Scholars get Jacko-demic at Yale
by Alex French - September 30, 2004
In 1984 Jackson was, in fact, considered by the mainstream to be a god. He was the "King of Pop," a brown-skinned dynamo with a mane of activated curls and a wispy mustache. A year after its release, Jackson's second solo album, Thriller , which generated seven top-10 hits and earned him eight Grammys, was selling at a rate of 600,000 copies a week. It was also the year he teamed up with John Landis, director of An American Werewolf in London , to film the video for "Thriller."
Twenty years later, the thrill is gone. "Jacko" has endured multiple child-molestation charges, an ill-fated marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, a disastrous Pepsi commercial, declining album sales, and a face that just won't quit weirding us out. He had a child, and proceeded to dangle it from a balcony, much to the shock and horror of just about everyone. To say the least, the media has had quite a field day with Michael Jackson. And now, he is at long last getting his due in academia.
The "Thriller" video is so evocative of elements of Jackson's life -- the repeated alteration of his appearance, his perceived transformation into a raceless zombie -- that it was one of the primary "texts" discussed last week at Yale University during "Regarding Michael Jackson: Performing Racial, Gender, and Sexual Difference Center Stage," a two-day conference hosted by Yale's African American studies department and the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies.
"Thriller" truly was a groundbreaking, postmodern revelation, and worthy of a scholarly treatment. The 13-minute-long short film opens with former Playboy pinup girl Ola Ray -- dressed in a pink sweater, with a scarf in her hair -- out on a date with a wholesome-looking Jackson. After their car runs out of gas in a secluded area, and they're forced to walk, Michael asks Ola: "Will you be my girl?" Ola accepts, and then Michael sheepishly confesses, "I have something to tell you ... I'm not like the other guys." The clouds part, exposing a full moon. Jackson hunches over in pain. When Ola begs to know, "Are you alright?" he looks at her with glowing yellow eyes, opens his fang-filled mouth, and shouts, "Go away!"
It's just in the instant before she is dismembered that we realize we're watching a movie within a movie; they're in the theater and she's cowering into Michael's coat as they watch a '50s horror film. Terrified, she leaves the theater and Michael pursues, playfully taunting her with his song. When the couple passes a cemetery, an army of corpses rises and marches out to the street. There's a tight shot of a terrified Ola, and then the camera wheels around to reveal that Michael has morphed into a hollow-cheeked zombie. A dance routine ensues. Ultimately, we learn, it was only a terrible dream. Michael -- human, living -- asks, "What's the problem?" He slings an arm around her shoulder to take her home, and when Ola is looking the other way, he turns to the camera with an evil grin and demonic yellow eyes.
Shortly after "Thriller" debuted on MTV, leaders of the Jehovah's Witness changed their tune and called on their flock to "destroy albums and videos with verbal or visual references to witches, demons or devils." They discouraged worshippers from emulating "worldly musicians" in dress, grooming and speech by wearing T-shirts or jackets that advertise such performers. Jackson, who at the time was a devout Witness, was censured in Awake, a Watchtower Society magazine, in an indictment that stated, "The performer was seen to transform first into a 'cat person,' then a dancing 'monster.'" Twenty years later, many outside the church also consider Jackson to be a monster. Those glowing yellow eyes in the video's final frame seem to have foreshadowed his future.
Despite his being a critical and highly controversial figure in the culture wars of the last two decades, many in the academy are finding it difficult to take Jackson Studies seriously. Even still, Uri McMillan, a conference organizer, argues that while a "Gloved One: 101" class would probably be overkill, "questions of race, sexuality, and gender that are hallmark of cultural studies as well as feminism and queer theory are questions that intersect in a figure such as Michael Jackson. Whether it's been in the lyrical content of his songs or the visual imagery of his videos, I think it is useful to see Jackson as part of these discourses."
Wearing a smoke-colored blazer that partially obscured a black Michael Jackson T-shirt, novelist and conference co-organizer Seth Clark Silberman commenced the festivities with a clip from Jackson's 1993 video "Brace Yourself." Jackson doesn't actually sing in the video, which consists solely of footage of Jackson's fans in all manner of traumatic euphoria -- adolescent girls screaming, shaking, passing out, being carried to safety by hulking security guards -- and a series of shots of Jackson dancing amid exploding pyrotechnics. Usually this sort of scholarly catalog is reserved for the dead, but over the past 15 years, at least since the release of Bad , Jackson has been known more for his eccentricities and legal problems than for his musical contributions. He's ceased to be a human and has become a spectacle.
You can chart Jackson's decline by his physical transformation into a creature that, as Silberman described it, "no longer technically looks human." Jackson first went under the knife in May of 1979 after breaking his nose in a dancing mishap. In addition to countless nose jobs, Jackson has had -- it is reported -- dye injected into his eyelids (forever eliminating his need to apply eyeliner), a prosthetic cleft inserted in his chin, a handful of facelifts, fat suctioned from his cheeks, his upper lip thinned, bone grafts on his cheeks and jaw to add definition to the contours of his face, a "forehead lift" to smooth his skin and raise his eyebrows, and several eye jobs to remove the bags and crow's feet. In Michael Jackson Unauthorized , a 1994 biography, Christopher Andersen offers that Jackson changed his appearance in order to erase any resemblance to his abusive father. But Jackson already looked nothing like Joe Jackson by the late '80s. A more popular explanation holds that Jackson wanted to look like a white woman. Whatever the case may be, Jackson's face, like everything about him, begs for interpretation. Academics are obliging.
Norah Morrison, in presenting the talk "Dramatizing Race and Fantasizing Sex," focused on how Jackson uses dance in his videos for various reasons. "I would contend that Jackson views himself as the ultimate crossover artist," Morrison argued, "as a figure who not only appeals to a white audience but uses music and dance to resolve tension and create racial harmony."
It's a motif that occurs repeatedly in his videos but is most apparent in "Beat It" when Michael steps between rival gang members (one black, one white), to break up a knife fight. Miraculously, the two rival gangs proceed to follow Jackson -- as though he's some kind of Pied Piper -- through a coordinated dance routine.
Uri McMillan's presentation, "White Ambition: Michael Jackson, Racial Erasure, and Aesthetic Surgery," provided an alternative interpretation to Jackson's facial transformation: He framed plastic surgery as a method of racial passing, as a move toward a facial ideal -- created largely by plastic surgeons -- that used whiteness as a frame of reference. McMillan's idea simultaneously seemed to illuminate and challenge Todd Gray's earlier contention that "Michael's transformation represents a commodification of the self. He was angry that artists like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones copied the work of black musicians and had gotten rich and famous while the creators remained poor and unknown. Michael wanted to be bigger than Elvis and the Beatles and the Stones, and he took on the trappings of the white artist because he thought the American public wouldn't buy anything else."
Gray's assertion caused a bit of a stir in the room. One male attendee responded: "Concerning Michael's move toward whiteness and Michael's self-presentation, how do you square that with the fact that Michael doesn't look white at all? White people don't accept him as whiter, and there's this aspect of the inhuman, the monster, the freak. While ostensibly he might be white -- I guess -- nobody is confusing him for white. Norah [Morrison] could argue that the goal wasn't to be black or white, but to be neither black nor white; to stand in some sort of middle position among the races. I was struck, looking at 'Thriller,' how it's impossible to reconstruct race among the corpses. Jackson carries our knowledge of his blackness as well as our knowledge of his attempts at whiteness. What stands is his inhumanness, his refusal of our already known categories of racial identification. He's monstrous for precisely that reason."
This notion of "monstrousness" was at the very heart of the conference's discussions. On the morning of the second day I heard presented the idea that Michael Jackson's face has become a mask that calls attention to the fact that it's a mask. And that Jackson has presented himself as freakish because freakish is an effort to demonstrate universality. The result is that he appears androgynous rather than feminine, multiracial rather than black or white. It's as if Jackson -- in his attempts to make himself look the part of the universal entertainer, to conform to a universal ideal -- has made himself into an other , a creature simultaneously strange and comforting, an object of desire and derision.
And he's made an art form out of this kind of "productive ambivalence." This according to Rebecca Wanzo, an Ohio State professor whose presentation, "Michael as Monster: From Embodying Thriller to Pedophilia," was based on her construction of boogeyman narratives that can be used to interpret both real-life cultural scenarios and fictive texts. According to Wanzo, boogeymen in fictive narratives actually perform "cultural work similar to the work they do in real life."
The pleasures of a horror movie reside in predictability -- we know the monster will kill and in the end we know that a hero/heroine will stop the monster "whose threat reveals the capacity for monstrosity in the human soul, or at least the human who might also function as a savior." Good horror, according to Wanzo, reminds us that everybody is capable of being a monster. Wanzo was convinced that we function using a similar logic in the real world, except there's one fairly significant exception: the consumer (me, you) isn't supposed to identify with the monster that might make the beast appear sympathetic.
This theory makes the "Thriller" video that much more interesting, especially when you consider the moment when Michael's character tells Ola -- just before turning into the werewolf -- "I'm not like the other guys." According to Wanzo, at that moment, "Jackson is evoking a real-life speaker who intentionally and unintentionally feels alienated from the normal. The claim 'I'm not like the other guys' works as a linguistic phantom that haunts the tensions between the many media statements which have asserted that sex offenders may indeed seem like other guys."
In real life, identification shifts from monsters to victims, and we're trained to admire victims for their courage. As a creator of fictive horror and allegedly a real-life cultural horror (pedophilia), Jackson represents the nuances of cultural consumption of both fictional and nonfictional horror stories. As a gang member in "Beat It," a werewolf and zombie in "Thriller," the horror he represents is easily contained in the supernatural and in singing and dancing.
Throughout his career, however, Jackson mostly has done a masterful job of manipulating media, and, observed Wanzo, has assumed a victim's role in this case. But, regardless of Jackson's guilt or innocence, creative talents, troubling ambiguities, vulnerabilities, and megalomania, Wanzo concluded, "Jackson's case can help us improve public conversations about what it means to value someone who has committed bad, troubling, unclear or even evil acts and to encourage a public vocabulary that doesn't reduce citizens to gods or monsters. It's an ethical and political imperative to perform the moral work and push against members of society to see that culturally constructed monsters and gods of our reality are human beings, and cannot possibly be as evil as the creatures of horror film or as good as the heroes of our dreams."
Wanzo's notion of the boogeyman narrative was even more resonant when considered in relation to comments made by Dr. K.C. Arceneaux on Thursday afternoon.
Arceneaux splits time between teaching media studies at Virginia Tech and monitoring media coverage of Jackson's child molestation case for websites including rawnews.com and mjredemption.com. She says the information being fed to the public by media outlets is distorted in service of a mythology constructed to make news that sells. She pointed to a Fox News story, on the day he surrendered to police, that claimed Jackson was so hysterical on the plane bringing him from Las Vegas to Santa Barbara that he required sedation and ordered the pilot to fly him to South America.
"This was just an utter falsehood," insisted Arceneaux. "There were hidden cameras on the plane, planted by somebody who had planned to sell the tapes. The footage shows Michael Jackson to be very composed, talking with his lawyers."
Arceneaux also pointed to Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon's alleged record of malicious prosecution, illegal wiretaps, tampering with evidence, perjury and illegal wiretaps, saying that might tend to exonerate Jackson but isn't being reported in the news. "That scene we all saw of Michael Jackson in handcuffs being led into the police station was staged. This is a photo opportunity called a 'perp walk.' This is not even as complex as a myth, and mythical stories tend not to be all that complex. But what we're seeing is techniques of advertising being used in the news industry ... the axiom of innocent until proven guilty is being replaced by the powerful image of victory over evil. If something doesn't fit, it's omitted."
I was sitting in the New Haven restaurant Bar, having drinks late on Thursday night with Francesca Royster, one of the conference speakers. Royster's paper, "Feeling Like a Woman, Looking Like a Man: Michael Jackson, Grace Jones and the Transgendered Erotics of Voice," contained a poetic analysis of Michael Jackson's singing voice -- the grain of his voice, his use of silence, the manner in which air is warmed in the throat to produce sound -- with an emphasis on 1979's Off the Wall . We were talking about the arc of Jackson's career and I asked her why, she thought, nobody at the conference had made any mention of the studio albums Jackson recorded following Bad . She merely shrugged. She hadn't paid much attention to Dangerous or Invincible , and neither had I. I told her that lately what I had found myself doing was wishing it was 1983 again. I was 6 years old when Michael Jackson walked out on stage at the Motown 25 Special in that sequined black jacket and white glove, flung his fedora just after the opening notes of "Billie Jean," and then proceed to burn that fucking stage down with those toe stands and spins and glides and the moonwalk.
The next afternoon NYU professor Jason King answered my question in his essay, "Didn't Michael Used to Be Great?: Remembering the Performance Skills of a Superstar." Once upon a time, Jackson's greatness had been a product of heat, of the fierceness of his dancing, the trembling emotional sophistication of his voice. But no more. He still has the pipes, still has the moves. One thing his devout fans and most skeptical critics agree on: in some ways, he has stayed remarkably youthful. Close your eyes, and it can be 1983 again. And look at how much we still care . He is ever-changing, but for this icon, this most unusual man -- this American original -- his timelessness may be the strangest fact of all.