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Being a Michael Jackson Fan Means Always Having to Feel Sorry (For Him)

6 May

I love Michael Jackson, I really do.  But, as you all know, there isn’t one single entity known as “Michael Jackson.” No, within that too short life span were several Mikes, each with their own distinct personalities, clothing styles and yes— races.  And the incarnations of Michael Jackson are not  created equally.  I have my favorites.

First is Jackson 5 Michael, the universal, uncontroversial favorite. In my view, this Michael Jackson unfairly benefits from his youth. Add the fact that he was preternaturally talented and ridiculously adorable, and the deck is stacked in his favor.  Despite that, I’ll admit that I too have a soft spot for the kid.  He was so beautifully black, with his well-maintained afro and genuinely mischievous smile. And that voice! Whenever I listen to a Jackson 5 track, I am always unnerved by how emphatically Michael sang about love and other grown-up issues, given that he was still technically a middle-schooler at the time.  I also love that while his singing voice was very mature,  it was still noticeably a kid’s voice, that is, it sounded unsullied.  I think that’s why we all love coming back to this MJ, because it allows us to revel in what he was like before fame (and Joe Jackson) destroyed him–beautiful, innocent, and astoundingly talented. And maybe we wish that we had the power to freeze time and keep him that way.

Next, is the Michael Jackson that I am wholly devoted to– Off the Wall era Michael. I am not  joking when I say that I would have married this man. Why? First, after some awkward teenage years, Michael had settled into young adulthood nicely,  and he was just so resplendent and handsome. Second, Off the Wall is pure genius. Michael was as bubblegum pop as you could get, but you can’t listen to that album and not be impressed by how musically sophisticated it is (props to Quincy). His  falsetto was at its best, and all the songs on that album celebrate the intense, immeasurable pleasure of being young.  I sincerely hope that Michael was  feeling a little of that joy himself, after leaving the Jackson 5 and escaping the control of Motown and Joe to start fresh on his own. Whenever I watch the music video for what is quite possibly my favorite song in the world, it’s hard not to get the sense that Michael felt free and happy:

This brings us to Thriller era Michael, the superstar.  Obviously, he’s a close second for my affection, given the uncontested genius of that album (Besides the obvious tracks, “Human Nature” is particularly amazing). The one thing that keeps me from being down with this guy is that at this point in his life, you start to see signs of how damaged he is.  The racial anguish that would torment him for the rest of his life was already beginning to present itself in nose job #1 and the slightly lighter skin, and his glorious afro had been replaced with an oily Jheri curl (that’s really more of the fault of the ’80s).  Not only that, but he was beginning to do weird stuff like surrounding himself with exotic animals, a foreshadowing of the full-blown creepiness that was to come in later years. My last quibble about this guy is that he became too much of a pro, which in my view, made him less of a joy to behold. His dancing was more tightly choreographed, and his singing more disciplined. Of course, those things led to some really brilliant results (particularly in his dancing), but I feel like a little bit of that unbridled magic from his previous work was lost. Plus, we now know that the intense scrutiny that followed  in the wake of Thriller was ultimately his undoing, so this album is a little bittersweet for me.

By the time  Bad/Dangerous era Michael came around, things were very weird. For some reason, Michael decided that he needed to reinvent himself as a super macho guy, the kind who gets into gang fights and inappropriately grabs himself all the time.  This was really misguided, given that what always made Michael Michael was his androgyny, particularly his ability to make femininity cool, even attractive, in men. So the whole tough guy thing was wholly unconvincing and unappealing to me.  I also thought that the quality of his work declined under this new persona, because it caused him to abandon his stunning falsetto in favor of a throaty growl. Moreover, at this point, Micheal was knee-deep in plastic surgery, going from looking vaguely biracial during Bad to looking very white by the time Dangerous came out. But, given that this is the Michael Jackson who was around when I was growing up, I can’t kick him to the curb altogether.  He made “Bad!” And “Black or White!” And “Remember the Time!” These are the songs that my siblings and I danced to, and this is the time when I thought that there was this incredible dancer in America who could literally defy gravity:

The last Michael Jackson I’m going to call Post-History Michael. And I’m not gonna lie to you, I can’t stand this dude. He was just so angry all the time, and intent on playing the victim when the reality was that it was his questionable behavior which was fueling all of the criticism.  The songs about going out to the disco and dancing his heart out were gone, now all of his music was about how no one understood him and how persecuted he was. This was bad enough, but he also insisted on virtually spitting out each lyric, which gave his music a decidedly caustic vibe. What disappoints me most about Michael at this point is that his behavior was so juvenile, perhaps a reflection of his lifelong desire to reclaim the childhood that Mean Old Joe stole from him. I have a lot of sympathy for that, but he took it too far, and became a joyless whiner for the rest of his life. The definitive “I’m a victim” anthem was “They Don’t Care About Us,” which included such embarrassingly self-indulgent lyrics as:

Beat me, bash me
You can never trash me
Hit me, kick me
You can never get me

All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us
All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us

Some things in life they just don’t wanna see
But if Martin Luther was livin’
He wouldn’t let this be

Negro, please. You know you’re arrogant when you think that your personal problems amount to an egregious violation of rights that Martin Luther King would have been disturbed by. As a rule, once you start name-checking MLK, Gandhi or Mandela in reference to your own crisis, it’s time to quit. But Michael continued on this road, blaming the bad sales of Invincible in 2001 on his record company, describing the head, Tommy Mottola, as “a racist” and “the devil.” It’s actually sort of funny when you think about the fact that once Michael stopped resembling a black man entirely, he began to act like the crudest stereotype of one.

In the end, the self-mutilation was too painful to observe, as Michael Jackson finally rid himself of everything that had initially made him such a breathtaking sight to behold. I stopped listening to his music after History, because it simply wasn’t fun anymore. Given what we now know about his drug use and personal life, it is evident that it was an equally joyless experience for him to make his final albums as it was for us to listen to them.  Still, when I stumbled on this track from his 2001 album, it was good to know that no matter what he did to himself, even he couldn’t completely extinguish his prodigious talent.

\”Butterflies\” by Michael Jackson

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A Qualified (And Ridiculously Long) Defense of Kanye West

21 Apr

Image used under a Creative Commons license from flickr user Tara L. Conley

So unlike the rest of the world, I don’t think Kanye West is all that bad. Before you start listing his many offenses, let me just say–I know he’s an insufferable egoist and that he hurt Taylor Swift’s feelings, something which seems to be on par with dog-fighting and insulting Ronald Reagan in the litany of “unforgivable sins in America.”

In any case, while I don’t listen to his music as much as I used to for a number of reasons, I still think that Kanye is the rare compelling figure in American pop music, someone whose work and persona say something important about the culture that they are a product of. And quite simply, that is why we need to keep him around, in spite of all of his transgressions.

Like most people, I first became aware of Kanye after The College Dropout debuted and everyone rushed to hail him the new Savior of Hip-Hop (Nas was probably like, “hey, that’s my job!”).  Darryl McDaniels from RUN D.M.C claimed that  he hadn’t even bothered to listen to hip hop in the ten years before Kanye’s album came out, and in a typical review, Renee Graham of the Boston Globe wrote that The College Dropout “[gave] listeners an irrefutable reason to believe the hype.” Critics consistently praised his music for its emotional intelligence and wit, all of which  West had managed to convey without relying on the gangster persona as a crutch.

Back in those days, I recall reading a profile of West in Time which heightened my admiration of him. I particularly loved that piece because it focused on his relationship with his parents, which just came of as really lovely and normal. Despite the fact that his parents had divorced when he was younger, it still seemed like they had figured out how to be genial and create a healthy environment for their kid, the importance of which can never be overstated. I also loved that Kanye had some fabulous pedigree–his dad was a former Black Panther who had become a Christian marriage counselor, and his mom was an English professor.  It was especially interesting that these two arguably bougie people had produced a kid who had become a rapper, a notable fact only because lower-class roots (or the pretense of such) are almost required for rappers. In the piece,  his parents acknowledged their initial disappointment with Kanye after he dropped out of college, a feeling which ebbed after their eventual realization that their kid was immensely talented, and that he would figure out how to make it even if he didn’t get an education. All of this–Kanye’s disillusionment with the education system, the struggle between his earthly desires and his contemplation of Christianity, and his wry take on the politics of blackness in America–informed and enriched The College Dropout. Simply put: after years of mimicry and caricature in hip hop, Kanye was interesting because he was just so palpably human.

Which brings us to the uncomfortable segment of this essay, the part where we dissect Kanye’s humanity, which must include an acknowledgment of his flaws. You already know them; he’s arrogant, he often speaks without regard for others–in general, the dude acts like he’s all id. It’s pointless to list where these flaws have led him, there are so many undoubtedly egregious things that Kanye has said and done that even President Obama had to call the brother out.

But, if I may intervene on his behalf, Kanye’s egoism has always been part of his charm, and  he is keenly aware of that.  In the Time article, his mom described Kanye’s rhymes as a Whitmanesque reflection on the self, arguing that like Whitman, West asks,  “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” This “largeness” is what allows him to rap about religion, drugs, school, women and class all on one album. Unlike other rappers, he doesn’t limit himself to talking about the trappings of the high life; if anything, his work is about the insecurity inherent in chasing and achieving the high life. Of course, like Whitman, Kanye can be exceedingly self-indulgent, which is when he gets into trouble.

But I maintain that oftentimes, what we perceive as Kanye being inconsiderate or inappropriate is really Kanye pushing our buttons and exploring what it means to be famous, black, and male in a culture that is capriciously hostile to all of those things. One thing that always struck me about him is that he’s very aware of the necessity of performing celebrity well, and of the fact that his own persona is a useful construct.  As he says about himself, “I’m pretty calculating, I take stuff that I know appeals to people’s bad sides and match it up with stuff that appeals to their good sides.” That’s why I’ve never understood all the universal outrage which inevitably follows a Kanye incident.  Everyone acts as if Kanye is this out of control maniac who needs to be muzzled instead of what he really is, a sophisticated critic of celebrity culture who enjoys playing with our expectations of rappers and black men in general. Take the Taylor Swift incident, which perfectly illustrates how awesomely meta Kanye’s performance of celebrity is. If you’re not an avid consumer of pop culture, (or maybe you were not a member of the mortal world for a few months) “Swiftgate” occurred at the 2009 Video Music Awards, after Taylor Swift beat  Beyonce for Best Female Video.  Kanye decided to interrupt Swift while she was giving her acceptance speech, and uttered the now immortal words: “Yo Taylor I’m really happy for you and imma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time!”

I have two thoughts about this: One, is anyone going to really argue that Taylor Swift’s prosaic “You Belong With Me” was better than the global  phenomenon that is “Single Ladies?” Two, this incident arguably  helped Taylor Swift’s career A LOT.

How exactly did it help Swift to be humiliated in front of millions of people you ask ? It all makes sense when you look at Swift’s own persona, and the narrative she uses to sell herself. At this point, Swift has been all but crowned America’s official princess by marketing herself as a shy, naive girl who was a loser during middle school and just loves country music.  This is despite the fact that Swift has been in show biz since she was very young,  and if her many accomplishments are any indication, is probably more of a seasoned pro than the  neophyte she would have us believe she is. But I understand that she has to sell records, and vulnerable naif has more mass appeal than ambitious, uncompromising young woman (lest she be condemned to exclusively playing gigs at Lillith Fair).  Which is why whenever she gets awards, she acts hyper surprised and tells  some variation of the story of how she was always a dork who never imagined that anyone would listen to her music and that she would be on t.v.  A rather disingenuous thing for a classically beautiful woman who just released her third studio album to say, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.

Anyway, Swift was in the middle of a typically saccharine speech when Kanye rudely interrupted her, creating a clash between two American archetypes; the pretty, innocent blond girl who just wants to sing her heart out, and the threatening black guy with a distinguished career in incivility. It doesn’t take too long to figure out who America decided to root for. Swift was defended by every person with a blog, twitter account, and the title Commander in Chief,  while West was rightly condemned for his vulgar behavior. All of which perfectly fulfilled the requirements of the Taylor Swift narrative, that she always be the underdog and damsel-in-distress. It felt good to come to the defense of this poor little helpless girl who was being attacked by this nasty rapper, and because this is a patriarchal world, we rewarded Swift for being the passive damsel by caring about her music and elevating her career. Similarly, it made us all feel good to be unified in the belief that Kanye West was a ridiculous person, someone our otherwise divided country could collectively dislike. It’s the same reason why reality t.v. is so great; it makes us feel superior to watch people who are completely oblivious to the fact that the world finds their values and actions completely abhorrent.

But here’s the thing, Kanye West consistently demonstrates that he’s keenly aware of his public image, and is especially adept at manipulating it. He’s not a reality tv idiot who thinks everyone will be impressed by his bad behavior. After all, it wasn’t even the first time he’d had a public outburst at an awards show. He’d done almost the exact same thing in 2006 when he didn’t win at the MTV Europe Music Awards, and walked on stage then to interrupt the winners. Since then, he has purposefully cultivated this image of himself as a loose cannon, speaking out at the most inappropriate times. Each time, he disappears for a while and then reemerges, contrite and charming as ever. Readers, if that’s not an intentionally scripted performance, I don’t know what is. I’m almost convinced that Kanye is doing us a favor with each outburst by giving us all an opportunity to bond over our shared disgust. And he doesn’t seem to mind playing that role, if only because he knows that his next album is still going to easily be the best hip hop record released that year, and that we all value him too much to completely desert him. It’s a mutually agreeable relationship we’ve entered into with Mr. West, one which satisfies our need for public enemies, and one which sates his perpetual need for attention. Win win.

I should end by saying that while I think Kanye is an interesting  figure, I’m not uncritically in awe of him. Performance or not, many of the stunts he pulls affect real people who probably don’t enjoy being bit players in  the Kanye West Show. And I think Kanye could rein it in a little, and be the guy he was when The College Dropout came out–the genius with a huge ego who still had enough of a sense of humor to let us all know that he was in on the ridiculousness of his own behavior. In 2004, West did another interview with Time, and when the reporter asked him how big he thought his career was going to get, West answered:

“Probably like Michael Jackson. I’m just saying probably. I’m not going to say definitely I’ll be as big as Michael Jackson. I’m just saying probably.”

It’s quintessential Kanye: arrogant and yet aware that he’s also a bit of a joke.  That guy needs to show up more often, like he did two years ago to be in this hilarious video with Farnsworth Bentley and Andre 3000.

I’m just sayin’…

19 Apr

While  perusing this month’s issue of Bust, which is their Men We Love edition, I read a profile of the electro-dance group Chromeo, made up of David Macklovitch (l) and Patrick Gemayel (r).  There was a lot of interesting stuff in it, including the sort of hilarious fact that  the two consider themselves “the only successful Arab/Jew partnership since the dawn of human nature.”

But of course, because I am me, I have to fixate on the fact that not only is Dave a PhD candidate in French literature at Columbia, he’s also an instructor at Barnard. Also, he claims to have read Our Bodies, Ourselves when he was 11, which is just too cute and precocious. So not only is he in a cool band–he’s cute, smart, and a feminist. Perhaps the women at Barnard are more mature than I remember my classmates and I being, but I’m pretty sure I would not have been a productive student in one of his classes.

Soldier of Love

7 Feb

Sade has a new album coming out on the 9th of February. The first single, “Soldier of Love” (also the album’s title) has been playing pretty constantly on MTV, VH1 and a number of other music stations, to the extent that I have now seen the video at least once everyday this week. Although the song itself is kinda underwhelming for me, I love, love, love the video. The director (Sophie Muller) made a particularly smart decision to have a group of male step dancers behind Sade, which carries the whole “soldier theme” and also works very well with the beat.

The reason I’m posting about it here is because this video immediately reminded me of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” although of course, the artists couldn’t be farther apart in terms of style, message, etc.  “Fight the Power” also features step dancers, and they’re dressed very similarly to the dancers in Sade’s video, with the all black gear and the combat boots. In Public Enemy’s video, the dancers are clearly used to represent black militancy, whereas in Sade’s video, they are there to carry the soldier theme of the song, although that theme is not being used politically, but metaphorically (love is a battlefield, etc).  The one thing that struck me about this comparison is how Sade and Muller used imagery that is for me, very political for purely aesthetic reasons. I know stepping is pretty mainstream, but I think this video evokes black power in a way unlike other uses of stepping have. In particular, having the dancers silhouetted enhances the effect, because they all look black (even though a couple of them aren’t). In addition, at the end, they all throw up what to me is very clearly the black power fist. Again, political imagery used in a really apolitical context. As I said before, I like this video a lot, because something about group choreography just makes me ridiculously happy. And I realize the imagery and language of political movements  is appropriated all the time for  entertainment purposes, and becomes fashionable (e.g. Spice Girls and feminism). I guess I just can’t mentally separate the black poweryness of stepping from its current use as just another style of dancing, and this video heightens that dissonance for me.

What do y’all think?

Hey Pretty Baby With the High Heels On

2 Feb

Most people who know me know that I am unreasonably obsessed with Michael Jackson. For example, the name of this blog is a line from “Wanna be Startin’ Something,” and I know there exists somewhere on the internet a video of me doing a choreographed dance to “Bad.” I will forever proclaim that MJ was probably the most influential artist of the 20th century, an incredible dancer and singer, and he also accomplished what most thought was impossible: making high-waters cool (and oh yeah,  some people totally think he’s the reason why Barack Obama is president).

But that isn’t the point of this post, since you can go anywhere for your Michael adulation needs.  I began thinking about writing this right after Michael died, when my mom and I mourned the only way we knew how: by watching a 24 hr marathon of all of Michael’s videos on MTV. That’s when I saw the video for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” an MJ classic that I’d heard and seen plenty of times before, but had never seen with my adult, feminist eyes.  So I started watching, and progressively realized how much I HATED the video, I mean absolutely hated it.* Basically, the video depicts street harassment from a male perspective, that is, it views it as a really fun activity and not something that is troubling at all!

The video declares its intentions early on, opening with a shot of a certified “hot chick” walking down the street, and then quickly zooming in to isolate her  hips and breasts, which is another way for the video director to let everyone know that he’s all about that male gaze, yo.  So hot girl keeps walking on, and MJ appears out of a random alley and is totally interested in her, but she’s ignoring all the other dudes on the street who are yelling at her. But then, Michael decides that in order for him to stand out from the other dudes clamoring for her attention,  he has to yell, no scream, “hey!” at  her. At this point, I was like like “what the??” because if a random dude yelled at me in the street like that, I would a) Not stop like this woman did and b) If I did stop, it would be to ask him exactly who he thought he was screaming at.

So anyway, at this point, Michael figures he’s in, and that basically this woman is his for the taking. So he starts following her down the street while telling her how much she “turns him on.” This is what really bothered me, since it mirrors something that happens to a lot of women on a regular basis, and is actually quite annoying and in some cases downright frightening. For example, once during college, one guy pulled up next to me in his car while I walking, and after I rebuffed his attempts to pick me up, he lingered on the side of the street, looking at me. Although it wasn’t for very long, I remember being immediately terrified that he was going to follow me home. In essence, this is what happens to this woman– the guy doesn’t take a hint, and then decides he’s going to follow her.

The interesting thing is that the director seems to have some awareness of the fact that, for the most part, street harassment is not  an enjoyable experience for women. In the beginning, the woman seems distressed by the fact that she is being so aggressively pursued, and is in fact, actively trying to escape Michael. She runs into an alley way but realizes that it’s a dead-end, she tries to go across the street but a group of guys who are egging Michael on block her. I mean, at this point, this is every woman’s sexual assault nightmare played out for laughs. For most of the video, there are no other women there, so it’s basically this one woman being followed by a random guy while ten other dudes egg him on. Oh, and just in case it wasn’t gross enough for you, Michael repeatedly stands in front of the woman and pantomimes sexual acts (at points 2:15, 3:59 in the video. I stopped keeping track after those two) in a manner reminiscent of the boys in your 10th grade class.

So how does the director reconcile the video’s fun, sexy vibe with the woman’s obvious discomfort? Surprise!- the beautiful woman has a change of heart, and is suddenly looooooooving all this attention being paid to her, and is giggling and running around being all coy as Michael chases her around. This is another part which pissed me off, because it directly plays into male fantasies about women being sexually available to you as long as you’re aggressive enough. It is an idea based on the presumption that women aren’t to be taken too seriously, and that it’s perfectly okay to disregard what they say. So when they are assertive or angry,  men just dismiss it as being “sassy” or some other cute, non-serious quirk. This is exactly why street harassers never stop, because they figure you’re being coy and flirty when you say “no,” instead of the more frequent reality that you have places to go and in any case, YOU JUST AREN’T INTERESTED.

There is another aspect of this which plays into patriarchal mythology about women. Through the lyrics in the song, we also get the sense that the woman is partly responsible for the harassment. The song constantly mentions how much she’s turning him on with her “high heels” and “walk and dress,” essentially placing the blame on the woman for “making” him such a horndog. This reflects a particularly insidious patriarchal notion, the idea that it’s a woman’s fault for being raped or assaulted, because gosh darn it, she was just so hot that the guy couldn’t resist! This ideology is reflected in the choice to title the song “The Way You Make Me Feel,” (emphasis mine) as opposed to something like “The Way I Feel,” which would better account for the fact that men are responsible for their sexual feelings and actions, and that women do not “provoke” harassment because of the way we look or the things we do. Instead, by making it all about all about how she’s making him feel, song puts the onus on the woman, the victim of harassment, to prevent it by dressing conservatively and not walking alone at night, things which, it should be noted, the woman in the video has neglected to do.   So in addition to saying that all women secretly like street harassment, this video also implicitly blames them for it anyway for not sufficiently protecting themselves.

This being a patriarchal fantasy, the video must end with the guy getting his girl. There is actually an interesting sort of inversion in that the woman ends up being the pursuer a little bit at the end.  After Michael mysteriously disappears, she starts looking for him and is all concerned that her one true love may be forever out of her reach. But after a quick group dance number, (this is a Michael video after all) the two are reunited, and share an awkward hug (again, this is a Michael video). Fin.

So what do you think of it? There was another point that emerged for me as I was thinking about it, and it relates to the  larger question of Michael’s own mysterious and rather complex sexuality. That is, for a dude who admittedly didn’t have that much sexual interest in women, he often engages in very sexually aggressive and threatening behavior in his videos (i.e. continual crotch grabbing and sexual pantomiming). Is it an attempt to overcompensate? To fit in with a larger male culture that he is otherwise alienated from? I don’t know, I think this is an interesting point for someone with more psychoanalytical theory under their belt to explore. (For more weird sexual posturing by Michael, see the extended dance scene end of the “Black or White” video, which featured sufficiently odd things to creep out my mom and me).

*Watching things I loved as a child is almost always awful for me now, because I inevitably realize how sexist, racist, etc they were.