Songs: “Just Good Friends,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Another Part of Me” (Captain EO)
At the end of the last chapter, I hypothesized that hegemonic representations of Michael Jackson would generally aver their own authenticity in some way, while counter-hegemonic ones would disrupt any notion of fixity or permanence, even within themselves. This chapter explores the mechanics of that hypothesis in great detail in regards to authorship, representation of the body, and the Utopian content of songs and videos. Within “Just Good Friends,” “Man in the Mirror,” and “Another Part of Me,” which I argue are the three most hegemonic songs on Bad, various disguises and shifts occur that obscure the creation of these artifacts and then allow them to damage or appropriate the counter-hegemonic representations analyzed in Chapter 3.
In constructing a useful framework to address an analogous cultural problem, Nancy Lesko applies Homi Bhabha’s post-colonial theory to show how adolescence is a construct that has become “naturalized” in our society. Colonialism, she explains,
kept social structural inequalities muted, while the colonized and their psychologized ‘dependency complex’ became hypervisible. … In Bhabha’s theoretical terms, colonial discourse involves a splitting: it obscures the relationships of institutions and apparatuses of power while it emphasizes the inadequacies of the colonized. (Lesko 106-107)
She applies this with an example of “splitting off of context and power relations” (109): a teenager disagrees with her parents; her parents, rather than accepting her perspective as a legitimate complaint, recode her dissent as an “identity crisis,” which simultaneously (1) resituates the conflict as an interior one, (2) legitimizes the adult perspective, and (3) obscures the domination exercised (109-110).
This “colonialist split” has connections to the way ideological state apparatuses operate to hide their oppressive ideological function. If a hegemonic media artifact can do any of the three functions above (resituate conflict as interior to the consumer, legitimize its own perspective, or obscure the exercise of domination), it works to secure the consent of the subordinated: they come to view the artifact’s portrayal of the world as natural and not constructed. Bhabha’s split occurs in the three songs analyzed in this chapter to all three of the effects Lesko theorizes, making these songs and their representations of Michael Jackson hegemonic commodities.
Shifting Authorship via the Colonial Split
“Just Good Friends” and “Man in the Mirror” are unique on Bad as the only songs Michael Jackson did not compose. Neither of these songs has a music video featuring Jackson, either (a significant characteristic, though not unique to these songs). The first colonial split happens in terms of authorship for these two songs. Unless a listener seeks out the information, it would be easy to assume that Jackson wrote these songs; but we can construct a different meaning from them when we know that they were written by other people. This is not to say that Jackson was not involved in the creation of these artifacts. Certainly he was. Composing lyrics and sheet music do not by themselves constitute authorship: the performance is perhaps even more important, especially in Jackson’s case, and it’s likely he collaborated in the songwriting as well. But the consumer hears the recording and sees the video and watches the live performance. They don’t look at the sheet music. It wasn’t Michael’s writing but his performance of “Man in the Mirror” that made it his song. This fact makes the performer an even more perfect switching station: the visual and aural are so powerful that all the content and constructed meanings may get attributed to the performer, leaving other creative agents invisible. Michael Jackson is, for society’s intents and purposes, the “author” of these songs, even though he isn’t technically the writer.
I base my analysis of these two songs in critical theory of authorship as a complex and misused phenomenon that can aid in the colonial split. As Barthes pointed out decades before these songs were written, the idea of a solitary author-genius who is solely responsible for the creation and reception of songs is simply not a theoretically sound one. Yet, as Foucault notes, the specter of the author still haunts production and consumption in several specific ways. He says that the author’s name not only functions as a reference, but serves to describe and classify a work, and signifies something about it to consumers (“What is an Author?” 233-234). Foucault distinguishes the “real” person who creates an artifact from the “author-function” of that person’s name and writing. For better or worse, society (mis)uses the author-function in four general ways, each of which can be helpful or problematic. These ways provide a guide to identify how authorship creates a colonial split in “Just Good Friends.”
“Just Good Friends” was written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle and sung as a duet by Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. In one (mis)use of Foucault’s author-function, society assigns the author-function variable importance based on historical time and genre (“Author” 236-237). In 1987 it might make sense to talk about Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson as co-stars, but in 2015? Quick, list five Stevie Wonder songs. If you could, I’m impressed. Most people of my generation hardly know “Superstition,” and we are much more likely to think of this song as a duet between Michael Jackson and some other guy. Terry Britten and Graham Lyle are just as much authors as Michael Jackson (if not more so), but whose song is this, really? Because of Jackson’s superstardom, as time goes on the song only becomes more and more “his” and less and less Stevie’s, Britten’s, or Lyle’s.
Another (mis)use of the author-function Foucault describes is that of appropriation, including regulatory and punitive functions (“Author” 235-236); that is, the author-function not only delineates who owns a song, but who is responsible for its content. This seems to be simply a question of to whom we attribute the song “Just Good Friends” and the messages it contains, but it carries great implications. I argue that listeners (generally) interpret Jackson as the author-function for this song, despite his not being the “author.” Just look at the album cover: his image is on both sides, and his name and image are prominently placed near the titles of the songs. The proximity seems to signify affiliation, some kind of ownership, some appropriation. The image of Michael and his name function to incorporate these songs into the category of songs described with the label “Michael Jackson.” In this process, the songs and their content function to slightly shift our understanding of the performer, and they change the composition of the whole body of work known as “Michael Jackson.”
An artifact like “Just Good Friends,” whose authorship is both complex and obfuscated, does hegemonic work to the cultural imagination’s understanding of “Michael Jackson.” So what kinds of representations in “Just Good Friends” get appropriated to the Jackson? The main narrative of the song portrays two men arguing over a woman they are both attracted to. Since the woman is trying to decide between them, she ostensibly has the agency in the situation. She keeps both men guessing: “she never shows she cares,” and “she acts like I’m not there;” and she is the one doing the deciding: “I guess the lady is still making up her mind.” However, it doesn’t take a very careful look to see that her agency is limited: she can choose between Michael or Stevie. In this situation, these particular options don’t sound too bad. But at a conceptual level, the woman’s greatest act of agency is to choose which man to be subordinate to.
Furthermore, the woman has no voice in the song! She has literally no say in how she is represented, which makes her ostensible agency a sham – a colonial splitting. The agency belongs in fact to the two men, who have all the power to represent the woman as a subject (object?) and describe her actions and assign them value. Yet their discursive attribution of agency to her shifts the focus from them as agents onto her. Michael sings, “We’ve got a problem here,” which seems to be in reference to the woman; women are definitionally a problem. This split “naturalizes” the idea that women are notoriously difficult, indecisive, and two-faced in their relationships. It shows the conflict as interior to the woman and privileges the male perspective. In this way, the song reifies the hegemonic repudiation and subordination of the feminine.
This split that “gives agency” to the woman and masks the male domination mirrors the split going on in the song at the level of production: the song “gives agency” to Michael (and Stevie) because they are the ones doing, saying, singing. But they only do so because the invisible agent has written them into those roles. In this song we see one of the effects of Bhabha’s colonial split, the legitimizing, “naturalizing” function: hegemonic masculinity is reified as the discourse of the lyrics naturalizes inequitable relationships and locks down gender characteristics to a fixed configuration. This calls up contradictions between this song and the counter-hegemonic messages we saw in the last chapter. Since the author-function “serves to neutralize the contradictions that are found in a series of texts” (“Author” 238), it is possible (though not guaranteed) for listeners to shift these contradictions onto Jackson.
Foucault’s next point is to distinguish that the author-function is not a person but a construct that we make. The image of the author-function should not be seen as a reflection of the person doing the writing, but rather as “projections” of how we read texts, that is, “the comparisons we make, the traits we extract as pertinent, the continuities we assign, or the exclusions we practice” (“Author” 237-238). It is one thing to read texts and find similarities, make comparisons, and lump traits into categories; it is quite another to project all that information onto a person and to hold that person responsible for the judgments we have made.
For instance, the author-function can be misused by readers to project a unity onto texts that are “attached to a single name” by implying relationships of “homogeneity, filiation, reciprocal explanation” (“Author” 235). One way of reading “Just Good Friends” is to compare it to “The Way You Make Me Feel” and note the similarities: the syntactical agency given to the woman, the unequal power dynamics in their relationships, and the objectification of women. We might be tempted project these similar traits and characteristics onto Michael Jackson, and say that something about his personality or values or beliefs caused these similarities to come about. That would be a person-centered reading that ignores how our reading habits project information. Furthermore, there are huge differences between these two songs that may be ignored based on the “exclusions” we practice in our reading. What actually occurs, in Foucault’s terms, is that we project the comparisons and traits and continuities onto these songs because they are attached to a single name—that is, they aren’t simply there, but we construct them using the author-function. Our mental construction of the author determines to a large extent both how we “read” a song and how our picture of the author changes based on our reading.
Since this song is not an individual creation of Jackson’s but a product that coalesced from at least four creative minds, it is simpler to understand Foucault’s last distinction of the author-function: it is not an actual individual with a unified identity that constructs a text, but a variety of egos. Unity is a false ideal to hope for in an author’s catalogue of works. This false hope for unity shows up when we search for a “standard level of quality,” “conceptual or theoretical coherence,” or “stylistic uniformity” (“Author” 238) to corroborate a unified identity for the artist. Only when we search for those versions of unity in a set of texts do we need to “neutralize the contradictions” by pinning them to an author.
There is no “real” or unified Michael inside the song. When the name of the author-function and the proper name of a person are the same, it can be difficult to separate out narrator / singer / performer / songwriter / author. It’s problematic to try to find the “real” Michael in any of the songs or to attribute to him any of the content he sings about. Instead of asking “Who is the real author?” I have followed Foucault’s lead to get beyond who made it and ask instead what it does, for whom, and to whom.
Another function of Bhabha’s colonial splitting can be readily seen in the song “Man in the Mirror”: the resituating of conflict as interior to the consumer. This song was written by Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard and sung by Michael Jackson; therefore, the entire discussion about authorship for “Just Good Friends” applies equally well here, but in even more complexity. “Man in the Mirror” obscures structural and institutional inequalities and in so doing obtains hegemonic consent from the subordinated. This process is hidden through the various colonial splits: the shift of responsibility onto individuals, the removal of the body, and the obfuscation of authorship.
Steve Craig says that the media doesn’t reinscribe hegemonic masculinity (or other hegemonic structures) by simply imposing that ideology; rather, they (re)present “the relations between a series of ideologies (subordinate as well as dominant), overlapping them on to one another, so as to bring about certain movements and reformations of subjectivity” (195-196). Essentially, this means that hegemonic media artifacts portray people interacting with one another and with institutions, and those depicted interactions shape how consumers of those artifacts go about their own interactions. According to what Craig says, hegemony maintains itself by portraying subjects of both dominant and subordinate ideological positions moving and interacting with one another in ways that secure the consent of all parties. This means that the absence of dominant discourse doesn’t mean hegemony is not operating in an artifact.
This also means that the soft-spoken, emotional Jackson isn’t necessarily subversive, especially when he is portrayed in relation to a hegemonic structure that dominates him.
Let’s examine some of the lyrics in this light. The famous chorus starts with the lines, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways.” This line on its own certainly does not reinscribe hegemonic values. Self-improvement is a great goal. But is that the right place to start, and is that all that can be done? The remainder of the chorus resoundingly sounds, yes: “And no message could have been any clearer: If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and make a change.” The chorus seriously implies that the way to make the world a better place is to change your personal behaviors. Uncovering the solutions that the lyric ignores reveals how it conserves hegemony by hiding structural problems.
How about, “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at corrupt institutions and make a change?” Take a look at inequitable laws and policies. Take a look at systematic prejudices. Take a look at broken political systems based on antiquated models of governance. Taking a look at yourself and making a change will make the world a better place just as much as riding your bike to work will make the world a cleaner place: it’ll help, a tiny bit, but it puts the focus on the least effective solution and obscures the real problems from view.
Michael sings that “there are some with no home, not a nickel to loan” and asks, “Could it be really me pretending that they’re not alone?” No, Michael, it’s not your job to but a house for every homeless person. Don’t take a look at yourself; take a look at the policies that maintain an ungodly gap in the distribution of wealth, which directly affects
access to educational resources, which in turn affects ability to accrue wealth and find decent housing. In “Man in the Mirror” we hear Michael’s sadness, which is fine, but we also hear his guilt, and that guilt is projected onto listeners as well. Individuals, I contest, are not the guilty parties for the problems described in this song. There are larger institutional forces – Ideological State Apparatuses, to be exact – that maintain these problems in support of capitalism, yet they are totally obfuscated from this song.
Christine Gledhill says that capitalism’s “processes invariably turn alternative life-styles and identities into commodities, through which they are subtly modified and thereby recuperated for the status quo. … In this process, bourgeois society adapts to new pressures, while at the same time bringing them under control” (117). The job of the ISAs is to maintain the status quo by appropriating “new pressures” and adapting them for the service of Capitalism. The entertainment media as an ISA uses this song to take a newly dangerous pressure, Michael Jackson, and sanitize him, and use him to to help secure hegemonic consent. There is no threat to capitalism nor the institutions that uphold it as long as they remain in the shadows and Michael’s song safely shifts the problems onto listeners. Media artifacts like this song contribute directly to the invisible strength of capitalism by shifting blame from institutional inequalities onto individuals.
The music video continues this colonialist splitting. As I discussed in the sections on “Speed Demon” and “Bad,” Michael’s body is a destabilizing commodity that calls into question the fixity of categories like identity itself, so his body is very dangerous for a hegemonic project to incorporate. It makes sense, then, that the music video for this very hegemonic song consists of news reel clips and does not figure Michael’s body except for a five-second “Where’s Waldo”-esque cameo at the end.
The absence of Michael’s constructed body combined with the “real” newsreel content of the video serves as an authenticity-building move, a shift into the “real” world that makes this partial, particular version of the world seem like the one true world instead. The juxtaposition of the song with historical footage implies a relationship, perhaps even causality. Stuart Hall troubles the notion that any event can be simply “represented,” and says that all representations are necessarily interpretations (Representation). Therefore, placing representations of events alongside the song lyrics necessarily changes our interpretation of both. These “real” images of “real” people doing “real” things present us with a smorgasbord of choices; but however many “real” choices the video offers, it is nonetheless a partial representation of possibilities that forecloses others. Despite the footage being largely of disruptions to hegemonic culture (civil rights protests, anti-police riots, World War II victories), the video itself is not a disruption. All the events portrayed have been recuperable in the service of hegemony: black men are still often victims of police brutality; civil rights still have not been fully secured for all; WWII was a stimulus for capitalism and the impetus for the nuclear race and the nuclear family.
The institutional forces responsible for many of the injustices described in the song are largely absent from the newsreel footage, but Hall explains that absence “signifies as much as presence” (Representation), or does the same amount of meaning-making as presence. When the video shows starving children in Africa, part of the interpretation of the image is the viewer’s relation to the image—what the viewer perceives on the other side of the lens, so to speak. The cause of the hunger is absent. This information may be supplied by our own previous expectations or knowledge, but also by instruction, via the song lyrics. For instance, consumers of this song / video combination may see the footage of starving children and hear Michael’s line, “Who am I to be blind, pretending not to see their need?” and come away with the interpretation that they are somehow responsible for child hunger. This is certainly not a guaranteed response – it is one of many – but the point is that in the very act of viewing the images in the video, the viewer is implicated in meaning-making. We aren’t simply watching neutral, apolitical footage; the video reinforces specific ideological positions by contrasting the hegemonic lyrics with these images.
My final analysis finds “Man in the Mirror” to be the most hegemonic song on Bad. It lulls listeners and viewers into a strange combination of guilt and serenity; it propels them to spare a dime and think of that as sufficient. In short, this commodity manufactures the consent of the masses to an exploitative ideology. The colonial splits in “Man in the Mirror,” regardless of intent, shift responsibility onto individuals, ignore the need for institutional change, and obscure the domination exercised.
Due to its popularity and regular live performances, “Man in the Mirror” is identified as a Michael Jackson staple astronomically more than “Just Good Friends.” Despite that he didn’t compose either song, they became his through performance. “Man in the Mirror” has been appropriated into the body of works we call “Michael Jackson songs,” and it does something to shape that body as a whole: it tugs and shifts the center slightly towards the hegemonic.
Suturing Ruptures via the Colonial Split
The colonial split that occurs in the song “Another Part of Me” obscures the exercise of domination. The song appears on Bad, but first appeared in the Disney film Captain EO (starring Michael Jackson). In his essay “Captain EO and the Future of Utopia,” Carl Miller shows how disturbing the film is when analyzed through a post-colonial lens. This video disguises the way it exercises power, especially through its portrayal of bodies and beauty and the word-pairs it operationalizes to the benefit of some and the detriment of others (or Others). Miller has already shown that Captain EO portrays a thinly disguised Utopia that is quite colonial. But I go one step further and show how, when the colonial discourse doubles back on itself, the video actually presents counter-hegemonic suggestions. Ultimately, however, the film both presents and satirizes the possibility for meaningful societal change.
Although Michael Jackson did compose “Another Part of Me,” it also falls into the category of somewhat nebulous authorship. It is situated within the film Captain EO, which was created by a score of other writers and directors as well as another songwriter collaborating with Michael Jackson. I analyze “Another Part of Me” alongside the song “We Are Here to Change the World” (co-written by John Barnes and Michael Jackson), which also appears in the film and has very similar lyrical content. Although some of my readers may not have heard of the film, Captain EO was wildly popular when it first came out, featuring as a Disney attraction at parks across the world for over a decade and reopening there after Jackson’s death in 2010. Since names as prominent as Disney and George Lucas are associated with the film, it seems much less likely that Michael Jackson would be implicated as a solely-responsible author figure. Authorship is even more complex here than in the two previous songs, so I focus on the intersections of conflicting discourses articulating through the commodity while I continue to avoid (mis)appropriating them to any of the multiple authors.
Because the visual aspects of this video are so alien, it uses familiar language as the premiere venue for fixing hegemonic meanings. Captain EO reinforces several binaries, but more importantly, it naturalizes their hierarchical, differential valuation. The film sets up several binaries and reinforces them, but it also allows us to question them. As the film opens, a narrator tells us that the cosmos is a place where the forces of good and evil are at odds. He says that EO’s job is to bring “freedom” to world of “despair.” This sets us up to believe that Captain EO and his crew are good, free, and right, and that whoever they confront must be bad, in despair, and wrong (and all this before we see any of the characters). The songs reinforce the (arbitrary) idea that the protagonists are in the right: “A revelation of the truth,” “we have the truth,” and “a revelation, fulfill the truth” all suggest that whatever the Supreme Leader and her world have must be false. Furthermore, “truth” combined with “revelation” has a strong religious connotation, which is emphasized by the use of “we’re on a mission” and “this is the mission.”
But how do these fervent claims about having the truth stand up to the actions of the crew? And what do the inhabitants of the “despairing” world do to convince us of their badness? As the captain and crew “intrude” the foreign world, they are chased by security aircraft of some kind, and several of those ships crash as they follow the deft-flying intruders. They successfully evade capture and crash-land into a garbage heap.
Keep in mind that Captain EO and his crew have invaded airspace, caused extensive property damage, and probably killed a few security guards. They are quickly apprehended by ground troops and taken to the Supreme Leader to be punished. Up to this point in the video, if we consider what the characters have actually done instead of how we’ve been told to value them, EO and the crew seem like the evil ones, while the troops and Supreme Leader have only done what any reasonable governing institution would do. She proclaims that the mechanical characters be made into trash cans as punishment. Not only does she care about justice and security, she is also concerned about cleaning up the environment of her world. How is this leader evil, again?
On the surface, this video represents a classic struggle between light and dark, good and evil. One group is “clearly” correct and the other is not. One needs to be changed, taught, enlightened: “we’re sharing light,” and “we’re bringing brighter days,” the captain sings. The group of misfits is simply trying to share their Utopian light with this dark world. But underneath that veneer of binaries, we see how problematic the labels are. Instead of a Utopian team coming in to save a Dystopian government, it may just be one society coming in with their ideology and trying to impose it on another society that operates with a different ideology. What is called sharing “truth” on the surface level is actually a devaluation and delegitimization of the knowledge and practices of the group being colonized. I don’t suggest that Captain EO and his crew are some sort of Dystopian nightmare. They are simply naive colonialists convinced of the “natural” rightness of their message. I argue that both camps are “good” in their own ways: EO is good in the sense that he shows responsibility and accepts his deserved punishment (sort of … he ends up dancing his way out of it); the Supreme Leader is also good because she metes out justice and tries to protect her planet.
Once we push past the binaries the film presents us, we can see a new way of evaluating difference. We see desires for unity on the surface when EO sings “so come together.” As he sings and dances, he also transforms the troops into humans who dance with him. It sounds Utopian to promote solidarity and a joining together of difference, but it becomes problematic when we realize that he has gone beyond that and into assimilation. He has changed the way they look and dress and move until he can sing, “You’re one of us” and, “You’re just another part of me.” That level of assimilation constitutes an erasure of difference, not a celebration of it in solidarity: the language has been shifted to disguise the colonialism.
Yet some lines do suggest a celebration of difference: Captain EO sings, “We’re here to shake it up and break it up” and “We’re here to stimulate, eliminate and contradict, illuminate.” Disruption figures as the key component of these lines—disruption in many forms: learning (“stimulate” or “illuminate”), liberation (“break it up”), or colonization (“eliminate”). The messages in this video and these songs are not stable, and they are sure to “contradict.”
My favorite contradiction happens twice, once in each song. In “We are Here to Change the World,” the crew sings in the first verse, “So long, bad times” and “Hello, good times.” You’ll remember from Chapter 2 how Michael Jackson destabilizes the definition of the word “bad” to mean so many things besides the negative connotation in the usage here. If “bad” actually means something closer to “good,” does this line mean, “So long, good times?” Are the colonizers subconsciously aware of the false veneer of their enterprise as one of liberation and enlightenment? A similar contradiction happens in “Another Part of Me” when the captain sings, “There is no danger” and “not dangerous.” On his very next album, entitled Dangerous, Michael Jackson is absolutely and unremittingly dangerous in so many ways. Of course this would be considered a preemptive disavowal, but placing the two commodities side by side present us with an unresolvable conundrum: is he or isn’t he dangerous? Is he or isn’t he bad? These contradictions open up more meaning than can be locked down from the post-colonial critique I have been offering.
Let us return briefly to the plot: the Supreme Leader sentences Captain EO to 100 years of torture, which sounds unreasonable and evil, perhaps the first “evil” thing she has done in the film. But there is a parallel between this ostensibly evil Dystopian government and a modern-day America. One of the punishments for the lawbreaking crew is cleaning up trash (by becoming trash cans); in the United States, it is a common practice to have prisoners clean up trash from highways. The other punishment she gives is 100 years of torture in a dark dungeon. Keep in mind that Captain EO is, from her perspective, either a guerrilla warrior or a terrorist who has committed several crimes, including killing troops. Giving such an offender several life sentences would not be out of the ordinary for the justice system in America. And though it happens far less often and is extremely controversial, shipping a war criminal off to Guantanamo Bay to be tortured is not a far cry from the Supreme Leader’s 100 years of torture sentence. I’m not suggesting that she is good because of this—I’m suggesting that her over-militarised, oppressive, prison-happy style of governance is a satirical allegory to the United States government, and that Captain EO may be sending a political message.
However, this prodding for changes at an institutional level gets reincorporated back into the hegemonic order almost as soon as it appears. Consider how the Supreme Leader changes and into what. Michael tells her she is “beautiful” but “without a key to unlock it,” and he proceeds to give her the key and make her beautiful. That is also the case with her troops: they were slimy and dirty and monstrous before, and Michael makes them beautiful and bright. This would be problematic enough if beauty signified goodness or represented that a person were good in some way; however, the Supreme Leader’s beauty is the equivalent of her goodness. She doesn’t say or do anything after the transformation, so how do we know she is good? Only because she is beautiful. The “liberation” Captain EO offers is nothing more than aesthetic conformity. As for the political allegory, this video shows that America may have problems, but Michael Jackson can’t offer any meaningful solutions beyond aesthetics. (Chapter 6 explores in detail how aesthetics can, in fact, provide meaningful solutions.)
When asking whether this video is hegemonic or counter-hegemonic, the simple answer would be yes. Steven Shaviro says that Jackson pushed the boundaries “so subtly” that you can’t tell if “black expression had been ‘mainstreamed,’” or if “the very ‘mainstream’ itself had been alluringly or insidiously carried away, exposed to a strange metamorphosis, allowed to blossom into a new aestheticized state” (Shaviro 56). What actually makes this video effective, as either a hegemonic or a counter-hegemonic artifact, is that it is so hard to tell. It is only simple and didactic on the surface; beyond that level, it may mean many things to different people.
This film clearly articulates multiple, contradictory discourses at several levels, both conservative and progressive, liberating and hegemonic. Foucault says that discourses are
both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy. Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it. (“Method” 352)
Commodities such as Captain EO that have many creators contain disparate discourses, views, influences, and ideologies woven together that cannot help but do what Foucault explains: try to control, police, and fix meaning, and in so doing expose meaning as constructed. The insistence on binaries in this video calls attention to the ruptures, and the contradictions reveal the constructedness of the artifact itself as well as the discourses within it.
The final thing I want to discuss about Captain EO is its longstanding home in Disneyland. The film was made for the park and has been shown there for a total of 15 years and counting. That the film is thus situated becomes interesting in light of Baudrillard’s use of Disneyland as a prime example of simulation (“Precession” 135). He explains that when we go to Disneyland we are aware that everything there is fantastical, fake, artificial, magical, constructed. When we leave, those feelings juxtaposed against the Los Angeles cityscape make us feel as though Los Angeles were real and not constructed. In effect, Disneyland exists in order to make Los Angeles feel like a real place. And that’s the magic of Disneyland: it conceals that there is no real by positing itself as fake over and against a “real” LA, a “real” society.” As a Disneyland attraction, Captain EO is implicated in this process of simulation. When the amusement park shows a futuristic-fantasy film featuring Michael Jackson to millions of children and adults, it teaches them that their lives are “real,” and it teaches them that Utopia is constructed, change is aesthetic, and that Michael Jackson is artificial.
The song is a multi-dimensional, complex commodity: it has levels that resist critique, and others that allow for it, but another that recuperates and resists again. In the final analysis, it doesn’t close down either critique or conservatism. The film is ingenious and complex according to this reading, but I doubt it was intended to be constructed that way.
I conclude by reiterating and emphasizing the point that intention is separate from authorship. If we map intention onto the authors of these commodities, it interlaces those commodities with others they have authored and with their personal life, and it becomes a pot of gold that is neither possible nor desirable to find. Authorship has been a main feature of this chapter because most of these songs weren’t authored by Michael Jackson (not credited to him, at least). Thus it is imperative to not interpret the messages we read from the songs as “authentic” representations of the man Michael Jackson constructed by himself. Additionally, this caution extends to the songs that he did write: we should not infer that any of those songs contain “authentic” representations of him either. Just as authorship was complex in the songs analyzed here, it remains complex even when “Michael Jackson” is the only songwriter credited.
However, even with that in mind, consumers who haven’t studied authorship theories may (mis)attribute intentionality to Michael Jackson. Hegemony takes advantage of this by shifting responsibility for hegemonic messages onto the singer, making it appear that he has taken up contradictory stances on gender and relationship issues. This may end up delegitimizing or at least weakening the effect of his counter-hegemonic commodities. Can these ruptures be repaired? Whether he did so intentionally or not, Michael Jackson took a unique approach to this situation by muddying the waters of (re)presentation of himself beyond any clarity. I will discuss this in detail and examine its effects in the next chapter.