Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson is Dead

Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), Jeff Koons

Michael Jackson is dead.

My reaction is complicated. On Facebook my high school classmates and I are mourning Michael Jackson and sharing memories. Claudia wrote, "I remember when someone brought the Thriller video to school and there was a 'viewing' before 1st period in the auditorium....was one of the few times I wanted to get to school early." And Anissia wrote, "cannot speak right now. I will be up all night watching these new reports. Is it a dream?"And then, "woke up this morning thinking 'What a horrible nightmare,' only to turn on the news to see it is real." My classmates and I are exactly the right age to get this news like a punch in the gut. We were the kids that made Michael Jackson a superstar. Whether we liked him or not (and we liked him) Michael was an integral part of our childhoods. And his passing, especially at a relatively young age, is an unsettling reminder of our own mortality. I can close my eyes and see the auditorium Claudia mentioned, but that morning was decades ago now. It is an odd feeling.

Still, my ambivalence about Michael Jackson was best captured on Facebook by two people I did not know in High School: Mark wrote, "(I am) not sad that michael jackson the pedophile is dead... whatever". While Stacia wrote, " (I am not) happy with this two-edged sword media coverage. Can we get a *day* before ya'll whistleblow the sordidness? 24 hours, yo."

Three memories:

1. Motown 25. I think the thing that makes a person famous is often something that grabs the zeitgeist and expresses it in an overt way. So a lot of times the thing that makes someone famous is also the most banal thing about them, which isn't necessarily a bad thing: it is how teen stars are made, and also why they fade (I am talking to you, Dude With the Long Hair and Other Black Guy in the Black Eyed Peas. Invest wisely. Boom Boom Pow.) But that was not the case with Michael Jackson. I remember watching Motown 25 with my parents and when Michael performed the air in the room changed. Even they knew we were watching something important. Of course Michael had already been famous for a long time by then. Off The Wall is a great, great album (personally my favorite, even over Thriller) and of course the Jackson 5 were a legendary Motown act before that. To this day the visceral hit of joy I experience when I hear Rock With You, Don't Stop Till You Get Enough, or any of the Jackson 5 stuff (which was technically before my time if you are keeping track) is measurable. My breath changes and my pulse picks up. It is the sound of teenage happiness. But the pure pop sugar of the Jackson 5 and the percolating post-Disco of Off The Wall were a prelude to this moment. Thriller wasn't out yet, and this was the premiere of Michael's new single, Billie Jean. He took the stage and...

Motown 25. Everything that happened after that performance was different because of it.

2. I saw Michael and his brothers live in 1986, during the Victory Tour. I was way too Punk Rock by that point to be interested in the Jacksons but I worked in the offices of Universal, the record distributor (See kids, music used to be pressed into giant wax disks called "records" that were played by running a needle along the grooves, ask your parents about it) and I was literally handed tickets to the show. So I went. And a few hours later cynical, punk rock me, who was way more into the Circle Jerks than the Jacksons, found myself standing on my seat, screaming "MIIIICCCHAELLL! MIIIIICCCHHHHAEEEELL!!!!!"... just like everybody else in the stadium. I have never experienced anything like the wave of force that came over the audience when he performed. It was surreal. During Can You feel It a web of lasers splayed out over our heads, and we reached up, trying to touch them, as if they were his fingers. Michael, who was a superstar by this point, performed his solo hits, which were already iconic. The thing I remember most about Michael Jackson as a live performer was the way he paused and made us wait for him. Sometimes he would simply stop, as if he were overcome with emotion and the crowd (including me) ROARED in response. Every little hiccup, every exhale and "eee-hee" was designed to whip the audience into a frenzy... and it worked. Like Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire, it can't be described without clichés, because it was so singular.

3. Fourteen years later I was living and working at a Shakespeare theater in the Berkshire Mountains. Winter in the Berkshires is no joke and the mostly empty dorms were like the Overlook Hotel, scary and lonely. Eventually, most of the actors and Tech people left for other jobs and I spent the Winter cutting pictures out of magazines that had been left behind and gluing them to the front of the rusted refrigerator in a giant collage I called, No Girls, No TV Reception, and Too Far to Walk to the Gym. But at Halloween there were still a lot of people around so one of my roommates decided to hold a party and someone put on Thriller. By 2000, Michael Jackson was a freak and a has-been and Thriller had air quotes around it. "Omigod 'Thriller'... awesome", a few younger company members snickered from the sofa. But there must have been a critical mass of people who were the right age because, as the song built to its instrumental break everyone in the living room (including me) suddenly broke into the Thriller dance.


At exactly the same moment.

Hand to God.

The junior hipsters, for whom "awesome" means "so bad its good" spit out their beers and jumped out of the way as a roomful of dancing zombies surged toward them, grinning like maniacs. The moment passed as quickly as it came and the evening became more debauched (Theater companies are strange places, they run on sex and grudges) but for that moment it was as if it was the 80's, which were sweet and corny and hopeful, even in their darkness, all over again.

So, when I heard that Michael Jackson was dead, I was shocked. Shocked because he had long been a symbol to me, rather than a person. Partly because he represents my youth, which is passed, and partly because it became increasingly obvious that, while the music is masterful in its ability to evoke pleasure, the person who made it was disturbing to consider. So when he died yesterday I was already used to separating the music from the man, and my feelings about both. His post-Thriller music was terrible (as far as I am concerned) and his ruined face, framed by its silky weave, had become a death mask of racial self-loathing. Most importantly, Michael Jackson's name had become synonymous with child sexual abuse. He paid out millions to the families of boys who'd accused him of molestation. And, while he was acquitted, that was not a definitive vote of confidence in Jackson's innocence. In legal terms it meant that they could not prove he did it, NOT that he didn't do it. However, fans who cannot reconcile the music with the man, insist on qualifying the abuse with "alleged", a soft-pedal that angers those of us for whom sexual violence against children is a personal issue. Rape is always "alleged" and this is the uncertainty that haunts every sexual crime. In the absence of physical evidence it boils down to who you believe. Survivors know this and live with the possibility that we will not be believed, a pressure that is often brought to bear to keep us silent.

As for me, I have no doubts whatsoever that Michael Jackson was a pedophile.

I'm sure my opinion is shaped by my history as an adult survivor of child sexual abuse, but the hair splitting around Michael Jackson's appetite for young boys sickens me. Already we are being encouraged by his famous friends, associates and diehard fans to remember him only for his music, while code words like "eccentric" and "idiosyncratic" (both employed by Al Sharpton on CNN last night) are being floated to posthumously frame his behavior. I can already see how this is going to go. The discourse will split between people who dismiss the abuse as an unproven attack on the image of a great star and those who refuse to allow that to happen. I can also anticipate the ways that these arguments will become racialized too, as with OJ before him. But before those voices get too loud I want to suggest something: People are complicated, as are our responses to them. While I am disgusted by the reframing of Michael Jackson's inappropriate behavior with children as a personal foible, I understand the difficulty some have in reconciling these monstrous private acts with the public persona that brought so many so much joy. Including me. Part of what makes a great star is the ability to forge a personal relationship with fans. So maybe those who feel that connection with him cannot entertain the possibility that he acted out sexually with children.

But still.

I can't let that discomfort, or even my own nostalgia and love of his music completely overshadow my conviction that we should be talking about the sexual abuse of children when we talk about Michael Jackson. If we excuse his behavior--sleeping with young boys (which he described as "a beautiful thing", giving them alcohol, presenting himself as their peer etc.--then we are handing a defense to men who behave similarly and that is not acceptable to me.


Michael Jackson was both an iconic star and a pedophile, and these identities do not contradict each other.

And, paradoxically, Michael Jackson is an important African American star who obliterated his blackness, bleaching his skin until it was notebook paper white and thinning his nose until it... literally... disappeared.

Michael Jackson was complicated. We are also complicated. And I do not trust simplistic responses to his death.

UPDATE: This essay has been cross-posted at Racialicious.


  1. Probably the best thing I've read about him in a very long time. And I'm with you re: Off The Wall. It had all of Brooklyn rocking with him 30 years ago.

  2. Superb. I'd like to say more but I'm moved beyond words.

    Thank you for sharing this, Joseph.

  3. @Anthony
    Probably? Psych. Thanks.

    Thanks for your kind words.

  4. Great post, Joseph, as always. Michael Jackson's music got me through junior high school and would stay up late just listening to his songs.

    As for his alleged pedophilia, I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who said she followed the case very closely (she's more of a fan of his than I am), and there was no proof or evidence that he was a child molestor. I know you mentioned that, but I was also told that one of the mother's of the child went on record saying that she did not believe Michael Jackson sexually abused her child. And rather than bleaching his skin, I read that he had a skin disease called vitiligo.

    What are your thoughts? In any case, I agree that all of us are complicated. I just don't appreciate all the bashing that's going on in the media, even after his death!

  5. Jehanzeb,
    Vitiligo is a skin disease that creates mottled patches of white on the skin--it doesn't change the color of the entire skin like Albinism. African Americans who suffer from this disease typically darken the white patches to match their skin, not the other way around. It is clear that in addition to lightening his skin with bleach and/or laser treatments Jackson had many, many elective cosmetic surgeries whose cumulative effect was to to completely obliterate his blackness. So I feel comfortable asserting that Michael Jackson at the very least, had issues with his racial identity.

    As far as the charges against him are concerned I'd refer you to the Bashir documentary in which he happily describes sleeping in the same bed with young boys. Even if he never did another thing--which I have to tell you, seems very unlikely to me--that alone is enough to say that he had inappropriate contact with children.

    I don't think it counts as "bashing" to point these things out. The urgency with which we are being instructed to disregard his sexual acting out with children is very disconcerting to me.

  6. Hi Joseph,

    Thanks for your response. I wasn't saying that you were bashing Michael Jackson. I believe your post is informative, honest, and respectful (unlike what I see in the media).

    I don't know about his case as much as you do, so I appreciate the post. I guess fans should be honest too about his case and not ignore his inappropriate contact with children. And it's actually discouraging that he would bleach his skin White. That sucks if he had issues with his racial identity. :(

  7. I responded at Racialicious. I think you are spot on. Having seen sexual abuse to family members his actions and ways fell into a pattern well known to those of us who have seen it.

    I am glad you are keeping it real.