Michael Jackson and the world in the mirror

May 6, 2013

I have to confess to being enthralled by Michael Jackson as a musician, a multi-arts performer, and an icon of our age. His life is somewhere between an arresting parody and a mystery play of all that is simultaneously celebrated, deprecated, and tragically imitated in western popular entertainment-fuelled culture. He bears all the marks (and I guess by this I also mean scars) of an extraordinarily creative artist. More than just singing his songs,MJ created his own new unique  language with all of those little throat sounds that punctuate the audio, and the constant motion, including the signature moves (even the ones that were too intimate and explicit at the same time for some audiences)that were like long sentences of dance. His expressivity was disarming, and I have often thought he shared much in common on a personal level with another brilliant, tortured and scandal-generating dance-genius, Nijinsky.

Jackson’s biography reads a little like an Old Testament prophet – particularly the really freaky ones. Like Hosea or Ezekiel, whose bizarre lives held up a mirror to the culture they critiqued, using public imitation as a form of denunciation, Jackson’s visual life showed us – in vivid  incarnate caricature – exactly what we worship. And in the end, didn’t it just gross us out a little bit? Which is how the life of the prophet often works. Words of warning are often not enough. We need to see, graphically, the ridiculous obscenity of our lives.

Voices of scandal, accusation, pity and retro-psycho-analysis have provided plenty of commentary on the transformation MJ’s physique. The trite and reasonably offensive summary (managing a trifecta of racist, sexist and age-ist slurs) is that he changed from a young black boy into and old white woman. This is a cheap way of dismissing what I think is the major artistic work of Jackson’s life – what his true voice was saying.

In the modifications and transformations Jackson underwent, he followed the rules of our western celebrity culture exactly.

He showed us what it is that we value,

and how grotesque our values and predilections are.

For all the appreciation of the evocative depth of black music, the western world is far happier to watch a white person, while listening to a near enough copy of a black sound.Jackson called our bluff, and conformed his image to our preferences. He did this with absolute precision. He took the idealisation of ‘beauty’ and re-crafted himself on their template. The narrow nose and fine point, the high chiseled cheeks, high arched brows and baby doll open eyes of Barbie, and combined with the extended square cleft chin from GI Joe.  All the while his skin stretched tighter and tighter, like the soul of TS Eliot’s man across the sky.
He removed the african-american features, one by one, and replaced them with the ‘standard’. Whether or not his surgeries were a conscious critique by imitation of the dominance of ‘whiteness’ (and what a slippery ideal that is) they cut a clear cultural narrative.  The finely renovated architecture of his face became routinely adorned with make-up. Again, he reflected our judgements that, for all our bare-flesh lust, it is not real skin, with as many bumps, pits, cracks and rough patches as the roads we travel, that we want to see.  Some described Jackson as a drag queen. And in this again, our prejudices exposed. Except on the operatic stage, which my early training normalised,  I find the application of make-up to men unneccessary and unbecoming, but I find the application of make-up to women quite the same. How strange it is that we consider men in make up some how ‘false’ – and this is unacceptable, but women are encouraged to wear make up – to be false – as if the plain and honest face of a woman, inscribed with all the depth and detail of life, is too much to view.Jackson gave us what we say is beautiful, and yet…somehow, in made-to-order perfection, his beauty became less appealing and more appalling.
He did this behaviourally as well – we desire the ageless endless youth that looks innocent, and yet we demand caricature sexualisation. He gave us both – and while we adore it on stage, we ridiculed his off stage Neverland  – and held suspicions about his sexuality, so puzzled by the way the adult playing the sexualised-child persona we  idolise on stage might integrate into a life of real personal relationships. By all accounts, it appears that in his personal life Jackson – like most children – most cherished friendship.

He started with ‘The Man in the Mirror’ and made the changes that show the world is not a better place for the things that we say we desire:

  • Children who are placed on a pedestal for the indulgence of adults.
  • Faces that are judged on mathematical proportions and shades of cultural colonisation, that don’t show either the deep pain or deep joy – as any kind of emotional depth that carves its way into our faces is outlawed.
  • The visual triumph of ‘white’ over ‘black’.
  • The triumph of marketable image over creative expression.
  • The maleable effeminate face subject to the gaze of the world, on the one hand touted as more desirable and more beautiful than the male visage, but actually less respected, regarded – only a thing to be seen.
  • Excessive expenditure on ourselves in self-enhancement and improvement
  • Voyeristic sexuality without accountability or consequences.

What is left of such a legacy?

The old-school prophets were called to address the unfaithfulness of a society by such publicity stunts as marrying prostitutes (Hosea) and lying in filth (Ezekiel). Their outlandish attention-seeking antics were, unfortunately largely unsuccessful. Their cities persisted in heartless exploitation of the poor, shady deals and sham piety, and were gobbled up by the greedy empires of the north and east. While Jackson’s troubled and tormented life provides much to provoke and  prompt change and much that should shame us into cultural renovation, the machines of celebrity, cookie cutter image and cliche sexualities continue to self replicate, and we continue to exploit our tender children’s gifts, make shady deals to assure a steady supply of shiny objects and project sham righteous indignation at the violence of others. What does it take to shake us?

Perhaps the Apostle Paul was right after all, when he said that it was not shock tactics, shaming or hellfire and brimstone threats, but  ‘God’s kindness that leads us to repentance’.

If MJ shows us what the shock tactics and attention seeking cliches look like  when taken to their extreme conclusion, I wonder what a life that was filled with the kindness of God -calling us to forsake all our pretensions, our fake selves and our appalling prejudices and exclusions – would look like?

I suppose the classic christian answer here would be to say ‘look at Jesus’ – that’s where the kindness of God is.

On the one hand, I heartily recommend it. Read the Gospel of Mark or Luke or Matthew, or even John – but be warned. You may be left appalled, shocked and scandalised by the way Jesus’ world treated him – with scandalous accusation, publichumiliation, and violent grotesque execution. Still, even in this, may you encounter the kindness of God.


  1. I am reminded of those reality TV shows where people have a major make-over, including cosmetic surgery and major dental work, to correct the facial features that they have disliked or hated their whole lives. While I can completely empathise with the desire to fix bits of you that you don’t like (if I had the money i would be SO tempted to change some bits of me!), I remember being appalled – literally – when the ‘big reveal’ in these shows presented us with someone with perfect features and perfect teeth. Appalled because I felt like I was watching a horror movie where e v e r y o n e l o o k s t h e s a m e . (Midwich Cuckoos, anyone?)

    So my horror has led me to reflect that our imperfections are actually something to be treasured. [I will not put imperfections in inverted commas. They are imperfections, not perceived ones. I am both perfected and being made perfect on the inside, not the outside, through the work of Christ, but my outside is imperfect – deal with it.] My imperfections make me human, and therefore make me attractive in my uniqueness. Having said that, the reality is that sometimes I’m content… and sometimes I ain’t.

    • In music there are ‘perfect’ and ‘imperfect’ cadences. This is nothing to do with one being more consonant or superior to the other – but to do with completion.
      The perfect cadence is for when it’s all-over-red-rover.
      THe imperfect cadence is the one for when there is more yet to come…
      It’s the sound of anticipation – of expectation – of hope.

      In that way – the ‘imperfect’ is something we can live with.
      Your comment reminded me of Tim Minchin’s beautiful song ‘Not Perfect’.

      Thanks for reminding me.

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