Monday, March 28, 2016

Core Post #5: Masculinity, Black Men, and the Anomaly of Michael Jackson

I remember exactly where I was when I found out that Michael Jackson had passed away. In hindsight, I knew very little about him. I knew he was a "troubled" star and had fallen victim to drugs, alcohol, and plastic surgery, and I also knew that he was an iconic pop music star and celebrity figure. In many ways, his tragic story is similar to those of other troubled stars such as Amy Winehouse and Marilyn Monroe. But in the context of Black masculinity and celebrity culture, Jackson is an anomaly.

Black men are celebrated as being overly masculine. Stars such as LL Cool J, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and Michael B. Jordan are all depicted as strong, muscular, fit, and physical men. They represent the ideals of the black male community. In "Heavenly Bodies," author Richard Dyer points out that early black male celebrities were celebrated for their physicality and their relationship to the "stereotypes of the white imagination." Esteemed black male actors often portrayed slaves or subservient roles to whites. Although this isn't necessarily true today, black male actors are still held to a standard of physical muscularity that white actors are not. For example, Ryan Gosling, a teen-heartthrob, is celebrated for his typecast of romantic, emotional roles. There is no black male actor equivalent. In the media, black men are not supposed to be emotional. They are seen as purely masculine figures.

In contrast, the "Stardom: Industry of Desire" reading states that Jackson was seen as masculine in relation to his music and sex appeal. While other black male figures were seen as sexual because they fulfilled traditional stereotypes, Jackson was seen as equally (and in some respects, more appealing) because he fulfilled a different kind of fantasy: the pop star boyfriend. The reading analyzes his "Thriller" music video as a case study in breaking down its aesthetic and thematic elements. Jackson and his music, as portrayed in this particular music video, embodied the postmodern aesthetic of style over substance: it's a very flashy video that appeals to spectacle over the lyrics itself. In doing so, Jackson created a new kind of masculinity and sex appeal that wasn't bound to the physicality of traditional time periods and conventions; he created a new standard for male musicians that didn't fit the overly masculine type.

Jackson also broke away from traditional "Black" music, which was jazz and folk. He is largely recognized as one of the first major pop stars, who rose to fame as a child and continued to create record breaking music through adulthood. However, his image towards the end of his life was largely plagued by controversy. His personal life was notoriously controversial, and the lack of clarity surrounding it only drove the public more crazy. Jackson unintentionally fed his celebrity image and star power until his tragic death.

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