Have a Good Time

February 8, 2011

Constructive engagement (was Ronald Reagan’s plan)

Of course Ronald Reagan’s centennial was yesterday, the day of the 45th Super Bowl, and I’ve found it’s been important to my emotional health to spend some time with a personal canon of texts running counter to the national celebration of an abominable, unkillable legacy—a canon that would include passages from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches; Davey D’s post on what children should be taught about Ronald Reagan; an assemblage of queer and feminist voices of opposition, put together by Queers for Economic Justice in 2004; Janelle Monáe’s video (still) for “Cold War,” a wonderful Foucauldian reading of which Robin James just published … and, maybe above all, another music video, made by Jonathan Demme in 1985 (when Reagan was president and everyone knew the Cold War was still going on) but in some interesting ways a video not so far away from Monáe’s.

When I watched “Cold War” for the first time, part of my reaction was to wonder—even as I knew there were crucial specificities here—why more artists didn’t make music videos that consisted of their just singing into a camera, in closeup, in one uninterrupted shot.  It’s beautiful, it works.  And it occurred to me that this was the same reaction I’d always had to seeing movies directed by Jonathan Demme, distinguished by a signature touch that’s fascinated me for a long time: why don’t more mainstream filmmakers construct scenes of dialogue or intersubjective engagement using direct-eyeline compositions?  When and how was it decided by the grammarians of cinema that actors, as characters, wouldn’t look straight into the camera?  For me, when two people in a contemporary American movie are together and suddenly I’m jolted and yanked in by feeling one of them look me right in the eye, almost like Ronald Reagan on TV, it’s immediately recognizable as Demme—it’s almost an auteur’s (unblinking) wink; it took me a while to appreciate how much sense it made that he had a special relationship with a band named Talking Heads—but this wasn’t the way film had to develop, was it?

I’m sure there are plenty of good discussions of this technique, but the best example that I know of right now, touching on its relation to André Bazin’s “Holy Moment,” comes in Keith Uhlich’s 2004 article on Demme for Senses of Cinema (which is full of excellent things, including a challenging, generous rereading (possibly too generous) of the queerphobia of The Silence of the Lambs, a movie I think I’ll always have a painful relationship with—I’m not sure how to feel about Jack Halberstam‘s argument either…).  And the one text that Uhlich leaves out, but which I think confirms better than anything else his interpretation of Demme’s sense of cinema as a “medium of address,” is the “Sun City” video, codirected with Hart Perry: possibly my favorite thing Demme has ever done, definitely my favorite thing Bono has ever done, and, above all, still an amazing work of political art.  I first saw the video only about a year ago, thanks to Daniel, who I think had been turned on to it by friends passing it around as a much-needed antidote to Paul Haggis’s “We Are the World” remake (and wishing aloud that someone would make a “Sun City” for Palestine and the BDS movement).  Haggis’s “We Are the World 25,” remember, is the video that (in Jay Smooth’s mostly-joking words) killed rap music once and for all.  As for the original, anyone who’s followed this blog for a while will know I’m a fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but I’m not going to pretend this was a high moment.  Even irrespective of musical quality, though, the differences between “Sun City” and both iterations of “We Are the World” are profound.  While one song is an attempt to conjure or invoke, out of its “we,”  a universal (Western) subject who should just be better at being good, the other is a powerfully angry, defiantly specific statement of solidarity, from artists who recognize the complications of their own subject position and are telling us what they won’t do, with a refrain that in its particularity has all the force of Tony Kushner’s angelic “I, I, I am the bird of America”: I (I) I (I) I (I) ain’t gonna play Sun City.

This intensity is complemented by a formal distinction between the video for “Sun City” and the videos for “We Are the World” that makes all the difference in the world: almost everyone in Demme’s clip makes their declaration right into the camera—as in a conventional music video, except, I think, not.  (One of the related pleasures of this particular clip, the copy of “Sun City” that exists on YouTube, is that we get to watch a rosy-cheeked video DJ transformed by their address: before playing the song he seems not to know how to pronounce “apartheid”; afterward he says, with lovely enthusiasm, “That was great, I never, I don’t, I don’t think I ever looked at that real closely, if i’ve seen it, but … that was great…”)*  The 1985 rendition of “We Are The World” relies on an uneasy half-transparency in relation to its own production, with the team of musicians who “are saving [their] own lives” shown singing together in a studio but never meeting the camera’s gaze, instead staring off to the side, into the phantom space of liberal charity (while Haggis’s shockingly misjudged update combines shots of the same kind with footage of what can only be described as a happily abject Haiti).  “Sun City,” in contrast, reverses the terms of this artificiality and goes out onto the streets of urban America—shown, at the climax, to be the same streets as those of apartheid South Africa and of the murderously segregated American South in the 1960s.  The video’s open acknowledgment of American complicity with injustice is crystallized as George Clinton, Joey Ramone, Jimmy Cliff and Daryl Hall, and Darlene Love, respectively, look out at the viewer and sing four lines which, in early February 2011, on Reagan’s 100th birthday, feel at least as resonant as ever:

Our government tells us, “We’re doing all we can”

“Constructive engagement” is Ronald Reagan’s plan

Meanwhile people are dying and giving up hope

This quiet diplomacy ain’t nothing but a joke.

Quiet diplomacy.  I think of Reagan’s announcement that he and Hosni Mubarak were “close friends and partners in peace,” very explicitly echoed in recent days by Joe Biden, Tony Blair, and Hillary Clinton, and implicitly confirmed by the (imagined) quiet diplomacy of Barack Obama.  To be clear, this is not to say that Egypt is apartheid South Africa, or that Obama is Reagan.  It’s only to say that the video for “Sun City,” which was, on its own terms, a genuinely (de)constructive engagement seeking to educate, to raise awareness of the United States’ inextricability from global systems of violence and domination, and to inspire action, feels to me like the bearer of some really important reminders.  One of which would be that the model of “constructive engagement” personified by Ronald Reagan, and, ever-increasingly, in his long movie-star shadow, embodied by a president I supported with all my heart in November 2008, is a model that really amounts to looking the other way.

*Edited to add: These sentences refer to a clip removed from YouTube, sadly.

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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