MJ Studies Today XXXVIII

Abstract In this month’s column, Kerry Hennigan uses one of the art pieces in the Michael Jackson On the Wall exhibition to examine the way Jackson’s art and his appearance were shaped in part by the various traumas he experienced and the choices he made to deal with them.  Kerry believes it is important to acknowledge the formative role they played in the development of his art and shaping of his persona from 1984 onwards.

Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, and administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group, Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts.


Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today XXXVIII (14-02-2019).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 5, no. 3 (2019). http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xxxviii/.

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Visual representations of Michael Jackson and how they do or don’t reflect the man, his art and the life he lived. By Kerry Hennigan

© Kerry Hennigan

One of the works of art in the Michael Jackson On the Wall exhibition that premiered at London’s National Portrait Gallery in June 2018 was a piece by Hank Willis Thomas titled “Time Can Be a Villain or a Friend”. This work was based on a photoshopped image by an unknown photographer that originally appeared in Ebony magazine in August 1985.  It was part of a feature titled “Portraits of the Stars.  What they may look like in the year 2000.” [1][2]

This speculative image couldn’t have been more wrong in its attempt to depict the future.  Discounting his choice to have his nose redefined and a dimple put in his chin, by the year 2000, Jackson had undergone the physical trauma of severe skin de-pigmentation caused by non-segmental vitiligo, had suffered unsuccessful attempts to rehabilitate his badly burned scalp following the 1984 Pepsi commercial accident, and sustained a recurring back injury from the crash of a suspended “bridge” he was standing on while performing Earth Song in Munich in 1999. In terms of non-physical trauma, from 1993 onwards, he endured the most malicious smear campaign from individuals attempting to extort money from him.

All these things, which he, and we, would wish never to have happened to him, nevertheless played a major role in shaping him – both physically and emotionally, into the man he became.  He capitalized on the intentional and consequential changes in his physical appearance to craft for himself a unique persona.

Thomas’ piece does NOT depict Michael Jackson.  It is a piece of fiction; a person who never existed.  Any photo shopped images attempting to show us the man without his concealing make-up, straight or curly locks and turned up nose (which I love, admittedly) can never be said to represent the artist who gave us the Bad, Dangerous, HIStory and Invincible albums, which were all created after the TV commercial accident and the aggressive onset of vitiligo impacted his life dramatically.

We are all formed by what we experience in our lives.  And, in the case of Michael Jackson, there are secondary beneficial consequences  – like the fact the Michael Jackson Burns Unit, though now defunct, would never have existed to help others in the wake of the burns Michael suffered in 1984. Awareness of vitiligo would also lack the profile it has today, thanks to the use of Michael as something of a poster boy by vitiligo awareness lobby groups.  It’s no accident that since 2009, World Vitiligo Day has been held annually on June 25. [3]

In the context of consequences, we also need to recognize Michael’s artistic response to the cruel attacks on his personal integrity.  His internal rage, anger and sorrow over these and other injustices, produced songs that are masterpieces of popular music – like “Stranger in Moscow”, written in a hotel room with Brad Buxer after news had reached Michael that he had been accused of child molestation.

I was wandering in the rain
Mask of life, feelin’ insane
Swift and sudden fall from grace
Sunny days seem far away… 

This hauntingly beautiful song is testament to the emotional anguish the King of Pop was experiencing at the time – and, sadly, would again when others chose to similarly abuse his friendship and charity.

Here abandoned in my fame
Armageddon of the brain
KGB was doggin’ me
Take my name and just let me be…

Stripping away the anger and rage from the relevant tracks on the HIStory, Blood and Invincible albums would change those albums dramatically. Marriage and fatherhood also played their role in impacting his artistic output, but in a different manner than the physical and emotional distress factors he suffered.

We can lament the loss of the music he might have created if his life hadn’t been burdened by such traumas.  But would it have been as great?  Or would he have eventually lost his relevance in the industry he loved and become just another nostalgia act?  From my perspective, this is exactly what/who the Hank Willis Thomas image depicts.

Nobody can say for sure what Michael’s creative output might have been had his life taken a different course.  It certainly would have been different.  Sadly, unlike in Star Trek, we don’t have a parallel universe to give us a glimpse of what might have been.  Nor can we know how he would have looked.  We can only speculate – which is what Ebony magazine did in 1985, creating what I like to call “the man who never was”.

Speaking personally, I prefer actual photos taken of Michael in the year 2000 – the year the image in Ebony was originally intended to represent.  For instance, his appearance at the World Music Awards in Monaco in May of that year reveals a man whose life experience, personal and creative choices and global success have endowed him with an incredible aura that makes him stand out from other entertainment luminaries – of his own or any era.  He is positively regal. [6]

And what this real Michael Jackson gave us is priceless, unique, and the result of genius realised.


[1]  https://www.voanews.com/a/exhibition-explores-michael-jackson-as-artists-inspiration/4457228.html

[2]  Cullinan, Nicholas Michael Jackson On the WallNational Portrait Gallery, London 2018

[3]  http://25june.org/

[4]  Jackson, Michael “Stranger In Moscow” excepts, from the album History Past, Present & Future Book 11995.

[5]  Ibid.

[6]  https://www.viveos.net/video/HegbKkjx_rg/2000-wold-music-a.html