio production and the short films that accompanied it as primary source material, equal in every way to his autobiography, Moonwalk, and his second print publication, Dancing the Dream: Poems and Reflections, is a bold departure from traditional biographical reference material, but eminently appropriate, … one which I applaud.

20161017_131730.jpg

Dangerous 11 X 14 colored pencil painting

Coming of Age

In the first paragraph, first sentence of her marvelous analyses of Dangerous, Susan Fast refers to it as Michael Jackson’s “coming of age album.” While I see her point to a certain extent, I disagree. I feel that the promise of the little boy in the fringed vest and pink hat that we all saw on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1970 was fully and spectacularly realized in his first three adult solo albums, Off the Wall, Thriller, and BAD. That little boy no longer had anything to prove to the world or to himself, He had matured into a staggeringly talented and beautiful young man whose sexually-charged music and dance had catapulted him into a level of fame seldom witnessed on this planet.

As Quincy Jones once stated in an interview, recorded sometime around the recording session for We Are The World (1985?) and referring to the filming of the feature film The Wiz (1979), “He isn’t baby dumpling, anymore.” The child prodigy had matured into a virtuoso, whose vocal versatility was undeniable, whose physical appearance had been sharpened by his strict adherence to a vegetarian lifestyle, and whose ability to effectively and believably emote through a variety of genres was unquestioned. In addition, his composing skills had kept pace with his performance skills, proven by penning nine of the eleven tracks on the BAD album. His confidence in his innate, God-given abilities had reached far beyond the “natural gifts” stage through constant practice and coaching; he commonly fasted on Sundays and danced until his legs wouldn’t or couldn’t hold him up any longer. His dedication to his art throughout his early adulthood is clear in the grooves of Off the Wall, Thriller, and BAD.

Dangerous did, admittedly, mark a departure in his music and in his presentation, however. In the Dangerous album, I believe Michael Jackson, in essence, threw down a gauntlet to the rest of us. He achieved a level of consciousness that showed more self-awareness and world engagement than had previously been a prevalent feature of his artistry. He asks us point blank to look at the world we inhabit and explain to him “Why You Wanna Trip on Me?”

He challenges us; he provokes us; he dares us. He makes us gasp in surprise, bristle in consternation, and cry out in empathy. He makes us think; he makes us dance; he makes us sing along; but under it all there is a new tone of social and spiritual consciousness that takes no prisoners. He makes us uncomfortable in our apathy (but not as uncomfortable as he will make us before he’s finished with us), encourages us to find and engage with our passions and share those passions with our neighbors in a way he never had before. He recognizes that his American Dream has betrayed him, as has the media and almost everyone else around him … yet he dares to continue to dream it, moving forward no-holds-barred, unabashedly and at full throttle. He pleads for our understanding, but whether we understand him or not, he isn’t going anywhere.

“No longer does Jackson encourage his listeners to ‘make a change;’ he becomes the change, maturing into a voice crying out in a literal wilderness in the short film for “Earth Song” five years later.” (The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Amisu, p. 56 of Nook edition.)

Fear of Women

Almost all of the authors I have read so far have failed, in my opinion, to delve deeply enough into what are fast becoming known as Michael Jackson’s “femmes fatale” songs, which include “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” “Dangerous,” and “Blood on the Dancefloor.” Noting that he returns to the subject matter of the dangerous, manipulative woman who is willing to lie about the paternity of her child, make herself available for sexual favors, and even kill to entrap the narrator of the story into her “web of sin,” almost all of them stop short of what I feel Michael was aiming towards.

Dr. Willa Stillwater, in M Poetica: Michael Jackson’s Art of Connection and Defiance, does note that Michael struggles over the ethical response to the situation in which the narrator of the story finds himself embroiled through no fault of his own. Hers is a psychological reading. He recognizes and acknowledges some of the motivations that may be propelling Billie Jean forward in her determination to secure financial or societal support for her out-of-wedlock conception. Similarly, he recognizes some of the reasons he is pursued by Diana as reflected glory and a “life that’s so carefree” as well as his ability to make her a star.  Yet through both songs, he still asks, “Why would a woman disrespect herself to that extent?”

I think much of the response to his overarching question lies in the patriarchal culture that may not have begun with Paul’s Epistles to his followers, but was certainly given religious sanction by this man, who knew the historical Jesus not at all and, therefore, could not be presumed to be speaking for him, which resulted in millions of free-thinking women being burned at the stake, hung, and drowned as witches during the church’s reign of terror known as The Inquisition in the Middle Ages. The latest incarnation of this patriarchal view of reality is one of our Presidential candidates spouting rhetoric in support of repealing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United State of America (women’s suffrage) because most of his supporters are men. Yes, indeed, this happened during the week of October 10, 2016! If that’s not a warning of what is to come should this man be elected, I don’t know what is.

However, the accepted, repeated ad nauseum, tired narrative of Michael Jackson’s “fear of women” still seeps through in most overall sympathetic analyses and I think that this reading probably stands on the surface, but requires further examination from a more in depth, mindful perspective because of its over-simplicity. While his music may seem simple, almost all of his collaborators have spoken about the hard work they all went through to achieve that appearance. Michael Jackson did not fear women; he revered them and his reverence is clearly evidenced in the way he treated them … with respect.

There are many levels on which Michael Jackson’s body of work can be understood; there is the surface layer and infinite further layers to explore when one has decoded the musical, sonic, technical and lyrical levels, which Susan Fast admits in Dangerous with the words: “Jackson’s femmes fatales songs all have different narratives and are worthy of a good and thorough study, which is more than I can do here.”

In my opinion these songs are parables – philosophical tales that use common, everyday words, situations and people to illustrate a moral point. They are about seduction – the attraction that forbidden or socially unacceptable situations and people hold for us. While they can be interpreted as sexual seduction, and from that perspective there is much that is cautionary in these songs, there is also a bigger picture here.

So, let’s take a very brief look at the four songs listed and see if we can find some common factor they all share.

“Billie Jean” talks about a woman who claims that the narrator has fathered her child and the moral dilemma this puts the narrator in. Viewed from both protagonist and antagonist perspectives (a phenomenal feat all by itself), the lyrics acknowledge that the narrator “has dreamed of being the one,” … “but the kid is not his son.” In other words, he acknowledges the seductive power represented by the woman, but he has not succumbed to it; “Billie Jean is not my lover.” He has not capitulated.

“Dirty Diana” is the story of a woman “who waits backstage for those who have prestige.” In other words, for the performance to be over. “Every musician’s fan,” she is ready to give herself to the “boys in the band” for any number of what could be considered by our current societal benchmarks as good reasons, including “a life that’s so carefree” and “I’ll be your everything if you make me a star.” While the narrator of the story is attracted strongly to her, he has a “baby” at home to whom he is trying to remain faithful; the seductive power in his attraction is prominent, but it is Diana who tells his “baby” that he is “sleeping with her.” He’s still on the fence until that moment and we are not told how the struggle is resolved.

In “Dangerous,” the narrator of the story is strongly attracted to a dangerous woman just because she is dangerous. This is seduction at its most basic level. He can’t trust her and he knows it; he speaks the words of the lead in to the song in a hypnotic, seductive, sexy voice:  “her lips are as sweet as a honeycomb, but her spirit is as sharp as a two-edged sword.” All relationships are based on trust from friendships to romantic relationships and everything in between. So, this relationship is strictly taboo, but he is strongly attracted to it, seduced by it. Once again, we are not privy to the resolution of his dilemma.

In “Blood on the Dancefloor,” the narrator tells the story of a “one night stand” and its results. “It’s not about love and romance” and “every hot man’s out takin’ a chance and now you do regret it.” Susie is a retaliatory presence in “Blood on the Dancefloor;” perhaps she just wants vengeance for being used as an object to satisfy the narrator’s desire, perhaps she has become more possessive than the narrator is comfortable with, wanting to hold on to the narrator. Whatever the situation is, the story turns ugly and she wields a knife, ending up with “blood on the dancefloor.”  “Seven inches in” could refer to a dagger or to a certain part of a man’s anatomy!

Now, call me a crazy, lapsed Roman Catholic girl who was well and truly indoctrinated into the Catholic perception of sexuality during her more than twelve years of good Catholic education, but I see every one of these songs as cautionary tales whose morals deal with the prevalent and all-pervasive promiscuity of the early 21st Century, anything-goes morality. From the relative innocence of “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana,” the caution progresses through “Dangerous” and ends up with “Blood on the Dancefloor.”

Michael Jackson’s upbringing in the Jehovah Witness faith, particularly on the discussion of irresponsible sexual encounters, would have been even less permissive than my own at the hands of the nuns who taught me albeit not terribly different from mine and his reverence of his mother, who was extremely devout, is a well-known and documented fact. One can imagine young Michael being taught the benefits of abstinence (a word not commonly used in our society) at his mother’s knee, especially with her knowledge of her husband’s and older sons’ very obvious rejection of the concept.

It’s not a fear of women, nor is it a fear of sex Michael Jackson points to with these songs; it is a warning about the seduction and inherent dangers of the promiscuity that has developed in our culture over the past approximately 50 years! He is crying out that our moral compass has become askew. It is the moral epidemic our society suffers from which has resulted in increased teenage pregnancy, overcrowding prisons, increased social service requirements and homelessness. It is our lack of respect for ourselves and the planet that have resulted in global warming, burning “forests despite our pleas” and the imminent disaster that may make the human family extinct not long after our tenure here is over. I know that this, too, is an over-simplification, but I believe the tentacles do reach further than most of us think and I think Michael Jackson was alerting us to that fact in these songs..

Our cavalier attitude toward sexual union has become the prevailing meme to the point at which a “gentleman” is castigated on public television for not revealing every detail of his sexual encounters and his virginity, or lack thereof. [See the Oprah Winfred interview entitled Ninety Prime Time Minutes With The King of Pop, 1993] As a result of the prevalence of that meme, such a man is considered almost universally as “unnatural” and public outcry against this particular brand of “unnaturalness” is given worldwide press. Gentlemen have become an endangered species in our technologically-advanced society. What has happened to the concept of “common decency?” I have asked this question before, but have not yet received a viable response.

On yet another level, all of these songs are about seduction. There are myriads of things, situations and people that are seductive in our culture. Enticements abound. We can be seduced by sex (which is the application by which the word is most often understood), by drugs, by videogames, by drama, by alcohol, by sensationalism, by cigarettes, by acquisition, by power, by upward mobility, by money, by fame, by following every move made by our favorite celebrities, by habit, by propaganda, by media, by fear, by adrenalin rushes. The list is endless.

Seduction infers that there are possible negative effects to these attractions, which overwhelm us, keeping us docile and mindless and preventing us from thinking deeply about the situations in our world that scream for our ingenuity in the hopes of satisfying our attractions. Like the drug addict, we can’t help ourselves; we are seduced.

Now, I am admittedly in thrall, having been totally seduced by Michael Jackson almost twenty-five years ago. I haven’t yet found the negative effect in that seduction, if there is one. When I do, I will inform my readers as quickly and efficiently as possible. At present, I have only gained by this seduction and am entirely grateful for it.

We are seduced by the world that surrounds us or our perceptions of it. Our senses tell us that the physical, material, scientifically-provable world is the only reality; sight, sound, touch, smell and taste are the arbiters of our lives based in the logical, the provable, the measurable, the weighable. Yet, we are also endowed with other senses: intuition, imagination, intention, inspiration, and creativity. These more spiritually attuned senses we are taught to ignore as we are seduced away from our childhood certainty in the truth of fairy tales by our teenage years. These more spiritually-attuned senses can only be developed through introspection and self-reflection, which are the artist’s purview and to which Dancing the Dream: Poems and Reflections by Michael Jackson provides more than sufficient testimony that he was no stranger.

As the penultimate artist in several genres (including musical composition, innovative film production, massive public spectacle and all the smaller fields that combined to create them), Michael Jackson sings to us about seduction – the seduction of the senses. He warns us that these are magnetic attractions with powers over us we find difficult to resist because of the prevalent view of the physical world as the only reality. Yes, he couches these warnings in the form of woman, but it is the hypnotic effect of seduction he sings about in each of these songs.

Yet, within each one of us beats a heart that knows that this cannot be all there is, that this world of greed and consumerism, of power plays and braggadocio, of political upheaval and war and of orphaned and starving children is not the only reality. We search for something to “fill that place in our hearts” that we all know is love and compassion in the many seductions offered to us for our pacification as a baby seeks its mother’s breast.

Michael Jackson demonstrated that place in his heart in every way humanly possible – in visiting sick and dying children, in contributing huge sums of money to alleviate suffering on a massive scale, in offering a place of refuge and safety to children from inner city schools, in airlifting medical supplies and toys into war torn regions, in gathering resources to cut the number of people starving in the world in half (literally), and in musical compositions to accompany his actions – and he is not shy about asking us to help him in his cause.

In his pleas, he is joined by all of our spiritual scriptures from Hindu to Buddhist – Muslim to Christian, which promote love and compassion and tell us that we can be inhabitants of both the world of physical, provable reality and eternal, spiritual reality at the same time. He demonstrated that fact … and at the very highest level imaginable … with every breath he breathed on this planet and continues to do so throughout the ensuing years.  He navigated both realities with grace, humor, ingenuity and dignity, holding to principles long antiquated against nearly insurmountable odds despite unprecedented fame, wealth, and adversity. In doing so, he showed us that we can do it, too!

These are the kinds of thoughts I want to explore further in this admittedly inept self-directed curriculum, The Dangerous Diaries. The research by objective, credentialed academics in the fields of musicology, film and music criticism, and cultural commentary now exists. And it is long overdue. It is thought-provoking and it is important. It reverberates with echoes of a higher calling that we can all put into practice to discover and create lives as resonant, if not as globally acclaimed, as Michael Jackson’s. God bless him! And God bless the scholars and authors who are revisiting his body of work from a variety of perspectives to enrich us and inform us of Michael Jackson’s continuing relevance.

While I am no scholar, I want to immerse myself in it, provide my own commentary and thoughts, and follow the trail of breadcrumbs left by my muse into the heart of his artistry and person. To a limited extent, I have already done this in “Troubadour of a Generation,” an online 13-week course offered by a wonderful friend which closely followed the targeted discussion topics of a syllabus designed for a class in African-American Studies at Duke University. [Please refer to Conversations, Installment 98 for further discussion of this course.] I must, once again, thank my wonderful friend for making the topics discussed available to me. It was an eye-opening experience and one that I will always cherish. However, there is so much more depth to study in Michael Jackson’s art that the course left me feeling rewarded but that it had barely scratched the surface.

So, with the materials previously listed, I am going to design my own course with the attitude that we shall see what develops.

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