Yep, it seems just about every celebrity has “gone there” at some point, and Michael-for all his purported shyness-was no exception. When this semi nude photo from a 1987 Greg Gorman shoot surfaced recently, as part of Gorman’s recently opened exhibition in Germany, it caused quite a sensation in the MJ fan community, as well as some very polarizing reactions. Although most fans are always delighted with any images that celebrate Michael’s extraordinary beauty and sensuality, this one struck a bit of interesting discord, from accusations that it was a fake (it isn’t) to the arguments that Michael would never have posed for such a pic. Well, obviously he did, so there goes that argument. As to why it took this many years for the photo to surface, that may be another matter. It’s likely that Michael, who almost always demanded final say on these matters (and was as much of a noted perfectionist when it came to his looks and image as he was in regard to his music) wasn’t happy with the end product, and it may have been for much the same reason that he reportedly didn’t like the Bani shoots for the Invincible album.
Although I appreciate Michael’s physique as much as the next female fan, I am not overly fond of this photo, either. Maybe if it hadn’t been for the leg warmers (lol, whose idea were those, anyway!?) but the whole thing just smacks of 80’s cheesiness to me, like the models in those 80’s issues of Playgirl that I used to secretly buy and hide under my bed to keep my grandmother from finding them. Well, it was 1987, after all, and what fashion statement wasn’t complete in those days without leg warmers? However, I agree with the fans who have stated that Michael’s sensual appeal was probably much better captured in photographs such as those shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, Todd Gray, Lynn Goldsmith, and Herb Ritts (responsible for Michael’s smoldering “In The Closet” look). To that list, I think we could also add the sizzling Alan Watson pole shoots from 1999, which (even though fully clothed) were still some of the sexiest shots Michael ever did. Collectively, all of these photos indicate that “less” isn’t necessarily sexier .
Nevertheless, since Michael did pose (and we can presume willingly) for the Gorman shoot, as well as all the others mentioned here-and did have the audacity to wear those infamous gold pants onstage that left practically nothing to imagination, I think it may be high time to examine what these images and choices can really tell us about Michael-how he viewed himself and his body (both as a work of art and as a sexually deified “object”), his particular brand of exhibitionism (which no performer can exist without to some degree) and to what extent some of these choices may have reflected his own sexual liberation during this time.
There persists an almost puritanical myth about Michael, sex, and how he viewed his body, as well as the idea of being perceived as a sexual “object” (if you will, for lack of a better word). This myth is commonly perpetuated even among some elements of the fan base, which invites a lot of fascinating and seemingly contradictory dualities. While fans may ogle and “aww” over sexy photos of Michael, many will also still insist that he was a puritanical angel, shy to the point of awkwardness over his body, who was often repulsed by the behavior of sex crazed fans. This is an idea that has been reinforced by a well circulated quote from Boteach Schmuley’s book:
“No, that’s crazy, like some of these singers who put bulges in their pants, that’s crazy. I don’t understand that. That’s like disgusting to me when they do stuff like that. That’s embarrassing. I don’t want nobody to even look at me down….like looking for that. That would just embarrass me so bad, oh God.”
“When I think about it, I would never say this on TV, but if I went on stage thinking about what goes through women’s heads, I would never go out on stage. If I was suddenly to start thinking about what they were thinking about….sex, or what I look like naked, then, oh God, that would be so embarrassing. I could never go out. That’s so horrible.” -Excerpted from The Michael Jackson Tapes.
“I think it’s fun that girls think I’m sexy…but I don’t think that about myself. It’s all just fantasy, really. I like to make my fans happy so I might pose or dance in a way that makes them think I’m romantic. But really I guess I’m not that way.”-Excerpted from The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story.
1I sing the body electric,The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?2The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account,That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.The expression of the face balks account,But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress does not hide him,The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side…
To cut to the chase, I see much of what Michael was doing in this phase as a kind of metaphoric shedding of his old skin. And what better way to accomplish this-what better way to celebrate this newfound sense of self-then by posing nude (or nearly so, as the case may be).
Photographer Lynn Goldsmith worked for Michael for 8 years. Of this photoshoot with Michael Lynn says “We were in his hotel and it’s about 7’o clock, and that’s when the sun was setting and I said ‘You know Michael, up on the roof there’s m…agic light’ so he said ‘Magic light!’ so I said ‘Yeah, you wanna go up there?’ so he said ‘Yeah’ so we snuck out and and we went up to the roof and it was something that he did, Michael started taking his clothes off on the roof which I thought I would get into big trouble for, I mean, he didn’t completely undress but even just taking his shirt off, this is not, you know, a body builder and so you never really knew what he was thinking and that made photographing him very exciting, for me.”~Lynn Goldsmith Plum TV Interview. 1981 Boston
Below: Some of the tantalizing photos that came out of Lynn Goldsmith’s rooftop session and Michael’s impromptu “striptease“:
Similar stories have been told by many other photographers who worked with Michael. Taken collectively, these stories do seem to undermine the popular narrative of Michael Jackson as someone who was awkwardly uncomfortable in his skin. Rather, they all point to just the opposite-that here was a young man who was completely comfortable in his skin, who was confident in his sexuality and the objectification of it, and didn’t seem to mind in the least who knew it-or who enjoyed it.
However, it also seems true that certain photographers could bring out this side of him better than others. This may not be surprising. Photography is, after all, a kind of art, and it takes a special kind of artist to really connect with his or her subject. Virtually every one who ever photographed Michael has commented on how photogenic he was, but there were a handful who seemed to really know how to tap into his inner eroticism and bring it to the forefront. And it may not be surprising that most of those photographers have been women or gay men, who seemed most innately able to capture the essence of Michael’s physical appeal.
Although the Gorman photo was never released in Michael’s lifetime, a much more familiar photo from Greg Gorman is the famous “tarantula photo” which features a profile view of Michael with a huge tarantula crawling across his face. He also shot the well known “face behind the lace veil” photo that Michael originally wanted as the cover of the Bad album.
Both photos exhibit a daring avante-garde appeal that was not common in many of the photos taken of Michael during this era, but which he would begin to experiment with much more brazen daring in the coming decades (with sometimes mixed results; while Michael seemed willing to experiment, his conservatism-and/or that of Sony’s- often won out, resulting in many intriguing photo shoots that were ultimately never used).
Alan Watson’s “pole dancer” shots for the Invincible album remain among my favorites, and some of these ultimately did end up being used for the album, though as with many photo shoots, what ended up being used was only a tiny fraction of what was actually shot. This site was one of the first to feature most of the entire photo shoot, and for years, it remained my most popular post (right up there with “Why I Love The Mature Face of Michael.”). But far from simply finding them visually appealing, I’ve often been intrigued at the idea of why Michael did them in the first place, and could there be any symbolic statement to be attached to them?
Maybe an artistic statement about where he was at in this point of his life, and how he viewed his body and sex symbol status? This was, after all, the era from about 1999-2001, a time when the tabloids had really jumped on the “Michael Jackson looks like a freak” bandwagon. But as with practically every project from the 90’s and 2000’s, there seemed to be a concentrated effort to present himself in interesting visual ways that defied such easy labels or categorizations. Indeed, the same man who even as a youth had exhibited confidence in what was then a much more traditional brand of sex appeal was also many steps ahead of the game in his maturity, acutely aware that his current sexual appeal was even edgier and treading far more “taboo” or “forbidden” territory, even as he also seemed to willingly embrace the label of becoming the “beast” we had visualized. The rather bizarre dichotomy of this phenomenon (why women continued to swoon over Michael Jackson and why, for many, he became even sexier in maturity, while the media and tabloid press denounced him as a “freak”) is a subject that has been well hashed out, and more thoroughly, by myself and many other writers elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point here except to say that it does add an interesting element to the Watson photos and others of this era like them. The dance pole, long the staple of female strippers and aerial performers (and only in more recent times becoming embraced by male strippers as well) has a long and erotic history, mostly for its phallic symbolic representation. Used for years as a symbol of objectifying the female body, it has also taken on a new status in recent times as a great equalizer for the objectivity of male and female sexuality, as well as an empowering symbol for both sexes who desire to exert control over their own objectification (for women, it can be a way of saying, “I enjoy being sexual and am the one in control” while for a man it can be a way of saying, “I am okay with being viewed as an object”-which in itself is also a powerful and liberating statement.
It is also interesting to look at how his depictions of himself, his body, and sexuality evolved in his short films and performances. We all know that the famous “crotch grab” became a well known part of his dance choreography, and the attempts to analyze what it might have possibly symbolized-if anything-could fill volumes. I have my own theories, which have been discussed in past posts, and indeed, just about every MJ critic and scholar has, at some point, added their own variations. Michael himself said it represented nothing more than a visceral reaction to the music (in an explanation reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s protestations that his controversial pelvic gyrations were just an innocent result of the music driving him). But if we go back and watch Elvis’s very blatant 1956 performance of “Hound Dog” on the Milton Berle show (before the performance was censored) we can see that this is no innocent, “aw shucks” act. Elvis was a smart cookie who knew exactly what he was doing-and the impact it would have.
Michael was essentially doing his own variant of this act, but as I had noted earlier, I think what became increasingly disturbing for many critics at the time was Michael’s apparent growing propensity for blending sexuality/eroticism with violence, largely because for them there was no apparent context in which to ground it. For many, this will instantly bring to mind the controversial Panther Dance sequence of “Black or White.”
In reading Steve Knopper’s The Genius of Michael Jackson (a book I will be reviewing in its entirety in a few weeks when I have finished it) I did come across this interesting passage, which I had not heard before:
“Landis struggled on the set to contain MJ’s sexual expression. At one point, as Michael reached into his crotch, Landis yelled “Cut!” and told Michael to knock it off-this was a family production. Michael defied the instruction, instead unzipping his fly and reaching his hand further into his crotch. Landis stopped filming again and said he was uncomfortable with the move. They asked choreographer Vince Paterson for his opinion; he agreed with Landis. But Michael insisted on calling Gallin, his manager. ‘Sandy was a screaming queen. A very flamboyant homosexual,’ Landis said. ‘Sandy Gallin comes to the set, looks at the playback, and he goes, ‘Do it, Michael! Do it! Do it!’ During the editing process later, Landis says he cut the most objectionable crotch-grabbing images and ‘what’s in the finished piece, I thought was fine.'”-Excerpted from The Genius of Michael Jackson by Steve Knopper, p. 196.
Whoa! Now just imagine…we know how hot, steamy and controversial were the shots that made it into the video! Imagine, then, what must have been on the cutting room floor!
Susan Fast has written that it may have been much more than just the video’s combination of sex and violence that made so many uncomfortable, but rather, the fact that Michael seemed to be indulging in an explicitly kind of feminized auto eroticism, territory that had been for the most part expressly forbidden for male performers (even though it was quite common for women to engage in various forms of auto eroticism in the videos of the day). Just as he had broken down so many barriers in other ways, Michael was also eradicating many of these sexist barriers (what was “ok” and socially acceptable for women to do in videos vs. what was “ok” for a man) and he wasn’t simply slowly eroding those barriers, but screaming until those walls came crashing down, as surely as The Royal Arms Hotel sign in the video. In a single video, Michael brazenly simulated masturbation in front of the camera; he ripped the shirt clean off his body and splashed, in slow motion, into a puddle of water, in as symbolic an act of shedding skin as could possibly be imagined, all while slinging wet strands of hair about his face and screaming like a wild animal…yeah, that was pretty hot and erotic, no doubt. With no mistake.
And even when Michael’s eroticism took a more romantic, classical turn, as in “You Are Not Alone” it was in many ways no less disconcerting. The concept of “You Are Not Alone” was taken from the painting “Daybreak” by Maxfield Parrish, which featured two semi-nude female subjects in what appeared to be a classical Greek setting. I’ve always felt that the video was a kind of blatant answer to the critics who were dogging the MJ-LMP marriage as a fake; an attempt to show the world that this was a genuine, romantic relationship with real chemistry. (For the record, I never really understood all the critical dismissals of the video as “awkward”; Michael and Lisa’s scenes as they talk intimately and whisper seem to me charmingly endearing). If anything, this video would go down in history as the one in which Michael literally left nothing to imagination-yes, your eyes weren’t deceiving you; if you were watching closely, that really is a flash we get at the :18 mark, when the camera pans around his supine form to an above shot!
Yep, that cheesecloth was hiked up pretty high, and no, there was nothing underneath there except Michael as nature made him! That was a pretty brazen shot, and to this day, debate remains as to why it was left in. Was it an accident that was simply never edited out? Some fans just wink it and call it Michael’s “gift” to his fans. Whatever the case may be, it has kept many sharp sighted fans delighted and happily rewinding that pan shot (not to mention being the subject of many gifs) for two decades. What may be more interesting is what we don’t see in that shot-Michael’s bare feet, which remain discreetly hidden beneath a piece of draped cloth. It was said that, for whatever reason, it was the one part of his body he was most self conscious about displaying, which might also explain why the leg warmers and socks stayed on in the Gorman photo.
And, just as with the “Black or White” film, there was apparently even more of Michael that didn’t make it into the final cut, according to an article that appeared in The New York Daily News prior to the video’s premier:
“The King of Pop came this close to becoming the King of Porn. Computer whizzes scrambled to digitally alter a shot in Michael Jackson’s new video that shows the superstar floating naked in water. According to the Los Angeles Times, producers panicked after they discovered the scene from the video “You Are Not Alone” shows just a little too much of the 36-year-old singer. The offending anatomy was cut from the shot via computer magic, the paper said. The video, produced to promote Jackson’s latest album, “HIStory,” is due to premiere at 9:30 tonight simultaneously on ABC, MTV and BET. With typical modesty, the 30-minute special is called “Michael Jackson changes HIStory”-Helen Reddy.
This era also marked an increasingly exhibitionistic trend in his live performances, with costumes that were (I firmly believe) purposely designed to draw attention to his assets. The leotard thong of the Dangerous tour and the legendary gold pants of the HIStory tour were obviously intended to have exactly the effect that they had. These costume choices were purposely body conscious; a blatant statement of virility that seemed to match the overly sexualized, aggressive personas that the costumes matched (note that his clothing would usually change over the course of the performance, from these overtly masculine pieces to softer, flowing shirts and less revealing pants as he segued into the philanthropic numbers that usually closed the sets out).
Certainly the surfacing of the Gorman photo, just as with all of these other examples, raises a lot of questions-most notably, how do we (or can we) reconcile these images to the same guy who assured us he was so shy and embarrassed about these matters, who said he would be terrorized if he thought about what “goes through women’s heads” when he is onstage. The answer is that, barring any kind of overly simplified “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” split personality theory, we really can’t. The only thing we can ascertain is that Michael Jackson-like most of us-was an incredibly complex individual and an even more incredibly complex artist, who was always evolving and always looking for ways to push the envelope further. He wasn’t afraid to take risks. Likewise, he was evolving in his own life, and I am convinced that many of these choices represented his personal journey toward freedom of sexual expression, acceptance of himself as a sexual being, and acceptance of his own, physical body as not only something beautiful, but as something that could be molded into great art. It was a journey that encompassed both his own spiritual and physical awakening; a confidence that managed to bloom despite, or perhaps even as a result of, some very debilitating physical handicaps (vitiligo and discoid lupus). It was a personal metamorphosis that nevertheless. just like every single other aspect of his life, was played out on the world’s stage with all of us watching. And perhaps that, too, wasn’t entirely coincidental. Michael Jackson, following in the footsteps of every sex symbol before him (male or female) knew the power of sexual objectivity in selling his art. No doubt, he probably reaped at least some of the the benefits of exhibitionistic empowerment; after all, nothing is quite so titillating and intoxicating-and ultimately, perhaps, terrifying-as knowing that millions of people all over the world are fantasizing about you.
I think that, ultimately, Michael worked his way through all of these conflicted feelings in the only way he knew how-through his art.