The life and work of Michael Jackson have always enthralled me. We are of a generation which didn't see him at his best, but rather at his oddest: his skin whitening, his nose falling off, accusations of him being a pedophile and having sleepover parties with children, his multiple in-vitro children. Jackson was mostly a pop culture joke in our youth, yet when he passed away and HIStory came out posthumously, I don't think many people would've disagreed that he had mountains of talent, and was perceived as the product of a traumatic and repressed childhood where his talent was as praised as his otherness was oppressed by his own family and by society.
It is interesting that Mercer's study begins with noting how even as a child, Jackson's voice and dance was sensual, considering how blackness is often relegated to an eroticized and fetishized otherness in our culture, already defining him within what she later calls "the context of black masculinity". Of course, this would change as Jackson got older, and I'm not sure after his complete physical transformation that he was still defined by black masculinity. Yet, even in '86, as Mercer says, Jackson had grown more effeminate and whiter with his slicked back hair and changing features.. I now wonder whether this 'ambiguity' she describes was one of the things that prevented Michael Jackson from blending into pop culture and allowed him to stand out on his own? Was his lightening skin, his slimmer features and his slicked back hair as a young man helpful in entering into the public consciousness of mass pop culture, mostly filled out by white performers, instead of just his talent?
Equally fascinating is that in 1986 Mercer already explores the Myth of Michael, encompassing some of the first things which come into my mind when I think of his portrayal in the media. She acknowledges that the media, and thereby the viewers who witnessed his life, were captivated by the twisted account of how he lived his life and why he came to be the way in which he was portrayed. She quotes a business partner of his that recounts how the media just tended to make up rumors, and again, I wonder if the paparazzi and the tabloids just took what they saw and made up lies to fill in the blanks? And if so, to what extent? Was some of what they crafted responsible for his eventual supposed depression and overdose? This quote, in particular, struck me: "Neither child nor man, not clearly either black or white and with an
androgynous image that is neither masculine nor feminine, Jackson’s star image
is a ‘social hieroglyph’, as Marx said of the commodity form, which
demands, yet defies, decoding." By his 'innate' otherness in his blackness, and then constructed otherness in the odd ambiguous space he came to occupy, Michael Jackson always left the public curious and searching in an entertainment world that was and still is predominantly white.
It makes sense, after Mercer says it, that Thriller was meant more to showcase Michael than to promote the song. Jackson is the star of the music video, in the midst of a storyline and choreographed dance that even today pervades pop culture. His quote about his love for acting during The Wizz shows how he seriously he took his craft, even if it was possibly his persona that gripped the media, a seriousness that he displayed for the rest of his life and which is very visible in HIStory. That Thriller is much more than just a pop song, with it's double meanings and how Jackson interpreted it with his specific vocal "grain" and body movements, is a testament of his talent and his ability to invoke something beyond what is easily read or heard. It is sad that icon status is often entwined with tragedy, but I hope that the more time that passes, the more that Michael Jackson comes to occupy a deserved place in media history for the work he produced, rather than for the persona we believed he was.