Black or White?

Michael Jackson and
the Idea of Crossover
David Brackett
Michael Jackson has been referred to as a crossover artist for more than forty years, but
what does this mean? The term “crossover” usually describes how an artist’s appeal
transcends an audience associated with one type of music to include another, with some
reference often made to the role of musical and visual factors in this process. After a
discussion of some of the assumptions frequently attached to the concept of crossover,
I analyze several of Michael Jackson’s biggest crossover hits both for how textual elements
address multiple constituencies and for how these texts project a vision of racial relations
and identity.
I first encountered Michael Jackson in the sixth grade. Not in the flesh, I’ll have you
know; rather, my introduction took place through a snatch of “I Want You Back”
streaming from a radio followed by the thrill of recognition that happens when you
hear a recording that sounds as if you’d known it all your life. I believe I was
responding to a turn of melody, phrased just right, matched perfectly by Jackson’s
vocal timbre; later hearings revealed an introduction announcing that the song was
something special, the superbly timed gaps in the rhythm section leading off an
arrangement that practically demanded repeated listening—a demand answered by
the legion of hip-hop artists who sampled it over the years.
Michael’s voice was the
clincher: his traded shouts with brother Jermaine as the recording began to fade
evidence, indeed, that he had worshipped at the altar of James Brown and the
tradition of great gospel singers. Images from record sleeves, magazines, and television
appearances confirmed what I and my integrated class in Oakland, California, almost
evenly balanced between black and white students, already suspected: here was
someone the same age as us who embodied in sound the social utopia that some saw
in my school’s harmonious social blend. The Jackson 5’s records appeared bearing the
label we were all familiar with from years of listening to the crossover soul of Motown,
placing these recordings in a lineage that marked the as yet unfaded dreams of the civil
rights movement.
ISSN 0300-7766 (print)/ISSN 1740-1712 (online) q 2012 Taylor & Francis
Popular Music and Society
Vol. 35, No. 2, May 2012, pp. 169–185
For the next three years, Michael, either with the Jackson 5 or solo, was at the top of
the playlist for kids my age. After that, he and his brothers would reappear in different
guises: as slightly older purveyors of disco, as an actor in The Wiz. During the course
of the 1970s, the Jacksons and Motown seemed to lose their footing, and pop radio
formatting in the US become more segmented, increasingly adopting a segregated
approach to programming.
The type of crossover soul in which the Jacksons
specialized, which was perceived to bring together disparate listening audiences,
became rarer and faced growing institutional resistance.
Then came Off the Wall in
1979, followed by Thriller in 1982, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I include this prologue for several reasons. Foremost among these is that I grew up
listening to Michael Jackson in a pop music landscape in which genre and race were
unmistakably connected, in which musical choices from the perspective of both
production and consumption had consequences and correspondences in social
relations. The genius of Motown’s strategy was to address multiple constituencies in
ways that felt convincing even when the music was heard from varying social
perspectives. Thus, the Jackson 5’s recordings seemed to address directly me and my
friends, who were in many respects the target audience, while also appealing to people
who didn’t correspond to the idea of crossover in such an obviously homologous
This type of appeal, which appears to transcend simple correspondence in
terms of identification, is the sine qua non of both crossover recordings and
mainstream popular music in general. At least part of the appeal and the controversial
aspects of Michael Jackson’s public image derive from the complexity of the role
played by identification in the circulation of meaning in popular music. One of the
main threads throughout Jackson’s career—from Thriller onwards but undeniably
present in the earliest Jackson 5 recordings, in music, images, and lyrics—was the
tension between categories of music and people as lived and as imagined. Jackson’s
work makes a case for these categories as social constructs even as it registers the
confusion resulting from the inability to escape the effects and conventions of these
categories in the world of social practice.
Crossover in Theory—and Practice
I am particularly interested in how the idea of crossover figures into these tensions
between categories as lived and as imagined. The division of categories into “lived”
and “imagined” does not imply that they are wholly separate conceptually—certainly
one’s “imagination” affects the practical consequences of one’s daily life, and vice
versa; the reference here is to the awareness that many people have that categories of
humans and music are in a sense arbitrary and artificial even as they are constrained
by these categories and organize their daily lives according to them.
One need be only dimly aware of the mutability of racial categories over time to
question their stability, yet who would deny the incredible power of racial categories
to structure people’s lives? Similarly, associations between types of music and types of
people are forged over a long, complex chain of historical transactions that are, in a
170 D. Brackett
sense, arbitrary, yet who would question that “soul music” is associated with African
Americans, while country music is associated with rural, white people in the southern
US? Let me be clear that I am not arguing that black popular music expresses the
unvarying musical essence of African Americans but rather that it arises as a relational
construct formed out of a history of black-white interactions and from the centrality
of race to US public discourse. Something similar can be said of the relation of
country music to rural, southern whites. Along the same lines, the idea of black and
white racial identity as something wholly distinct can’t withstand historical analysis.
The meaning of whiteness and blackness in the US has changed over time depending
on widely circulating discourses about race and shifting racial hierarchies in the US,
among other factors. Yet, here too, a parallel exists with musical categories in that
praxis dictates that social action is predicated on the iteration of a shared myth of
stable identity and clear boundaries.
The resulting musical categories are enshrined in institutional practices—from
radio formats, production categories, journalistic and fan discourse all the way to the
graphic interface of iTunes—that have a profound effect on the circulation of music.
This is all to say that categories of music and people are neither true nor false, but
rather “ideological” in that they speak to a shared, tacit understanding about which
differences are meaningful as well as to how these differences are meaningful. At the
same time, an aspect of ideology is that it never speaks to everybody in the same way
at the same time. Genre, because it acts as a kind of cultural shorthand, is one of
the arenas in which the patterns and contradictions of ideology become visible (see
Beebee 18). Consistency of musical style-genre-audience associations can underscore
the deeply entrenched nature of these connections, while rapid changes in the
relationship between any of these three terms can underscore their contingency.
“Crossover” is a valuable concept in that crossover recordings rely on the sense of a
stable relationship between genres and identities while they simultaneously heighten
the instability of such categories.
Michael Jackson: The Ur-Crossover Artist and “Beat It”
I was struck by the consistency with which Jackson was labeled a crossover artist in
retrospectives of his career published in the wake of his death. Ben Fong-Torres,
writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, went so far as to proclaim that “[w]ith the J5
and the Jacksons . . . and as a solo artist, Jackson shattered the categories that have
always been part of popular music. The J5 were the first crossover act.” The goal here is
not to mock such a patently hyperbolic statement made by a well-respected writer;
rather, I wish to probe what it is about Jackson and his work that led to him being
characterized as such, for one can’t both shatter categories and cross over between
them: in order for crossover between categories to occur, there must exist a shared
sense that the boundaries between categories are discernible, or, at any rate,
meaningful. As an artist, Jackson clearly played with categories of music and
combined them in new ways, extending the legacy of Motown, the recording company
Popular Music and Society 171
that had nurtured him and in which his ideas about the relationship between his
music and his audience were formed. His work from the production side was
mirrored in consumption, as Off the Wall and Thriller reached audiences believed at
that time to be incompatible, resulting in the most readily observable feature of a
crossover artist: success on multiple popularity charts at the same time. Kobena
Mercer, in an oft-cited article about race and the video for “Thriller,” argued that
Jackson crossed over, not by moving to the middle of the road, but by “playing with
imagery and style that has always been central to the marketing of pop” (95).
However, at the risk of being pedantic, and to return to Fong-Torres’s claim about
Jackson, playing with genres is not the same thing as shattering them.
One of the most celebrated instances of this play of genre occurs in “Beat It” from
the Thriller album. Here, Jackson took two genres believed to lie on opposite ends of
the affective and associative spectrum, heavy metal and electro-funk, and did not so
much fuse them as create a generic montage. A distorted heavy guitar riff is
superimposed on a robotic sounding funk groove (see Figure 1), and Eddie Van
Halen, the best-known rock guitar virtuoso of the early 1980s, lays a blistering solo
over the middle section of the tune.
The music, then, clearly mixes or blends genres in ways that evoke a kind of racial
integration. The video for “Beat It,” in its playful pastiche of West Side Story, creates a
visual correspondence with the social hybridity of the music. In addition to the
musical and visual encounters with generic borders and references, the video of “Beat
It”—along with the video of the preceding single from Thriller, “Billie Jean”—
confronted one of the institutional barriers enforcing categorical boundaries: with
some help from the strong-arm tactics of CBS head, Walter Yetnikoff, these videos
shattered the de facto color line existing on MTVat the time (Grein; see Brackett, “(In
Search of),” for an analysis of “Billie Jean” as a crossover recording). Aclose look at the
video for “Beat It” will clarify some of the ideological implications of this text (and of
Figure 1 Guitar riff superimposed on funk groove.
172 D. Brackett
Jackson’s work in general) at which the foregoing account can only hint. Music video,
in general, is striking, in fact, for how the production teams involved understand the
various connotative levels of the songs they are illustrating.
It is useful toconsider the role of race inthe gangconflicts of West Side Story andthento
examine how “Beat It” grafts a rather different racial narrative onto those conflicts in
order to better understand the political connotations of the song and video. The original
stage directions of West Side Story reveal its articulation of a particular moment in the
history of whiteness andracial difference inthe US. The beginning of the script states that
“the Sharks are Puerto Ricans, the Jets an anthology of what is called ‘American.’” This
anthology, we are told later, consists mainly of “‘Wops,’ ‘Micks,’ and ‘Polacks’” (Jacobson
This insider status of the descendants of relatively recent European immigrants
held by the Jets was something fairly new in 1957 when West Side Story was written, and
aligns well with a concept of ethnicity as something distinct from race, for, prior to the
1940s, it was still very common to hear members of “new immigrant” groups such as
Italians, Irish, and Polish referred to as different races, distinct fromthe dominant race of
Anglo-Saxons. In the world of West Side Story, however, skin color is what determines
race, and the relative lightness of the Jets’ skin sets them apart from the Sharks. In other
words, the inability of the Sharks to “pass” as white consolidates what would have then
been the newfound whiteness of the Jets (Jacobson 133).
The homogeneity of a white race is taken for granted by Jackson and his
collaborators in the filming of “Beat It,” as, indeed, it would have been by virtually
anyone making a video in 1982. The gangs in the video are integrated, defusing the
sense in which the diegetic conflict could be attributed to race. Yet it is still the primary
binary racial division of black and white that structures the integration of the gangs in
the video, and the main fight in the heart of the video’s narrative occurs between a
single black and a single white gang member, who are the leaders of the rival gangs.
The centrality of race as a structuring force thus continues to set the terms in which
identity within the video may be understood. Jackson elides the conflicts that might
actually exist between black and white working-class gangs at that historical moment,
in the process failing to reproduce and update the socio-historical tensions that gave
rise to gang warfare in West Side Story, which offered a closer mimesis of social
conflicts that existed at the time. In other words, in “Beat It” such conflicts come to
seem the result of individual whims rather than the result of historically embedded
power relations or of institutionalized relations between race and class.
Utopia in “Black and/or White”
The combination of a utopian view of racial harmony and an allegiance to the notion
of reified identity is thematized most explicitly in Jackson’s 1991 production, “Black
or White.” Following a prologue, the main part of the song begins with a riff based on
an E sus chord that initiates a blues-based chord progression (see Figure 2),
accompanied in the video by a dancing Michael Jackson, who is surrounded by
“African” warriors. This E sus riff strongly recalls the Rolling Stones’ “Soul Survivor”
Popular Music and Society 173
from Exile on Main St. (1972) (see Figure 3). The similarity of the overall rhythm and
timing of the 4-3 suspension in the top voice that occurs in the first measure of these
riffs is striking, and creates a close correspondence despite the difference in key and in
the overall rhythm of the second measure. Jackson could not have chosen a more
archetypal riff to signify rock-ness.
The album on which the Stones’ “Soul Survivor”
appeared was recently the subject of the following: no fewer than two feature stories in
Rolling Stone during the year preceding the drafting of this essay; a book in a series
published by Continuum devoted to canonic albums; a deluxe re-release of the CD in
2010; and a feature-length documentary on the making of the album. In other words,
the album on which “Soul Survivor” featured is central to the rock canon (see Greene;
Janowitz; “Making”; Rolling Stones; Stones in Exile).
The riff itself is a staple of Keith Richard’s rhythm guitar style, forming the basis of
many other iconic Rolling Stones’ songs, such as “Brown Sugar,” “Gimme Shelter,”
and “Street Fighting Man.” The combination of this riff with Jackson’s soul-derived
singing and the dance-funk-based rhythm track thus enacts the song’s refrain, “It
doesn’t matter if you’re black or white,” in musical terms. In conjunction with the
“Soul Survivor” riff, the bass line is particularly important for generating the unique
groove, with its heavy low “E” slides and use of musical space evoking genres such as
funk or reggae. The way in which the gaps in the bass line and guitar riff complement
and interlock with each other is particularly evocative of funk, and contrasts with the
relationship between guitar riff and bass found in a song like “Soul Survivor” (see
Figure 4). This musical-semiotic fusion finds echoes both in the famous video
morphing sequence toward the end of the song and in Jackson’s own controversial
physical transformation during the last thirty years of his career. Multiple acts of
cross-racial ventriloquism also play off the cultural referents of these musical
components: Jackson plays air guitar along with the “Soul Survivor” riff, while in the
middle section (where the riff temporarily ceases) Euro-American child actor
Macaulay Culkin, joined at times by Jackson, mimes to a rap. (This section ends with
the line “I’m not going to spend my life being a color.”)
The musical-connotative analysis just proffered does not necessarily support my
earlier claim that racial identity is reified in “Black or White.” Rather, it demonstrates
how Jackson superimposes musical practices and gestures from different genres in
order to create a hybrid that confounds expectations. As Susan Fast argues in her
Figure 2 Guitar riff in “Black or White.”
Figure 3 Guitar riff in “Soul Survivor.”
174 D. Brackett
article in this issue, the way in which rock-derived gestures (and white musicians) are
used projects a sense of rock music as “other” to Jackson’s default style based in soul
music, R&B, and funk. It is rather the lyrics and (most importantly) the images of the
video that, by attaching representational meaning to the more open-ended formal
processes of the music, create a narrative reliant on racial stereotypes: the “African
warriors,” the “savage” Native Americans, the “exotic” South Asian dancer, and so on.
This criticism of how racial identity is employed in Black or White might lie
uncomfortably close to the rather knee-jerk wave of scorn that began to wash over
Michael Jackson around the time Black or White was released. American studies
scholar Eric Lott, for one, has described the video as “universally vilified (and
misunderstood)” (“Aesthetic Ante” 550). If this is the case, my interpretation rests
close to universal opinion; Lott’s corrective, on the other hand, relies on a positive
reading of the chain of representations presented in the video, an interpretation based
on a sympathetic divination of Jackson’s intentions.
Defenses of the video other
than Lott’s could be made along the following lines: that the stereotypes used in Black
or White are, well, so stereotypical that an ironic reading is possible; that the images of
the video and the lyrics of the song are a plea, similar to the “Can we all get along?”
uttered by Rodney King in the wake of the LA Riots not long after the song’s release; or
that the celebrated morphing sequence toward the end of the video counterbalances
the essentialisms in the first part of the video with images that emphasize the
malleability of identity (to be fair, Lott offers a similar reading of this passage).
Perhaps more to the point, these video sequences recall other instances in which
Jackson presents a vision of the world where differences are healed through the shared
joy of dancing. Jackson’s own foreword to the liner notes of Dangerous, the album that
featured “Black or White,” puts this vision into words:
This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the
twinkling of an eye. But the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I am
dancing, I have felt touched by something sacred. In those moments, I felt my spirit
soar and become one with everything that exists. . . . I keep on dancing. . . . Then it
Figure 4 Comparison of bass-guitar grooves in “Black or White” and “Soul Survivor.”
Popular Music and Society 175
is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge into one wholeness
of joy.
It would make little sense to question the sincerity of this statement, and indeed,
ensemble dancing is used to heal differences in numerous Jackson videos, from “Beat
It” to “Thriller” (demonstrating that even zombies are not immune to the joys of mind-
body synchronization brought on by dancing together) to “Bad” to “Black or White”.
To return to the reading of “Black or White” as a play of genres, if Lott’s
interpretation could be faulted, the fault might lie not in the invocation of Jackson’s
intentions, but rather in not exploring the idea of artistic intention fully enough. For,
by choosing to create within a genre or genres, an artist such as Jackson is accepting
both the constraints and the potentials of that genre, some of which may never have
been realized before and which even the artist might sense only dimly, but which
become clearer with historical hindsight. The idea of artistic intention is re-written
here to signify the decision (again, often not wholly conscious) of an artist to exploit a
genre’s semantic potential. The value of such work might then be found in how music
(and, to some extent, the lyrics and video images) enables listeners to experience the
world in a new way through rhetorical processes that convey particular modes of
feeling and emotion. Genres here, too, may be understood as modes of feeling, and as
ways of experiencing embodied emotion. The sense of experience conveyed by the
musical gestures might not, in fact, align with the more concrete meanings conveyed
by the lyrics and images. The particular case of “Black or White,” then, helps to
explain how artistic works, in general, may convey meanings or “truths” of which the
author is unaware, but that become apparent only in the course of later
hearings/readings. Part of the continuing fascination of “Black or White” derives
from Jackson’s challenge to his own creative process through the mixture of musical
gestures derived from musical genres with which he had varying degrees of comfort.
In this case, Jackson reveals the sedimented connections between hard rock and post-
soul R&B and the potential of these genres to blend into a new hybrid.
Yet another complication to straightforward invocations of artistic intention in
these texts is the complex matter of authorship. The music and lyrics of “Black or
White” (except for the rap lyrics) are credited to Jackson, but the video is a
collaboration between Jackson and director John Landis. It therefore may be
misleading to talk about this text as if it were solely the result of Jackson’s creative
vision, as it is not clear which visual ideas that we see in the video are Jackson’s and
which are Landis’s. On a somewhat related note, some of the passages that have
generated the most discussion were, in fact, part of a repertory of gestures found in
music videos of the time linked to particular genres of music video. For example,
some of the more controversial and ambiguous passages related to confusions of
narrative time and space were common to many other music videos of the era, and
not necessarily expressions of Jackson’s unique artistic vision. A similar claim, in
terms both of authorial intertextuality and crossed-racial identifications, could be
176 D. Brackett
made for the choreographic allusions to Hollywood musicals and to dancers such as
Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.
Purity of Genre, the Crossover Effect, and the Video for “Bad”
Regardless of whether one interprets the video to “Black or White” positively or
negatively, the recording and its video, as in the case of “Beat It,” functioned as an
exemplary crossover vehicle. How, then, does this crossover musical effect function in
“Beat It” and “Black or White”? And, perhaps more to the point, what are the
conditions that enable the bringing together of musical gestures believed to belong to
incompatible genres? Furthermore, what is the effect of such recordings on the
categories they are purportedly bridging? As suggested earlier, crossover recordings do
not immediately have the effect of destroying generic boundaries, but instead tend to
call attention to those boundaries and, occasionally, to the novelty of musical gestures
that had not hitherto been combined in a convincing fashion. In the short term, then,
one could argue that such recordings actually bolster the sense of distinct generic
borders; that is, listeners may ask, “What is this rock guitar riff doing in an R&B tune?”
rather than exclaiming, “What a fantastic new hybrid that defies all previous
categorical labels in its amazing crossover success!” In the long term, however,
Jackson’s breakthrough in the early 1980s certainly participated in a transformation of
the mainstream itself, and R&B-associated musical practices became much more
commonly accepted in the wake of Thriller.
I would argue, however, that what makes the process of crossover possible in the
first place is that these genres were already mixed. That is, hard rock as employed in
“Beat It” and “Black or White” already has “blackness” as part of its buried history,
“forged” as it was out of blues.
These rock riffs are provided with visible analogues in
the form of white guitarists Eddie Van Halen in “Beat It” and Stevie Stevens in the
heavy metal ballad “Dirty Diana,” attesting to the racial associations of these gestures,
even as the ease of assimilating them betrays any simple racial assignation.
Rolling Stones, whose riff underpins “Black or White,” based a large part of their
career on the mimicry of blues and rhythm and blues. Pushing this line of argument
further, even the blues can be understood as emerging out of black-white musical
interaction, and the interpretive matrix that coded these gestures as African-American
resulted from years of interactions, transatlantic dialogues, African travelogues, and a
shifting set of historical conditions specific to the turn of the last century in the US
(see Radano; Middleton; Keil). Thus, Jackson exploited these half-forgotten histories,
reveling in how these signifiers of genre already both evoked other genres against
which they might be defined, and, moreover, contained within them a submerged
struggle between genres.
These struggles between genres in the texts employed by Jackson can also be read as
ideological struggles. In this sense, and in terms of imagery, however, the racial
stereotypes shown in the video of “Black or White” may represent the low point
in Jackson’s attempts to re-imagine the structure of racial identifications in the US,
Popular Music and Society 177
while the hybridity of the music suggests a creative apex. In other (verbal/visual) texts,
he reaches for utopian fantasy in ways that confound normative thinking about the
tripartite “Caucasoid/Negroid/Mongoloid” model that has dominated US thought
about race since the 1920s (again, see Jacobson). Yet the yearning for a world beyond
racial and economic oppression comes to rest on the unrestricted agency of
individuals, expressed in these lines from “Man in the Mirror”: “If you want to make
the world a better place/take a look at yourself and make a change.” Such dreams
ignore the futility of individual action in a world where such actions are constrained
by institutional and discursive forces beyond the power of any single social actor to
change him- or herself or, indeed, the world. This emphasis, in fact, has the
paradoxical effect of reinforcing individualistic ideals that work against concerted
social action that might intervene at institutional levels. Such a sentiment becomes
clearer in “Jam,” another song from Dangerous (the album featuring “Black or
White”), in the section where Jackson tells his “brothers” to not ask him for any
favors. Here, a character who voices the idea of the constraining force of the symbolic
is dismissed as an apologist for non-action.
Interpretation of these songs, however, need not be starkly black or white. My
readings, while critical, are not unappreciative of the complex interventions into the
ideologies of race-gender-sexuality-age that Jackson often attempted. I am thinking,
in particular, of extraordinary musico-visual sequences such as the one that occurs at
the end of the long Bad video, where Michael confronts African-American “friends”
from his neighborhood with an alternative vision of black masculinity. Accompanied
by a multi-racial, androgynous, non-violent, pacifist gang, Jackson and friends
perform a chant that resembles a ring shout, paradoxically a musical form with strong
connotations of African-American identity; this performance succeeds in convincing
his black friends from his old neighborhood that his anti-macho way is best (see
Wallace). Is it the image or the music—in a relation more nuanced and complex than
either “Black or White” or “Beat It”—that succeeds? But even though Jackson’s
diegetic friends seem to be convinced, questions remain, for, despite the salutary
attempt to imagine a more socially harmonious world that also recognizes Jackson’s
own roots in a working-class, black milieu, Jackson could still be criticized for
reducing the complexity of the historical-social conventions that constitute the
symbolic. Once again, his idealistic vision of a world beyond race, gender, and
violence ends up portraying young, impoverished African-American males without
access to prep school educations as psychopathic criminals.
For Jackson, the poor
children and homeless people with whom he empathizes in “Man in the Mirror” are
disconnected from the poor, black, “ghetto” males in “Bad” who are in need only of a
dancing, ring-shout singing Jackson to convince them to change their ways. Yet one
also can’t help but marvel at how the persuasiveness of Jackson’s argument derives
from his performance of the power of black music (as Samuel Floyd might put it).
Jackson’s various physical and musical transformations during the 1980s were hotly
debated by black writers on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the most critical was
Greg Tate, who chastised Jackson as a sellout due to his adoption of Berry Gordy’s
178 D. Brackett
crossover strategy while dropping Motown’s “Black is Beautiful” stance. Tate did not
disapprove of Jackson’s utopian fantasies per se, but found his physical transformation
disturbing as well as his reluctance to represent and fight for the needs and aspirations
of African Americans living in the material world. On the other end of the critical
spectrum, Kobena Mercer pointed out that Jackson’s music remained rooted in the
conventions of black popular music regardless of his occasional nods towards, and
incorporation of, rock-based gestures. One need only compare Jackson to Lionel
Richie, his clearest predecessor in late-’70s, early-’80s crossover, with Richie’s
crossover success (both solo and with the Commodores) staked almost entirely on
MOR ballads (Mercer 95).
Criticisms about Jackson’s lack of political involvement rarely acknowledged his
efforts to use his high public profile for positive ends: beginning in 1984 and
continuing until the early 2000s, he was extraordinarily generous to many charitable
causes, in particular the United Negro College Fund and various funds for AIDS
victims. Why, then, did so many critics perceive him to lack pride in his race as
opposed to a figure such as James Brown? In contrast to Brown, Jackson did not
involve himself directly in community projects—to take but one activity that raises
public awareness of a star’s political involvement—but I believe the criticism he
received went beyond what he did or did not do in the political arena; rather, political
criticism was tied to the reaction to his changing appearance and the perception that
he was out of touch with reality. Certainly the heavy publicity accorded such projects
as his Neverland ranch, his much vaunted identification with Peter Pan, as well as
other unfounded rumors that added to a bizarre public image may have contributed
to this perception as much as his physical transformation.
Yet another explanation for Jackson’s lack of political credibility may be found in
how genre conventions figure into the perception of an artist’s political credibility.
Compared to the angry critique of inner city inequities found in the gangsta rap of the
era, the idealism of “Black or White” could seem naı ¨ve. Compared to the sociological
insights of a “socially conscious rap” group like the Roots, Jackson’s observations
might seem platitudinous. Compared to many folk and rock artists who have been
actively involved in political campaigns and protest movements, Jackson might seem
to be less visibly engaged. Jackson operated in the world of R&B and mainstream pop,
where such forms of engagement and explicit critique are rare: sociological tracts, do
not, after all, make for very good pop songs. To return to a point made earlier, genres
participate strongly in processes of identification as well; thus, it is significant that
Jackson was crowned the “King of Pop,” not the “King of R&B” or the “King of Funk,”
and certainly not the “Godfather of Soul.” The crossover strategy pursued so
effectively could also easily be construed as a failure to project racial pride.
If Jackson’s vision as projected in his musical-visual texts was often interpreted as
problematic, then one aspect of this was due to his reliance on reified categories of
identity; his own transformation, which came to dominate public discourse about
him, became a visible reminder of how it did, in fact, matter if you were black or
white—to him at any rate, or so many assumed. If he could transform his own
Popular Music and Society 179
appearance so that he no longer visibly fitted into extant racial categories, this was not
a course of action available to, or even desirable for that matter, to many other people.
One of the most striking aspects of his physical transformation, the change in his
skin color, was also one of the most contentious. He confided to Oprah Winfrey in
1993 that the change in his skin color was due to vitiligo, a condition that causes
de-pigmentation of patches of skin. This claim was corroborated after his death by his
dermatologist and the autopsy. Yet, during his life, few believed Jackson’s explanation,
probably because of other physical changes to his jaw, nose, hair, and his eyes, which
were not the result of a known pathology and which all seemed to form a pattern of
changing physical traits associated with African Americans to those associated with
Euro-Americans. By 1993, his changing skin color had been noticeable for about ten
years, the period in which his plastic surgeries also became evident. The
announcement on Winfrey’s show came as other scandals engulfed Jackson, making
medical claims appear to be desperate attempts at salvaging his reputation. A general
aura of freakishness grew to surround Jackson such that many assumed the worst
motives for his changed appearance. This is only to say that the line between which
aspects of his physical transformation were voluntary and which were not is hazy at
best, as were the motivations for these changes.
I have been arguing that Jackson’s utopian re-imaginings of race as found in his
songs, as well as how the these intersect with his “star text” writ large,
founder on the
same crucial point—the downplaying of the suffering created by the lived praxis of
race in favor of magical solutions, the return to the dream that the contradictions
between race as a relational construct and race as a fact of life can be resolved when
men and women all over the world look in the mirror without misrecognizing
themselves and simultaneously transform themselves into post-racial subjects.
At the same time, his appeal may well lie in how these utopian visions, inflected by
the rhetorical innovations of his music, lent themselves to many simultaneous and
contradictory interpretations that acquired the status of modern-day myths. One is
not, after all, bestowed with the mantle of the “King of Pop” without assuming a place
in the public imagination beyond that assigned by the mere facts of existence.
Recalling another king of a somewhat older vintage, much attention focused on
Jackson flourished, and continues to flourish, because of how his public persona
accords with contemporary cultural concerns. Gil Rodman has written persuasively
about how the image of that other king, Elvis Presley, lent itself to myths about race,
gender, and class that tapped into larger “mythical formations” in US society.
Like Elvis, Michael Jackson became a lightning rod for discussions about race,
gender, and sexuality; unlike Elvis, the transformation of Jackson’s body participated
in the blurring of race and gender boundaries, increasing public attention to those
aspects of his persona. However, a share of Jackson’s contradictory mythology
undoubtedly did derive from his musical performances: Was he the boy from a
working-class, African-American neighborhood in Gary, Indiana, whose dancing and
singing always remained rooted in gospel, rhythm and blues, and soul? Or the adult
180 D. Brackett
crossover artist who collaborated with Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen, and Slash,
and found new ways to accommodate rock elements in rhythm and blues? Was he the
preternaturally gifted and knowing 10-year old who sang the impassioned, sex-
infused “Who’s Lovin’ You” at the same recording session at which he recorded
“I Want You Back,” or the androgynous adult with a childlike image whose sexualized
dance moves and gyrations (e.g. at the end of Black or White or in In the Closet) often
seemed forced and unconvincing?
Yet many of the most widely circulating discourses about Jackson were rooted in his
corporeality even as they recalled myths evoked by his music. The gradual
disappearance of physical qualities associated with people of African descent
produced a physical public persona remarkably in tune with an era that witnessed the
appearance of “post-racial” subjects; an era in which debates about racial preferences
came to focus on charges of “reverse racism” and the harm that affirmative action was
doing to white people; and an era in which Barack Obama was swept into office while
vowing to transcend race. Jackson’s androgynous features and questions about his
sexual preferences circulated at the same time as the increased visibility of gays and
lesbians was met with debates over the viability of gay marriage and as the “don’t ask,
don’t tell” policy was established in the US military. Finally, the huge amount of
attention paid to the nature of Jackson’s relationships with children came as the wave
of anxiety over child safety crested following years of reading “have you seen me?” on
milk cartons and of hand-wringing over various forms of lost innocence.
The last of
these mythological formations, which formed around ideas of childhood and
innocence, was the most active domain of public discourse on Michael Jackson during
the last twenty years of his life, perhaps because of the way in which music and visual
images associated with him tapped into a dream-like imaginary realm. This formation
may also explain why children continue to be fascinated with him.
Michael Jackson was able to inscribe his desire to transcend categories of identity
upon his own body, an option unavailable to most humans, even those who share this
desire. His death put an end to the quest, but, like Elvis, Jackson has not gone gentle
into that good night. I wasn’t surprised at all to find that there already exists a website,
titled , The continued cultural centrality of the
mythic discourses summoned by Jackson’s recordings, videos, and star texts ensure
that he will continue to be “seen” even as his corporeal traces become more difficult to
locate. Indeed, debates about race, gender, and sexuality continue to be somewhat of a
national obsession in the US. The way in which international fascination with Jackson
persists might say more, however, about the continuing power of fantasy in general,
and about dreams of transcending categories of identity in our daily lives in particular.
Many thanks to Susan Fast, Stan Hawkins, Lisa Barg, and the anonymous reviewer for this journal
for their many constructive comments; and to my research assistants, Cedar Wingate and
Nicholas Thompson, for their timely and efficient support. An earlier version of this paper was
Popular Music and Society 181
presented at the annual conference of IASPM-Canada in Regina, Saskatchewan, June 2010. This
research was aided by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
[1] A sampling includes the following: Kris Kross (“Jump,” 1992), Tamia (“Imagination,” 1998),
Jay-Z (“Izzo [H.O.V.A.])” and Lil Romeo (“My Baby,” 2001) (see Whitburn).
[2] Motown certainly did continue as a highly successful recording company throughout the
1970s as measured by record sales and chart positions. What Motown seemed to lose was an
identifiable sound, marked by consistency of songwriting, studio musicians, and recording
ambience, with this change tied closely to the company’s move from Detroit to Los Angeles.
For an argument against the declining importance of Motown, see Flory.
[3] For more on changing radio formats and the fate of Motown, see George (Where Did; Death
147–69) and Barnes (18–22).
[4] By “homologous,” I am referring to situations in which the audience for a musical genre
seems to fit the social connotations (which may simplify the actual audience) of that genre;
i.e. a soul recording finds an African-American audience, a country recording finds a rural,
white, southern audience. This concept of homology is derived from Georgina Born’s
typology of possible music-identity relationships; see Born (“Music”; “Techniques”).
[5] The opposition of “imagined” to “lived” reality refers here to Jacques Lacan’s formulation of
the Imaginary—as in the mode of identification associated with a utopian plenitude—and the
Symbolic as that system of rules and constraints associated with social conventions and
language. On the Imaginary, see Lacan (“Mirror”; Seminar 73–159). Lacan reworked his
notion of the Symbolic throughout his life, but for an influential early account that discusses
this register for its relation to, and ultimate interdependence with, the Imaginary, see
“Function.” In an influential and much debated attempt to apply Lacan’s ideas in the realm of
social and political theory, Louis Althusser theorized ideology as arising from a conflict
between lived and imaginary relations to reality—see his “Ideology.”
[6] This conception of racial identity is derived from various strands in postcolonial theory and
critical race theory, especially the work of Homi K. Bhabha. For similar approaches applied to
the history of African-American music, see Lott, Love and Theft; Radano. Also influencing the
view of black popular music presented here are studies that explore conceptual continuities in
African-American music with an emphasis on cultural memory and embodied knowledge;
for two examples, see Floyd; Ramsey.
[7] This argument about the connotations of musical categories and the role of institutional
practices is elaborated in Brackett (“(In Search of)”; “Questions”).
[8] See Brackett (“Politics”; “(In Search of)”); Garafalo (“Crossing Over”; “Black Popular”).
[9] All musical examples are author’s own transcriptions.
[10] As the medium of music television continued, this process (of making a video to illustrate the
song) could be reversed, a situation that is possibly even the case in Jackson’s own Thriller
video, which sounds as though it were written to be a music video (see Mercer 99).
[11] Many of the following observations about the changing definitions of whiteness are indebted
to Jacobson and Roediger.
[12] The use of this type of riff, involving a major chord with a suspension and its resolution
voiced in a particular way on the electric guitar, deserves further attention as it is one of the
defining musical gestures of folk-rock, and a musical signifier of whiteness both in the
historical moment in which it arose in the mid-1960s, and in numerous recordings since then.
See Brackett (“Elvis”).
[13] For example, this is Lott’s interpretation of the opening scene of the video, when white child
actor MacCaulay Culkin blows his father out of his easy chair back to “Africa” with a loud
electric guitar: Jackson “locat[es] the source of white rock and white suburban youth
rebellion in cultures of the African diaspora,” while the journey of Culkin’s father “invokes
and reverses the middle passage” (“Aesthetic Ante” 550). To be sure, as the video opens, we see
the earth as viewed from somewhere in orbit and an outline of the African continent. The
182 D. Brackett
camera swoops down (presciently anticipating the now-common experience of using Google
earth) into a suburban neighborhood, eventually finding its way to Culkin’s house. If this
image locates the source of white rock in Africa, then it also locates Culkin’s dwelling there.
Under this scenario, the transportation of Culkin’s father “back” to Africa makes no sense.
Then again, this spatial confusion could simply be Jackson’s and director John Landis’s
contribution to cinematic expressions of postmodern geography.
[14] I am drawing here on the theories of genre and creativity developed by Bakhtin in several
essays spread throughout his career (see, for example, Dialogic Imagination 259–422;
Problems 78–100, 270–302; Speech 1–9, 60–102).
[15] The idea of hard rock (and heavy metal) being forged out of the blues comes from Walser; on
“sedimented genres,” see Jameson (103–50).
[16] This is also an aspect of Jackson’s “play” with categories of music and identity, one which also
include aspects of gender/sexuality. See Susan Fast’s contribution to this volume on the role of
white female guitarist Jennifer Battin in Jackson’s 1993 tour and Orianthi in the rehearsals for
the This Is It tour, both of which highlighted the “otherness” of rock within Jackson’s stylistic
bricolage. The collaboration of Jackson with Slash on other rock-influenced songs could also
complicate this line of analysis due to Slash’s own “mixed” background (his mother is African
American), although this knowledge may not have been widespread at the time.
[17] A point also made by Tate (400). Note that in the opening of this mini-film, Jackson’s
character is shown attending an all-white prep school.
[18] Prince also comes to mind as a good case for comparison. I focused on Richie here because his
success as a crossover artist more clearly parallels Jackson’s success during the period
beginning with Off the Wall (when Richie was still lead singer with the Commodores),
whereas Prince really hit his commercial stride in 1983, the year of Thriller’s domination, with
“1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” and “Delirious.”
[19] Has anyone ever attracted so much media attention while not conforming to public
expectations about “normal” behavior and remaining essentially mysterious and
unknowable? Susan Fast has argued that this reaction was due to how Jackson aroused the
fear of difference by confusing all vectors of identification simultaneously (“Difference”).
[20] By “star text,” I am referring to how a “star” is constructed from a range of media texts,
including artistic output, promotional materials, media discourse about the star, etc.; the
classic formulation of this concept may be found in Dyer.
[21] For further discussion on this phenomenon and its ties to consumer capitalism, see Ivy.
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Notes on Contributor
David Brackett teaches in the Schulich School of Music at McGill University where he
is Chair of the Musicology Program. His publications include Interpreting Popular
Music (first published by Cambridge University Press in 1995; reprinted University of
California Press, 2000) and The Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader: Histories and Debates,
published by Oxford University Press and now in its second edition.
Popular Music and Society 185
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