Music

Voice Writers Wrangle Over Michael Jackson in 1987

In 1987 Greg Tate, Guy Trebay, and Stanley Crouch argued over the meaning of the face in Michael Jackson’s mirror

by

I’m White!

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.

 

The Boy Can’t Help It

Guy Trebay
September 22, 1987

There’s no longer any question that Michael Jackson is America’s preeminent geek. Even New Yorkers, who traditionally give a lot of latitude to the strange, can’t seem to get over the inscrutable and surgically airbrushed creature Jackson’s become. It appeared that, in the weeks following release of Bad and his primetime video, all you heard people talking about on radio, on the subways, and the streets was the sad gnome with the Porcelana complexion, the dated dance steps, and a terminal case of Jheri curl.

“I think Michael went too far in the white direction,” said John Hightower, portaging his Peugeot to work last week on the subway. Hightower and some fellow bike messengers were wedged into the last car of the IRT #6.

“Jackson had some kind of face peel,” Hightower added. “They had it in the News.”
“You mean,” asked a dark-skinned companion, “I’m that color inside?”

“To get that, man,” Hightower replied. “They’d have to peel you to the bone.”

The damn-with-faint-praise consensus on the subway that morning was that Jackson’s video was dramatic but too Hollywood, despite the New York locations, and that the song was okay though not remotely bad.

“And another thing,” said Hightower, “it should have been starring another person. Michael just looked too much like a woman to strut around like a homeboy in chains.”

As the Def Jam rap groups promoted the Madison Square Garden finale of their nationwide tour, Whodini’s Jalil Hutchins had one message for Michael Jackson fans. “We just want to say,” Hutchins admonished the WBLS audience one Tuesday afternoon, “you got to stop wearing those gloves and those leg wraps and those greasy looking curls because YOU LOOK LIKE A BUNCH OF JERKS.”

Hutchins and the members of Stetsasonic were in the studio giving a chaotic interview, when Jackson’s album came up. “We really don’t like to dis another artist,” said a member of Stetsasonic, before the rappers launched into a capella version of Jackson’s song in lisping falsetto. When DJ Bugsy dropped the needle on Whodini’s new tune, “Be Yourself.”

“You know the part I couldn’t look at was when Michael kept grabbing at his nonexistent crotch.” Jackson’s gender and virility were the topics during a break in rehearsal of Travis Preston’s Paradise Bound, Part II, a boom-box-and-chorus piece created for the Bandshell in Central Park. Sitting in the hot sunshine on Wednesday, some cast members couldn’t keep their minds on the performance. They were debating whether Michael and his sister Janet Jackson had ever been seen together at one time.

“I don’t think he exists,” said a singer. “I think he’s her. Or she’s him in drag.”

“Oh, no,” said Christine Satchell, a young actress from the Bronx. “That’s Michael. He just wears a lot of makeup.”

“That’s the problem, said another actor, “he’s jumping around singing, ‘I’m Bad,’ and then they breaks and Michael asks, ‘Can I borrow your mascara?'”
Everyone agreed director Martin Scorsese should have hired an actor for Jackson’s part.
“Like who?” a bystander asked.

“Oh, anybody,” said the singer, “just so he looked like a man.”

On television, Jackson provided comics with a weeklong gift of nasty riffs. Mining the limitless trove of Jackson’s peccadilloes, the funnyman cracked wise about the singer’s pet chimpanzee, the special language he invented to talk to his menagerie, and the life-sized mannequin of Elizabeth Taylor that he reputedly dresses every day. Jackson has become a monologist’s dream. Jay Leno scored the capper with a joke involving Jackson’s unsuccessful bid to purchase the Elephant Man’s remains. During his nightly stint, Leno broke up the Tonight Show millions with news that the Elephant Man’s descendants had made a counteroffer for the purchase of Jackson’s original nose.

Jackson hysteria attained a memorable plateau with the People and Rolling Stone covers, but a more lasting contribution to schlock journalism was the Daily News’s takeout entitled “Wizard of Odd.” On the second day of that three-part series, the newspaper included now notorious before and after pictures of Jackson’s transformations under the knife. With arrowed captions readers got to follow the surgical reduction of Michael’s upper lip, his nose, his lower eyelid, the addition of cheekbone implants, and the artfully cleft chin.

“People think he’s a big mystery,” said midtown news vendor Dalaedeet Singh. “Like Howard Hughes. When he’s on the cover of a magazine, we sell out very quickly.”

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the new album, at least not in Thriller terms. Bad’s initial sales surge leveled off swiftly after its August 31 release. “Under three million,” said one spokesman for Epic Records. “In excess of three million,” another claimed.

“Eh,” said Phil McGowan, soul music salesclerk at Tower’s flagship store on lower Broadway. As Bad blared from speakers mounted beneath a stupendous cutout of Jackson, McGowan said, “It’s selling okay, but a funny thing happened. The Michael came in and we got a new shipment of Prince at the same time.” He motioned to eight boxes of unsold Jackson. “Prince sold out in a couple hours. Michael’s still kind of sitting in the stacks.”

 

Man in the Mirror

By Stanley Crouch
November 17, 1987

Because Afro-Americans have presented challenges to one order or another almost as long as they have been here, fear and contempt have frequently influenced the way black behavior is assessed. The controversy over Michael Jackson is the most recent example, resulting in a good number of jokes, articles in this periodical and others, and even the barely articulate letter by the singer himself that was published in People. Jackson has inspired debate over his cosmetic decisions because the residue of the ’60s black nationalism and the condescension of those who would pity or mock black Americans have met over the issue of his face, his skin tone, his hair.

Since the ’60s, there has been a tendency among a substantial number of Afro-Americans to promulgate a recipe for the model black person. That model has taken many forms, but all of them are based on presumptions of cultural segregation between black and white Americans. The symbols of that purported segregation were supposed to permeate the ways in which black people lived, dressed, wore their hair, ate, thought voted, walked, talked and addressed their African heritage. And though the grip of such nationalism weakened over the years, it continues to influence even those who were lucky enough not to have been adolescents during its period of dominance.

Greg Tate is clearly one who has been taken in, and his recent article on Jackson illustrates the provincialism inherent in such thinking. Jackson alarms Tate, who sees the singer’s experience under the scalpel as proof of self-hatred. The trouble with Tate’s vision is that it ignores the substance of the American dream and the inevitabilities of a free society. Though no one other than Jackson could know what he seeks, to automatically assume that the pop star’s cosmetic surgery was solely intended to eradicate Negroid features in order to “look white” seems far too simple, ignoring both African and American cultural elements.

Présence Africaine published some 20 years ago a compendium of papers delivered in Senegal at the World Festival of Negro Arts. One of the lecturers made note of the fact that a number of African tribes considered the lighter-skinned the more attractive. This vision of beauty was free of colonial influence and probably had more to do with the quality of exoticism that is as central to magnetism as to repulsion. Further, Jackson could just as easily be opting for the mulatto look–if not that of the Latin lover and dandy–that has resulted from the collusion of gene pools whenever light and dark folk have coupled on the Basin Streets of history. Or he could be taken by the keen noses and “refined” features of Ethiopians?

The fact that Michael Jackson is not only a person of African descent, but is also an American should never be excluded from a discussion of his behavior. The American dream is actually the idea that an identity can be improvised and can function socially if it doesn’t intrude upon the freedom of anyone else. With that freedom comes eccentric behavior as well as the upward mobility resulting from talent, discipline, and good fortune- the downward mobility observed in some of those who inhabit the skid rows of this country because they prefer the world f poverty and alcoholism to the middle-upper-middle-, or upper-class backgrounds they grew up in. As one bum who had obviously seen better days said to a waiter as he was being ushered out of the now defunct Tin Palace for panhandling, “People come from all over the world to be bums on the Bowery. Why should I deny myself the right?”

Tate should easily understand this since he is from a well-to-do black family in Washington, D.C., but has chose, to wear dreadlocks in a hairdo that crosses the Rasta world with that of the Mohawk and, eschewing the conservative dress of his background, looks as often as not like a borderline homeless person. That Tate is a bohemian by choice rather than birth means that he has plotted out an identity he prefers to that of his social origins and has found the costumes that he feels most appropriate for his personal theater piece. Though it is much easier for Tate to get another haircut and change his dress than it would be for Jackson to return to his “African physiognomy,” each reflects the willingness to opt for imagery that repudiates some aspect of the past.

That sense of improvising an identity shouldn’t be thought of as separate from the American–and universal–love of masks. Nor should it be seen as at all separate from the “African retentions” Afro-American cultural nationalists and social anthropologists refer to so frequently. The love of masks, of makeup, and of costumes is often much more than the pursuit of high fashion or the adherence to ritual convention; it is also the expression of that freedom to invent the self and of the literal fun Americans have often gotten from scandalizing expectations.

As Constance Rourke observed and as Albert Murray reminds us in his invaluable The Omni-Americans, those colonial rebels dressed up as Indians for the Boston Tea Party might have enjoyed the masquerade itself as much as they did dumping the cargo in the ocean. Considered within the spectrum of the happy to hostile masquerade that has since evolved, Michael Jackson’s affection for his mirror image veering off from what nature intended places him right in the center of one of the whirlpools of national sensibility. One needs only to look at any book or photographs from the ’60s to see how the connection between protest, politics and the love of masks was most broadly played out–SNCC workers donned overalls; hippies took to long hair and tie-dyed outfits; black nationalists wore Figi haircuts and robes; and self-styled Afro-American revolutionaries put on black berets, black leather jackets, black shirts, pants, and shoes, or appropriated the combat dress of Third World military men. And no one who looks at the various costumes worn today, from dotted, yellow “power ties” to gargoyle pun fashions, should have any problem seeing their connection to the masking inclinations rooted in the joy of assumed identities. That love is still so embedded in the national personality that the people of New Orleans are admired as much for the costumes and false faces of Mardi Gras as for their cuisine and their music. And those of us in New York know how much pleasure the grease paint, sequins, feathers, and satins of the Labor Day parade in Brooklyn bring to spectators and participants.

As far as further African retentions are concerned, it could easily be argued that Michael Jackson is much more in line with the well-documented argument many primitive African cultures have had with the dictates of nature. Have the people of any other culture so perfectly prefigured plastic surgery or been more willing to accept the pain of traditionally approved mutilation? It is doubtful. In photograph after photograph, Africans are shown wearing plates in their lips to extend them, rings around their necks to lengthen them, plopping red mud in their hair for homemade conks that emulate the manes of lions, filing their teeth, and suffering through the slashes and the rubbed-in ashes that result in spectacular scarification. Whatever one wants to say about “different standards of beauty” and so forth, to conclude that such cultures are at all concerned with “being natural” is to actually reveal one’s refusal to see things as they are.

That willingness to suffer under the tribal knife is obviously addressed with much greater technical sophistication in the world of plastic surgery. In fact, the so-called self-hatred of black Americans, whenever it does exist, is perhaps no more than a racial variation on the national attitude that has made the beauty industry so successful. In those offices and in those operating rooms where plans are made and carried out that result in millions of dollars in profit, the supposed self-hatred of black Americans has little to do with the wealth earned by plastic surgeons. Far and away, the bulk of their clients are Caucasians in flight from the evidence of age, Caucasians dissatisfied with their profiles, their eyes, their ears, their chins, their necks, their breasts, the fat around their knees, their waists, their thighs, and so forth. Nipped, tucked, carrying implants and vacuumed free of fat, they face their mirrors with glee.

Where there is so much talk about Afro-Americans fawning over the lighter-skinned among them, what is one to make of all the bottle blondes this country contains and all of those who make themselves sometimes look orange by using lotions for counterfeit tans? It is a certainty that if some Negro American genius were to invent a marketable procedure that would result in harmlessly emitting the desired levels of melanin for those Caucasians enthralled by tans so that they could remain as dark as they wished throughout the year, his or her riches would surpass those off Bill Cosby. Would this imaginary genius be exploiting Caucasian self-hatred?

Then there is the problem some have with Jackson’s apparent softness, his supposed effeminacy. That, too, has a precedent with Afro-American culture itself. The late writer Lionel Mitchell once pointed out that certain black me were bothered about the black church because they were made uncomfortable by those choir directors and pretty-boy lead singers who wore glistening marcelled hair and were obviously homosexual. A friend of Mitchell’s extended the writer’s position by observing that those very gospel songs were just as often masks through which homosexual romance was crooned. “What do you think is going through their minds when the songs talk about being held close to His?” (What a variation on the ways slaves secretly signaled each other through spirituals, planning flight or rebellion!) This is not to say that ever homosexual gospel singer thought of things more secular than spiritual when chirping those songs in which love is felt for and from an almighty He or Him, but it is to say that those who feel Jackson has somehow sold out his masculine duties have not looked as closely at their own tradition as perhaps they should.

There is also the fact that Jackson, both as an androgynous performer and surgical veteran purportedly seeking to look like Diana Ross, has precursors in the minstrel shows of the middle 19th century. It is there that the tradition of the romantic balladeer actually begins, at least as a phenomenon of mass entertainment. As Robert C. Toll observes in Blackening Up, white minstrels became very popular with women because they were able to publicly express tender emotion through the convention of burnt cork and were sometimes able to become national stars for their performances as giddy mulatto beauties. “Female impersonators excited more interest than any other minstrel specialist,” writes Toll. “Men in the audience probably were titillated by the alluring stage characters whom they were momentarily drawn to, and they probably got equal pleasure from mocking and laughing at them….At a time when anxiety about social roles was intense, the female impersonator, who actually changed roles, fascinated the public. As a mode of properly ‘giddy’ femininity, he could reassure men that women were in their places while at the same time showing women how to behave without competing with them. Thus, in some ways, he functioned like the blackface ‘fool’ who educated audiences while also reassuring them that he was their inferior. Neither man nor woman, the female impersonator threatened no one.”

Jackson quite clearly bothers more than a few, from Eddie Murphy to the rappers interviewed by Guy Trebay in the article that accompanied Greg Tate’s. The pit bull of Murphy’s paranoia over pansies has often been unleashed on Jackson and the fact that the rappers were disturbed by Jackson’s persona suggests something other than what it seems. Perhaps what bothers them most is that the singer’s roots in minstrelsy are so different from their own. As Harry Allen revealed not so long ago, more than a few rappers are actually middle-class Negroes acting out their version of a “gangster aesthetic.” Instead of a minstrel mugging, you have counterfeit thugging, more than a tad in line with the faddish cracker sensibility of acting bad to bust the ass of the middle class on the rack of rock and roll.

Yet the actual sorrow and the pity of the Michael Jackson story is that he has had to carry the cross of an imposed significance far beyond what his music merits. Jackson comes from rhythm and blues, which is itself a dilution of blues, a descent from the profound emotion of America’s first truly adult, secular music. As a pop star, Jackson’s fame and riches have come from the expression of adolescent passion, but he is also the product of an era in which profundity has been forced on music actually intended to function as no more than the soundtrack for teenage romance and the backbeat for the bouts of self-pity young people suffer while assaulted by their hormones. Rock criticism changed all of that, bootlegging the rhetoric of aesthetic evaluation to elevate the symbols of adolescent frenzy and influencing the way pop stars viewed themselves. So when a man’s power is found in an adolescent form, time impinges upon his vitality. If he is sufficiently spooked, he might be moved to invent a world for himself in which all evidence that he was ever born a particular person at a particular time is removed. That removal might itself become the strongest comment upon the inevitable gloom that comes not of having been given too much too soon but of having been convinced that one is important only so long as he or she is not too old.

Most Popular