A year ago today, radio stations across the nation electrified the airwaves with Michael Jackson's greatest hits, paying tribute to an extraordinary life in music that was cut far too short. Over beers in dive bars and on the dance floors of discos, we listened to "Billie Jean" and reminisced about the first time we saw the moonwalk; or heard I'll Be There and marveled at the depth and longing in Jackson's 12-year-old vocals. But alongside the conversation that celebrated anew Jackson's astonishing innovations in music and dance, a darker dialogue took form -- one that continues to challenge our cultural admiration and respect for Jackson, as much as it shouldn't.
To many, Michael Jackson will be remembered as "Wacko Jacko," a moniker hurled at him in the late 90s by a British tabloid. While the media can take credit for christening his eccentric alter ego, Jackson did much to cultivate the nickname he came to loathe. His ever-whitening skin, his numerous nose jobs, his surgical masks, his public appearances in pajamas, his Neverland Ranch, his obsession with Peter Pan, his pet chimp named Bubbles, his bid for the Elephant Man's bones (and much more) helped ensure his high rank on the Richter scale of abnormality. His escalating eccentricities made it difficult for audiences to identify with him, wrote a critic for the Los Angeles Times. Celebrity and wealth enable[d] Jackson to live according to his every freakish whim, Maureen Orth contemptuously concluded for Vanity Fair. But I see something beautiful (if otherworldly) in Jackson's freakiness: a desire and attempt to transcend the limits of reality. And his physical body was the tableau upon which he tried to break free from the prisons of race and gender. The plastic surgery, the bleached skin, the affected childlike voice were all an extension of artistic expression, not mere pathology, as many would have us believe.
Black or White?
The desire to obliterate racial categories started early in Jackson's career. In 1979, he told a reporter: "I wanted an album that wouldn't just consist of one kind of music, because I love all kinds of music. I see it all as music; I don't like to label it. It's like saying this child is white, this child is black, this child is Japanese -- but they're all children. It reminds me of prejudice. I hate labels." Jackson's unease with identity categories stemmed from the social hierarchies he saw they create in the service of one group's dominion over another. In the early 70s, for instance, when the Jackson 5 broached the topic of writing and producing their own music with Motown executives, their request was not only shot down, but as Jackson recalled in his autobiography, Moon Walk: They told us it was taboo to even mention that we wanted to do our own music. But, in 1982 with the release of Thriller, he told them: Thriller succeeded in collapsing the wall between black and white music, making Jackson a global superstar, and it remains the best-selling album of all time.
That he wanted to blur his racial readability through skin-bleaching was not a manifestation of internalized racism, I'd argue, as much as an extension of his artistic attempt to liberate himself from the cultural perception that his blackness meant he couldn't actualize his creative vision. In doing so, he assumed another color entirely -- not the white of a white man, but a ghostlike pallor that seemed to mark him outside the realm of race altogether. He wasn't, in other words, black or white. The montage of morphing faces in his 2001 hit "Black or White," in which a black woman turns into a white woman who turns into a black man and so on, is a fascinating sequence in light of Jackson's ever-morphing face.
Man or Woman?
Jackson's post-op face has been the subject of ridicule for decades. The combination of his ghostly skin, his innumerable plastic surgeries, and his soft, feminine voice has generated numerous punch lines, one of the most famous being that he wanted to show the world that "even a poor black man could grow up to be a rich white woman." There were even jokes, you might remember, that Janet and Michael were the same person. In many black circles, the reconstructed angular jawline, the cleft chin, the thinned-out nose, the plumper cheekbones, all pointed to racial self-hatred and dysmorphia. But according to Jackson's dermatologist, Jackson saw his own face as a work of art and truth be told, he didn't look quite like a woman or a man -- he looked post-human. Because he was most comfortable on the stage, looking beyond human was probably another way to keep the public's gaze upon him eternally.
I'm not suggesting that Jackson's skin and facial transformations dont signify some form of self-loathing. Im saying that its simplistic and just plain wrong to read such a complex, brilliant, multidimensional man with a one dimensional interpretation -- and that the mockery he endured says more about us as a culture than it does about him.
In fact, I believe that Jackson was turned into a punch line (and sometimes a punching bag) in an effort to defuse the threat he posed to stable notions of gender and sexuality, or more broadly, normalcy. As the quintessential icon of queerness, the King of Queer embodied all of our social anxieties with the ways he blurred the lines between black and white, femininity and masculinity, fantasy and reality, adult- and childlike behavior, hetero and homo sexualities. He was the butt of endless jokes and the subject of contempt and pity. The pity part is the thing I truly dont understand. Its remarkable to me how often words like sad, tragic, troubled, sick, sorry, and unhealthy stand in such close proximity to his name. Michael Jackson lived a spectacular life, not a sad one. Artistic and material successes aside, in interviews from the 80s and 90s, Jacksons often seen joking and laughing. A glow and lightness emanates from him. Surely, the molestation trials took their toll and sadness may have had a greater presence in his life in the end, but to call his life sad or tragic says more about our discomfort with the ways his life existed outside social norms -- (as if normality insures a greater quality of life!)
Asymmetries with the status quo, on the contrary, are often the measure of a great life -- and yes, even a happy and healthy one. Today, thats the way we ought to remember him.