Monday, March 28, 2016

Core Post #2: Cinematic Jackson: Crossing Racial Lines

The fact that Michael Jackson's music videos from the Thriller LP were the first to "penetrate [the] racial boundary" in MTV is important to both his success and black masculinity (Mercer 306). According to Mercer, MTV, the primary platform for the popularization of music videos in the US, had an unspoken policy of excluding black artists since its inception. It's hard not to connect the dots between Thriller's enormous commercial success globally, Jackson's fame and immense popularity, and his crossing the racial line with the music videos from his Thriller LP. In other words, it is worth asking the question: how much did the dissemination of these videos contribute to Jackson's success, popularity and legacy? How did his success change or define black masculinity?

However, Mercer actually explains that the videos did not serve to promote the songs themselves, because the LP was already a 'monstrous' success before the release of the title track as a single; instead, it "celebrates the success the LP has brought Michael Jackson by acting as a vehicle to showcase its star" (Mercer 308). Therefore, it is important to note that what the videos did for Jackson had little to do with his music, but more about giving him a "movie-star" like quality.

Indeed, Jackson's music videos not only helped him cross racial lines in MTV, but they also helped define and elevate the form itself by tying them closely with cinema. Many of Jackson's music videos share the same 'narrational' quality that the Thriller video embodies. "Bad," "Beat It," "Remember the Time," "The Way You Make Me Feel" all incorporate cinematic storytelling that accompany the song, and they all became iconic music videos not just for Jackson, but all of pop music. In addition, a number of legendary music video and feature film directors have directed Jackson's videos, including Martin Scorsese ("Bad"), David Fincher  ("Who Is It") and John Singleton ("Remember the Time"). These credentials suggest Jackson's status as a movie star without necessarily being in a movie.

The power of the "Thriller" video also lies in the heavy intertextuality with cinema. The title of the song/video is a movie genre, and the storyline plays with tropes of horror movies; in fact, Mercer claims that it is a parody of horror films. The video also begins with cinematic shots that set up the story ("long panning shots on a car driving through woods at night") instead of the song's music notes (Mercer 312). Mercer goes on and analyzes the video from its special effects, song's lyrics, acting, and sexual subtext in order to suggest its unique connection to the form of cinema. Examining Jackson's music videos, one can make the connection between cinematic imagery and his stardom, even for a star that is primarily not associated with cinema.

As such, Jackson is already an icon that revolutionized the art of the music video for artists of all races. The fact that he is a black artist confirms his crossing the racial boundary in pop music and pop culture. However, his effect on black masculinity is questionable. In fact, I doubt if people are very conscious and aware of his racial identity, especially because of the way he is universally idolized. Mercer argues that his racial and sexual identities are ambiguous, citing plastic surgeries that made Jackson look more European. Unlike other prominent black artists who dominated in the genres of Jazz, Rap or Soul Music, Jackson also makes primarily pop music, a traditionally more "white" genre.

A recent casting of Joseph Fiennes, a British white actor, as Michael Jackson in a comedy has stirred up controversy, understandably, and it tells us something about Jackson's ambiguous racial identity. This is obviously problematic, but it also sheds light on how black masculinity is perhaps completely or at least partially detached from Jackson. Was it his "crossing the racial line" that made it acceptable for him to be played by a white actor? What does it mean to black masculinity that the biggest black superstar is not perceived as that black?

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