Margo Jefferson, talking about her book “On Michael Jackson” (Pantheon, 2006)
2/2/2006 (transcription from an archive interview at the New York State Writers Institute)
My take on Michael Jackson—well the Michael Jacksons, there are a number of them—is that it interests me as a writer, as a critic, to write about people, experiences, artists, art, and cultural phenomena that arouse strong feelings in me and that often arouse competing [feelings]. It’s a little bit like what a novelist means when she or he will say, “The characters took over. I didn’t quite know what they were going to be doing.” That can happen when you are encountering a singer, a dancer, a novel, a movie, any kind of thing. The conversation between you and it takes over, and you don’t know how that collaboration will end up. Well, who is better for this than Michael Jackson?
I first wrote about him in 1984, partly because (like so many people here, I’m sure) I had been a big fan. I was 20 or 21 in 1969 when he and his brothers first had an album. They were adorable. He then turned out to be a major performing talent, one of popular cultures great entertainers. He will be remembered as an original dancer, a crack singer, and just one of these performers who has this incandescent self-containment.
When I approached him in the 80s, we were already—“we” meaning observers, fans, dissenters—engaged in questions like: “Who is he? What is going on?” You know, his skin was lightening, it was said he had a skin disease in which pigment changes, half the people in the world didn’t believe him, he was starting to feature some make-up, was feminized and yet engaged in this elaborate masculine crotch-clutching drama in his videos. So the first piece that I wrote was actually an attempt to challenge the tendency on all of our parts, including mine, to be very sociological. We wanted to say, “This is all about racial self-hatred. He’s probably gay, and he doesn’t want to admit it.” I just decided that I could not pretend that this was not unsettling. The fact is: this is a sophisticated artist who lives by borrowing, by appropriating, all sorts of styles. What’s that great line from “I’m a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”… “How do you live? I steal.” And that’s what performing artists do all the time; Michael is a master at it.
And secondly, we’re living in the era of (and Michael was a little ahead of them): Madonna, who is being paid everyday for these capsulated self-transformations, and the artist Cindy Sherman, whose work I’m sure a lot of you know. She would photograph herself in all sorts of scenarios, insert herself in classical paintings. Let’s think about transformation itself: this remaking the self as art object. This is not completely satisfying to me. Madonna, whether you cared about her or not, always seemed completely in control of what she was saying and what she was doing. With Michael, there was this curtain, often, between what he said and what he did. You know: “Well, honestly, I just had two operations on my nose,” and you think, “this is not possible.” So there was still this child [in him] who would say, “No, this is just the way things are,” and there would be this adult who was rather relentlessly, and with a curious kind of stubborn valor, transforming himself before our eyes into something—something that he had to know many people were very rattled by—and he was going to do it anyway. So there was a mystery that intrigued me.
And finally, American mass culture since the 20s has been the most powerful in the world. That is terrifying and interesting. Michael Jackson for about 20 years was probably the most powerful entertainer in pop music. And pop music, along with movies, is the mass culture forum that is at the center of world culture. So this was formidable.
When I started talking about this with an editor, about five years ago, one crucial impulse was, “You know, he looks like he’s about to self-destruct in some way or another. What about a short book that gives him his dues as an artist, [a book] that reminds people of all the innovations, of what it still there on film, and puts him in context with many aspects of our culture? Let’s do that before he self-destructs.” Then a friend of mine said that as usual, Michael was ahead of us.
And then when I had gone on to do other things, the second round of sexual molestation charges came, and the editor called me and said, “Look I still want the book. We have to, obviously, take the trial and all of that into account.” That was now part of this cultural landscape, this fantasia, that includes fantasies and dramas of racial and gender transformation, sexualization of children—and by that I mean on several levels. Michael, sexualized from the age of five by American and by world culture, the sexualization of child stars: Michael is from that generation of Brooke Shields, Tatum O’Neil, Michael Jackson, little Jodie Foster, and the little perky children on TV, the Brady Bunch. There was a cultural obsession. And then there is our horror at the emergence of facts about the sexual abuse of children, and again, in that classic American popular cultural way, the way we turn it into a form of entertainment. I’m thinking particularly of a show I watch a lot, “Law and Order: Sexual Victims Unit.”All of that was very interesting to me, and the fact that he contained so much of entertainment history in his body; [his] videos, which really are short films, make their postmodern way through so many landscapes: horror films, old fashioned romances, Peter Pan, Edgar Allen Poe, all of that. You can find so many styles in his work. To me, he seems the end-product of one hundred years of our wildly complicated, ever-moving popular culture, made more and more complicated by the fact that it is now a 24-hour, 7 day a week, multi-media pastime obsession information industry. Oh, and of course our obsession with making ourselves over, from body dysmorphia, plastic surgery: he’s always there. We’re here with our obsession, and he’s already there or he’s about to be.