Am I the Beast You Visualized?: The Cultural Abuse of Michael Jackson

 

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Article by Joe Vogel, discussion questions and teacher notes by Barbara Kaufmann

We have heard the point made over and over these past few weeks: It is not Michael Jackson that is on trial; it is Dr. Conrad Murray. But, of course, we know the reality. This is the “Michael Jackson Death Trial.” He is, as he always was, the main event, the tantalizing spectacle. It is Michael Jackson who is under the microscope as we pry, one more time, through his home, his medical records, his body. And while the public at large is much more sympathetic now that Jackson has passed, he remains the subject of endless scrutiny and judgment.

Does any of it matter now that the man himself can’t feel the abuse? Should the average person even care whether a “celebrity” like Jackson is treated with callousness or disregard? Projects like Voices, whose “Words and Violence” series highlights the disturbing trajectory of our social discourse, says yes. Words matter. No matter the target. Words, as we have witnessed with the recent attention on youth bullying and suicides, can lead to devastatingly tragic ends.

They can also be used to inspire and heal.

Michael Jackson knew this. In 1988, he befriended AIDS victim Ryan White, a young boy forced out of his school in Kokomo, Indiana because of relentless verbal assaults and threats of violence. Jackson, White said, made him feel normal. “[Michael] didn't care what race you were, what color you were, what was your handicap, what was your disease," recalled Ryan White’s mother, Jeanne. “[He] just loved all children.” 

Michael Jackson with Ryan White

White is one of thousands of “outsiders” to whom Jackson reached out, befriended and treated with kindness. He identified with them. He understood their pain and loneliness. He felt empathy for their struggle to live in a world that refused to accept them for who they were, whether because of illness, physical appearance, race, sexual orientation or some other reason.

Even as a young boy, Jackson possessed this sensitivity. Listen to the song, “Ben.” There is genuine pain and compassion in Jackson’s delivery (“They don’t see you as I do/ I wish they would try to”). The song can be seen as one of the first artistic statements Jackson made on behalf of the marginalized and misunderstood. Many more would follow.

Jackson’s outsider role may have begun in childhood (as there was never a time Jackson felt “normal” and never a time he was perceived as such). Yet the intensity and hostility caused by his difference grew over time. In his 1996 essay, “The Celebrity Freak: Michael Jackson’s Grotesque Glory,” David Yuan argued that Michael Jackson was the defining “freak” of our time. No other public figure in the world evoked the same level of ridicule, scrutiny and hyper-interrogation. As early as 1985, Jackson was being labeled “Wacko Jacko” by the tabloids, a term he despised. In the press, he was frequently described as “bizarre,” “weird,” and “eccentric.” Indeed, there was very little he said or did from the mid-1980s forward that wasn’t described in these terms by the media.

Jackson was mocked incessantly for his skin disorder, Vitiligo, which most people didn’t believe was real until it was confirmed definitively in his autopsy. He was mocked for his love of animals; for his love of children; for his love of the planet. He was mocked for his marriages, for his three kids, for his Neverland home. He was mocked for his sexuality, his voice, his childlike behavior. Even reviews of his music couldn’t resist filling up the majority of the space with pseudo-psychoanalysis and personal assaults. Can there be any doubt that this treatment by the media and culture at large was abusive?

Certainly the victim of these dehumanizing attacks felt that way. Listen to the lyrics of his songs. In “Tabloid Junkie” he describes the mass media as “parasites” sucking the life out of him, while drugging/distracting the general public with a steady dose of sensationalism. In “Stranger in Moscow” he is an artist in exile, used up and spit out by his native country. “I was wanderin’ in the rain,” he sings from the lonely role of vagabond, “Mask of life/ Feeling insane.”

In “Scream” he is so weary of being bullied, he pleads, “Oh brother, please have mercy ‘cause I just can’t take it.” The song, however, also serves as a vehicle of strength and resolve (“Kickin’ me down/ I got to get up”). Michael and sister Janet deliver a fierce counterblow to a system they rightfully see as corrupt and unjust. “You’re sellin’ out souls,” Janet sings in one verse, “but I care about mine.” It is a defiant song about standing up to cruelty, even when the pain and indignation is so deep it can only be expressed in a guttural scream.

In numerous songs, Jackson uses his music as a rallying call for others who have been mistreated. In “They Don’t Care About Us,” he witnesses for the disenfranchised and demeaned. “Tell me what has become of my rights,” he sings, “Am I invisible because you ignore me?” “Little Susie” draws attention to the plight of the neglected and abandoned, telling the story of a young girl whose gifts go unnoticed until she is found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her home (“Lift her with care,” Jackson sings, “Oh, the blood in her hair”); “Earth Song” offers an epic lamentation on behalf of the planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants (represented by the choir’s passionate shouts, “What about us!”). Through such songs (as well as through his life and persona), Jackson became a sort of global representative of the “Other.”

The mass media, however, never held much regard for Jackson’s other-ness, just as they held little regard for the “others” he spoke of in his songs. Rather, they found a narrative that was simple and profitable—Jackson as eccentric “freak”—and stuck with it for nearly three decades, gradually upping the stakes.

Perhaps Jackson’s most compelling response to the public perception of him that resulted comes in his trio of late Gothic songs: “Ghosts,” “Is It Scary,” and “Threatened.” It is here that Jackson holds a mirror up to the society that scorns him and asks it to look at its own grotesque reflection. “Is it scary for you!” he demands. The songs, and their accompanying visual representations, are not only keenly self-aware, they demonstrate a shrewd understanding of the toxic forces that surround and haunt him. 

from the film, Ghosts

In the short film, Ghosts, the Mayor of Normal Valley (a conservative figure of authority inspired, in part, by Santa Barbara District Attorney, Tom Sneddon) taunts Jackson’s character: “Freaky boy! Freak! Circus freak.” Interestingly, it is Jackson himself (disguised as the Mayor) that delivers these words, and one can feel the way they have been internalized. They are slurs intended to mark, marginalize and humiliate (which was ultimately the purpose of the witch hunts of 1993 and 2005). For the Mayor, Jackson’s presence in the community is intolerable. It is not that Jackson has done any harm; it is simply that he is different and that difference is threatening.

In such artistic expressions, Jackson clearly recognizes what is being done to him. He is being defined by outside forces. He is a phantom they have constructed in their own minds. As he sings in “Is It Scary,” “If you wanna see/ Eccentric oddities I’ll be grotesque before your eyes.” He will be grotesque, in other words, because that is what the public “wants to see.” It is how they have been conditioned to see. Later in the song, he anticipates his audience’s reactions, asking: “Am I amusing you/ Or just confusing you/ Am I the beast you visualized?” Has he become something less than human? Why is this? Is it his physical appearance? His ambiguous identity? His unusual life story? There is no question Michael Jackson was different. The question is why this “difference” incited such fervent disparagement and abuse.

One of the remarkable qualities of Jackson’s life and work, however, is that he refuses to compromise his “difference.” He never becomes “normal,” as the term is represented by, say, the Mayor of Normal Valley. He doesn’t conform to expectations. Rather, he is true to himself and flaunts his unique, multi-faceted identity, to the frustration of those who would like him to fit in more predictable boxes. His differences, as Susan Fast notes, were “impenetrable, uncontainable, and they created enormous anxiety. Please be black, Michael, or white, or gay or straight, father or mother, father to children, not a child yourself, so we at least know how to direct our liberal (in)tolerance. And try not to confuse all the codes simultaneously.”

Even over two years after his tragic passing, it seems, many people don’t know what to make of Michael Jackson. He is reduced, therefore, to easy labels like “drug addict.” A picture of his lifeless body is callously plastered on news sites. It is cruel, abusive behavior masquerading as “normal.” Perhaps this is why Jackson chose the medium of the Gothic to fight back. It was a way to turn the tables, to symbolically represent the world as it often felt to him: monstrous and grotesque. His “horror stories” certainly weren’t intended merely to entertain.

“Freaks are called freaks,” observed author James Baldwin, “and are treated as they are treated – in the main, abominably – because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.” Yet as much as Jackson became the symbolic magnet onto which many of these cultural anxieties were projected, he was also an actual person trying to live his life. Toward the end of “Is It Scary” he explains, “I’m just not what you seek of me,” before revealing to the compassionate listener: “But if you came to see/ The truth, the purity/ It’s here inside a lonely heart/ So let the performance start!”

Ironically, it is in the “performance” of his art that we find “the truth, the purity.” This is where he exorcizes his demons, where his anguish is transfused into creative energy. This is where the walls come down and the mask comes off. To the outside world, he may be a spectacle, a caricature, a freak; but here, finally, inside his music, he bares his soul. He is a human being.

The question is: What do we see?

 

Bibliography

“Ryan White’s Mother Remembers Michael Jackson.” CBS News. July 8, 2009.

James Baldwin, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Playboy. January 1985.

Fast, Susan. “Difference That Exceeded Understanding: Remembering Michael Jackson. Popular Music and Society. Vol. 33, no. 2. May 2010.

Yuan, David. “The Celebrity Freak: Michael Jackson’s ‘Grotesque Glory,’ ” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Edited by Rosemarie Thomson (New York: New York University, 1998), 368–384.

JOSEPH VOGEL is the author of three books, including the highly-anticipated Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson . He writes about popular music and culture for The Huffington Post and PopMatters. Vogel has written several exclusive pieces on Michael Jackson, including the first U.S. review of the posthumous album, Michael, and the groundbreaking monograph, Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus. He currently resides in New York where he is a doctoral candidate and instructor at the University of Rochester.

 

Discussion Questions

Word Play for Power

During the Conrad Murray trial for manslaughter, the media coined the label “Michael Jackson Death Trial;” What is the purpose for the distinction? Is the distinction deliberate? Is it a misrepresentation? Why or why not?

Conrad Murray is the person who was on trial for manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson. Murray used a potent anesthetic medication normally used only in a hospital or similar clinical setting, did not provide standard monitoring and emergency equipment, did not properly monitor his patient, did not promptly call 911, did not properly administer CPR, and withheld critical information from physicians in the emergency department of UCLA Medical Center. Murray has been accused of causing the death of his one patient on June 25, 2009 yet Michael Jackson’s drug use, personal habits, professional goals, past behaviors and relationships have been discussed. He has been called an addict when much of the evidence presented supports non-addict behavior. For example, many drugs found at bedside were unused over long periods of time indicating if anything, Jackson was non drug compliant. Did they place a dead man—Michael Jackson on trial?

Discuss how you feel about the practice of putting the dead on trial. Discuss how and why that might happen and how you feel about it. Discuss what evidence is justified. Are “the rules” for certain people in society different than for others? Which people? Why? How do you feel the dead should be treated in our culture? Are they treated that way? Why or why not? Should it be different for people with a public platform? Why or why not?

Is justice the same for someone who is rich and famous as it is for someone who is not? Why do you believe that? Is that an opinion you have formed yourself or has someone informed you of it and you adopted it for your own. Do you have any firsthand experience that supports your viewpoint? Please explain.

To Kill by Mocking Word

Have you ever heard of a whole culture mocking a particular individual? Why would one person ever be singled out? What do you think caused the culture to target Michael Jackson?

What purpose does “labeling” someone serve? Why do we often “categorize” people? What is meant by the term “easy label?” What “unease” does an easy label address or mitigate? Where does the obvious discomfort come from? Is easy labeling an attempt to ease discomfort? For what reason or purpose?

What is meant by “making other” or what has been called “otherizing” people? What motivates the impulse to “otherize” someone? What results from making people “other?” What happens when “making other” or “otherizing” is taken to extremes? Is there a danger in that? What is the danger? Can you give examples?

The Ugly Isms

You have probably heard the term “tribalism.” Explain what is meant by “tribalism?” When a culture or society adopts “tribalism” as a way of life, what is the result? Is “tribalism” used to justify violence toward others? Can you give examples? Does tribalism impede or damage the growth and maturity of an evolving culture or society? If so, how? Discuss how “humane” interaction and “humanity” might be impacted by tribalism. Does tribalism create gain or loss? What gains? What losses?

Racism is an example of extreme “otherizing.” Negros were introduced to the American culture as slaves. Runaway, disobedient or culturally offending Negros were lynched for even minor offenses to societal law. Michael Jackson was born into a racist society. Were there elements of racism in what happened to Michael Jackson and how he was treated? Why do you say that? “Lynching” was a very public punishment used for offending Black people: the person’s hands were tied behind their back and they were hung by the neck until dead in the public square—often left hanging for days. The men’s genitals were hacked off and left on the ground. What part did dehumanizing play in those practices? Why use dehumanizing methods? Why do you suppose genitals were deliberately mutilated? Does any of that have relevance to what happened to Michael Jackson?

The Artist and the Gift

It is said that genius is rarely recognized in its own time; why is that? What happens to geniuses in their lifetimes? How does history treat them?

What about the artist? Are they usually treated kindly and respectfully by their contemporaries or history? Are artists sometimes deliberately provocative? Why or why not? Is the artist sometimes mixed up or confused with the art? Discuss.

Discuss fame and what it means. Is fame rewarding? Can it be problematic? How or why? What would you expect to happen when someone becomes famous? Is there “a price to pay” for fame? Is fame dangerous? Why or why not? Would you like to have fame? Why or why not?

The term “Celebrity” is used prolifically in our society. What does “celebrity” mean? Does our culture celebrate celebrity? People seem to love to see a celebrity’s meteoric rise to fame yet revels in their eventual fall from grace or glory with the same or even more glee. What is that in human nature? Discuss.

The cult of celebrity gives the public the illusion of intimacy with the “Stars” via monitoring and reporting their every move. This faux intimacy gives the illusion that the star is known personally, that they owe the public their private lives including: private moments, private thoughts, family relationships and dealings, medical condition and records, and an ageless timeless and flawless persona and performance. Is that fair? Is it justified? What kind of pressures does that place on an individual? Is there a consequence for delivering disappointment to an audience? What is it? Do artists and celebrities owe us (the public, constituency, fans, etc.) something? Why or why not? Discuss what might be behind the cult of celebrity. Is it harmless? Why or why not? What distinguishes the “celebrity” from the average person? How might the culture be different if everyone cherished themselves with the same fervor as celebrities? What if everyone was a “celebrity” in their own right?

Is an artist’s gift voluntary? Does the consumer of the gift have rights to the gift? If so what are they? Do they have a right to criticize, to demand more? Does the constituency “own” the gift? Or “own” the artist? What is meant by “fan?” Do fans have rights to the artist? To make demands? To know private and intimate details? Do fans become unreasonable or go too far? If so, when and how? Do fans endanger artists? How? Is being a “fan” healthy? Unhealthy? How? Do people become fans for different reasons? Discuss some of the reasons people become fans.

Does fame attract envy? Jealousy? When someone is a “celebrity” are they entitled to privacy or not? Have you ever identified or been enamored of a celebrity? If you became a celebrity how might your life change? How might it impact your life to be considered the most famous man or woman in the world? What would you gain? What would you lose?

If you were the most famous person in the world and were the cultural “darling” and icon and overnight you suddenly became the cultural monster or beast, how would you cope? If you were accused of horrific crimes but were not guilty and eventually exonerated by a court of law, how would you cope in the meantime? What if you were innocent but some people still insisted you were guilty—how would that affect you? What if, because you were “different,” you were systematically ridiculed and dehumanized because you made people uncomfortable? What if people did not distinguish you from your art? What if your homeland failed to protect your civil rights and legal rights and mischaracterized you, how would you respond? Would you leave your country, your homeland? How would you feel about your country of origin? Its people? How would you cope?

Is there a lesson for society in the life story of Michael Jackson? If so, what is it? Write a 600-800 word essay with the conclusion.

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Optional Exercises

Cultural Treatment of Live People

(An experiential exercise)

Count off by fours to form groups. Give the ones and twos the label to wear: “Person” and the threes and fours, a label “Non-Person.” Have them convene in their small groups.

Give the groups some rules such as:
“Humans are to be treated with the utmost respect. They are entitled to have life, liberty, happiness and to own property and be protected by the law. They are to be addressed as “Mister or Sir” or “Miss or Ma’am,” They are to be treated with courtesy and dignity at all times.”

Non-humans may be ridiculed, dismissed, treated badly, ignored, treated as an annoyance to be tolerated but they have no real value. They may be called names such as “thing” or “animal” or “freak” and so on. They have no real rights to life or its civil liberties and may be publicly ridiculed or made invisible and irrelevant. They are never to be taken seriously or treated as equals.”

Give your groups time to role play their labels. (If they seem reluctant at first, encourage them to really get into the game. Walk around and role play for them by saying something like “Hey you thing: stop slouching; sit up straight. No smiling. Keep your mouth closed—you have nothing important to say!”) They will catch on.

After a time have them take off their label and pass it to the opposite role. (Humans become non-humans, non-persons become persons.) Give them the same amount of time to role play.

Convene the entire group in a circle to discuss the results.

Some discussion questions might be:

  1. How did you feel being a Person? A Non-person? Were you able to get into the role? Was the exercise uncomfortable for you? At first? Later? IF it became more comfortable for you over time, what is the significance of that?
  2. When you switched roles, how did that feel? Did you have feelings of “getting even” for how you were treated? What happened?
  3. What did you learn from this exercise? What conclusions did you come to? How does this exercise apply to real life? Discuss role play and how it fits into society. Do you play any roles? What are they? Are they helpful or hurtful? Beneficial or detrimental? Can you change a role you play? How? Can people be “groomed” or conditioned to play accept or play certain roles? How?
  4. What part did empathy and compassion play in this exercise? What about indifference or cruelty? What is more nourishing for human beings? What part does self esteem, respect, dignity, humanity play in the roles we assume in real life?

Cultural Treatment of the Dead

(An experiential exercise)

Break into groups of 4 and discuss" this question:

"What can be done in a culture to ensure that the dead are respected after death? Are there guidelines that should be followed? If so, what guidelines? Who decides? How are these implemented or enforced?"

In your groups of 4, divide up and debate for from these positions (Time limits are to be determined to fit the situation; students may be given a time period to research and prepare for the debate in advance.)

Person 1: The dead should be respected. They are not here to defend themselves and should be spoken of with respect. Graves, mausoleums, cemeteries are sacred grounds. Defiling a grave is a cultural taboo, Defiling a dead person is the same thing.

Person 2: The dead are gone and have no rights. It's the living that should be respected. Too often we disrespect or violate those who are still alive. Since dead people have no rights, anything may be said about them with impunity.

Person 3: Everybody is fair game. Nothing should be held as sacred. Respect has nothing to do with death; the living need to earn respect. If you play, you pay and that goes for everybody.

Person 4: A civilized culture needs to have mores and guidelines for behaviors. "Anything goes" is uncivil and detrimental to a culture. Both the living and the dead are entitled to respect.

Then have everyone drop their position and take on another position and continue the debate from the new position. You may change only once or have students debate from all four positions.

When the time period allotted is ended and the debates concluded, student groups will write guidelines for a civil society in the treatment of the living and the dead.

These guidelines from each group may be shared and discussed with the whole classroom and a final list of acceptable guidelines for a civil society will be developed by consensus or majority.

Note to teachers:

[These exercises may be modified according to age groups in middle school, high school and undergraduate programs. Voices Education Project welcomes scripted modifications and adaptations from teachers who modify materials to suit a diversity of ages and groups. We welcome any and all suggestions at Voices that contribute to the efficacy of the “Words and Violence” Program. And we welcome feedback and essays about results.]

 

 

Reverend Kaufmann is a award winning writer, poet and author.  She is a member of the Wisconsin Society of Sciences, Arts and Letters, a member of Wisconsion Regional Writers, and Fellowship of Poets.  See her complete description in the Writers, Designers and Contributors section of Words and Violence.