Once again, I’m feeling the need to take time out from my favorite subject-Michael Jackson-to address a semi-related topic. It’s a topic that isn’t pleasant, but nevertheless, one that every so often rears its ugly head and must be addressed. I’m talking, of course, about the fandom. Not that it’s any news that we don’t all agree. I have long ago accepted the fact that the divide between us is simply too deep to ever bear hope of reconciliation, The ideologies and faction loyalties that have created those divides are simply too vast, I now believe, to ever be brought together. So this post, unlike some past others I have done on this topic, isn’t about some idealistic hope that we can just put aside our differences and get along. What I want to address specifically, however, is a disturbing by-product of this faction division, and how it is impacting Michael’s legacy in the world beyond the fanbase. In the last few months, I have been appalled to see many of the best and most noted Michael Jackson scholars and writers being bullied and lynched-often to the point of having to remove themselves from social media. In the more extreme cases, it has resulted in some of their valuable works actually being removed from availability, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. What is most disturbing is that it isn’t haters who are leading these efforts to censor positive and important writings on Michael Jackson. Rather, these efforts are coming from within the fan base.
The most recent example was the removal of Joe Vogel’s article “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Rescreening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White'” following a claim of plagiarism from The Michael Jackson Academia Project (the article has since been reinstated).
You can read a more detailed discussion of the controversy over this dispute here.
For my purposes, I’m not going to get into debating the validity or non-validity of those claims, as that debate has already been pretty much hashed out on Dancing With the Elephant and elsewhere. However, I do see this latest controversy as yet one more example of how fan faction rivalries are impacting works that are written on Michael Jackson. And this is what it all comes down to. What I find most disturbing in this particular case is that the claims of plagiarism seemed more of an excuse than anything-an excuse to bring down a scholar and writer simply for not not towing a certain line within the fan base ideology.
This isn’t about supporting or not supporting the estate executors. It isn’t about taking a hardline stance against Sony, or not. As I’ve said many times, my own personal views are neutral when it comes to issues of the estate. I do not align myself one way or the other, with either faction, and the reason for that is largely because it is important to me to maintain the balanced objectivity that I feel is so vitally important to what I do. As a journalist, I do feel it is important to maintain a certain level of objectivity on these issues. I certainly don’t mind raising the tough questions about the estate. By the same token, I’m not opposed to posthumous releases (as long as Michael’s standards of excellence are maintained) or projects like Cirque du Soleil. These kinds of projects are important for carrying on Michael’s legacy. However, I have been opposed to other issues such as the sale of Neverland, and overall, I have been willing to keep an open mind on issues pertaining to the validity of the will. And I have always felt it is important to listen, even when you don’t agree, and that even when you do disagree, you should be able to do so with civility. I have a lot of supporters and followers from both sides of the camp, and I have been largely able to achieve this due to my willingness to treat all views fairly and respectfully. I can also say that I have met a lot of good people on both sides of the estate rivalry, and that there are people among both camps who I count among some of my dearest friends and supporters. Thus, as you can see, these kinds of issues are never easy or pleasant to address because no matter what I say, or how civilly I try to say it, someone will accuse me of taking sides. However, this isn’t about siding with any one faction, as I have seen this kind of behavior, to greater or lesser extent, from all factions. But the bottom line is that we really need to stop these kneejerk assumptions that every writer who has achieved some level of mainstream success by writing positively about Michael Jackson is somehow in league with Sony or the estate. Trust me, these are the kinds of things that make MJ fans look like a bunch of looney tunes to the outside world.
It used to be that whenever a new book about Michael Jackson would come out, fans were usually united in either praising or condemning it. There were writers who admired and respected Michael, and who were interested in truth and fairness. And then there were those whose only interest was in sensationalism and falsehoods to drive the sales of their books. There were writers who genuinely admired Michael, and writers whose only agenda was to tear him down. The lines were clearly drawn, and a fan always knew where they stood in regards to those consumer choices. How I long for the simplicity of those days!
Now there is so much paranoia and suspicion-even within the fan base-that no writer is immune to it. Immediately, it seems, if a writer or scholar is simply interested in writing about Michael’s art, and is not interested in engaging in the politics over the estate and Sony, that person immediately becomes a target of suspicion and abuse. However, there are many and varied reasons why a writer, journalist, or scholar may have no interest in addressing those issues. Perhaps because those issues are not relevant to their works (and indeed, we must ask if it is truly necessary that a scholar interested in studying only Michael Jackson’s music or cultural impact is somehow obligated to also become an anti-estate camp follower) or perhaps because, for most scholars and journalists, these kinds of issues are simply not their concern or their area of expertise. I am quite certain, for example, that not every scholar or journalist who writes on The Beatles, Bob Dylan, or any other culturally significant artist is obligated to concern themselves with issues of the artists’ executors or record companies, at risk of censorship and even the public stoning of their own, personal reputations.
So why is this the case with Michael Jackson? Those answers are certainly more complex than any one article can address. But the bottom line is that it should be the writer’s choice whether they wish to engage themselves in the politics of the anti-estate faction, or if they simply want to write about Michael’s music and cultural impact. I am still a little fuzzy on how those boundaries have become so apparently blurred (and if someone cares to enlighten me, I’ll gladly hear you out; as I said, all views are respected here).
But an excellent case in point would be D.B. Anderson, who late last year published an explosive article in the Baltimore Sun that was, to my knowledge, one of the first pieces to draw the connection between Michael Jackson’s music and #BlackLivesMatter. Although fans and some scholars have been addressing the black activism of Michael Jackson’s music for years, this was an important and eye opening piece for introducing that concept to the mainstream media. Anderson then followed that piece with another article that served as a scathing expose of Sony’s scheme to sabotage “They Don’t Care About Us.” But apparently even writing a scathingly critical article against Sony was not enough to convince some factions that Anderson wasn’t somehow in league with Sony. I saw many of the tweets that went back and forth during this time. Apparently they had wanted Anderson to write an article exposing the estate, and Anderson had refused because it was not his area of expertise or interest, nor relevant to his own purpose. I still don’t get the idea of targeting a random journalist, just because they have had a few popular pieces, and essentially trying to threaten them into writing articles that they have obviously expressed no interest in writing. So has it come down to the fact that writers who choose to write about Michael Jackson are no longer free to choose their subject matter or approach in what they wish to write about Michael? Is it no longer enough just to write about the music? I honestly don’t know sometimes. Over the past few years, I’ve seen people attacked for so many stupid reasons that it isn’t even funny anymore. And apparently, unless a blogger or journalist devotes themselves to screaming rants against Branca and Sony non-stop, 24-7, they are considered a supporter, a “fake fan,” or a paid employee. And as I have so often seen, these accusations are often made without merit.
I could understand the criticisms better if the writers in question were actively and vocally supporting the estate, but nowhere have I seen that to be the case. The only exception, to my knowledge, may be Zack O’Mally Greenburg’s book but since that is one I still haven’t read yet (yeah, I know it’s been out awhile but I only have so much dough for MJ books and only so much time in a day, lol) I can’t vouch for its contents. However, my understanding of the book is that it is also one of the few that gives Michael his props as the brilliant businessman that he was, and one that gives him full credit for building his own empire. Doesn’t exactly sound like a negative message to me, but again, I will have to read it before I can fairly judge it.
I can say, however, that I am certainly familiar with everything that Joe Vogel has ever written on Michael. His books, Man in the Music and Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus, are books I have relied on for a number of years to help educate students about the cultural impact of Michael’s music. Vogel’s writing style, which constitutes a tasteful and balanced blend between the popular and the academic, is perfect for classroom use, especially at the freshman and sophomore level. My students respect Mr. Vogel’s works immensely, as do I, because his writings enable them to clearly understand the cultural importance of Michael’s work without the feeling that they are being “talked down to.” These are books that chronicle the history of Michael Jackson’s artistry. They are neither pro estate nor anti estate, which is a completely irrelevant issue to the subject. That’s why I fail to understand how these accusations of Vogel as some sort of vessel for the estate have come about. Sure, his books have been successful in reaching a mainstream audience, and his writings that have been featured in The Huffington Post, The Atlantic and many other outlets have enabled him to reach a mass audience. His work on Michael’s music has been deservedly recognized by the estate because, simply put, it is good work. And quite frankly, being asked to be included in a project as huge as Spike Lee’s Bad 25 film is an honor that any Michael Jackson writer would have eagerly accepted if asked. I seriously doubt this offer came about because Branca and company saw Joe Vogel as a vessel to promote themselves. It was about the music, pure and simple, and Vogel’s expertise and popularity made him the perfect candidate for the job. Did it boost his own profile? Sure, it did. But what writer out there doesn’t wish to be recognized and honored for their accomplishments and expertise? I certainly do not fault Vogel-or anyone-for taking advantage of such a platform.
For someone like Vogel, whose works have always been meticulously documented, I find the accusations even more bizarre, as the only link I have been able to find between Vogel’s article and the videos of the Michael Jackson Academia Project is that they both deal with the topic of the “Black or White” video and the black panther symbolism. But again, as has already been pointed out in Willa’s post, it is not plagiarism when two writers merely cover the same material, or even the same ideas. For fiction writers, those lines are much more clearly drawn. For scholars, it can become admittedly trickier because no matter what you say on a subject-especially one that has been pretty much dissected and analyzed for over two decades-it’s always possible that someone else has had a similar idea, or drawn a similar conclusion. Joe Vogel certainly isn’t the first writer to address the racial themes and symbolism in the “Black or White” video, but he has always generously acknowledged the works of those previous scholars
The bottom line is that, whether we like it or not, Michael Jackson was under contract to Sony for the entire duration of his adult career. That means that all of the great work he did-all of the great music that we know, and that we celebrate as his legacy-is irrevocably tied to the company he came to despise. That is a tragic irony indeed, but it kind of is what it is. Which means there is no way we can write about, analyze, discuss, or even simply celebrate his musical legacy without at least acknowledging Sony’s role in it, for better or worse. It’s a willing disconnect that most fans make. For example, many will willingly boycott new, posthumous releases, claiming they don’t wish to support Sony or the estate, while seemingly forgetting that they are supporting those very entities every time they purchase or even dance to a copy of Thriller. I understand that there are fans who do not support the idea of “contemporizing” Michael’s music, or even the principle of releasing music he did not approve, or worse yet, tracks whose very authenticity is in question. Those sentiments are certainly easy to understand. But what I don’t get are those fans who actively boycott every new project based simply on the principle of not supporting Sony or the estate, while continuing to purchase Michael’s back catalog of music. Do they honestly think Sony really gives a rat’s ass whether their pockets are lined from fans purchasing Number Ones as opposed to Xscape? It’s all the same to them.
But to bring the matter back to the point at hand, the fact that Sony is inextricably linked to all of the music of Michael Jackson’s adult solo legacy means that it is virtually impossible for any writer or scholar who simply wishes to write critical studies of that music to undertake such a task without, apparently, undertaking the risk of being labeled a Sony/estate supporter. It has indeed become a confusing paradox, and it is small wonder that people outside the fan community are often left puzzled and scratching their heads at the “logic” of Michael Jackson fans. You see, apparently,only in the upside down, often illogical world of the Michael Jackson fan base is it possible to be labeled a “traitor” by the simple act of celebrating an artist’s musical legacy. Here, any celebration or acknowledgment of that legacy is soon tainted with suspicion. He or she must be a hired agent of Sony or the estate (or both)! Especially at risk are those who write about the music to the exclusion of all other concerns.
Look, I know very well the arguments of both factions. I have heard them all, and as I said, there are issues on both sides that I agree and disagree with. But this isn’t about my personal views on these issues. It is about allowing all authors who choose to write positively about Michael to be able to do so without being harassed and hounded by any faction of the fan base (and yes, that includes all factions, including the rights of authors to write books that are also critical of the estate). It is about allowing all writers to do what they do best-and to be able to choose the topics they wish to address, and that are within their area of expertise-freely without censure and harassment. Any true fan of Michael Jackson would have no objections to works that help to enlighten and educate the masses about the importance of his musical contributions, regardless of how they feel about Sony or the estate. Conversely, MJ authors who choose to write about more controversial topics are still within their rights, and should be allowed to pursue those topics freely without bullying or harassment from the opposing faction. While it may be easy for readers to get confused by such a wealth of often contradictory information, all of it is important, ultimately, to gaining an understanding of Michael Jackson-the man, the artist, and all of the forces that worked both for and against him. And the most important thing to remember is that, if you don’t like a particular book or author, no one is putting a gun to your head to make you buy, read, or support their work. There are quite a few MJ writers out there whose opinions and conclusions I could debate heartily. But disagreeing with them does not give me the right to destroy their careers, reputation, and livelihood.
To reiterate something very important that Willa mentioned in her own blog, any accusation of plagiarism is a very serious offense in the academic world. Because such accusations cannot be taken lightly, they must also not be made lightly. Case in point: When I was an undergrad at Mississippi State, one of the well respected professors in our English department, Brad Vice, was accused of plagiarizing one of the short stories in his award winning published collection. The Bear Bryant Funeral Train. Although the actual charge was debatable, the accusation alone resulted in the rescinding of many of his awards and the threat of losing his job. Here is what Brad Vice’s Wikipedia entry says about the controversy:
In late 2004 Vice’s short story collection, The Bear Bryant Funeral Train, won the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award from the University of Georgia Press. The Press published the collection in late 2005. Kirkus, in a starred review, called it “distinguished and disturbing work, from a lavishly gifted new writer.”Publishers Weekly agreed: “Vice has a gift for making the extraordinary plausible, for rendering complex motivations in spare but metaphoric language and searing details.”
When the University of Georgia Press discovered that one of the stories in The Bear Bryant Funeral Train incorporated material from a short story by Carl Carmer, the Press accused Vice of plagiarism, revoked the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award, and destroyed unsold copies of the book.
Jason Sanford, writing in storySouth, described it as a “literary lynching.” A number of other writers and editors came to Vice’s defense. Jake Adam York, for instance, noted that Vice had allowed his short story and the four-page section of Carmer’s original book to be published side by side in Thicket, a journal edited by York. To York, this action by Vice “implicitly acknowledges the relationship (and) allows the evidence to be made public”. York added that doing this allowed the readers to enter the “intertextual space in which (Vice) has worked” and that what Vice was doing with his story was allusion, not plagiarism. York also stated that, according to his own analysis of Vice’s story and Carmer’s source material, Vice did not break copyright law.
In late March 2007, a new edition of the collection was published by River City Publishing. According to a report in The Oxford American, “The revised version will more closely mirror Vice’s 2001 dissertation from the University of Cincinnati, which contained many of the stories that ended up being published as The Bear Bryant Funeral Train. Unlike the UGA Press edition, it will be divided into two sections, the latter of which is set entirely in Tuscaloosa. In his dissertation, Vice described the Tuscaloosa stories as an ‘attempt to reconcile the seemingly incompatible movements of Southern regionalism and international postmodernism.’ In that vein, it contained epigraphs by Albert Camus, Basho, Guy Davenport, Bear Bryant, and, more importantly, Carmer, all of which will reappear in the River City edition.”
In May 2013, Salon.com reporter Andrew Leonard revealed that Brad Vice had been the victim of a “ferocious assault” byRobert Clark Young, a writer who spent years anonymously attacking his literary enemies by inserting “revenge edits” into Wikipedia. Editing under the user name “Qworty,” Young “devoted a significant amount of intellectual and emotional energy to attacking not only Vice, but the entire community of writers centered around the Sewanee Writers’ Conference that had nurtured Vice.”
So here we have, again, a case of one person who seemed to have an especial and vicious agenda to destroy a writer by bringing a charge of plagiarism-a charge that was debatable, at best. I do remember quite well when the blowup over Brad Vice’s book occurred, and of course, he had adherents and foes in both corners. In the end, some supported him and some didn’t. I cannot personally vouch for whether Vice committed willful plagiarism or if this was, indeed, a case of a literary allusion being misconstrued as plagiarism, but the end result was that a promising writer’s career was cut short amidst a wave of humiliating and disgraceful publicity, resulting in the loss of his position and livelihood. I did some recent, additional research and came across the scathing article from the above mentioned Robert Clark Young, who was apparently a huge instigator in the charge, especially when his article “A Charming Plagiarist” appeared in The New York Press. I don’t have permission to reprint his article, but you can read it here.
While I can agree, perhaps, with some of Young’s points, it doesn’t take very deep reading into his article to quickly ascertain that his real beef was with the Sewanee Writer’s Conference and the entire Sewanee community of writers centered around The University of the South in Franklin, Tennesseee-the very community that had nurtured Brad Vice early in his writing career. In fact, Young’s article devotes more space to ranting bitterly about the Sewanee writers’ group than to the actual issue of Vice’s plagiarism. For many, that was an obvious red flag.
In 2013. Robert Clark Young’s true agenda was revealed in an equally scathing piece written by Andrew Leonard for Salon.com, in which Leonard revealed how Young, under the pseudonym of “Qworty,” had extended his vendetta against the Sewanee writers by editing all of their Wikipedia pages with false or misleading information. It turned out all along that the real reason behind Robert Clark Young’s vendetta was the simple fact that his own work had been poorly received by the Sewanee committee back in 2001. One line in particular from Leonard’s expose on Young seems especially relevant to the issues we are dealing with in the MJ fan community regarding authorship and works:
If Qworty has been allowed to run free for so long — sabotaging the “truth” however he sees fit, writing his own postmodern novel — how many others are also creating spiteful havoc under the hood, where no one is watching?-Andrew Leonard.
In other words, this was a clear cut case of a writer using his own personal vendettas as an excuse to wreck havoc on other author’s reputations and livelihood. It seems all too eerily reminiscent of what is happening within the MJ fan base, whereby some parties are deliberately plotting and strategizing how to “bring down” certain authors for reasons that have to do with everything except the content of what they’ve actually written.
Again, I want to stress this is not about “taking sides” on any issue or with any faction. It’s simply about what’s right. If you don’t like a certain author-if you don’t agree with their position or views-then don’t purchase their books. You can give them a one star review on Amazon, if you like. But there has to be a line drawn when it comes to actually censoring works and bringing about very serious allegations, or simply bullying a writer to the point that they no longer feel free to maintain their public profiles and social media pages. I feel this is especially tragic when the subjects of concern are writers who have maintained, for the most part, a neutral stance and are simply choosing to focus their writing on Michael Jackson’s music, his social/cultural impact and his positive contributions to humanity and the arts. None of these are issues that have any relevance to who his estate executors are or who is currently in control of that music, which means that these issues have no place in arguments against writers who are focusing on those topics. In short, if a writer’s only interest is in what Michael Jackson created and/or his social and cultural impact, those writers do not deserve to be judged by political standards that have no bearing on their work. The role of writers, journalists, and scholars who take on Michael Jackson as a subject are, for the most part, simply striving to enlighten the general populace or the academic world of an often misunderstood and maligned genius. These are not people who deserve to be caught up in the crossfire of petty fan wars and fan factions, or the ever arbitrary whims of whoever may be the latest “disciples” in control of said factions.
And again, I will say this in support of all writers-pro estate, anti estate, or completely indifferent-who have found themselves or their works to be victims of such campaigns.
On this very blog, I have given positive reviews to many books that were openly critical of the estate, and so again, this has nothing to do with siding against the anti-estate faction. There are a few of those authors, as well, whom I feel have been unfairly targeted by hate campaigns and bullying. It works both ways, and as we have seen, each and every time, the only purpose it serves is to fuel the flames of revenge by the opposing faction. Simply put, we cannot allow our own politics to dictate which authors get heard or suppressed. If there are professional and legit issues involved, such as disputes over copyrights or infringement, those can usually be resolved peacefully and civilly behind the scenes, through the proper channels. There is no need to wage a public mud slinging campaign, and I honestly believe those who resort to such tactics are doing it more for their own attention and glory than to resolve the dispute. Perhaps, if all attempts to resolve the dispute through civility and legal channels have failed, then yes, raising public awareness of the issue may be the only alternative left. But waging terrorist tactics against writers should not be the way to resolve potentially litigious disagreements, and should always be a last resort when all other options have failed.
Look, I am not writing this to further stir the pot. I am posting it in the hope that we might all come to our senses and realize the damage we are doing to Michael’s legacy every time these battles are publicly aired. I am also writing this for every advocate of Michael Jackson whose voices, one by one, are being silenced for no justifiable reason. When it has reached the point that the biggest threat to a positive Michael Jackson legacy is coming from within his own fan base, rather than without, it is time indeed to have some serious concern. There are many talented writers, gifted journalists and insightful scholars who love writing about Michael Jackson, and who have a lot to bring to the table. But for most of them, it is not a passion that they can afford to place ahead of their own livelihood and even personal safety. When people feel those things to be threatened, the natural instinct is to protect themselves. Thus, many who used to love to write about Michael Jackson are now choosing not to. Why should they, when they feel like their only reward is bullying and harassment from so called fans? We must ask ourselves, do we really want a world in which the only narrative that exists of Michael Jackson comes from the tabloids and the likes of Diane Dimond? Or the senationalized accounts of his life by writers like Taraborelli and Halperin who basically all but ignored the musical legacy altogether? If that’s what we want, we seem to be on a fine path to achieving it. That is, if some things don’t start to change, and change soon. We can start, first of all, by ceasing to assume that all writers have some hidden, ulterior motive or are working in league with one faction or another. In truth, most aren’t, and furthermore, could care less. Writers don’t get rich selling books (unless their names happen to be Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, perhaps!). But many writers have ceased publishing articles or books about Michael Jackson altogether, and have claimed they will not write about him again-sadly, not because their passion for the subject has dimmed, but because they feel forced by necessity into that position. Every time I hear a writer utter those words; every time I see another writer’s Twitter account closed, a little piece of me dies-and, I feel, along with it, a little piece of Michael as well. I hope that most of them will come to see that they do have the support of many fans, and will eventually come around and realize they should continue the good work they have started. But many, I fear, will not, and who can blame them?
Sure, Michael Jackson’s music will survive. Some may say that’s all that matters. But I beg to differ. The cultural narrative of his work is equally important, and will be important to those future scholars and historians who will study the cultural impact and legacy that he left behind. We owe it to them to allow for a positive, cultural body of popular and academic scholarship on Michael Jackson to exist. But if we continue to create, perpetrate and allow this environment of hostility towards writers and scholars to exist, I can only foresee a regression in which all of the past mainstream narratives we have fought so hard to eradicate will be the only alternatives available.
We must ask, is that what we want? And if that’s what we want, who ultimately loses?