The first music I owned was a cassette tape of Michael Jackson’s Bad. I had an alarm clock which would play a tape when it went off, so for perhaps 3 years of my adolescence I awoke every morning to “The Way You Make Me Feel”, “Man In The Mirror”, and “Smooth Criminal”. That last was my favorite track. I vividly remember the album as the first time slang was explained to me. “Bad” actually meant “cool”. Words could be used to mean the opposite of what they said. It blew my mind. I wore that tape out.
Six years later I was 14 and Michael Jackson released HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book I. By then his reputation had taken a bit of a beating in the press, and I was oh so mature. I hadn’t listened to Bad in months, at least. In my house the narrative around this album was that Jackson was unstable, an artist in decline, and you could tell by this record. In particular, my Mom said the flaw with his new music was that Jackson was angry. This was not a time where words meant the opposite of what they said. Angry, to my 14 year-old mind meant unhealthy, irrational… crazy.
Over the next decade that narrative seemed confirmed. Michael Jackson’s behavior grew ever more eccentric and the press grew ever more gleeful in dismantling his reputation. I never gave HIStory a close listen.
Only within the last month, spurred by friends posting videos of “They Don’t Really Care About Us” in the context of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, have I begun to realize how I was misled. This song has taken on new resonance. I suddenly understand what it is about, and that has caused me to look back at the whole story I was told and accepted without thinking. Here is what I’ve learned:
“Anger” is a racist code word when used to describe people of color. Ever since white people started enslaving black people, fear of black anger has had a grip on white hearts. We can see it at work today when Grand Juries refuse to indict cops for shooting unarmed black teenagers, and blithely accept the idea that an armed and trained police officer ought to fear for his life when facing that teenager from 100′ away. Calling Michael Jackson angry was a way to marginalize him, by evoking the specter of a raging black man.
Here is a helpful comparison, which makes the point about the racist implications of calling Michael Jackson “angry”. The same year HIStory came out a singer named Alanis Morissette released her album Jagged Little Pill. I loved the song “You Oughta Know” from that album and remember clearly thinking that her anger was a creative asset. The song was so good because it was a breakup song that was angry, not whiny. Why would Alanis Morissette’s music be served well by anger, but not Michael Jackson’s?
You know what, though? Michael Jackson WAS angry, and it sadly didn’t occur to me to listen to his own descriptions of what he was angry about. It didn’t start with HIStory. Anger lurked behind a lot of his songs: “Beat It”, “Billie Jean”, the whole Bad album I loved so much, and Dangerous from the early nineties which had “Black or White”, and the aforementioned HIStory which had the song “Scream”. Sure, some of the anger seemed to come from the burden of fame, but he was also quite clear about the systemic injustice and racism which affected him. To read a song like “Black or White” as primarily the product of mental instability born of celebrity requires being deliberately obtuse. We also have to assume we know the cause of his anger better than he does.
So when the media sold the narrative that Michael Jackson was falling apart, even if there was truth there, there was also a sinister purpose. The purpose was to distract from his legitimate anger, his serious social commentary, by homing in on his personal failings. The cult of celebrity is all about serving as a distraction from things that matter. When Michael Jackson tried to talk about things that mattered we responded by veering even harder in the other direction. We drilled in on his cosmetic surgery, his Neverland Ranch, his pop-star lifestyle – anything to distract ourselves from a black man expressing discontent with the state of the world.
I’m sorry that I was fooled, and missed the opportunity to be sensitized to the subject of race much earlier in my life by an artist I loved so much I literally woke up singing his music every day for years. Tonight I watched Spike Lee’s video for “They Don’t Really Care About Us” over and over while my family stared in confusion over where the Christmas music had gone. I stared equally befuddled as I watched the choreography and lyrics evoke everything from mass incarceration, to police brutality, to income inequality. How had I missed this? White privilege, that’s how.
Correction: the original post incorrectly stated that the song “Scream” was from the album Dangerous, not HIStory. This has been fixed.