Monday, June 29, 2009

How Will We Write The History Of The Man In The Mirror; Or, Who Was Michael Jackson (To You)?

Last Thursday night, my iPhone -- which only works intermittently in the hills of Litchfield County, CT, and only then if you stand in the exact right spot in the house -- buzzed to indicate a text message. I looked down. "Michael Jackson died :(" read the message, sent by a colleague and a good friend (the Radical's agents are everywhere.)

Wow, I thought: and only three days after Judy Garland.

It is good there is no internet where I was, otherwise I would have spent the rest of the evening on my computer looking for the very few details that were (and still are) available. I also missed most of the relentless tributes, as there is no television in this little retreat either. Friday morning I did decide that I needed a New York Times, so I went to the grocery store out in Northford, CT, where I have shopped since about 1986. The woman at the check-out station was weeping, tears rolling down her face as she rang up my purchases efficiently. "Pretty bad, huh?" I said, gesturing at her grief by handing over the newspaper with its huge picture of Michael on the front page.

"First Ed McMahon," she sobbed; "then Farrah Fawcett, and now Michael Jackson...who could be next?" She was inconsolable.

Since Jackson's sudden death from drug abuse -- er, heart failure -- a lot of people have compared this moment to Elvis's death. I remember that moment vividly. Coincidentally, Elvis died on my parents' wedding anniversary. When we got the news on the radio that was often playing in the kitchen, my mother was visibly distressed. She looked out the window and said, "Elvis and I were almost the exact same age," which was only sort of true because my mother was two years older then Elvis. It was only years later that I learned the full story: Elvis spent his final minutes on the toilet, and his final days in a darkened bedroom gobbling uppers, downers and Dannon yogurt. Like Michael, Elvis was also preparing for a tour, and part of that process was losing weight so that he could execute those bizarre karate kicks that became his signature, and squeeze into white spangled jumpsuits that were slit to the navel. He believed, according to Peter Guralnick, that because yogurt was advertised as a "diet food" that he could eat cases of it (this is the kind that is flavored with heavily sugared jam, you understand) and still lose weight.

Not just similar in death, Elvis and Michael Jackson are being compared constantly as artists too. Anyone who ever met Michael Jackson is being asked for a tribute, and you won't be surprised to learn that -- despite his obvious lack of good health for over a decade -- everyone is shocked as well as devastated. One obvious place to go for a quote is Lisa Marie Presley who was not only Elvis's daughter, but you may recall, Michael Jackson's first wife. "I am so very sad and confused with every emotion possible," she said in Australia's Herald Sun.

I think the check-out lady in Northford did better.

Both Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley were hugely talented people whose careers stalled. Michael was probably musically more innovative, but it is hard to know what Elvis might have accomplished if he hadn't been packaged as something that could be sold over and over again to aging female fans willing to pay top dollar to get a sweaty scarf tossed in their faces in Vegas. The tragic, campy comparisons seem more apt: unbelievable grandiosity (sequins, anyone?); endless spending to buy happiness, inner peace and the company of people who didn't real care about them; an off-key attraction for children (Elvis liked to have little girls in white cotton panties over to play, and the mothers of Memphis happily obliged); and sudden, untimely death aided by an unscrupulous physician who aided and abetted fearsome physical self-abuse.

The other thing they had in common was that people told them what they wanted to hear: eat as much of the yogurt as you want, you'll get thin. Those children are coming over to play with you, it will be fine, they don't have parents who will want to be paid off to keep their mouths shut about what goes on at your house.

The people who surrounded Elvis and Michael were the mirror.

I would add Judy to this list of tragic comparisons, and I wonder why she isn't being mentioned by anyone. Perhaps it is because all of her destructive behavior really was aimed inward, although the fact that her children have lived similarly sordid lives suggests that at least a couple other people got hurt by her excesses. Both Elvis and Judy were binge eaters, binge drinkers and binge dieters, puffing up and slimming down at terrible cost to their psyches and health. Oh, when Dexedrine was in vogue! Both had their careers molded by systems that only the canniest stars were able to use to real artistic advantage.

Michael's physical changes, and his career, were different. I've always been uninterested in his whitening complexion, perhaps because I am a white person who likes to get darker when possible, because I am a historian who knows that Black people come in many shades, or because I really think Michael's whiteness was more transgendered than transracial. But he was also physically debilitated over the years as he fought being fixed by age, gender and race. Ongoing drug use didn't help, and neither did the pain and damage inflicted by cosmetic surgeons and dermatologists who did what their client wanted regardless of the effect of chemicals, scrapes and surgeries on his general health and appearance. I saw an item on the Huffington Post only a week ago asserting that what amounted to a partial amputation had been performed on one of Michael's ears over time, since cartilage was needed repeatedly to rebuild his ruined nose. This may or may not be true, but it can't be grislier than the truth, when you look at a face that has nearly disappeared in the past two decades. Imagine how much his body must have hurt, even aside from the toll his brilliant dancing must have taken on his ligaments and joints.

But, as with my views on Judy and Elvis, this is not everyone's perspective. Fans are lost in grief over the fantasy that was cultivated by Michael Jackson Incorporated. What has seemed to me to be a grossly underweight, mutilated man in terrible psychological and physical pain seemed to his fans to be a star. What I believe was a physically and sexually abused boy, who subsequently visited similar behaviour on children put in his way by greedy parents, was believed to be innocent of any wrongdoing by his fans -- and a court -- when he said that the children lied. Other incongruities abound. For example:

I saw: A beautiful black child (who was a year younger than me, so I have watched him age) become a shrunken, pasty skeleton with long stringy hair, no affect and no public personality when offstage.

Fans saw: The beautiful person they believed lived inside the ruined body.

I saw: An adult who invited little children to his house constantly, spent the night in bed with them, decorated his property like a theme park to entice them, and who went on television holding hands with a teenaged boy and acted shocked that anyone could be dirty-minded enough to believe that he would "ever hurt a child." Now if Michael Jackson had been a queer theorist, or a member of an organization advocating the decriminalization of all intimate and sensual relations with children, I would have thought this was interesting, and even radical. But he wasn't, he was just delusional: all of these observations say "child molester" to me.

Fans saw: Peter Pan; someone who "loved children" and was "really a child at heart." (Note: this "nice Peter" is the Disney version. The J.M. Barrie version of Peter Pan is dark, jealous and stole people's children because he hated grown-ups. He also didn't care what happened to the children as long as they satisfied his outsized ego by admiring him.)

I saw: A person who showed all the signs of having been a fearfully abused child, was terrified of the world, paid women to have children who he then raised in ways that were beyond controlling and eccentric. I wondered to myself, as the children walked around with drapes and veils over their heads, does he even talk to anyone in his family? Because I have got to say, if any of the rest of us did that (much less hold a baby over a hotel balcony in what was, I suspect, not a sober moment) our children would be in foster homes.

Fans saw: A loving father protecting his children from a cruel media who would otherwise have hurt them in some unnamed way.

I could go on, but I won't. While Michael Jackson was far better able to keep control of his career than either Elvis or Judy, and donated millions of dollars to good causes, he seems to have met the same bitter, sad end as they did. And like them, he has left a pile of troubles behind for other people to solve, as well as weeping fans who look at pictures of their hero and see:



Clarissa said...

Great post! Among everything that appeared recently on Michael Jackson, your article is definitely the best.

Susan said...

Great post. I'm still trying to figure out how the death of a man who had'nt performed in public for years, or released new material, affects people so much. However, I've seen stuff from Lisa Marie Presley that was essentially "we all saw this coming, and kept trying to intervene". There was also really interesting stuff about why she divorced him. (this is the UK newspapers) My reading of this is that she indeed saw the links to her father, and her marriage was in a way an attempt to fix for MJ the stuff that had ruined her father.

What astounds me is that MJs father -- who abused him -- is all over the press saying "There is foul play", and no one says "Of course this is the man who abused his son and turned him into a commodity."

But it's very sad.

Maude said...

i agree with both clarissa and susan, by the far the best post/article/item written on the subject of MJ's death. at first i was shocked and sad and even a little into the hype and frenzy of what happened, but now, honestly, i'm already sick of the tributes and coverage. there are other very real important things happening.

i feel horrible for his children. i wish the best for them.

that being said, i confess, i was in absolute hysterics when john ritter died. i still can't say his name without tearing up, and it was nearly three years later after his death before i could watch an episode (even re-runs) of 8 Simple Rules without crying--even the ones without him in it. i burst into tears in class at the mention of his name shortly thereafter. i can't explain it. it's weird how we attach ourselves to or come to identify with people we've never met, whose lives are so far from our own. i was also unexplicably devastated when jennifer anniston and brad pitt broke up. i'm smarter than that. i have a ph.d. for crying out loud! why should i care about these things? but i do, for whatever reason.

at least though, as far as i know, john ritter was never accused of pedophilia.

may they both rest in peace.

billy mays' death (of pitchmen on the discovery channel and of oxy clean fame) also made me really sad as well.

Steven said...

I have to inject something of a sour note in the praise for this post. Regarding MJ's thoughts on and relations with children, TR suggests that had MJ been a queer theorist or a member of NAMBLA, TR would have found MJ "interesting" and perhaps even "radical." But unable to claim theoretical or political credentials, MJ is for TR nothing more than a "child molester." Setting aside the dubious distinctions implicit here between theory/politics over pop culture (or even practice: MJ told the world he thought it was okay to have intimate relations with children; he didn't just write about it in GLQ), in my view our TR is dangerously close to restaging rather than challenging dominant discourses about "the child molester." I'm no real fan of MJ, and lots of evidence suggests he was a pretty sketchy parent, but to conflate that with child molestation by wrapping it up, as TR does, in the language of "enticement," "invitation," and "teenaged boys" is something I'd except to read -- and we will -- on the blogs of those who love to peddle in the politics of panic and pedophilia.

Knitting Clio said...

I agree with Steven regarding the "child molester" comment. What about due process? Also, it was clear to me that the parents who filed charges were motivated more by greed than by a desire to protect their son.

Tenured Radical said...

Hmmm. I think child molester *is* a loaded phrase, associated with public homophobia and moral panic, and perhaps I should have chosen another one. That said, there are people who are sexual with children in ways that said children have not agreed to, or have been manipulated into agreeing to. Part of that manipulation can be enticement with lavish presents and special attention; another part is being told that what you are feeling is good when it feels bad. I think there is more public evidence that points to that, including things MJ said about himself, than not.

On the other hand, what makes MJ immune from a category we might use for any other adult who invited children to his house to sleep in his bed?
I am not persuaded that the children who were intimate with Michael Jackson agreed to it, or that they were not harmed. Children are frequently not believed in court, much less by other adults close to them when they report these things -- much more so than the sensational cases where psychologists and recovered memory experts get involved might lead you to think.

And my point about a queer theorist -- or let's just say it, a member of NAMBLA -- is honesty, from my point of view. I think it is one thing to practice intimate relations that are anathema to bourgeois culture, believe in it for ethical reasons that you clearly state and be honest about it. It is another thing to lie and take advantage of wealth and power (even to the extent that you know you can pay grasping parents off) -- or worse, to not be fully conscious that what you are doing might hurt someone else even when you don't intend it.

As to payoffs making the charges themselves suspect: well, the Catholic and Episcopalian churches have been paying off adults who were molested as children for years, and that doesn't make the public think those priests were innocent.

But I don;t want to get sidetracked on the specific sexual content here even though, as I admit, using the word "child molester" does raise the stakes. My point is that MJ was dark and twisty inside in all kinds of ways -- and probably because of how *he* was treated -- and that is what I saw in him.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Elvis was the King. He led a revolution in entertainment that made possible the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and, yes, Michael Jackson. He also, in my opinion had a sexual credibility that Jackson never had. And a great American "up from poverty" story. And, unlike Jackson, he wasn't hothoused into it by his family, but did it on his own (with some help from Col. Parker, to be sure) -- he followed his own star. I was there, and the difference in the music scene before and after Elvis was much greater than the difference before and after Michael.

davidjhemmer said...


David Shorter said...

Your response to the child molesting issue is as important as your original post. What's missing, still, from rhetorical and fantastical GLBT theories are the codynamics of abuse, molestation, assault. The power to silence and be silenced is obviously a key factor in the circus that was and is the Jackson family. So most of this has been conjecture in MJ's particular history. But it will be interesting to see how his death enables these grown men to talk about about their childhood relations with MJ. Seeing now the reports of just how many young men and boys spent their time in his living quarters on a regular basis, even in the last few years, reminds me of the secrecy involved in monasteries around the world still. My favorite part of the movie Doubt was when the child's mother evidences the sorts of practical and painful decisions to remain silent, sending kids off to another kind of war that has its own PTSD.

Anonymous said...


Um, hi, by the way.

Tenured Radical said...

David: *so* glad to hear from you. And thanks for the comment.

Greg said...

Forgive my naivete, but I'm curious to understand how "Michael's whiteness was more transgendered than transracial", if you care to expand. I must also agree with Steven's comment. And in response to TR's response, I don't think the point is that "of course there really are children who are sexually abused," but rather that that particular section of the post contributes to and perpetuates popular discourse about "the child molester", not the least of which forces readers to draw connections between "queer/LGBT" and "pedophile". With regard to "being told that what you are feeling is good when it feels bad" (and in no way am I saying this does not constitute a part or form of abuse), isn't this what happens to anyone who doesn't fit a particular socially constructed category in exactly the way that our particular culture/society would have?

Tenured Radical said...


I think the association of whiteness with femininity -- particularly upper-class femininity -- is just as powerful as whiteness=racial *identity* (or rising above racial identity.) But I understand why people might quarrel with that.

As to "child molester=a *queer* pedophile: no. I don't think anything but a reader's own imagination and homophobia makes that a reasonable reading of that passage (and as a writer, I don't think I am responsible for other people's homophobia.) And while I do agree the phrase is loaded, I don't think our concerns about stigmatizing LGBTQ people should keep us from talking about sexual harm to children altogether. I am actually a little stunned at how much concern there is for MJ's reputation, compared to how little many of his fans seem to think of the children he was involved with as real people whose lives are of consequence.

And, btw, most of the people who give unwanted sexual attention to children identify as heterosexual.

Your last point I'm not sure I understand. But I am engaged in a lot of historical research about the various forms of what we call "child abuse" right now, and a classic ingredient is children being told by an adult what they *should* be feeling. I don't think that drawing a bigger theoretical picture that argues this is just what sex *is* (which in a certain sense, I'm sure is true) makes forcing children to give an adult sexual pleasure, or any other kind of pleasure ethical. It's a projection fantasy: the fact that wanting your child to be the doctor you didn't have a chance to be is also a projection fantasy doesn't make it ok to diddle the kids and tell them how nice it feels.

And btw, I think the emphasis should not just be on the sex act as we conventionally understand it. MJ may have done exactly what he said, and frankly my guess is that very few children would get in bed -- a very intimate and loaded space -- with an adult who is not a parent if they were not coerced into it. Crossing boundaries with children, asking them to be physically or emotionally intimate in any way to give *yourself* pleasure is wrong -- and it's wrong between adults too, as all kinds of harassment litigation would point to.

Greg said...

TR, a sincere thank you for the response.

WRT how parts of your text require the reader to draw connections between the concepts "LGBT/queer" and "pedophile/child molester," this is not my imagination: the only two examples you give of pedophilia being something more "interesting" or "radical" (excusable?) than plain ol' child molestation are LGBT-related. It's almost like saying, "Here are some pedantic ways that people (specifically, gays) have of attempting to defend child sexual abuse..."

And, this one might be stretching it, but I'd even count the unsolicited evocation of the "popularly held, yet mistaken" notion that most child molesters are gay ("And, btw, most of the people who give unwanted sexual attention to children identify as heterosexual.") as contributing to popular discourse that connects "gay" and "child molester." Imagine I told you that, believe it or not, most of the child molesters out there actually aren't university professors that keep blogs.

In no way did I mean to suggest that discussion of child abuse be halted for fear of offending or stigmatizing people; it's just that let's make sure discussion of child abuse is discussion of child abuse. And of course as a writer, you don't have responsibility for other people's homophobia, but in my opinion, you have a responsibility to understand the ways your text will contribute to popular discourse.

The last comment I made was essentially to add to the discussion of child abuse: maybe there's a lot more out there that we don't classically call "child abuse" but should. My specific thoughts were primarily about how we gender children (e.g., telling a child how they should feel/think/behave based on the gender we've assigned them without regard for how the child actually feels/thinks or wants to behave).

Bing said...

All his songs came out again lately after his death. This also means that he wasn't existing at all until now. But he is indeed the King of Pop for having performed pretty good every time. I also found this Michael Jackson comeback book that will surely become a valued collector’s item.