The King of Pop: on transcending signifiers of race and gender

A SYTYCB entry

Next week marks what would have been Michael Jackson’s 52nd birthday. (Please note: I don’t keep a little iCal of celebrity birthdays. I know this because of Spike Lee, and because a close friend feels about MJ the way I feel about “Titanic.”) Jackson, deemed the most successful entertainer of all time, remains an incredibly relevant source for analysis even posthumously. Both his physical body and music itself provide a rich platform for exploring the social terrain of race and gender.

On the one hand, the man made Thriller, an album universally accepted as “the most fucking amazing thing ever” out of 5 stars. Yet he was problematic, as this article posits,

…he was sexless as he interpreted the roles of both man and women; his sexuality was represented as either non-existant or hyper-active,  between the media sensationalism of his not possessing a sexuality whatsoever to his preying upon children;  and likewise Jackson defied race as he was neither black nor white paradoxically because he was both black and white.

Throughout his life and even after his death, the media has been unable to reconcile the undeniable artistic genius with bizarre personal anomaly. In Michael’s case, the private and public spheres do not amalgamate in a way that’s culturally digestible.

Michael was diagnosed with lupus and vitiligo, explaining to some extent the changing pigmentation of his skin. But there’s no denying his use of plastic surgery and physical alterations, which resulted in the manipulation of race and meltdown of gender binaries.  Especially now that he’s gone, I think it’s a waste of time to speculate into Michael’s psychology  regarding these procedures. What I think is interesting is our cultural reaction to these visual cues of race.

Michael’s was a fluid body. We saw this when he danced on stage, most infamously in the moonwalk. But we also saw this in the “non-performative” sphere (if that sphere could exist for Michael). Through a physical transformation past racial signifiers, he expressed racial fluidity. As this analysis explains,

 Unlike…ontologies that differentiate between bodies as visual binaries that are either/or (Black or White), Jackson’s body image occupies the in-between hyphenated space: a visual body containing visual and textual traits that are both/and (Black, White, Post-Black…)…

It’s a bit jargonny, but essentially what we’re talking about is how Jackson managed to transcend the racial space, and challenge our assumptions of biological fixedness. We are uncomfortable with Michael’s image in part because we are a culture obsessed with labels and identifiers. Nowhere is this more evident than in terms of race and gender. We see it all the time: the importance of discerning celebrities’ racial make-ups, and discriminating against those who don’t neatly fit into our two-gender mold (such as trans minorities). It’s all about labeling. It’s all about maintaining socially constructed boxes.

It was a problem that Michael inhabited one racial state (“Blackness”) that resided exclusively in our cultural memory, while he visually signified another race (“Whiteness”) in the present. Michael challenged the index of racial identity by manipulating the most recognizable and comfortable of our visual codes, i.e., skin. And we had a hard time mitigating the fact that two racial identities could reside within one man.

I think that Jackson’s life showed us the potential for fluid identity when the convenient social sugars dissolve. I don’t know whether or not Michael’s narrative was one of transgression and radical possibility, or something drawn from the well of a troubled life swollen by media aggrandizement. I imagine something of both. But undoubtedly, his life paralleled the problematic currents with race and gender that course through American culture.

Perhaps a quote from Julian Vigo sums up my feelings best:

The truth about Michael Jackson is that he was our freak, every bit as much as we were his.

In conclusion, do yourself a favor and jam out to “PYT” this week.

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One Comment

  1. Posted September 2, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    This is extremely well-written and a really interesting stance on Michael Jackson. I respect that credit is given to him in this way, which many times people tend to overlook.

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