Student Essays on "Black or White" and "Earth Song"

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In the past, I have shared with you some of my student essays written in response to the “Black or White” video. I would like to continue that tradition but with some new elements.This semester, I also added a study of “Earth Song” to the unit. Students were given a choice to write on either “Black or White” or “Earth Song.” Students were also permitted this time to write their essays outside of class, resulting in longer pieces that were substantially more in-depth. Every student granted permission for their work to be featured here. I will publish these periodically over the next several weeks and months, and will try to include at least 2-3 essays per installment.

Just as with any student body, my students represent a wide diversity of many different backgrounds, and many different levels of writing. As always, I am presenting their essays unedited, just as they wrote them (which, to give fair warning, may include warts and all in some cases, as these run the gamut from “A” to “C” level papers) but it is important to allow their voices and their thoughts to come through, unhampered by any attempts on my part to “clarify” their ideas or intent. My purpose here isn’t necessarily to showcase only the “best” essays, or only the ones that necessarily received A pluses (some will be “A” papers; others not)  or even the ones that I necessarily agree with (in every case) but rather, to illustrate a mosaic of many different views, opinions, and “takes” on Michael’s work as seen through the eyes of a generation who, for the most part (with a few exceptions) did not experience his cultural impact first hand.

Taken as a whole, I am very proud to say that I think many of these essays rank right up there with some of the best academic writing currently available on Michael’s work; certainly those who did earn “A’s,” for this was no lightweight assignment! But these are also very young voices, for the most part, unhampered by the concerns of academia. They are fresh, honest and inquisitive insights into what made Michael Jackson such a unique artist. I may have taught them the material. But the way they chose to internalize and interpret the material is their own. And, ultimately, so are their views.  I am proud to say that a few even chose to go a step beyond and to write on additional Jackson works for their final project, when they could have written on anything they wanted. I will feature these as part of the series as well, which included a wonderful analysis of “The Fish That Was Thirsty” and “Smooth Criminal.”

To kick things off, I am selecting three essays from my Eng 102 Section 401 class, Wendy Templin’s “The Future,”  Joshua Perry’s “Control: Earned or Privilege,” and Morgan Shaquille Drake’s “Looking Through A Whole New Set of Eyes.”


“The Future” by Wendy Templin

Michael Jackson was a very inspirational song writer and entertainer. Michael’s songs and videos were filled with symbolism and deep meaning. Michael Jackson did not only write songs for the dancing and pop hits, he also wrote because of his desire to attempt to change the way people thought about race, nature, and the importance of saving the planet from destruction. The song “Earth Song” is an excellent example of his strong caring and fear for the world.

Michael Jackson reached out to millions of not only his fans, but his critics as well. Michael never swayed from his character or his own style of getting his messages to humanity and saving the earth across to most of the world. The song “Man In The Mirror” is yet another example of Michael trying to get all humanity to look out at our own actions and how they affect the earth.

“Earth Song” can be seen as a “return to bliss” because if all of the world would try to fix even half of what his heart is screaming about in this song, then the world would be blissful and more like The Garden of Eden. On the other hand, his song can be viewed as a scathing lament to God because all of the happenings in this song are an injustice.


I view the song and video “Earth Song” as a sort of religious outcry to God for allowing all of the pain and confusion in the world to continue to happen. Michael’s background chorus constantly says, “What about us,” which reminds me of Jesus on the cross crying to God'”Why have you forsaken me?”. The happenings all over the world, to me, have always happened and most likely will; until Man decides to look at what each one of us can do individually to improve our surroundings and earth. I also believe none of this can happen without God in our hearts and soul driving us to make these changes.

Michael Jackson always seemed to have a personal crisis in his life, without even trying like other pop stars do for attention. Michael had so much love in his heart that he did not want to be like “grown ups.” I admired that in him because to be child-like, but not foolish, is what the Bible says is more appealing to God.

Michael also seemed to have a spiritual crisis for most of his life. It was sad to me. He always helped the wrong people, who in exchange for all of his love, caring, and financial help-made what I believe to be false allegations against him.

All of these things added to his extreme loneliness because of his stardom, put Michael in his own world so to speak. He could not just run to the movies or even a grocery store for any of his life without being hounded by fans, so he grew to make his own earth in his home. I believe when someone spends that much time alone, it does make them see things that others are too busy to see or notice in the world.

The symbolic act of the characters in the video grasping the dirt in their hands was an act of trying to hold on to whatever is left of this earth and cherish it before it is gone also. The video is like the earth is looking up at us crying at all the pain and damage we have caused it over the years.


In summary, I believe Michael Jackson is a genius who was very misunderstood and in emotional agony. The song “Earth Song” was his way of expressing his feelings about how mistreated the earth, all of the earth and every living thing on it, must feel if it could only talk.  Michael was the earth’s voice. Michael will forever be a voice in the subjects of the world which matter the most. Michael Jackson had a very strong opinion of the way we should treat the world and those who live in it, including animals and the seas. I view Michael as an inspiration of how to treat the earth. I see his song “Earth Song” as a map of what is wrong with our earth, and his cry for all of us to try and make it better.


“Control: Earned or Privilege” by Joshua Perry

In Michael Jackson’s music video “Black or White” he uses many different and sometimes difficult to understand symbols. These symbols are of racism, politics, and control over people and their ideas or free thought. This video is just as controversial now as it was when it came out. One of the biggest and strongest symbols is the element of control. This is evident from the very start and remains a prominent theme throughout the video.

Could The Theme Of "Control" Be Behind This Straight-Jacket Like Pose? Hmmm...
Could The Theme Of “Control” Be Behind This Straight-Jacket Like Pose? Hmmm…

Jackson starts the video out on what is his main focus for much of the video-control. He illustrates this by using the young boy up in his room with the boys’ parents downstairs in the living room watching television. The boy has his music up loud enough that the boy’s father has to get up and yell at him to turn that “crap” off and that it’s “too loud and it’s too late.” It is here that we as the audience see the true meaning of Jackson’s video. The boy then responds to his father’s demands by essentially one upping his father and bringing the larger than life speakers into the living room. The boy then plugs in his bright red guitar, which is in itself a method of control, and “blasts” his father into another continent. Thus, the father losing control of himself and his son.

At this point we get the first look at Michael Jackson as he proceeds to dance with many different nationalities of people ranging from Africans to Indians to Russians. The significance of this is that all of these people were at some point, if not still, under the rule or control of a tyrannical governing body. At one point Jackson compares all human beings to all others and says that essentially we are all the same and that the only difference is the color of skin pigmentation. Jackson goes on to be dancing in a group of Native Americans and incites a riotous behavior and seems to make the Native Americans to challenge the authority of those in power over them. In all of the groups that Jackson is interacting with there are historical transgressions against each and every one of them. For example, the Africans had one of the most brutal punishments or acts of betrayal that has ever been placed on any faction o f the human race, forced sell into slavery. These transgressions were always kept in order by someone in power who could by law or victory punish those peoples it had “enslaved” as conquered people.  These “rulers” as it were, used the threat of death, heavy taxes, and many other harsh punishments to keep “control.” In this video, Jackson bucks the normal trends of society just by associating with these people; showing that no matter the race or nationality one should always be proud of one’s self and should be allowed to live free from control and fear of too harsh a punishment.

Later in the video Jackson has many disturbing images that have been used by those that would seek to control those they deem lower than them. These images are those of a Soviet tank firing and of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross. It as at this point that Jackson almost seems to try to attack these groups by using such lines as, “I ain’t afraid of no sheets…” This could be seen as Jackson’s way of attempting to stand up for what he believes is right and just. This could also be an attempt to get people to condemn this type of behavior against others. Jackson states that the world is in a global turf war for the future of mankind. This video leads the viewer to believe that it should not matter what color your skin is but rather it should matter how “good” your actions are, and that defines who you are, not skin color.

Michael Jackson Music Videos

In the last part of the video Jackson contradicts his previous statement by appearing as a black panther and then transforming into himself. Jackson then uses a series of tap dancing sequences that all lead to different racially motivated themes. Jackson uses the car that he smashes to represent the hate shown toward the Ku Klux Klan and others like that. The car represents the perceived hate towards the blacks and Mexicans. Jackson wielding a crow bar and smashing the window is his way of trying to rid the world of “evil.” Jackson further states that race should not be a factor by having the sign of a hotel in Chicago, where the race riots took place, explode into a shower of sparks and thus effectively putting an end to perceived racism.

In Michael Jackson’s music video “Black or White” the theme of control is very prominent throughout. Jackson uses many good stand ins for many of the symbols of hate. He uses symbols to show that control is a privilege and not a right.


“Looking Through a Whole New Set of Eyes” by Morgan Shaquille Drake

Every day millions of people change their religion or personal beliefs. When a tragedy occurs people can lose their faith and stop following a spiritual path they have been on their entire life. No one knows what will become of us after death although there are many theories and everyone assumes their religion is the correct one. In Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” he speaks of dying children and a crying man, wondering why these tragedies are allowed to happen without no interference from God. In the music video you can see nature has been destroyed completely and there are people on their knees grabbing dirt and crying which makes you think they are upset the way God has allowed the Earth to be destroyed or how we have destroyed it ourselves.

"He Was Like A Little Kid Who had Gotten The Toy He Wanted All Year"-Morgan Shaquille Drake
“He Was Like A Little Kid Who had Gotten The Toy They Had Been Wanting All Year”-Morgan Shaquille Drake

Jehovah’s Witnesses are not allowed to celebrate birthdays or holidays but when you see the look on Michael’s face when he celebrated his first Christmas, he was like a kid who had just gotten the toy they had been wanting all year. I believe that this also was a new start for him spiritually and emotionally. Some of what I read in an article by Joseph Vogel talks about Michael always questioning his church’s elders about the Jehovah’s Witness’s doctrines because he found them unfair and because of this many years later he resigned from the faith. In another article by Joseph Vogel he writes that Jackson visited the Sistine Chapel and  St. Peter’s Cathedral at the Vatican, in which I believe he was trying to rediscover himself after leaving a faith he had learned, known, and dedicated himself to since he was a child. One must think after resigning from a religion that you have believed your entire life, people feel like they have lost their way and are very vulnerable in terms of finding a new belief. Some people become atheists and stop believing in anything at all. Everyone has a different faith and some spend a lifetime trying to determine what they truly believe in, whether it’s God or not. While one belief may allow you to celebrate birthdays and holidays like Christmas because it is the day of Jesus’s birth or Easter because it is the day Jesus arose, other religions don’t celebrate them at all. In many instances people forget what Christmas is, in which it is not about the presents you get. It’s the time you spend with your family and enjoying each other’s company. I feel I was blessed to be able to spend time with my family on Christmas and birthdays because other children didn’t, and will never have the memories I have.


A lament is a cry or plea to right an injustice; so many people have experienced this in some way. Michael characterized this in “Earth Song” as showing how we have destroyed nature, and that there are starving children and sick people, but what is unclear is who we blame. While some people blame God others blame everything they can come up with except themselves. No one stops to think about recycling, riding a bike, walking, and how all of these can contribute to a better world that we live in. What will it take for people to open their eyes to what’s really important in life, like what happens after death, will you see your loved ones when it is your time, or a truly beautiful kingdom waiting for us just beyond the clouds where all people who have obeyed God will get a chance to enter? If with all the religions we have that exist no one knows I’m sure everyone would like to think we could spend an eternity in Heaven and maybe Michael Jackson has already made it there so now in death he finally has all of his answers.


44 thoughts on “Student Essays on "Black or White" and "Earth Song"”

  1. Raven.. you have certainly inspired these students to think deeply, and I am impressed with their observations. I hope that as their lives progress they will continue to “think” and feel free to express their own opinions, whatever the subject. You must be proud of them. Thankyou for sharing.. and looking forward to more…

    1. Yes, I am very proud. Even the more critical papers are interesting because it means they are thinking independently and beyond what I’ve given them in class.

      I will try to post more at least once or twice a week.

  2. Very interesting viewpoints from these young students. Even after listening to these songs and viewing these short films many times, I came away with a few new ideas from reading these essays. Glad to see they recognize Michael’s genius and that he was not just another pop star.

    1. I always feel a strong sense of regret on their part that there isn’t anyone half as deep, interesting, and ultimately magical in their own generation to compare him to. One of their choices was to also compare either of these songs to other songs with similar messages about race or the environment. There were some interesting choices/comparisons made, but overall, even there, a sense that “no one did it quite like Michael.”

      Although every generation has their own heroes, and their own pop icons, ours was a generation uniquely blessed. I honestly don’t think we will ever again see that kind of larger than life personality. Many have tried-and yes, a few may have even broken some of his records (Katy Perry, etc) but then why do all their names pale in comparison?

  3. Thank you again for introducing Michael the artist and humanitarian to a younger generation. Isnt it amazing that he still attracts different generations.
    Another positive thing aside from his artistry is that this generation is not affected by the media crap we saw in the last decades. It has not died down completely, but has improved significantly and even the tabloid gossip is more neutral and every now and then even positive these days.
    (or the trashing and mocking of celebrities, which started on a unprecedented scale with Michael, has become so much common practice that we have become immune to it)

    Michaels work belongs to the canon of US music and art and it is totally fitting that an introduction to his music is part of the curriculum.
    And your students are doing him justice.!

    1. I find that students are generally very curious about Michael in an innocent, naive kind of way. Questions like, “Did he really bleach his skin?” and “Did he really have a fake nose?” do not come from out of malice, but genuine ignorance and a desire to know the truth behind the rumors. Most people just accept what they’ve always heard at face value because they haven’t had any reason-or especial motivation-to dig deeper. My unit provides an opportunity to address those issues.

      They are quite far removed even from the generation that experienced the Arvizo trial first hand and the resulting media circus. Although 8-9 years doesn’t seem like a lot to most of us, for a person of eighteen or nineteen it is a lifetime ago. This is actually the generation that has come of age and into awareness since Michael’s death and the reassessing of his image and cultural status that came about as a result. This was something that needed to happen. It is unfortunate that it took his passing to make it happen, or at least to accelerate that process. I think it might have happened anyway (especially if he had succeeded in a huge commercial comeback with TII) but as long as he was alive, the media would have continued hounding him and taking pot shots at him, and being overly critical of his every move, both personally and professionally. But by dying, it in some ways allowed the slate to be wiped clean. We were now able to look at the totality of his life, his work, and its cultural impact. And, of course, most began to view him through a softer lens, as we generally do with all deceased people (of course, we know there were exceptions but I’m speaking in general).

      All of this has had an impact on how the younger generation views him. Of course, I don’t like to generalize because, just like everyone else, all students have different views and are bringing different perspectives and experiences to the table. That’s why I think it is important for me to step back as much as possible and allow their own words to express how they see Michael and his work.

      ETA: I wanted to add that the point about a decade (more or less) being a lifetime ago to these students was driven home to me during a recent class discussion. In doing an informal comparison and contrast exercise, I asked them to compare Beyonce to Rihanna. One student spoke up and said, “That’s almost two different generations.” It was hilarious that two artists I considered as contemporaries were viewed by the students as representing “two different generations.” Talk about a reality check moment!

  4. Thanks for posting these student essays–they are wonderful and full of insights. The students are taking Michael seriously and thinking about his messages on a deep level–excellent! Glad they have such a great teacher too!

    1. Thank you. It’s somewhat interesting that my class enrollment (and the number of students who specifically request me) has shot up significantly since I began incorporating this material. Coincidence? Perhaps, but I think I’m starting to get a reputation as “the cool English teacher” and that’s fine by me, lol.

  5. Congratulations on the quality of your students’ work, Raven! I am particularly impressed by Joshua Perry’s insightful analysis of Black or White. He presented ideas that as far as I know have not been discussed by any credentialed, academic writers, most of whom seem overly-impressed by tabloid depictions of Michael and his work. It is my fervent hope that by posting his essay here, on the “internets”, some serious researchers in the future might cite it in their work – with the proper attribution of course! Excellent job.

    1. I thought it was interesting, too. I especially liked his take on how all of the cultures depicted in the film have been oppressed cultures in some way.

    2. I would probably need to get their permission first, although I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem. Most students are thrilled to know that something they wrote is “out there.” I only obtained their permission for reprinting here, however, so just to be safe, let me know which ones you plan to use and I will contact those students. Keep in mind I will be publishing many more here over the next few weeks, so you may want to get a feel for all of them and then decide which ones you would especially like to use.

  6. Thank you so much for posting these, Raven. I’m very taken with the overall level of these responses, and the real thought and sensitivity these students manifest here. I have also taught MJ’s short films, in the context of a “Film Musicals” class (using different reading materials), and also was pleased by some very insightful papers I received from students.

    I disagree with Simba here, though. There has actually been quite a lot written, from nearly every conceivable angle, about the “Black or White” film as well as just about every performance Michael has ever done. I know that those “credentialed academics” are often an object of much popular distrust and derision (especially by those who seem to lack any understanding of the function of critical scholarship). But they are, for the most part, people who have devoted their lives to the analysis of culture, and—with all due respect—-have a lot more knowledge and depth of experience to draw from than we could reasonably expect to find in nearly all undergraduate papers.

    For example, I’ve lately been reading Harriet Manning’s recently-published book, “Michael Jackson and the Blackface Tradition” (the current topic on the “Dancing With the Elephant” blog), about blackface minstrelsy and its connection with some of the dance moves Michael uses in “Black or White” as well as “Ghosts.” Manning has thoroughly researched this kind of performance in its historical context. It was an immensely popular form for many decades in the U.S., well into the late nineteenth century. Although it arose out of racist ideology in its demeaning and derogatory uses of white characters in “blackface” as a way of ridiculing black slaves, Manning also traces the way these dance styles have influenced many black performers—including Michael Jackson. There’s a lot of cultural history to be mined in this kind of investigation, as well as many, many other important topics that have nothing to do with “tabloids.” [Anyone who is interested in Manning’s book (which is unbelievably pricey, as a lot of academic books are) should visit “Dancing with the Elephant”—there’s a link there that explains how you can purchase it at a discount.]

    But having said all that, I’m so glad to read these papers, and it’s very heartening to see that these young people are acquiring the tools to think deeply about Michael’s important work and what it means. It’s clear that they have an excellent guide in you, Raven.

    (By the way, being one of those “C.A.s” who is “overly impressed” with the tabloids, I may indeed cite some of these papers in a piece I’m writing, Raven. I trust you have these students’ permission to use their names. I may also send you some excerpts from the papers my students wrote when I last taught MJ’s work in 2010—some are quite good, though they have a different tone from what you’ve shared here.)

    1. Could you please cite any articles or papers that discuss the theme of control in Black or White? I haven’t seen any, and I read widely. I thought that Joshua Perry’s take was refreshingly different. I didn’t mean to offend you, but most of the serious writers I’ve read seem to believe that Michael was a self-hating black man who deliberately bleached his skin.

      1. Simba, I’m in the process now of compiling a biography of everything I’ve read on MJ, “serious” or silly, from the sublime to the ridiculous. In all the reading I’ve done, I’ve come across at least twenty or thirty articles (probably more) that, in myriad ways, discuss the theme of control in “Black or White. None of these authors, as far as I’ve been able to tell, hold to the view that Michael was a “self-hating black man.”

        Given some time, I can compile a list of these articles (starting with chapter in the book by Harriet Manning that I mentioned). Meanwhile, can you cite some “serious” writings on the film that definitively assert that he was?

      2. Serious academicians, like journalists, often tend to be very objective in their analysis. (Let me back up and stress that a journalist is “supposed” to be objective; of course, we know of many who aren’t but that’s another story for another time). To some extent, it’s a requirement for the job but it also sometimes means that, in their quest to be “objective” observers of culture, and not perceived as fans, they may lean towards the popular narrative in their general assessment of Michael’s personal life. At least, I have found this to be the case more often than not in my own reading, and I think a large part of that may be because they tend to base their reading and knowledge of him off those very sources that fans don’t like, but which are generally accepted in the academic and journalism world as “objective” sources. It’s an interesting conundrum, to say the least.

        1. I agree with this, Raven, re academic writers: “they tend to base their reading and knowledge of him off those very sources that fans don’t like, but which are generally accepted in the academic and journalism world as “objective” sources. ” There is so much misinformation about MJ out there that I honestly believe many of his fans know more about him than anyone else. I don’t mean all fans of course, but those who have made an effort to do serious research over years, such as yourself, for example, have an big advantage in being able to sift out or winnow the reliable from the unreliable info. Tarraborelli’s biography is one example of what is to me and to many fans an unreliable source and yet he is quoted and used by some academic writers as if what he says is gospel. This is a case where knowing more about the source is necessary.

          It is in some ways a quagmire when it comes to MJ b/c there are so many ‘sources’ that IMO are not reliable, and if you say which ones you could possibly offend those who accept them as gospel. Sullivan’s book is another example. He does have a lot of info and that is the problem–he tries to cover MJ’s whole life, even tho’ he says his focus is the last years. His book is a mixture of reliable and unreliable info and without a good background to know which is which, you can accept the false for true. He says for instance that MJ was booed at the 2006 WMA and we know that is not true and he should not have repeated and thereby fostered a false narrative, not to mention other known examples where he presents skewed or totally inaccurate info.

    2. I would certainly love to read them. I have their permission to use the pieces here, but I should probably ask before allowing them to be used elsewhere.

      I’m familiar with Manning’s writings and it is fascinating. I love studying Michael’s dance moves from this sort of historical perspective. Contrary to what many think, Michael wasn’t a total innovator. Most of his moves have a historical basis in other performers. What WAS unique about Michael was his ability to sort of amalgamate all of these styles and influences into one very dazzling (and commercial!) package.

      1. One could argue that no artist is a total innovator – they all stand on “the shoulders of giants”. It’s what they do after they scramble up there that makes them significant. Fred Astaire was a great innovative dancer and filmmaker, but even he worked with choreographers, and he acknowledged the artistic inspiration of Bill Robinson in his production number Bojangles of Harlem. In that variety series that he disliked, Michael’s greatness as a dancer was made clear when he danced alongside the magnificent Nicholas Brothers and actually outshone them. But the steps they performed had been taught in tap dancing classes for decades.

        I read the introduction to Harriet Manning’s book on her publisher’s website, and I’m afraid that, in my opinion, her work falls into the suspect category. I was particularly struck by her conviction that Michael Jackson’s vitiligo-ravaged face was a “mask”. The zinger was “the negotiations of gender and sexuality through transvestism in both minstrelsy and Jackson”. Sigh – I wish these writers who are so hung up on Michael’s sexuality would get themselves jobs castrating baby lambs with their teeth, the old-fashioned way, and leave him alone.

        1. I agree with you to an extent, Simba, in your criticisms. “the negotiations of gender and sexuality through transvestism in both minstrelsy and Jackson”. This sentence is expressed in academic language, it is a code–words like ‘negotiate gender and sexuality through transvestism’ for example is to me a meaningless phrase, or at minimun a highly vague and unclear one. I agree that looking at MJ’s face as a work of art can lead to ignoring or underestimating to a large extent the realities of lupus and vitiligo, both of which mean avoidance of the sun b/c it can lead to skin cancer and a worsening of the conditions. I read that MJ did in fact have some skin cancers removed in spite of all his precautions to stay out of the sun. Having skin cancer is no joke and it can also kill you if it is melanoma and if it is basal cell carcinoma (not as dangerous) it still creates scars and has to be removed carefully. The other point is that there are photos where his skin color looks quite normal and we know that the ones where he is shown at the most chalky white were often photoshopped by the tabloids to make him look that way.

  7. I really enjoyed reading these essays. There are some points made that I had not thought of myself , so it is like looking at Michael’s artistic expression with new insight, from your students..
    So many times , when I was younger , I would enjoy his short films , without noticing the bigger message, behind, the incredible stage presence , the music and the dance..He was so charismatic, I would just be concentrating on him, and missing his passionate pleas for the Earth and his fellow man,
    He really was teaching the world about loving and respecting one another, and the planet we all live on.
    I am glad your student are getting the message at such a young age..
    I think Michael would be very proud to see this kind of discussion regarding his films ..

    1. I really appreciate when I can see evidence that the students have truly internalized the material, and aren’t just “spitting back” what was discussed in class.

      Some of the essays I got this semester were also a bit more critical, not in a disrespectful way, but in the sense of raising some interesting and tough questions about the work. That’s great because it shows evidence of critical thinking which, of course, is exactly what we want from them as students. I had one student, in particular, who raised some critically interesting questions about Earth Song. The students know I am a fan of Michael, but that doesn’t stop them from being critical and I encourage that, because we are not looking at these works from a “fan” perspective. However, most of them do come away with a new admiration and deeper understanding of his work, as well as its cultural importance.

      1. I would be interested in hearing more about the criticisms from the students–ones that are thoughtful and not just bashing of course!!

  8. Before I respond to some objections that iutd and Simba in particular have raised, I’d like to pose a question.

    Do you—does anyone here—have an intuitive feeling that academic writers are positioned in somewhat the same way that tabloid (and other corrupt) jounrnalists are? That is: do you feel that scholars, too, have the same kind of cultural power that, more often than not, feeds distorted information and untruths to a hapless, unsuspecting public?

    If you feel that way, why? Or why not? What experiences have you had that have led you to these conclusions?

    I’d appreciate your candid responses.

    (Sorry if I seem to be derailing the conversation, Raven—but this feeds into some questions I have about the way Michael Jackson is taught, discussed, and interpreted in many sectors of the culture. Since this post is about learning and teaching, I’m hoping to learn something here.)

    1. Well, of course, when it comes to academic writers their potential audience is going to be much more narrow. Academic writing is not for the masses (which is why it is academic writing) but, rather, for a very select audience. I think it goes back to what I was saying in an earlier comment, which is that academic writers, on the whole, tend to rely on what they consider “objective” sources. That is, when it comes to writing on Michael Jackson. However, the conundrum this presents is that, in many cases, they are then basing their writings on journalists who have themselves done faulty or biased research, and thus (whether consciously or not; I suspect unconsciously in most cases) are perpetuating the same myths as the tabloids. In turn, these beliefs and constructs are then fed back into the academic community, and over time, they can become accepted truths if not challenged. I certainly don’t think that academic writers are on the same level as tabloid writers, or have the same power to influence popular perceptions, but if they are on some subconscious level allowing their beliefs shaped from their journalistic reading to influence what they write, then I suppose on some level it becomes a kind of self-feeding cycle. These works will, in turn, be read by other academic writers who will base their own research on them. The good thing I can say about academia, however, is that it is not static. Ideas can be challenged. It is always in flux, and I think we are seeing a lot of this coming into play now, as there has been a lot of “new blood” in recent years; younger writers who are seriously reassessing Michael Jackson’s cultural importance, and do not seem as prone to simply following the old narrative.

      But I suppose, in a way, they can both be guilty of distorting information and feeding untruths. It is just that the audience and the means by which they do it are different. The only difference is that the academic writers can do so with much more sophisticated, high brow language-and by gosh, they can certainly make what they have to say LOOK very impressive-but a lie or a distortion by any other name is still the same.

      I would only go so far as to say the INTENTIONS are usually not the same. A tabloid writer just wants to sell a quick story. An academic writer is making an honest assessment of a work or an artist based on what he or she believes, usually in hopes of impressing other academics (but also, all intelligent and cultured people who share a common interest in music, culture, and the arts-or whatever the field in question may be). I don’t think the intent is the same, but again, if they are basing what they write on opinions that have been formed via questionable sources, it can certainly add to the same result over time. Certain impressions can become set in stone over time, if repeated often enough. It becomes a kind of accepted norm, one that is then increasingly hard to go against, and usually, any brave writer or critic who attempts to do so can expect to meet with much resistance and even rejection within the academic community. That isn’t to say things can’t change; that opinions can’t change or be challenged ( as I said, they do so all the time) but it’s hard. I have one colleague now who is convinced that Randall Sullivan’s book is the ultimate bible on Michael Jackson. When I try to point out what I feel are many of the book’s inaccuracies, he tends to indulge me but I can tell in the back of his mind he’s just brushing me off as one of those “overly defensive” fans. There is a certain, inherent danger that comes with any inability to accept that even the most “objective” sources can still…well, frankly, get it wrong sometimes.

      The way I see it, when it comes to journalists and academic writers, there is really a fine line. For starters, the area of pop culture studies in and of itself is still a relatively new discipline, so the professors and academics who tend to teach, to lecture on, and to write on pop culture topics are still apt to rely on journalists for much of their source material. And because most of us who are in the field-that is to say, those of us who have been around long enough to earn master’s and doctorate degrees-are from the generation raised on such psuedo-academic publications as Rolling Stone, there is a sense of implicit trust that these are serious writers almost on a par with academia. But no matter how pretentious these writers and publications are, publications like Rolling Stone are still commercial publications, and their writers are still commercial writers. Which, all credentials aside, really makes them no different from the average blogger when you get right down to it. It’s just that most of them knew the right people, were in the right place at the right time, made the right connections,and got very, very lucky. And, not to forget, some are very entertaining writers and have been doing what they do for a heck of a long time. But they aren’t serious researchers. And the idea of a whole generation of academics coming of age who have fed off of Rolling Stone and their ilk for decades is really kind of scary. But in that regard, it becomes easier to see just how closely entwined the connection is between academia and commerical journalism, as well as how one can certainly influence the other.

  9. Hi, Raven. Thanks for your considered response to my question. I have a number of ways of responding.

    Firstly: You mention Rolling Stone magazine (which I’d hardly call “pseudo-academic”)! Some music journalists, both there and in other publications (as well as bloggers, academic writers, and anyone else you can name) have interesting things to say about music and culture, while others (in my view) do not. On the whole, regardless of where it’s published, I find some analyses more interesting, more relevant, and on the whole more useful than others, as I’m sure we all do.

    Having said that, I want to speak to some patterns I’ve encountered from several years of conversing with this fan community. I’ve noticed a very definite pattern—which shouldn’t be surprising—‘t what fans seem to be looking for, and I wanted to address some of the obstacles I’ve faced conversing with people, as someone who is *both* a fan *and* an “academic.”

    To begin with: where I disagree with the points you’ve made above is in the different ways we understand the overall nature and purpose of academic criticism, or even cultural criticism outside the academy.

    It seems to me that the nonacademic public isn’t very well apprised of what it is that scholars and critics actually DO. What kind of critical analyses are they pursuing (in the fields popular music or cultural studies, where much of the writing on MJ is published), and why? What do they hope to demonstrate? What’s the overall goal or purpose of this writing? Who and what does this work serve? What’s at stake—for the scholar, the reader, the student, specific communities, or for the public in general?

    For one thing, scholars rarely have the luxury of devoting all their research time to ONE single artist—which is a good thing, in my view, because they need at least some grounding in other fields (e.g., music, dance, cultural history, sociology, black history, to name just a few) in order to write what I consider really original work on Michael Jackson.

    Most of the texts I’ve read by fans who specialize in MJ nearly exclusively—and I’ve read a lot—seem consistently driven by a “vindication” agenda that must, by its very nature, construct Michael as a hapless victim of a craven, greedy media. It’s not that these things are untrue. But they must, it seems to me, be understood as only PART of the story, not the whole of it. In fact, I’m finding that a real problem develops when EVERY analysis of Michael’s life and work is shaped, even unconsciously, by this narrative of static victimhood.

    I’ve heard it said (by fans) that fans “know more” about Michael Jackson than published scholars do. This may be true, as far as certain kinds of knowledge is concerned. I don’t know how many academic writers can recite, for example, the exact (official) names of Michael’s children, what was said by Sneddon at the 2005 trial, the names and dates of everyone involved in the 1993 allegations, the dates and stipulations of the wills Michael drew (and the lawyers who helped him to draw them) his business dealings with his managers from Frank DiLeo to Thome Thome and everyone in between, etc. Yet in spite of the sheer quantity of factual material the fans have diligently acquired, how many can convincingly (without recourse to clichés and well-known statements, like the astonishing sales figures for the Thriller album), offer a really substantive and illuminating discussion about just what made Michael Jackson a uniquely influential cultural catalyst in the late twentieth century?

    This is the hard and necessary work of scholarship, as I see it. Facts don’t just appear on their own, and they NEVER simply “speak for themselves”: they always require a context. To understand these contexts and why they are important would take more assiduous and careful study, broad as well as deep, than (I gather) most fans would care to undertake.

    As for sources: if you look at the bibliography of any scholarly article or book on Michael Jackson, you’ll note that the most thoroughly researched ones have bibliographies that involve pages and pages of sources, often across several disciplines. The “major” source for most scholars’ work is the work of other scholars, not biographies by Sullivan or Taraborrelli.

    My main objection to Randall Sullivan’s book isn’t even that it contains plenty of inaccuracies (which it does); it’s that Sullivan flattens and trivializes his subject. His book reveals nothing of any particular importance about Michael Jackson and/or his history and cultural environment: his personality, his aptitudes (as well as his shortcomings), his challenges, the larger social and cultural world that existed around him—even during the brief time period Sullivan proposed to cover. These are things I’d like to see in any biography, and Sullivan seems uninterested in asking the broader questions. In other words: his book lacks what you might call a *thesis.*.As I finished reading it, I found myself asking, “so what”?

    But I have to say that this “so what” is pretty much the same order of “so what” I experience when I read yet another piece of fan writing (usually commentaries on blogs) that deals with yet another instance of the ways Michael became a victim. These, I find, similarly flatten and trivialize him and (it seems) his entire legacy. I’m left with nothing but a deep sense of sadness and disappointment; although these “cries du Coeur,” in all their sincerity, do stir in me a need to understand Michael in new and unexpected ways. To begin with, I think it’s important to differentiate Michael Jackson’s trials and tribulations—AND his achievements —from those of so many other performers and celebrities (especially African Americans) who have suffered in roughly similar ways.

    Raven, thanks much for allowing me to “drone on” with these thoughts. As researchers and teachers (as well as MJ fans), I know that you know what I’m talking about. The important work of thinking through the many complex conundrums of Michael’s art is evident in your students’ papers and especially in your recent intriguing post (among others) about “Place With No Name”—to which I’ve been meaning to respond.

  10. Just another point.

    You mentioned an “objectivity” that you believe most academics strive for.

    But I disagree that academic scholars are objective, or even aim for objectivity—at least, scholars in the arts and humanities. In fact, the academy has often been the site of contentious argument and even political unrest, frequently serving as the an originating point of activist movements that are mainly initiated by students, but often with the direct support of faculty. Colleges and universities are indeed politicized spaces in many ways.

    My idea is that *nobody* is objective—we are all situated somewhere, and have our points of view and histories. Increasingly, scholars are acknowledging their own subjectivities (you might call them “biases”) by incorporating these in the very fabric of their scholarship. Many are asking some tough questions about how the very concept of “objectivity” only works to mask the agenda of powerful interests (the news media, for example). When I teach histories of documentary and ethnographic film in particular, I often note the many ways both filmmakers and scholars have sought to undermine their own “authorial” voice and its presumptions of both universality and objectivity.

    1. You have been making the same points for years. IMO your understanding of ‘fans’ and fan knowledge, contributions, insights is just not there and I can’t tell you why you have this prejudice/mental block but you do keep repeating it. The most insightful comments I have read concerning Michael Jackson have come from ‘fans’ and from some academic writers (academic in that they have advanced degrees or are working towards them) such as, for example, Joe Vogel, whose writing is clear to the nonacademic, i.e. the general public, and is not written in ‘academic code words.’

  11. Iutd:

    I care about people writing in ways that manifest some intellectual curiosity and an open-minded stance toward new ( and possibly challenging) ideas. This holds true whether the writer is situated in an academic institution, at Rolling Stone magazine, or on a blog as someone who contributes (anonymously) to the comments.

    Joe Vogel himself has stated that he’s seen some welcome, in-depth analysis coming from academic writers, but that there’s still a lacuna when it comes to more popular, accessible writing. It’s a gap that he himself seems well positioned to fill, and more power to him if he continues to do so: that’s great. We need more voices who can do this. Meanwhile, Joe Vogel has also expressed the opinion that Susan Fast’s book on “Dangerous” (due out in Fall of 2014 as part of the “33 1/3” series) is one of the best things he’s read so far on Michael Jackson. (Fast, a popular music scholar at McMaster University in Ontario, has been roundly condemned by some fans for publishing what *seemed* a controversial piece in the special 2012 MJ issue of the Journal of Popular Music and Society, which she co-edited.)

    If fans don’t want to be part of these dialogues, then of course that’s their prerogative. I’m sorry if my comments about fans seem to you a “prejudice/mental block.” They grow out of a pretty thorough immersion in this fan community for awhile now, and I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe the ways that the same arguments and dismissive rhetorics crop up persistently. For example: speaking of prejudices and mental blocks, many fans I’ve encountered apparently can’t move beyond the practice of skimming a text (for “bad” words); they seem singularly (and even proudly!) resistant to even *trying* to understand the authors point of view *in context*. It makes me wonder, really, whether they’ve actually read the texts as they claim.

    Nobody can be learn anything this way, of course; and it’s probably true that most people aren’t looking to be challenged by what they read. They’d rather have their long-held thoughts and prejudices corroborated, not disrupted, by any writer. But it’s more than a bit short-sighted (and narrow minded) for so many people who claim to love Michael Jackson—which is quite a large fan base, after all—to categorically dismiss writers who are trying to expand and enhance the level of discussion that has taken place around him so far.

    1. Nina Y F says, I care about people writing in ways that manifest some intellectual curiosity and an open-minded stance toward new ( and possibly challenging) ideas.

      You are discounting motive – academic writers often have pet theories about Michael Jackson they are hellbent on selling absent any proof whatsoever. This is particularly striking when they have no background or apparent interest in popular music, African American studies, dance, etc. They just use his name to garner attention. I’ve even read papers from academic writers who, in my opinion, were vicious racists, whose main interest was tearing Michael down.

      Is their ‘scholarship’ relevant? To themselves and other members of their cohort I suppose. But in no way is it automatically more significant than what “fans” post, just because they are academics.

      1. Simba, you state that some academics have “no interest in” Michael Jackson (except for tearing him down). You accuse them of “vicious racism,” and you assert that they have “no background in music, dance, African American studies, etc.” Fine: but please know that what you’re saying here emerges entirely from your own subjective viewpoint: you have brought “no evidence whatsoever” on which to base these claims.

        Matter of fact, what you offer here is essentially the same kind of *ad hominem* attack you accuse others of engaging in. (BTW, I’ve seen these same kinds of claims persistently on other sites, using almost the exact same language: “pet theories,” etc.) As for “motive,” I’ve tried to outline some elements of the purpose of scholarship (in general) above, and I believe Raven has spoken to this point as well. But acolytes have been fairly persistent in the belief that nearly *everyone* is and remains driven by a motive of harming Michael Jackson and/or his reputation, then I’m afraid we’ll get nowhere toward achieving any insights about what this man achieved.

        [Truly, many have compared Michael Jackson with Jesus, describing him as a crucified martyr. If anyone can tell me how this analogy can be of ANY help toward understanding the real conditions of his life or the value of his work, please do so.]


        Simba, you wrote:

        “I read the introduction to Harriet Manning’s book on her publisher’s website, and I’m afraid that, in my opinion, her work falls into the suspect category. I was particularly struck by her conviction that Michael Jackson’s vitiligo-ravaged face was a “mask”. The zinger was “the negotiations of gender and sexuality through transvestism in both minstrelsy and Jackson”. Sigh – I wish these writers who are so hung up on Michael’s sexuality would get themselves jobs castrating baby lambs with their teeth, the old-fashioned way, and leave him alone.”

        Iutd responded:

        “I agree with you to an extent, Simba, in your criticisms. “the negotiations of gender and sexuality through transvestism in both minstrelsy and Jackson”. This sentence is expressed in academic language, it is a code–words like ‘negotiate gender and sexuality through transvestism’ for example is to me a meaningless phrase, or at minimun a highly vague and unclear one….”


        So here’s something I can ascertain for sure, Simba: the passage you “quoted” from Manning’s book actually doesn’t exist in her three-page introduction. NOWHERE in that Introduction can one read the fragment you cite. So, whether intentionally or not, you’ve grossly distorted the meaning of what this author has written. For what purpose, I can’t imagine. In fact, I don’t believe you have actually read any part of it.

        iutd: When someone misquotes a text, or provides only a fragment of a sentence out of context, it’s no wonder you find it “highly vague and unclear.” When in doubt, I suggest you investigate the matter for yourself. Don’t just take the word of someone who you believe you might agree with, but whose “evidence” actually turns out to be shoddy.

        Simba, do you really have such little confidence in your own power of analysis that you have to resort to this kind of shoddy tactics? If you have a disagreement with something Manning (or another writer) has ACTUALLY written, then please expand upon it in an honest and above-board manner.

        But If you can’t rise to the occasion, if you can’t be bothered doing anything more than skimming an essay (rather than actually reading it) and taking sentence fragments out of context in order to “prove” your point, then you have no legitimate basis for criticizing the ideas that writers have struggled long and hard to work through and to articulate. It’s an intellectually dishonest and cowardly move.

        As to your remark about “castrating baby lambs”: your own anxiety shows up very clearly here, making it evident that *you* are actually the one who is “hung up on Michael’s sexuality”—not the authors.

        1. Talk about ad hominem attacks! Nina Y F, kindly go to the Amazon listing for Harriet Manning’s book and avail yourself of the handy little feature called “Inside the Book”. It will allow you to read the passage that I quoted, in the section titled Introduction. In fact it’s so easy to find, I’m beginning to doubt that you have actually read the book. (Or maybe you got a curiously defective edition that omits that passage.) You must really be tripping if you think that I would go to the trouble of fabricating a passage just to bolster my opinion.

          When an academic decides to publish a paper on Michael Jackson, and there is nothing in their background information about music, dance, African American studies, popular entertainment – nothing – I tend to dismiss their work, especially when they make egregious errors about known facts. Ms. Manning has an MA in popular music, and a PhD for her work on minstrelsy, so I pay her more attention than someone whose main interests lie elsewhere. But I don’t automatically assume she’s any more qualified than the four obsessed fans who are trying to publish a book on the suspect tracks on the posthumous Michael album.

          Finally, why are you so out-of-pocket over a difference of opinion? Anyone would think I ran over your puppy.

      2. Simba says,

        “Is their ‘scholarship’ relevant? To themselves and other members of their cohort I suppose. But in no way is it automatically more significant than what “fans” post, just because they are academics.”

        iutd says,

        “MJ was not an academic and to see him put under the academic microscope with the tools of analysis being those same ‘code words’ is never, ever going to ‘interpet’ his work. This is my opinion.”
        These may be your opinions, ladies; but not all opinions have equal validity. An INFORMED opinion is better.

        In the first place, iutd, I don’t know what you mean by “code words.” And Simba, nobody is saying that academic writing is “more significant” “just because” they are academics. But let’s put labels aside.

        • Some writers are busy working out what was significant about Michael Jackson: his music, his dance, his cultural influence across the globe, how he derived his influences from earlier artists and entertainers, how musicians, dancers, and artists were in turn influenced by him, and—yes—-how his some elements of his work, AND his appearance, AND his public persona, did result in a challenge to the way many people perceive race, class, gender, and sexuality, among other categories. These have directly to do with our own lives, They are not merely “code words” as you say, iutd; they matter deeply to all of us who participate in the world with other human beings.

        • Other writers focus a great deal more on Michael’s suffering, and his perceived martyrdom. After all, It can be fairly difficult to write about the above topics (music, dance, culture, etc.). It’s considerably easier to repeatedly circle around themes of how Michael Jackson was abused: by the media, by Wade Robson, by the courts, by his family (especially his father), etc. etc. People who write on these matters frequently seem to want a redress to the injustices that Michael suffered in his life. These advocates want the world to know, first and foremost, that Michael was NOT guilty of the crimes he was accused of. Perhaps secondarily, they want to convince everyone that THEIR version of Michael Jackson is the correct one.

        Some people, of course, write about both themes: the meaning of his work, and the extent of the gossip that surrounded him and what all that meant.

        But we need only to look at history to see what kind of discourse survives. Don Sneddon, Wade Robson, Diane Dimond, even Conrad Murray–etc. etc. These names will be duly forgotten over time. They are already on their way toward fading out of public consciousness (in fact, these names are being kept alive primarily by MJ fans.)

        But guess whose name will be remembered by millions?

        So, yeah—I’m afraid that I DO privilege what you might call “academic writing,” or even popular criticism, or music criticism, or whatever, as long as its emphasis is on Michael’s artistic and other achievements, or as long as it solidly places him in a relationship with the larger cultural and social world. (He didn’t exist in a vacuum, outside of history, did he?) And I DO consider this kind of writing more significant in the long run than a kind of fan writing that only promotes anxiety about Michael’s reputation, or that asserts that there’s only ONE correct way to view him, and ONE only. I mean—look at Elvis. Look at Marilyn. Look at JFK. The fortunes of their reputations have risen and fallen over time. There’s no reason to believe that a hugely iconic figure like Michael won’t meet a similar fate.

        To put it another way, we have Michael’s oft-quoted words: “lies run sprints. Truth runs marathons.”
        Put this together with a quotation by the physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962):

        “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”
        -Niels Bohr

      3. Sorry, one more note about history—I’ll try to keep it brief and to the point.

        iutd says,

        “MJ was not an academic and to see him put under the academic microscope with the tools of analysis being those same ‘code words’ is never, ever going to ‘interpet’ his work. This is my opinion.”

        Iutd, please consider the following.

        Shakespeare was not an academic. Mozart and Beethoven were not academics, and neither was Debussy, or Richard Wagner. Neither Louis Armstrong nor Duke Ellington were academics. Bob Dylan was not an academic. Harriet Tubman was not an academic. Emily Dickinson was not an academic, and Charles Dickens wasn’t either; neither was Dostoevsky, or Victor Hugo. Billie Holiday was not an academic. James Baldwin wasn’t an academic. John Lennon and his fellow Beatles were not academics. Frantz Fanon was not an academic; Malcolm X was not an academic. Elvis Presley was not an academic, and Jimmy Stewart wasn’t either; nor was Ava Gardner. James Dean and Dennis Hopper weren’t academics. Andy Warhol wasn’t an academic, and Vincent van Gogh wasn’t an academic, either. Neither was Jackson Pollock. Galileo and Copernicus weren’t academics; and Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t an academic.

        Are you getting the drift?

        Why is it that we still hear about all these people today, as well as many lesser-known luminaries, decades and in some cases centuries after their death? Could it be because many analysts, of the academic variety and others, –have “interpreted” all this work and discussed its significance in terms that mattered in their day (“code words” as you call them), and beyond?

        Some writers are using the most advanced, the most rigorous, the most up-to-the-minute tools of analysis they can find, with all the attendant vocabulary—which you call “code words.” These, of course, change over time. Perhaps Michael Jackson (or another artist) will allow writers to invent some new tools and new vocabulary.

        But as Natalia Ceceire states (which I quoted above):

        “Sometimes books by academics are difficult to read, because they’re specialized and technical and reference a lot of things you haven’t read. That’s fine; it’s harder to read an academic science journal than it is to read National Geographic, too. We may not always notice the ways that academic concepts are circulated and reinterpreted in popular culture, but that’s because we live and breathe it every day. Just like scientific research, humanities research constantly crosses in and out of the academy, and it’s so much a part of everyday life that most of the time we don’t even bother to think of it as “humanities.”

  12. Sorry to go on and on; but this blogger, Natalia Ceceire, expresses the matter much better than I can:

    “Humanities scholarship is incredibly relevant, and that makes people sad.”

    “Do you know a black child who grew up knowing about America’s great traditions in African American literature, visual art, music, and film? Are you glad Their Eyes Were Watching God and Cane are in print? Then thank the scholars, artists, and activists who have recovered that work—often obscured by a racist publishing culture and by an academy that didn’t think it was important at the time. There’s a reason that students protested and sat in to fight for the establishment of ethnic studies and women’s studies departments in the 1960s and 70s. It wasn’t a fashion statement: serious formal engagement with the cultural contributions of women and ethnic minorities was urgently needed […..]

    “Academic humanities scholars do this very well, but non-university-affiliated people engage in humanistic work all the time. (Let’s NOT give all the credit for the above to academics—many of whom are still firmly in the crankypan/ts camp and hold great influence. A great deal of this work was led by activists and non-academics—but that’s my point: the academic humanities are not hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world ……) If you’re a “completist” who has to watch every Eric Rohmer film you can, you’re doing humanities. When you decide you need to watch every single episode of every single Star Trek franchise, and when you decide to write about it on a blog or in a forum, you’re still doing humanities. You’re doing humanities if you write Harry Potter fanfiction to reinterpret the world of Hogwarts as a place where gay romances can flourish, or where characters of color aren’t relegated to supporting roles. (Humanities scholars study fanfiction, too….)

    “Sometimes books by academics are difficult to read, because they’re specialized and technical and reference a lot of things you haven’t read. That’s fine; it’s harder to read an academic science journal than it is to read National Geographic, too. We may not always notice the ways that academic concepts are circulated and reinterpreted in popular culture, but that’s because we live and breathe it every day. Just like scientific research, humanities research constantly crosses in and out of the academy, and it’s so much a part of everyday life that most of the time we don’t even bother to think of it as “humanities.”

    “The interpretation of culture and of cultural artifacts is everywhere, whether we’re deciding whether a book or television show is appropriate for a child, parsing an ambiguous email from someone we love, or trying to understand a falling out among friends. The academic humanities are the serious, formal study of such interpretation. And that interpretation fundamentally—not incidentally—involves the conceptual categories that shape everyday life, including race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. Interpretation is social. It’s political.”

    Read more here:

  13. “The interpretation of culture and of cultural artifacts is everywhere, whether we’re deciding whether a book or television show is appropriate for a child, parsing an ambiguous email from someone we love, or trying to understand a falling out among friends. The academic humanities are the serious, formal study of such interpretation. And that interpretation fundamentally—not incidentally—involves the conceptual categories that shape everyday life, including race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. Interpretation is social. It’s political.”

    See, here we go again–right into ‘race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability’ and into the ‘political.’ This is the problem, Nina! Why can’t you grasp this? I feel we are never going to understand each other using these ‘code words’ and I don’t mean just you and me, but the larger ‘humanity’ that is suposedly going to be enlightened by the ‘academic humanities.’

    MJ was not an academic and to see him put under the academic microscope with the tools of analysis being those same ‘code words’ is never, ever going to ‘interpet’ his work. This is my opinion. You say you have been observing fan comments and drawing conclusions from blogs, such as this one, I am guessing. What I refer to by fans is outside the blogs. I have read lots of comments in other locations and I refer to YouTube, online comments on newspaper websites, website where discussion of the meaning of various songs and lyrics occur, etc, and I do find gems there written by fans. I think you have a narrow definition of fans if you are getting your idea of fans from blogs only.IMO to date fans ‘get’ MJ more than the academic writers, with some exceptions, such as Joe Vogel. I can’t make a comment on books that have not come out yet, such as Susan Fast’s.

    What I object to coming from you is that you tend to put down fans and their understanding, knowledge of MJ, and you see the academic work as better, more valuable, accurate, etc, and this is what I have a problem with.

    I gather that film is your area of expertise and why not focus on that instead of this anti-fan approach that resurfaces in your comments? Your analysisinterpretation of MJ’s film work would be something more valuable IMO than attacking fans when you don’t seem to appreciate the value of what fans are doing and have done.

  14. Nina, the problem I have is with your globalization of what ‘fans’ say or think about MJ and then your repeated bashing of ‘fans’ after setting them up. I think it would be a better approaph to criticize/attack the IDEAS or assertions and not the people making them. I do not smear all academic writers, b/c that would be stupid and false. However, there are some academic writers who write in this impenetrable code that is IMO written only for themselves. It is the impenetrable code I dislike as the ideas that are presented in said code to me have little value and certainly questionable relevance to MJ, who did not write, speak, sing, think in those codes IMO. If you have a problem with a certain position, such that MJ has been compared to Christ, discuss the idea and not all fans, b/c it should be amply clear that not all fans think that way.

  15. iutd, I’m truly sorry if the meaning is obscure to you. But if you or others are going to “globalize” academics (of which I am one, as well as being quite a devoted student of Michael Jackson’s), then you’re raising my hackles as much as I’m raising yours.

    I understand that these texts can make you feel excluded, and that to you there seems to be a lot of rambling, which doesn’t directly speak about Michael Jackson soon enough. It’s because many writers (like Harriet Manning and many others) are trying to understand his work in a historical context, putting him into a kind of “conversation” with other artists of his time earlier. They want to figure out what Michael shares with other philosophies, and with anything that might help us to CONNECT Michael to the outside world and to history, rather than shut him off from it—-which is indeed something (I’d say) many fans want to do.

    Of course we want to see Michael as singular and unique… and he was. That doesn’t mean he was the first (or the last) to do all the things he did. What about all that stuff people have thought and written about him? Good, bad, and indifferent? Where is that coming from?

    If you want to really get a grasp on *why* Michael was treated as he was, then you have to really look closely at some of the underpinnings of the society — as Raven has often done here–however painful it is. This has to involve some consideration of politics, broadly defined. It touches upon how we feel about Michael, about ourselves, about other people in our everyday lives.

    The “academic” writers who are so often maligned aren’t doing that much different, and the “code” isn’t that hard to crack, if you’re interested enough to ask.

  16. Pardon me, Simba; you’re right. The description of Chapter 7 is described as you say. Here’s the sentence in it’s entirety:

    My basic point stands, however. Do you feel that Manning has run over *your* puppy by her very use of this terminology—whether you understand its context or not? So much so that she and her academic “ilk” should be “castrating baby lambs” because they are “hung up” on Michael Jackson’s sexuality? Are you certain that she’s clueless about the history of lynching, and the emasculation of black men (especially in the U.S.) during slavery and beyond? Or do you believe that she’s viciously promoting violence (actual or symbolic) against black male bodies through the example of Michael Jackson?

    Do you feel that Manning has run over *your* puppy by implying that a minstrelsy and Michael Jackson can be (in some way) construed as performing “transvestism”?

    Here’s the actual text of the Introduction, where she lays out the contents of each of the eight chapters of the book:

    Harriet Manning, “Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask,” Introduction (pp. 1-3)

    “Chapter 1 [summarizes] minstrelsy’s historiography, which has seen strong arguments not just for racism but also, and quite paradoxically, for cross-racial desire. This opening chapter closes with where the historiography of blackface minstrelsy is now in order to progress: the audience. This is where the book ultimately closes in the form of Michael Jackson’s interpretive communities and their role in understanding the performance in question.

    “Now contextualized in the broader picture of the tradition, the classic guise of minstrelsy is detailed in Chapter 2 and in particular its stage characterizations of black masculinity and their meanings. This is followed by an introduction of how we might approach Michael Jackson’s artistic legacy and the man himself in this contextual frame. While Chapter 2 explores the legacy of minstrelsy in contemporary black cultural expression, Chapter 3 contextualizes this by documenting the continuum of the tradition from its classic guise to the current day. Providing the key strand for this is the white appropriation of black cultural idioms and black marginalization in the same instance. Returning to Michael Jackson, Chapter 4 extends the exploration of minstrelsy in his work, which leads on to a discussion around its place in the formation of contemporary black male subjectivity. This is in the specific context of postbellum black minstrelsy (for which there is evidence, despite its collusion with minstrelsy’s imagery, that it offered racial critique).

    “Like the cultural vogue that became “blacking up,” Michael Jackson was a phenomenon and any comprehensive account of him must involve his ‘audience’—its treatment, reactions and responses. For this reason Chapters 5 and 6 pay attention to others around Jackson and this is done through two white artists and their appropriations of his iconography and dance: the Irish boy band Westlife in Chapter 5 and the white American rap star Eminem in Chapter 6. Along the way, both chapters provide examples of contemporary forms of white blackface minstrelsy but, more crucially, suggest how others in relation to Jackson are equally imbued as he is in the legacy of the blackface mask. After discussion in Chapter 7 on the negotiations of gender and sexuality through transvestism in both minstrelsy and Jackson, Chapter 8 attends to the weeks that followed Jackson’s death.”

    Wow. I guess this chapter summary clearly shows us that Manning has an “obsession” with Michael Jackson’s sexuality, doesn’t it?

    It should be obvious that the overall intent of the book extends way beyond the reductive caricature you’ve painted. If you believe it’s all jargon, if you find the terminology she uses unfamiliar, if the concepts she’s pointing to seem obscure to you, then you might admit that’s the case. If (as I suspect) you’re dismissing her entire book for these reasons (although you won’t admit to it) then you should derive some satisfaction from the knowledge that you’ve got loads of company. There are a LOT of people—especially Americans—who find intellectual activity as a whole suspicious on some level. They tend to bring zero curiosity to the whole endeavor, and dismiss it all as bullisht.

    * * * * * * *
    I don’t know what it is about certain fans, Simba, but I can’t for the life of me figure out just how it is that how otherwise intelligent, well-informed women (and most of us who talk online about Michael *are* women) have managed to suddenly discard the basic reading comprehension skills they learned and probably mastered years ago. Of course, this includes reading for *context*, rather than just skimming a few pages of text, DETERMINED to find in it something derogatory about Michael Jackson, and—not surprisingly—finding EXACTLY what you were looking for.

    So, if it’s not your cup of tea, you may go on dismissing intelligent discussion that just MIGHT possibly enrich everyone’s understanding of this man’s art….. all on account of one or two words you found “suspect.” It’s your loss.

    1. “Do you feel that Manning has run over *your* puppy by implying that a minstrelsy and Michael Jackson can be (in some way) construed as performing “transvestism”?”

      No, I just think she’s wrong. I think that, like just about every white academic, and a fair percentage of the black ones, whatever their major discipline, eventually all roads lead to Michael’s crotch. They are fascinated by the notion of an asexual, pre-sexual, homosexual, transgender, or transvestite Michael Jackson. I think Manning throws “in both minstrelsy” into that description of Chapter 7 to justify linking Michael to the t word. (I accept that I could be wrong, honestly, I don’t think I am.)

      I don’t believe that Manning is “viciously promoting violence (actual or symbolic) against black male bodies through the example of Michael Jackson”. After all, when shepherds bite off those little lamb testicles, they don’t think they’re promoting animal cruelty. They’re just making them more marketable. A sexually-intact, sexually-appealing black man is pretty scary.

      1. Since you haven’t read the book, Simba (not even the introduction, really), you have no grounds for judgment about whether Manning is “right” or “wrong”; or, further, what she might be right or wrong *about.*

        “A sexually-intact, sexually-appealing black man is pretty scary,” you say. I might ask: scary to *whom*? To you? To me? To all these white (and some black) academics?

        The historical image of black men as a stereotype — the scary, angry, predatory figure who needs to be castrated —-is something Manning very consciously debunks in Chapter 2, in her analysis of “Black or White. (Unlike you, I’m actually bothering to read the book.) I’d gladly type out several of the most interesting paragraphs from this chapter on “Black or White,” if I thought you were genuinely interested in a dialogue about it.

        But I’ve posted excerpts from the book here, and you’ve had plenty of opportunity to read those portions of it you can get through that “handy little feature” on called “Look Inside.” This could be enough to begin a conversation about Michael Jackson and the history of blackface minstrelsy; but it’s clear that, for you, (though not necessarily Harriet Manning or other scholars) most—if not all—roads lead to Michael’s crotch.

        You say, “I think Manning throws “in both minstrelsy” into that description of Chapter 7 to justify linking Michael to the t word. (I accept that I could be wrong, honestly, I don’t think I am.)

        Well: it happens you are wrong, Simba. That is, unless, you consider dismissing an entire book and its author on the basis of having read ONE fragment of ONE sentence (whose context, needless to say, you haven’t even understood) a valid means of forming an “opinion.” After all: if you’re going to criticize various and sundry people who have made false statements about Michael, then shouldn’t you at least try to hold yourself to a higher standard of intellectual integrity?

        And since you seem to lump all academic writers together—mostly white, a few black, (you haven’t mentioned any critics who are Asian, Latino, or Native American)—then I feel perfectly justified in declaring what I’ve experienced within the Michael Jackson fan community through intense contact for several years, and coming up with some generalizations based on my experience.

        This fan community is, on the whole, a perverse, paranoid, and massively bigoted group of people. The homo- and transphobia one finds on many MJ-related sites, in particular, is so thick you can cut it with a knife. To a lesser extent, anti-Semitic, classist, racist, sexist, and Islamophobic attitudes are freely expressed on these sites, and generally go unremarked by other participants.

        Michael Jackson’s fans—with very few exceptions—seem thoroughly committed to the notion that that the entire world is, and remains, out to *castrate* and otherwise punish him. And they cling tenaciously to this narrative, no matter what evidence to the contrary is presented to them, or whatever other kinds of readily-available material comes their way: glowing reports in the mainstream news media (of all places!) that hail his genius and legacy, for example.

        So my question is: why would you (in the plural) want to make a martyr out of Michael, in the name of “vindicating” him? Why do so many fans continually construct him as this long-suffering figure, to the exclusion of everything else he was, and did, and felt, and accomplished in his life? This is something I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to understand, for as long as I’ve been hanging out on these sites.

        Just why would (most) fans so desperately want to hold before their eyes—and place before the eyes of the whole world—the perpetual and infinitely renewable image of this brilliant artist as a weak, helpless, victimized, powerless, “crucified” human being, for all eternity? In fact, many fans seem to derive a strange and, if I may say so, perverse pleasure in beholding this image and resurrecting it, time and again, lest the pain of Michael’s suffering, and perhaps their own, fade from visceral memory.

        Why would fans want to indulge the fantasy of a beloved man as a (strangely) masochistic figure who, perhaps, mirrors their own self-concept? Could it be that they resent analysts whom they believe to have “castrated” Michael Jackson, precisely because they themselves want to be able to “do the honors”?

        OK, that’s all I’ve got to say. I’ve had it.

        1. Directly above this post, Raven has a lengthy piece about a television network airing a show where they autopsy Michael Jackson’s body, for entertainment and amusement, four years after his death. As Malcolm X said, it’s not paranoia if they ARE out to get you.

          Despite your impassioned, and in my opinion wrongheaded declaration, the PTBs are still trying to cut Michael up, perhaps to make sure that, like the Wicked Witch of the West, he’s not merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. They attack his family, even his children, as that scurrilous lie about Blanket and the violent cartoon illustrates. It hasn’t let up. Michael Jackson IS being victimized. I don’t care what people will say about him one hundred years from now. I won’t be around then. When I read work today that, IN MY OPINION, gets him wrong, I’m going to push back. Your petty insults mean nothing. (“Islamaphobia”, now that’s really reaching, even for you.)

  17. Excuse me. From the Introduction again, about Chapter 7:

    “Along the way, both chapters [5 and 6] provide examples of contemporary forms of white blackface minstrelsy but, more crucially, suggest how others in relation to Jackson are equally imbued as he is in the legacy of the blackface mask. After discussion in Chapter 7 on the negotiations of gender and sexuality through transvestism in both minstrelsy and Jackson, Chapter 8 attends to the weeks that followed Jackson’s death.”

    I haven’t yet gotten to Chapter 7; but I’m currently reading Chapter 2, ” ‘Black or White’: From Jim Crow of Michael Jackson.” I’m finding it VERY useful as a way to discover some continuity (as well as some definite departures) from blackface minstrel entertainments in the 19th century, and Michael Jackson’s panther dance in particular. She does a very good job of describing, in some detail, the dance steps and physical gestures that link the earlier form with Michael’s artistry—which, she claims, allows him to radically alter and reinvent the earlier form (with all its demeaning and racist ways of representing black men) to suit his entirely different intention—especially in the Panther Dance coda of “Black or White.”

    In other words—in the Panther Dance segment, he crafts his choreography, his vocalized (though not musical) sounds, and his facial expressions in ways that permit him (as we were discussing earlier) to TAKE CONTROL of his own representation. It’s fascinating stuff—and the “Black or White” broadcast (in 1991) was, according to Manning, completely misread, dismissed, and misunderstood by “serious” and “popular” critics alike.

  18. Nina, you will not be able to understand why MJ fans are bigoted, homophobic, islamophobic, and god knows what else phobic and deluded b/c this is all some kind of mental construct you have created and so instead of trying to understand why someone else is having deluded ideas that are so bigoted, etc–ask yourself why you have created this delusion. Just a suggestion.

  19. Nina wrote: “This fan community is, on the whole, a perverse, paranoid, and massively bigoted group of people. The homo- and transphobia one finds on many MJ-related sites, in particular, is so thick you can cut it with a knife.”

    Nina–honestly-WHERE are you getting these ideas? WHAT fan sites? WHAT fans? If you have these opinions of Simba or myself–we are only TWO fans, not ALL fans.

    Why are you here on a fan site if you really believe this?? What’s the point? Just to hit your self on the head over and over? Obviously if we are so far gone as you think, you are not going to change us into suddenly seeing the light.

    “Transphobia”–hey, a new code word!!!

    I actually had to laugh out loud when I read what you wrote b/c it is just so ‘out there’ and so clear that I am wasting my time trying to get through to you. I guess your ideas are so fixed that they will never change–an idee fixee (not a good thing to have for a rational human being, as I know you are in many ways but again–back to the mental block).

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