I don’t wish to address the questions of Michael Jackson’s alleged pedophilia or the sexual molestation charges made against him. I am interested in Michael Jackson as a “queer” artist and in what his work means to me as a New Old Gay.
But what a chorus – his voice soars over Eddie Van Halen’s legendary guitar part as he changes into a red fetching leather jacket and struts his formidable stuff through the dangerous gang fight. The thugs are instantly transfixed and transformed. Everyone falls in line dancing behind Michael and then, he is the definition of fierce. Singing and dancing with a virtuosic soulfulness, Michael doesn’t have to look over his shoulder to know that he has triumphed and they are all following him. So is the rest of the world.
This theme of a sissy triumphing over the violence of the street through fabulous performance comes up again in “Bad.” In the Martin Scorsese-directed video, we meet Michael as a scholarship student going home to the ghetto from prep school to have his manhood challenged by the old gang. Here, his victory comes by channeling Tim Curry’s Frankenfurter from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, bumping, grinding and shimmyshammying his fey way around the deserted subway station where his former friends had taken him to mug people. By the climax, when Michael spits, hisses and snarls out an extended a cappella rhythm breakdown, the girly boy has metamorphosed into a tigress, a queen of the jungle, whose prowess blows the pedestrian power of the street urchins’ fists and blades out of the water.
It seems natural to me that my preteen self was exhilarated by these anthems of sissy power. What astounds me is how mainstream America bought into it. Much was said at Michael Jackson’s memorial about how he broke down barriers, making the world “a better place.”
Indeed, not only did he shatter many glass ceilings for blacks, Michael Jackson made many young gays see the possibility of acceptance and success for and as who they are.
The trouble is that Michael never accepted himself for who he was. Even if much of what we think we know of him has been a terrible conspiracy and he was actually heterosexual, he certainly didn’t have successful romantic relationships with the opposite sex, nor was he any kind of womanizer. When his songs focused on who he really was (“Beat It,” “Bad”) or universal spirituality (“The Man In The Mirror,” “Heal The World”), or when they were directed at a basically gender-neutral second person (“Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough,” “Human Nature”), he was inspiring, moving and very sexy – he was singing to us all. When he attempted to present himself as a virile ladies’ man, his songs left me cold.
Even the sublimely sappy “You Are Not Alone” was diminished by a desperately cloying video in which he frolics naked with his then wife, Lisa Marie Presley, in what appears to be Greek ruins in the middle of Arizona, like some kind of Bizarro Garden of Eden.
It was only when Liza Minnelli performed “You Are Not Alone” at Michael’s 30th Anniversary that I got into it.
Of course, that says as much about me as it does Michael Jackson, but the fan-base of “You Are Not Alone” is infinitely more limited than that of, say, “Thriller.” The “Thriller” video is actually something of an exception in that his positioning as the man in an onscreen heterosexual couple does not take away from its effect. I hasten to add though, that this chaste coupling might as well be a girl and her gay best friend. Insofar as they are passable as boyfriend/girlfriend, Michael’s role is the non-threatening adolescent pretty-boy, legitimate only as a leading man for teenage fantasies in the Jonas Brothers or early Scott Baio mold.
Another unsuccessful attempt at being a straight leading man, “The Way You Make Me Feel” casts Michael in the unlikely role of a concupiscent Casanova with his shirttails (in the video) contradictorily tied up Daisy Duke style. He barks and gyrates, but it’s just so off-putting in its implausibility. And don’t get me started on his video with Naomi Campbell for the unfortunately titled “In the Closet.”
The brother-sister duet with Janet on “Scream” was a missed opportunity. They conceived a primal battle cry against that most ubiquitous of celebrity complaints, media distortion in the fishbowl. They could have and should have focused this fantasia inward on their own struggles as artists and people instead of spending most of the song raging at tabloids.
There are, however, some powerful and fascinating moments in the “Scream” video. Like anguished children, they both frequently scratch their hands down their faces, as if they have no outlet for pain other than to rip off their own skin. At one point, Janet actually does this to her thigh, shredding her pants, and in the years that followed, they both often wore clothing with slits across the legs – a gesture of solidarity, reclaiming all the suffering as fuel for growth and empowerment, a transcendence of their struggles. And I like this Michael, dressed in ultra chic, severely futuristic couture and shot against a sleek, stark space ship. No longer trying to fit in with the bad boys, this is an image of Michael the fully arrived Superstar of Tomorrow.
Unfortunately, that tomorrow never came. The ensuing years saw a lonely, pathetic Michael Jackson increasingly out of touch with and irrelevant to the Now. His tragic end, leaving behind a messy unfinished journey, is not the stuff of heroes. Michael Jackson, gay or straight or queer or none of these things, will not be our Martin Luther King. Still, through much of his work, he passed an important torch to millions of us, and I have been incredibly moved and inspired by the time I’ve spent, this last week, rediscovering his brilliance. His legacy lives on.
Whomever Michael Jackson slept with or did or did not have sex with, I claim him as a Gay Icon.