Sylvia J. Martin earned her PhD in anthropology and is a visiting Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Babson College. She is a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to Hong Kong for 2010-2011.
As the one year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death approaches, hundreds of fans from as far away as France, Japan, and the Ukraine are expected to converge on his burial place at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Since Jackson was buried there nine months ago, Jackson fans have been steadily making the pilgrimage to his mausoleum. On one of my visits there, an African-American fan told me that she felt that Jackson had distanced himself from the black community over the years. A white fan disagreed and responded that in his music and his messages, the King of Pop was “color-blind” and “loved all races equally like Jesus did.” During the past year I have observed that there is a newly articulated recognition among Jackson’s fans – typically and unfairly portrayed as a “rabid” and undifferentiated mass – that there are varying stakes for different people in his status as a global icon.
Jackson has for years served as an intriguing entry point into popular discourse on whether we live in a color-blind society. From admirers to academics, Jackson has been hailed as liminal and therefore utopian. Jean Baudrillard claimed that in his lack of racial specificity Jackson represents a hybrid of universal proportions and is thus “better able even than Christ to reign over the world and reconcile its contradictions.” Yet for both Jackson and Jesus, a kingdom filled with such disparate elements is no easy entity to unite. The King of Pop – initially mentored by Motown in the complicated art of “crossing over” to white audiences – had long known that. When Rolling Stone magazine refused to put Jackson on their cover for his Off the Wall album in 1980, Jackson accused the magazine of not wanting to risk lowered sales by putting black people on their cover.
Jackson’s death occurred in a significant year for the African-American community. Months prior to the demise of the most successful African American entertainer, the first African American man was inaugurated as President of the United States. Just weeks after Jackson died Harvard Professor Henry Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct at his own home. President Obama faced a clamor of suspicion about his birthplace: was he “authentically” American? Professor Gates faced queries about his demeanor with law enforcement: was he appropriately docile? I would say that these incidents serve as reminders that our society is not yet color-blind.
Jackson’s relationship to his multicultural fan base, the general public, and his own racial identity have increasingly come under debate. Tentative discussions of ambivalence and whether we have truly transcended racial divisions are occurring in online and offline fan communities and beyond. At a conference I attended a few weeks ago in Harlem on Jackson at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, a black activist spoke of the need to open up “a safe space to have the conversations we’ve had privately about him.” That a “safe space” was invoked reveals, counter to what Baudrillard posited, that race continues to matter and that some disparities remain difficult to reconcile. As African-American author and music journalist Nelson George pointed out, Jackson’s “race fluidity” was stigmatized by some in the African-American community yet embraced by the global community.
Considering this unevenness, you could say that the King of Pop reigned over an entity that resembles an empire more than a kingdom, a vast territory comprised of multiple ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, languages, and genders, with differing understandings and experiences of racial discrimination. That Jackson was aware of the difficulties of managing such a disparate fan base became evident in his public relations and his music. The African-American entertainer who penetrated the white echelons of popular music by outselling Elvis and owning the Beatles catalogue knew he had to tread carefully.
A Choreography of Contradictions
While many have criticized Jackson for mis-managing his image by engaging in publicly capricious behaviors and eccentricities, he at times devised a deft way to deliver commentary on racial identity. For instance, in his music video “Black or White” he embedded a critique of U.S. race relations in what many consider his paean to “post-racialism,” the slippery notion that racial divisions have been transcended. The video was troubling to some because his lyrics and the first part of the video were about the immateriality of race when, at the time it was released, people were puzzled about Jackson’s skin lightening. (Suspicions about the veracity of Jackson’s explanation of vitiligo have since been quieted by verification from the coroner’s report.) His cosmetic surgeries also unsettled some fans, particularly in the black community. The lyrics promoted interracial dating and camaraderie. The morphing technology for which the video is famous visually suggested that there are no boundaries between the peoples of the world. Jackson also showcased his ability to un-problematically insert himself into cultures around the world through the transformative power of dance.
Yet while the lyrics — “It don’t matter if you’re black or white” — espoused a racial embrace, there is a contradictory message at the end of the extended version of the video. As soon as the morphing sequence ends, the camera pulls out and we see the soundstage where it was filmed. Unbeknownst to the crew, a black panther stalks the set. Jackson’s choice of animal here is poignantly revealing. Originally dedicated to protecting black communities from police brutality, the Black Panthers were an African-American organization steeped in the Black Power movement of the 1960-70s. As the panther walks off the set it pauses to growl at what fan Samar Habib has noted is a statue of George Washington. In addition to being the first President of the United States, Washington passed the Naturalization Act of 1790, a law that excluded blacks from US citizenship. The panther’s growl can be read as an expression of ire for a discriminatory law that remained in place for decades. The animal then morphs into Michael, who proceeds to perform a furious and beautiful dance. During this dance, one of the most shocking scenes to viewers was when Jackson angrily trashed a car, smashing its windows. Racial epithets were drawn onto the windows in post-production to explain Jackson’s unusual display of rage.
Within his carefully crafted message of unity, Jackson was reaching out to viewers who would recognize the significance of the black panther growling at the image of George Washington. In my opinion, the panther sequence serves as an artistic expression of Jackson’s own experience as a black man in America, where the issue of racism continues to plague members of the black community from Harlem to Harvard. After fighting MTV to air his music videos in the early 1980s when few black artists could penetrate MTV, Jackson knew that despite his ideal of color-blindness, it absolutely matters if you are black or white, particularly in the entertainment industry.
What is fascinating is that in the video Jackson first delivers a jubilant message of racial harmony, taking us in an inclusive direction. Yet with no explanation, he then thrusts us back to a history of exclusion in the US, disrupting the linear notion of racial progress. It is a puzzling move, until we remember that this is the artist who introduced us to the moonwalk. The moonwalk, after all, is a backslide in which the dancer appears to be moving forward. In other words, the moonwalk is a choreography of contradiction. Although he doesn’t perform the moonwalk as a dance step in this video, its philosophy of contradictory action – proffering inclusion while gesturing at exclusion – is Jackson’s strategy here. I believe that the moonwalk became an apt metaphor for how Jackson at times managed our expectations about him and his messages, in order to try to speak to a wide range of human experience. In doing so, Jackson subtly shows us that pop – a commercial genre commonly dismissed as bland – carries the potential to be subversive.
Despite Baudrillard’s prediction, Jackson – and arguably to some degree President Obama and Professor Gates – could not completely transcend a history of racial tensions. Was this inevitable? In 1985, when Jackson was riding the juggernaut of the record-breaking Thriller, James Baldwin presciently wrote, “The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all…All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; the blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair.”