And thirty dozen moons with borrow’d sheen
About the world have times twelve thirties been…
—The Player King, Shakespeare, Hamlet III.ii
James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sam and Dave, the O’Jays—they all used to really work an audience. I might have learned more from watching Jackie Wilson than from anyone or anything else. All of this was a very important part of my education. We would stand offstage, behind the curtains, and watch everyone come off after performing and they’d be all sweaty. I’d just stand aside in awe and watch them walk by. And they would all wear these beautiful patent-leather shoes. My whole dream seemed to center on having a pair of patent-leather shoes. I remember being so heartbroken because they didn’t make them in little boys’ sizes. I’d go from store to store looking for patent-leather shoes and they’d say, “We don’t make them that small.” I was so sad because I wanted to have shoes that looked the way those shoes looked, polished and shining, turning red and orange when the lights hit them. Oh, how I wanted some patent-leather shoes like the ones Jackie Wilson wore.
—Michael Jackson, Moonwalk
The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, edited by Mark Fisher, is often a fantastic book, with essays whose sophistication and complex interengagement are nicely captured—if I can stick to the surface, which is what I’m going to try doing throughout this post—by Laura Oldfield Ford’s cover image: not, as it may initially seem, a familiar splitting juxtaposition of the beautiful face of a very young Michael Jackson with the face of the older man, but rather an assemblage of surfaces (hints of the Invincible cover, the Thriller cover, the famous 2003 mugshot) which seem neither at ease with themselves nor capable of fitting together into any whole that exceeds the sum: anxious slicing dimensionality. The tenth piece in the book, Chris Roberts’ witty fantasy “True enough: Michael in fifty shards,” and the final (very different) piece, Ian Penman’s “Notes toward a ritual exorcism of the dead king,” both similarly exemplify in miniature the kind of collage aesthetic that gives the book its concentrated energy: here are 24 perspectives on, e.g., Michael and Elvis and late pop/rock sovereignty, Michael and Beyoncé and the metonymies of commodification, Michael and Stalin and Soviet nostalgia, Michael and utopia and Greil Marcus’s racism, Michael and Janet and digitization.
One complaint about perspective, though: the book could have benefited from more of them, coming from more writers who were not white and male; I have to say that toward the end I was getting the uncomfortable feeling of a boys’ club sitting in judgment on Michael-Jackson-as-(feminized-)boy, and an association of mostly white folks discussing the perceived deviation from normative blackness that Michael Jackson performed. I don’t mean these reactions of mine were always directly precipitated by the content of the essays themselves—but sometimes they were. Consider one example from Penman’s frequently amazing, hallucinatory final essay (a text capable of, for example, condensing most of what I was trying to say about the last 15 years in my post on “Jam” into a single line: “The seductive jouissance of total anxiety” ). This is how Penman deals with rumors that the late Michael Jackson had converted to Islam, and that in Saudi Arabia near the end of his life he wore a burqa and used women’s public lavatories:
If these burka-in-a-rest-room rumors were true … what was that? A last way of testing out if he was still beyond human law? ‘I’m Michael: I can do what I want’? Or childish drugged-up prank? Or evidence of a man toppled over into serious pathology?
It’s true that the thought or the image of Michael Jackson wearing a burqa, inside or outside a public lavatory, presents an overwhelming amount to unpack—which Penman doesn’t really try to do, and which I can’t hope to do here. But suffice it to say that, first, this passage is not entirely free of the kind of misogynist Islamophobia that leads Christopher Hitchens to become furious at the sight of a veiled woman, features hidden from his gaze, and to rail astonishingly about his “right to see your face”; and, second, that there are simply some interpretive options that Penman doesn’t list, aren’t there? “Evidence of a man toppled over into serious pathology”? What about evidence of a person who was, in spite of what the world thought and what the world continually said, in spite of the male pronouns we all continue to use for want of an obviously proffered alternative, not “a man”? I don’t say this out of any positive desire to situate Michael Jackson as someone who needs to be “claimed for the transgender community,” which would itself be an extremely problematic move. (For a lovely discussion locating trans possibilities in the specific register of (Michael’s) voice, though, see this essay by Francesca Royster.) I would just say that one conceivable response to Penman’s sensationalizing “what was that?” would be: well, that was the case of a person who had, indeed, converted to Islam, and who wanted privacy in Saudi Arabia, and whose gender identity was, indeed, such that it made sense to wear a burqa and to use “women’s public lavatories,” OK? Moments like these—when I didn’t think it was only a fan’s defensiveness that had me convinced a more sensitive attention to questions of privilege and subject position would have helped—were scattered throughout my experience of the book.
But this isn’t really meant to be a review of Fisher’s collection, which I might have more thoughts on later. What I’m hoping to do briefly is rather to use the insights from a couple of the essays in The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson as a way of glossing one feature of the book’s textual surface. Skim along that surface and you’ll find the same word interestingly recurring at similar moments: when the writers here want to describe some quality that dramatically sets Michael Jackson’s music apart, makes it recognizable as Michael, they talk about sheens. Here are four passages—from, respectively, Fisher himself, Paul Lester, Steven Shaviro, and David Stubbs—quoted both to offer a glimpse of the consistent quality of the writing on display here, and to provide some contextual sense:
“Billie Jean” is not only one of the best singles ever recorded, it is one of the greatest art works of the twentieth century, a multi-leveled sound sculpture whose slinky, synthetic panther sheen still yields up previously unnoticed details and nuance nearly thirty years on (14).
Musically, the symphonic disco of Off The Wall was his peak. We’d never heard anything so lavish, it was like Philly soul magnified and multiplied and given an unholy perfect sheen (18).
The modulations of Michael’s voice, the sinuous movements of his dancing, the way that his musical arrangements took disco and R&B and gave them both a smoothness and a slightly alien sheen, so subtly that one could say with equal justice that the sharp edges of mournful or joyous black expression had been “mainstreamed,” or that the very “mainstream” itself had been alluringly or insidiously carried away, exposed to a strange new metamorphosis, allowed to blossom into a new aestheticized state in which pop crassness had itself become a rare, almost Wildean, delicacy (56).
Bathed in the humid, artificial twilight of the urban west coast, [“Human Nature”] is a thing of unnatural beauty, with Jackson’s vocal shiver arousing an electric frisson across the skin of the song, and the sheen of the ’80s production triggering the sort of ecstatic, self-perpetuating, hall of mirrors effect later brought to a high shine on Scritti Politti’s Cupid and Psyche ’85 (74).
As maybe the third excerpt from Shaviro best demonstrates, “sheen” is inherently uncanny and implicitly calls self-presence into question: when a thing is given a sheen, just what’s happening? Is it only being given attention, worked on, allowed to shine in its thingness? Or is something “slightly alien” always being added, even “insidiously”? (This is all complicated further when what’s in question is the disembodied body of a sound recoding.) “Sheen” has a common etymology with “shine” (linked to the German scheinen, “to seem”) and is first seen as a noun, rather than an adjective, in those lines spoken by the Player King—that eerie artificer of affect, narrating the poisonous demise of his own feigned sovereignty—from Hamlet. To describe the radiance that the moon borrows from the sun, Shakespeare’s text borrows the word for that borrowing and reifies it. And in these four passages on Michael Jackson “sheen” acts transitively, pointing at the same time to a certain sonic effect associated with pop styles of the late 70s and the early 80s—or, more precisely, with the shift from “the 70s” to “the 80s,” something Michael Jackson and his team seem to apply to, or bring more to the surface of, a preexisting musical object or sound-commodity —and to something else, reflected or refracted outward from the songs, some larger quality or set of qualities (synthetic? Wildean? ecstatic? unholy? unnatural?) that Michael Jackson represents. We’re moving toward the language of Michael Jackson as one who shines; and in some sense that’s the clearest, most uncomplicated metaphor in the world, given that Michael Jackson is a king, a sun, a star, probably the biggest star in history. “Our bright and shining star,” Maya Angelou calls him in her elegy. Or, in the brilliant video-encomium “Michael Jackson is Shining,” Unity Lewis raps: “They wanna tear down a true black legend shining; but no matter what you say my brother Michael is shining. You talk a lot of lies about, him but we see that you’re lying. Brother Michael is shining. Brother Michael is shining.”
But that there is (of course) much more to say about Michael Jackson and shining surfaces is suggested by the way Unity’s video begins, after its Al Sharpton-narrated prologue: with the first notes of music and Unity’s assurance that this is “real real serious,” and with the image of Michael Jackson’s iconic, supernaturally radiant white socks and black shoes, spotlit and isolated in the frame, dancing their way across a stage. The literalization of metaphor here has a real real serious, richly overdetermined, effectively prophetic precedent in the video for “Billie Jean.” Which was, of course, both the most important video in the early history of MTV, and the first video by an African-American artist to be played regularly on that station; thus, an announcement that America’s new global superstar was black; thus a grand repudiation of everything represented by an infamous remark, attributed to the previous King who had died five years before: “the only thing blacks can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.” Stolen music, borrowed sheen. I was actually unaware until I started thinking about this post that the word “shine” has its own, especially horrible history as a reified noun—a racist insult, defined by the OED (in one of those entries that, you know, need to be updated) as “[a]n abusive term for a Black.” So watch Michael, one minute into this video, walking alone down a city street and lighting up the sidewalk with his feet, suddenly shifting his weight and propping his foot up on a trashcan and lightning-quick producing a tiger-striped rag (to become, at the end, a real tiger, just as Michael in “Black or White” will walk down almost the same street and become a black panther) and polishing the shoe that is his, this source of illumination, this metonym for himself and his energies, which he is using to dance Elvis off the fucking planet. Six years later, in the chapter of his book titled “Just Kids with a Dream,” he will explicate a version of this metonymy himself: “My whole dream seemed to center on having a pair of patent-leather shoes.” He will describe a doomed search for a sufficiently small pair of shiny shoes, which will begin to sound like the doomed search for a way back to childhood (there’s no place like home) that his life, read through one lens, will become.
(A footnote or shoe-note on Elvis Presley’s racism and Michael Jackson’s pedophilia: they are rather precisely analogous, right? In that each of them has by now condensed itself into an agonizingly familiar did-he-or-didn’t-he question, a little metonym (just as the slur “shine” is itself a racist-classist metonym), resisting definitive answers and also, on some level of popular consciousness, becoming almost irrelevant. Whether or not Elvis Presley ever spoke those words about the people buying his records and shining his shoes, the position he occupied in the twentieth-century United States was a position of violently maintained white privilege, and, with respect to African-American musical forms, it was an appropriative position. The shoe fits. Whether or not Michael Jackson committed acts of pederasty, had sexual relations with children, he was, of course, in the etymological sense, a pedophile: he loved children, he openly and continually professed this love. He was an adult who wanted intimacy with children who were not “his own,” in a culture that finds complicated ways of (not-)permitting such intimacy.)
So this five-second cut-up gesture from “Billie Jean” is both looking backward at lived experience and at a history of labor that is being in some way reclaimed, and looking forward at a complex future that is in so many ways dispiriting. Partly because in functioning as a metonym for Michael Jackson himself, the shining shoe is also already a symbol of the commodification of that self. The image that currently stands in for Michael Jackson on his official Facebook page is, of course, not one of a face, but a photograph of those white socks and black shoes, dazzling, poised in an unforgettable slightly slanting verticality, given the perfect, eroticized, always-disappointing sheen of the commodity, accompanied by text stating that “No will ever fill” them—and maybe the question to ask is could anyone, did anyone, ever? Two evocatively titled essays in The Resistible Demise are especially helpful for thinking about what’s involved here, in the dispersement and the becoming-product of Michael Jackson—Sam Davies’ “Glove, socks, zombies, puppets: The unheimlich maneuvers and undead metonyms of Michael Jackson,” and Mark Sinker’s “‘What about death, again’: The dolorous passion of the son of pop.” Davies views Michael’s body as a kind of Gothic assemblage, animating and dismembering itself through dance and costume in ways that prefigure performances by Beyoncé as the similarly single-gloved Sasha Fierce: Michael and Beyoncé, Davies argues, “in their sublime dancing and uncanny masks and metonyms, disclose the sheer strangeness of their own transmogrification into product” (231). (This transmogrification through detachment, again, is made fantastically literal in the “Billie Jean” video, at those other moments when Michael’s feet, lips, eyes, hands are not only filmed in closeup but actually cut out of the picture and left to stand alone against a black screen, blason-like. And for some further updates Beyoncé’s subversive engagement with processes of commodification and objectification and sublime phoniness, see Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o on her performance in the “Telephone” video, as well as Robin James on the robotic poetics of “Single Ladies”). In Sinker’s fabulous analysis of Michael’s debts to American soul music, by contrast, the essential figure for comparison is James Brown (famously a poor child who supported himself by shining shoes, latterly one of the stars who “worked an audience” and whose “polished and shining” shoes transfixed a young Michael Jackson), recognized here as a kind of artistic-cultural prophet who “combined a commodification of himself, the salesmanship of the idea of everything he was, physically and spiritually, with an establishment of his own self-ownership”—who, indeed, “learnt a lot about the limits and dignities of self-ownership that Jackson never got to find out” (176-177).
One way to end the story—I’m starting to see it more and more as a suspiciously easy ending—is to say that this never-getting-to-find out was progressively written across Michael Jackson’s face: that, rigidly schooled from the beginning in self-commodification, he worked for decades on polishing and selling the commodity, gradually attempting to standardize the product, to make it, in Steven Shaviro’s words, “generically normative: which is to say, in a white supremacist society he wanted to become white” (61). The final observation to make about the brilliantly polished shoes of the “Billie Jean” video, in this analysis, would be that their light gives Michael’s face, for a fraction of a second, an unearthly glow, a hint of the eventually permanent “hyper white” sheen described by Ian Penman: “see Michael in photos and on film and he is whiter than the white people around him. He SHINES, a malignant singularity, polarity, negative” (282).
Or it would be possible to move in two directions at once, and quote Kobena Mercer on the way shining black skin is made to function as a (white) fetish in the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and elsewhere, and to look again at the proximity of those shining shoes to sweating black bodies (“We would […] watch everyone come off after performing and they’d be all sweaty”) in the paragraph from Moonwalk, and frame the whitening of Michael Jackson’s skin over the course of decades (taken as at least partly deliberate) as a kind of hopeless resistance to commodification—which is the move gestured toward at a later moment in Penman’s essay: “Not that skin of sweat and toil and punishment and supposed reward. Rewind > rewind > rewind. Skin like daylight, like daylight and Christmas” (284). I have to acknowledge my own discomfort with where this kind of analysis leads—and, again, with the confidence displayed by some of the white writers in The Resistible Demise as they perform variations on what, after all, is by now the standard reading of Michael Jackson and his tragic “desire to become white.” The diagnosis of vitiligo is not a fact that features very prominently in this book, and it was a real diagnosis, not, I think, something obviously to be dismissed. (See the comment thread here.) But surely it says something about Jackson himself—his ubiquity, his singularity, his star power, whatever—that all these contradictory interpretations and hypotheses are so tempting. Certainly one thing The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson demonstrates is that the fascination of Michael relates to the way he seems to have of looking like a metonym for everything. His demise, and the question of its resistibility or irresistibility, only pose further questions about the distance between serving as an example and being made an example of; in this sense Michael Jackson is the shining example of shining exemplarity itself.