An Interview with Willa Stillwater

Abstract: This interview is part of our ongoing coverage of unique and dynamic authors who have written compelling monographs about Michael Jackson. In it, Willa Stillwater, author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson’s Art of Connection and Defiance, discusses her process and her research.


REFERENCE AS: 

Stillwater, Willa. “An Interview with Willa Stillwater.” Interview, The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 2, no. 1 (2016). Published electronically 21/02/16. http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/interview-with-willa-stillwater/.


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An Interview with Author, Willa Stillwater by The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies


1) In just a single sentence, what does Michael Jackson mean to you?
Michael Jackson has been a major touchstone for me since I was a child, especially in terms of race and my ideas about art.

I grew up in North Carolina in the southern US, and was exposed to some really ugly prejudices as a child. And a lot of times when I would hear a racist statement, I would think, That’s not true because Michael Jackson isn’t like that. He was sensitive and kind and funny and smart, and I felt a deep connection to him that led me to question many of the biases that surrounded me. Then as I grew older and became a teenager, I was exposed to a whole new set of prejudices – for example, that white women weren’t supposed to feel desire for black men, that a proper white woman should feel nothing but disgust for a black man. But Michael Jackson was black and the sexiest man I’d ever seen – he was like my definition of sexy – so again, he led me to question the cultural biases that were being passed down to me. That’s a pattern that has continued throughout my life. He still leads me to question a number of things that have become accepted as true, but on closer examination may not be true.

2) When you started writing M Poetica, did you have any misgivings about the process?
Yes, I had a lot of misgivings because it was all so intensely personal to me, and I wasn’t comfortable talking about something so personal. I also had misgivings about addressing the scandals that surrounded him. In fact, initially I planned to focus exclusively on his short films and not mention the scandals at all. However, I believe much of his later work was created in response to the 1993 allegations – specifically, the way he was forced to occupy the cultural position of “monster” or “other” as a result of those allegations. So I felt that to do justice to his later work and show the full complexity of what he was attempting, I had to take on those scandals, but that wasn’t easy. I felt really conflicted about it, and still struggle with it.

MPoetica
M Poetica: Michael Jackson’s Art of Connection and Defiance

3) If you had the chance to meet and talk to Michael Jackson, what three questions would you ask him?
If I’d had the chance to talk with Michael Jackson, there are thousands of questions I’d like to ask him! Most are about his art, but I guess my first question would simply be, How are you doing? How are you holding up? He had so much on him, it sometimes seemed he had the entire world passing judgment on him. And I really wonder how he was able to withstand it all for so long, and still stay true to himself and his vision.

My second question would be about art in general – how he sees art and the function of art. And then my third question would be about race – how he defines and conceptualizes race. So I’d ask essay questions!

4) What drew you to the study of literature in your own career?
Actually, it was writing a term paper about Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence in high school. Researching and writing that paper opened up a whole new world for me. Wharton is often described as a “novelist of manners,” and sometimes that’s said in a dismissive way, but she was really intrigued by how a society’s manners, customs, habits – all those tiny threads – shape the perceptions and ultimately the lives of its citizens. I think that strongly interested Michael Jackson as well. In fact, I think that’s precisely what he was talking about when he would refer to our cultural “conditioning.” And of course, he defied some of our cultural mores – for example, that men shouldn’t wear lipstick, or care too much about other people’s children – and he paid a big price for that defiance.

5) How and why did you decide to become a lecturer?
I began teaching while working on my master’s degree and really enjoyed it, and continued to teach while working on my PhD. Both universities – where I received my MA and my PhD – encouraged their graduate students to teach, and so I taught classes in composition and research, as well as surveys of fiction, poetry, drama, modern lit, American lit, world lit, … and I loved it. What could be more fun than spending your days talking about literature?

6) How and why did you decide to become a doctor of philosophy?
While working on my master’s degree, I took a class in literary theory and it blew me away – it gave me a glimpse behind the curtain and offered an entirely new set of tools for approaching and interpreting art. I really wanted to learn more about that, so applied to a PhD program with a strong emphasis on lit theory. And having that background has helped me quite a bit in understanding Michael Jackson’s art, I think. It’s interesting that a lot of the most interesting work about Michael Jackson is coming from musicologists like Susan Fast, Joe Vogel, and Lisha McDuff who have been through English PhD programs and have a background in lit theory. I don’t think that’s coincidental.


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7) What do you think the legacy of Michael Jackson’s art is?
It’s huge. I think he expanded the very definition of art, of what art can be and what it can accomplish. We’re still in the initial stages of understanding his aesthetic, so his work is still terribly undervalued – and some of it isn’t even recognized as art. But as theorists and critics gain insights into the full scope of what he has accomplished and begin to share those insights with the public, his legacy will continue to grow. Ultimately, I think he will be recognized as the most important artist of the late 20th Century.

8) Who are your biggest artistic, literary and musical inspirations?
That’s a really hard question. I like artists who lead us to question our cultural biases, and that includes a pretty diverse list, from novelists like Fanny Burney, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Edith Wharton, and Toni Morrison to singer-songwriters like John Lennon and Joni Mitchell to visual artists like Andy Warhol and Andy Goldsworthy. And then there are artists like Jean Cocteau and Michael Jackson who are hard to categorize….

9) To you, what is the relationship between music and academia?
At its best, academia can lead us to a deeper understanding and appreciation of art, including music, and its interplay with larger cultural forces – both how cultural forces shape art, and how art questions, challenges, and reshapes the larger culture.

10) Are you planning to write further on Michael Jackson or are there other artists/politicians you have your eye on for future publications?
There are other artists I’m interested in, but I also have a couple more Michael Jackson projects I’d like to complete.

11) What advice do you have for those wishing to study Michael Jackson’s art?
Question everything. Absolutely everything.

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12) Recently, we have seen some particularly serious racially motivated incidents across the United States and the world. What is your response to the view that racism is dead and that people of colour can aspire as far as they want to in ‘Free America’?
I think racial biases have shifted a lot in the past 40 years – in part, because of Michael Jackson – but we still have a long, long, long way to go. The violence you’re talking about is evidence of that, but racial resentments and prejudices express themselves in more subtle ways as well. And Michael Jackson is a prime example. He wasn’t shot and killed by a white policeman, as happened with Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott, but he was destroyed all the same – and racism lies at the heart of it.

There is a long history in the US – the southern US, especially – of black men being falsely accused of a sex crime against a white person, generally a white woman. Those allegations are then used as an excuse to target them and their communities and destroy their livelihoods, take their property, and even take their lives. That’s exactly what happened to Michael Jackson. In other words, the allegations against him – and the police and public response – are part of a pattern of systemic racism.

So in some ways things have changed considerably in recent decades, but in many ways we are still enacting racist narratives that stretch back more than a hundred years – to the period after slavery officially ended in the US, when whites found new ways to oppress former slaves and prevent their full emancipation.

Thank-you, Willa for taking the time to talk to us.


Willa Stillwater is the author of ‘M Poetica: Michael Jackson’s Art of Connection and Defiance‘, available to buy via Amazon UK and Amazon USA. She also hosts the informative blog, ‘Dancing With the Elephant‘. Find out more about Willa here.

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