[Published in Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle. London: Ashgate, 2011]
“To be different is to lead a life of pain and persecution”
Many writers and theorists have attempted to deconstruct the persona of Michael Jackson from his superstar emergence in 1979 with the studio release of Off the Wall—from Jean Baudrillard to Bernard-Henri Lévy. Likewise there are the various media sources whereby pop psychologists and social pundits have discoursed upon the figure of Jackson in deconstructing his “race”, body, and sexuality. Usually these comments serve to buttress a myriad of newly generated “syndromes” or social behaviorisms recently pathologized in the past twenty-five years whereby Jackson is simultaneously public figure and pathology. However, no treatment of Jackson has ever been so extensive and post-mortem in the clinical sense of the word as how Jackson’s body was textually treated after his death on 23 June, 2009. Jackson’s body was, in a tradition reminiscent of 19th century anthropology, diagnosed from afar—ETV, Geraldo Rivera, morning television shows and every media pundit with a clip-on microphone espoused Jackson’s illnesses: how he was “emotionally” a fourteen year-old child who just wanted to recreate himself as Peter Pan in both thought and physical incarnation; that he was bulimic; that he had body dysmorphic disorder; that he tried to look like Diana Ross; and that he bleached his skin, among a myriad of other speculations. Throughout his life, Jackson’s life and body were analyzed ad nauseum to the point where his personal and legal troubles were revisited in a scene reminiscent of a very dark version of A Christmas Carol. How could people not be invested in discovering the “truth” about Jackson, since his entire life was a media spectacle undertaken by his parents and the entertainment industry to obfuscate and even destroy the very notion of a singular essence of his person? Since Jackson’s death, there has been an incessant—even obsessive—dissection of Jackson’s life with each pundit and specialist lending a newer, specific meaning to his body in all its dimensions and polymorphic positionings. Jackson’s body has become this self-fetichized object upon which media and the people have latched in attempting to understand who this person was.
Herein I propose an alternative reading of Michael’s body whose performativity went far beyond dance and approached the realm of somatic change which included a blurring of the lines between male and female, between black and white and between human and animal. In the end, Jackson’s body defied definition: he was sexless as he interpreted the roles of both man and women; his sexuality was represented as either non-existant or hyper-active, between the media sensationalism of his not possessing a sexuality whatsoever to his preying upon children; and likewise Jackson defied race as he was neither black nor white paradoxically because he was both black and white. Jackson modeled his body after the coincidences of its condition and of its somatic health (and disorder). From this he sculpted his identity into and around these narratives creating a body that put into question his markings within a culture obsessed with “race” and a society where identity is singular or, at the most, hyphenated. Jackson’s body reveals his struggle with identity as it is hinged between the somatic and the performative denying any sort of fixed corporeality and the various traditions and language of identity. A product of a social landscape wherein labelling is everything, where names reveal and where play and gesture are secondary to identity, Jackson created a new language for the body and performance as his body denied both his physical and social heritage. While Jackson’s music, dance and video reveal a body that makes high art from street dance and which creates a musical discourse of racial equality that denies the centrality of color and ethnicity, Jackson’s bodily transformations went even further in much the style of Barney’s Cremaster in vivo or Orlan’s autobiographical scriptings on the skin.
In her study, On Michael Jackson, Margo Jefferson describes Jackson as feminine, as womanly, as effacing his blackness and his nature. Attempting to understand how Jackson invented himself as a performer and as a human—in part as a consequence of his childhood, in part because of his extraordinary relationship to his fans—, Jefferson’s book focuses upon the specifically American history of transformation of freakery within our culture, putting Jackson front and center of this cultural and historical metamorphosis.
Jefferson contends that Jackson shifted the metaphors of black self-hatred around, pushing it into the past while ironizing the paradoxical relationship between “black” and “white”: “What’s the point of calling someone an Oreo (black on the outside, white on the inside) when he isn’t even trying to be black on the outside?” (82). Throughout her attempt to deconstruct Jackson’s “freakery”, Jefferson reconstructs yet another freakery: that of the “new kind of mulatto” (14) which she reveals as far from “new”. Jefferson’s work elides the social history of the “mulatto”, of ethnic hybridity in a country where racial purity is nothing other than a fiction and where the “mulatto” is certainly more the rule than the exception. Indeed, Jefferson’s central argument collapses upon itself since although she is correct in asserting that Jackson did not pretend to be white because he somatically changed his body to be neither, she is terribly mistaken in assuming a seamlessness in the language of science and ethnicity. Jefferson’s study skips from social to biological discourses of “race” without clarifying their interconnectivity and the way in which language of “race” is created by the very social discourses she propounds. When she writes: “Biology defines a mulatto as the sterile offspring of an animal or plant species” (14), Jefferson slides across the scientific specificity of this term, “mulatto”, dropping her sentence into the vulgar mire of 19th century racializations in which the term “mulatto” in popular culture is uniquely related to the production of something in between. Jefferson attempts to nail down, throughout the entirety of her book, these very dichotomized, dare I say, outdated identities. She is asking 19th century questions in an era when the identifications of “pure race” (biological or sociological) are now seen as conservative attempts to re-racialize a subject whose body and culture was already in the throes of post-racialism: Was Jackson black or white, man or woman, gay or straight? Questions that elide how Jackson’s somatic and performative lives broke down these very barriers by eluding them and by re-inventing his race, gender, sex and arguably his humanity.
The paradox of Jackson is that all parts of his life were rendered public, to include his body and the dissections of Jackson’s life produced both factual and fictive representations of his body which collectively all came to hold as much truth as they did fiction. Resultantly, Michael Jackson’s public persona is entirely based upon an unknown mixture of truth and fabrication that ranges from the biographical to the somatic, each reflecting the confusing nature of essence and singularity in his obfuscation of his body. As a result of his enormous fame and the painful coincidence of a family that consistently exploited his talents and his body, he was propelled from an early age to perform various sorts of on and off-stage «confessionals» about his skin, his plastic surgeries, his hair, his skin disease (Vitiligo), his sex, his sexuality and even his religious beliefs. According to Jefferson, Jackson was a performer in denial of the “real”. However, I posit that Jefferson’s volition to create and believe in a real results in her not seeing that Jackson was product of this rupture between life and performance, between the real and the artificial. The lines between each of these constructions are always blurred and the reality of Jackson’s body was as much about acting, performing and mutating the organic, as the theatre of Jackson’s musical performances and videos was about harnessing a certain “naturalness” of movement, expression of love and re-framing physical, sexual gestures that otherwise would be “out of place,” or even vulgar. There was a certain symbiosis between the “realness” of movement and emotion that Jackson’s music and performances evoked and the conterminous unreality of his physical appearance. I would argue that there is a conscious deconstruction of the pathos within Jackson’s performativity and the very body he created both as private subject and public spectacle. It is in this nexus of public and private where we can no longer decipher or tease out one from the other, just as in the simultaneous conscious amalgamation of fact and fiction about Jackson’s life.
Early in Jefferson’s book, she compares Jackson to P. T. Barnum’s collection of freaks from the early 19th century. Reminding the reader that the freak in early American culture was the “African,” Jefferson illustrates how Barnum would typically put an actor of European origin in blackface and exhibit him with the title “What is it?” Identity was, in its very essence already performative and mimetic. Later this act was changed and an actual African-American, William Henry Johnson also known as“Zip the Pinhead,” represented the “missing link”—fact and fiction are blurred and racial identity is as real in early stage representations as it is fictional performances (12). Freakery in early American cultures was not about representing the truth of visibility but rather about exploiting the fictions of visibility. Despite ironizing this juncture between real and invented, however, Margo Jefferson returns to the typical dichotomies of “normal” and “freak” transposing 19th century notions of strangeness onto late twentieth and early twenty-first century American culture: “Barnum’s museum exhibits, ethnological curiosities and circus sideshows also set the pattern for our daytime talk shows. The difference between then and now? Barnum’s people were supposed to be freaks of nature, outside the boundaries of The Normal” (8). Comparing Jackson to this traveling freak show of old, Jefferson attempts to create parallels between these 19th century relics and contemporary television shows like Fear Factor or Extreme Home Makeover. She suggests these shows are “updates” of older talent competitions where “the backstage tale, the life story, matters as much as the performance” (8). Jefferson suggests that Jackson is not an irreducible part of the dichotomies that have made him up—Jackson as either child or pervert, either humanitarian or predator, either a child star or a psychotic man fearful of aging. Jefferson asks: “What if the “or” is an “and”? What if he is all of these things?” (18).
As much as I find this part of Jefferson’s critique insightful in forcing the reader to abandon the traditional modalities for reading “either-ors,” Jefferson nonetheless creates moral dichotomies between real and imitation and between nature and fakery, ultimately classifying Jackson as a mimetic fraud who hides behind a mask of cosmetic surgery, skin lightening, and increasing “effeminization”, despite Jefferson’s list of endless rock stars who have followed this path of gender-bending since the beginning of rock and roll. We should recall that both Little Richard and Elvis Presley threatened the status quo: both artists’ bodily movements and costumes were considered “over the top” during the entirety of their careers as their dance moves imperiled static notions of masculinity where “manly hips” simply didn’t move, as in the case of Elvis Presley, and where make-up and wild hair designs were a constant source of gossip surrounding Little Richard. Though Jefferson brackets Little Richard’s performances as somehow part of “black masculinity” to include his trademark screams during his concerts (“You’re gonna make me scream like a white lady”), she separates very starkly Jackson’s odyssey into gender bending from Little Richard’s. I find this separation suspicious at best given there is no real distinction between these artists which she claims “few black men followed”. If anything Little Richard made it possible for the multitudes of gender blending performers who were his contemporaries and those who followed: James Brown’s hairdos, Freddie Mercury’s costumes and on-stage flamboyance, Sylvester’s falsetto bravado and David Bowie’s similarly extravagant and transgendering use of makeup and gestures. Jackson simply did not innovate gender or racial bending and the history of American music prior to Jackson is riddled with similar performances that were admittedly less intense and more infrequently performed. Nonetheless, as in the history of queer performance upon popular culture, the multiplicity of performers who played with gender and race is not simply not negligible.
Jefferson’s study takes this concept of freakery from the confines of scientific discourses of medical pathology and from the popular narratives of social exclusion current in American culture and she moves this concept, applying it towards the biographical, attempting to demonstrate how Jackson’s childhood was a form of freakery. Likewise she shows how Jackson’s entry into Motown and his subsequent move to Encino, California, allowed him to know similar child freaks who, like him, had lost their childhoods to show business—Brooke Shields, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Tatum O’Neill. These people became part of Jackson’s menagerie of friends throughout various parts of his adulthood and resultantly, Jackson’s existence tended toward two extremes: the distention of hyper-performativity and “adult-like” professionalism on stage and in the studio and antithetically, his reclusion and performativity of childhood acts in his private life where water balloon and water gun fights were part of his quotidian existence. Jefferson portrays Jackson’s “loss of childhood” as its own sort freakery in a world where this six-year old boy went on to embody forever the boy who “was loved by other boys and by their mothers” (21). Jefferson takes this childhood embodied in the adult body of Jackson even further by comparing his physical form to that of Sunset Blvd.’s Norma Desmond who was a “freak version of its younger self… A travesty looking very much like an aging transvestite, a freak” (27). But is this rendering of the freak accurate in a culture where being a freak is a societal marginalization of difference to include race, gender, sexual, and mental and physical “handicap” as this difference? Jefferson makes no little effort to tease the problematic historical discourse of freakery from the present, for the late twentieth century freak was often a role model for others to follow. In short, freakery is no longer about a cruel excision of the individual from the social core or the abjection of a specific ideal; instead, freakery in recent years have very much been about embracing difference and rendering it both spectacle and normal.
In the chapter “Alone of All His Race, Alone of All Her Sex,” Jefferson conflates black masculinity with hyper-masculinity as if these two modalities are mutually interdependent. Despite the fact that most every successful black artist had in fact exploited the play between masculinity and femininity (ie. Little Richard, Rick James, and Prince) until the era of hip-hop and that there was a recent resurgence of this gender play with artists like Kanye West, Jefferson remains stuck in an outdated theoretical approach to “black masculinity” where somehow there is a homogenous construction thereof. Jefferson’s interpretation of Jackson’s crotch clutching is laden with the weight of an extremely outdated, if not entirely problematic, interpretation of black masculinity that she views as always—or at least is intended to be—macho:
In retrospect, the crotch clutch seems at once desperate and abstract. It is as if he were telling us, “Fine, you need to know I am a man, a black man? Here’s my dick: I’ll thrust my dick at you! Isn’t that what a black man’s supposed to do? But I’m Jackson, so just look but you can’t touch.” (102 )
Jefferson, it seems to me, fails to see how Jackson was consciously subverting race and gender in his performances for which the “crutch clutch” was never about blackness, and hardly about sexuality. In reviewing his Dangerous World Tour performance shot in Bucharest, 1992, I am reminded that Jackson’s one gesture that was never about race or sexuality was precisely his crotch thrust. In his yellow unitard over back pants I recall how children often wear underclothes on the outside of their clothes in attempting to emulate any number of super heroes. In this performance by Jackson, all reference to sexuality was annulled by the neutering of sex organs through the mere absurdity and playfulness of costume. In a similar way, Jackson’s employment of mobster fashion with an external unitard combined with the pastiche mob violence of a Broadway show tune annuls the sexuality of the crotch while heightening the sexuality of every single mobster-esque gesture– from the faux fireworks which symbolize machine gun fire to the violent turns and twists of each spin.
This curious mixture of “inside-out” wear is both costume and play for Jackson–the crotch grab becomes an innocent act of desexualization rather than of sexualization. We see this again in his Budapest concert where onstage Jackson’s body retains a purity of movement and where the thrusts, the twists, his primal screams and high pitched “heees” are much more about being in the presence of this icon and his movements rather than witnessing some sexualized gestures. Certainly there is more sexuality onstage in this concert demonstrated by what Jackson does not do than what he does. Jackson’s concert opening contains more sexual reference and play of “pent up sexual energy” masked as desire than than all of the crotch grabs of this concert combined. Jackson plays with stasis and rhythm of the opening moments of his concert, creating all the plays of sexuality–and even the sexual act as metaphor–as each opening move is choreographed as part his dance: he is propelled onstage by an underground catapult and as he lands, he stands perfectly still for two minutes looking towards his right, his aviator sunglasses masking his interiority, his long hair resting on his shoulders likewise is motionless, and his arms slightly bent and his fists cocked as if ready for action. The crowds scream hysterically as this icon rendered life-statue remains motionless, completely fixed, and their screams become admonishments to wake him from his inaction reminding him to move. Little by little these screams turn to chants of “Michael, Michael”. His frozen body teases the crowd as if a challenge for them to break him with their adulation and cries, until two minutes have elapsed and then suddenly he quickly jerks his head left and the crowd escalates its screams. Just as quickly he moves both hands up to the temples of his sunglasses and once again remains still as he reduces his rhythm ever so slowly taking off his sunglasses. The crowds grow even wilder with their cries and by the time he has fully removed his glasses, the tears and screams are insurmountable. It is then that he immediately propels his body into his speed of light spin left spin followed by his signature leg kick which initiates the song “Jam.” Jackson has brought his audience to a climax with little more than stasis, a slow removal of sunglasses and a spin. Sexual energy is both present and absent in this concert opening—it is confused within the elated screams of men and women alike, it is confused by this deity plummeted to earth rendered human for whom sexuality is but a tool for his performance.
In her attempt to separate phallus from penis, Jefferson creates a solipsism between black masculinity as either real or symbolic, viewing the real and symbolic as somehow always separable. However, for Jackson, the symbolic and real are entirely inseparable and they play off one another attaining their meanings from this very type of reflexivity just as they do in “real life”. For instance, Margo Jefferson theorizes the penis as purely sexual in Jackson’s performances and then as quickly as she engages this idea, she abandons it to suddenly proclaim that his crotch thrust is phallic, not sexual: “It wasn’t real, it was symbolic. Not a penis but a phallus” (102).n It would seem that Jefferson misses the mark on understanding how the phallic can be both symbolic and poetic—especially in the gesticular and corporeal movements of dance. For instance, Jackson was conscious about keeping his body free from too much musculature, maintaining his body fit and agile while also slender and even androgynous. His dance flows onscreen and onstage and his nubile movements allow for any dancer—be he a classical ballet dancer to one trained in the Cunningham technique—the ability to transcend the clichés of gender. Jackson strikes a pose, hand on crotch, right hand in the air, pausing while singing “Human Nature”. He renders the private public while also turning the sexual on its head. Or as he once described his dance moves to Oprah, “I don’t think about it…I just do it.”
What is most problematic in Jefferson’s reading of Jackson’s body is this intent of inscribing race onto Jackson for whom race was the center of his deconstruction in song, dance and interviews. He would often throw back questions at his interlocutor saying, “I bet if everyone who has had plastic surgery were to go on vacation, Los Angeles would be empty” or “People are always changing the color of their skin…tanning”. Jefferson cites Ralph Elison’s Invisible Man regarding the task of the black artist which “was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face” (97). Yet, Margo Jefferson attempts to set up an incredibly racialized reading of fluid race and gender of Jackson while conversely focusing on this notion of the “black woman” she maintains is embodied by Jackson’s mother, Katherine, and Diana Ross. Jefferson points to black femininity as the core of Jackson’s representation of gender as if “black femininity” were in and of itself a representational domain, or at least the specific focus of Jackson’s mimetic changes which certainly seemed to mimic an imagined “raceless woman”. The very same notion that the crotch represents the penis or that Diana Ross must somehow be the referent for all black femininity are positions postulated by Jefferson which impose racialization despite the lack of substance for such arguments. In short, Jefferson attempts to limit the constructions of “normative identity” (in all their alleged referents) that Jackson’s performances and body actually deconstructed. Jackson was a hybrid of gender, ethnicity and sex onstage whose corporeal interpretations refused belonging or stasis. The moon walk, like so much of Jackson’s choreography, touched upon the very magical realism of his performances, his constructed worlds of peace and equality on and off-stage–his somatic transformations and the heterogeneity of his gestures embodied his defiance of gender, race and anthropomorphism. As Jackson co-opted the moonwalk from popular American cinema the ghettos, this dance has become the metaphor for Jackson’s ability to bring the unreal into the sphere of the real and in a majestic mixture of fantasy and fiction, he somehow managed to bring the moon to earth through dance.
What started this journey of bringing the fantastic to earth, however, was born through the very medium of that brought reality and fiction together: cinema. Jackson’s fame was made by his music, but it was stamped and sealed by his video work. Jackson’s videos brought to the fore issues of social and racial inequality in the United States as seen through cinematic tropes as he borrowed from an expansive tradition of cinematic traditions of song, dance and horror. Working through social discourses of racial, class and social injustice in American society, Jackson reinacts stories of injustice: he invokes racial and species division from I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) as replayed in Thriller (1983); he reinterprets Fred Astaire from The Band Wagon (1953) as the lyrics tell a story of domestic violence while the video which recreates a 1920s gangster scenario in Smooth Criminal (1988); and Scream (1995) takes on the esthetics of Japanese sci-fi Anime as this song autobiographically decries Jackson’s treatment by the media during the child sexual abuse accusations made against him in the early 1990’s. Jackson borrows from cinematic traditions that ignore color barriers, he employs dance techniques that likewise bring together a grand history of the American musical in film and Broadway, and he creates a hybridized form of dance and visual media that bars all specificity to race by forcing the spectator to realize that no one dance move or note can be reduced to any single meaning or origin. Song and dance become metahpors for race. By bringing to the fore the rich history of music, film, and dance in the United States in the context of historical and fictional themes of racial, gangster and biological divisions, Jackson’s videos offer a paradisiac, fictional world of racial and cultural hybridity. His videos create a domain where color no longer matters and where the outside simulation of the somatic body and the gesticulations of the dancer, invoke dialogue by virtue of pure spectacle. Jackson’s videos bring together such a diverse range of cinematic and performative traditions such that what he presents is a product of a cultural heterogeneity within the United States and other international settings.
For instance, the moonwalk whose origin has been the focus of much discussion, is a dance form which was not solely invented in the tradition of African-American dance or in the ghetto despite the insistence of many people, to include some of his fans. Instead, Jackson recuperates the moonwalk in its plurality of meaning and origin and demonstrates this dance’s rich heritage throughout his video work and live performances. More amazing is how Jackson uses this dance form to deconstruct racial and cultural specificity by bringing the moonwalk to various settings, from his first live performance of the moonwalk at Motown 25 to a video dealing with early twentieth century gangster mafia culture. The various manners through which Jackson employs the moonwalk strips it of all specificity and deprives it of any type of univocality. We observe the early forms of the moonwalk from as far back as 1932 with Cab Calloway, as performed by the mime masters Etienne Decroux and Jean-Louis Barrault. We also see other performativities of the mookwalk from Marcel Marceau’s mime performances to the films Cabin in the Sky (1943), Les Enfant du paradis (1944) and Showtime at the Apollo (1955), popularized by performers such as Bill Bailey and Fred Astaire. We also are given the moonwalk in contemporary breakdance of the 1980s as represented in television and film such as Fame (1982) and Flashdance (1983). The historical plurality of this dance move’s performance dilutes the specificity of meaning or ownership. Jackson capitalizes on this movement’s rich history and renders the moonwalk as not black, nor white, but as specifically his own. Over the course of his lifetime, Jackson’s body became a tabla rasa for reading cultural and racial exchanges the result of which was two-fold: on the one hand, there was forever doubt cast upon the “truth” about his body, from his somatic illness, Vitiligo, to his plastic surgeries; while on the other hand, the amorphism of his body allowed for his music and dance to be cast as universal truths. In his opening up readings on his body, Jackson likewise posited the possibility for everyone to access his music, his dance and even to embrace their own special sort of marginalization. While making a film on the public mourning of Jackson, To Neverland and Back (2010), I was rather surprised how many of Jackson’s fans identified with him due to their own marginalization due to handicap, illness, sexuality and ethnic identity.
Certainly Jefferson acknowledges how Jackson’s body becomes similar to that of a cyborg in her citation of Keith Haring’s famous journal entry about Jackson, which foresaw in many ways this performer’s continued metamorphoses:
I talk about my respect for Michael’s attempts to take creation in his own hands and invent a non-black, non-white, non-male, non-female creature by utilizing plastic surgery and modern technology. He’s totally Walt-Disneyed out! An interesting phenomenon at the least. A little scary, maybe, but nonetheless remarkable, and I think somehow a healthier example than Rambo or Ronald Reagan. He’s denied the finality of God’s creation and taken it into his own hands, while all the time parading around in front of American pop culture. I think it would be much cooler if he would go all the way and get his ears pointed or add a tail or something, but give him time! (179)
However, throughout her analysis, Jefferson attempts to maintain the real by projecting her expectations of a real: the real “masculine”, the real “black masculinity”, and the implied betrayal of an “African American community.” I am left wondering, after reading Jefferson’s book, if she understood at all the incredible richness of Jackson’s work and life simply because his work did not speak to race–it spoke to the end of race and division. Jackson even played consciously with color in each of his concerts through his choice of band members and dancers. His lead guitarists were always women who would often wear huge masks which would transform them into more animalesque creatures and the dancers were always a mixture of Latino, African-American, and lighter skinned dancers. Jackson de-emphasized race by emphasizing the esthetics thereof and by bridging the white/black dichotomies with something far more radical: the human-animal divide.
Reminiscent of Keith Haring’s statement is the liminality that Jackson’s body presents to the spectator—not the body of race, but rather the body of human. For much of Jackson’s public and private persona was that of an animal lover; however, if we look a bit more deeply at his his facial features, we notice how much of what Jackson surgeries accomplished was rendering his body more and more feline as could be seen in his 2004 trial. And certainly the Oprah Winfrey and Martin Bashir interviews revealed this performer’s opulent lifestyle as a blatant form of freakery in an of itself by showing Jackson’s animal fetishes from his close relationships with animals he rescued: Bubbles the chimp, Louie the llama, Muscles the snake, and Bubba the lion. There was always something suspect about this man who built a huge sanctuary for himself in a place he called Neverland, fashioning himself a modern day Peter Pan, holding dozens of wild animals and somatically changing his body little by little into something that went far beyond “human-like”. Might Keith Haring have been correct in his reading Jackson as trans-human, as cyborg? Or could it be that Jackson’s performances off-stage had slowly become his reality, reversing a pattern which his parents had established for him as a child-star living life primarily through public performances?
This division between animal and human, which metaphorically represented racial division in his work from the 1980s, came to represent in the 1990s a metaphor for divide between adults and children, between animal and man. Jackson found solace with children and animals, as he often states in interviews, simply because they did not want anything from him. The dichotomies of Jackson’s double identity are best revealed through his somatic transformation from a young African-American kid to a superstar who in a strange pastiche of private and public performances transgresses sex, gender and race. With Jackson we are given myriad and opposing identities constantly from his on-stage and off-stage personas: real/performance; childhood/adulthood; passivity (life)/ aggression (stage); live performance hyper-sexuality/ “real life” interview mode and asexuality. Even this notion of the “real” for Jackson is always performative and is never a real “real”—the artifice of his onstage performances, on-camera interviews and spontaneous candid moments before the camera dazzle the spectator in what could be the most sincere of confessions, or it could be one of many plastic layers of authenticity spread thick for the camera. The spectator is never given confirmation and Jackson’s authenticity is grounded in a complete confusion of the real and the artifice. In analyzing Jackson’s “interview persona” after his death, I have to admit to feeling uncomfortable with the massive transformation from this this sweet-voiced, giggling “boy” at home who suddenly turns himself into a virile, dextrous and extroverted performer on stage. It was clear to me that Jackson’s authenticity was derived from neither his private persona nor his performative figure, but instead his “realness” is maintained in his transgressions between both public and private selves.
Jackson’s performances embraced all that was part of America as he stretched the limits of representability both as victim of an abusive childhood and as a superstar who went on to not only dominate the music industry for a solid decade, but he continued to support economically the entirety of his abusive family, even after his death. Jackson was a mutant of various identities with which he constantly struggled throughout his life: in his private life he was able to write his own identity as a product of abusive parents, as a victim of sexual violence and as a son who recognized the loss of his childhood due to a career forced upon him, and while in public, he was the subject of scrutiny regarding his race, his bodily transformations, his sexuality and his relationships to other adults and children. Jackson’s image was symbiotic with what American culture was experiencing for this society was struggling with the language of racial identity, with the novelty of somatic transformations through plastic surgery, and with the newly confronted homosexual identities tragically brought to public attention through the tragedy of AIDS in the 1980s. Synchronic to these social negotiations, Jackson embodied the coincidence of his skin disease, Vitiligo, which organically transformed his skin while he would go on to perform songs that denied racial—and at times human—singularity. Jackson took the cultural coincidences of somatic complexities and embraced this within his private and public personas. Jean Baudrillard contemplates this performer’s body:
Jackson is a solitary mutant, a precursor of hybridization that is perfect because it is universal—the race to end all races. Today’s young people have no problem with a miscegenated society: they already inhabit such a universe, and Jackson foreshadows what they see as an ideal future. Add to this the fact that Jackson has had his face lifted, his hair straightened, his skin lightened — in short, he has been reconstructed with the greatest attention to detail. This is what makes him such an innocent and pure child—the artificial hermaphrodite of the fable, better able even than Christ to reign over the world and reconcile its contradictions; better than a child-god because he is child-prothesis, an embryo of all those dreamt-of mutations that will deliver us from race and sex (21-22).
Yet what was freakish about Jackson was that he brought the historical metaphors of hybridity—very much part of American history—to the fore and evidenced that which we all knew, but did not dare act or say. He took corporeal metamorphosis outside the simplistic container of black and white and moved it into the celestial spheres of invention and spectacle that transcended all human divisions, to end all races.
As a superstar, it was most difficult for Jackson to convey the childhood he never had living a life that economically most on this earth could never imagine. How to portray childhood cruelty from the mouth of a God who “has it all”? Jackson did manage to accomplish this task from the transmission of his childhood story in song and interview through the very re-creation of his childhood as an adult. Jackson created form of private and public freakery that few could understand as he entered into child-sphere of reclusion that made the prospects of skin bleaching appear normal to many and that sadly left his life open for those who attempted to extort and slander him. The menagerie of animals and the roller coaster rides at Neverland were indices of a man-boy who refused to grow up and likewise his affection for these animals displayed both a childhood innocence (even regression) as did his anthropomorphic regard for these creatures whom he viewed as his boyhood self. Jackson’s animals were largely saved from circuses and zoos and as such he spared these animals from the life he had: that of circus performers. Inevitably, Jackson re-creates the scene for the salvation of his own childhood through his salvation of these animals—to give them, in a sense, their own childhood. Jackson recreated his face through plastic surgery to resemble that of an organic other and he took back control of his body from nature and made with it his own, forcing the line separating the real and artificial to slowly fade. Viewed from an organic perspective, Jackson enacted humanistic performance and song through a trans-human body.
Jackson’s performances were invested in making the artifice look real, even when the artificial was so painfully unreal, as can be noted in the introduction of his HIStory Tour (1996-1997) when the spectator is given a ten minute prelude to his stage entrance: a huge screen which has a virtual reality shuttling through the world of Jackson as seen from on a roller coaster passing the pyramids at Geeza, a large Buddha statue, New York’s Chrysler Building, the Parthenon, a statue of Mercury, and then suddenly, the viewer is no longer subject but is once again spectator, floating high above in the Cistine Chapel, watching geysers of fire emerging from the earth as a space capsule floats above space, the animated cranks and wheels of Chaplin’s Modern Times appears followed by an Egyptian obelisk covered in cameras and video screens. The anachronism and inaccuracy of these images renders them all the more mesmerizing as the spectator is being given name brands of the worlds greatest wonders with absolutely no contextualization. The audience awaits Michael’s landing as they scream his name and, minutes later, we finally hear his voice: “Mission control: What is my TOA?” Jackson makes one last stop on earth as there are animations of video screens along the roller coaster which we (the fans) are watching and upon these screens are fans faces screaming “Michael!” This entry is cinematic kitsch of the simulation of fandom amidst the simulation of fandom. And at long last, the video comes to an end and a real-life cockpit of the spaceship emerges from the stage and what was the “real” cinematic image is now transformed into yet another, three-dimensional real. Jackson emerges from the cockpit in a golden suit: he is not human, he is android. He peels off the first layer of body armor and then his helmut, busting out into the song “Scream” with his body still partially confined by silver leggings that are held on by dozens of straps, and of course his signature loafers.
Jackson’s concerts are, in their totality, a wonderfully strange mixture of high-tech showmanship, performatives of the hyper-masculinity with his dancers costumed in military and mafia dress, and of course Jackson’s own corporeal and gesticulative transformations between femininity, masculinity and androgyny. What makes his shows so transformative for the viewer is how Jackson mixes an array of fantasy, mafia and outer-space themes in one performance while his songs actually touch upon very real issues that are either autobiographical or overwhelmingly common themes of humankind: from the sexual tone of a groupie in “Dirty Diana” to the ecological call of “The Earth Song” to his song about the non-importance of race in “Black or White” to the humanist song which invokes Ghandi’s “be the change you want the world to be”, “Man in the Mirror.” Between the realness of his music which imagines a world of social justice—no matter how schmaltzy some might find these themes—and the extraordinary vision of technological and performative displays of excellence and other worldliness, Jackson has created the perfect space on stage for realizing his Neverland with his fans as the concert becomes a dreamscape for imagining possibility through somatic deception. For instance, the finale of his Dangerous Tour is laden with as much fakery and kitsch, bookending his world of imaginary power of the real: while singing Change he dawns a white spacesuit, helmut and and then straps on a rocket ship (when the body double takes over through a lovely trompe l’oeil of stage imaginary), and he launches off giving his fans a finale that is prohibitively unreal. While no insurance company would back Jackson to launch himself off-stage, a body double “becomes” the body of Jackson while the crowds are tricked into believing that it is Jackson himself who is launching off. The dream of spectacle is realized through a fraud, and a body double becomes Jackson’s boyhood dream of flying high above the screaming crowds.
Bernard-Henri Lévy maintains that Jackson did not die from a drug overdose; instead, Lévy states that “ he died because of his desire not only to invent a vaccine against life, but also to want to inoculate himself with it.” What Jackson was, must be spoken in the present tense because although he is gone from this earth, what he represents is very much alive and part of American culture in the cultural inevitability to name or be named, to frame or be framed. Jackson was rendered an archeological artifice his entire live forced to answer questions that go beyond the scope of fame and enter into the framework of our postmodern circus, that of tabloid journalism. Certainly, to some, Jackson is a freak. To others he is a hero, an artist, an innovator, a peacemaker, a philanthropist. But what if he is all of the above?
The truth about Jackson is that he was our freak, every bit as much as we were his. His moves, his dance, his music, his media performances, his mixture of kitsch and humanistic discourses of world peace and love are a huge part of our cultural landscape and language both in the United States and abroad. Likewise, Jackson’s body and artistic work create an order and cultural logic that shatters the univocal treatments of identity and more importantly, Jackson proposes both physical and emotional change as part of the landscape of humanity’s future. In the months following Jackson’s death we heard one armchair analysis after another about his “body dysmorphic disorder” relating how Jackson did not accept his body. These kinds of readings struck me as both irresponsible—for how can the dead by psychoanalyzed—and careless since the readings that every “specialist” lent to Jackson were uni-directional: each analysis was inevitably about Jackson’s inability to accept himself, never about our culture’s inability to accept difference. I think the dysmorphic disorder that needs further interrogation is not that of Jackson but rather that of a culture that claims to be the freest in the world whilst this very culture kills its own creatures. In his refusal to be named, Jackson died. In our refusal to let him name himself, we killed him.
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Haring, Keith. (1996). Keith Haring’s Journals. London: Viking Penguin.
Lévy, Bernard-Henri. (2009). “The Three Stations of the Cross in Michael Jackson’s Calvary.” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bernardhenri-levy/the-three-stations-of-the_b_224224.html
Jefferson, Margo. (2006). On Michael Jackson. New York : Pantheon Books, 2006.