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The Price of Fame

I took my baby on a river boat cruise
And she was well aware
I was excited about the way that things could have been
She said, “I don’t care”
I wore a face no one can recognize, in disguise
Someone called out my name
They thought of taking pictures, autographs, then they grab
My joy had turned to pain

Father always told me,
You won’t live a quiet life
If you’re reaching for fortune and fame
I feel the pressure setting in, I’m living just to win
I’m done in my pain, don’t you feel no pain? (No way!)

It’s the price of fame, you pay the price of fame
So don’t be feelin’ no pain!
It’s the price of fame, it’s the price of fame
So don’t you ever complain!

I am the cover of the magazine, what a scene
They know my every move
“Just sign your name on the dotted line, you’ll be fine.”
That always bothers me
Get in your car, you wanna take a ride, look behind
Someone is following you
You try to get away, you turn real fast, but too bad
They know your every move!

My father always told me
You won’t live a quiet life
If you’re reaching for fortune and fame
I feel the pressure setting in, I’m living just to win
I feeling all this pain, don’t you ever complain!

It’s the price of fame, you pay the price of fame
So don’t you ever complain!
It’s the price of fame, you pay the price for fame
So don’t be feelin’ no pain!

It’s the price of fame, you pay the price of fame! (uh)
Father never lies
My father never lies (price of fame)
My father never lies (price of fame)
So don’t be feeling this way boy!

I’d like to take some time and get away, then they’ll say,
Is that boy still alive? (uh)
The weak in village.(?)…what a thrill
Only the strong survive

My father always told me,
You won’t live a quiet life,
They startin’ to wonderin’ where have you been?
I feel the idiots look at me
With their mistaken jealousy (oh?)
Then stand here in my shoes
And get a taste of my blues!

It’s the price of fame!
You pay the price of fame
So don’t you ever complain
It’s the price of fame
You pay the price of fame
So don’t be feeling this way
It’s the price of fame
You pay the price of fame
So don’t you ever complain
It’s the price of fame
You pay the price of fame
My father never lies (price of fame)
My father never lies, baby
My father never lies (price of fame)
So don’t be feeling no pain boy!

To say that Michael Jackson was unconscious of the price of fame would be a miscalculation of the greatest magnitude. Here, in Price of Fame (recorded during the BAD recording sessions and released on the BAD 25 compilation) he sings about the total lack of privacy he endured throughout his childhood and adult life as well as the unsympathetic attitude of his father toward his voicing angst over it.

Many of this society’s celebrities experience this lack of privacy as a result of their extraordinary talents in film, music, or any number of artistic endeavors, but in Michael Jackson’s case, the phenomenon was magnified to such a great extent and over such a long duration (forty years) that it often resulted in his total imprisonment behind the windows of his hotel suites while on tour or his fabulous wrought iron Neverland gates when at home for his own protection as well as for the protection of the public who might have been harmed in the riots that ensued when he left his security-guarded  grounds.

That being said, the people of Solvang and Los Olivos, California (the closest neighbors of Michael’s fabulous estate, Neverland Valley Ranch) tell many stories of Michael walking completely unaccompanied through their streets; being natural, friendly, and approachable; shopping in their quaint little shops; and donating to their community charity events. His Neverland Valley Fire Protection service was often called out to assist with the ever-present dangers from forest or community fires. I have been in Solvang and Los Olivos; I have spoken to the proprietors of these shops and heard their stories. They impress me as being very protective of Michael Jackson and his privacy and proud that their small communities housed one of the most famous people on the planet for in excess of fifteen years with some semblance of grace and dignity, proving that he chose well when he located his haven in the Santa Ynez Valley.

This lack of privacy to which Michael alludes on several occasions in his music (i.e. Leave Me Alone , Price of Fame, Privacy), one of the inalienable rights granted to all citizens of the United States of America in its Bill of Rights, was, effectively, a luxury seldom known to the young boy with the golden voice or the beautiful man who was destined to become the King of Pop. He often spoke of his longing to be free to take a walk when on tour, a casual right so many of us take for granted, or to go to a supermarket and shop for groceries, a task that many of us abhor, myself included.

However, it should be noted that this lack of privacy and anonymity is not the only casualty to the price of fame; there are others. One of those others that has struck me forcefully in the compilation of this memoir, The Dangerous Diaries, is the “presumption of superficiality” on the part of the media and, therefore, on the part of the general public, which is fed on the media’s over-simplifications and downright fabrications, and to which Michael Jackson was a victim for much of his life.

Superficiality is not a trait that I would ever attribute to Michael Jackson. Conversely, his propensity to deep thought and his self-taught knowledge on a wide range of subjects, including but certainly not limited to history, philosophy, film, art, and the physical sciences, has been commented upon by many of his intimates and is fully illustrated by even the shallowest interrogation into his lyrics, poems, and performances.

A society’s artists are often on the cutting edge of social change, leading to more open perspectives, freer from artificial judgment and/or condemnation and more fully integrated thought processes. This is as true in our modern society as it was in the eras of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are just two such examples from the Renaissance era whose impact moved their contemporary society towards leaps and bounds in evolutionary terms. They were not only artists, but inventors and innovators in method and aesthetics and their society benefitted greatly through their patronage. In the period of the Reformation, Martin Luther freed his society from its bondage to domination by a mode of thinking that encouraged a status quo detrimental to the major portion of society, which favored only the elite of gentry and clergy, repositioning the common man as a major force, allowing for the creation of a middle class composed of merchants and skilled labor.

In like manner, Michael Jackson’s appearance on the scene heralded a much more integrated view of society and culture, eschewing the prevalent structures of racial segregation in the music industry and in the society-at-large, proving that music is color- as well as barrier-blind.  His music crossed every known barrier at the time, promoting unity across generational, national, religious, gender, and racial boundaries that had been in place for centuries.

Artists are the society’s barometers, its leaders and gauges against which the society is measured. Yet, in our modern culture, artists are seldom given the respect they deserve. This is demonstrably true in the case of Michael Jackson, whose songs and films swept the entire world in a global conspiracy for radical, evolutionary change and whose examples of social and humanitarian engagement have yet to be fully examined.

Almost all of the recent authors who have published works posthumously have contributed their parts to eradicating this superficial perception of Michael Jackson (with the exceptions of the Randall Sullivans and Steve Knoppers of RollingStone ilk). Armond White, Susan Fast, Elizabeth Amisu, Joe Vogel, and Mike Smallcombe all have gone a long way towards extinguishing the false premise of “superficiality” that has dogged Michael Jackson’s steps throughout his life.

However, my most recent acquisition, Dangerous From Mark Ryden to Michael Jackson: Pop Culture in the Pantheon of Fine Arts by Isabelle Petitjean, a musicologist at the Sorbonne in France who has made Michael Jackson her field of research and study, has really blown the lid off this premise, in my opinion.

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I was blessed to meet Isabelle in Gary, Indiana last year (August, 2016) when she attended an art exhibition in which I participated and I attended her lecture on the Dangerous album cover at the Gary Public Library. At the time, she had had her scholarly treatise translated into English and was dissatisfied with the translation. I offered to read the translation and see if I could help to prepare it for publication for English-speaking readers; she accepted.

The book is an in-depth expose of the collaboration between the visual artist, Mark Ryden, and the pre-eminent musical artist of his (and, arguably, all) time, Michael Jackson, in conceptualizing and executing the painting which was to become the cover art illustration for the Dangerous album. The complex layering of symbolic references in the image are legion, forming a beautiful, harmonious tapestry (to which Michael Jackson often referred in describing his musical compositions) and are completely and minutely explored in Isabelle’s wonderful book as is the relationship of the two artists, their shared ideological perspectives on the world they inhabited, and the way that the artwork cover announces, enhances and, in some cases, explains the complex rhythms and external noises enmeshed within the music it contains.

Make no mistake; this is a scholarly examination by an author well versed in the terminology and sensibilities of artistic interpretation. As such, it completely explodes any perception of “superficiality” by either of the two artists it examines. However, Isabelle manages to make her artistic interpretation accessible to all, intelligentsia as well as those less well versed readers. It is entertaining, informative, and descriptive.

Mark Ryden and Michael Jackson shared a child-like frame of reference and many of Ryden’s words, as quoted in the book, could easily have come from Michael Jackson, himself.

“I still remember the joy I got out of drawing, painting, and building a world of my own when I was a child. I was free. I try to recapture that feeling I had making art as a child and to believe in magic, to play, to dream. Children see things and feel things that adults don’t. As an adult, there are many barriers to being in this creative state of mind. I feel constantly challenged by these barriers.

Mark Ryden as quoted in Dangerous: From Mark Ryden to Michael Jackson (Used by Permission)

“… to cultivate the “inner child” […] really is a constant feature and even an inexhaustible source of unbridled creativity in relation to the natural world and the distant horizons of the supernatural and the imagination …”

Isabelle Petitjean, Dangerous: From Mark Ryden to Michael Jackson (Used by permission)

Both Mark Ryden and Michael Jackson were fascinated by the worlds of childhood, imagination, mysticism, and circus panoply, and were deeply committed to ecological issues like global warming and endangered species. In addition, both were collectors of various objects that inspired them. An illustration of Mark Ryden’s studio filled with an eclectic assortment of seemingly unrelated items and included in the book is reminiscent of photographs of Michael Jackson’s home at Neverland, which was stuffed with toys, books, games, castles, statues, art and mannequins, all in uproarious, exuberant clutter. One can just imagine what it was like when these two artists from different fields of endeavor met to discuss their shared project. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that meeting!

“There are two very different parts to the brain. There is the logical side and the creative side. To make art you have to stop thinking in a linear way. You have to bring to life the part of your brain that finds mystical wonder in life and nature […] It is the part of your spirit that still feels like a kid, and is awe-inspired and fascinated by the world.”

Mark Ryden as quoted in Dangerous: From Mark Ryden to Michael Jackson (Used by permission.)

“My idea of magic doesn’t have much to do with stage tricks and illusions. The whole world abounds in magic. When a whale plunges out of the sea like a newborn mountain, you gasp in unexpected delight. What magic! But a toddler who sees his first tadpole flashing in a mud puddle feels the same thrill. Wonder fills his heart because he has glimpsed for an instant the playfulness of life.”

Michael Jackson, Magic, Dancing the Dream: Poems and Reflections

It doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine these two artists, each fully-conversant in his field of endeavor, were kindred spirits. One would expect that their collaborative effort on a project would be rich with import and sensitivity; one would not be disappointed.

Each of these artists, in his own field of endeavor, harbored a distaste for categorization, which resulted in a genre-bending and annihilating eclecticism that resulted in borrowings from many different historical eras, styles, time periods, and fields of study. Michael Jackson spoke often about his belief that “music is music and it’s all beautiful,” and the Dangerous album, in particular, is replete with examples of his use of classical, rap, rock, gospel, jazz, industrial cacophony, and Renaissance a cappella choirs, with his vocal virtuosity and compositional tapestries tying them all together in an organic harmony. Further, his short films and performances were another way for him to display his knowledge of film and dance as well as art. Beat It, BAD and You Are Not Alone are just three examples in which he pays homage to art forms that he greatly admired; the film West Side Story for the first two mentioned and Maxfield Parrish’s Daybreak for the third.

In the same vein, Mark Ryden, although categorized as a Pop-Surrealist, actually borrows and is inspired by Renaissance art (Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus); the Middle Ages (Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Netherlandish Proverbs); Bouguereau (whom Michael Jackson also loved and exhibited in his home at Neverland.); Jim Blashfield’s and Michael Jackson’s collaboration  Leave Me Alone short film; and Gilles Guerin, The Mausoleum of Henri II; as well as photographs by Beaton and  circus posters of P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, all of which references make their way into the artwork for the Dangerous album cover.

Both Mark Ryden and Michael Jackson encoded a great deal of spiritual symbolism into their respective artistic bodies of work; the number 7 was a particular favorite of both of these artists as is the all-seeing eye and the peacock which are also represented in the painting Dangerous.

“Through the ages, the peacock has been honored and praised for its attractive, illustrious beauty. Of all 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 through the love of music.”

Michael Jackson and Jackie Jackson for Peacock Productions, Destiny, 1978

As a matter of fact, this painting is full to overflowing with references to Michael Jackson, his signature imagery and iconography, his spiritual affinity, and his ecological and ideological universe to the point of being mind-boggling. The artwork announces an album full of innovative recordings and grabs the consumer’s attention with its colorful display, fully fulfilling its purpose as a “consumerist” design while also seeking to take the viewer on an emotional journey into the heart and soul of the artists, straddling the divide between high and low art, fine art and graphic design. Like the album, it has one foot in both worlds, providing a bridge for anyone so minded to cross.

While I am deeply honored to have played a small part in bringing the English translation of Isabelle Petitjean’s book to publication for English-speaking readers, I am, if possible, even more enthusiastic about her decision to record her lecture on Dangerous: From Mark Ryden to Michael Jackson as presented in Gary, Indiana; Washington, D.C.; and Canada in DVD format.

The DVD format brings all the richness of the references and symbols to vibrant life and Isabelle’s narrative is calm and well-paced, her voice rich with enthusiasm for her subject, and her lovely French accent a treat to listen to. The slides accompanying the narrative are clear and well-designed and animated. While addressing the detailed descriptions contained within the book, they are a bit more visual, concise and succinct, providing an overview which entices the viewer to investigate the book for more detail. The inclusion of selected excerpts from films and performances by Jim Blashfield and Michael Jackson, as well as a few brief references from other artists, allow the viewer to more fully comprehend the points narrated and illustrate the depth and scope of both Mark Ryden’s and Michael Jackson’s erudition.

Superficial? Hardly! Both of these artists are masters of mystery and paradox; they both ask the reader/viewer/listener to question, to reflect, to seek.

The painting/album cover is a symphony for the eyes; the album a lyrical fresco for the ears.

Together they announce the three-pronged media blitzkrieg covered in the previous installment under the topic Dangerous Goes 3D with the album, short films, and Dancing the Dream: Poems and Reflections its tentacles reaching out to span the globe … and we haven’t even talked about the world tour, which brought the Dangerous campaign to the widest possible audience. It was a masterful juggernaut which aimed at world domination … and succeeded, not with tyranny, but with art in all its many facets.

For those interested, I include the links for the acquisition of Dangerous: From Mark Ryden to Michael Jackson:

http://www.editions-delatour.com/fr/biographies-entretiens/3285-dangerous-from-mark-ryden-to-michael-jackson-9782752103048.html

DVD

https://www.amazon.co.uk/ENGLISH-Conference-Dangerous-Ryden-Michael-culture-Fine/dp/B06XH5TZNJ/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1493064621&sr=8-5&keywords=Petitjean%2C+Isabelle

 

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As we approach the ending of a very difficult year on many different levels, I find myself looking back in a nostalgic way on how all of this began. 2016 has seen what seems like an alarming number of deaths of famous celebrities and musical artists, a disproportionate amount of racial tension in the United States, and the election of Donald Trump as President (something I never thought I would live to see … and, quite frankly, prayed that I wouldn’t.) Nevertheless, that is the “reality” with which we are faced. It is not one of which I am overly fond, so I am choosing, instead, the reality that Michael Jackson is MY president, as he has been for the last quarter of a century. On the cusp of a New Year, hopefully, filled with more promise, I have decided to keep the spirit of the season by looking back to the past (almost twenty-five years in the past) … to look into the future more hopefully.

Prescience

In The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife, page (153), Elizabeth Amisu makes the following statement: “Now, I am not claiming by any means that Jackson was psychic …” Not being a noted lecturer and academic and having no particular reputation to defend or maintain, I have no such compunctions.

In my opinion, there are several instances in both his public and private lives in which Michael Jackson displayed either a degree of clairsentience or a remarkably keen and clear-sighted sensitivity to prevailing trends which resulted in him responding to situations in uncanny ways, often, seemingly, before the situations to which he was responding manifested.

One of the areas that this prescience is most clearly shown is in what has been called Michael Jackson’s “business acumen.” His acquisition of the ATV catalog, following a brief introduction to the music publishing industry during a passing conversation with Paul McCartney, is one such instance. His interest in acquiring the Marvel franchise long before the recent spate of Marvel superhero-themed movies sold out box offices across the world is another.

However, one of the most interesting instances, for me personally, was in the recording and subsequent release date for the single for “Will You Be There” from Michael’s Dangerous album. However, to explain my attraction to this specific instance, I will have to backtrack a bit and explain how I became a disciple to begin with.  “Will You Be There” holds particular significance for me; therefore, I suppose it would make perfect sense that I would be drawn to this particular demonstration of Michael Jackson’s fore-knowledge.

The Dangerous album was released in November of 1991 (two months short of two years prior to the media avalanche that ensued as a result of the Chandler allegations in late August, 1993). Generally, the schedule for single releases is ironed out between the artist and the record company (often as a result of intense negotiation) just before the album hits the shelves. The song, itself, however, was recorded during the early recording sessions for the album which began in the summer of 1990 and was written by Michael in his “Giving Tree” at Neverland Valley Ranch. So, “Will You Be There” was written and demoed as much as three years before its release, according to recent authors Joe Vogel and Mike Smallcombe.

My life as I currently know it began on October 1, 1992, or more than a year into the Dangerous campaign. That’s not to say I was born on that date; in fact, I was a mature woman of 42 years old when I experienced Michael Jackson in an entirely different way than I had experienced him prior to that date. In a way, however, I was reborn on that October evening almost 25 years ago when my two daughters and I sat down to watch the HBO telecast of Michael Jackson Live from Bucharest. My husband was away at a weekend retreat and I was excited that I would be free to 1) watch it and 2) turn the volume up far beyond his comfortable listening level.  Previous experience with Michael had taught me that I was going to want to keep a record of the program so I had a videotape in the VCR machine ready to catch every moment of the rare live concert performance. My comment to my daughters went something like: “Oh, goodie! We get to see the best doing what he does best.”

In truth, I had seen and heard Michael Jackson a few times before. I had flirted with him when he was eleven-years-old (I was 19 or 20) and I caught him performing on one of the variety shows that I loved to watch in the 1970s. I had sung along with his most popular hits blasting on my car stereo throughout the western suburbs of Chicago while running errands or going to work in the mid 1970s.

A decade later, when he was 21-years-old, I had another brief flirtation with him when my younger brother (at the time, perhaps, 18 or 19) tried to teach me how to disco dance in the basement of my parent’s home in Indiana with my new husband standing on the sidelines, shaking his head and laughing. My brother put on Off the Wall, saying it was the best record to dance along with. Of course, he was right, but I had not followed Michael’s career closely during the ensuing years, so I was mildly and pleasantly surprised to hear the beautiful, adult voice emanating from the stereo. This was a different Michael Jackson than the one I had become acquainted with ten years earlier. It was my first experience with him as an adult, but his energy, enthusiasm and exuberance on that record just barely hid the child star beneath a thin veneer of maturity and made a lasting impression on me.

In the mid-1980s, I had another more serious but equally brief flirtation with him when I heard “Billie Jean” and watched Michael and his brothers perform on the Motown 25, Yesterday, Today, and Forever special. I had grown up with Motown; it had provided the soundtrack of my teenage years, so I had to watch that special, but I had no idea of how special it would eventually come to be to me and to millions around the world.

Of course, I ran out and bought Thriller immediately and played “Billie Jean” and “Lady in my Life” over and over. Those were the days when one had to actually get up and lift the needle on the turntable and place it in the grooves of the LP. There was no instant repeat back then. I think I wore the grooves on that record out just replaying those two songs. I had no time to listen to the entire record. I was newly-married to a man who considered my favorite music “noise,” having children, helping to rebuild a one hundred year old farmhouse after moving from a large metropolitan area to a small, rural farm community, working a full-time job … well, you get the picture.

On October 1, 1992, twenty years after I had watched him on the Ed Sullivan Show, however, things changed. I have spent the last twenty-five years trying to explain how they changed and why.

I think a very appropriate way to describe the evening’s event is as follows: I am sure all my readers have heard the adage that when you are about to pass from this world, your past life flashes before your mind’s eye in a review of the life you lived. That’s kind of what happened to me on that beautiful October evening, in a way … only in reverse. On the evening of the broadcast of Michael Jackson Live from Bucharest, at the age of 42 plus a few months, I saw the rest of my life … my future … flash before my mind’s eye. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my inner compass had found its “true north.” Quite by accident, I had found the meaning of the word “truth.”

Gone were the flirtations I had experienced with Michael Jackson; this was serious. By the end of that televised concert, I was committed, heart, soul, mind, and body to Michael Jackson. The concert was a two-hour-long marathon, during which Michael redefined (in my mind) what was possible for a performer … or for a human being, for that matter.  [That lean during “Smooth Criminal! The man was almost parallel to the floor of the stage! How the heck did he do that without any visible means of support?] His strength and agility were mind-boggling. I caught every moment of it on videotape; but it was one eight-minute song that really turned my life around.

Michael’s performance of “Will You Be There” just destroyed every thought I had ever had about who I was or what my life was about and replaced my previous definitions of the world, myself, my life, his life, my belief system, and everything in between with two words … Michael Jackson. He took the “me” I thought I was apart piece-by-piece … very gently (although it was not gentle for him, by any means) … in tiny increments and in “Will You Be There,” he prayed over the pieces, reassembling them in eight minutes into a whole new person – one who was ready to look at absolutely everything in a whole new light.

I don’t know if it was what Michael Cotton described as the “progression” of the songs in the Special Features of the This Is It Documentary – the way they built suspense and released it with Michael’s almost manic, ecstatic mastery of dance to accompany and wring out every drop of emotion and pathos in each of the sequences – what Jackson liked to call “peaks and valleys” … or exactly what it was. But it was masterful!

I had never seen anything to equal the energy that man expended on a stage although I had viewed several concerts both in person and on television, including Paul McCartney and Wings, Electric Light Orchestra, Edgar Winter Group, Todd Rundgren, Jethro Tull, Simon and Garfunkel,  Neil Diamond, Fleetwood Mac, Diana Ross and the Supremes. None of them had moved me to the extent that Michael Jackson moved me that night.

Now, maybe I was just “ready” in some way to be moved; maybe it was just as simple and as complicated as that. I don’t know. I had, in my readings, often run across the adage, “When the pupil is ready the teacher will appear.” Well, my teacher appeared … as a matter of fact, he was catapulted into the air from below stage with a veritable shower of pyrotechnics framing him.  I was like Saul on the road to Damascus, blinded by a light that couldn’t be explained by the laws of physics, gravity, or dynamics. Maybe I … and Michael Jackson … were just in the right place at the right time. Maybe all of those explanations fall short; maybe they don’t matter. For those of my readers who have experienced such a turning point, no explanation is necessary. For those who haven’t, no explanation is possible.

For me, it was a religious experience, but one that had little to do with conventional religion. It was an ecstatic, mystical collapsing of time and space. It was uplifting; it was exhilarating; it was exhausting. I felt that I could touch and know intimately every bead of sweat on that man’s face. I found myself straining to get closer to the television set, my entire body coiled, tensed … to catch him if he should fall (which seemed likely from the inattentive way he was bounding around the stage) … or to absorb every ounce of energy that man emitted … and emit he did.

A spiritual energy passed between the man who was performing on that stage and me, sitting in my comfortable, rural living room halfway around the world from where the concert was taking place. A link was forged. I felt a love enfolding me that recognized no boundaries, no limits, no restrictions, no distance, no difference, no time, and definitely no excuses.

There was no question, on my part, whether I would receive that energy; that was a foregone conclusion. It felt like I had been waiting for it … praying for it … searching for it … all my life. I soaked it in, was bathed in it. I was totally engulfed within that wave of energy.  If I had been standing by the ocean knocked senseless by a tidal wave, the feeling could not have been any stronger. His energy, his sincerity, his conviction, his commitment, and his love were transmitted through my television screen and I was totally raptured by it.

Up to that point, I thought I was this bag of events and occurrences and experiences, some of them fairly traumatic, that lived in a 42-year-old female body, married/with children and I saw my life as just proceeding in that same vein indefinitely, with no purpose other than staying alive, raising my kids, feeding my husband, eventually retiring and passing into old age and death without ever realizing that there was more.  That night I discovered that Michael Jackson was my MORE! When I think back on it, I have to laugh. I had no idea. What a ride! Space Mountain had nothing on this rollercoaster.

What I did know at the end of that concert was two things: 1) I had to watch the concert again and 2) I had to find out who this man was … not just the performer; I needed to know the man. So, I did watch the concert again; I stayed up all night watching the concert again. And I began searching for information regarding the man who had turned my world upside down.

In my search, I discovered that he had written an autobiography, but it was out-of-print and I had to have an out-of-print book search company find me a copy, which I paid $100 to purchase and reimburse them for their effort in finding the book. At the time, I thought that was a lot of money, but it was also my only option. Library copies of Moonwalk had mysteriously gone AWOL or had large sections of pictures of Michael Jackson removed before being returned to the library (literally.)  One of the admittedly poor excuses for a library in my area had the printed pages … but no pictures; they had been cut out of the middle of the book! What kind of person defaces a library book like that?

I also discovered what so many recent authors have remarked upon when re-examining Michael Jackson’s work posthumously. While reams and reams of tabloid articles had been devoted to his allegedly eccentric lifestyle and choices, there was really very, very little reliable information to be had in the public marketplace regarding this artist, which seems appalling as he had, in Sir Bob Geldoff’s words, “written and recorded some of the most glorious music in the pop canon,” held several world records, including (at the time) the largest selling album in history, the second largest selling album in history, and the largest selling single in history.

In fact, there was only one biography (of sorts)  with even the remotest claim to pseudo-credibility available by J. Randy Taraborelli called The Magic and the Madness, so, of course, I bought that. I began collecting Michael Jackson’s music and short film collections. I began watching and taping anything and everything that was broadcast on national television stations. Fortunately, he was featured several times during 1992/1993, including the Grammy and Soul Train award shows, the interview with Oprah Winfrey, President Clinton’s Inaugural Gala, and the Superbowl half-time performance so I could observe him for myself. What I saw always amazed me; his humility and sense of humor were endearing and his sincerity was unquestionable. What I read in the popular press and viewed on entertainment shows following those appearances was ludicrously inaccurate and inadequate, cynical and dismissive. I would ask myself the same question repeatedly over the next few years: Were the journalists and I even watching the same broadcasts?

Fast forward to August, 1993. The Chandler allegations had exploded into the media and were raging in a global tabloid press feeding frenzy. The movie, Free Willy, was playing in theaters across the United States and the single for “Will You Be There” (its theme) was released to coincide with its theater debut. Remember, this is almost three years after the song was written and demoed! The song, itself, was an impassioned plea for understanding in the midst of a horrifying period of global suspicion and persecution. At the time, I was aware that Michael had been the victim of inane, nonsensical stories for a number of years, but nothing like these allegations.

I remember sitting in the movie theater with the credits rolling watching Michael’s altered performance of the song while most of the rest of the audience exited the theater. I could not move as his beautiful, tearful voice spoke the following words:

In our darkest hour
In my deepest despair
Will you still care?
Will you be there?

I also remember that “collapsing” of time and space that I had experienced while watching the performance ten months earlier in my living room because it happened again in the theater. The ten months between the two viewings just collapsed into a single heartbeat and turned me into a blubbering, incoherent wreck. I have written about this instance of pre-knowledge or premonition on Michael’s part before. The timing of it was uncanny. But, then, as Kenny Ortega reports in the Special Features of the This Is It Documentary, Michael Jackson is a master of timing. I agree.

Throughout the last twenty-five years, I had thought I was the only one who had noticed this uncannily-timed release, but at least one recent author has proven me wrong. Mike Smallcombe, in his wonderful book Making Michael: Inside the Career of Michael Jackson calls the incident “poignantly appropriate at this time in his life.” I guess “poignantly appropriate” is safer than downright premonitory.

He makes the point, in Chapter 11: “Turmoil” that at this point in his life, Michael was focused on re-inventing himself and redirecting his career in the direction of film, which had been his dream for several years. He was negotiating a horror-themed song and short film for Paramount Pictures’ Adams Family Values (which eventually morphed into Michael’s short film Ghosts) and was very interested in several other feature-length scripts.

However, very shortly after recording on the Dangerous album had wrapped up, Michael was scheduled to go on tour despite suffering excruciating pain from another reconstructive surgery on his earlier scalp injury during which inflatable bladders were placed under the flesh of his scalp and inflated over regular intervals to stretch the flesh so that the scar tissue could be excised and the flesh sewn together in the hopes of re-establishing hair growth.

As he was preparing to leave to commence the second leg of his tour, Karen Faye, his hair and make-up artist reported, “His schedule was so busy that he never had time to heal from the surgery.” [Healing from the surgery involved allowing the wound to be open to the air. Michael’s schedule of appearances, recording, and touring did not allow him to take the time required to remove his hairpieces and bandaging long enough for the wound to heal.] In the midst of the stress and rigors of the touring system, the sleep deprivation he suffered while touring, and the pain from his surgical wound, the news of the extortionate allegations broke as he was preparing to commence the second leg of his Dangerous World Tour in Bangkok, Thailand, bringing his film aspirations to a screeching halt for the first time.

The same thing happened in 2003, when Michael’s dream of acquiring the Marvel franchise fell through partly as a result of his much-publicized squabbles with Sony and partly as a result of the second set of allegations against him. Mike Smallcombe quotes Michael’s then manager, Dieter Weisner, “Marvel was the plan for the second part of Michael’s life. He had the Beatles catalogue on one side, and if he bought the Marvel catalogue, he had the second part … Michael was right; he knew what was coming.”

In addition, Michael Jackson’s music post-BAD bears an uncanny applicability to the current state of the world and, in particular, the United States of America. While much of his music responds to conditions that he, himself, faced throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, in a broader sense it also correlates with the shocking racial tensions resulting from the shooting of unarmed youths of color in 2016 (“Black or White,” “They Don’t Care About Us”), the increasing and escalating burden of climate change in our world as a result of our over-exploitation (“Earth Song,” “Heal the World”), and encouraging us to be the change we wish to see in the world we inhabit (“Man in the Mirror,” “Keep the Faith,” “Will You Be There” and many others). The “Black Lives Matter” movement adopted “They Don’t Care About Us” as its theme in recent months and “We Are the World” was sung for the pope in the Vatican, which supports the premise that these songs speak to the world’s current problems as strongly today as they did at the time of their release, albeit written and performed in what Morgan Freeman called global “love ins” twenty to twenty-five years ago.

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These, along with several comments made to his first wife, Lisa Marie Presley, that he would die in the same manner as her father and his long-time friend, Frank Cascio, that his death would be the result of a “shot” clearly show a tendency toward psychic sensitivity. Michael Jackson was, by his own admission, an empath. The following lines from “That One in the Mirror,” published in Dancing the Dream: Poems and Reflections clearly speak to this issue:

“I felt strange when he said that. There was something very wrong here. A faint suspicion came to me, one that had never dawned so clearly before. What if that one in the mirror isn’t me? He feels separate. He sees problems ‘out there’ to be solved. Maybe they will be, maybe they won’t. He’ll get along. But I don’t feel that way – those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ not really. I feel them inside me. A child crying in Ethiopia, a sea gull struggling in an oil spill, a mountain gorilla being mercilessly hunted, a teenage soldier trembling with terror when he hears the planes fly over: Aren’t these happening in me when I see and hear about them?”

He often referred to his inability to witness suffering and not do something to alleviate it, especially in children. There is a very fine line between empathic sensitivity and psychic sensitivity; it often becomes blurred.

Elizabeth Amisu quotes Michael Jackson, speaking about the Invincible album. “’… people will not understand this album right now. It’s ahead of its time … the album will live on forever’ because ‘music is what lives and lasts …’ Jackson knew that it did not matter how Invincible’s tale began, because ‘what’s important is how the story ends.’” I believe his words speak to all of his musical releases from Dangerous through Invincible.

Dangerous Goes 3D

One of the significant factors emphasized in all of the recent academic studies of Michael Jackson’s creative life is the importance of Dancing the Dream: Poems and Reflections. Elizabeth Amisu calls it “one of the best-kept ‘secrets’ in Michael Jackson’s artistic back catalogue” and Joe Vogel states, “The book was mostly overlooked or scoffed at by critics; Jackson’s sincerity made him an easy target. Yet the book provides a fascinating window into an artist who had an uncanny ability to experience and convey in his performances what Deepak Chopra describes as the “God feeling – a transcendent, ‘ecstatic state’ that dissolves hard lines, barriers, and ideologies and recognizes instead the unity in existence …”

I find it very interesting that Mr. Vogel is describing very much what I experienced on the night of October 1, 1992. That “God feeling which dissolves hard lines, barriers, and ideologies and recognizes instead the unity in existence” is a pretty good description of my take away from Michael Jackson Live from Bucharest.

It is this author’s emphatic contention that it is this conveyance of the “God feeling” that forms the major impetus behind all of Michael Jackson’s later musical releases, short films, and publications. At the time of recording of the Dangerous album, Michael had just completed his BAD World Tour; it was also just a few short and extremely busy years after the filming of the 3D fantasy film, Captain EO, for the Disney Parks.

I think Michael was aiming for that same kind of 3D approach with the Dangerous campaign, with the recorded music, the short films, and Dancing the Dream: Poems and Reflections providing a fully-immersive experience across platforms, formats, and media. I also think that this immersive exposure indicates the importance he placed on the thoughts and feelings conveyed across these platforms, formats, and media. And exactly what were these thoughts and feelings that Michael found so important to convey in so many different ways? Ms. Amisu answers that question in Chapter 13: “Faith, Hope, and Love: The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson.”

Elizabeth Amisu calls the album and the book “symbiotic.” But we must not forget that the short films were also an extremely important component in this three-pronged media blitz. She goes on to state, “They feed from one another metaphorically, semantically, and lexically.” While bemoaning the fact that it was little known except by the most die-hard of the fan community (in which I must count myself as I was fortunate enough to have acquired two copies of the book shortly after its publication), she states, “The world already knows this book; wearing Dangerous as its disguise, it has already made its way into the homes of millions.” She goes on to relate, “Dancing the Dream is incredibly important because, like its musical twin Dangerous, it reveals Jackson as a poet who is acutely aware of all these interpretations …” and states that “It signifies the beginning of Jackson’s artistic self-presentation as an activist.”

Throughout his life, but particularly in his later life, Michael Jackson was an outspoken proponent of the aforementioned “Dangerous Philosophies” through every means at his disposal. One wonders what kind of films he would have been able to immerse us in had he had the opportunity to fulfill his movie aspirations. If his short films are any indication, we have been irrevocably and irretrievably short changed and the thieves who have stolen those films from us have gone unpunished.

The Sony Debacle

While many of the most recent authors have given a cursory examination of the acrimony between Michael Jackson and the EPIC Division of Sony Music, my most recent acquisition, Making Michael: Inside the Career of Michael Jackson by Mike Smallcombe has, in my opinion, done the most thorough job of explaining the motivations on both sides of the “Sony Debacle.”

I remember thinking, at the time, that Michael’s behavior was uncharacteristic, but I was never really able to grasp what was happening. Prior to 2001, Michael had always spoken very highly of his record company and its executives, but suddenly he was making speeches that were very critical of them. I knew that if Michael had “taken to the streets” in protest, something must have gone very wrong indeed.

Throughout his book, Mike Smallcombe describes Michael’s creative process through the voices of those who worked closely with him in the recording studio and in short film production. One of the points he emphasizes from the Dangerous recording sessions on is Michael’s perfectionism … to and surpassing the point of pushing deadlines to their limits and often far beyond. Quincy Jones, he infers, was a stabilizing presence in the Off the Wall, Thriller, and BAD recording sessions; he kept Michael on point and on schedule (at least, as much as it was possible to reign in Michael’s devotion to perfection.)

However, once Q was no longer in the picture, that perfectionist nature, which would not allow Michael to settle for good enough, was given freer reign, often causing delays in recording schedules, interruptions to complete short film production or personal appearances, and mobile deadlines which resulted in huge budget overruns. Of course, any large corporation is firmly devoted to the bottom line; that goes without saying.

Michael Jackson, however, really did not allow himself to be limited by monetary considerations or time constraints. He was driven by the art … the music. His artistic integrity was always paramount in his mind, never taking a back seat to limitation or restriction of any kind.  It had been this sense of integrity that had resulted in his remarkable and unprecedented successes in the past.

Throughout his solo career, he had pushed those limits. The recording sessions for both Thriller and BAD had resulted in at least one deadline extension. The Thriller short film had almost not happened because of its cost; it was saved by Michael’s intention to foot the bill himself and John Branca’s innovative The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller short film compilation. The same is true of Smooth Criminal and the Moonwalker feature length film release.  His creativity knew no such boundaries and he pushed himself and everyone around him to go that extra mile that would result in groundbreaking innovation in both recordings and short films, sometimes to the point of scrapping everything that had been done and starting over. To him, setting an arbitrary budgetary limit for a recording or short film was like living in a straight jacket with both hands tied behind his back, literally. It limited his creative freedom in a similar way to his adherence to his Jehovah Witness faith, which he had jettisoned during the BAD campaign. It was something he could not tolerate.

One can imagine Michelangelo’s patrons standing on the floor of the Sistine Chapel and yelling up the scaffold, “Just paint any hand! It doesn’t have to be God’s hand! Get it done! There is no more money. We have a schedule to keep.” Perhaps, Michelangelo would have “accidentally” dumped a gallon or two of paint on them in retaliation. Like Michelangelo, Michael felt that art should not be rushed or limited.

My gratitude to Mr. Smallcombe for his clarity in explaining the complicated issues at stake for both parties in the “Sony Debacle” in such a way that I feel at least partially knowledgeable. As I see it (with Mr. Smallcombe’s help), it was a battle of ideologies  … the assembly line versus the artistic integrity of the artist. In such a battle, there is never only one side.

On Sony’s side: Michael (along with almost all artists) refused to tour following the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, however, his tour was the lynchpin in Sony’s marketing campaign for the Invincible album. The marketing plan was lacking in innovation, according to Michael. Because of his inability to sleep when touring and the rigors of the touring system, he was adamant that the marketing campaign did not include a world tour. Additionally, he refused to stick to deadlines (set by Sony) for completion of the album, accept budgets (set by Sony) and film ideas (arranged by Sony) for the album’s short films.

On Michael’s side: dissatisfaction with Sony’s marketing plan for Invincible (which consisted almost entirely of sending Michael out to tour against Michael’s wishes and his physician’s medical advice), annoyance over Sony’s refusal to release “What More Can I Give” as a promotional campaign for the album, what he considered to be overly restrictive budgets for the short films he envisioned from the album, and lack of support for his philanthropic efforts following the September 11, 2001 attack in New York were significant complaints. In addition, he thought ownership of his master recordings would revert to him as early as 2004, but a careful re-reading of his contract by his lawyers showed that those recordings would not revert to him until 2009, at the earliest. The additional burden of in-fighting and jockeying for positions of control within his inner circle of advisors (which would become an escalating problem in the latter part of Michael’s life) became a significant factor.

Although, he envisioned many innovative short films from the material included on the album Invincible and was particularly excited to “get his hands on” the film for “Threatened,” he viewed Sony’s proposals for short films and their budgets as inadequate, lacking in innovation and creativity, and overly restrictive to his creative, innovative approach (which had so handsomely rewarded Sony in the past.) He disagreed with Sony’s choice of directors and album art and just about everything. In the end, he just refused to participate and put his name on “cookie cutter” music videos. His artistic integrity would not allow him to settle for being just “one of the cans in the assembly line.”

Mr. Smallcombe states that Michael Jackson began to lose creative control over his short films as early as the HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book 1 films and quotes Michael Jackson from 1998: “I’m submitting interesting projects at times, but I don’t always get to do the things I want. Some people [at Sony] push me to do things fast; they don’t care about the result, so they don’t care that the videos will look like everyone else’s, they don’t want to be creative. They are limited. I always wanted to do videos that were innovative, and I want to continue like that. But some people only want that I put myself in front of the camera, and when the lights go on they hope something magic will happen … just like that, without thinking. Well, it doesn’t work that way.”

Inner Circle (The Sharks in the Water)

One of the most mystifying factors in the life of Michael Jackson is how the people closest to him, his advisors consisting of managers, accountants, lawyers and publicity people, came to be so out of control during the latter years of his career. This situation came to a head during the last year of his life, resulting eventually in the confusion of having at least two people claiming to be his manager in 2009, at least one of them claiming to hold his power of attorney while Michael, himself, claimed that he did not represent him and that he had no power to negotiate on his behalf.

Up to that point, there had been a veritable game of “musical chairs” in Michael’s legal and financial empire. Both of his ex-wives had complained about the people surrounding Michael and the in-fighting that enveloped him at every turn and prior to any decision. Often, each of them found themselves the subject of “whispering” campaigns by people who had Michael’s ear and who harbored agendas against Michael Jackson’s best interests.

Mike Smallcombe claims that this “in-fighting” and “jockeying for position” began as early as 1989 and 1990 with Michael Jackson’s relationship with entertainment mogul David Geffen. From the relative stability of Frank Dileo and John Branca (through the BAD campaign), Mr. Smallcombe recounts that Geffen used Michael Jackson to wreak “havoc” for Walter Yetnikoff [EPIC division of Sony] . “Advising Michael to replace Dileo with Gallin was said to be part of Geffen’s way of avenging his enemy Walter Yetnikoff, the CBS president,” he states.

At the time, Mr. Smallcombe describes a literal take-over of Michael Jackson’s legal and financial empire by Geffen associates, with Sandy Gallin and Jim Morey providing his management following the ousting of Frank Dileo; Allen Grubman, one of Geffen’s lawyers,  replacing John Branca as his attorney; his accountants being replaced by  Geffen associates, and David Geffen whispering in Michael’s ear against CBS in an effort to “turn his most prized asset, Michael Jackson, against him [Yetnikoff} by making Michael want to leave the label.” Geffen was successful in his attempt to oust Walter Yetnikoff. Yetnikoff was fired in September 1990; he was replaced by Tommy Mottola.

This is just one example of Michael Jackson’s trust being manipulated by people for their own agendas rather than in his best interests. Throughout the following decade, there would be a number of associates ousted from Michael’s management and advising team. At the end of the day, however, the romance with Mottola, too, would sour when the Sony president tried to exert control over Michael Jackson’s creative freedom during the Invincible campaign. Joe Vogel states, “His representation had become a revolving door. Increasingly, he didn’t know who to trust.”

 

 

 

 

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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.

Bingo!

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.

Context

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!

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It Don’t Matter if You’re Black or White

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.

Androgyny/Masculinity/Gender Ambiguity

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.”

 

 

 

 

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