Dancing with Michael Jackson

Re-published by The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, with the permission of the author, Professor Toni Bowers, for academic purposes only. Originally published online by the LA Review of Books on May 14th, 2015: http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/dancing-with-michael-jackson.

N.B. If you would like to print this article or cite it, please use the LA Review of Books as your primary source of citation.


Bowers, Toni. “Dancing with Michael Jackson.” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 1, no. 4 (2015). http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/dancing-with-michael-jackson-by-toni-bowers/. Originally published in The Los Angeles Review of Books (2015) http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/dancing-with-michael-jackson.

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Dancing with Michael Jackson
By Toni Bowers

Image Copyright: Dimitri Reeves in Baltimore, April, 2015.

Image Copyright: Dimitri Reeves in Baltimore, April, 2015.

Come and see, the moon is shining.
Come and see, the moon is walking.
Come and see, the moon is dancing.
— Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Got a feeling that we’re gonna raise the roof off!
Everybody just get down!
— Michael Jackson

BY NOW, videos of Dimitri Reeves dancing in various parts of Baltimore to the strains of Michael Jackson’s music have been watched millions of times. In the best-known clip, filmed by reporter Shomari Stone, Reeves delights startled spectators when, with “Beat It” blaring out from the curb, he unexpectedly starts floating down a littered street, mimicking Jackson’s jubilant, angry dance moves and bringing caution to an incendiary moment.

Don’t want to see no blood, don’t be a macho man. They’ll kick you, they’ll beat you, they’ll tell you it’s fair, so beat it.

On his Facebook page Reeves asked that viewers of the videos not parse out too minutely the possible significance of the lyrics he chose to dance to — “Beat It,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Will You Be There,” “Black or White,” and others. “I just wanted to dance,” he says. It was a superb instinct. When Reeves turned up the volume and reanimated magical steps from long ago, shared joy became present in the angry, grieving city, and the city responded. Individuals, knots of young men, and eventually, large crowds began jamming alongside Reeves, determination and joy written unmistakably on their faces.A strange, unexpected beauty materializes before our eyes, and we glimpse another Baltimore, very different from the media images — a city finding a way to heal from within.

On the same day as Reeves’s first videotaped dance, I was pacing around an expensive “specialty” grocery in Philadelphia. The muzak must have been buzzing away unnoticed until suddenly there it was: the air filled with an ageless, raucous beat, and “Thriller” came on. In an instant, everyone was moving. The man slicing the meat swayed ever so slightly left and right. The face of the armed guard at the entrance (the only person of color in the store) softened; he began to nod. A woman near me paused and gazed away. Feet tapped. For a mysterious instant, something that we needed and had lost became present again.

It was a great moment, but there was something missing, too. Though everyone responded to the music, it was with an odd furtiveness — not openly, communally, or with the infectious jubilation going on in Baltimore. No eyes met, no one laughed or sang, no one moved without restraint or melted into the beat. Another song came on. We went back to shuffling behind our carts and examining artisan cheeses. Nothing changed.

I’ve been thinking ever since about those two scenes which, different as they were, had one thing in common: Michael Jackson. Dimitri Reeves could have chosen to play a thousand more recent and hip tracks than “Beat It,” but his choice to dance to Jackson’s tune was unerring. For perhaps more than any other entertainer, Michael Jackson deliberately constructed his music as a gift of hope and healing. Song after song offers a uniquely compassionate vision, a stubborn belief in human capacities for connection, pleasure, and justice-making. Do those ideals seem canned or quaint to you? Does the notion that music can rearrange the world seem far-fetched? I have tended to think so myself. But the shimmering moments Reeves created in Baltimore suggest otherwise.

Reeves’s powerful dance reminds us that Jackson achieved more than irresistible, superbly marketable tracks, or even magnificent music. His work also remains politically potent. One reason for that is Jackson’s insistence on responsibility and empathy — who am I to be blind, pretending not to see their need? Another is his work’s constantly reiterated invitation: Come and dance with me. We busy shoppers declined to dance and the loss was ours; but Dimitri Reeves and his neighbors chose, more wisely, to dance with Michael Jackson: to turn it way up, take it to others, refuse self-consciousness and judgement, and rejoice.

Will dancing with Michael Jackson magically heal the world and make it a better place for the entire human race? Will it answer the question a little girl asks a policeman in “We’ve Had Enough,” How is it that you get to choose who will live and who will die? Will it bring about justice for Freddie Gray or repair a racist “justice” system? No. But it could help; indeed, as Reeves has shown, it is already helping.

What’s odd is the way mainstream culture in the United States, which needs all the help it can get, seems to resist Jackson’s outstretched hand. It’s noticeable: for a man who ruled the world of popular music for decades not long past, Michael Jackson has become a strangely shadowy figure. Not on the Las Vegas strip or at Sony Music, of course, where he continues to rake in millions every year and remains by far the highest-earning musician in the world, largely because of overseas sales.

What I’m talking about is mainstream, main-street cultures in the US, especially the cultures of privileged, white Americans like those at the Philadelphia grocery store. There, a cold-shoulder attitude toward Michael Jackson and his music has solidified, along with a reluctance to celebrate Jackson’s unabashed idealism, pioneering queer persona, and practices of inclusion and compassion. There is even a grudging quality to acknowledgments of his superb artistry. We don’t face Michael Jackson directly, with recognition. We don’t regard his achievement with the wonder it deserves. We don’t dance.

No matter what the context, this would be a pretty unworthy way to behave toward one of the 20th-century’s most important artists. But it’s an especially unwise attitude to take now, because it allows us to deflect the challenges that Jackson, both the man and the music, posed to ways of thinking and behaving that continue to poison communities in this country. Why should this be?

I asked a 20-something friend what he thought of Michael Jackson’s music: do kids still dance to it? My friend’s response was instructive. “Great music,” he said, “but when someone got up to what he did with little children, he’s better forgotten.” I was stunned. Is it possible? After one of the most expensive and intensive trials in American history resulted in “not guilty” on all counts, after repeated demonstrations that Michael Jackson engaged in no wrongdoing but was targeted by extortionists, and in the face of the now huge amount of consistent testimony to the honorable, damaged human being Jackson actually was, can it be that the media bottom-feeders who saw his lynching as a profit opportunity continue, to this day, to define Jackson and limit the power of his work? Apparently so. The slow-motion crucifixion of Jackson’s reputation that took place more than a decade ago still goes on.

It goes on, moreover, in unexpected ways. I do not want to suggest that what happened to Jackson is in any sufficient way comparable to what has happened to Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and scores of other Americans of color who have died recently at the hands of officers of the law. Jackson, after all, survived his ordeal (barely), and went on (briefly). I am not saying that all the recent suffering and injustice has some direct connection to Jackson’s specific experiences. But I do want to argue that the same structures of injustice that are permitting civil authorities to murder unarmed American citizens right now also hurt Jackson, and that his case can help us to understand and resist those structures.

The same nation of viewers who were willing to sit by and let the nightmare engulf Jackson now watches even more harrowing experiences overtake dozens of others. Some observers are using the irresponsibly selective footage from Baltimore that the national media have presented as fodder for reinforcing their prejudices. (Who would guess, watching TV, that destruction has been less common than orderly demonstrations and gestures of solidarity?) Jackson’s experiences and those of the many, many people of color who have recently run afoul of the police and died for it are not the same. But they are, in certain ways, related. They are disgraceful in similar ways, and for similar reasons. They expose similar pathologies that are eating away at us, and make us see more than we want to see about ourselves.

There is one thing that Michael Jackson’s experience makes clear. The acts of injustice that we are witnessing now are founded on, in a way authorized by, an appalling, long-standing fact of life in the US: that when it comes to respect, civil rights, and justice, it does matter if you’re black or white. Jackson was the most visible American of color in recent years who found that he had only to be accused to be treated savagely. But the discovery was by no means unique to him. (What was unique was how directly responsible the media were for what Jackson suffered; few actual criminals have to endure the ignominy he did in front of a global audience.) In Jackson’s case as in every one of the sickening cases we have heard about in the past couple of years, an American of color was denied one of the most precious rights all Americans supposedly enjoy: the presumption of innocence. Each of the cases is different, but in that important way, each is alike, too.

In Jackson’s case, what was perhaps most remarkable was the fact that every claim he made seemed somehow automatically impugnable, in the grossest and most intimate terms, by strangers, and in public. There were no rules and no respect. As a new husband, Jackson sat and listened while a journalist, on live international television, asked his wife to confirm that he was capable of sex. Not long before, another had asked him point blank whether he was a virgin. The anxiety that developed and intensified over the course of Jackson’s life was in fact a reasonable response to such monstrosity. No other hounded celebrity except the late Princess of Wales experienced the kind of ruthless, unrelenting invasions Jackson endured. Even Diana only faced the onslaught as an adult; Jackson had to deal with it all his life — from the nights when his venal father escorted groups of giggling girls to watch the adolescent Michael sleep to those final, outrageous, globally distributed images, snapped through the ambulance window, of a dying or already dead Jackson being pummeled and intubated. And then there was the much-reprinted image of the corpse, naked on the medical examiner’s gurney.

These media outrages and countless others were (and are) routinely explained via reference to Jackson’s peculiar character. He brought it on himself, we are told, with that confounding public persona — rather like an unarmed, racially marked teenager who “looks threatening.” But recourse to that kind of narrowly personal explanation deflects attention from the real problems, pervasive racism and systemic injustice. To cite the peculiarities or failures of the person you are brutalizing as a way to explain (excuse? extenuate?) the brutalization is a way of blaming the victim. It allows you to ignore how your own behavior and habits of thought accommodate brutality, if only through passivity.

To say so is not the same as saying that Michael Jackson was not remarkably vulnerable to abuse or that he didn’t make serious errors. He was, he did. Sentimental, reticent, and overly accommodating as victims of childhood abuse so often are, isolated, fragile, narcissistic, strange, and filthy rich, terrified of confrontation, spottily educated while burdened with genius, and used to his family making a meal of him, Jackson was, as Steven Spielberg famously put it, “like a fawn in a burning forest.” But none of that is the same as being a criminal, any more than running down a street or not allowing an unwarranted search of one’s home or cutting school is a reason to be shot. No wonder Jackson was overwhelmed. No wonder Americans are demonstrating in the streets. Who could do otherwise?

Beyond the reductive focus on individual peculiarities, there is another explanation relevant to both Jackson’s suffering and the civil rights crisis that we are facing now: racism. That’s the word, and it’s time to speak it out loud. Racism is not, primarily, about the people who suffer it; it is about those who practice it. It is not about different or strange individuals; it is about the everyday people who decide who is different and strange and choose to fear rather than celebrate them.

Once in awhile, the racism that always swirled in shadows around Jackson clearly showed its demon face — for instance when the ignorant, seeing vitiligo and its treatment, accused him of “wanting to be white.” Michael Jackson always identified as black ( I just look in the mirror; I know I’m black ) and credited black entertainers as his major influences (James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Otis Blackwell, and Sly Stone, among many others). He celebrated his African-American heritage to the point of giving both his sons his great-great-grandfather’s slave name, Prince. His music never abandoned, and always exalted, the glorious traditions of black American music. Nevertheless, Jackson is hated for his supposed desire to be white.

This irrational hatred dogs Jackson even after his death in June, 2009. Charlie Hebdo’s July cover that year showed a Jackson-accessoried skeleton with the caption “Michael Jackson, en fin blanc” — “Michael Jackson, white at last.” A squib circulating right now on the internet includes a photo of a fashion model with vitiligo and helpfully reminds us that this is the same disease Jackson “claimed” to have had. “Claimed,” despite a lifetime’s worth of photographic evidence, the unanimous testimony of family members, dermatologists, and make-up artists, the fact that the entertainer’s elder son seems also to have the rare hereditary disease, and even the autopsy’s definitive diagnosis. What white entertainer has ever won so little sympathy for a lifelong debilitating illness (one of several that Jackson suffered)? When has so little benefit-of-the-doubt been granted, so much malevolent nonsense been constructed? “He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables,” James Baldwin wrote, presciently, as Thriller conquered the world.

It should not surprise anyone that Michael Jackson, like virtually every other person of color in this society, suffered racism. What is remarkable is how starkly and routinely the individual explanation has been substituted for the social one in Jackson’s case. The pattern is so egregious that, once we see it, it can educate us about our current dire state of affairs and show us the importance of naming and correcting this habit of deflection, self-justification, and continued abuse. Privileged white Americans need to learn to recognize their tendency to individualize oppression. Individuals of course contribute to their own lives; but in the context of America’s racial malaise, the problem is not primarily individual people of color; the problem is the system, and the habitual attitudes of those who enjoy the full privileges of citizens.

In the United States, we tend to understand difference as pathology. We are uncomfortable with anyone who exceeds our categories, disturbs our prejudices, or calls the bluff on reigning platitudes. Michael Jackson and his music did all that at once, on many levels. What is most important, though, and should not be forgotten, is that he did it with joy . To dwell over-long on Jackson’s suffering would be to forget his indomitable playfulness and strength of will. The amazing thing is not, finally, how weird Michael Jackson was or how difficult his life was, but how great was his capacity for delight, his generosity, his ability and determination to bring joy to others. Endlessly curious, delighted with people, and thrilled by the beauty of the world, he just had so much fun. He suffered, yes; he faced down and endured painful experiences. But that’s what makes his exuberance so remarkable, and makes the fact that he brought (and continues to bring) pleasure to other people so precious. No matter what, he danced. We need to remember and honor that, and dance along.

Dimitri Reeves taught us many things late last month. One was that we need Michael Jackson now more than ever. The shameful treatment Jackson received at the hands of the popular culture he did so much to enrich was not an isolated phenomenon — it was only too symptomatic. Considered carefully, Jackson’s experience exposes pernicious attitudes and habits that are still very much at work, right now. It would be far better, of course, if Jackson hadn’t had to go though what he did, just as it would be better if Americans of color could walk our streets safe from agents of the law. The more powerful majority ought to be able to learn how to behave without the suffering of those already disadvantaged, and no amount of learning or growth for the already privileged can begin to redeem the kinds of wrongs we are talking about. But at the same time, it is crucial that those who enjoy privileges realize that not everyone does, and use their power to change that. At the very least, we should be demanding at this moment that everyone enjoy the presumption of innocence, something that would require revisions in the way the media and law enforcement operate.

Thanks to Dimitri Reeves, we’ve seen one small way to start in a healing direction, a way that he drew directly from Michael Jackson: we can step out and dance in the street, spreading joy instead of fear. Come and dance with me , Jackson wrote; Join me in my dance, please join me now . Reeves took Jackson up on the invitation.

To dance with Michael Jackson, to take his outstretched hand, is about more than honoring a difficult, extraordinary life and immense gifts — though it is high time we did that without grudging, judging, or telling lies. It is something we must do for ourselves and for each other — not in an attempt to keep ourselves safe from the present pain and danger, but to move farther into the most perplexing aspects of our own lives, and confront them with joy. It is a way of choosing the kind of future we want, and the kind of people we want to be.

Dancing with Michael Jackson will mean letting go of hatred and fear, acknowledging beauty in what seems strange to us, and being willing to take a chance. It will demand that we deal with other people imaginatively, empathetically, in what we think of as our own space, and with respect. In these ways, the dance Jackson invites us to dance is a kind of ethical practice. It is a way of living up to our creeds and professions, and of taking responsibility for our privileges.

Got the point? Good. Let’s dance.

Toni Bowers is Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She specializes in English Literature from the Restoration to the French Revolution. She is the author of ‘Force or Fraud: British Seduction Stories and the Problem of Resistance’ (2011) and ‘The Politics of Motherhood: British Writing and Culture’ (1996). Find out more about Toni here.

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