Because the world has been abuzz about Michael Jackson since his passing on Thursday— This American Life titled its acts after Michael Jackson hits; Jamie Foxx was moonwalking at the BET awards, every bar I’ve been in has played a string of MJ hits, and because my boss at SVA is Bob Giraldi, who directed the music video, Beat It as well as the New Generation Pepsi spots with Michael, I feel compelled to blog something about the man in the mirror. What’s more, Michael was nothing if not controversial, and I love to blog about controversy in the arts.
No one, save the now grown children involved, can ever truly know if anything sinister happened with Michael, who was accused and ultimately acquitted of child molestation charges. However, he was extensively investigated for over a decade, and although some odd things were discovered, no definitive evidence of foul play was ever unearthed. What’s more, people like to fear what’s different. Thus, it’s my belief that Michael was accused of pedophilia for much of the same reason that homosexuals are often accused of it.
On Monday, Bob twittered, “Time 2 put MJ to rest-forget the rumors, move on 2 remembrance. USA lost 1 of its greatest artists, like Britain’s Lennon, Spain’s Picasso.” Indeed, Michael should be remembered for groundbreaking music, for his thirteen #1 singles and thirteen Grammy Awards, for “I’ll be there,” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” for Thriller, the top selling original album of all time, and for “We are the World”, which raised $50 million for hunger-relief in Africa. But more than that, he was in many ways an artist who should be placed in both the canon of pop musicians and that of performance artists like Marina Abramović, Bruce Nauman, and Vito Acconci, artists who’s bodies are their medium. Indeed, most obviously, Michael’s voice was his art. So too was dance, how he made his body move. He perfected and popularized the moonwalk; his dance was integral to the evolution of music video production style.
But, in addition to these things that made him an American icon, the multiple plastic surgeries that were the cause of debate in the African American community, contributed to his reputation as an eccentric, and were the subject of many jokes, were also a part of his art. And yes, they may have been art fueled by such things as vitiligo, a troubled youth, depression, even a body dysmorphic disorder, but much great art comes from personal struggle. Throughout his songs and videos is the theme of transformation– transformation from person to werewolf (“Thriller”), or from person to spaceship (“Moonwalker”), transformation of the world with music and dance (“Beat it;” “We are the World”), thinking beyond racial stereotypes (Dangerous). His surgeries were not, as some believe, an attempt to transform himself into a “white” person. Instead, with each surgery he further metamorphosized into a person who was neither black nor white, masculine nor feminine, but someone who transcended these classifications: he worked to be aracial and agender. And, though this is not my own ideal, I have to respect someone who so fully embodied his art.