Who's bad?

Mon, 24/06/2013 - 01:03 -- damien
Narcissus and the myth of origins

Who is this "me”?

We are tempted to claim that the origin of the voice Is Michael Jackson. We are tempted to believe that the real Michael Jackson is that which you get behind all the glitter and the glasses. That underneath the tattooed eye-liner, the nose job, the bleached skin; and beyond all these stories about Michael we can get back to some true, authentic Michael. That through the reflections, fascination, deflections, commodification, we can strip back to the man behind the mask.


The question here is the question of origin. To posit an origin is to posit Michael as a creator: the mind behind the man behind the mask. However, what is interesting is that Michael Jackson is not so much the wearer of a mask, as both the ·maker of the mask· and at the same time "the mask itself".


To the extent that "Michael Jackson· is seen to have made his face, written his songs and danced to them; he is star and creator, body and body-maker, Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, Wolfman, Frankenstein, as well as his own monster. lt seems that this doubling of "Michael Jackson· (self and other, man and beast) takes its place within a myth of origin. Trying to account for origin has always articulated itself In a myth: chicken and egg, how the camel got its hump, author as origin of text, and so on. The standard (romantic) version of the artistic origin myth is that the artistic production becomes the ·other" of an author almost as though the offspring of a father. Pygmalion (My Fair Lady) as another myth about this relationship, the artist "breathes lite· as it were Into Its creation. The originality of the "Michael Jackson· variant of the myth is that the author is "simultaneous· with the creation; this is what we might call an auto-Frankenstein myth.


In fact rumour constantly constucts Michael Jackson as a Gothic horror character. He sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber (they call it a youth machine); he lives In a Tudor chateau; has a living room full of mannequins; he wanted to buy the bones of the elephant man; he has two llamas and a boa constrictor (called either “Muscles” or “Tinkerbell” depending on which story you've heard); he has reconstructed his face; he has an obsession with purity. Of course Thriller thematized this Gothic aspect. When Michael Jackson transforms into a werewolf it can be read as a “metaphor for the aesthetic reconstruction of his face” .1 The story of Frankenstein however Is even more about the auteur. The Doctor Is the great Gothic creator. Though he uses the most beautiful parts of different bodies the result somehow doesn't quite fit together: the seams show. Apparently an eminent plastic surgeon has stated (some versions of this story have it that this was the surgeon who “did” Michael's face) that Michael's “seams” show too. Whatever the myth, the Gothic structure remains, that is the hero who experiences the presence of an other within the self.


Michael has been reported to have said: “It’s just neat to become another thing, another person. Especially when you really believe it and it's not like you're acting. I always hated the word “acting”- to say "I am an “actor”.  It should be more than that. It should be more like a believer.”


Here we can see the particular shape of the auto Frankenstein myth. The author (same) wishes to become its creation (other) to the point of denying its status as author. "Michael" becomes precisely its own other to the point of denying its "original" status as same.


We may note here two key factors in the myth of artistic origin In the Gothic genre. Firstly there is the profound unhappiness of the created object: Wolfman, Caliban, Frankenstein's monster, and so on. Secondly, the created object in some way “escapes” its author. In both regards, "Michael" conforms to the myth. Firstly in those stories we hear alluding to his profound unhappiness: his “living in some fantasy land cushioning himself from an impinging reality” and “being dead till he comes alive on stage” for example. Secondly in the “I am an actor” quotation (above) we have the notion of the object escaping its author. Here we can come back to where we began, the Pepsi ad.  


Looking for Michael we find only the still warm signs of his presence (absence if you prefer)- the coat with nobody in it, photographs, make-up and finally the disincarnate voice. Michael is just not here. What's been found is the absence of origin. And then there's the boy in the mirror: the boy turns into Michael - raises his hat, and becomes "Michael". "Michael" is the doubling of the subject of the search. In other words, Michael is not an other but a part of the same. The mirror has deflected the search back onto the seeker. So where does that put origin? A function of the obsessiveness of the seeking?


If the Pepsi ad thematizes the current state of the “Michael Jackson” myth as being the Inaccessibility of the origin, we may note here what has been apparent through the entirety of this discussion, that the figure of Michael Jackson itself is constructed entirely out of rumour. Rumour is both “vehicle” and “model” for the Michael Jackson story we have been telling. The “telling” of a rumour always carries with it the inaccessibility of an origin. you simply never know where a rumour comes from. The origin then is in fact precisely a function (result, by product) of the rumour.


One of the more original myths of origin for our culture is Freud's Oedipus complex, a story explaining what we might call the origin of the subject (the "1"). In the normal Oedipus complex the subject is formed in an antagonistic relation to the father.3 Here we need to ask “how does this myth of origin relate to the "Michael Jackson” myth as it stands in "Bad"?


The opening sequence of the "Bad" video shows shots of suspiciously gothic looking school. We then see a close-up of Michael's face- the same potential monster mask from "Thriller". This poses an interesting problem for the viewing of "Bad": in setting up the opening scenes as such, as well as the Gothic stories floating around about "Michael Jackson” a whole set of generic expectations regarding how to read "Bad" are brought Into play, then displaced. The extraordinary slowness as well as the undecidabillty of much of the narrative section of the video (who is the white boy who's proud of Michael?; Who Is the black man on the train?; What kind of relationship do he and Michael have?; What is the status of the drug-pusher type character?; etc) in a sense keep these expectations going: in other words it is as though the entirety of "Bad" (at least of the narrative section) is the waiting for some kind of horror that never appears. Or is there another infinitely more profound horror lurking here?


There are two scenes in the "Bad" video where a key absence may be observed: Firstly in Michael's entry into the apartment where the note "Hi Darryl, dinner's in the oven, I'll be home at 7, love mom” is left on the typewriter, and secondly in the almost gospel section directly after the song Itself has been completed, Michael chants "Ask your brother, ask your mother, ask your sister, ask me!" There is no father!


What is the status of the Oedipus myth as it functions within the “Michael Jackson” myth? In the artistic myth of origin the text is formed In relation to its author. In the (normal) Oedipus, the "subject itself" is formed in relation to the father. However, in the absence of an identification with the father, the subject either identifies with the mother, or, with itself (narcissism).


Regarding the first of these possibilities, one of the most interesting rumours about "Michael Jackson” is the one about Diana Ross being his mother. If we consider this in relation to other stories about his wanting to marry her (as well as other stories about romantic involvements with other much older women, e.g. Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Hepburn) we can begin to position the mother in the "Michael Jackson” myth. Michael, in his various facial transformations has come to look more and more like Diana. This we might call an “over-identification” with the mother, the identification with the mother becomes so strong that the fundamental desire becomes to be the mother (mirroring Michael's desire, discussed above, to be "other"). The complication in the MJ myth is of course that Diana Ross is swept off her feet by some Nordic entrepreneur.


Diana is now bad. On the latest album Michael has "Dirty Diana· saying "Hey baby do what you want”, "Baby" - here a clear Indication of the mother/son relationship between them. Yet the status of "Diana” in this song has slipped from "Mother” (seduced) to sex-crazed fan (seducer) - a sort of "Billy Jean”. It may by the way be noted that the song Billy Jean is the denial of a patrimony case. Again the father is negated just as we have shown how the author has been negated. Clearly the transformation with Jackson has been from author/father to other/mother.


Because he can no longer love Diana, and as he looks like the Mother, there is an object displacement - he has no choice but to transfer the love to the (m)other in himself. He Is Narcissus- the youth caught between childhood and adulthood- who falls in love with his own image. 4 Michael is said to dance for hours in front of the mirror, to prefer dressing-up at home to sex; further, we can read the mythical plexiglass screen planned for his Australian concert as a type of massive mirror. Note here that this screen is a 2-way mirror for it also reflects the audience as constructors of the myth/origin. Thus our incorporation into the inveterate mythomania (the mirror that precedes both masses and Michael).


Michael is asked the question by his black friends in Bad “are you bad, are you down?". Michael answers "I'm bad" "but you're nothing”. Reading the clip in relation to a previous clip Beat It (that figures a gang fight broken up by Michael's moralizing boogie) Bad could be read as Michael going back to his origins and being accused by his origins of becoming an other. Hence, when he sings "I'm bad", it Is to be read "I'm black". However. Michael is not really “really, really bad", he's only commercially bad. That is, he draws upon the word "bad" in its jive meaning of style (black clothes, silver buckles, boogie, etc).


Bad plays on a certain black and white mythology. The narrative section is In black and white which later breaks into colour with the song. This sort of mythology is reminiscent of the play between black and white William Bloke used in his poem "The Little Black Boy" I am black, but O! my soul is white”. Obviously, Michael has "cleaned his soul" at the whites' school.


The position from which Michael speaks seems to be that of being within the “Universal Family of Man”. This is evidenced by his multi-cultural dance troupe that bounds onto the scene as the clip explodes into colour. Hence he accuses his ex-friends of “doing wrong” because they remain within their cultural specificity. The handshake near the end of the clip is an uneasy truce between these two positions.


Note the scene where Michael/Darryl is about to “roll” the old guy In the subway to prove his badness. He changes his mind on hearing the old man speak out in Spanish – this is the point at which the construct "The Universal Brotherhood of Man”, shows its WASPish face. If he had been a Boston Businessman, would Michael have rolled him? The problem raised here is something like a solidarity between an oppressed migrant and Michael. The blacks who won't co-operate do not have this sense of solidarity and thus become "other" to the moral (white bourgeoise in fact) discourse.


Now, how to read all this in terms of the Narcissus myth discussed above. Firstly, if Narcissus is caught in his own fascination structure, he is in theory unable to gain access to the outside, the big Other. Everything is just a projection of self. Perhaps then so too is this Great Family of Man. If the accusation is "white” Jackson sidesteps it by making an appeal to the universal soul and, unlike in American popular music, but like in the Bloke poem, soul is white. It has been pointed out that the Great Family of Man is a projection of a white humanist mythology.5 The end of the Bloke poem articulates the black boy's transformation as part of a primarily white narcissism. (Little black boy): “I will be like him and he (little English boy) will then love me”.


But back to Michael. If Narcissus cannot break free of himself into the Other (the “world”), how can he claim, with his moral discourse- to be able to change it? This contradiction comes to a head in the lyrics of two songs on the Bad album. In Another Part of Me, there is a recuperation of the other (you) into the Great Family: "This Is our planet, you're one of us”, I love you because "You're Just another part of me”. In the next song on the album, The Man In the Mirror, there is a gesture towards breaking free of Narcissism: "I've been a victim of a selfish kind of love, it's time that I realize ... I'm starting with the man In the mirror, I'm asking him to change his ways”. Perhaps this is the dilemma we find Michael in at the end of "Bad". How does he transfer from other (small 'o') to Other (big "O")? That is, from other as a projection of the same, to a recognition of a kind of third position: "I see the kids on the street with not enough to eat. Who am I, to be blind". But it's still a view from afar, there is a kind of Other that our Michael can never reach.

From Michael Jackson's video clip Bad, 1987


1. Kobena Mercer Monster Metaphors: Notes on Michael Jackson 's "Thriller'. Screen vol27 no 1 Jan/Feb 1986 p41

2. Quoted in Andy Warhol and Bob Colacello Michael Jackson. Interview magazine Oct 1982.

3. For Freud on the Oedipus complex see the Pelican fraud Library: vol 7 on sexuality pp 313·22 and vol11 on metapsychology pp 371.

4. We thank Juliana Du Nooy here for her excellent work on this subject.

5. Roland Barthes Mythologies pp 100-102