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In Memoriam Michael Jackson

Tom O'Carroll

Two summaries from "Michael Jackson's Dangerous Liasons", by Carl Toms, Madator Publ., 2010

Crimes against rhyme

If Michael’s adult 'effeminate' behaviour were an indication of this long-term developmental pattern, one would expect to find that as a little boy he had been something of a 'sissy'. Yet this is not what we find. 

As a boy Michael was a lively little rascal, not at all 'girlishly' coy or timid. He was a prankster, wickedly keen on practical jokes, and the only one, in a house full of older boys, with the nerve to stand up to his father. 

Even in adult life he was 'boyish' in most ways – unlike the super-feminine La Toya, whose living space is so neat, tidy and utterly perfect that visitors are hardly allowed to walk on the carpets, Michael just slung his clothes on the floor and was happy to live in a casual dump of a bedroom. What could be more blockish? Whereas she was always likely to have a fit of the vapours at the mere thought of feeding Michael’s smelly animals, he took a decidedly unsqueamish interest in brain surgery as a young man: he once went to the trouble of wangling invitations to highly unorthodox private attendance at operations, seeing at close quarters some nifty knife work and cortical convolutions that would make supposedly tougher guys turn to jelly.

And Michael’s aggressive, raunchy, crotch-grabbing stage performances were scarcely the stuff of Barbara Cartland novels: they suggested nothing feminine whatever. Even the anti-macho, anti-violence theme of the song “Beat It” puts the message across in a tough way, validating retreat as a smart stratagem for the cool, survival-minded dude. For the psychology to work, for 'street cred' to be maintained, any hint of wimpishness has to be rubbed out like a mafia hit. 

Michael’s off-stage retreat behind a mask of make-up and seeming femininity is best explained not as a deep indicator of developing gayness so much as a different kind of stratagem, an opportunistic response to the need for a different kind of credibility. 

It is no accident that it was in adolescence that Michael began to withdraw, developing the serious, shy, strange character which by his own admission came to set him apart from 'normal' folk. 

It all began mundanely enough with a bad case of acne which revealed him as perhaps inherently a more sensitive type than his brother Marlon (not that 'sensitive' equates with feminine, but it is a teasing hint in that direction). 

Add to this his inhibitions with girls arising from taking to heart a religious faith that opposes pre-marital sex, and we already have the makings not only of serious hang-ups, but also of problems for Michael in how to present himself to the public. If, to top all else, he was coming to find himself drawn exclusively towards young boys, the tensions would have been desperate. No 'solution' would have been apparent: there was none.

We would instead expect to find him clutching at straws, coming up with drastic and bizarre survival measures. Poor Michael must have felt all the time as precariously positioned as James Bond suspended over a pool full of piranha fish, having to resort to amazing gadgets to get him out of trouble. 

It was a scenario in which every Wacko Jacko story eventually became just such a gadget. Rick Sky spoke of hiding behind a “shield” of wackiness, which comes to much the same thing. One such device Michael hit upon was to hint at being gay, through an increasingly feminine appearance and manner. 

This stood to achieve three things. 

it would explain away his lack of romantic involvement with women and take off some of the pressure to 'perform' with glamorous females coming his way on the showbiz circuit. 
At the same time, because it was only a hint, millions of girl fans would discount it as untrue, each of them preferring to cherish him as the dreamboat they would eventually marry. 
it would throw the newshounds off the scent: better to have his lack of girlfriends plausibly explained away by seeming to be an effeminate, man-hunting gay, than to risk the suspicion of something far worse in the public estimation.
– the most subtle and difficult point, but also the most revealing – 
to hint at gayness was for Michael to emphasise aspects of his personality that were coming to be absolutely genuine in his development as a human being. He was gradually, from within, coming to be gentle, softly spoken and 'feminine'. The sensitivity may well always have been there. 
His mother would certainly have known about that. But the entirely new factor as he grew up arose from his own reflections on life, especially his own: he was struggling towards an awkward accommodation with the world, towards a 'feel' for people and a viable way of relating to them, a struggle arising directly out of the extreme oddness of his situation. 
As he passed through his teen years, witnessing with revulsion his brothers’ coarse imitation of his equally coarse father’s behaviour towards women, he was coming to be aware that his own sexual feelings were taking him in a different direction, towards young boys. 
Unable to express this in the simple, relaxed, animal fashion of ordinary sex at its best and worst, he began to romanticise and sentimentalise his feelings, using an unconscious survival tactic of frustrated young would-be lovers everywhere. He wrote poetry.

He started thinking about the beauty of nature, the innocence of children. His mind took him towards the magical and the mystical, towards Peter Pan and a fairy land of the imagination – a land which soon found him being associated with 'fairies' of a different kind. Yet how 'naturally' such thinking must have come to a young man who had lived in a fantasy world all his life, a showbiz world in which dressing up and wearing make-up were second nature not an unacceptable oddity. 

The gentle, soft-spoken Michael emerging from adolescence was thus a real figure, not just a public relations creation. The 'nice' thoughts and feelings he expressed were truly coming from within, thoughts and feelings based on maiden aunt sensibilities that steered him clear of unwanted grown-up sex. 

Just how 'all my own work' his 'nice' poetry is, for instance, can be judged by its quality. It is not just any old sentimental rubbish. It is plainly so dreadful it cannot possibly have been written for him by the talented ghost writers behind Hollywood stars’ 'autobiographies'. 

Skilful scribes can be persuaded to do dubious things for the right money, but conning verse bad enough to ruin their reputation as writers is unlikely to be among them. 

Take, for instance, “When babies smile”, a fairly typical piece from the collection of poems and reflections Michael published as "Dancing the Dream". The last verse runs as follows:

Kingdoms topple, lose their class
Civilisations crumble, ages pass
Turbulent tempests ravage the seas
Violent killings, despite our pleas
But dewdrops sparkle when children play
Tyrants cry, there’s nothing to slay
Fairies dance and goblins sing
All are crowned, all are king
In the garden we frolic awhile
Those are moments when babies smile. 

Kingdoms topple, lose their class, boy can he write a verse that’s crass! The point here is not to criticise Michael’s poetry, even though his crime against rhyme deserves a prison sentence more than anything he may have done with boys. 

Not that most of us are in a position to cast the first stone. Our youthful mental couplings of William McGonagall and Patience Strong have begotten millions of equally ugly little bastards of verse. The difference in Michael’s case is that he was able to publish, so his work was not left in decent obscurity. Nor did anyone apparently dare advise him he is no Byron or Wordsworth, or have the temerity to interfere editorially in any way. As detectives in search of 'the real Michael', we should be delighted to stumble across such telling evidence for the existence of this illusive entity. Could it be that all is not necessarily chimerical and mere illusion?  


One wonders if Ms Smith has ever heard of Elvis “the pelvis” Presley, and whether she would interpret his raunchy, crotch-focused movements as a case of arrested sexual development, and if not, why not. Or Mick Jagger’s, or those of a hundred other pop stars.

Her analysis, is unfortunately typical of those given to uncritical dependence on Freudian concepts: on inspection it turns out really to tell us nothing we cannot more reliably infer from other evidence. This is not to say she is wrong, only that the evidence from Freud is weak. 

La Toya Jackson’s view is scarcely less open to objection and has been emphatically denied by Michael. Nonetheless it is interesting, plausible, and deserves an airing so that we can keep in mind the complexity of the situation. 

Reducing a life to one set of all-explanatory psychodynamics really will not do: if there is one buzz word of current psychological thinking that is more than just an empty slogan, it is the idea that life problems and situations tend to be 'multi-factorial'. 

La Toya claims to have been phoned by Michael at the time of her first Playboy pictures. She reported that her brother said he liked the pictures, and then went on to offer an explanation as to why she would choose to do something so controversial, citing her need to “get back” at their parents and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

“I know,” La Toya claims he said, “because that’s why I wrote ‘Bad’. And that’s why I wiggle the way I do and grab myself in that video and ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’. It’s to get back at Joseph and the religion, and to tell them I can do what I want.”

Robin Hunt, in the Daily Telegraph had an appealingly simple and persuasive explanation of Michael’s crotch-rubbing which suggests market forces call the tune in the pop world. 

The teen market, so important to Michael, has always been predicated on the notion that “your mother wouldn’t like it”, he wrote. Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are a traditional triple act. Youngsters want something “shocking”. 

Michael’s crotch-grabbing was no odder than Madonna’s sexual antics or Take That’s on-stage trouser-dropping. The sting of this explanation, however, and the key to its linkage with a deeper one, was in the tail: 

“Michael Jackson does not simulate sex on stage but, as his a-sexual star began to wane in the early nineties, he introduced a raunchiness to his act: rubbing his crotch in time to the beat, a gesture copied by eight-year-olds worldwide.”

The raunchiness in fact began earlier, but why split pubic hairs? The important thing is that pre-pubertal pre-teens were indeed copying Michael, in a way that could only be highly gratifying to a paedophilic pop star. 

In developing this particular “infantile” act, crotch-grabbing, Michael was not merely expressing his own 'arrested', masturbatory sexual development, but also encouraging and validating similar self-expression by children themselves. By the time children are five or six years old they have usually taken on board the socially required standards of modesty demanded by their parents and other adults. They are no longer the shameless exhibitionists of Freud’s observing. Instead their sexual feelings find more secret expression in the pre-pubertal years he (wrongly) thought were generally a time of sexual “latency”.

Michael’s subversive gesture offered the heady possibility of returning children’s infantile freedom to them, of giving them the chance to enjoy and celebrate their sexuality rather than hiding or repressing it.

“Never give up your bliss” was the message Michael allegedly gave Jordan Chandler in private; it was a message he gave every child in public. It was, to be sure, a coded message, and its deciphering would not necessarily be straightforward. Children’s sexuality, like that of grown-ups, is a social construct, but unpredictably, chaotically emergent in any individual.

The inchoate 'meaning' of Michael’s gesture in terms of sexual activity and social significance was, so to speak, up for grabs. It was a truly seminal act, fertile in serving to generate a juvenile symbolic discourse of sexuality, through which children themselves might be enabled to recognise and acknowledge their desires. Freed to touch their bodies in naughty places, and to think about the implications, they would inevitably begin to negotiate the significance of it all, with themselves and others – including their peers, and perhaps a friendly grown-up or two. Possibly even, for a few lucky ones, with Michael himself.

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