Have a Good Time

January 11, 2016

Therese, Arthur, Curt, Carol, Brian, Tommy and Shannon

The first heavy news I got late on January 10th was that Todd Haynes’s Carol hadn’t won any Golden Globes. I felt this from the start as a frivolous sorrow, because I hadn’t expected to feel anything about the Golden Globes at all (to say nothing of more recent conversations about the Oscars). In the long last quarter of 2015, when I’d been waiting for Carol‘s wide release and almost starting to doubt its actual existence, I had even joked to a friend that when it finally came out and won all the awards and everyone was compelled to see it, the selfish teenager in me who had hoarded Velvet Goldmine, [SAFE], and Far from Heaven would harbor some resentment. Still: not a single statue. I tweeted: “it sounds as if there were bright spots but my heart goes out to anyone who sat through hours of ricky gervais to see carol win no awards.” And I’m sure it was awful, right? I wouldn’t wish that kind of defeat on anyone. But I did feel a flicker of unease for having written it that way, as if someone had died.

Evidence of omnipresence: there’s a shot in Carol that wouldn’t have meant what it did to me without David Bowie. Of course there’s no way to know what Haynes’s career would have looked like without Velvet Goldmine, or whether he would have adapted The Price of Salt. Even in a movie widely praised, though, for its scrupulous attention to aesthetic codes associated with 1950s New York, this stands out as a direct if brief self-quotation. Against a green backdrop that stands for a private space, a face appears in tight closeup, filmed from the right side, flushed, eyes directed to the bottom of the screen. Gravity is mobilized as a special effect, turning strands of brown hair into antennae that arc down and forward, toward the sign of the beloved. Twenty-four minutes into Carol, Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara, is writing in her notebook the name of the woman who just took her out to dinner for the first time: Carol Aird. Twenty-one minutes into Velvet Goldmine, an English teenager named Arthur Stuart, played by Christian Bale, is staring at a fan magazine’s photo of a kiss between two glam-rock stars, Curt Wild and Brian Slade, while he listens to Slade’s new album.

There are countless beautiful shots in Carol, but, when I first saw it, this one restaged closeup had an effect on me that was immediate and powerful, and I started to realize that the two movies belonged together as studies in initiation. In a thoughtful piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, John Thomason argues for a way of situating Carol within Haynes’s filmography that would both extend and complicate a certain Haynesian orientation toward, on the one hand, films about women which rigorously explore familiar cinematic genres from within, and, on the other, films about men that begin with such genres and then appear deliberately to abandon them. (You could encapsulate the difference in scope between Carol and Velvet Goldmine by pointing to the objects that propel their narratives and circulate among characters: one is a pair of leather gloves left in a department store, and the other is a totemic emerald pin that has passed from artist to artist since it first arrived on Earth in 1854 with Oscar Wilde, who was an alien.) There are, however, other overlaps. In Carol‘s title role, as an older woman who teaches a younger one how to be a lesbian, Cate Blanchett charges each scene with a magnetism not wholly separable from the knowledge that she played Jude Quinn, the Bob Dylan who was a proto-Bowie, in Haynes’s I’m Not There. Before becoming Therese’s lover, Carol is the subject of her photographs, taken from a distance on a snowy city street as if by a tentative paparazza. Or by a fan. It’s a fact not lost on the queer kids of the Internet that one of Carol’s first lines to Therese, in the department store, is “Do you ship?”

If Carol, then, opens by exploring the way an initiation into same-sex desire can look like fandom, Velvet Goldmine insists from the start on conveying the way fandom can feel like love. This is the subject of Caroline Siede’s warm essay on the film for The A.V. Club. Siede’s piece resonated with me, because, while David Bowie’s music was never as important to me as its refraction through Velvet Goldmine, there was a period when nothing was more important to me than that movie. And I always knew that the way I felt about Haynes’s work was the way others felt about Bowie, or even the way the film had led them to feel about him.

On my own return to Velvet Goldmine, though, I’ve been struck again by the intensity of the film’s ultimate disenchantment with its Bowie surrogate, Brian Slade—the way it positions him, in effect, as having already died, with a legacy that amounts to a grave betrayal. I’ve been trying to think about how, especially in its last half hour, the film opens up into an affective space that is in some ways strangely similar to the space many fans have been forced to navigate in the last two weeks, as they’ve grappled, in many cases for the first time, with profoundly troubling facts from Bowie’s life.

(I would summarize these facts by saying that in the 70s a world-famous Bowie seduced girls in their early to mid-teens; that one of them maintained a positive view of her experience into adulthood; and that it’s possible to respect her testimony and her agency while condemning Bowie’s actions as rape. From the attempts I’ve made to enter online exchanges about this, I expect to lose some people on that last point, which is fine, but it’s not a point I want to discuss. There was also a separate rape allegation in Philadelphia in 1987. The woman asked Bowie to take an AIDS test, and the case was dropped without an indictment, and as a committed opponent of HIV criminalization I will say that the unqualified confidence with which some feminist Bowie fans have used those facts to dismiss the whole thing as a homophobic shakedown attempt has been another disturbing feature of the last two weeks for me.)

To be clear, Velvet Goldmine does not directly address or thematize sexual exploitation or statutory assault. Related issues hover around the film’s margins, in resolutely same-sex contexts. The narrator of one early section explains that a thirteen-year-old Curt Wild was forced to undergo electroconvulsive therapy after being discovered “at the service of his older brother”; and the same narrator sums up a short scene in which Brian Slade, as a teenage mod, seduces a significantly younger boy whose gold watch he covets, with the sentence “Style always wins out in the end.” When the film arrives at accusing Slade the star of betraying his calling and his fans, style, in a sense, wins out here too: the betrayal is figured in aesthetic terms, charting a cultural shift from the 70s to the 80s. It is Slade’s turn away from liberatory queerness, and—after a faked assassination and a ten-year silence—his assumption of a new identity, hidden in plain sight, as the rock god Tommy Stone. (Stone draws billions of viewers through global satellite shows, serves happily as a mouthpiece for 1984’s “President Reynolds,” and generally looks like the Donald Trump of 80s stadium rock.)

So the movie dramatizes a confused and conflicted mourning, and it does so largely through the figure of Arthur Stuart, the Brian Slade fan who has grown up to become a reporter assigned to uncover Slade’s fate. What Arthur and the film mourn is a broad utopian promise. One detail that stands out to me now, though, is the role played in both Brian’s career and Arthur’s investigation by a peripheral character with little dialogue named Shannon Hazelbourne.

a mask

The top two Google results for “velvet goldmine + shannon” are threads from two separate fan forums of the mid-2000s, featuring the respective questions “What’s the deal with Shannon?” and “OK what’s the deal with that Shannon bitch?” A little further down in the Google hits is “Shannon in Wonderland,” a subtle and generous work of fan fiction, which posits Shannon as an Alice figure and so poses the same question in more sympathetic terms: “When does Alice turn to malice?”

Shannon’s role in Velvet Goldmine is clearly defined as that of a young professional, but the aptness of the Alice analogy suggests a sense in which she allows the film to represent the figure of the “baby groupie” under erasure. To the extent that the movie sketches Shannon’s story, through scenes that grow out of Arthur’s interviews with others who knew Brian, that story is also one of initiation—even one that explicitly mirrors the younger Arthur’s—though not happily. She emerges as a named character halfway through, in the middle of a montage sequence depicting Slade’s rise to international glam stardom under the tutelage of his new manager, Jerry Devine. Shannon has arrived at Bijou Records to ask about a position as “assistant clerical aide,” but it’s precisely because she has no experience in wardrobe work—because her inexperience is seen as an asset—that she’s made the new wardrobe manager, just before Devine announces that Slade will start an American tour. She’s shown playing an increasingly important though often silent role behind the scenes of Slade’s career. (At a phantasmal press conference where he recites Wildean epigrams to uproarious laughter from American reporters, Shannon is the one holding the cue cards.) Later, at a Bijou orgy, she has an experience with Jerry Devine which is depicted as, at the very least, not enjoyable; she then sees Brian and Curt together in bed, becomes distraught, and forces Brian’s wife, Mandy, to swear to her that she’ll never tell Brian about her reaction to the night’s events. As time passes and Brian approaches his staged murder through clouds of cocaine, Shannon stays by his side, her demeanor hardens, and she ends up hustling Mandy out of his room when Mandy has come to deliver papers for a divorce. This, we learn, was almost the last time Mandy saw Brian, and it’s almost the film’s last view of Shannon.

with mandy

Then she reappears—in the present of 1984, twenty-five minutes from the end of the movie—as Arthur’s investigation into Slade’s whereabouts has come to a dead end. His digital search for name-change records has gotten him nowhere. As Arthur sits in front of the computer in his apartment and Brian Eno’s voice on the soundtrack intones “You’re so perceptive / And I wonder how you knew,” his gaze gradually turns from the computer screen to the chattering TV set in the corner, and to a local station’s interview with a triumphant Tommy Stone and his loyal press assistant, mid-tour. A series of slow zooms discloses Arthur’s growing interest in the press assistant. There’s a cut to a shot of a tearful Shannon, on the morning after the orgy, and Arthur starts to put things together.

Except there’s no indication that Arthur has ever seen Shannon before. Every glimpse of her in the film up to this point has been in scenes from Slade’s story recounted to him in conversation—and, even though it’s revealed that a younger Arthur was present at some of the events described to him in 1984, he certainly wasn’t at the orgy, or privy to the view of Shannon that the audience is now asked to recall.

I would hesitate to call this a plot hole or a self-evident mistake—as some viewers have done—given the film’s constant, exhilarating movement among styles, forms, and ways of imparting narrative information. (There are moments when the proliferation of ambiguous voiceovers makes Velvet Goldmine feel less like the reworking of Citizen Kane that it ostentatiously is, and more like an impossible collaboration between Derek Jarman and Terrence Malick. Tight plausibility doesn’t mean much here.) Nevertheless, as Arthur stares at these flickering images of Shannon’s face and then Tommy’s, and as the audience is asked to regard Shannon from an angle outside Arthur’s vision, it feels like a heavy displacement. The question is not just “I wonder how he knew” but what he knows, or what we know. Something has been intuited at this moment, as if by a sinister magic—something that seems to exceed the answer to any simple query about a pop star’s name change, and to assume an eerie resonance with discussions that have taken place this month, in the wake of David Bowie’s death. The movie turns on the revelation that a utopian queer dream and a patriarchal nightmare have all along been embodied, unrecognizably, in the same person; and the fulcrum for this turn is a silent shot of a young woman in tears.

Brian Slade is Tommy Stone” is a sentence never vocalized in Velvet Goldmine, and there’s a strong implication that it will remain publicly unspoken. The main agent preventing its disclosure is Shannon, and her exact motivations are never addressed. And so, in its move to mourn what was lost with Brian Slade, the film leaves her in a position that can only encourage the question What’s the deal with Shannon? while the truth of Brian’s new identity, in the last narrative scene, becomes a hushed secret between two men. After Arthur’s boss acts under mysterious orders to quash his investigation, Arthur goes dutifully to the Stone show, lingers in his memories from ten years before, obtains at least the private satisfaction of confronting Tommy after the concert with his knowledge, and ends up at a bleak nearby bar. Alone in the back room, he finds Curt Wild. Several things pass between Arthur and Curt in the scene that follows: a rueful acknowledgment of Brian’s transformation; the pin that once belonged to Oscar Wilde himself; and the hint of a possibility that Curt, like Arthur, remembers that the two of them have met before.

(It was a tryst on a rooftop after a concert heralding the Death of Glitter, a decade ago. Curt told Arthur: “Make a wish.” The scene of this encounter, which came minutes earlier in the movie complete with an appearance from the same flying saucer that had brought Oscar Wilde to Earth, self-consciously subsumes and culminates the erotic logic of fan fiction. In presenting the seduced fan not as thirteen or fourteen and female but as seventeen or eighteen and male, and portrayed by an actor in his mid-twenties, it arguably also participates in a larger, wishful fiction about the material conditions of 70s rock fandom. Watching it for the first time when I was seventeen or eighteen, I experienced it as one of the most potently romantic film sequences I had ever seen.)

Before leaving the bar, Curt delivers a final verdict on Brian Slade and his journey: “Well, I guess in the end he got what he wanted.” What Shannon might have wanted, and whether she got it, are among the questions that hang in the air as Velvet Goldmine ends with a burst of color and another beautiful song.

November 14, 2011

Open secrets and bad feelings: Armistice Day, three days late, from the pansy left

Note from 2014: This post is out of date in crucial ways, and I’m keeping it here largely as a record of the moment when it was written. I recommend reading Aura Bogado’s open letter to Chelsea Manning and keeping up with the Chelsea Manning Support Network. Free Chelsea.

(more…)

July 27, 2010

“Brother Michael is shining”: Race, capital, metonyms, sheens

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” [296]).  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.

June 27, 2010

Mike’s so relaxed: antinomies, jams

Still image from the video of Michael Jackson's 1992 live performance of "Jam" in Bucharest: halfway through a quick fade between a shot of Michael (seen in the center of the screen, dancing onstage) and a shot of the audience (fans on all sides of the screen, monitored by a security employee who faces away from the camera and wears a blue T-shirt, the back of which reads: MICHAEL JACKSON / MICHAEL JACKSON / MICHAEL JACKSON

“You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the Queen said.  “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday—but never jam today.”
“It must come sometimes to ‘jam today’,” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t,” said the Queen.  “It’s jam every other day: today isn’t any other day, you know.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Alice.  “It’s dreadfully confusing!”
“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first—”

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

Two days ago it was my 24th birthday and the first anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death.  There’s a way of relating to Michael Jackson and his story that’s implied by the conjunction of those two facts.  Steven Shaviro, a year ago, wrote: “At Jackson’s spectacular height, the time of Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982) and the subsequent television appearances and live tours, there really was nobody like him. He was a vision of ease and grace and energy […].”  (Shaviro goes on to add that the moment of Thriller “coincides almost exactly with the midway point of my own life to date.”)  This was not until recently a Michael Jackson I even knew, or not as anything more than a largely inaccessible ghost—certainly not the the Michael Jackson I knew as a kid, glimpsed all the time on other people’s TVs, the subject of constant uneasy jokes among all the (other white) kids around me at school in the Midwest in 1995, 96, 97.  The important facts about Michael Jackson then were that he was turning into a (white) woman, he was going to molest your (white) kids, he had gone crazy.  (I can actually remember listening to a lite-rock station sometime back then, in the mid-90s, when I couldn’t have been older than nine or ten—hearing the (white) DJ cut into the last full 30 seconds of “Black or White” (why did he always do that?) with the words, “That’s Michael Jackson, who can’t decide if he’s black or white!” and thinking Fuck you, your job is to play his song, don’t laugh at him.)  My Michael Jackson is a figure always already associated not with performances of ease but with expressions of anxiety, his own and others’.

Shaviro’s essay is just one of many brilliant, necessarily conflicting reflections on Jackson’s music and life that I found online last summer—none of which I can really recommend highly enough, each of which makes me feel I have little to add, and all of which together clearly represent an invisible fraction of the brilliant things that must have been written and said: k-punk’s elegiac celebration of the promise of Off the Wall and “Billie Jean”; Jay Smooth’s filmed thoughts on “the limitless opportunity for liberation and imprisonment that the camera and the microphone provide”; Tenured Radical’s valuably unsentimental account of the last years, what the fans saw and what she saw; Hilton Als’s reminder of what it might mean to understand Michael Jackson as a gay black man; sally_bloodbath’s comic on the work of dance and of fandom; Tom Ewing’s insights on dehumanization and the “black swan”; others.

Versions of the pieces by Shaviro, Mark Fisher of k-punk, and Ewing appear in The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, a book I just remembered I still need to get my hands on.  And, again, as the title says, most if not all of the authors represented in that volume actually experienced a time when the wreck didn’t seem inevitable.  Shaviro’s and Fisher’s writing is at its most affecting when it focuses on those years.  For reasons that I think are primarily selfish and inflected with all kinds of privilege, white privilege not least among them, I’ve found myself wishing I had something or someone like that to write about, or just to enjoy with fewer complications—someone as beautiful, and full of the utopian possibility described by Fisher, Shaviro, and Smooth, as Michael Jackson was, before there was even any reason to imagine that he could have hurt children, before it was obvious how badly he himself had been hurt, before it was possible to get tied up in knots attributing both his fabulousness and his disturbing behavior (and who knows how much of it was disturbing in the wrong way?) to the years of suffering under an abusive father.  (As if what we all needed was to have another conversation about not-good-enough black fathers.)

A picture I drew of Michael Jackson in 1997, when I was 11

And yet, when I tried a couple of months ago to write about the utopian vision of queer childhood and lateral growth that might be found in Pogo’s videos, I can’t deny that I also had (this late, anxious) Michael Jackson in mind; because, to the extent that I can piece together a sense of my own queer childhood, I can’t deny that (this) Michael Jackson was a major part of it.  In the last week I’ve been back in my parents’ house, going through old boxes and papers and trying to help prepare for their move out and away to another city.  The other day we found not only the drawing above (which I think must have been based on the image from Bad cover, only whitened and distorted, as if I had half-consciously overcompensated for everything that had happened since Bad), but also, from years earlier, a “book” I had written as a third-grade student for Mrs. Olson, listing all the things I wanted to do “someday.”  One of them was to meet Batman and Catwoman, and one of them was to have a Terminator toy.  (I know that at that point I hadn’t actually seen Terminator 2 (I still haven’t) or Batman Returns, but when I was seven years old images of Edward Furlong and Arnold Schwarzenegger on motorcycles and Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeffer in black leather were everywhere, and I think had a crush on all of them.)  Another thing I wanted to do someday was to “meet Mickel Jackson.”  This was in late 1993—I wrote “© 1993” on the inside front cover—months after the initial allegations of child sexual abuse had been made public.  (I don’t know if I need to mention here that I have never been a victim of sexual abuse, but, in any case, I haven’t.)  Just how aware of all that I was, or just how uncomfortable Mrs. Olson might visibly have been, I can’t remember.  Of course I couldn’t tell you just what Michael Jackson meant to me in 1993 or in 1997, either; but he meant something.

This last year since his death has been:

  1. A good year for capitalism, all things considered, and a fatal year for the Earth, which is to say, obviously, just another year;
  2. A year marked by two globalized American pop-media events, taking as their respective subjects capitalism and the Earth, whose sheer brief saturative omnipresence seemed both very new and very old-fashioned, somehow of-the-80s, Jacksonist—Lady Gaga’s and Beyoncé’s “Telephone” video, in which the additional aesthetic debt to Michael is made explicit, and James Cameron’s Avatar, in which it’s arguably more of a trace connection, something to do with the desire to become alien, to inhabit a princely body that will never put a foot wrong and to change the color of the skin;
  3. A year of which I’ve spent a not inconsiderable part, like countless other people all over the world, returning to old songs and old videos and finding others that I’d never heard or watched before.

I’ve been a bit surprised to find that the song staying in my system more than any other song is “Jam.”

Here are two judgments on Michael Jackson in the 90s—first, from k-punk:

[D]eracination and desexualisation might precisely have been refusals of the Restoration’s compulsory ethnicity and sexuality, and Jackson could have been a poster boy for queer universality … if his dysphoria, his freakishness, could have found its way into the music.  Instead, it was Gothic Oedipus in his (very public) private life dramas, and consensual sentimentality in the saccharine-bland songs.  Only in “Scream” and its video—Michael and Janet in a deserted offworld leisure hive that resembles Gibson’s incest-Xanadu Villa Straylight—did the music and the crumbling mind ever meet.

Second, from Tom Ewing:

There’ll be a reassessment, naturally—ballads like “Butterflies” and “Stranger In Moscow” are too strong for there not to be. In comparison to “Off The Wall” or “PYT” of course, they sound petrified, seized up. In fact a lot of the 90s material sounds like multiple drafts of one single, crushed and frightened song by a man desperate to get the pain out […].

How can both of these assessments be correct (as I think they are)?  “Jam” might be a good answer.  Dysphoria, freakishness, anxiety find their way into the music here in ways that are at once obvious and attenuated and bound up with sentimentality and a kind of hopeless or no-longer-tenable performance of ease, or of having “found peace within my life”; which becomes, precisely through its untenability, mesmerizing in its own way, and not without its own weird, sad, queer beauty.  Or at least it seems that way to me, because I’m white and 24 and this is the Michael I’ve always known.  Heavy D raps: “Smooth criminal, that’s the man, Mike’s so relaxed.”  But Michael’s voice and body are taut as he sings: “JAM / It ain’t / It ain’t too much to JAM / It ain’t too much / It ain’t too much for me.”  Even the difference between Heavy D’s “It ain’t too hard for me to jam” (repeated in the video’s postscript by Michael Jordan, another star who I think can safely be described as more comfortable in his black masculinity) and this desperate-sounding incantation—it ain’t too much for me—is an astonishing difference.  “It” here means nothing and everything because the song enacts an almost total erasure of the boundaries between (the ordeals of) Michael Jackson and (the forestalled end of) the world; this could be dismissed as supreme megalomania or deluded projection, or there could, on the contrary, already be a kind of implicit recognition of Steven Shaviro’s conclusion that Michael’s “sufferings and his strangeness are quintessential expressions of American life and society in this neoliberal age.”  It ain’t too much for me might be the sound of the singularity of the late, anxious Michael, crossing over into its own (dystopian) universality.

And a phrase like Shaviro’s “quintessential expressions,” in the case of music like this, feels radically, etymologically, sensuously right.  I don’t think we’re far here at all from the sense of “jam” as something sweet that comes from a crushing.  The dancing instructions to Michael Jordan at the video’s end are full of booms and pows; “throw it out like fire”; “let it out”; “like a rocket coming out of your finger.”  I wish I had a more nuanced language to describe how this explosive anxiety also charges the sound of Teddy Riley’s production itself; the way “Jam” feels at the same time like an amazing party (or the NBA anthem it immediately became) and like an extended panic attack, or what I’ve been told a migraine feels like; that exquisite burst of near-dissonance that begins every other measure, eventually playing under each repetition of the title word, sounding every time like a valve letting out excess tension that would otherwise be unbearable.  The song is a pressurized zone, not easily entered or exited: it can begin only with breaking glass and can end only with an explosion.

The explosion is there for us to see, twice, in the video of “Jam” performed live at Bucharest in 1992—a performance that’s manifestly too much for everyone.  This could not be further from Michael Jackson, the gorgeous icon of ease; this is Michael Jackson, the fractured master of neoliberal anxiety.  But whenever I watch it there are moments so overpowering I almost believe the pain—Michael’s and others’—might somehow have been definitively exorcised, things will be OK, it ain’t too much—there might be jam today.

The reductio-ad-absurdum account of Michael Jackson’s bodily life, now almost universally accepted and inescapably shaped by racism, sexism, and transphobia, is that he began his career looking like a healthy black man and ended it looking like an unhealthy white woman.  I think there might be more to say along these lines, especially after one year of a posthumous Michael Jackson, about resemblances in the cultural imagination between that spectral white woman and the figure of Emily Dickinson; which I may or may not try to elaborate on later.  But I’m thinking partly of Joyce Carol Oates’s recent story “EDickinsonRepliluxe,” in which a childless suburban couple end up traumatized (and traumatizers) through their purchase of a sexless synthetic poet-child, “a brilliantly rendered manikin empowered by a computer program that is the distillation of the original” Emily Dickinson.  And I can’t decide whether MJacksonRepliluxe would be the bestselling RepliLuxe of all time, or whether everyone would recognize that an MJacksonRepliluxe was already completely superfluous…

April 29, 2010

To get from one step to another

Filed under: childhood,comics,music — by JR @ 1:44 pm
Tags: , , ,

Happy International Dance Day.  I’ll take this opportunity to recommend a comic by sally_bloodbath that I’ve thought about a lot since it was posted on July 13, 2009, about half a month after Michael Jackson’s death.  It’s called “Fountain of Blood” but don’t worry, the fountain stays inside the body, is the body—as fifteen-year-old Michael sings in “Dancing Machine,” it’s “[a]utomatic, systematic / Full of color, self-contained.”

The kid wants to dance like Michael but refuses to watch music videos.  She saves photos of him dancing and tries to follow them and fill in the gaps.  The series of comic panels is its own systematic fountain, a confluence of the melancholy imitative work of fandom, the piecing-together work of memory, the piecing-together work of reading comics, dance as animation as translation as dance—everything seems to come together through persistence of vision.

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