Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The King of Transcendence

“I always wanted to be something. I never wanted to be White...I always wanted to be something different, you know, than a nigga, because niggas had it so rough. I tried to be a Black cat with neat hair. I thought that was the problem: the hair. I said "if my hair was straight than whitey will dig me." So I got a process. Wrong.” -Richard Pryor, Live and Smoking
Michael Jackson didn't want to be White, he just didn't want to be Black. That's not to say he was ashamed of his Blackness, necessarily, but he found himself in the place Richard Pryor describes, where a Black man is unable to transcend being "just another nigga." Michael's transformations, of his hair, his skin color, face, weren't attempts to become White, but rather to be "something different," as Pryor said, something that could allow him to transcend the markers that he felt kept people from seeing the real Michael.
Ironically, the real Michael was very funky. Funk, with it's power to subvert dominant paradigms, can't help but be political, and despite the common narrative, so was MJ.

I used to think the music video, “Black or White,” was just about the lamest thing I had ever seen. It seemed like a shallow and naive attempt to address the turmoil of the Rodney King era, especially compared to sonic revolutionaries like Ice Cube, X-Clan, and Public Enemy, it seemed over-produced and yet another attempt by the artist to appeal to White listeners. But watching it again, I see how subversive a statement it makes about race and interraciality. So bear with me as I expose my inner analysis nerd.
The video opens with a young Macauly Culkin, at home jumping on his bed to MJ's music, fantasizing about being a pop star. The stereo is so loud that the little White boy doesn't hear his father (George Wendt) shouting at him downstairs.
(Cultural) Norm!
Pops stomps upstairs and screams at Mac to stop “wasting [his] time with this garbage!” He slams the door, sending a framed glass picture of Jackson shattering to the floor. Mac then faces the camera and gives his million dollar eyebrow wiggle.
You gotta fight for your right to party.
In the next scene, Mac pulls out a guitar, a single black glove, and a pair of dark shades. He pushes two outrageously large speakers into the living room, where his father is watching baseball, and his mother is absorbed in a tabloid newspaper. Mac tells Norm to “eat this,” before strumming an ear-splitting chord that propels his father through the roof of the house, and into deep space. This is all about playing on White patriarchal fears about the influence Black artists might have on the behavior of White children (traditionally on White girls).

It gets even more interesting when Norm lands, in his easy chair, on what looks to be an African savannah, complete with tall brown grasses, a pride of lions, and a tribe of painted Africans. So, not only has Jackson’s music turned White son against White father, it’s also removed the White father from his context of domination and introduced him into a completely foreign (and perhaps dangerous) context (wild Negroes and wild animals).

Damn, Tito, slow down!
Then the video cuts to MJ, leaping from one scene of cultural performance to the next. He dances with Africans, Cambodians, Native Americans, Indians, and Russians. Each time he seamlessly integrates their “traditional” dances in with his own signature steps. The camera then pulls away from MJ, showing that the settings we’ve witnessed are all contained within a small snow globe. The camera pulls back further and we see two diapered babies, one Black, one White, sitting on top of a large model of planet Earth. The White baby grabs the snow globe and the camera swirls around while the White baby seems to keep the toy away from his Black companion. (Message!)

That's my bike globe, punk!
The video then cuts to Jackson dancing through a wall of flame that transforms into a large flaming cross. In just a few scenes and images, Jackson has linked White supremacist ideology to the containment of cultures and peoples. He’s also violently resisted the attempt to control his free movement through interracial spaces by exploding forth from the snow globe and exposing the underlying specter of racial terrorism.

Jackson’s interraciality allows him to adapt the cultural performances of a range of peoples, irrespective of geography and it also allows him to transcend these spaces to make a larger, more significant statement against White supremacy.

Word to Joe Pesci>
Okay, the scene is more than a little ridiculous, but as in the earlier scene, Mac is inhabited by a Black presence and speaks out against traditional racial attitudes. His rhyme suggest that identity should not be based on race, but instead an understanding of a type of geographical heritage (deep). This line is vital to recognizing the significance of MJ’s projection of interraciality. He is no longer rooted to his (majority Black) hometown of Gary, Indiana, but is now able to use his interraciality to move from one location, and corresponding identity, to another, without missing a beat. Like Pryor said, he aspires to be "something different."

The tragedy of Michael was that he never seemed to recover from the knowledge that this kind of transcendence was illusory and no matter how many videos he made or records he sold, Black or White still matters.

1 comment:

Jackson Brown said...

I know it's bad, but just to be real, I look back at some of those early photos of MJ (in his late teens? early twenties?) before the plastic surgery and try to imagine him, unaltered, becoming an international superstar ... and I can't. At least not back in the 80s.

Now with the popularity of hip-hop culture, the possibilities are there for black entertainers. But Mike had to kick down some doors--shoot, some steel-reinforced, deflector shield-covered doors--and I think becoming "raceless" was what he had to do to make that happen.