In honor of Michael Jackson, we’re raiding our archives. Here’s Greg Tate on what’s wrong with Michael Jackson in 1987. It ran side by side with a piece on the same topic by Guy Trebay.
By Greg Tate
September 22, 1987
There are other ways to read Michael Jackson’s blanched skin and disfigured African features than as signs of black self-hatred become self-mutilation. Waxing fanciful, we can imagine the-boy-who-would-be-white a William Gibson-ish work of science fiction: harbinger of a transracial tomorrow where genetic deconstruction has become the norm and Narcissism wears the face of all human Desire. Musing empathetic, we may put the question, whom does Mikey want to be today? The Pied Piper, Peter Pan, Christopher Reeve, Skeletor, or Miss Diana Ross? Our Howard Hughes? Digging into our black nationalist bag, Jackson emerges a casualty of America’s ongoing race war–another Negro gone mad because his mirror reports that his face does not conform to the Nordic ideal.
To fully appreciate the sickness of Jackson’s savaging of his African physiognomy you have to recall that back when he wore the face he was born with, black folk thought he was the prettiest thing since sliced sushi. (My own mother called Michael pretty so many time s I almost got a complex.) Jackson and I are the same age, damn near 30, and I’ve always had a love-hate thing going with the brother. When we were both moppets I envied him, the better dancer, for being able to arouse the virginal desires of my female schoolmates, shameless oglers of his (and Jermaine’s) tenderoni beefcake in 16 magazine. Even so, no way in those say-it-loud-I’m-black-and-I’m-proud days could you not dig Jackson heir to the James Brown dance throne. At age 10, Jackson’s footwork and vocal machismo seemed to scream volumes about the role of genetics in the cult of soul and the black sexuality of myth. The older folk might laugh when he sang shake it, shake it baby, ooh, ooh or teacher’s gonna show you, all about loving. Yet part of the tyke’s appeal was being able to simulate being lost in the hot sauce way before he was supposed to know what the hot sauce even smelt like. No denying he sounded like he knew the real deal.
In this respect, Jackson was the under-weaned creating of two black working-class traditions: That of boys being forced to bypass childhood along the fast track to manhood, and that of rhythm and blues auctioning off the race’s passion for song, dance, sex, and spectacle. Accelerated development became a life-imperative after slavery, and r&b remains the redemption of minstrelsy–at least it was until Jackson made crossover mean lightening your skin and whitening your nose.
Slavery, minstrelsy, and black bourgeoisie aspirations are responsible for three of the more pejorative notions about blacks in this country–blacks as property, as ethnographic commodities, and as imitation rich white people. Given this history, there’s a fine line between a black entertainer who appeals to white people and one who sells out the race in pursuit of white appeal. Berry Gordy, burghermeister of crossover’s Bauhaus, walked that line with such finesse that some black folk were shocked to discover via The Big Chill that many whites considered Motown their music. Needless to say, Michael Jackson has crossed so way far over the line that there ain’t no coming back–assuming through surgical transmutation of his face a singular infamy in the annals of tomming.
The difference between Gordy’s crossover dream world and Jackson’s is that Gordy’s didn’t preclude the notion that black is beautiful. For him the problem was his pupils not being ready for prime time. Motown has raised brows for its grooming of Detroit ghetto kids in colored genteel manners, so maybe there were people who thought Gordy was trying to make his charges over into pseudo-Caucasoids. Certainly this insinuation isn’t foreign to the work of rhythm and blues historians Charles Keil and Peter Guralnick, both of whom write of Motown as if it weren’t hot and black enough to suit their blood, or at least their conception of bloods. But the inter-mingling of working-class origins and middle-class acculturation are too mixed up in black music’s evolution to allow for simpleminded purist demands for a black music free of European influence, or of the black desire for a higher standard of living and more cultural mobility. As an expression of ’60s black consciousness, Motown symbolized the desire of blacks to get their foot in the bank door of the American dream. In the history of affirmative action Motown warrants more than a footnote beneath the riot accounts and NAACP legal maneuvers.
As a black American success story the Michael Jackson of Thriller is an extension of the Motown integrationist legacy. But the Michael Jackson as skin job represents the carpetbagging side of black advancement in the affirmative action era. The fact that we are not producing young black men and women who conceive of their African inheritance as little more than a means to cold-crash mainstream American and then cold-dis–if not merely put considerable distance between–the brothers and sisters left behind. In this sense Jackson’s decolorized flesh reads as a buppy version of Dorian Gray, a blaxploitation nightmare that offers this moral: Stop, the face you save may be your own.
Three years ago black people cherished Thriller’s breakthrough as if it were their own battering ram apartheid. Never mind how many of those kerzillion LPs were bought, forget how much Jackson product we had bought all those years before that–even with his deconstructed head, we wanted this cat to tear the roof off the all -time-greatest-sales sucker bad as he did. It’s like Thriller was this generation’s answer to the Louis-Schmeling fight or something. Oh, the Pyrrhic victories of the disenfranchised. Who would’ve thought this culture hero would be cut down to just the times. To those living in a New York City and currently witnessing a rebirth of black consciousness in protest politics, advocacy journalism (read The City Sun! read The City Sun! and the arts, Jackson seems dangerously absurd.
Proof that God don’t like ugly, the title of Michael’s new LP, Bad (Epic) accurately describes the contents in standard English. (Jackson apparently believes that bad can apply to both him and L.L. Cool J.) No need to get stuck on making comparison’s with Thriller, Bad sounds like home demos Michael cut over a long weekend. There’s not one song here that any urban contemporary hack couldn’t have laid out in a week, let alone two years. Several of the up-tempo numbers wobble in with hokey bass lines out of the Lalo Schifrin fakebook, and an inordinate number begin with ominous science fiction synthnoise–invariably preceding an anticlimax. Bad has hooks, sure, and most are searching for a song, none more pitifully than the fly-weight title track, which throws its chorus around like a three-year-old brat.
The only thing Bad has going for it is that it was made by the same artist who made Thriller. No amount of disgust for Jackson’s even newer face (cleft in the chin) takes anything away from Thriller Everything on that record manages a savvy balance between machine language and human intervention, between palpitating heart and precision tuning. Thriller is a record that doesn’t even know how to stop giving pleasure. Every note on the mutha sings and breathes masterful pop instincts: the drumbeats, the bass lines, the guitar chicken scratches, the aleatoric elements. The weaving of discrete details into fine polyphonic mesh reminds me of those African field records where simultaneity and participatory democracy, not European harmony, serve as the ordering principle.
Bad, as songless as Thriller is songful, finds Jackson performing material that he has absolutely no emotion commitment to–with the exception of spitefully named “Dirty Diana,” a groupie fantasy. The passion and compassion of “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” seemed genuine, generated by Jackson’s perverse attraction to the ills of teen violence and teen pregnancy. There was something frightful and compelling about this mollycoddled mama’s boy delivering lapidary pronouncements from his Xanadu like “If you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby.” While the world will hold its breath and turn blue in the face awaiting the first successful Michael Jackson paternity suit, he had the nerve to sing “The kid is not my son.” Not even David Bowie could create a subtext that coy and rakish on the surface and grotesque at its depths.
Only in the twisted aspects does Bad, mostly via the “Bad” video, outdo Thriller. After becoming an artificial white man, now he wants to trade on his ethnicity. Here’s Jackson’s sickest fantasy yet: playing the role of a black preppie returning to the ghetto, he now only offers himself as a role model he literally screams at the brothers “You ain’t nothin’!” Translation: Niggers ain’t shit. In Jackson’s loathsome conception of the black experience, you’re either a criminal stereotype or one of the Beautiful People. Having sold the world pure pop pleasure on Thriller, Jackson returns on Bad to sell his own race hatred. If there’s 35 million sales in that, be ready for the hills ya’ll.