On Jackson, Bowie, Artistic Reinvention and Other Passing Thoughts

Early Photo of Michael Posing With David Bowie
Early Photo of Michael and Other Jackson Family Members Posing With David Bowie In The 70’s

I had promised before Christmas that my next post would be on the recently surfaced Gorman photo. Rest assured that post is still coming, but as so often happens when I’m writing posts, events sometimes have a way of throwing me off track. I was almost 3/4’s of the way complete with that post when I heard the news of David Bowie’s passing. And although my blog is focused on Michael Jackson, I am a music lover and as such, certainly could not let the death of such an iconic figure go by without its obligatory tribute post. Although Michael and David Bowie were not close friends, their paths did cross, and certainly they had enough in common to merit some undeniable comparisons-both musical legends, of course; both of them innovators; both masters of the art of reinvention; both cultural agent provocateurs who utilized science fiction and fantasy in many of their personas.  In fact, even though I know this may come as a controversial statement to some, I think we could even make the argument that Bowie, at least in part, paved the way for Michael’s own adult superstardom, in which constant reinvention and the chameleon-like ability to transcend many genres became a central focus. In the last few days, a video of a 1983 MTV interview with David Bowie has been widely circulated among the MJ fan community, in which Bowie publicly called MTV out for not playing black artists. I watched this video again last night, and I have to say, it would have been downright amusing (had the whole situation not been so terribly real) to see how Mark Goodman visibly squirmed beneath Bowie’s direct fire of questioning. It was like watching the work of a brilliant attorney when he’s got a crumbling witness disintegrating under his thumb! Most revealing are Goodman’s answers, when he practically admits MTV’s fear of “frightening” kids in the Midwest who might, God forbid, see too many black faces on their TV screen.

This video, alone, is a relevant piece of evidence that proves how all too real Michael’s early struggles were as a black artist on the cusp of the MTV explosion, an artist who not only wanted to be on MTV (in heavy rotation) but who also wanted to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, and who dreamed of a day when he would be nominated for a Grammy in categories other than just “Best Male R&B” simply because that was his only real shot at winning.with david bowie2

There are, of course, those flashes and glimpses of times when their paths crossed. Shortly after Michael passed, as a way of paying tribute to him, a series of photos that showed Michael and David Bowie hanging out together backstage at the LA Forum in 1983 were published on CNN by a reporter whose cousin was working for Bowie during the “Let’s Dance” tour. It was even reported that they had danced together at Studio 54, when Michael supposedly taught David how to do “The Robot!”


Michael Looks To Be Taking Some Serious Advice From David
Michael Looks To Be Taking Some Serious Advice From David


When Legends Hang Out
When Legends Hang Out

Like Michael, Bowie’s career had roots going all the way back to the 60’s (even if, albeit, as an adult star his path was destined to be quite different). They both achieved mass fame in the early 1970’s, though their appeal was to very different audiences. And in a way, they both reinvented themselves in the 80’s to become leaders of the MTV generation. And this, too, is a reason why I think so many MJ fans likewise embraced Bowie to an extent. Even though he was approaching middle age by the time of the MTV era, the videos and music he made at that time were so fresh, and so innovative, that he still felt very much like a part of that generation. Those of us who remember fondly when “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” were in heavy rotation are also the same generation who remembers “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl” and my all time favorite, cheesy guilty pleasure-Bowie and Mick Jagger camping it up in “Dancing in the Streets.”

They Both Reinvented Themselves For The 80’s MTV Generation

beat itbowie

There were also some compelling coincidences. For example, Bowie starred as The Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, on Broadway. Michael, as we know, had a lifelong fascination with the life of Merrick and often considered his own life as being somewhat analogous of Merrick’s. And, of course, we can’t forget one other interesting way in which their paths crossed, when Iman-the Queen whose heart Michael stole in “Remember The Time”- became Bowie’s real life wife that very same year. I was just listening to “Under Pressure” and remembering how Michael also recorded some amazing and brilliant duets with Freddie Mercury. To think of all three of them now being gone is sad indeed. I’m sure if I put enough thought into it, I could come up with many more examples of ways in which their lives and careers intersected.

But you must forgive me if this post rambles a bit. Like many fans this week, I am sorting through a lot of feelings and reactions, both good and bad, positive and negative.

Michael Jackson was also an iconic figure whose death was huge, and impacted many. But after nearly seven years, the world has had time to process it. Since that time, we have lost a number of other iconic musical legends, including Whitney Houston and now Bowie (and for us grunge lovers, Scott Weiland’s untimely passing last December is still a fresh sting, even if albeit, perhaps, not a total shocker). I am sure, however, that the passing of David Bowie has probably been the only musician’s death to truly equal Michael’s in terms of global mourning and press coverage. There is still a measured difference, however, largely because Bowie’s appeal and impact was, for the most part, to a more esoteric and marginalized following, whereas Michael was The King of Pop, so beloved and instantly recognizable across the globe that even natives in the remotest areas of Africa know who he is (this is not hyperbole; it’s a proven fact!). I still do not think that Bowie’s death, tragic as it is, has quite struck the collective cultural nerve in the same way, but nevertheless, the outpouring of tributes are richly deserving of an artist who not only defined a generation, but also one who made it okay to be “different”; to be “other;” to be eccentric and even “weird.”

Both David Bowie and Michael Jackson Challenged The Status Quo Ideas of Normalcy vs. “Other”

david-bowie-aladdin-sane-1973arnobani_mjHowever, this is where it gets both interesting and sad (and sometimes, yes, frustratingly infuriating) to look at the differences in how the media has reacted to Bowie’s death in comparison to Michael’s. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t wish to turn this into another bitter “martyred Michael” post, as that is not my intent. I do find it interesting, however, to observe and interpret some of the reasons behind these perceived differences.

Whereas Bowie's Constantly Evolving (And Often Gender Defying) Looks Were Branded As Genius By The Rock Elitist Press...
Whereas Bowie’s Constantly Evolving (And Often Gender Defying) Looks Were Branded As Genius By The Rock Elitist Press…

Think about it this way for a moment: David Bowie dies, and the media praises both him and his ever changing looks and alter egos as “genius” and refers to it as “reinvention.” Michael Jackson did the same thing, constantly reinventing his image and appearance, but for that he was branded as “weird” (in a not complimentary kind of way) and “self hating.” It became clear to me long ago that Michael was simply following the same trajectory of Bowie and other avant-garde artists who have utilized their bodies and appearance as much as their musical talent, yet the media never seemed willing to grant him that respect or to even consider that, just maybe, far from being a self hating black man and a “whacko jacko” who had “mutilated” his face that maybe he really was making an artistic statement all along-and, if so, the ultimate last laugh was certainly on them!

...Jackson Was Often Branded As Merely "Weird" and "Eccentric" For The Same Chameleon-Like Qualities.
…Jackson Was Often Branded As Merely “Weird” and “Eccentric” For The Same Chameleon-Like Qualities.

Bowie certainly embraced the beauty of “Otherness” and certainly challenged the status quo’s notions of gender. One might argue that Michael did as well (thought to what extent he did so intentionally  remains, perhaps, debatable). Bowie openly proclaimed himself as bisexual in an era long before it became the fashionable thing for celebrities to do, though in a more recent interview, he claimed himself (perhaps ironically tongue in cheek) as a “closet heterosexual.” But in all of the outpouring of tributes and media commentaries this week, I have seen nothing but praise for Bowie’s genius. No snarky rants about his sexuality or “why he felt the need to keep changing his appearance” (guess “self hatred” doesn’t apply if you’re white and British!). And the few trolls who have commented on Bowie tribute articles have been quickly shot down by the majority of readers. By contrast, although we certainly saw the same outpouring of grief and media tributes in the wake of Michael’s passing, it always felt just ever so slightly tinged by a kind of backhanded snarkiness, especially from the likes of Rolling Stone and other media outlets and reporters who were too far steeped in their “rockist” attitudes to appreciate Michael’s genius or atristry. In the tributes to Michael, even the most well meaning, there were always the “buts”…far too many “buts.” “Gifted child star but troubled adult;” “Brilliant artist who gave us ‘Thriller’ and then spiraled downhill,” “Cute young guy but, sadly, evolved into ‘freakdom’.” And, too often, those were the “nice” ones. Then there were the just plain nasty and vile, such as Peter King and Diane Dimond spewing their vomit not even a week after Michael had turned cold. Barely two weeks after his passing, comedians like Joan Rivers and late night talk show hosts like Jimmy Fallon were already making jokes in poor taste (as compared to Fallon’s genuinely heartfelt tribute to Bowie). And even though Bowie’s biracial daughter with wife Iman looks every bit as “white” as Michael’s biracial children with wife Debbie Rowe, it can be rest assured that you will see no snarky references to her appearance in the media. I am quite certain there will be no embarrassing articles calling into question his daughter’s paternity. In fact, of all the biracial children who have been born of celebrity parents, none have had to endure the garbage that is constantly heaped on Michael’s children.

David Bowie’s Biracial Daughter Alexandria Zahra Jones (left) and Michael Jackson’s Biracial Daughter Paris Jackson (right). Despite Their Similar, Olive-Toned Complexions, We Can Reasonably Assume That Alexandria Will Never Be Subjected To The Cruel Hatred That Paris and Her Siblings Have Endured, Or The Tasteless and Endless Media Speculations About Her Parentage.

Alexandria Lexi Zahra Jonesparis

This isn’t, of course, meant in any way to cast aspersion on the tributes to David, who was certainly a great artist and, I believe, a great human being as well. He is certainly deserving of all the respectful accolades. So let me make that much clear. This isn’t about David. But it is  about media and cultural perceptions, and why it can be that one artist is universally praised for many of the same things that another artist was universally condemned for. Therefore, I thought it might be interesting to analyze some of the reasons for this discrepancy.

One factor, of course, is the obvious: Bowie, for all his eccentricities, was never charged with a heinous crime. Michael’s fans have always believed in his innocence, and those of us who have researched the accusations made against him believe in his innocence. As I have said before, the fact that Michael was acquitted is largely why his reputation and legacy has managed to not only survive, but thrive. But for many it remains a troubling question mark on his legacy-and, unfortunately, one that many in the media could not seem to let go of, even in death. Bowie, on the other hand, was never charged with any crime, but his life was very much the typical rock star life of excess and debauchery (at least in his younger years). Again, however, while the media seems willing to “forgive and forget” these things with most musician deaths, Michael, it seemed, was and remains judged by a harsher standard. Bowie died from cancer, so in a way, even his death (by media standards) was a perfectly respectable death. Thus, there will be none of the endless scandal, gossip, and circus atmosphere that surrounded Michael’s passing. Fans will not have to suffer the indignity of all the details of his death being splashed across two necessary, but sordid and embarrassing trials. In fact, almost every aspect of Michael’s death became fodder for a huge media circus, from its tragic circumstances to the endless speculation of causes and culprits; from the over the top memorial service (which in and of itself became a source of much media criticism) to the seemingly endless soap opera of where he would be laid to rest, as weeks and then months dragged on with no resolution and his body remained unburied, all of which only served to lend an even more ghoulish and macabre note to the already circus atmosphere of his death. Compare all of that to the simple dignity of Bowie’s death and quiet cremation in New York this week, and it only serves to drive home the fact that Michael-in death as in life-deserved so much more than what he got. But mainly, if I have to single out one thing that rankles the most, it would be that for the most part every obituary and tribute article to David Bowie has focused on what matters most-his art. Michael Jackson, as one of the most legendary, iconic, and influential artists of our generation, certainly deserved the same treatment-or again, should we say, much better than what he got (the crashing of the internet notwithstanding).  Michael did, of course, receive his share of many touching tributes to his artistic genius as well, but too often these paled in number compared to the usual gossip about trivial matters such as plastic surgery, skin bleaching, drug addiction and “who is really father to his kids” or, as mentioned, the never ending speculations about where and how “it all went wrong.” I think we can safely pin it all down to one important factor, which is that Bowie, for all his celebrity status, never really fell prey to the clutches of the tabloid press and the “cult of personality” in the way that Michael did.

There are at least two obvious factors for these differences in how Bowie and Jackson were regarded by the media-we might argue racism, for one. Or the fact that even after acquittal, Michael Jackson remained, for many, guilty in the court of public opinion, thereby seemingly providing a carte blanche excuse. However, it has to be something much deeper and even more troubling, for as most of us know-and have discussed here many times-the media backlash against Michael (as well as the conspiracy to “dethrone” his position in the industry) began long before any accusations were ever made.

And this is where the comparison gets interesting, because Michael Jackson and David Bowie were utilizing many of the same artistic means to similar ends. But again, whereas Bowie’s excesses and repertoire of ever changing “alter egos” was deemed as art, Michael Jackson was often branded in the same mainstream press as a pompous “egomaniac” or worse.

Here are just some casual observations I’ve made, which may help to get to the center of why the media has regarded them in such a very different light, even though they were certainly equals in terms of artistic genius and as agent provocateurs who forced us to confront and question many issues. But first, let’s start by examining their similar visions and even, perhaps, some of Bowie’s influences on Michael.

As early as the 1970’s, Bowie had already become renowned for his evolving looks and alter egos. Artists develop alter ego personas for a number of reasons, but the most obvious is that they allow for a clear distinction between fantasy and reality. In the same way that an actor can literally “become” someone else by slipping into a role, a performer with an alter ego can explore many facets of their personality (and of others’) without the kind of repercussions that might come from actually acting out such a persona as themselves. In doing so, they can become free to act out their darkest visions, fantasies, and impulses, or to indulge in dual personalities, but with a kind of measured safety net. After all, it’s just an act (the performer knows it; the audience knows it) and the alter ego can be left behind when the performer exits the stage. The alter ego can also allow the performer to adopt many different looks and styles, as each era of their career essentially becomes a different concept that is being enacted. Michael Jackson’s career was so long, and so diverse with his many different “looks” and styles, that fans refer to every stage of his career in terms of “eras.” We all know them, and understand that when fans refer to “Off The Wall” era it is very different from, say, “HIStory era.” With every new album, we witnessed a slightly different metamorphosis; a shedding of the old skin. David Bowie’s fans, also, speak of every stage of his career in terms of “eras.” We speak of “Major Tom era” or “Ziggy Stardust era,” “Thin White Duke” era or “Aladdin Zane era.” Each of these personas allowed Bowie as an artist the freedom to explore controversial and even taboo territory (such as androgynous sexuality in the 1970’s).

Bowie’s own explanations of some of his most famous “personalities” are revealing. In a 1974 interview with William S. Burroughs, Bowie explained the concept of Ziggy Stardust:

“The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. [The album was released three years ago.] Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock & roll band and the kids no longer want rock & roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. “All the Young Dudes” is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.”

“Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes “Starman,” which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is traveling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie the Infinite Fox.

Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist on our world. And they tear him to pieces onstage during the song “Rock and Roll Suicide.” As soon as Ziggy dies onstage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science-fiction fantasy of today and this is what literally blew my head off when I read Nova Express, which was written in 1961. Maybe we are the Rogers and Hammerstein of the Seventies, Bill!”

Bowie’s “Thin White Duke” was personified as a pure Aryian and Fascist, or the embodiment of Hitler as “an early rock star.” Bowie often described him as his darkest (and certainly least likable) alter ego. Bowie himself described “The Thin White Duke” as a “dangerous” persona who was a “nasty character indeed.”  This phase was undeniably the most controversial of Bowie’s career, and may be considered analogous to some aspects of Michael’s HIStory-era persona, particularly in the HIStory teaser film and “They Don’t Care About Us,” both of which were taken out of context and misconstrued by the media.

That Michael was becoming fascinated with the concept of artistic reinvention was evident as early as his 1979 manifesto, in which he stated:

“MJ will be my new name No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a tottally [sic]different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang “ABC,” [or]”I Want You Back. I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer [sic]. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.”

Although Michael’s development of characters and alter ego personas was less overtly obvious than Bowie’s, there can be little doubt that he was certainly creating many such fictional characters and alter extensions of himself throughout his career. The “Billie Jean” character, for example, was a very distinct persona steeped in the quirky pathos of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Michael’s love of miming. There was the gangster suave “Smooth Criminal,” the superhero “Captain EO,” the robotic and unfeeling alien who opened most of the “HIStory” concerts and the entire history of short films in which Michael often displayed transformation and/or the duality of conflicting personas (Preppie Daryl vs. Black Studded Leather Gang Leader in “Bad,” the Black Panther of “Black or White,” the royal trickster of “Remember the Time,” the quirky Maestro and uptight mayor of “Ghosts,” and, finally, “The Beast [we] visualized.” And, as with Bowie, with each new incarnation came a new look, often challenging and provoking status quo norms of masculinity and/or normalcy.

Michael, Like Bowie, Often Transformed Himself Into Many Fictional Characters, Such As The Alien Spaceman of the HIStory Tour
Michael, Like Bowie, Often Transformed Himself Into Many Fictional Characters, Such As The Alien Spaceman of the HIStory Tour

And really, when we think of Michael’s career in these terms, some of the more puzzling and often contradictory aspects of his onstage and offstage personality may begin to make more sense to us (for example, how he could be both the seemingly shy, blushing child-man and the sexually charged onstage presence he became).  However, Michael rarely discussed his art or his artistic vision publicly, and I think this reticence may be at least partly responsible for some of the misconceptions. Whereas Bowie often gave detailed interviews about his alter egos, Michael chose the path of mystique instead, preferring to let his music and performances speak for themselves. And, unfortunately, by the time he was ready to open up and talk about his art, he was met by a reluctant press who were always more  interested in discussing anything but his art. By then, Michael’s life and celebrity had become tabloid fodder. No one was really thinking of him as a serious artist, least of all the media.

David Bowie, too, became very much a part of the celebrity cult, but with a studied difference. There always seemed a clear distinction between David Bowie the celebrity vs.  David Bowie the artist. There was, in other words, a clear distinction between art and reality. No matter how “weird” or “androgynous” Ziggy Stardust might look; no matter how eccentric, dark or twisted the “Thin White Duke,” no one was really confusing those characters with their creator, David (Jones) Bowie.  With Michael, there was not always such a clearly defined distinction between the eccentricities of his art and the eccentricities of his reality. The media often ridiculed his choices of fashion, the makeup, his hairstyles, the surgical masks as all somehow indicative of either an extreme desire for attention or as being symptomatic of a psychological disorder or, at best, as a kind of unforgiving unwillingness to separate the fantasy of the “King of Pop image” from his own reality (even though he was, in many ways, simply carrying on an age-old tradition of show business mystique harkening back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, when great stars worked hard to develop an image and never allowed themselves to be seen in public looking “normal” or “ordinary”-after all, a star was not supposed to resemble your next door neighbor).

1997 Interview In Which Barbara Walters Criticizes Michael’s Fashion Statements as “Eccentric”

And it is this aspect that many, particularly the rockist elite who were most determined to bring him down, could not forgive. Back in 2010 when I ran a piece comparing Michael and Johnny Depp, and looking at some of the ways in which Michael’s persona had inspired Depp’s quirkier characters, I raised this same question: Why is Johnny Depp revered for playing the same eccentric, quirky characters that Michael was often condemned for being in real life? And again, it probably comes down to the same answer: Eccentricity is loved, adored, and celebrated when it is on the big screen, or conversely, on the stage. In other words, as long as it is within the realm of fantasy. It’s not so loved, or embraced, when it bleeds over into real life, when being “different” can even become a threat.The world knows that Johnny Depp is an actor who, at the end of the day, takes off the makeup and goes home to a relatively “normal” life. Michael, on the other hand, even after performing in the spotlight, went home to a place called Neverland-a place that, as far as the media was concerned, represented the height of eccentricity. Likewise David Bowie  lived the typical rock star fast life through much of the 70’s and 80’s before finally settling down to a kind of respectable domestic life in the 90’s. Part of Michael Jackson’s mystique, on the other hand, was that those lines between his onstage and offstage personas were often blurred. And he was perceived in some circles as a very real threat. In other words, there reached a point where the balance between showmanship and becoming a very real, unsettling threat to the status quo was not so easily or clearly defined. The public began to find Michael Jackson unsettling precisely because they did not longer know how to categorize him or how to separate those boundaries. The great irony in Michael’s case was that the very mystique he sought, in order to protect himself as a serious artist, was ultimately denied him. Instead, the sensationalist angle of his life took over (but to what extent we might blame Michael or the media for this remains a hotly debatable issue). David Bowie once said that the reason he abandoned Ziggy Stardust when he did was because he had taken that alter ego as far as he possibly could, and that to have continued as Ziggy would have turned both himself and the character into a cartoon caricature. The unfortunate downside for Michael might be that he never seemed as able-or perhaps was never allowed to be as able- to so blithely develop and then discard his alter extensions once the spotlight was turned off. 

David Bowie Said If He Had Not Abandoned Ziggy Stardust When He Did, He Would Have Quickly Become "A Caricature."
David Bowie Said If He Had Not Abandoned Ziggy Stardust When He Did, He Would Have Quickly Become “A Caricature.”

But perhaps the biggest factor may come down to simple demographics. Bowie’s roots were strongly entrenched in the avant-garde world of glam rock, where his brand of “Otherness” was considered the norm; even expected. Unlike Michael, whose roots instead were firmly  embedded in the glory days of Motown and where his fame had begun as a child star and as part of a popular and clean cut “boy band,” Bowie had the luxury of beginning his career as an adult with a clean slate. This gave him the kind of carte blanche needed to fully develop his adult artistic vision, in all of its “weird” glory. I believe that Michael, especially by the time he had emancipated himself from Quincy Jones in the early 90’s, really wanted to be an avante-garde artist on a par with Bowie, but the disadvantage he faced was that his reputation was already firmly established as The King of Pop. The world had watched him grow up, and therefore any and all attempts at self-reinvention or even artistic reinvention always seemed to be met with a kind of skepticism. His huge commercial success had become, in a way, his own downfall in moving forward, and it often seemed that no matter how brilliant his mature work might be, he was always doomed to be judged by a harsher standard by critics who simply didn’t “get it” and who seemed to want to refuse him the right to either grow up or change.

Michael Sometimes Seemed To Want To Be Every Kind of Artist, To Every One. He Succeeded More Than Most...But Not Without Cost.
Michael Sometimes Seemed To Want To Be Every Kind of Artist, To Every One. He Succeeded More Than Most…But Not Without Cost.

But part of the problem, too, is that Michael always desired to be the kind of artist who could be everything to everyone. The boldness of his vision was such that he truly believed he could reinvent himself as a cutting edge, avante-garde artist, one who would challenge and threaten the status quo, all while still selling millions of records and maintaining his role model image and loyal, global fanbase. And I have said many times before that the biggest testament to his star power was that he was able to successfully juggle this often unweildy balance as successfully as he did. However, achieving that balance could not come without some form of price, and in Michael’s case, I believe that price was paid by the fact that he would always forever be doomed to “prove himself” to critics-and to top his own achievements. At some point, Michael did become resigned to the price he had paid, becoming less the “superhero” of past incarnations and more the dark “beast” who reflected our fears and prejudices. Another price to be paid is that his most challenging work was always going to be either torn down or dismissed by a generation of critics who feared what the repercussions of taking him too seriously might entail. To cut to the simple chase, it was always going to be an easier path for a white British rocker to challenge our norms. It was never going to be as easy for a black American pop singer who had started out as a child singing “ABC.” But the one thing we have to remember is that David Bowie did courageously make a stand for black American musicians, using his platform to make the pop and rock world aware of its own racial injustices-and its own short sightedness. And when Bowie spoke, people listened.

There is at least one other parallel note to touch upon, and that is the immortality and metaphoric resurrection of both through their art. In what has become almost a cliche’ with celebrity/artist deaths, both Michael Jackson and David Bowie died just as they seemed on the verge of major “comebacks.” I use the term in quotes, however, because the truth is that neither had ever really gone away. But it is true that the “This Is It” concerts would have been Michael’s return to the stage after almost a decade, and Bowie’s “Blackstar” album was his first since 2013. Of course we now know that Bowie, who had been quietly and courageously battling his cancer for eighteen months, intended this album as his final farewell. That the “Lazarus” video, depicting an emaciated Bowie being resurrected from his death bed, just happened to be released on the day of Bowie’s death was either the most brilliant marketing strategy ever, or-depending on how one views these things-the most macabre and exploitative marketing strategy ever. However, since Bowie was apparently in complete control of this project all the way up to the last, what is most obvious is that Bowie planned perfectly how to make his own death his Last Great Production-and his final artistic statement to the world.

David Bowie’s “Lazarus”-A Good-Bye As Brilliant As It Is Heartbreaking

In Michael’s case, though he was not battling a terminal illness, there was nevertheless something eerily prophetic in the choice of “This Is It” as the title of his final curtain call-and which would lend even more macabre poignancy to the concert film that followed, which in its own way seemed to supplant the aborted live concerts as Michael’s own resurrection from the grave. MJ-mjs-this-is-it-24072928-1280-706 (1)

I have listened to “Lazarus,” as well as watched the video, many times this week, and more recently have listened to the entire “Blackstar” album. It is a haunting and brilliant work, although I know it will take many, many more listenings for all of its facets and nuances to reveal themselves,and before all the dots of its parting message can truly be connected for me. What I do know is that “Lazarus” is an achingly beautiful tribute to the immortality of the artistic spirit, which unfortunately must be pitted against the mortality of the physical body. And in that spirit I am reminded again of Michael’s own words, when he said “To escape death, I attempt to bind my soul to my work.”After viewing “Lazarus” my husband made the comment that he believed a celebrity death had finally managed to “upstage” Michael Jackson’s. This led to a quite interesting (and opinionated!) discussion. I said yes, but we have to remember that David Bowie had eighteen months in which to contemplate his mortality, and to prepare his farewell statement to the world. Michael didn’t have that luxury; he couldn’t have foreseen that his life was going to be cut short at fifty (although I do believe he had a strong premonition in his last months that the end was nearing). But after that conversation, I remembered something else-that Michael had, in fact, brilliantly and prophetically predicted his own demise, death, and eventual resurrection many years before, in the film “Ghosts” and its forerunner, “Is It Scary.” Of course. I have been writing on “Ghosts” for years-even lecturing on it-and yet, somehow, this most obvious parallel of all completely escaped me until being recalled in hindsight. Since there can be little doubt that Michael intended The Maestro character as an extension of himself (that which represented himself as “The Artist”) then the death scene of the character, when he literally crumbles to dust on the floor before the astonished villagers, is not only analogous to Michael’s own physical death twelve years later, but eerily prophesies what he perceives as the crucifixion of the artist. In both “Is It Scary” and “Ghosts” his character is, of course, miraculously resurrected, though in different ways-in “Is It Scary” his corpse is literally pieced back together by the children; the later version in “Ghosts” merely depicts his resurrection as a more mysterious result of the power of wishful thinking, though the implications are the same.  In both films, the idea of the artist as a kind of “Lazarus” figure who is both sacrificed because of his art, and resurrected as a result of its power to sustain his immortality, is a central theme. So in a way, it seems Michael did create his own version of “Lazarus,” even if, albeit, some twelve years prematurely.

In closing, I will simply add this parting thought. I am proud that my generation was blessed with so many unique geniuses and talents, and every time we lose another, the world grows a little dimmer and colder for their loss. Among the music world, I don’t think there are many more genuine stars of their ilk left. The world that created them has passed; we make do with lesser lights.

“Get the point? Good…Let’s Dance!”



66 thoughts on “On Jackson, Bowie, Artistic Reinvention and Other Passing Thoughts”

  1. Raven , I am sorry, but you, we,nobody can compare Michael, his artistry, his ability, his geniality, his competence, his creativity, his beautiful looks, the tremendous amount of money he like a Midas has earned with David Bowie!! He was not a genius, I says:

    Raven , I am sorry, but you, we, nobody can compare Michael, his artistry, his ability, his geniality, his competence, his creativity, his beautiful looks, the tremendous amount of money he like a Midas has earned with David Bowie!! Bowie was not a genius, I can´t accept that, moreover being a white man everything in life was so easy for him. His death upstage Michael´s? No way. I did not see all the world mourning, not the Google and the likes, stuck because of the news on D Bowie´s death. Not by far comparable to Michael´s. No, No.

    1. I appreciate your commentary, but please read more carefully before jumping the gun. I didn’t say that Bowie’s death had upstaged Michael’s. My husband made that comment (which as I stated was a comment I disagreed with).But he was referring to Bowie’s parting artistic statement on his death with “Lazarus” and the “Blackstar” album, not in terms of media coverage or world mourning. What you are referring to is that same collective cultural nerve I mentioned, which was the vast outpouring of global grief that we saw with Michael, and which for whatever reasons, even reached out to those of us who had not been diehard fans before that.However, as we know, while Michael had tons more media than Bowie, it wasn’t always necessarily respectful, and I have been reflecting all week on the differences I have seen in the way both deaths were covered by the media. That was my main objective, although I would certainly have to disagree with you regarding Bowie’s genius. His music may not have been to every taste, but his far reaching influence and the ground he broke cannot be underestimated. Of course, you are right that as a white man, he had it easier. But Bowie can’t be faulted for the double standards of the music industry or the media, and in fact, was always very outspoken in making a stand against racism in the industry.

  2. i’d just had exactly the same thought…
    “David Bowie dies, and the media praises both him and his ever changing looks and alter egos as “genius” and refers to it as “reinvention.” Michael Jackson did the same thing, constantly reinventing his image and appearance, but for that he was branded as “weird” “…
    i had the oprtunity to watch a tribute in CNN to David Bowie this weekend… and i totally agree with you… they talk about him, as an artist as the artist he was… and the same thought came to my mind… why they did not do the same with such an incredible artist as Michael jackson….
    great article…
    if you let me i would love to translate it, so others (who not speak english could also have the opportunity to read it) if you agree please let my know i will be glad to post it in a new blog i’m working on…

    1. Yes, Michael was the bigger selling artist commercially and won more awards. But then, that goes right back to the problem with the whole double standard in the industry. Michael’s phenomenal commercial success was the very reason that so many critics refused to take him seriously as an artist. Commercial success is always a kind of double edged sword in the music business in that regard. But my point of comparison between Michael and David was not about numbers sold, or awards won. Michael and David were really artists of two very different aesthetics, so I don’t know that those kinds of comparisons are necessarily valid-or fair Where I see the common ground is in their similarly shared ability to challenge norms and to keep reinventing themselves throughout four decades. When I look at a lot of Michael’s work in the 90’s, especially around the time of the Scream and You Are Not Alone eras, I see a lot of Bowie’s influence, just as we saw the influence of performers on him at other stages of his career, as diverse as James Brown to Fred Astaire.

  3. Thanks, Raven. It’s very interesting to ponder the similarities and the differences here in these 2 music icons–there are certainly comparisons in the ‘shock value’ they presented to the status quo! In watching Lazarus, I was struck by the lines “I’ll be free, like the blue bird”–or words like that, and it reminded me of some of MJ’s lyrics (as in, “I wanna be free, free like the wind blows, to fly away just like the sparrow”). I got the impression from Lazarus that Bowie was seeing his life’s work (the writing of songs and lyrics) coming to a close, and it was in a way a relief to be free, and spared all that attention, criticism, and pressure.

  4. Just lost another musical great–Glenn Frey of the Eagles. I saw them perform a few years ago–maybe 2 years. Just hearing “One of these Nights” was worth the price of the ticket!

    1. Yes, I saw that. We have lost an incredibly lot of people in the music and entertainment industry in the past few weeks, and the year is still early. A lot of musicians, if they survive all of the excess and fast living in their youth, tend to die in their 50’s and 60’s. It’s the age where all of the hard living in their youth begins to catch up with them. From what I understand, Frey had multiple health issues but then developed pneumonia on top of them. He was another with roots in the 70’s who really kind of reinvented himself in the 80’s as a solo act. I was never a huge Eagles fan but it is still very sad news. Interestingly, as many MJ fans may know, “The Eagles’ Greatest Hits” has been for a number of years the only serious competition for “Thriller” as best selling album of all time.

      1. Yes, apparently Frey had rheumatoid arthritis and complications from that–probably we’ll hear more about it. I lived in CA for a few years during the time of the heyday of the bands of that era–the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, etc. It was a great time for music and the CA sound, the whole CA lifestyle, maybe starting from the Mama’s and Papa’s’ song “California Dreaming” and the whole 60’s-70’s vibe–it really was a huge part of the counterculture movement. Read an article attacking the Eagles as too much like elevator, ‘easy listening’ music–but when I heard them live they really rocked–same with the Doobie Brothers.

      2. Another connection between MJ and the Eagles is that Glenn Frey loved Off the Wall. According to Bob Seger, “He loved Marvin Gaye, he loved Otis Redding. He named his youngest son Otis. He loved Al Green, he loved Michael Jackson’s ‘Rock With You.’ He drove me crazy with that record!” Seger continued. “He was in a country-rock band, but he loved soul music.”

        1. I didn’t know he was such a huge OTW fan. Bless him! And just goes to prove once again that it is not the artists who create these artificial and arbitrary divides and categories in music-it’s the men in corporate suits behind them.

          ETA: I watched the documentary on The Eagles that is currently being streamed on Netflix. It makes sense that Glenn Frey was such a huge soul fan-he grew up in Detroit, Michigan, home of Motown!

          1. Yes, absolutely. I agree that is makes sense that Glenn Frey would love soul music after growing up in Detroit, home of the Motown sound and soul! Also–so true about the arbitrary divisions between categories of music being antithetical to the artists themselves, yet they get fostered on us all from those whose careers depend on the music.

  5. Thank you Raven, this is a fascinating look at two trailblazers. I agree that Michael’s altar egos were more confusing because his onstage and offstage personas were more blurred. I think this was more threatening to the status quo because it gave his audiences more permission to follow his lead…and yet it was also more unsettling to audiences because we didn’t know how to categorize him.

    And thanks for pointing out that a whole generation of journalists couldn’t speak well of him without fear of repercussion. It seems obvious now, but I didn’t understand that before.

    As always, I appreciate your thoughtful analysis!

    1. “I think this was more threatening to the status quo because it gave his audiences more permission to follow his lead…and yet it was also more unsettling to audiences because we didn’t know how to categorize him”

      Exactly. And again, to borrow from Susan Fast’s quote, it was that “confusion of the codes” which I think threw so many off kilter where Michael was concerned. What remains more confusing (partly because Michael was so reticent on these matters, and partly because serious interviewers so rarely gave him the opportunity to really address his art) is just how much of it was deliberate. For sure, much of it HAD to be, as Michael was certainly intelligent enough to be aware of the reactions certain things were bound to invoke. And yet there is also a kind of charm in thinking that, like his delightful Maestro character, much of it simply resulted from his own quirky, childlike innocence-what Fast referred to as wearing “his heart on his sleeve” or the idea that he was simply too brilliant and thus too eccentric to ever be fully understood. For sure, part of Michael’s charm was that his eccentricities did seem to stem from his own, natural personality (in other words, it was not an act) and yet you also knew there was a very smart and calculated cunning behind it all (and I mean that in the best and most complimentary kind of way, of course). This was very much a part of Michael’s enigma, and I wouldn’t have ever wanted him to be any other way because it is why we love him, and are so fascinated by him that we are still writing and talking about him.

  6. Hi Raven

    I know next to nothing about David Bowie but was interested in your comparisons and comments, as it brought out just how difficult Michael had it compared to others in the music business. Thanks for the blog.

    A bit like comparing pears and apple(heads)!! but interesting none the less. I really think that Michael is the Mozart of 200 years time – have doubts that David Bowie will still be around then, but then neither will I!! Am glad to have been around in Michaels time though.

    1. Well, I think that Bowie’s music will endure because he has been such a huge influence on so many musicians. I’m old enough to remember the 70’s, and so have a first hand memory of just how pervasive Bowie’s influence was. He was probably, along with Elton John, one of the most pervasive and renowned performers of that era. But unlike Michael, he didn’t have a repertoire of instantly recognizable pop hits and anthems (in the way we think of how a crowd instantly reacts when they hear “Billie Jean” or “Man in the Mirror”). In America, Bowie’s impact wasn’t as huge commercially, although “Fame” hit #1 and then, of course, there were his huge 80’s hits-“Let’s Dance,” “China Girl,” etc. But all the same, when we look at the impact that “Space Oddity” had on an entire generation of musicians coming of age, that is not something that can be underestimated. I think that, as the dust settles, we will find that time will not forget either of them, and I believe that Michael’s artistry will continue to grow, to be re-evaluated, and to be even better appreciated by future generation of fans and critics.

      1. i find it interesting with david bowies death that they say that he had hits or was relevant for 5 decades while mj didnt do anything for 20 years smh

  7. Thank you Raven, for writing a post on this subject. I really hoped that someone would pick this up as I think a lot of Michael’s fans noticed the same things and felt kind of sad for the different treatment Michael received after his passing, and still receives. I also like how you compared Michaels’s children and Bowie’s daughter, that’s great. They should get the same treatment, noone should question Michael’s paternity, but sadly they have to constantly vindicate themselves.
    We too will do a translation of your post into german and post it on our blog.

  8. Brilliant article Raven, as always. What upsets me the most when comparing the media reports of other celebrity deaths is that no others i.e. Lennon, Princess Diana, Whitney and now Bowie had pictures of their dead bodies plastered all over the tabloids and the internet as Michael had. This is total disrespect and I have no doubts had this been done to anyone else it would have been met with compete disgust, but as always it was Michael Jackson so it was ok.
    I had the same thoughts as you when reading reports about Bowie, he had issues in his life which all seemed to have been ignored now he is gone, sadly there will always be someone slating Michael, don’t think it will ever end.

    1. ‘Bowie, he had issues in his life which all seemed to have been ignored now he is gone,’

      Bowie was the first to admit and talk about his ‘íssues’- whatever this may mean . He never hid any of his flaws . When Michal died fans did not want to hear or talk about ‘issues’ why is it ok for DBs followers in a time of mourning to hear about so called issues. Though Imo DBs followers have no problem accepting any of his ‘issues’ as he himself was very open about it, they are a part of who he was.

      1. I think that is a good point. It generally seems that the more open and honest a celebrity is with their issues and flaws; the more forthcoming they are, the more accepting and forgiving both the media and public seem to be. It disarms the “gotcha” factor which the media thrives on. In Michael’s case, his approval ratings always went up when he was at his most honest and open (a few cases in point: His televised statement about the Chandler allegations, or his Grammy speech regarding his “cleansing” which strikes a genuinely sincere and vulnerable note). Other times he was not as articulate, and as Fast stated in the comment Nina quoted, often seemed to dig himself into “a deeper hole.” I think this was partly because he didn’t handle badgering very well, and most interviewers seemed to have a tendency to want to badger him into a corner. I can count the genuinely few really great interviews he did during the 2000’s on one hand, and one that comes immediately to mind is his interview with Geraldo Rivera in 2004. I just love that interview; it was one of the few times during that era when an interview with him really seemed genuinely like one intelligent being talking to another (because so few ever gave him that opportunity). But because most of the interviews tended to end up as badgering sessions, Michael was often put at a disadvantage where he felt forced into a defensive or even hostile position. Unfortunately, those responses (in which he was often worsted) helped seal much of his reputation, giving the oft-circulated impression of someone who was less than forthcoming. It created, for him, a kind of vulnerability to the “gotcha” factor which the media instantly swooped upon.

    2. There is a photo that exists of Lennon lying on the sidewalk after he was shot. It is very rarely shown, but there is a rather macabre video of “last photos” of people on Youtube that shows it, among many others. The bloody clothes that Lennon was shot in were also, for a long time, part of a display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex in New York. I saw the display; the clothes were still in the same bag that they gave to Yoko at the hospital. But Yoko had given her okay for the exhibit and had donated the items because she wanted to make a statement about gun laws and violence. Still, most of the visitors who came through were only gawking at the display out of morbid curiosity (then again, I found everything about the museum exhibit kind of macabre, considering just about every other item was a piece of clothing worn by a dead celebrity. This was where I also saw Michael’s “We Are The World” jacket).

      There were alleged photos of Princess Diana in the wrecked car which I know the media tried very hard to get. There will always be a certain “creep factor” that the media thrives on-if there’s even a chance it will generate some revenue and profit, they have no conscience about using it. But I do think that with Michael, they exercised this crassness with an especial relish and carte blanche attitude because it seemed every aspect of his life and then death was treated with all the reverence of a circus attraction.

  9. Lyrics from the Eagles “Dirty Laundry”–really sounds like one of MJ’s attacks on the tabloids.

    I make my living off the evening news
    Just give me something-something I can use

    People love it when you lose
    They love dirty laundry

    Well, I coulda been an actor
    But I wound up here

    I just have to look good
    I don’t have to be clear

    Come and whisper in my ear
    Give us dirty laundry

    Kick ’em when they’re up
    Kick ’em when they’re down

    Kick ’em when they’re up
    Kick ’em all around

    We got the bubble-headed-bleach-blonde
    Who comes on at five

    She can tell you bout the plane crash
    With a gleam in her eye

    It’s interesting when people die
    Give us dirty laundry

    Can we film the operation?
    Is the head dead yet?

    You know, the boys in the newsroom
    Got a running bet

    Get the widow on the set!
    We need dirty laundry

    Come on, clean it up, Joe!

    You don’t really need to find out
    What’s going on

    You don’t really want to know
    Just how far it’s gone

    Just leave well enough alone
    Eat your dirty laundry

    Kick ’em when they’re up
    Kick ’em when they’re down

    Kick ’em when they’re stiff
    Kick ’em all around

    Kick ’em when they’re up
    Kick ’em when they’re down

    Kick ’em when they’re stiff
    Kick ’em all around

    Dirty little secrets
    Dirty little lies

    We got our dirty little fingers
    In everybodys pie

    We love to cut you down to size
    We love dirty laundry

    We can do the innuendo
    We can dance and sing

    When it’s said and done
    We haven’t told you a thing

    ‘Cause we all know that crap is king
    Give us dirty laundry!

    Oh yeah.

    Kick ’em when they’re up
    Kick ’em when they’re down

    1. I never hear “Dirty Laundry” without thinking how true every line rings. And it’s still as relevant today as it was in 1982. That song was hugely popular when it first came out and I remember everyone singing that catchy chorus of “Kick ’em when they’re up, kick ’em when they’re down” without giving a second thought to what a disturbing message it actually was, lol.

      1. About “dirty laundry,” didn’t Sneddon end up looking at some underwear that he found at NL in a building attic or something like that? and some underwear was in a storage locker that DImond got excited about and gave to Sneddon– ‘dirty laundry’ came into the allegations quite literally.

  10. OK, you gave me chills at the end there, talking about “Ghosts” and all…brr! Not bad chills, exactly, but still kind of an eerie feeling. And whoa, wait, what happens in the “Is It Scary” short film (which I was not aware existed until this moment)? Is there a link to somewhere I can watch it for myself?

    I know…not much about David Bowie, and what I’ve heard of his music isn’t exactly my taste (not that I completely hate it, however), but I have respect for him as an artist, and he seems like a fairly reasonable human being (I did not know he was speaking out against racism in MTV, so thank you for telling me!), and I was shocked and rather saddened to hear of his death. And then I started seeing all the articles cropping up, and not just the ones celebrating his artistic genius, but also ones like this (http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-35279234), talking about his “pioneer” attitude towards and use of the Internet. And fine, great. He was a smart man.

    No, what got my blood boiling was the sudden remembrance that the innovations Michael made – which weren’t just confined to the music industry – were completely overlooked in his passing. No one wrote an article about how he was the one who brought amusement park rides to Las Vegas, or mentioned that he, too, like David Bowie, foresaw the near-end of physical sales of music and the beginning of the digital takeover. I was ashamed of the rage I felt, considering that someone had just died, but I wasn’t angry at David Bowie, who couldn’t really be blamed for how the media perceived him. I was furious at the media, the same way I had been furious when I heard the story about Robin Williams visiting children a few days before he died. Wasn’t angry at Robin Williams – I thought that was a very sweet and beautiful thing of him to do – just angry at the media, for never saying anything about Michael doing the exact same thing all his life. True, Michael didn’t really publicize it, but let’s face it, they didn’t want to know.

    Aagh. Anyway. *takes deep breath and remembers that ranting is counterproductive and does you more harm in the long run* You make a good point about Michael’s “alter egos” and how they blended into his offstage persona; my family was just talking about Michael’s characters, actually, and how he, like Bowie, created all these different personas for being onstage. (And actually, in the interview above, Bowie says that he created characters because A) he hated being onstage and found it easier when he could step into some kind of persona, and B) when he was a teenager, he had wanted to write musicals and create characters, and Ziggy Stardust was born from that.) But still, as you pointed out, Michael’s characters weren’t fully fleshed-out people with backstories and such, just different personas, whereas Bowie’s were really characters like you’d see in a play, so it was easier for people to get a little confused as to what was fact and what was fiction…but still…

    David Bowie did have a typical “rock star” life offstage, with the drugs and the promiscuity and so on and so forth – not trying to be a prude or a detractor, just pointing it out – so the personas didn’t exactly stop at the stage. And the media nastiness about Michael started right about the same time when Thriller was taking off and he was the artist with the biggest-selling album of all time. He had, by that point, done nothing more “strange” than have one nose job done, play the part of a zombie (in a short film for a song about horror films), and buy himself a pet boa constrictor…and yet the media seemed to decide, of one accord, that it was time to take him down. They couldn’t stand a black man achieving that kind of commercial success. Somehow or other, they had to convince the public that he was “strange and weird”. Michael’s naturally shy (not reclusive, he was not that by any means) and childlike nature didn’t help much, either, but anyone with an ounce of sense could have seen that someone who couldn’t set foot outside his door without being mobbed would very naturally bring the outside world to his house, given the money and the means…

    I’m ranting again. *deep breath* Sorry about that very long comment. Wonderful, insightful post as always; I can’t really say anything more that’s not agreeing with everything you’ve said, so I’m going to sign off with this note: I am stealing this little tidbit of information, “even though he was, in many ways, simply carrying on an age-old tradition of show business mystique harkening back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, when great stars worked hard to develop an image and never allowed themselves to be seen in public looking ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ – after all, a star was not supposed to resemble your next door neighbor”, and I am pulling it out every time someone criticizes Michael’s out-of-doors dress, along with the other tidbits of information that I’ve picked up to justify his “eccentric” dress habits. Thank you! 😉


    1. Hi Mary, sorry it has taken me awhile to get caught up on comments this week. Here is the link to “Is It Scary.” It was a precursor to the later “Ghosts” film, and you can see many similarities as well as differences between the two. It was originally going to be used to promote The Addams Family movie, “Addams Family Values” but after the Chandler allegations the production company nixed the project.

      You can also read a really good recent discussion of it on the Dancing With the Elephant blog:

      Before Joan Crawford died in the 1970’s, I remember as a child reading a magazine interview where she went on an absolute rant about current movie stars and how no one was bothering anymore to act the part of a star. She adamantly said that a movie star NEVER went out in public without her “face” on. In her day, stars believed in creating mystique and illusion. It was all part of the image. And I believe Michael really bought into that tradition as well; he believed it and lived his life by the tenets of that old time Hollywood/show business code. Whenever we saw Michael in public, he always looked like royalty. And even in more casual settings, it was very rare to catch him without his “face” on. There is a story that even when he was in rehab, he did not want to be seen without his hat and makeup on (at the time, in the early 90’s, the black fedora had become a near permanent fixture of his casual “look” along with the ever present red shirt; his friend David Nordahl once told me that Michael kept hundreds of those red shirts in his closet. It was a look he didn’t really ditch until the 2000’s).

  11. Yvonne. You have brought up something so valid, so heart-breakingly obvious and it never crossed my mind!!
    Yes, where are the gurney photos of the others? We certainly saw many of Michael. It feels like the total disrespect and depravity of those actions is just dawning on me now! Guess we were programmed to think, it’s Michael, it’s expected, it’s all for the money. Totally, utterly and disgustingly.
    David Bowie was able to meet death on his own terms, orchestrating an album to be released prior,or after, for impact maybe.
    Michael had far less choices all through his life, but he left a legacy for young and old that cannot die because it is simple truth . Most children easily pick up the messages in his songs and will grow up with that.
    With all due respect to David Bowie , his creations will never have the lasting impact on humanity that Michael’s has and continues to do.

    1. I think that David Bowie’s impact is more far reaching than many MJ fans realize, but I think the kind of impact they have both had is very different in many ways. I think of Michael as being more of a prophet; someone who had the power and ability to create world change through his art.

  12. re the gurney photos–they were shown at trial, so there was no trial in the other deaths where the photos would be relevant. The reason they were shown at trial of Dr. Murray was to show the contrast in just a few hours of MJ on stage rehearsing and then , so sad, deceased and lost forever on a gurney. Also the photos were taken by medical people (I assume), not paps. I agree with the general point about the way his death was reported in the media with all the putdowns and trashing that went on vs. the treatment of Bowie. But now Glenn Frey of the Eagles is also getting the putdowns. I think it really is a bunch of pathetic wankers who have an ability to write for the media and just want to be snide, mean, and full of jealousy (tell me are you the ghost of jealousy?) for someone as successful and groundbreaking as MJ. There is a lot of petty backbiting and jealousy when someone is truly great.

    1. That’s true. The autopsy photo was part of the prosecution strategy at trial. Unfortunately, as the trial was televised, there was no way to prevent it from then being picked up by the media. However, they could have still practiced tasteful restraint in not splashing it all over tabloid covers and the like. Several celebrity autopsy photos have been leaked over the years, and are widely available on the internet for any morbid curiosity seekers who want to have a look, so as I have stated before, it isn’t really a case of Michael being singled out. However, it only adds more salt to the wound because we know how much the media already disrespected him.

  13. Raven that is a brilliant eulogy and analyses of DBs work and a deserved tribute, it is much appreciated. He is one of few artists whose death moved me to tears ( although I and Bowie admirers that I know are far from ‘esoteric and marginalized” 🙂 ). For those of us who know their work and experienced both artists real time, your comparison makes total sense.( will comment on the comparison another time).
    It would actually be odd if artists whose careers overlapped 2 decades would not be influenced by one another and by the trends and the spirit of the time. You do not have to like Bowies music or trajectory , but admiring Michael Jackson should not limit ones ability to see the genius of other artists. I agree that artistic value is not measured by the number of people who mourn an artist, awards or records sales. Jeff Buckley died only 30 years old, finished one album, never got an award, but left a significant footprint. Kendrick Lamar in his short career already earned many awards and is now leading the grammy nominations in 11 categories , does he not deserve them because he is not Michael Jackson? The fact that Bowie had it easier as a white man (than Michael) may be true , but is he to blame for the bigotry in the world and is that a standard to judge him by ?
    How many of us really spoke up when Michael was crucified? One could argue that we are just as guilty for collectively standing by and watch while it happened. David Bowie spoke out against injustice long before many activists did and he did when it really mattered.
    Michael made no secret that he studied those who came before him to create his own signature . There is only one Michael Jackson and there is only one David Bowie and they are both in a league of their own. So it takes nothing away from Michael to pay tribute to another icon and point out obvious similarities. The different ways in which they are treated have nothing whatsoever to do with the artists but everything with society and our tendencies for selective in – and exclusion.

  14. Hi Raven , I read your amazing and heartfelt essay about the death of DBowie and other significant songwriters and artists who, as far as I am concerned, made together with others the soundtrack of my youth. I really could say that my deep love of all types of music really saved my life in a very difficult period I had to face. I recently read a very moving interview with the magic mime Lindsay Kempt who , said that D Bowie was the greatest love of his life. He also admitted that Bowie at a certain point left Mr Kempt’s life as suddenly as he had entered it. His words were still full of admiration for his mate-student and a lot of affection and admiration. I was lucky to attend two lectures held by him at my university in Bologna and I was able to perceive why Mr Bowie was enchanted by him. When reading the beautiful book by H Kureishy , The Budda of suburbia, you can really feel the atmosphere of Britain during the harsh times of Mz Thatcher and at the same time understand the willingness of provoking the status quo. As a university and paying student I was in a priviledge situation, but I could not ignore the striking division among the social classes . But it was also the period of experimental live exhibitions of new musicians in a sort of pub located in Fuhlam road where I lived. Most of all the future famous names of rock music made jam sessions there, it was incredibile. It wasn’t impossibile to me not to be enchanted by most of them and to appreciate their “rebel” position together with their marvellous music and provoking phisical appearance.Nothing to do with the Beatles. And Michael? From time to time I still wonder why he is not among us any longer, why they murdered him , even if the reasons seem to become more and more obvious. Today I read that some astronomists have dedicated a star to D Bowie. Please let’s stata petition to dedicata star to the dear soul of Michael Jackson!!!!!! Who more than him deserves it? And what song more depicts his inner feelings than the unreleased “someone put your hand out”? ” I lived my life the lonely ,a soul that cries for shame,with handicapped emotions, save me now from what still remains….Someone put your hand out, I am begging for your love, cause all I do is hand out a heart that needs your love…… You can find it on vimeo and download it . PS forgive my spelling mistakes but I am still trying to find out the way to use English as the main language to write. Hugs to all of you. Regards Cleis

    1. “Who more than him deserves it? ”
      .Most artists/ popstars have planets and stars named after them , The Beatles as a whole and all the members individually, Aretha Franklin , Enya! Miles Davis, Andy Warhol and so on and recently DB. Michael is sorely missing

      Michael has a moon crater named after him and if this is true it seems he also has /had property on the moon.

      “The man who created the moonwalk now has a moon crater named in his honor. The Lunar Republic announced Monday that the Posidonius J crater in the Moon’s Lake of Dreams (Lacus Somniorum) has been renamed Michael Joseph Jackson. The 13.5-mile-wide crater is adjacent to a 1,200-acre parcel owned by the King of Pop.
      Yes, you read that right. Michael Jackson owns property on the moon. Lots of it. In fact, he was among the largest private owners of moon property, according to the lunar registry. Don’t laugh, it was a good investment.He bought the Lake of Dreams property for $27.40 per acre in 2005. Real estate in that area — which is zoned for proposed tourism (T-1), scientific industrial (S-1), operations base (O-1) and light industrial (L-1) — is now selling for 25 percent more now than it was four years ago.
      Here is Michael’s claim to the Lake of Dreams property, followed by a photo of it. One of these days we’re all going to be going there for vacation …


      1. For a long, long time after Michael died I would find myself looking up at the moon, thinking how it shone just a little brighter now. I would think about how much magic had gone out of the world with him. I don’t do it so much now, but every so often that feeling still comes over me.

        I had heard before about Michael owning moon property. And if that document is legit, it is in the name of “Michael Joseph Jackson.” I personally do not get all of the dispute over his middle name, though. “Joe” and “Joseph” are the same name. “Joe” is simply the diminutive form of “Joseph” and I believe Michael tended to use both depending on his mood on any given day.

  15. Raven, thanks so much for your great insights here. I’m sure a lot of us who have an especial love for MJ have been pondering the similarities—and the differences—between Michael and David Bowie. This comparison can teach us a lot about our (relatively recent) cultural history, and about the kinds of expectations we as a society place on different kinds of artists (e.g., the roles they are to fulfill in our lives, etc.). More on that later, I hope.

    Cleis, I think some Belgian astronomers designated a Bowie constellation, because the motif of stars, the “Starman,” the “Space Oddity,” and outer space generally, made up such a large part of his music—so it seemed appropriate in his case.

    Sina, you said,
    “You do not have to like Bowies music or trajectory , but admiring Michael Jackson should not limit ones ability to see the genius of other artists,” and “it takes nothing away from Michael to pay tribute to another icon and point out obvious similarities.”

    Yes: I totally agree.

    And I would add—in addition to the obvious and huge factor of racism (in Michael’s case), there were also distinct differences in each of these artists’ demeanor and perceived personalities, as performers and as people. I believe this especially holds true in the ways each communicated with the press and the public, as well as the content of their music and lyrics; and these distinct approaches created a very different set of outcomes for Michael Jackson than they did for David Bowie.

    To start, I’d look at Susan Fast’s statement in her essay “Difference That Exceeded Understanding”:

    “While some of this difference was demonstrated through what was viewed in the mass media as “eccentric” behavior (the presence of his companion, Bubbles the chimp, the black surgical masks, the rumor that he wanted to buy the Elephant Man’s bones, some of this surely calculated to attract attention), it was really his more substantive, underlying differences that were most troubling— racial, gendered, able-bodied/disabled, child/teenager/adult, adult man who loved children, father/mother. These differences were impenetrable, uncontainable, and they created enormous anxiety. Please be black, Michael, or white, or gay or straight, father or mother, father to children, not a child yourself, so we at least know how to direct our liberal (in)tolerance. And try not to confuse all the codes simultaneously. Jackson tested the boundaries of subjectivity, not with the ironic distance of his contemporaries, Madonna and Prince, but with his heart on his sleeve, and he eventually lost. On those rare occasions when he tried to explain himself he seemed instead to dig a deeper hole. Many remained skeptical; too many normative social codes were in flux, and none were ever neatly put back in the container (again, unlike Madonna and Prince, who were both eventually domesticated—in “normal” ways).”

    I think Fast nails it here. And along with Madonna and Prince, I think Bowie, too, had a grasp of that “ironic distance” that Michael rarely (if ever) deployed. And Bowie, too, was eventually “domesticated,” becoming (almost literally) the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit that many people probably hoped Michael Jackson really was, or would become.

    Much has been said about the ways Michael (intentionally or not) blurred the boundaries of gender, race, and age; but it’s the part about “wear[ing] his heart on his sleeve” that I think is key to understanding why he was trounced as he was. More on this later…

    1. I go back to that quote from Fast a lot. I agree that she nails much of the source of this troubling discomfiture that society seemed to have with Michael Jackson. The “ironic distance” is pretty much the same thing I was referring to with the ability to distinctly separate the fantasy of performance, or an alter ego, with one’s reality. The only catch is that with Michael it becomes murky when we try to analyze which came first-was Michael intentionally blurring those lines, or did the media merely perceive it that way,thus creating the lens through which the public came to see it that way as well? These are all questions that interest me a lot.

      I also believe the fact that none of these other artists began as child stars gave them more freedom to invent themselves in any mold they chose. Michael was never really given that choice because his “image” was created for him by Motown, and we see him maintaining it throughout his teens and early adulthood. And even though he began to slowly deconstruct that image throughout much of the 80’s, it was still in relatively “safe” ways. I don’t think we begin to see the true transformation until the 90’s, which along with the break from Quincy Jones, became a kind of complete reinvention (and we can also see that it is here where the final disconnect between Michael, his image, and the media and critics really begin). Partly this was because people didn’t really want to grant him that freedom to step outside the comfortable, familiar box they had all grown up with, and when he did it always seemed to invoke a “How dare he” kind of response. That he was able to balance his various transformations as well as he did is largely because he was smart enough to do it by degrees and in stages, rather than all at once.

      We also see that in the 90’s he, too, attempts domestication, but again, never seemed as able to successfully maneuver it as others were. The marriage to LMP was too controversial, and doomed to failure. The press never really “bought into” the marriage with Debbie Rowe, and his fatherhood was subjected to unnecessarily cruel and exploitative speculation which only intensified as the world witnessed the apparent “phenomenon” of “Wacko Jacko” raising his kids alone as a single parent. Every part of his life was treated with suspicion, as if it were all one great, big publicity stunt, and any attempt at ironic distancing between his life and art-even if it had been his intent to do so-was bound to be denied him.

      1. Raven, I dislike that passage by Susan Fast, because it strikes me as illogical at best, and deliberately disingenuous at worst. Nobody in America believed that visible vitiligo made Michael “white”. Blackness is forever. Unlike Bowie, Michael never hinted or presented himself as gay or bisexual. When was he ever disabled? Juxtaposing the terms works as a literary device, but it has nothing to do with the actual person named Michael Jackson.

        I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I state that all of the “discomfort” Michael created was solely because he was a black man who didn’t stay in his lane. All the rest is frippery, designed to deflect from racism.

        1. “Nobody in America believed that visible vitiligo made Michael ‘white.'”

          No, but his appearance definitely implanted the idea in an entire generation that he somehow “wanted” to be; if that had not been the case, there would never have been all of the controversy that surrounded the issue (and it is a controversy that came from both black and white factions). We can’t deny it is a controversy that still continues, simply because so many bought into the idea, to the extent that even his autopsy results are often ignored.

          Regarding the issue that Michael never presented himself as gay or bisexual, I am with you 100%. But I think for various reasons (the high voice; the makeup; the more “feminized” appearance in the late 80’s and 90’s-despite this being the era when it was a fashionable trend among music artists) those public perceptions took hold, and it is those public perceptions that Fast is concerned with because they helped define much of the way in which the media then reacted to him. But racism is also a huge factor which certainly can’t be ignored. White male artists like Bowie can challenge many of those same codes, and it simply doesn’t push the collective triggers in the same way. And Bowie was INTENTIONALLY challenging them, whereas with Michael we could never be quite sure since, for the most part, he didn’t address these issues overtly and simply kept on making music, while the rest of the world gossipped and speculated around him.

  16. “There are at least two obvious factors for these differences in how Bowie and Jackson were regarded by the media-we might argue racism, for one. Or the fact that even after acquittal, Michael Jackson remained, for many, guilty in the court of public opinion, thereby seemingly providing a carte blanche excuse. However, it has to be something much deeper and even more troubling, for as most of us know-and have discussed here many times-the media backlash against Michael (as well as the conspiracy to “dethrone” his position in the industry) bega n long before any accusations were ever made.”

    What could possibly be “deeper and even more troubling” than plain vanilla American racism? It permeates every aspect of African American life – and death – to a degree that I don’t believe can be appreciated by most whites. (As Michael Moore pointed out, it is unimaginable that the tainted water debacle in Flint, Michigan would have happened in an affluent white town like Ann Arbor.)

    “They” hated Michael because he was black, not because of his challenging artistry.

    Alexandria Jones and Paris Jackson illustrate the impossibility of predicting the “proper” look of a biracial child. Michael was a somewhat light-skinned black American with white and Native American ancestral admixture, while Iman is a very dark-skinned black African. Yet with fair white spouses, they both produced daughters who scarcely look black. (I wonder if Iman was ever mistaken for being her child’s nanny?)

    A few commentators have criticized Bowie ‘ s free – wheeling ways with very young groupies in the past, but like his bisexuality, he generally gets a free pass. It reeks of white male privilege.

    1. I think you are right, and I certainly didn’t mean my statement to trivialize the racism aspects of what happened to Michael. The “deeper and more troubling” statement was riffing off the idea of the allegations against Michael as being the reason for the media persecution and the seeming refusal of the music press to take his artistry seriously. I know that racism is definitely a huge part of the picture, but it still doesn’t entirely explain why other black artists like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye (to name just two examples) are generally revered as respected artists even by the (mostly) white male dominant music press. Or, as Nina said, why Prince has always gotten more of a free pass as far as his self expression, which certainly pushed just as many boundaries as Michael did, if not more.

      My guess is that Michael represented a kind of lethal, powerful combination that none of these other artists had. You had the fact that he was already established; he had more far reaching influence and popularity; he had the sexuality (most white males aren’t going to look at Stevie Wonder as a serious threat); he had the Sony/ATV catalog; he did push boundaries that made some people uncomfortable, and the more he was pushed, the stronger and harder he pushed back. The allegations (regardless of whether people believed them to be true or not) added yet another element of the wicked and forbidden (even if, albeit, accusing him of child molestation was the ultimate kind of symbolic emasculation). I think we really do have to look at the totality of all these factors combined.

      And yes, I absolutely believe that white male musicians get a lot of passes for a good many things that they probably shouldn’t (that is, if we’re going to be fair and judge all artists by the same standards). I believe this is exactly why so many MJ fans have the kneejerk response to want to protect his reputation, at all costs. Because they know how even the most seemingly harmless stories about him can be twisted, when the same behavior might be viewed as just typical male rock star behavior if it were anybody else.

  17. Simba, there’s no doubt that “good old” American racism is among the most deeply disturbing elements of history and life in the U.S. To wit: poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, as you mentioned; and the increasing instances of brutality against black bodies at the hands of law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

    But here we’re talking about the question of *celebrity image,* in the media, and thus in the public imagination; so there are some different considerations at stake, too.

    I’ll pose the question this way: why did Prince get a “free pass” (relatively speaking) compared to Michael Jackson? Please don’t say it was because Prince didn’t buy the Beatles’ catalog. Clearly, other factors are at work here—*in addition* to race (not instead of it).

    1. “I’ll pose the question this way: why did Prince get a “free pass” (relatively speaking) compared to Michael Jackson?”

      Interesting question, with several possible answers. Part of Prince’s appeal to his fan base is his esoteric persona. Michael invited his fans in, while Prince has kept his distance. He doesn’t make headlines. He lives in Minnesota, far away from the likes of Harvey Levin and Diane Dimond.

      While he currently wears his hair in a big Afro, for most of his career, Prince has passed as fashionably biracial, which made him less threatening to the white establishment than a black artist. While his fans are passionate, you don’t see white women swooning over Prince. Maybe it’s something as simple as the fact that Prince is very small.

      But you can’t discount the purchase of the Beatles catalog. Black men can have tons of money, cars, even white women, but ownership of white assets is not tolerated. Bill Cosby, whose behavior toward women is scarcely unique among prominent men, was marked for destruction when he tried to buy NBC. (You don’t really believe that TPTB actually care about the women, do you?),

      1. “While he currently wears his hair in a big Afro, for most of his career, Prince has passed as fashionably biracial, which made him less threatening to the white establishment than a black artist”

        Good point. I was just about to say, I think a lot of people thought of Prince as biracial when he started out.

        ETA:By the way, I have considered the same thing in regards to the Cosby case. I believe he had sex with those women, but to what extent it was rape or consensual is another matter. I hate to sound so cynical about these things (it goes against everything that is PC now) but most of these accusations go back to the era when everyone was doing sex and drugs. I don’t doubt that Bill is probably an old lecher,

        1. The only thing i found interesting about the bill cosby allegations and how it has played out in the media was how oprah winfrey has kept quiet about it all this time considering how she went to town on michael jackson during and after the allegations broke out.to be fair i know that bill cosby was her mentor but still she could have said something about it.

  18. Simba: “While he currently wears his hair in a big Afro, for most of his career, Prince has passed as fashionably biracial, which made him less threatening to the white establishment than a black artist.”

    I don’t buy it. For the purposes of this discussion—black wealth, and what happens when blacks purchase white property—the category of “fashionably biracial” doesn’t exist.

    Simba, you undoubtedly know more about the “one-drop” rule than I do. Prince may “pass” as biracial, and there are some definite advantages to being a light-skinned black person in a white-dominated world, in the entertainment industry and elsewhere. Still and yet, Prince (like Barack Obama, who identifies as biracial) is distinctly understood as black: as racially “other.”

    Same with Michael Jackson.

    Here’s the cover of Prince’s 1979 album:


    1. Actually President Obama identifies as black. In his autobiography, he describes how he found it easier socially to, as he put it, not advertise his mother’s race.

      Being light-skinned is not the same as being biracial. President Obama’s right hand woman Valerie Jarrett is lighter than he is, but like Vanessa Williams, James Earl Jones, Michael Ealy, and other light-skinned, blue-eyed black Americans, she’s not biracial. “Biracial” means having a white parent, not distant white slave holder ancestors.

      Both of Prince’s parents are black, but he deliberately led the public to believe that he had a white mother, knowing that it would serve him well in this race – obsessed society. For one thing, it allowed him to be taken seriously as a “rock” artist by white critics, instead of being relegated to “soul” music. “Biracial” is a political category, not a visual one – blackish, but not scary. It’s “other” all right, but distinctly advantageous. In recent films, roles of black icons like Coretta Scott King and Harriet Tubman have been cast with biracial actors. Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys are superb artists, but their biracial status has definitely made them more marketable.

      1. As did the controversy about the Nina Simone biopic, slated to star Zoe Saldana, a light-skinned black woman. I know many people were upset by this casting choice, and insisted that Simone should be played by someone appropriately dark-skinned.

        I know that “biracial” is a political category. I still say that Prince was about as threatening as Michael was at a certain time—perhaps even more so, as he was perceived as (probably) more sexually voracious than Michael. White people had to hide “their” women from Prince, while Michael represented nothing so predatory.

        Even so—-or maybe *because* this very difference made Prince seem more classifiable—he was more or less left alone by the media that tormented Michael.

        The “rock” genre that accompanied Prince may have stemmed from his image as a guitarist. This made it easier for people to associate him with Jimi Hendrix rather than (say) James Brown.

        1. “As did the controversy about the Nina Simone biopic, slated to star Zoe Saldana, a light-skinned black woman. I know many people were upset by this casting choice, and insisted that Simone should be played by someone appropriately dark-skinned.”

          That’s not quite accurate. Zoe Saldana is not light skinned. She’s a thin, brown skinned, conventionally pretty, black Latina, completely miscast as the plain – faced Nina Simone, a woman with deep Southern American roots, who suffered showbiz rejection because she was very talented, but not pretty. (Once when she found herself on the same flight as the Jacksons, she launched a screaming tirade at Michael over his changing looks that made him cry – she was also mentally ill.)

          When real people are depicted on screen, Hollywood usually makes a great effort to cast actors with the right essence, if they’re white. If they’re black they don’t care. Thus you get Sidney Poitier, a dark-skinned West Indian, playing light-skinned Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. There’s a new bio pic of Jesse Owens coming out, and while I hope the young man in the lead makes the most of this opportunity, he doesn’t look remotely like Owens.

          1. Nina Simone definitely was not conventionally pretty, although I have seen some of her younger, more glamorous photos from the 60’s where she was obviously “glammed up” to suit the conventions of the day, and I thought she was very attractive then. But fitting into that mold (i.e, being made over to look like one of The Supremes) was never a priority for her. It seems her career was deliberately sabotaged when she became a radical Civil Rights supporter (when many established black stars of the day tried to be as apolitical as possible to maintain their popularity).

            Minority casting has always been a problem in Hollywood. Native Americans have faced these same issues for years, largely because Hollywood has the idea that if a person has all of the features that white people typically attribute to us, that makes them suitable. After sixty years of having every Native role played by white actors in really bad makeup and bad wigs, we considered it major progress if they at least cast a biracial actor (well, at least he’s half, lol, people would joke). Today it is much better but the percentage of Native American actors working in Hollywood is still discouragingly small, and obviously the only work they can get is when a film calls specifically for a Native character. In the 90’s there was a huge boom in mainstream Native American films after Dances With Wolves, but sadly for us, that boom has passed and Native actors still have to eat. Thus, we’re back to many of the stereotypes (The Revenent, though a great film, comes to mind). I remember that some Native activists were even protesting that if the script called specifically for the character to be from a certain tribe, that only an actor from that nation should be used (no Lakotas playing Pawnees, for example) but with the scarcity of available Native actors, that was obviously never going to be a realistic goal. And perhaps it is just as well, as enforcing such a ridiculous code would have robbed us of many fine performances (Graham Greene as Kicking Bird in Dances With Wolves; Wes Studi as Magua in The Last of the Mohicans). Not to mention that Native people, like everyone else in America, have been intermarrying and mixing blood for so long that it’s virtually impossible to find anyone who is pure anything these days, let alone “pure” Lakota or Huron or anything else.

            I honestly don’t know if Hollywood’s racial issues will ever be resolved. Even now there is talk of casting a British white actor to play Michael in what sounds like some ridiculous farce about that fictional road trip with Brando and Elizabeth Taylor after 9/11 (I’m still holding out hope that the entire rumor is a ridiculous hoax). Michael deserves a decent biopic like all of the other legends have had, though it will be a tall order if and when it ever happens (and I imagine the casting will be a controversial nightmare no matter who they eventually settle on).

      2. I knew there was some controversy back in the day over whether Prince actually is, in fact, biracial. I couldn’t remember the whole story behind it. But I believe many do look upon it as being an advantage in the entertainment industry. If nothing else, I think there is a perception that it broadens their demographic appeal. Even back when Hendrix started out, they made a much bigger deal then about his Native American ancestry, even though both of his parents were black. But in his case, they were really looking to sell the “exotic” factor as part of the marketing strategy (based on the perception that white Americans would find a Native American a far less threatening form of “Other” than a black man). This probably seemed important to them at the time, knowing they were marketing him as a highly sexualized act-a hard rock musician. Prince was cast very much in that same mold, but eventually we saw the same kind of “emasculation” tearing down process that they did to Michael (with the press speculating about his sexuality and white male comedians never missing an opportunity to slip in a remark about his height). I do think that is a deliberate disarming of a perceived threat, with the danger being that it is something so deeply seeded in our culture that I think most are not even consciously aware of it. No doubt, they would have done the same thing to Hendrix had he lived long enough. Still, the advantage they both had over a performer like Michael is being firmly entrenched in that sort of machismo, white male rock star tradition. White males (and let’s not forget they still dominate much of the mainstream and music press) have an inherent respect for what they perceive as “serious” musicianship (even if those views are somewhat skewed). They were never going to be as forgiving towards a black male whose fame rested primarily on his showmanship and dancing skills-all while being smart enough to end up owning half of Sony’s publishing.

        1. When Prince first emerged on the music scene, he was definitely promoted as the “biracial” Michael Jackson. I remember reading profiles that described his father as a black Army sergeant, and his mother as a white opera singer who met and married in Europe. This narrative was reinforced by his film Purple Rain, which many assumed was somewhat autobiographical. In reality, both his parents and grandparents on both sides are natives of Louisiana, where light-skinned black people abound. So the biracial story is a real whopper, but African Americans don’t get mad at black folks who pull one over on the white establishment.

          “It seems her career was deliberately sabotaged when she became a radical Civil Rights supporter (when many established black stars of the day tried to be as apolitical as possible to maintain their popularity).”

          Many established black stars with bigger careers than Nina Simone’s were in the forefront of the civil rights movement – Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr. NS became paranoid and increasingly erratic in her performances, often haranguing the audience from the stage instead of performing. At any rate, while she had several big hits, she wasn’t really a mainstream music act, and an acquired taste for many. My sister, who went to school with her brother, was a fan, but I found her boring.

          ” White males (and let’s not forget they still dominate much of the mainstream and music press) have an inherent respect for what they perceive as “serious” musicianship (even if those views are somewhat skewed). ”

          White males respect musicianship in other white males. Nina Simone was a superb classically – trained pianist, as is Aretha Franklin, but they are never credited for it in the white music press. “Playing instruments” onstage was never a requirement for vocal greatness, until Michael turned the music world upside down. Nobody ever complained that Frank Sinatra didn’t play guitar.

          1. “When Prince first emerged on the music scene, he was definitely promoted as the “biracial” Michael Jackson “.

            This is absolute news to me. I would appreciate if you provide me with a reliable source other than an assumed autobiographical film. If he was promoted as anything it was as a bold bisexual /androgynous BLACK man, which was how he was compared but also set apart from the other black popstar . By the time Prince emerged Michael was a veteran , but still had the perfect son in law image.
            I will go as far as to say that Michael took good notice and reinvented himself by taking on a more ‘sexual’ /androgynous image. I saw one of Princes first concerts in Europe when he wore suspenders and high heels. While we had many white androgyn acts, Prince was exceptional because he was black.

            “White males respect musicianship in other white males”

            Prince, Hendrix, BB King , prove otherwise. And how do you explain Tina Turners popularity? Was she also promoted as biracial?
            Appreciating an artists music, even one whith a “message “, does not neccessarily mean that people are exempt of bigotry and racism. MJ is a good example.

            I think it was James Brown who said “they want us in the show but not in the business “,which imo sums up what Michael was up against because he was as much an artist as a smart businessman.
            Which , going back on topic , is what he and Bowie also had in common.

          2. Sina, correct me if I’m wrong, but I assume that you are posting from Europe, and you are not American. I have no doubt that much of what we discuss here is news to you. It is way beyond the scope of this forum to educate you about the intricacies of race relations in the United States, which go back hundreds of years, are immensely complex, and not easily understood by non-Americans. A lot of it sails over the heads of white Americans as well. ( For example, it would take a lot more effort than I have the time to put forth to explain why black Americans were upset by the proposed casting of first Zendaya Coleman, then Alexandra Shipp, as the late singer Aaliyah.)

            You could start with one of the many Prince fan forums and go back to the beginning of his career and read his early coverage. Or you could just accept that, as someone who is actually a black American who followed the careers of Michael and Prince from the beginning, I know what I’m talking about.

  19. “While he currently wears his hair in a big Afro, for most of his career, Prince has passed as fashionably biracial, which made him less threatening to the white esta-blishment than a black artist. “

    Michael did not wear an afro after his solocareer took off, but jeri curls and wigs, Did it help him “pass as fashionably biracial ”and less threatening? (to one fan he did , I read a comment on a wellknown MJ site that he /she found Michael less threatening as a ‘white’ man then as a black man)
    Prince and Michael were never considered other than black Americans ,hence since the 80s the never ending comparison and competition, despite their different genres and personalities. Princes lighter ( than Michaels) skincoulor did not prevent him from being bood offstage by a bigoted mob in the early eighties as an opening act for the RollingStones. Dark/lightskinned is a distinction only poc make. Racists do not even notice the difference.

    “While his fans are passionate, you don’t see white women swooning over Prince. Maybe it’s something as simple as the fact that Prince is very small.”
    Prince has a very diverse following, in Europe predominantly white and half of them are women who find him very attracti-ve Despite being very petite he married/ dated some of the most stunning women from different races, white, black , latin (in her heydays he had a crush on Latoya). The truth is that Prince ‘gets a pass’ because his genre- funkrock- appeals to a white Rolling Stones loving audience, like other rock-blues oriented black artist like Chuck Berry( whose own history speaks volumes ) and BB king. He represents what their idea of a real artist/musician(man with guitar ) which is more snobism than racism.

    “Michael was a somewhat light-skinned black American with white and Native Ame-rican ancestral admixture, while Iman is a very dark-skinned black African”
    Its trivial, but I do not see a difference between Imans and Michaels (Off the wall era) skin color and btw Africa is a continent and the people are as diverse as Asians and Europeans. Iman comes from the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopea, Eritrea, Djibouti) where the people are a mix of many cultures and etnicities ao semitic , hence their distinct, instantly recognizable features. Children born out of European and e.g. Eritrean parents, typically look more caucasian than ‘African’, but definetely not typically ( northern) European.

    1. Well I suppose perception of skin color varies from individual to individual, but as someone who has seen both Iman and Michael (before he lost pigmentation) in the flesh, in no way would I consider them to be the same color. But then black Americans are often bemused by how makeup for white women can be purchased in ten or fifteen different shades, when to our eyes, four or five would suffice. I’m well aware of the diversity of Africans, but Somalians, like Iman, in particular take pride in their striking looks, which they consider “pure”, not the result of admixture.

      I guess things are different in Europe, but in North America, skin color is not just something “poc” take note of. Whether they’re African American or Hispanic, nearly all non-white television personalities are light-skinned. Since the days of slavery and “quadroon balls”, light-skinned black people have been favored over medium or dark-skinned black people.

      BTW I find Prince quite attractive, but my point is that he’s so small, white men don’t find him threatening. And while Chuck Berry is correctly seen as an important rock and roll artist, unlike white rockers, he was black enough to do time for messing around with young white groupies.

  20. Wow, Raven! Just wow! Again, so insightful as always. I particularly enjoyed the way in which you highlight the discrepancies between the ways in which Jackson is portrayed and how Bowie is regarded. It’s always been of deep fascination to me. Keep up the great research x

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth. Yes, it really is interesting to look at these differences in terms of racism and, also, how artists of different genres are regarded.

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