Abstract: This interview is part of our ongoing coverage of unique and dynamic academics covering Michael Jackson in educational establishments and institutions worldwide. In it, academic, Professor Marie Plasse of Merrimack College discusses teaching and delivering papers in Michael Jackson Studies professionally.
Plasse, Marie. “An Interview with Professor Marie Plasse.” Interview, The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 3, no. 1 (2016). Published electronically 21/8/16. http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/an-interview-with-professor-marie-plasse/.
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An Interview with Professor Marie Plasse of Merrimack College by The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies
Q1 – Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I live in Boston, Massachusetts and have been teaching for 26 years in the English Department at Merrimack College, where I’m a tenured full professor. I have a PhD in English Literature from Boston University with a specialization in Shakespeare (so you and I have a lot in common!). My Shakespeare scholarship has focused on the intersections between the literary and performative aspects of drama, and, in particular, on the textual and theatrical modes of the body in drama. More recently, I’ve written about the body in Italian American women’s fiction, and I have a longstanding scholarly interest in popular culture. I teach courses on Shakespeare and early modern drama, Italian American literature, as well as various other literature and writing courses. And I also teach a course on Michael Jackson!
Q2 – What inspired you to teach the course, ‘Michael Jackson: Reading the King of Pop as Cultural Text’? What was its genesis?
I first thought about putting together a course on Michael Jackson in the spring of 2012, when my department was looking to expand our course offerings in the areas of film and popular culture. I had been involved popular culture scholarship since the 1980s, working mainly on theatricality and performance in relation to pop stars like Prince and k.d. lang. In 2012, I had begun to write about Jackson as well. So it was natural to expand what I was thinking about to encompass a course that would meet the needs of our expanding curriculum as well as my own growing interest in studying Jackson. Joe Vogel’s Man in the Music (2011) was also an inspiration, since I knew I would be able to use it as a textbook that would provide students with a perfect foundation for our work in the course.
I spent a couple of years researching and gathering materials for the course and figuring out how to structure it. The course is based on two fundamental tenets of popular culture studies – first, that elements of mass culture such as television, movies, video, popular fiction and music, fashion, comics, games, the Internet, and social media deserve serious study, and second, that analysis of such productions can provide insight into the politics and social preoccupations of the culture that produces them. As a pop star who reached unprecedented levels of fame, artistic success, and wealth, and as a figure who was subsequently ridiculed, vilified, and finally criminalized by the very society that elevated him to such heights, Michael Jackson is a most complex and revealing cultural “text.” My goal in the course is to help students learn to “read” Michael Jackson in order to explore how his artistic work and cultural presence intersect with and comment on late twentieth-century ideas about gender, race, sexuality, media/celebrity culture, and the role of the popular artist in society. Our main objects of study in the course are Jackson’s short films, since they provide accessible texts where these dynamics can be clearly traced. But the course materials also expose students to many other sources. In addition to Joe’s book, we look at a wide range of scholarly and journalistic writing on Jackson, selections from popular culture theory and film studies, along with various blog posts and video clips. We also consider portions of Jackson’s recorded music, filmed concerts, television appearances, autobiographical writings, interviews, and public statements.
Q3 – Tell us about the impact of the course for you as a lecturer, as well as for your students?
The impact of the course for me, in addition to the sheer pleasure of teaching a subject that I love, has been to deepen my knowledge of and admiration for Jackson’s work and life. Every time I teach the course I learn more about the complexity and depth of his art and his relationship to the world. The course has also catalyzed some scholarly writing projects on Jackson that I hope to publish in the future. The impact of the course for the students comes on a few different levels, I think. Most broadly, the course gives them a sense that pop culture can be studied seriously and that it can tell us a great deal about ourselves. More specifically, the course gives students an understanding of the significance Jackson’s life and artistic work that stands in sharp contrast to the limited, distorted picture most students have of him. My students are traditional college age (18-22 years old), so they didn’t witness Jackson’s astounding rise to fame as a child star in the late 60s/early 70s and they weren’t yet born when he rose to pop superstardom in the 1980s. While some students have gotten to know Jackson’s work through their parents and have come to share their parents’ enthusiasm for it, most of them know Jackson only as a tabloid caricature and as a “weirdo” supposedly guilty of child molestation. Unless they are serious fans (and some are), at most they know the Thriller film and album, and perhaps Bad and the “Black or White” single, but not much else. At the end of the course, however, most students indicate that they understand and appreciate the artistic sophistication of his work as well as the importance of the messages and causes that he embraced in his life and work. And they also understand the extent of the media’s distorted representations of Jackson and how that affected his artistic work and his life. One of the additional impacts of the course, my students have told me, is a greater appreciation of the role popular culture plays in our lives and an increased interest in analyzing more of the contemporary pop culture they regularly engage with.
Q4 – In your opinion, how can Michael Jackson Studies be effective in schools and universities?
I think that Michael Jackson Studies can be most effective in schools and universities if it is presented as a rigorous topic of study and if it is connected in some way to the existing curriculum, perhaps as a continuation or expansion of what is already being taught. In my own case, as I mentioned, the new Michael Jackson course fit in with our effort to expand our existing English curriculum beyond traditional literary topics. Students who take the course come to understand that the tools of close-reading and rigorous cultural analysis that they use to analyze more traditional artistic forms – poetry, fiction, feature films – can also be applied to popular culture. So the course ends up teaching students new ways to apply the methods and skills that they have learned in previous courses. In addition to adding another subject area to our curriculum, the course reinforces and extends what students are learning in their other classes. As such, the course is less of an outlier and can be seen as more solidly integrated (and worthwhile) in relation to the curriculum as a whole.
Q5 – Which subjects do you find suit Michael Jackson Studies best?
If you mean where might Michael Jackson Studies fit within the academy, I think that, obviously, music, dance, and film studies areas make the most sense as places where MJ studies might be developed. In addition, however, depending on how it is approached, I think MJ studies can also work within a broader American Studies, African-American Studies, or cultural studies context. In terms of which subjects within Michael Jackson studies work best, I’ve found that students really enjoyed approaching MJ through close study of his short films. These works are accessible and manageable as objects of study, but also complex enough to reward careful analysis. My students were especially interested, for instance, in a visually complex film like Leave Me Alone, in which Jackson responds to media representations of himself and to the pressures of life as celebrity. They were also very captivated by the HIStory album and its associated short films, both in the context of Jackson’s personal struggles and also in connection with the larger social issues that the album’s songs and films engage with. Students were especially interested in Earth Song, for example, since so many of them are committed to environmentalism, and given the ongoing racial conflict here in the U.S., they were also especially interested in the two films for They Don’t Care About Us.
Q6 – What are your feelings about the attempt to appropriate Jackson into academic circles now?
I’ve been a scholar of popular culture since the mid-1980s, so it feels completely natural to me that more academic studies of Michael Jackson are now being carried out. Jackson is a major artist, and there is much to learn about and from his work. With a few exceptions (like Kobena Mercer’s 1986 article on monster metaphors in Thriller, for example), serious attention to Jackson’s work has been very late in coming, especially in comparison to artists like Elvis, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and even Michael Jackson’s contemporary, Madonna, who was the subject of a number of critical books and articles as early as the 1980s and 90s. As Joe Vogel points out in the introduction to Man in the Music, when he began that book in 2005, there were no serious treatments of Jackson as an artist. It’s sad that it took Jackson’s death in 2009 to catalyze the fair and responsible academic studies we’re seeing now, but at the same time, it’s gratifying to see Jackson’s art and the immense service he did to help others finally being given the rigorous analytical attention they deserve. So, overall, I think that academic study of Jackson is a very good thing.
I also think, however, that sometimes people outside of academia, including some of Jackson’s loyal fans, may not have a full understanding of the nature and purpose of academic work. Some fans believe, for example, that academics who publish on Jackson make a huge profit from their writing, which is untrue. Academic journals don’t pay for articles, and academic books make very little profit for their authors. There are also those who believe that we should focus exclusively on the artistic work that Jackson left behind and enjoy it without inquiry or analysis, a position which is valid enough, but fundamentally contrary to the nature and purpose of academic study. Obviously, there is room for both approaches. As with any art form, it’s possible to experience and enjoy Jackson’s work without delving any deeper. But for me, the virtue of academic inquiry is that it always enriches my understanding and appreciation for the material being studied.
Q7 – You work professionally with noted author, Dr. Joseph Vogel, can you tell us about this experience?
Working with Joe is a real delight! Joe’s areas of specialization — contemporary literature, film, environmental studies, and popular culture studies — fit well with the needs of our department when a new position opened up for fall 2015, so we were very glad that he applied for the job and quickly rose to the top of the list of applicants. It’s terrific to work closely with Joe as a colleague because he is so intellectually engaged, energetic, professional, and productive. And of course, it’s a special treat for me to have one of the foremost Michael Jackson experts right down the hall! Joe is a generous colleague and has been enormously supportive of my work on MJ, even though I’m still at the early stages with my MJ writing projects. We’ve had many wonderful conversations about MJ studies and MJ in general, and we’ve also shared our work in more formal professional settings. This past spring I organized a panel on Jackson’s HIStory album for the 2016 conference of the Popular Culture Association of America (the primary professional organization for scholars of popular culture) and Joe participated in the panel, along with Nina Fonoroff, who is also doing wonderful work on Jackson. (We missed our colleague Susan Fast, who was also on the panel but unable to attend the conference.)
Q8 – There is often a “low culture” stigma attached to studying Michael Jackson at a high academic level. How do you think this affects those who wish to complete research in Michael Jackson Studies?
I think that the low culture/high culture divide still exists in many settings, but it is my sense, at least here in the U.S., that the stigma attached to studying popular culture has diminished over the past several decades. Film has long been incorporated into English programs, as has popular fiction, and more recently, we’ve seen courses on comics and graphic novels, television shows, and other popular culture productions. In this context, it’s not that much of a leap to serious academic study of Michael Jackson. That said, however, I can understand the challenges faced by scholars, especially younger ones, who might want to devote themselves exclusively to Michael Jackson studies. I can see that they would have to fight to be taken seriously in certain contexts, and I recognize that I’ve come to MJ studies from a relatively privileged position, as someone with traditional academic training and a specialization in perhaps the most canonical literary figure of them all – William Shakespeare! In that sense, I’m less vulnerable to the stigma you mentioned, though I admit that I have gotten some funny looks when I mention that I’m teaching Michael Jackson. My hope for younger scholars facing the “low culture” stigma attached to Jackson studies would be that the excellence of the work they do will ultimately help break down the barriers to full appreciation and understanding.
Q9 – What, if any influence did Michael Jackson have on you? Professionally? Personally?
I grew up as a fan of the Jackson 5 and of Michael’s adult solo career, so the sheer delight and pleasure of experiencing Jackson’s talent and music have been part of my life since I was a child, and that is a wonderful gift. Jackson’s personal influence on me has grown much stronger since I began studying and teaching him in the sense that I have come to know and respect his genius, his work ethic, and his commitment to kindness, generosity, philanthropy, and social activism much more than I did before I studied his work and life in depth. When you spend so much time learning and thinking about these qualities of Jackson’s, you can’t help but be inspired to find ways to work harder and be more productive, generous, and committed in your own life.
Q10 – You are predominantly a lecturer of English, how does this basis provide a positive background for your teaching of Michael Jackson as a Cultural Text?
It was actually my literary specialties in Shakespeare and drama as a genre that sparked my interest in the serious study of popular culture. As I mentioned earlier, my Shakespeare work has focused on the textual and theatrical manifestations of the body in the plays. As I was working on these issues, it was not only natural but also really fun for me to look at popular performers and analyze their work using the same frameworks that I was using to study Shakespeare – close-reading, drama theory, performance studies, and various forms of literary theory. I became especially interested in 1980s popular music figures like David Bowie, Madonna, k.d. lang, and Prince, artists whose self-presentation and performance styles seemed particularly theatrical, involving elaborate costumes, deliberately assumed personae, and complex video productions. Overall, I think that it’s our love of the subject matter and our ability to apply various analytical tools to popular culture, rather than any particular area of literary specialization, that qualifies me and my English literature colleagues to teach contemporary popular culture.
Q11 – 450 years ago, William Shakespeare was very much like Michael Jackson: successful, commercial, and contemporary. Now he is regarded as one of the most iconic artists who ever lived. What do you think will be the view on Michael Jackson in 400 years’ time?
That’s a tough question to answer! I hope that 400 years from now people will still be listening to and watching Jackson’s work with great appreciation, but it’s impossible to know whether by then Jackson will have achieved the kind of rarified cultural status that Shakespeare enjoys. As you know, a very specific history and politics have constructed Shakespeare’s current cultural position, much of which has to do with the specific history and politics of Britain as a nation. I’m not sure what the forces will be that will construct a cultural understanding and position for Michael Jackson 400 years from now. But in the shorter term, I think that the number of new books and scholarly articles that focus on Jackson’s work as an artist, rather than on his notoriety as a celebrity, will continue to grow. (I’m especially interested to see, for example, what dance scholars will have to say about Jackson’s work. I also think that Jackson’s short films need to be studied by film scholars.) Such studies will cut through the many layers of tabloid distortion under which Jackson’s important contributions as a performer, writer, filmmaker, philanthropist, and activist have long been buried. As a result, I think that over time the cultural significance of his work will become increasingly apparent.
Q12 – Final thoughts: what does it mean to be an academic teaching at this key time in history, seven years after Jackson’s death?
I think that academics have a role to play, as do many others, in keeping Jackson’s legacy alive. By teaching about Jackson, academics can guide students to a full and honest assessment of his cultural significance while at the same time helping students to think critically about a whole host of important issues. One of the advantages of teaching a full semester course on Jackson is that it comes with the luxury of being able to consider a broad range of Jackson’s work and his intersection with key cultural issues in depth and over many successive weeks. This allows for students to work slowly through whatever received ideas they have about Jackson and put them into the context of many different kinds of discussions and analyses of Jackson’s work from many different perspectives. I think the classroom setting is a uniquely effective place to do this, since it offers the opportunity for face-to-face dialog and exchange that can’t happen when individuals read about Jackson on their own or delve alone into social media environments where his work and life are discussed. Personally, I also feel a responsibility when I teach Jackson to counteract the horrible falsehoods that were and continue to be disseminated about him in the media and to teach students to think critically about how all of that works. All of that said, I don’t believe any one group – fans, academics, journalists, or even Jackson’s own professional associates, several of whom are now giving seminars about his work – can claim an exclusive purchase on Jackson’s ultimate significance. All of the different constituencies that care about Jackson’s legacy and significance have important contributions to make to the project of ensuring that his art and his messages get the thoughtful attention they deserve, and there is something to be learned from all of these different perspectives.
Thank-you, Marie, for taking the time to talk to us.
Marie Plasse is Professor of English at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. She is the author of numerous articles on Shakespeare, Italian American women’s fiction, and popular culture.
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