The Michael Jackson Chronicals
By Armond White

The Gloved One Is Not A Chump


  Raised in the Motown ethic of assimilate-and-accommodate, Michael Jackson means it when he preaches brotherhood in “Black or White”. Integration and racial unity are indispensable tenets for his philosophy for showbiz success (partly because of the practical need for Black artists to work with musicians, technicians, and business people, partly because Jackson, no doubt, believes in it). Jackson ain't just whistlin' Dixie, to use an old phrase- in fact, he gives racial unity a modern* emphasis, adding a new, shocking sincerity to the politics of crossover.

  If this isn't immediately apparent in the song “Black or White”- a very good pop tune that uses romantic expectation as the platform for addressing race hatred and race fear- the video Black or White makes Jackson's message clear and buoyant through quite miraculous imagery.

  Perhaps because Black or White doesn't tell a “story”, but is structured in four abstract narratives that flow together mostly on the rhythm of the tune, many people have mistaken the mix of style for Jackson's personal confusion. Truth is, this is one of the best music videos ever made-probably the outstanding film of 1991- and, in it, Jackson's articulation of his own consciousness through visual and music tropes has never been more daring, as ambitious or precise.

  Even though the video's credits say “Directed by John Landis” this is significantly the work of an auteur whose image and personality dominate every frame. Black or White is very much a Hollywood production, filled with million-dollar savvy and showbiz panache. It is ebulliently photographed and has been ebulliently conceived. The color doesn't imitate old MGM musicals, as Janet Jackson's Alright does; this is a brighter, smoother palette, like Steven Spielberg's zestier productions. The slickness and vibrancy generate a cheerful mood, just as they reify a philosophy of benevolent transformation that becomes literal in the video's fourth sequence.

  Black or White uplifting message is addressed to the mass audience in mainstream terms. Yes, that mostly means white, but Jackson is not turning his back on the African-American empirical. He's forgotten nothing; the opening scene that moves from a cosmic, omniscient view to a white suburban perspective reveals a strategy to mainstream discourse, one that intentionally manipulates it.

  This is shrewd marketing but it also makes a point. Macaulay Culkin (star of Home Alone and Jackson's newest celebrity friend) incarnates the young, enthusiastic, impressionable white rock audience. His loud hard-rock listening irritates his father (George Went of TV's Cheers), who makes a domineering complaint as in the old Twisted Sister video (a routine that by now is a classic bit of rock-n-roll vaudeville). The rebellious little white kid then pushes two huge amps into the family living room, turns up the volume and blasts Dad through the roof... all the way to Africa.

  That's an ideological transition, like the crosscutting between Georgia and Africa in the letters sequence of The Color Purple. White America's proverbial resistance to the music of savages here meets its Afrocentric heritage. It's the proper beginning of the song, and Jackson's entrance here, among a group of spear-and-shield-carrying warriors in black and white face paint doing a light-footed Watusi dance, denies the resistance by embracing the heritage.

  Jackson’s claim to African roots is, in part, a universalist act, but the warrior scene also complements the performer's oddity. He fits in as a pop-culture shaman celebrating his own scarification ritual. Yet his plastic surgery effects, mandated by showbiz assimilation, seem to embody the identity of the mass audience. As much as the video's lighting style, Jackson's bright, sharp-featured face is generic rather than specific. He's bleached for neutrality. Whether or not this is politically acceptable, it certainly wipes away any group's prior claim on Jackson or the meanings he can make in his art. And, like a shaman or which doctor, he does service to the world community (dancing with an Indonesian troupe), but he stands alone.

  This is music video philology. Jackson ties together the world and culture history through pop images that come of his own imagination and his response to media (Hollywood) archetypes. The song's persistent melody gives these fantasies an urgent pulse. Its guitar-bases riff has a particular pop resonance of the Rolling Stones and their tradition of Black borrowings and cultural mixing. Thus, the video follows a subliminally predetermined itinerary back to America as Jackson leaps from the African warriors and Indonesian dancers to a soundstage filled with America's first dispossessed rhythm nation. Native Americans. This tumultuous scene uses the same modernist Western mythology as Back to the Future Part III: It travels along an anthropological space/time continuum.

  Jackson's Third World tour is not about market domination; he steps out of white suburban insularity to identify with a range of cultural, musical essences. He's after something purer and better than the childish, rockist idea of pop as rebellion. Jackson knows culture is more than that, and he shows it in the video's first sublime image: a pas de deux with an Indian woman performed in the midst of highway traffic with an oil refinery in the background. The zooming cars and the graceful dancing visualize the concept of polyrhythm while the background recalls the industrialization of human energy that defines the pop world. (It also recalls Spielberg's explanation for the design of the Close Encounters mothership; he patterned it after a refinery he observed at night in India.)

  When that poignant traffic dance is covered over by a gentle snowfall, the scene shifts to onion-bulb Russian architecture, where Jackson and costumed Russians kick through a symbolic Cold War. This scene freezes, becomes a toy-like relic played with by a pair of Black and white babies sitting atop a globe. But just before this saccharine image can pall, it turns apocalyptic. The screen is immolated in time to the song's hard-edged bridge and Jackson reappears walking through a wall of flames as he sings:

   I am tired of this devil
  I am tired of this stuff
  I am tired of this business
  So when the going gets enough

  As Jackson parts the flames, images of war and misery haunt the background, but he keeps moving forward us. Finally, pushing aside a burning cross, Jackson shouts:

   I ain't scared of your brotherhood
  I ain't scared of no sheets

  This is reminiscent of the most audacious scene in Madonna's Like a Prayer, but Jackson displays a more defiant indignation. And coming in the midst of the video's one-world idealism, Jackson's anger has a stronger effect. (It's badder than all of Ice Cube's vaunted profanities.) This us the tough center of the entire video, its core of strength. Yet even at his most abstract, Jackson does not lose his grip: Where Madonna and her director, Mary Lambert, sought to subvert the Ku Klux Klan's use of the burning cross and return the medieval significance of the wrath of God, Michael keeps the argument secular when he substitutes the flames of chaos for the flame of the Statue of Liberty's torch. (The ambiguity of his doubling also reflects on the failures of American democracy.)

  A melting pot segment follows where Michael joins Macaulay Culkin and a tribe of various children on a generic city stoop (as in Frank Sinatra's 1945 short film The House I Live In) to lip-synch the song's rap:

  It's not about races
  Just places
  Where your blood comes from
  Is where your space is
  I've seen the bright get duller
  I'm not gonna spend my life>
  Being a color

  That's a rejoinder to the ideas in Public Enemy's “Fear of the Black Planet”, and it's just as politically astute even if it's more personally stated. The rap shows Jackson's determination to rise above politics, but this is said in a rap (dubbed by its white author) because that desire, like rap itself, is an intrinsically political act.

  The triumphant image of Jackson held aloft by the Statue of Liberty (he strikes the pose of his Bad video), negating Barbra Streisand's narcissism in Funny Girl, announces a new level of symbolism. As the image widens, Jackson is seen surrounded by the Eiffel Tower, the Sphinx, the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis, Big Ben, and other wonders of the world in a vivid fantasy collage. It's obvious that he is speaking to the world at large, but the less superficial meaning of the image shows that he is equal to these wonders: equally famous, equally legendary, equally “big”.

  Celebrity places Jackson beyond average human experience, as does his reconstructed face- a scientific feat that may be the eighth wonder of the world. The video's final sequence explains this while summing up the song's universal-international sentiments. It's done with the special effects technique called “morphing” popularized in movies like Terminator 2, but this is not just a gimmick. The meanings that are conveyed when one person's face turns into another's transcend the similar portrait surveys on New Order's 1989 Round & Round and Godley & Creme's 1985 Cry.

  At least fifteen faces are part of this miraculous metamorphosis, some faces appearing just a fraction of a second: a large Chinese man becomes a thin African women who becomes a red-haired Celtic woman, and so on, in a multiracial, androgynous relay. The subtle physical development shown by the morphing technique combines science and nature, technology and flesh. After viewing this sequence alone, it's impossible to think of Jackson's own facial changes as anything other than an attempt at transcendent humanity. His lyric, “It don't matter if you're Black or White”, now seems prophetic. Charles Darwin should have lived to see this demonstration of electronic genetics. It is a humbling, utterly moving sight.


  After Black or White nationwide, televised premiere November 14, 1991, viewer complaints about the four-minute coda, in which Jackson does a violent, sexual a cappella solo dance, convinced him to withdraw it from future broadcast. Score one for the forces of repression.

  But don't forget the significance of Jackson's original act. His solo dance forced the American public to look at the underside of its benighted racial fantasies and to recognize the unruly feelings inside its most popular entertainer. No other African-American artist has dared such a thing (certainly not on scale of Black or White), and no comparably popular white artist has even tried.

  It's doubtful if the most devoted Jackson fans were prepared for the coda's display of complex, raw anger. On the soundstage for the morphing sequence was shot, a panther stalks the set, unnoticed by the technicians, and wanders off to a dark, misty city-street set, where the panther transforms into Jackson. Dressed in black, with white socks and arm brace, plus a black fedora, Jackson turns his early eighties robotic break moves onto Kewpie doll spasms that are jerky, tense (his joints seem to have 360-degree hinges) and finally sensual.

  This is a film noir version of Gene Kelly's famous Singin' in the Rain number, and Jackson's subversion of that cheerful archetype surely disturbed most people's notion of what show business is all about. But this coda is Michael's truth; his astonishing performance lets the world know his dissatisfaction about show business. There's no music because Jackson, who's been performing since childhood, has no tradition for the musical expression of anger. This distemper ballet is done to internal rhythms; what he can't say in words comes out as the roar of a (that's right) black panther.

  When Jackson jumps on top of an automobile and smashes its windows with a crowbar, his hostility is vented against the same object that Godard used to epitomize bourgeois society twenty-three years ago in Week End. Jackson follows his demolition derby with a trash-can-thought-a-storefront gesture straight out of Do the Right Thing to underscore the social and racial terms of his resentment.

  Without this animosity, Black or White is merely an excellent video; this bitterness makes it great, because the previous loving message is rooted in an embittered social view. The sweetest sentiments are hard-earned. It is, in fact, a visionary music video giving the full complement of Jackson's sensibility, which, twelve years after Off The Wall, shows he has matured into a more confident, substantial artist.

  This wasn't the case on 1982 when the nice collection of pop ditties, Thriller, sold beyond expectation and made him a word-class figure. Thriller wasn't half as original or as intense as Prince's 1999, released the same time, and, until Black or White, Jackson always stood in Prince's shadow. But Black or White comes from Jackson's scariest depths, so there's more going on in his angry solo than in any of Prince's brazen but calculated outrages.

  Fondling his groin and pinching his nipples, Jackson goes past exhibitionism into artfully rendered obsessiveness. For anyone who had him pigeonholed as a harmless eccentric eunuch, this coda says, “Not so fast! I'm an adult, I got a dick! And I'm angry.”

  The coda's most amazing semiotic moment is a close shot of Jackson slowly zipping up his fly. The invisible penis is what 's called a “structuring absence”- the drive of the entire video represents the trust of his ego. Until now, Jackson's sexual expression have either been conventional or inchoate but most distinctively so in songs like “Billie Jean”, “Dirty Diana”, or the title cut of the excellent new album Dangerous, which portray an adolescent's guilt and fear about his/her sexuality.

  Jackson's struggle to release his sexual nature in his art went off track with the Bad album and video in which leather, buckles, and hoodlum guise misrepresented his sense of himself. Even the video The Way You Make Me Feel, with Jackson and an L.A. gang relentlessly pursuing a leggy female until she gives in and giggles, confused sexual harassment with the role of conventional heterosexual courtship. (Or did it?)

  Both videos betrayed an outsider's awkward effort to make conformist fiction- and failing ostentatiously. Such populist impulses have constrained Jackson's art as much as they have shaped it; the decision to cut out the last four minutes of Black or White is part of the same crows-pleasing instinct. It also made him turn “Beat It” into a pseudo-West Side Story gang drama when the song's true meaning hit somewhere between Elvis Costello's “Pump It Up” and Prince's “Little Red Corvette”- both subjective fantasies about escape through masturbation. In the coda, Jackson simulates masturbation in three dissolving images that emphasize his furious isolation. It recalls the “Beat It” line: “You're playing with your life/ This ain't no truth or dare!”

  There may never be a day when the mainstream media encourages the serious regard of Black artists that it automatically confers on white artists. Still, Jackson's coda reduces Madonna's daring to trivial folly; his role playing is his life's work. The shock of Black or White's coda comes from the unmistakable evidence that Jackson wants to wreck the party everyone throws to the beat of his records.

  This solo dance lets loose the frustrations built up from twenty-two years of professional good behavior, a lost childhood and an estranged private life. As a critic wrote of Marlon Brando's self-revealing performance in Last Tango in Paris, if Michael Jackson knows this hell, Why should we pretend we don't recognize it, too?

  If it weren't so popular to subject Jackson to Black-fascist and homophobic backlash, people would have no Trouble recognizing that the dilemma acted out in the video's coda is essential to the experience of Black public figures. Individually, Black people have to choose between personal culture and white social manner whenever they make professional moves- whether they eventually sell out or not. (And whether they admit it or not, as Jackson sings: “Don't tell me you agree with me/ When I saw you kicking dirt in my eye.”)

  This is the conflict- not confusion- that Black or White psych dramatizes. Between his Watusi entrance and his black panther exit, Jackson makes it clear that he is analyzing his own condition. The equality and humanism he sings about is a fantasy and actually less solipsistic than the kind of revenge fantasy Prince concocted in “Lady Cab Driver”. Jackson could not resolve his conflicts in a composition as lubricious as that, but he has learned to argue his thesis in impeccably musical phrases. In Black or White's chorus, he imparts rhythmic drama to the conditional terms: “'re thinkin' about being my baby/ It don't matter if you're Black or White”.

  That phrase, coming from anyone else (notoriously one of Motown's accommodationists who are forever pooh-poohing racial distinction), would be highly offensive. But the sentiment has to be taken more seriously coming from Jackson, who literally has inscribed that belief in his own flesh.

  Michael's physical transformation isn't merely a game of truth or dare like the costumes put on and cast off by Madonna or David Bowie. Consider that the one identity Madonna and Bowie never flirted with is as a racial Other. But their “probity” is more shrewd than judicious; they know the identity from which expressive freedom customarily is withheld. Silence is their ultimate taboo. But silence unleashes the part of Jackson that always was suppressed in song. He dances free of the personal, social, racial constraints that are inseparable from Jackson's Black and human experience in ways that empowered whites may never understand.

  It's important that Black folks understand Jackson's physical appearance isn't anything so superficially pathetic as wanting to be white. His greatest desire-is to “lift yourself” above the common, petty fetters and divisions that affect most people's lives. The degree to which he has attempted this turns the song title “Black or White” into a question about himself- a question made irrelevant by the obvious answer: “Human”.


  Much of this meaning may be lost if audiences are prevented from seeing the audacious coda to Black or White. I've gone on about it at length because the video seems, to me, to be the most significant personal gesture any American artist has made in years. At a time when movies have been mostly shabby, Black or White illuminates the zeitgeist. Michael Jackson has given pop culture an unforgettable jolt of seriousness.

  The frantic triviality of most pop is represented by the current Hammer video Too Legit to Quit, but even Hammer's attempted apotheosis must reflect Michael Jackson's cultural* predominance: Hammer posits a make-believe rivalry between him and Jackson and then declares himself the anointed traditionalist by personally conferring with his “godfather”, James Brown. But Brown has the best line in Hammer's caprice when he warns, “The Gloved One Is Not a Chump.”

  Black or White proves that when Jackson reconciles the larger meanings of art and contemporary politics, no one else can touch him. He's already charmed the world; Black or White shows he has the courage to shake it up.

  The City Sun
  November 27- December 3, 1991