Abstract: This essay discusses a range of complex ideas around Michael Jackson’s lyrics and representations of gender, which are found therein. It uses a textual model in order to engage with tracks throughout Jackson’s career, with possible interpretations of misogynistic leanings, and then goes on to counter those arguments.
Op-Ed Piece by Ivana Recmanová, official regular contributor to The Journal of Michael Jackson Studies, and columnist at Czech daily, Deník Referendum.
Recmanová, Ivana. “Thoughts on Michael Jackson’s Lyrics and Gender.” Opinion Piece, The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 2, no. 4 (2016). Published electronically 28/06/16. http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/oped-piece-by-ivana-recmanova-thoughts-on-michael-jacksons-lyrics-and-gender/.
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A Note From the Editors: Ivana Recmanova’s Op-Ed article which follows expresses the opinion of Ivana herself, and not necessarily the journal as a whole. Here at The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies we appreciate inspired and incisive academic debate, as we hope will be provoked by the piece below. We also encourage authors and journalists from throughout the world to bring their ideas and opinions to the journal in the form of op-ed pieces that we publish periodically. If you would like to submit an article for publication, find out how here.
Thoughts on Michael Jackson’s Lyrics and Gender
By Ivana Recmanová
Michael Jackson’s artwork and gender performing have been a point of admiration as well as controversy for many decades (for example, the saying “He was the only Black man that happened to transform into a White woman”, which also signalises an ableist denial of his skin condition, vitiligo). His lyrics, however, show a range of approaches to gender identities and gender performing, whether they recreate gender stereotypes or challenge them.
Apparently, his repertoire includes tracks that depict women in an unfavorable light, such as Billie Jean, Dirty Diana (groupies), The Way You Make Me Feel (accompanied by a video that portrays sexual harassment or a metaphorical gang rape), Give In To Me (sexual object that has to submit to narrator’s desires), HIStory (singing ‘Every soldier dies in his glory’, ignoring the existence of female soldiers) or even Song Groove AKA Abortion Papers. However, as Joseph Vogel suggests, the lyrics of the latter song just ‘[attempt] to tackle a sensitive issue in a thoughtful manner’, and thus need not judge women for abortion.1
Jackson grew up with a religious and conservative mother, Katherine Jackson, that attempted to instill gender conventions in him. As she confessed in Rabbi Shmuley’s tapes, ‘I used to tell [Michael]: I don’t want you to be that way. You’re a man. You have to be strong. You know. But he’s gentle. He’s just a gentle person.’2 This upbringing is reflected in Will You Be There where he sings, ‘But they told me / A man should be faithful / And walk when not able / And fight ’til the end / But I’m only human’, which is a reflection of patriarchal stereotypes that overestimate male strength and resistance. Another example of the influence of patriarchy on masculinity is within Bad where Jackson sings, ‘Your talk is cheap / You’re not a man’. This is a socially conscious song whose video portrays a young black man living two identities: one as an ethnic minority student at a prestigious school and another one as a gangster from an underprivileged area, sharing similarities with Will You Be There in the sense of performance of masculinity.
Bad and Will You Be There, however, are not Jackson’s only songs dealing with masculinity. Whatever Happens narrates a story of two people in a relationship where a hardworking man is confronted by his wife or girlfriend with words, ‘It’s you what makes me happy’, indicating she does not expect him to bring her material gifts. In Soldier Boy, a song he authored, Jackson describes a child gangster that murders a woman and society will not ‘help [him] find, find the road again’ to escape the socio-pathological behavior.
Violence against women is actually a frequent topic in Jackson’s songs, namely, Smooth Criminal and Little Susie, and also includes rape, which can be observed especially in Hollywood Tonight (‘She’s giving hot tricks to men / Just to get in / When she was taught that that’s not clean’ – the demo version contains extra verse ‘She’s only fifteen“) or Slave to the Rhythm, which Jackson did not write (‘She dances to his needs / She dances ’til he feels just right’ – dance functions here as a metaphor of sex).
In addition to this, Hollywood Tonight brings gender inequality to the forefront, discussing inequalities between men and women in workplace or show-business (‘hot tricks to men just to get in’) and patriarchal dynamics that oppresses even those women that become successful (‘Imprisoned in every paparazzi’s camera, every guy wished they could / Now it’s back to reality for Ms. Hollywood’). He was also aware of the sexual inequalities which are explored in Superfly Sister:
‘Love ain’t what it used to be / This is what they’re tellin’ me / Push it in, stick it out / That ain’t what it’s all about /…/ Susie like to agitate / Get the boy and make him wait / Mother’s preaching Abraham / Brothers they don’t give a damn’
This song opposes centering relationships around (coital, hetero-normative) sex and pressure on women to submit to men’s needs.
Jackson’s notion of femininity was, at times, generalizing (‘Women are softer than men’,3 ‘Women are very smart’4), but it also challenged gender stereotypes. He admired several women, his mother and Elizabeth Taylor for example (for the latter, he composed a song Elizabeth, I Love You where he makes a wish ‘to be just like… [her]’).
Just as Jackson factually challenged the bad in Bad (‘So listen up / Don’t make a fight’, ‘We could change the world tomorrow / This could be a better place / If you don’t like what I’m sayin’ / Then won’t you slap my face’), he did so in the same way with the dangerous theme in Dangerous, albeit this time talking about a woman:
‘This girl was persuasive / This girl I could not trust / The girl was bad / The girl was dangerous /…/ But her inner spirit and words / Were as sharp as / A two-edged sword / But I loved it / Cause it’s dangerous’
The lyrics describe a manipulative woman whose charm lies in her words, which just fits the other songs on the Dangerous album that discuss charm and words, such as She Drives Me Wild or Give In To Me. Dangerous, in particular, shows Jackson’s taste in women that refuse to be “nice girls”, and challenge gender stereotypes in general. In fact, one of the album’s songs, Keep The Faith, where Jackson addresses both male and a female, explicitly encourages both genders to will for their dreams and aspirations and acquire self-esteem.
He eventually praised tomboys, girls displaying masculine traits. His lyrics to Tomboy encourage such women to embrace their identities:
‘Tomboy, tomboy, tomboy, you are moon, you are a star / You shine to people’s lives, bring back the hope and a smiles / There’s no one to tell you can’t / Because you can if you want / No one can let you down and tell you can’t / To be that you feel in your heart’
This song might be about his sister Janet Jackson that, according to her own words, wore red and black.5 Michael Jackson was close to and protective of his sister. As a teenager, she struggled with her weight and he teased her to lose it. While such behavior may seem cruel, Jackson was aware that what he was saying was “bad”, but he did not want her to hate herself as she used to.6 In this case, he did something similar to what he later did in Bad song and video – he would act in a way that would be commonly associated with wrongdoings, but he would do so for someone’s betterment.
Michael Jackson has never publicly identified as a feminist, but his aim was to give voice to the voiceless7 and his lyrics indeed touch on issues concerning genders or gender inequality. While some of his works appear to portray women in a derogatory manner (Dirty Diana, Billie Jean or The Way You Make Me Feel), there are plenty of other empowering songs which should not be forgotten.
Ivana Recmanova is a graduate student of linguistics and communication theory at Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic. ‘Thoughts on Michael Jackson’s Lyrics and Gender‘ is her first article for The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies. Find out more about Ivana here.
1 Joseph Vogel, Abortion, Fame, and ‘Bad’: Listening to Michael Jackson’s Unreleased Demos (2012) <http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/abortion-fame-and-bad-listening-to-michael-jacksons-unreleased-demos/262242/> [accessed 4 April 2016].
2 Shmuley Boteach, The Michael Jackson Tapes (2009) <http://jetzi-mjvideo.com/books-jetzi-04/tape/tape68.html> [accessed 4 April 2016].
5 Laura Brown, Janet Jackson Interview on Michael Jackson’s Death (2009) <http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a432/janet-jackson-interview-1009/> [accessed 5 April 2016].
6 Shmuley Boteach, The Michael Jackson Tapes (2009) < http://jetzi-mjvideo.com/books-jetzi-04/tape/tape25.html> [accessed 5 April 2016].
Abortion, Fame, and ‘Bad’: Listening to Michael Jackson’s Unreleased Demos. Joseph Vogel <http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/abortion-fame-and-bad-listening-to-michael-jacksons-unreleased-demos/262242/> (2012)
Bad. Michael Jackson. Prod. Quincy Jones. Co-Prod. Michael Jackson, CD, 40600 – EK/QET/EM (1987)
Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix. Michael Jackson. Prod. Michael Jackson, CD, 68000 – EK/ET/EM (1995)
Dangerous. Michael Jackson. Exec. Prod. Michael Jackson, CD, 45400 – EK/ET/EM (1991)
HIStory Past, Present and Future Book 1. Michael Jackson. Exec. Prod. Michael Jackson, CD, 59000 – E2K/E2T/E2M (1995)
Invincible. Michael Jackson. Exec. Prod. Michael Jackson, CD, 4951742000 (2001)
Janet Jackson Interview on Michael Jackson’s Death. Laura Brown < http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a432/janet-jackson-interview-1009/> (2009)
Michael Jackson. Prods. Michael Jackson, Akon, Brad Buxer, Eddie Angelikson Cascio, Theron Neff-U Feemster, Lenny Kravitz, John McClain, Teddy Riley, C. Tricky Stewart, Giorgio Tuinfort, CD, 88697828672 (2010)
The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies < http://www.michaeljacksonstudies.org>
MICHAEL JACKSON LYRICS – Soldier Boy < http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/michaeljackson/soldierboy.html>
Michael Jackson Tapes, The. Shmuley Boteach < http://jetzi-mjvideo.com/books-jetzi-04/tape/> (2009)
Michael Jackson – Tomboy Lyrics < http://www.metrolyrics.com/tomboy-lyrics-michael-jackson.html>
Thriller. Michael Jackson. Prod. Quincy Jones. Co-Prod. Michael Jackson, CD, 38112 – EK/QET/EM (1982)
Xscape. Michael Jackson. Prods. Michael Jackson, Paul Anka, Babyface, John Branca, Dr. Freeze, Jerome J-Roc Harmon, Rodney Jerkins, Daniel Jones, King Solomon Logan, John McClain, L.A. Reid, Cory Rooney, Stargate, Timbaland, Giorgio Tuinfort, CD, 88843066762 (2014)
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