Category Archives: Personal Reflections

Student Essays on “Earth Song” and “Black or White”

earth songLast fall brought a particularly strong crop of student essays on “Earth Song” and “Black or White” and I wanted to share with you some of the best essays I had the pleasure to read. These essays span three sections of English 102 and, with but one exception, were all written by students whose average age, eighteen, means they were not even born when Michael Jackson first released these songs over twenty years ago.  Yet I think you will find their views to be quite profound and enlightening. They are products of a new generation, one that has come of age in an era of increased environmental awareness and racial tensions, and in which the gradual deconstructive critical assessment of both of these great works continues to gain momentum.

Over the course of a semester, I read literally hundreds of essays. It’s easy for some to fade from memory after a few weeks, once the grading process is done. But then there are always those few that stick with me long afterwards. These are some of the best of those, and I hope you guys will enjoy them as much as I did.

It may be worth noting that  the first essay mistakenly identifies “Earth Song” as Jackson’s final work. It wasn’t, of course. Possibly Miss Woodard was confusing this fact with our class discussion of “Earth Song” as the last song that Jackson performed, an understandable point of confusion. This was a correction I noted when I returned her paper; nevertheless, as always, I present their pieces here with as few editorial corrections as possible, as I believe it is important to let these students’ voices speak for themselves, even if that includes the occasional, small factual or grammatical error.  In general, I do not think it would be fair to hold these kids accountable for facts that only seasoned Jackson aficionados would know. Also, I am not always in every case necessarily looking for only positive pieces. You will find below that there is the occasional more critical approach, but I think it is fair criticism that has been grounded in thoughtful reflection of the work. What I look for is overall evidence of critical thinking, profound reflection, and the degree of original  enlightenment they are able to bring to the piece. In some cases, the more critical pieces were able to lead to some very engaging class discussions and/or dialogues between myself and the writer, especially on the topic of Michael and spirituality. I hope you will enjoy these as much as I did. Many more will be forthcoming in the months ahead.

Jackson’s Powerful Love for the Earth by Emily Woodard

Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” was Jackson’s final work, expressing his passion and love for all creatures, bemoaning the evil and cruelty that mankind brought into the world.  It is a plea for people to break through their apathy and heal the planet. “Earth Song,” unlike most other of Jackson’s work, took seven years to produce, and during those seven years he was unable to consistently eat or sleep, plagued by the restless urgency he felt to convey this important message across the globe. Jackson grew up in the Jehovah Witness faith – encouraged by his devout mother, and he seems to address the Christian God many times in his final work.   Jackson still believed in helping others, and being a good person, although his faith at his time of death is not completely clear.  Jackson’s earnest “Earth Song,” sends a message of great anguish, and heartbreak, even as he committed himself to spreading the message of hope.  “Earth Song” is a powerful expression of the Earth’s tremendous grief, and sorrow, expressed through Jackson’s lament, and his addresses to God, and to mankind.

The first message- hope- is demonstrated by Jackson’s intense emotion, and puissant feelings for the earth and all living creatures on it. Eleanor Bowman exclaims in the blog entry “In my Veins I’ve Felt the Mystery” that “although there is so much anger and pain in Earth Song, there is also hope, but this hope really is only revealed in the film, which shows Michael singing the Earth and nature back to life (Bowman).  At this point in the film, Jackson expresses his devotion to the planet and asks the audience to care, and love the planet as he does, to gift Earth with hope.  The first biblical reference says, “The heavens are falling down, (What about us?), I can’t even breathe, (What about us?)” (Jackson).  Jackson uses this part to symbolize a world tragedy or great losses.  From Bowman, Eleanor says, “And, when he cries out “What about us?” he identifies not only himself, but all of us, his listeners, with the disempowered and dispossessed” (Bowman).  The magical intensity Jackson creates for the Earth involves caring for all living creatures by asking “what about us,” referring to himself, and everybody else watching these terrible tragedies around them.

He rails against the fact that the world has been “torn apart by creed” (Jackson). We have sacrificed the planet, justifying war, destruction and cruelty based on religious separatism. People of the planet have been cruelly apathetic to the tragedy, turning a blind eye to the pain. And God does not hear the cries of the Earth. He asks God, “What about all the peace, that you pledge your only son” and asks why He has failed to notice the dying planet, suffering children, and casualties of war (Jackson).  At the same time, he’s asking his listeners the same questions. How can we all turn a blind eye to the suffering?

In the music video, Jackson is portrayed in a Messianic pose, spread eagled between two burning trees and sacrificed to the violence of a healing storm. He faces down the fiery storm, stomping out his anger to the “What about us” lyrics. His sacrifice and bravery in the face of the storm brings about a global healing. Trees rise from destruction, oceans are teaming with life, animals and people are resurrected.

His lyrics and imagery ask the audience “Where did we go wrong” and “Do we give a damn?” Bowman insists that Jackson is rejecting the Christian God, explainin“… the themes of environmental degradation and man’s inhumanity to man, our wars  on nature and each other”- he is saying that these two tragedies are related, that they arise from a single source – the transcendent god of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose worldview and value system led his only son to the cross, whose worldview and value system brought Abraham to the brink of disaster, and whose worldview and value system are destroying the planet and leading us toward self-destruction. Earth Song is both an acknowledgement of the dire situation we find ourselves in and a recognition that we have all been betrayed” (Bowman).

In fact, his refrain “What about us” isn’t an infantile plea for attention, but a cry for people to take responsibility for the state of the world. Stop looking to a remote God for the answer – those promises have not been kept – and instead look to each other. “What about us” is a cry for personal responsibility and his music video images back up this interpretation. He is sacrificing himself to bring about change in the world. And everyone should do the same – take a stand against greedy consumption of Earth’s treasures and make a difference.  It’s a common theme in his later work, telling his listeners to be the change they want to see in the world. Open your eyes, see the pain and anguish, destruction and pollution, understand the part you play, and your power to make change. Heal the world.

Jackson seemed to have felt deeply the pain of others, and hoped to find a way for his art to help. His heartbreak is clear, as is his hope, and fear that we would continue to look the other way, even if the direction of our gaze is the heavens, as our Earth cries out in agony.

Michael Jackson’s Message of Racism and His Personal Fight by Octavia Gregory

black or whiteMichael Jackson was a musician who turned the tables in the music industry. Emerging in the early 1990’s, after releasing himself with his family’s band, “Jackson Five”, Michael became any woman’s dream and one of the most loved artists in his time, even until this very day. His experiences with racism, discrimination and hatred influenced a lot of his early music. The most pivoting, eye opening song of 1991 was Michael Jackson’s, “Black or White”. This song was so shell shocking, when the music video premiered on MTV, the world went wild. This song is still extremely prevalent in this day and age, especially with the new generation of race debates and political correctness.

Michael’s experiences with racism started at an early age. One of his most prevalent memories was when he went to visit his mother and stepfather in Mobile, Alabama in the early 1980’s. Him and his bodyguard went into a local store and his guard told him to stay put but he didn’t listen. He ended up going into the gas station and by the time his bodyguard came out, he found Michael on the floor being beaten by the gas station’s owner, a white male in his thirties, kicking him in his head and body. The store owner claimed that Michael was stealing a candy bar, but, from eye witnesses, it was said that he was just beating him because he was black. That is one of the many instances that shaped Michael’s views on racism.

He and his brothers, the Jackson 5, didn’t have a pleasant stay at Mobile, Alabama that year. When they arrived at the hotel, there was KKK paraphernalia left out to scare the brothers from being n Mobile. It frightened them but didn’t stop them from doing what they came there to do. This experience influenced the one line in Michael’s song, “Black or White”, saying “I ain’t scared of no sheets”, referring to the sheets the KKK wears. He’s not afraid because, the fact that the KKK feels the need to hide their face just express their hatred only shows that member of the KKK are cowards and live amongst us; they are our doctors, lawyers, and people we sit next to on the bus. This was Michael’s true message in his fight against the KKK and racism as a whole, that African Americans aren’t afraid of it because it seems to them that the KKK are more afraid of them and when it comes down to it, they will win the fight.

Jermaine Jackson wrote in his book, “You Are Not Alone: Michael: Through a Brother’s Eyes”, ​about the trip to Mobile, Alabama that, “It made us more determined to kick some butt onstage, because we soon recognized the importance of being black kids performing for black fans who could now identify with us. We were carrying the torch for our forefathers, winning respect for every black kid with a dream. The screams and cheers that night felt like a lot more than just Jackson mania: they felt like defiance and victory. As Sammy Davis Junior had said in 1965: ‘Being a star has made it possible for me to get insulted in places where the average Negro could never hope to go and get insulted.’” Michael’s whole purpose in his music career was to inspire the black youth of then and now and hope to make a difference, and he did just that.

The problems going on in America today of racism have been going on, even since before Michael’s time. Some would argue that racism doesn’t exist anymore, but professing that ignorantly diminishes the problems and discrimination that African Americans still face today or have ever faced. The blow up over the past two years of Black Lives Matter has affected and changed the views of many of our black youth and even other cultures. It has been a movement that has awakened many and I believe that this is what any black activist has been waiting for, for the black youth to wake up.

Michael Jackson was a big activist and if he was still alive he would be front and center in the news speaking out and being active with the black community. He was never afraid to speak his mind, even though some believe that he may have talked too much and that is what lead to his death. Nonetheless, Michael could never be silenced and his message lives on until today. In the article, “Messenger King: Michael Jackson and the politics of #BlackLivesMatter”, by D.B. Anderson, she speaks about Michaels song “They Don’t Care About Us” and how “The song was, in large part, a response to the failure to convict police officers of the videotaped 1992 Rodney King beating, but also to his own terribly degrading experience of police brutality in 1993. To re­read the criticism of the song today is to shake your head in disbelief at its disingenuousness. It’s obvious that for some in power at the time, this was a dangerous song, and the objections merely an attempt to deflect.” This is perfect evidence that Michael would’ve been on top of every police brutality incident to come forth, and would probably have a huge impact of change.

Michael had struggled with racism his entire life and it showed in his music. He was a very passionate man and is missed by many. His message will live on forever and he played an important role in the racial change that has gone on in this country. He stayed strong willed and unchanged by every racist and person who falsely accused him, whether it be about his unseen vitiligo or the message he spoke. Michael Jackson’s message to everyone will live on forever, “If you enter this world knowing you are loved and you leave this world knowing the same, then everything that happens in between can be dealt with.”

Good or Bad, Not Black or White by Eric Harrison

blackorwhite2It was 1991 and there were many problems going on in society dealing with race. Michael Jackson was in his 30’s and he too had already had to deal with many of those problems in society. He was able to take his frustration out in a positive way though. One of the most memorable songs he made about the racial tension going on during those times was Black or White. This song was so controversial because of the music video that people were missing the point he was making. It doesn’t matter if your black or white.

The music video starts out just like most of the popular videos in the early 90’s. Popular actors, family at home, and a whole lot of dancing. For the actor Michael Jackson got Macaulay Culkin who played the kid in all of the Home Alone movies. Like most young kids Culkin ends up getting into an argument with his parents and blows his dad into the Sahara Desert after bringing his amplifier downstairs and playing his guitar on max! You’re probably wondering what that has to do with racial tension, and the answer is simple. It isn’t about what race someone is. There is always going to be good and bad people regardless.

Once the song starts you can see Michael dancing with people of all different races. African, Asian, Native American, and Mexican to just name a few. What stuck out to me the most during this part of the video is the fact that everyone is getting along. These are all good people having a good time to a good song. Michael Jackson pulls off a couple of his dance moves and you start to get a sense of well being. It makes you start to wonder why can’t everyone just get along. Now there is nothing controversial at all with the first half of the music video. It changes tone quickly and so does Michael.

All of the sudden you see Michael dancing in front of pictures of fire. This is a drastic change from dancing in the middle of the street with the whole neighborhood. The mood really changes when you see tanks firing their rockets and you get a sense of  being on the edge. Macaulay Culkin is then seen rapping with some other kids that happen to be black. This is a strong message and he uses kids for a reason. Kids aren’t born being racist, and Michael wanted to make sure that parents know this. This is also why he has Culkin arguing with his dad rebelling in the first scene. Families play a big role in kids belief system. In Raven Wood’s article “The Seeds of Black or White: The Sub Theme of Parental Authority” she says, “ The role of a parent, after all, is to be a parent, not a best friend. Parents and children both have to realize this, and to accept the boundary.”

Michael goes on to show us what happens when parent’s aren’t that authority figure that kids need so much. To emphasize this he morphs into a panther which is a fierce animal that black activists have related to. They would call themselves The Black Panthers. When he morphs back into a human it has started storming outside and you get a bad vibe. This is where a lot of people were starting to get confused. They didn’t understand what this had to do with the racial conflicts going on at that time. Michael continues to do a more aggressive style dance than he was doing earlier in the first half of the video. He is playing the role of anyone who has been hated on because of their race. He not only dances in the middle of the street but he also jumps on top of a car and continues to dance all the while breaking out the windows of it. This is an extreme message that’s very strong. I can see why people would not like this part of the video because most people didn’t want to think that this is what the ignorance of racism is causing. A lot of people just wanted to sweep everything under the rug and continue living life like they have been even though there have been numerous riots and lives lost. People from all races have to deal with racism in one form or another.

Michael Jackson wrote this song to help bring awareness on racism and the problems that it causes. Black or White had one of the largest viewing crowds for the premiere of the video. It was shown on prime time television across the world. People weren’t expecting such a strong message to be shown in this music video and it really raised some eyebrows. Michael was ahead of his times with many of his songs and this was no exception.

There are many messages in the music video for Black or White by Michael Jackson. He is able to portray this message not only through lyrics, but also through the different themes of the scenes in the video. The main thing that stuck out in this video wasn’t the violence in it. It was what led up to the violence. The main thing to me was how powerful a parents influence is over their child. The fact that kids aren’t born racist, but there are so many racist people alive is appalling. Michael being so up front with this video notched him a spot in history for the right towards equal rights. Today things are a lot different than they were back then even though we still have issues. Videos like this have become more common place today, and it wouldn’t have been as big of a controversy now as it was then. Although times have changed one thing still remains the same. It’s about good or bad not black or white.

“Earth Song” by Shekeler Atchinson

Cd3IYdfXEAAuV5NMichael Jackson, one of the greatest song writers of all times, composed “Earth Song.” This song, “is indisputably the most popular green-themed tune ever. It remains Jackson’s best-selling song in the U.K.”(Pasternack) I feel like this song expressed his pain of not understanding why an all-knowing, all-powerful, and loving God would allow suffering and pain to exist. He saw God creations full of turmoil and destruction. Although, what a person have been taught to believe matters in their understanding about God and their own life. One article read, “Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, he was taught to believe in a God that was rigid and demanding (including the commandment not to celebrate holidays or birthdays).” (Vogel) “Earth Song,” clearly expresses Theodicy in Michael understanding.

Michael is not alone in not fully understanding why God would allow evil and suffering to exist in this world, especially when scripture teaches that God is love. I believe Michael would have understood better by pondering over the question, when did evil and suffering began? When God created the heavens and the earth, after each creation, the bible says, “Then God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good.” (Bible) However, God did not make man as a robot, but to have a free will to choose.  Adam and Eve chose the one thing God told them they must not eat, the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Therefore, knowing good and evil were passed to all generations. Suffering and evil came into this world due to sin. “Let no one say when I am temped, I am tempted by God; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself temp anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is full grown, bring forth death.” (Bible) It seems like Michael’s religion had left him to believe that God was all about pain as quoted by one article, “Earth Song,” wasn’t about faith or triumph; it was about pain and indignation.” (Vogel) Michael seems to be walking in the dark, because he could not understand why God would allow bad things to happen. However, scriptures teaches, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Bible) Which simply means, God’s purpose and reasons for allowing suffering and evil to exist is so far beyond our understanding. What Michael needed to understand, so many times we have to trust God when what is happening do not make any sense. However, as a child of God, we have God’s promise that, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Bible) In the beginning of creation, God did not created evil and suffering, but because He is omniscient, He knew man would sin and evil and things would be a part of this world. Suffering or evil working by man did not surprise God.  God also had a plan in place to redeem mankind along with His creation of the heavens and earth.  It is so sad that with the gift of music God gave him, he had to express misunderstanding of the God he apparently wanted to know. It’s true no religion has all the answers, the bible say, “We only know in part and we prophesy in part.” (Bible)

Finally, I wonder before his life ended did he come to the knowledge of knowing that in God’s timing He would right all wrongs. I wonder did he know the scripture, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth has passed away. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There will be no more pain, for the former things has passed away.” (Bible). I wonder did he get to know the savior of the world, Jesus. In my opinion, the greatest evil and suffering done on earth is when Jesus Christ, God Son, was crucified. Yet, God allow it to happen because it was a part of God plan to save mankind. The people who were committing this evil act, did now realize they were right in line with the will of God. I believe that everything that happens in this life is not without reason and purpose. An all-powerful God, can prevent everything bad from happening, so why don’t He? Again, this is where your faith in God has to work. “Faith is the substance of things hope for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Bible) Michael’s life seems to have been a life of spiritual struggles. I hope that before he gave his last breath, he saw Jesus.

Michael Jackson and his Earth Song by Thomas George

earth song2Michael Jackson was a famous pop artist known for his ridiculously catchy songs and intense dance moves. Among some of his works are Thriller, Bad, and Billie Jean. He was however, more than an artist that could pump out catchy tunes and moonwalk. He was very active in civil rights and concerned about the Earth’s environment and how humanity has effected it. Jackson wrote Earth Song as a way to try to open the eyes of the many people that could here his message and inspire healing.

In a quick analysis of Earth song, it is deeply rooted with both antiwar and environmental aspects. Both of which are still hot topics today and as attempts grow to improve upon these aspects, one line that stands out is, “what have we done to the world.” This small lyric means that all are to blame for the conditions of the Earth. And even as Jackson sings the song, he sings it with more of a grieving, guilty voice.

It took Jackson seven years to create Earth Song and the song itself was different from other songs of its type as Joseph Vogel writes in his book Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus:

Social anthems and protest songs had long been part of the heritage of rock-but  not like this. ‘Earth Song’ was something more epic, dramatic, and primal. Its roots were deeper; its vision more panoramic. It was a modern-day “sorrow song”                       haunted by voices of the past; a lamentation torn from the pages of the Old Testament; an apocalyptic prophecy in the tradition of Blake, Yeats, and Eliot. (4).

Earth Song eventually became the most popular environmental anthem ever and reached the top of the charts in over fifteen countries. Earth Song sold over ten million copies. Even with its success the critics did not know what to make of it. It was completely different from what was normally heard on the radio. It was rock, opera, gospel, and blues. It was not a traditional anthem by any means. The song proposed a world with out division and wanted balance and harmony. (Vogel 5)

Jackson was raised Jehova’s Witness and believed in a very strict God. He did not celebrate birthdays or holidays. Jehova’s Witnesses believed that Armageddon was an upcoming event that could not be stopped and only prepared for. As well only few Jehova’s Witnesses will survive the Armageddon as the religion calls for only 144,000. (Vogel 25) Jackson spent years devoted to understanding his faith, he would reach out to church leaders for advice. But in 1987 Jackson decided that he could no longer stay with the church and resigned. (Vogel 25-26)

With the Jehova’s Witness religion behind him, he had a new outlook on the way he viewed himself, the world, and God. In Vogel’s book Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus, he quotes Jackson on his new views on God:

“It’s strange that God doesn’t mind expressing Himself/Herself in all the religions of the world, while people still cling to the notion that their way is the only right  way,” he wrote in his 1992 book Dancing the Dream. In another piece, in place of                his prior conception of the afterlife, he writes: “Heaven is here/Right now is the moment of eternity/Don’t fool yourself/Reclaim your bliss.”(26)

Jackson’s new views helped him artistically. It further inspired him to view God not as strict but more as an inspiration to try and heal the Earth and not focus on an inevitable unstoppable Armageddon like he believed in the past. (Vogel 26)

Although Jackson was known more for his catchy songs and wild dance moves, he was deeply moved by the conditions of the Earth. He created Earth Song in the hopes that it would inspire healing of the Earth itself. Earth Song may have opened up many people’s eyes as to what humanity is doing to the Earth which was Jackson’s intent.

The Superbowl, MJ "Whitewashing", "Off The Wall" and Other MJ News: Tying Up Loose Ends

February 2016 Took Us From This...
February 2016 Took Us From This…

 

A halftime spectacular featuring Michael Jackson wows a SB XXVII crowd of better than 98,000 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on 1/31/1993. ©Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images Photos (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
To This!

From time to time, so much MJ news hits all at once that it’s impossible to keep up and do a timely piece on all of them as they occur. These days, between work overload, illness (I am currently fighting off my second flu bout within two months) and commitment to other projects, it is often taking me even longer to keep up with timely Michael Jackson news, so every once in awhile these “catch up” posts become a necessity.

So as I was saying, the last few weeks have certainly seen Michael’s name in the news a lot, in both good and bad ways. Since it’s always good to end things on a positive note, I’ll start by addressing the bad (which, nevertheless, I believe, has produced a positive result if, for no other reason, the amount of backlash and public support the controversy has actually generated on Michael’s behalf):

The “Whitewashing” of Michael Jackson:

No, This Was Not A Bad Nightmare We Had! They Really Did Cast This Man To Play MJ!
No, This Was Not A Bad Nightmare We Had! They Really Did Cast This Man To Play MJ!

It was most fans’ worst nightmare when the news was confirmed that the rumored UK TV movie “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon,” a ludicrous sounding project based on a totally unfounded urban myth of a post 9/11 road trip taken by Michael, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, was, in fact, a legit project (not a hoax, as many had first believed). The premise was bad enough, but to add insult to injury was the casting of Joseph Fiennes, a white British actor, to portray an American black icon. In the wake of this shocking news, many fans took to petitions and other means to try to halt the casting of Fiennes, but those efforts were in vain considering that we were pulled a fast one-as it turned out, production of the movie had long since wrapped, and other than its being broadcast, was already a done deal. It was too late to stop Joseph Fiennes from playing Michael Jackson-but not too late to make a noise about it, and noise they got! The condemnation of this casting decision was immediate, and swift, especially coinciding (as it conveniently did) with the already heated controversy over the Oscar’s “whitewashing” this year. This was just the push needed to galvanize what ordinarily might have been just another indignity and injustice to Michael Jackson to be ignored or even condoned by the media to, instead, a glaring focal point on which to hang everything that was wrong with the African-American treatment and representation by Hollywood.

What may be the most important thing to come out of this whole debacle is not so much that a silly and most likely forgettable movie will be made with a white actor playing Michael Jackson, but that we finally saw the uniting of an outraged media in both creating and sustaining this backlash. For once, it seemed, Michael’s fans and the media were fighting on the same team, to protest a casting decision that went far beyond bad taste to become symbolic of something much more sinister, a reminder that our western “minstrel show” mentality isn’t as far behind us as we would like to believe.

It is also hard to buy the feeble protestings of Fiennes who insists he was as “shocked” as everyone else by the casting decision. First of all, I would assume he must have read for the part (it’s very rare that actors are simply called up to do a part; even then, they have the option of refusing). If he read for the part, we can reasonably assume he must have considered himself a contender for the role. He could have also refused to do it, and frankly, although I have liked Joseph Fiennes’s work in other projects, I now have to seriously question his integrity as an actor, as I really can’t imagine any white actor accepting this role with the naive belief that this is simply okay. These suspicions have been confirmed by a recent People article in which Fiennes continues to defend his decision to take the role.

Ed Moss Portrayed Michael On Court TV as well as in the "Scary Movie" franchise.
Ed Moss Portrayed Michael On Court TV as well as in the “Scary Movie” franchise.

However, this isn’t the first time that a non African-American actor has portrayed Michael. Edward Moss, a noted MJ impersonator, also portrayed Michael in the Scary Movie franchise as well as, perhaps most notably, in the Court TV reenactments of the 2005 trial.   Granted, what both Scary Movie and Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon have in common is that they are both comedies (as opposed to serious dramas or biographical pics) but that doesn’t make it any less insulting. I have seen Edward Moss perform as Michael Jackson and he is good at what he does, but that should have been the extent of it.

All of this hoopla reminds me of how, back in 2009 when Michael died, a rumor began circulating that Johnny Depp was going to play Michael in a bio pic. It was a rumor that Depp quickly denied, but the rumor remained persistent in certain circles. I have to say, if there was a mainstream white actor who could successfully capture the essence of Michael’s quirky charm and sex appeal in his mature years, Depp would be the only one who could possibly pull it off, but if such a project was ever even discussed, Depp probably made a wise decision not to bite, as the political backlash would have certainly amounted to career suicide.

It Would Be Controversial, Sure. But Depp Is The ONLY White Guy I Could See Pulling It Off...And He's Done Said He Ain't Going There!
It Would Be Controversial, Sure. But Depp Is The ONLY White Guy I Could See Pulling It Off…And He’s Done Said He Ain’t Going There!

Still, the whole issue raises some interesting questions. For example, Michael himself wanted very desperately to portray Edgar Allan Poe in a bio pic of the writer’s life. Granted, it is very rare that a black actor would seriously consider himself to play the role of a white man, but Michael apparently didn’t feel it to be a limitation (let’s not forget, he also didn’t mind putting on “whiteface” to portray the role of The Mayor in Ghosts). Yet, if there exists in Hollywood a double standard on these issues, it is a double standard in place for good reason. After all, whites were never oppressed in the film industry in the way that other minorities have been, and continue to be. Sometimes a little turnaround is fair play.

Michael Made For A Pretty Downright Eerily Convincing Old White Man in "Ghosts"
Michael Made For A Pretty Downright Eerily Convincing Old White Man in “Ghosts”

Of course, any casting decision involving a film about Michael Jackson is bound to be controversial. Additionally, it is a role with its own inherent challenges, since Michael didunarguably-go through so many physical changes in his lifetime. The most challenging aspect for any production is always going to come down to how to best (and most realistically) depict mature era Michael, when the skin disease vitiligo had depleted all pigment (the era for which many ill informed people still refer to as the era of “white” Michael). Trying to achieve this effect on a black actor would not be an easy feat to pull off, and we saw how disastrous and unnatural it looked when that attempt was made with Flex Alexander in 2004 (who managed to prove that even a black actor cast as Michael Jackson could still be a horrible cast of miscasting, and who portrayed most of Michael’s mature era as a most unflattering shade of gray). I have seen many black MJ tribute artists try to recreate the look of Michael’s post vitiligo era with pancake makeup, but the effect never looks natural. (Instead, most come off looking rather ghostly and strange).

Black MJ Tribute Artists Who Attempt To Recreate Michael's Post Vitiligo-Era Look Rarely Achieve A Natural Effect. But That Isn't To Say It Can't Be Done.
Black MJ Tribute Artists Who Attempt To Recreate Michael’s Post Vitiligo-Era Look Rarely Achieve A Natural Effect. But That Isn’t To Say It Can’t Be Done.

The only possible, realistic solution would be to cast an extremely light skinned African-American actor, someone whose natural skin tone is approximately the shade of Michael’s during the Bad era, and work from there by degrees through make-up. These are simple cosmetic issues that, while challenging, are not impossible. After all, we live in an era where Brad Pitt can be digitally aged forty years forward and then twenty years backward, all within the space of a two hour film. Almost anything can be accomplished with a little Hollywood magic-if the budget is right.

But beyond practical issues of cosmetics, the fact remains that Michael Jackson was a black man who always identified as a black man, and that didn’t change just because he lost some melanin in his skin cells. To deny him even his own identity is something that goes much deeper than a bad casting decision. It is a shameful expose’ of just how little his achievements as a black icon matter to these filmmakers. Case in point: As I am writing this, the movie The Race is about to open, telling the powerful and inspiring story of Jesse Owen’s triumph over the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics. Would Jesse Owen’s story be the same with a white actor portraying him? At the very least, it would certainly undermine the film’s message.

Alas, at this point I think it is futile to protest as it looks as though Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon is going forward regardless of what we-or anyone else, apparently-has to say about it. But we can still make our disapproval loud and clear, by refusing to give them the satisfaction of ratings. If there is any light to come out of this, it is the fact that, for once, we have seen a genuine, united front in protesting this latest outrage to Michael’s memory. And that, if anything, may be one positive we can take away from what I hope will otherwise be a completely forgettable debacle.

Maybe one day Michael will get the award winning biopic that his rich musical legacy and panoramic life deserve. Maybe…

Spike Lee’s Off The Wall:

On a much more positive note, the last few weeks have definitely been a renaissance of celebration for Michael’s artistic legacy. February 5th marked the debut of two television events centered on two very different yet equally crowning achievements of Michael’s career-his groundbreaking Off the Wall album and his 1993 Superbowl performance, which set the groundwork for all of the spectacular, star-studded Superbowl extravaganzas to come. Interestingly enough, both specials were scheduled in direct competition of each other, so for lucky fans who could access both, it was an exciting evening of MJ vs. MJ (for even if, granted, the CBS broadcast of “Greatest Superbowl Halftime Shows” wasn’t about Michael’s performance exclusively, his was still a very prominently featured segment).

Unfortunately, my mention of Spike Lee’s Off the Wall will have to be a brief one for now. We don’t have Showtime at our house, and while I am aware that there are a few sites providing free streaming, I don’t especially trust those as I’ve had the misfortune of picking up computer viruses from many of those sites in the past. Thus, I am setting my sights on February 26 when the doc is available in stores for purchase, and I’m sure I will be writing more on it once I’ve seen it for myself.

mjHowever, judging by the overwhelming response on social media, it seems no one has had anything but praise for this documentary. What’s more, the overwhelming  praise from fans has been equally matched by overwhelming critical praise, and that is always a good thing. “Off the Wall” era is an intriguing one for many reasons, but namely, as the era in which we saw the official transformation of Michael Jackson from child star and member of The Jackson 5/Jacksons to adult superstardom. Judging from every review I have read, the film beautifully captures this important epoch of Michael’s career.

Spike Lee has said that both the Bad 25 and Off the Wall films are part of a planned trilogy that will also include Thriller. I think it was an interesting approach to actually BEGIN the series with the two albums that were somewhat overshadowed by this behometh that fell in between them. However, all three albums collectively represent the “Holy Trinity” of Michael’s solo career in the 1980’s. The only downside for me is that choosing to focus on those three albums exclusively only seems to confirm a cliched’ belief held by many that these three albums represent not only the pinnacle of Michael’s career and commercial success, but also of his artistry as well (it also somewhat reinforces the myth that Michael’s artistry and commercial success spiraled downhill without Quincy Jones at the helm). This was sadly reinforced for me when I saw a media headline promoting the Off the Wall documentary as “Michael Jackson Before He Was Weird.” Don’t get me wrong, I love these albums and am all for their being celebrated and appreciated as the brilliant achievements they are. They are well deserving of all the critical acclaim. But considering that Spike Lee was the director of Michael’s monumental “They Don’t Care About Us” short film, and considering that song’s increasing political reawakening in this era of Black Lives Matter, I would really hope that at some point he would want to do something to put the spotlight on Michael’s later works, which despite a slowly turning critical tide still remain vastly underrated works in his canon. Michael’s youthful achievements in music have already been lauded with acclaim and recognition, while critical appreciation of Dangerous, HIStoryBlood on the Dance Floor and Invincible lag far behind. They all  remain vastly uncharted territory in the overall scope of Michael’s career achievements. As you can probably tell, I’m not really a happy camper with the idea of the “trilogy.” I feel if they’re going to do this thing, do it right and go all the way by including all of the albums of Michael’s solo career.

Having gotten that bit off my chest, I am still very happy that we have this film and it has indeed been gratifying to read all of the glowing reviews. I will look forward to being able to add my own voice to that chorus in another week or so.

Greatest Superbowl Halftime Shows:

Michael Jackson, Master "Game Changer"
Michael Jackson, Master “Game Changer”

Since I didn’t get to partake in the debut of Spike Lee’s Off the Wall, I will move on to its competitor-the special I did get to see-which was CBS’s tribute to “The Greatest Halftime Superbowl Shows.” But I was in for a very pleasant surprise, as what I had at first thought would be just a poor substitute for missing Off the Wall  ended up being much more than I was expecting. You see, I had assumed that this program would probably be, at best, a typical “countdown” format with fleeting glimpses of all the halftime performances from the past twenty-three years. in which I might catch, at best, a few token seconds of Michael’s seminal 1993 performance. But the show turned out to be much more. Instead of trying to cram in two decades’ worth of memorable performances, the producers wisely opted for a different approach, carefully selecting a chosen few performances-the best of the best-to highlight in fully fleshed out segments of 10-15 minutes each. Michael’s performance was featured about thirty minutes into the two hour special. They credited him fully as the performer who “changed the game” when it came to Superbowl halftime shows. He was fully credited as the one who conceptualized what was essentially a new script for what a Superbowl halftime show could be. The editing job was perfect, allowing viewers to get a sense of the full spectrum of his performance, from the drama of his onstage entry to that grand, climactic spectacle of “Heal the World” at the end. I loved that the narration proclaimed him as “The Game Changer” at the exact moment when the footage showed that beautiful scene of him standing still at center stage, a baton in hand, the setting sunlight striking his face, right at the moment before he proceeded to lead the children’s choir into singing “Heal the World.” They couldn’t have timed it more perfectly, or accurately.superbowl3

And although all of the performances highlighted were entertaining and moving in their own way (besides Michael, I would have to tie the bid for second place between Prince’s glorious rain soaked rendition of “Purple Rain” and U2’s emotional tribute to 9/11 victims) it served to remind us of what was so special and unique about Michael’s performance. Not only was he the first real superstar act to perform at half time, but he also blazed that trail with practically every disadvantage against him. In those days, the Superbowl was played during the daytime. Up to that point, the halftime shows had been mostly non spectacular performances featuring Disney characters and marching bands-the kind of bland fare that is usually suited for being performed at midday. This was a tradition that was still in effect when Michael Jackson first took the Superbowl halftime stage in 1993. Later performers would have the advantage of being able to go on after dark, on a much larger and far grander stage, replete with all of the lighting effects and razzamatazz spectacle that comes with a multi million dollar budget to spend on all the extravagant bells and whistles that any performer desires. Michael was forced to perform in less than spectacular daylight, on a stage that looked little bigger than those used typically at a low budget outdoor festival, with noticeably scaled back lighting and pyro effects than what audiences usually saw at his concerts. Thus, compared to many of the performances that came later, Michael’s seemed relatively stripped down and lacking in what we might call-for lack of a better phrase-“bling power.” This was never more apparent to me than while watching this show and seeing the actual evolution of the halftime shows from the relatively modest setup that Michael was provided to the huge budget extravaganzas of the last few years.

Michael's Superbowl Stage Set-Up Was Relatively Modest and Low Scale Compared To What Later Performers Would Have.
Michael’s Superbowl Stage Set-Up Was Relatively Modest and Low Scale Compared To What Later Performers Would Have.
But He Used His Own Imagination To Create A Grand Spectacle. According To The Program, These Were All Michael's Own Ideas That Were Executed.
But He Used His Own Imagination To Create A Grand Spectacle. According To The Program, These Were All Michael’s Own Ideas That Were Executed.

However, this fact really only adds to his achievement. That Michael Jackson managed to create a seminal, “game changing” performance that even today still ranks among the Superbowl’s Greatest performances (in fact, the #1 rated Superbowl performance according to many polls) despite these drawbacks is a testament to the power of his artistry. It is also a testament to the timelessness of his artistry.

And I couldn’t help but find it amusing when they were commenting on the Janet Jackson debacle of 2004, which resulted in a desire to return to “safe” territory the following year with Sir Paul McCartney. They actually lumped Michael in with the “safe” performers, stating that “You have the safe performers like Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, and then you have those who are a risk.” I assume they meant “safe” in the sense of being guaranteed to draw huge numbers (as opposed to the risk of then relatively unknown acts like Bruno Mars) but the irony was that Michael was as “dangerous” as they came; it’s just that he was much more slick about it than most. I doubt, for example, that many actually realized just how subtley militant his Superbowl performance actually was.

Michael Jackson A "Safe" Superbowl Performer? Only If One Missed The Subtle Cues...Or Did They?
Michael Jackson A “Safe” Superbowl Performer? Only If One Missed The Subtle Cues…Or Did They?

Maybe he was “safe” in the sense that he never had a wardrobe malfunction on live TV-but, hey, you never knew when you might get a totally spontaneous crotch grab! (Besides, I have always thought that the Superbowl gave Janet a raw deal. I believe that the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” was just that-an accident. And it ticks me off to no end that Justin Timberlake, who was the one to actually pull her strap, has somehow escaped the taint of that incident). However, Michael’s message has not been lost on his successors, and Beyonce paid a very visible tribute to his Superbowl performance in her own performance which capped off the weekend.

Keely Meagen, who does a wonderful blog called Dare To Rise Up We Can Change The World, asked me to share this piece she has written about the occasion, which also discusses how Michael’s triumphant Superbowl performance may have, in fact, played its own role in the downward spiral of hell he was about to be plunged into:

Have you heard? Beyoncé’s globally-televised, in-your-face reclaiming of Black women’s power is rattling the cages of privilege.

rsz_1beyonce_photo 400

I’ve been haunted all week by Beyoncé’s searing video “Formation” and Super Bowl performance. And I’ve been dismayed by ridiculous reactions from the likes of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who claimed Beyoncé “attacked” the police. I guess he means that like the unarmed kids who’ve been killed for “attacking” cops with imaginary guns. It’s quite a stretch, you know. But lets shine the light back on Beyoncé for a moment.

The superstar’s fierce performance is a huge shift after years of public but more quiet support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Professor Jannell Hobson says,

“That her “Formation” choreography made an appearance during the halftime show at the Super Bowl—replete with 30 black women backup dancers clad in Black-Panther style leather and berets while Beyoncé herself channeled the King of Pop, sporting a jacket similar to the one he wore during his Superbowl performance—demonstrates that the pop star is seriously grappling with the power and clout she now has to raise up the power and magic of black life.”

It’s thrilling to see Beyoncé following in Michael Jackson’s’s footsteps, wielding that power and clout to transform the world. Black women’s leadership is essential to the success of any attempt to pry open the door to justice and equality in the U.S., so I am celebrating her action. I imagine Michael’s spirit must also be celebrating Beyoncé and delighting in the nods to him and other Black activists.

But I also imagine that Michael’s spirit is concerned for Beyoncé’s safety, given the violent history of backlash against Black luminaries, including the surge of attacks against Michael after his profoundly political Super Bowl performancein 1993. On that stage, his messages in “Black or White”, “We Are the World” and “Heal the World” moved deep into the heart of conservative America and were broadcast live in 120 countries.

Michael Jackson’s Post-Super-Bowl Hell

Just seven months after that stunning performance, Michael was charged with molesting a child, kicking off a firestorm of increasingly unanimous media condemnation, ridicule and attempts to destroy his life and legacy. In 2014, journalist and former White House media official D. B. Anderson wrote:

What happened to Jackson for his politics was so much worse than losing sales. For in speaking truth to power, Jackson made himself a target, and he took a pounding. The worst shots at him were taken by a white district attorney in California who pursued him relentlessly for 12 years and charged him with heinous crimes that were utterly disproved at trial.

No one ever seems to connect the dots: A very vocal, very influential, very wealthy black man was taken down by a white prosecutor on trumped-up charges.

Here are a few more dots: the press that vilified Jackson is owned by the one percent (five corporations control 95 percent of the U.S. press). And that one percent has a financial interest in perpetuating Katrina-like disasters (cheap real estate!), incarcerating of youth of color (private, for-profit prisons!), and maintaining structural racism (justified unequal treatment means lower wages for everyone!). The invisibility of structural racism (for white people) also keeps Blacks and whites fighting each other, instead of turning against that tippy top segment of American wealth and power.

These connecting dots lead me to believe that the one percent not only felt threatened by Michael’s successful efforts to change the world, they also worked behind the scenes to take him down, and will attempt to do the same to others who threaten their interests.

High profile artists appear to believe this as well. D. B. Anderson traced the celebrity silence around Ferguson to the backlash Michael Jackson endured for his political stance.

Buffering Beyonce and #Formation

Beyoncé has courageously blown the lid off of that silence. Hallelujah! And, unfortunately, she could now be in the same vulnerable position Michael was in after his performance. Foaming at the mouth is already under way on Fox news and social media, and God knows where else. (Check out Saturday Night Live’s “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black”)

Those of us who have looked closely at Michael’s life can understand better than most the potential danger in this powerful moment.

But when I look at the video, I realize Beyoncé learned a lot from Michael’s experience. The visual references to Voodoo spiritual practices and powerful women from that tradition create a vibrant “Don’t Fuck With Me” message. (Voodoo comes out of West African spiritual practices and tends to scare the shit out of white people). She seems fully capable of protecting herself, doubly so with the powerful Black women joining her in formation.

Here’s more good news: Michael’s fans have already proven their ability to squash media tsunamis. After his death, the press had to shut up and eat crow when faced with the groundswell of L.O.V.E. and  demands that he be honored and respected. So Beyoncé can protect herself, and we can help protect her space for creating and expressing herself, thanking her the way The King of Pop would want us to.

We all have different access to power, money, time and media, I am particularly calling on white fans like me to use what we have to make a difference. As a progressive, low-income writer, here are things that I think of for myself: writing blogs, social media comments, and letters to the editor; calling advertisers on offensive media; talking with people around me; donating to and attending #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations (because it is not just Beyoncé’s life and freedom of speech that matters).

Now and in the critical months to come, let’s create a buffer formation, and show that we will not tolerate the disrespect of another courageous Black superstar. I invite you to share your thoughts and ideas below.

Her commentary is especially interesting (perhaps even disturbing) considering CBS’s ironic attempt now, two decades later, to label him as one of the Superbowl’s “safe” performers. One has to wonder why the Superbowl apparently never invited him for an encore performance, as they have with almost all of the other famous luminaries of the tradition, including Beyonce herself. My guess is that it would be precisely because Michael Jackson, post 1993, had ceased to be that “safe” performer they desired.

superbowl7

However, although I could easily turn this into a bitter rant, I really do want to keep it positive, and I think what we need to take away from any reflection of the past few weeks is that we have seen a remarkable tide of positive energy surrounding Michael’s name and legacy. Even the Joseph Fiennes casting fiasco has, as I said, produced a positive result in at least creating a united front of justifiable outrage against it. As history has taught us,  positive change can only arise when there is something negative to react against-and if history is any indication, good can occasionally trump the bad.

And since this will likely be my last post of February, it seems a fitting closure for Black History Month 2016 to reflect  on the various ways in which Michael’s achievements have been celebrated this month. Of course, Michael Jackson’s achievements are much too vast to ever be contained to one obligatory month; a month that gives all politically correct, white privileged persons a chance to pat themselves smugly on the back. His life continues to be an inspiration to all black children born in America, every day of the week; every month of every passing year.

No amount of “whitewashing” will ever change that.

 

 

 

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!”