Tuesday, July 21, 2009
not my eulogy: what michael jackson has taught me about silence
we end our physical presence in the same way we came into this world: replete with contradictions. it's not hard to trace this in many ways, through both the physical and the spoken word.
let us first examine the spoken word in relation to a birth: once a baby is physically born and does not cry it is usually assumed something is wrong with the baby. so many of us float in the comfort of our mother's womb, receiving nutrients through a lifeline. once this space of comfort becomes too cramped for us we transition to another world, in hopes of receiving the same comfort. what happens to so many of us is unbearable for our small frames, so we express ourselves in the best way we know how: we cry. in countless cases the first thing we see in this new world is an ultra bright light... there are also strangers we have never met before, screaming and madly gesticulating. there is the possibility we have been snatched from our source of nurture and nutrition- our mother. the doctors want to say that the tears are symbolic for a newborn clearing his or her lungs, and not crying symbolizes some sort of deficiency. it is a curiosity to actually see a newborn silently smiling, once out of the womb. however, we know this curiosity exists.
the idea that a newborn displaying ultimate happiness can be considered a novelty, and crying is something which is 'normal' is telling in what we are presented with after this moment of being brought onto this plane. if the goal in life; if the one thing so many of us claim to reach for is happiness, at what point do we initially recognize it? how did we learn to convey this emotion; and, is the only way we are able to recognize it through sound?
i have spent a majority of my life enveloped by sound; the needles tracing the grooves on the vinyl... my parents fighting and throwing things most nights they saw each other. my sister and i creating songs in our bedroom to divert attention from their fighting. my childhood wealth of music developed an interest in me eventually playing music on my own, so i joined and co-started bands, and played live off and on over the years. one of the constants as i was growing up was the music of michael jackson. if 'wings of my love' (from 1972's 'got to be there') was not on repeat, then it was 'body language' (from the J5's 'moving violation' from 1975). every christmas the soundtrack was the holiday interpretations from salsoul, stax/volt- and the jackson 5. out of tune, my mother (i got my singing talents from her) always did her interpretation of the classic 'christmas song' they did; switching the 'jackson 5/wanna wish everybody...' to using our surname as a sign of defiance to her husband, who's name she did not yet take on. years later, beginning in 2007 i began writing a book on mr. jackson and i interviewed my mother for it. in the midst of writing the book i realized that michael's music was a constant in our home. he was probably the artist played the most, out of any. music was obviously my mother's way of coping with the violence in her life (amongst other addictions); however, as i was writing the book and discovered the similarities between michael and myself i instantaneously wondered if my mother was aware of the abuse that happened to him, and if she connected with him in any way.
"well i don't recall him elaborately say what his father did to him, but i kind of felt as if we were in the same shoes. i recall his father used to belittle him, and that was mr. sidney. i felt like we related to each other."
michael called his father joe, and my mother called her father mr. sidney. never father, dad or daddy. and i thought about how this played in my own life, because i stopped calling my mother by the title of mother, or mom, because of what happened to me growing up.
silence says everything. it took a while for the relationship to mend with my mother; but i do acknowledge that it's never too late to heal. when i began making connections between myself, my mother and michael a lot of opportunities opened up for me. it felt like another life had begun.
despite my aural relationship to him throughout the years, a true recognition of what michael jackson represented for me was through silence. it was in looking at his posture, how his hands were folded. it was in looking into his eyes. when i saw his eyes i instantly fell in love with them- they were the most beautiful, deepest shade of brown. but what made them ultimately beautiful to me was their unfathomable sadness. it did not matter if he was smiling; his eyes conveyed a contrasting message.michael jackson was a being of numerous contradictions, and that was the first one i noticed.
even though i have been writing my feelings every single day in relation to michael's transition, i still felt i wanted to say something of a general overview of my thoughts. i wanted to extend my sentiments beyond the 16 days of crying i did or the everyday frustrations in human relations whenever his name comes up. nor did i want to focus on my anxieties about whether or not it's pertinent for me to finish the book i began two years ago.
with this, i struggle greatly with what i want to say, not because the words necessarily fail me (and they do at times); but what i am feeling makes all the words seem somewhat insignificant. when processing about what to write, i associated this experience with how one may process a eulogy. but what i want to say is not in the classic sense, a eulogy: i did not personally know mr. jackson. i can't talk about the good times we shared together, i can't say i was the lady in his life (or his summer love), and he never owed me money.
i also think that for me to present a eulogy would be false. i am not implying that i want to prevent a dyslogy (which is the opposite of a eulogy); but for me to focus on completely lauding michael joseph jackson is to deny the relationship i have had with him. it is to deny his humanity.
the relationship i have had with him was one rooted in sadness. my relationship with him developed upon discovery of the similarities of our childhoods. i wanted to badly to meet him and just have a good cry over tea. i wanted him to read this book i was writing in honor of him for two years and have him tell me he either hated it with a passion, or he loved it. either way would have made me happy because i then knew he read it. i did not want to save him (it's impossible to save anyone if that's not what they wanted for themselves) but i wanted to communicate from this place of pain, and find ways to heal. i really wanted that for him, and yes, i wanted to be there with him as it happened.
eulogy... this is why words can be so limiting. michael jackson was a man of few words for the most part- when presenting himself to the public- but when he did speak, amongst all the syllables jumbled together there were some moments of truth. you just had to seep through all the syllables to find them. in his pregnant pauses lied a truth so potent. you could cut his loneliness and fear with an old rusted knife, and it'd still cut with precision. i became so deeply attracted to this person, and obsessed with him because i saw so much of that in myself.
i saw the difficult, distant and demanding person he was, because i saw that in myself. i recognized all the behaviors in him. i made connections and wondered to what extent he internalized the abuse he grew up with. i stopped thinking so much about him in externals: the plastic surgeries, the hair... and i began to find him beautiful. i could not stop focusing on his eyes. in the course of writing the book i pondered if he's struggled with thoughts of suicide. he always talked about having a strong skin (and would never kill himself), at the same time openly mastering a life's finale in his head should he be told there were no children left in the world. i wondered if he's ever attempted it when he was young, just like i had when i was young.
a couple of weeks after i had written about this for the book, he physically left us.
i actually stopped politicizing him after his transition (which may be a shock to those who know me really well), and i began thinking more about what he's actually meant to me in the two years i was writing a book on him. i came down to one word: teacher. when i thought about how much he's taught me i could not stop crying. his contradictions taught me so much about myself, and life in general.
everything in life happens for a reason.
last week i was waiting for someone to pick me up to go run an errand and i decided to wait for her outside. i only had a half-hour's sleep, and i needed to occupy myself so i would not fall back asleep. found a book by keith johnstone on 'improvisation and the theatre' sitting on a small green lawn table which matched with the chair i sat in. the writing had a beckett-like flavor, with some dali thrown in for good measure... in the midst of reading the first few pages (whilst trying to stay awake) my eyes lit up when reading johnstone's musings on teaching. he wrote of his experience in an art class in college as eye-opening. he learned that everything he had learned before this specific class was a "destructive process", because everything he had learned distinguished a relationship between 'teacher' and 'student' as 'dominant' and 'submissive'. there can be no exchange of learning in this way. we all share limitations in this model of learning. johnstone's teacher informed people that "(t) he teacher was not superior to the (student), and should never demonstrate, and should not impose values". if a student aims to learn something, they should know they have a world of options. "...the student should never experience failure. the teacher's skills lay in presenting experiences in such a way that the student was bound to succeed."
michael said this in 1983: "there's so much more... i don't like it when people limit themselves."
the contradiction was that he actually DID limit himself. because we all do. so much of his limitation to me, stemmed from how he seemed to feel about himself in relation to others. in 1983, he also stated in rock and soul magazine: "i am a prisoner of myself. i'm afraid to fulfill my potential."
when people say he's reached his potential i use this quote. it is one thing to say he's had a full life (which he did) but to say he's reached his full potential for me, is misleading. he was unable to reach his potential because he never had the space to do that. to me, that potential is that idyllic 'destiny' he sang of in 1978... even though he had a lot of things, those did not appear to be important to him. so many equate finances with happiness (and why he could have been seen as reaching some sort of potential). but what michael wanted was something he hardly saw in his life: solid relationships. he always spoke of being lonely, and grasped onto anyone he felt was receptive to his pain- this usually was others like him- ex-child stars. he never visualized that someone outside of this world could empathize with his loneliness, since any attempts to meet people in the 'real world' usually failed.
michael's mistake was in not seeking the interconnectedness of pain, when it came to his own life. he looked at pain on a universal level; he used his money to help people around the globe suffering from the ravages of war and destruction; he's assisted in educational programs and assistance for people who have no funds for food. these are all noble things. however, michael wanted to make so many people happy, perhaps to conceal a little (no, a lot) of his own struggles. i recognize this. i used to do it a lot. but there is a moment where everything sinks. and people become shocked when you self-implode, because they never suspected anything.
when i saw michael's public cries for help (in the many interviews he's given over the years) i absolutely fell in love with him. it wasn't a sexual type of love; it was more a love of finding that self-identification, and becoming so utterly enamoured with that. simultaneously i hated michael for the same reasons. i saw he was essentially asking people to love him unconditionally; yet cutting people off in a way who truly did love him, who wanted to help him.
i hated him because this was something i did. i identified with those trust issues people who have been abused have. part of me hated him because i recognized that part of me hated myself. just like he was told, i grew up being told i was ugly, i was told i was worthless. there were even some sly comments about my nose. and yes, there was the hair.
i think the race argument in referring to michael is too easy. i say this because i don't recall growing up saying, 'i wanna be white because i'm an ugly black kid..." i just thought i was an ugly kid. i did grow up with two parents who were indoctrinated with some form of self-hatred, but i still don't recall (like whoopi goldberg) wanting to have the long, blonde hair.
i will admit that i have thought to myself over the years, if i had money, i'd change everything about my looks. i'd still be black, but i'd change every part of my body. i used to look at images of the black fashion models when i was younger and aspire to look like them. to this day i still have body image issues. here lies a great contradiction with me as well: food for me is something i consume a lot of, in order to hide, or food is something i don't want to eat, because it's disgusting. either way my relationship to my body is that i don't want to be seen.
michael's relationship with his body is as if he wants to be seen and not seen at the same time. he wants to represent everyone yet no one at all. he is the prince and the pauper; the TEACHER and the student.
these contradictions serve michael's art very well. i am consistently intrigued by his rhinestone and crystal attire, accompanied by a pair of worn-down loafers... by his tiny frame (in the presence of other men, in particular) becoming larger than life when on stage. one moment which serves his contradictory nature (and his life) well was the jacksons' performance with carol burnett. as the brothers were singing with burnett, you heard michael's distinct tenor stand out from the rest, as if he was yearning to break free. as the brothers were describing their attributes (jackie was the oldest, tito the swingin'est, marlon the dancin'est, and randy the cutest) michael blurts out that he is the skinniest, as if his life depended on it.
the subjects in which michael evoked the largest wave of accusations and curiosities were for me the subjects in which he was the least contradictory: race and sexuality. to me, michael was so evolved beyond the limitations of social branding. he was a master at the art of sensuous performance; he honed this craft as a child. by the age of 8 he was singing about carnal desire; by 10 he was recording songs about the longing associated with sexuality. by 12, coercing girls into having sex with him (and re-creating pleasurable nights into the morning)... by 13 he sang the greatest co-dependent relationship anthem ever, and by 15, a lover's touch melted him like hot candle wax six years before he didn't want to stop till he got enough...
the difference between him and other children who sang about similar matters is that his voice rang with the authority of someone who experienced these feelings for many years over. with this authority also lied a sensitivity not many artists have ever been able to convey. his performances, despite their blatant characteristics of sensuality, gave more of a classic sensual reading. there were few times where his (along with his directors') perceptions of sexuality disturbed me (such as the 'way you make me feel' video/short film- as a person who has been grabbed, as well as stalked in the street (and have had other things happen to me as a child i will not get into here)- the film conjured up images of a gang rape fantasy). aside from those moments, michael displayed a sensitivity which is refreshing, in a world which dictates what black manhood should and should not be.
i identified with michael, in terms of being forced to define your sexuality, when you don't necessarily feel that's a priority. i grew up being called gay and confused because i didn't really talk about boys when i was a kid. in my adult life (to this day) i am called asexual, because i choose not to discuss that aspect of my life with people. people ask all the time when the last time i've been in a relationship was. i fail to understand why this is important to my character. i fail to understand why this is so important to michael's character.
it was also refreshing to see someone who defied the construction of what 'blackness' is. as a black person who loves the non-human world (ESPECIALLY CATS), who listens to rock n' roll, who loves to read, who is a vegan... i don't view michael as neglecting his roots at all, but rather expanding them. if we do not own a sense of history, it would be difficult to recognize that michael is a descendant in a long queue of artists and thinkers who defied labels. he was inspired by jack johnson as much as he was walt disney or p.t. barnum; he took artistic cues from cameroon to egypt, as much as he did russia (and some would say germany).
but he never forgot where his roots were.
michael jackson has been accused of being a poster child for selective racial memory. once again, this is unfair when looking within a full context of his life. it is way too easy to say he hated his ethnicity, without examining the circumstances of his life. surely he recognized the artistic trappings of blackness; as an artist you are ghettoized into an 'R&B' or 'soul' category. if you want to be on top of your game (like michael did) you must defy those categories. he created a strategically brilliant move and wrote 'beat it'. despite a guitar solo from eddie van halen there was nothing in the song which read, 'this man wants to be white'. no... he simply learned the skills from berry gordy on how to create a perfect pop record in which middle america (read: 'white people') would purchase.
in 1987 the song 'liberian girl' was released on the 'bad' album. an earlier incarnation of the song was written around 1983 or so. he did not have to put this song on the album but he did. people focused on his significant physical alterations on the cover (the original which was going to be his face covered in lace) and how much it didn't sell as much as 'thriller', but the polyrhythms were distinctly african.
'liberian girl' is to me, his major point of contradiction. the song evokes a similar spirit as marvin gaye's 'you sure love to ball' from his 'let's get it on' album in 1973: short on words but long on emotion. however, the film which comes with it makes no sense. while michael espouses his love to his african queen cameo after cameo of celebrities talk amongst themselves, pondering the whereabouts of michael. as the song fades he shows up in the director's chair, behind the camera. all the celebrities clap. does his pop sensibility (or desire to be all things to all people) translate in his refusal to share a screen romance with a liberian girl? or, did he just feel like making a silly video (because that's exactly what it was... it was also produced two years after the album's release)?
i suspect people opined that he corrected this perceived 'videographical error' in 1991, when he came out with 'remember the time' and 'in the closet'- with two dark-skinned ladies- iman and naomi campbell respectively, as his love interests. there were plenty of inuendos in those films (and plenty to run with, LISTENING to 'in the closet'), and it sealed some sort of societal deal that he had some semblance of a sexual nature.
lest we forget, sexuality has always been an aspect of michael's art, since he was a child. it's understandable, to me, that he'd want this to not dominate his private life, or his adult artistic life. however, if people want to view a blatant exploration of sexuality pertaining to michael's art in adulthood, one need look no further than 'moonwalker', released in 1988. specifically, the 'smooth criminal' segment. if i was perceptive i'd say this was an exemplary illustration of michael's psyche in relation to sexuality and adulthood. it's also structured around his fascination with mafia culture. nevertheless, the breakdown in the centre of the 'smooth criminal' segment of the film appears to be unrelated to anything else, and comprises of a mass of orgasmic harmonies and facial gestures. and as if none of this ever happened, they break back into the main theme of the song, and michael returns to saving children.
all the while remaining cool...
lest we also forget that michael was born in an america which recently made it illegal to segregate children in educational institutions, but had not yet made it illegal to discriminate in terms of obtaining housing. he was dropped onto a record label which made vague political statements, as america was burning, literally. he and his brothers were not allowed to speak on any political issues, regardless of how they felt about those issues. it seems inevitable to me, with all he's gone through artistically he'd have some sort of political self-awakening. the second part to 'black or white' (the part which was banned); 'they don't care about us' as well as his commentary in 2001 on the racism of the music industry could have possibly been ploys to remain centre stage in the scheme of popular culture- but they worked, in terms of creating a dialog. if supposedly harmless little michael jackson was turning into an 'angry black man', just imagine how the rest of us feel, right?
i feel it's important to note that the original version of part two of 'black or white' (which only appears on the VHS version of the HIStory video compilation) does not have racist commentary written all over the walls and car windows; this version actually relays the message more effectively.
i return to the concept of silence, and what michael has taught me. in this segment of the film, with no words... in his images in magazines, and books. through his silence i learned a lot about myself. i have learned that even though our common language here in the states may be the spoken word, it is possible to reach people globally with no words at all... just, as michael so sweetly wrote in 1993, 'the dance'. on the DVD depicting his 'dangerous'-era concert filmed in bucharest, he spent a minute and a half still, and in silence, after he was propelled into the air. the screams were deafening. after this minute and a half he slowly removes his sunglasses, to even more deafening screams. that one line of communication for them was not the words, but it was the dance.
in my own few moments of silence i try to tell him every day i appreciate what he's taught me, and that i love him. i have learned so much more i can't even convey through words... you just have to see me to get the message.