Category Archives: Personal Reflections

Our Holy Trinity of Pop Has Lost Another Jewel

Prince Has Joined Michael In Heaven. I Have Few Words Right Now. RIP.
Prince Has Joined Michael In Heaven. I Have Few Words Right Now. RIP.

You can’t be an MJ fan without having also been touched by the genius of Prince. For my generation, those of us who were so devastated when we lost our dear and magical Michael, the lone consolation was that we still had Prince. I still remember the heat of that fan based rivalry which dominated most of the 80’s. I still remember going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum and noting the irony of both Michael’s “We Are the World” jacket and Prince’s “Purple Rain” coat being displayed side by side-the temptation to play up their rivalry, it seems, could never be resisted. Thriller and Purple Rain were the two biggest albums to come out of the 80’s; no one could touch this royal pair-the King and the Prince. No one ever will. They were the two most beautiful and talented men to come out of my generation. The world for me has once again grown just another degree colder. Part of me smiles through tears at the thought that Michael must be saying, “Oh no, does this mean I gotta compete with this guy again?” Another part of me says no, they are embracing as only brothers in Heaven can.

As a tribute, I will repost again in a few days my two part series on Michael and Prince.

For now, I wish to put aside all of the rivalry nonsense and extend my heartfelt prayers and condolences to his family and fans who are now having to go through what we went though in 2009. I will write more when I can better articulate my thoughts on this. Right now it is just too soon. I want to just sit and listen to “Purple Rain” for awhile.

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.

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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.

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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.