Abstract: This essay deconstructs Michael Jackson’s HIStory World Tour performances from the perspectives of Czech diarists, who documented their experience of the tour. Focused on Prague and the representation and reception of Michael Jackson in the Czech Republic, this fascinating article engages in debate about politics, ethnicity, and constructions of difference, while staying close to its rich source material, to create a dynamic picture of Jackson’s reception in Europe in 1996-1997.
Essay by Ivana Recmanová, official regular contributor to The Journal of Michael Jackson Studies, and columnist at Czech daily, Deník Referendum.
Recmanová, Ivana. “Performing Michael Jackson’s Fan Identity During the ‘History’ World Tour in Europe.” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 3, no. 1 (2016). http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/performing-michael-jacksons-fan-identity-during-the-history-world-tour-in-europe/.
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Performing Michael Jackson’s Fan Identity During the ‘HIStory’ World Tour in Europe
By Ivana Recmanová
On 7 September 1996, Michael Jackson’s HIStory World Tour started in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. The event was attended by many people including a group of Czech fans, who decided to follow Jackson during the European leg of the tour. They published their communal diary on the internet, via the website, dyna-mj.wz.cz, managed by the Michael Jackson fan, Dýna (civil name Denisa Prepslová), where they subsequently documented their journey across Europe, Jackson’s concerts as well as personal anecdotes. The main contributors to this online diary included Dýna and Krajní (civil name Klára Šimková).
My decision to analyse the diary stems from the fact that it is a comprehensive source written during the tour, which seems precise to investigate rather than obtain personal recollections twenty or more years afterwards. Apart from the fact that the diary is publicly available on Dýna’s website, we can read from the text that some other fans involved in the touring experience wrote their own diaries or recorded it using dictation machines. These fans occasionally contributed to the main diary, but their own testimonies are not available on the website.
A significant difference between a diary and an article in mainstream media is that diaries can be written by anyone and their readers are usually just the writers. Thus they provide testimonies written by people who are not necessarily professional writers, nor do the authors write their diaries for profit. Their aim is to collect memories and impressions that are important to them. Unlike modern social media, diaries allow their writers to write long pieces and do not need to function as a quick commentary on what is happening in an immediate context.
During this analysis, I focus on these questions: How is the Michael Jackson’s Czech fan identity performed during the tour? How is the Czech identity constructed? Are there any other identities the authors embarked on?
A year before the concert, Michael Jackson’s HIStory statue was erected in the Letná park in Prague. Initially, there were doubts as to whether Jackson would actually perform in Prague1 although he had promised he would visit every town with his statue.
The statue was well placed next to the park’s massive pendulum that may be seen from under the hill, the city center. This place has been used many times to capture public attention – before 1989, there was a Stalin statue there, and in 1998, a pre-election billboard featuring Václav Klaus, then-leader of ODS (Civic Democratic Party), one of the strongest political parties at that time, and a former minister of finance. Apparently, the decision to place Jackson’s statue at such place was very strategic because it allowed his persona to occupy public space.
Michael Jackson’s concert in Prague meant more for the Czech Republic than any superstar’s concert would now. The reasons for this are historically specific: in 1996, the country had existed for only three years (prior to 1993, it formed a federation with the Slovak Republic) and was not part of the European Union nor NATO. In addition, it was only seven years after the Velvet Revolution when the country embraced democracy after decades of communist regime.
The Rolling Stones‘ concert in Prague in 1990 is estimated to have been attended by approximately 100,000 people. At that time, the country was re-orientating itself towards the West, and thus a concert by world famous band that had not performed in the country beforehand was an acclaimed event. On top of that, then-president Václav Havel was an avid rock fan and personally welcomed the band in his office. He also welcomed Jackson in 1996 and also attended the concert with his then-girlfriend (who later became his wife), actress Dagmar Veškrnová. During the concert, Havel’s spokesperson became aware that the two were in a relationship, which Havel and Veškrnová had kept secret.2 During that night, several cultural barriers were broken as people of various nationalities and classes went to the concert of an African-American artist well-known for not conforming to gender rules. Before the concert, Jackson spent almost a week in Prague, meeting not only the president, but also hospitalized children and orphans.
The authors of the diary were resident in the city of Prague, were white and of middle-class background. The youngest members of this close-knit group were finishing their high school education, and we can also learn from the diary some of them were employed at that time.
‘Of course I wanted to [go to Monacco to attend the World Music Awards], because I thought I finally had to force myself to do something unless I wanted to spend my whole life sitting in a room and moan over Michael’s inaccessibility, so this was a great opportunity how to mingle with people that take Michael seriously. I wasn’t exactly excited about spending a week with people out of whom I hadn’t seen a few before, but Michael won it.’
Some of these fans saw Jackson before-hand in Monacco when he was attending the World Music Awards, and spent as much as 10,000 CZK each on the trip.3 For the European tour leg, each of them spent approximately 50,000 CZK although they tried to save as much as possible, so they were, for example, sleeping in trains or in sleeping bags instead of hostels. Not all the fans attended all the concerts because of school or work commitments and initially expressed doubts as to whether or not to go on a trip with other fans they barely knew, but the overall experience was very positive and some even consider those months as the best in their lives.4
Most of the fans mentioned in the diary had their own nicknames. Some of these were Jackson-related (such as Dejdont – Czech transcription of ‘they don’t’. This was a reference to a fan who had the same haircut as Jackson in his They Don’t Care About Us short film. The group also created nicknames for well-known foreign fans, also known as ‘mafia’, a moniker which captured the most apparent differences. This included body proportions as well as blackness. The author suggested that just as they constructed foreign fans as the other, these fans could have also created their own nicknames for them.
‘Puff, Superman, Macarena, Hope, Shorty, Hysterious Woman, Cap, Black Women, etc. are commonly referred to as MAFIA – random nicknames of foreign fans that are everywhere in Europe where Michael fans – so-called European fans among whom we count ourselves as well (I don’t wanna know how they call us). The mafians chasing Helena in Moscow were the real Russian mafia though.’
Racial or ethnic identities of the Czech fans are not explicitly mentioned, but we can assume all of them were white or since whiteness is normalized in the Czech context. The otherness is constructed on the basis of racial identity nevertheless; when a Roma person appears in the narrative, their race is explicitly mentioned (referred to as a ‘gypsy’). These terms function as a marker of difference, for example when the group arrives in Bucharest and discusses differences between the capital and Prague – ‘it was not that much different, but there were more gypsies’.
Black people (notably except for Michael Jackson himself) are also othered in these travel-diary entries, and they become part of a racist incident when two black women possibly overrun the Czech fans at a stadium in Amsterdam (it is not clear what exactly happened) and then meet each other in the metro. The author refers to these black women as ‘whores’, and is aware of the racist attitudes towards them. She also trivializes the incident, saying sarcastically that a fellow Czech fan ran to attack the black women ‘as the right gentleman’:
‘While they were letting us in, three plump black women ran behind us and even their arrogant behavior let us know we would enjoy something. I won’t discuss their behavior during the concert for Jelen already did so sufficiently and thoroughly in his story and I don’t wanna repeat myself. I’ll just state that thanks to them, Jelen, Mína and Krajní didn’t enjoy the concert at all and were just angry. In our group, we hadn’t ever before displayed racist attitudes, but it turned out that way after this horrible experience… Thanks to the high level of adrenaline in our blood, we went on something like a revenge journey where the black women were called gorillas and told to go back to Africa. Jitka was hit in her back for that and suddenly Tomáš ran to attack the black women like the right gentleman. It almost seemed there would be a big fight, but it somehow cooled down, the blacks left and went for a bus.’
With this incident in mind, it’s important to note that racial differences are explicitly mentioned by Jackson himself during his HIStory performances when he performs Black Or White in Prague:
‘It don’t matter if you’re black or white‘, during the [line] ‘black’, Michael always pointed at himself, and during the [line]‚ ‘white’, he pointed at us. I was wondering what he would do when he had a concert, for example, in Africa or in Japan.’
Apart from ethnic distinctions, the diarists cover the intra-ethnic ones. The most apparent difference among Czech fans is their place of residence. The travelling group of fans are most likely made up mostly of those who live in Prague, or in the Central Bohemian region (another fan’s town, Čelákovice is mentioned, which a diarist considers a ‘hole’). The fans that come from Moravia are referred to as ‘Fíci’ (dates/fruits), and we alsox read about fans from Ústí nad Labem, a city in the northern region of the country. References to both groups are mentioned in the notes, but any explanation of the group based in Central Bohemia is missing. For this reason, it can be assumed that being from this region is also normalized, at least among the diarists who contributed.
Another differentiation we find is based on whether the fans travel across Europe to follow Jackson. Those that do are called ‘European fans’. According to the author, the fans from Ústí nad Labem are not included in this group. Even among the European fans, there is a specific hierarchy. The authors mention ‘mafia’, which is a group of fans who have followed Jackson for many years and receive extras for their loyalty. The Czech fans establish a good relationship with the ‘mafia’ in order to receive various advantages, too. The importance of this relationship is demonstrated when a Czech fan grabs Jackson’s pillow from a mafia member, unwilling to give it back. Afterwards, he is convinced to return it, so that all the Czech fans receive extra tickets to the World Music Awards from the ‘mafia’.
Lastly, the Czech fans expect other fans to use similar register and vernacular when talking about Jackson.
‘The fan that called Mike ‘Jackson’ was really weird, because every normal fan calls Michael in any other way, but no one says to him, “Hey, Jackson”.’
As the fans are aware that Jackson attracts masses of people, they need to stand out from them to be noticed. A fan from the group suggests wearing caps with jingle bells which the other fans quickly adopt. Another strategy to get noticed by Jackson and his bodyguards they employ is to create large and elaborate banners, preferably with Jackson’s favourite cartoon characters. Shortly before his concert in Prague, one of the fans made use of her mother’s job at Motol hospital, which Jackson chose to visit, and the group dressed as nurses to get in. These strategies proved to be successful and the group met Jackson personally several times. To record these special occasions, the fans took pictures with Jackson or asked him for signatures on books, booklets or notebooks.
When the fans were on their own (and not trying to capture Jackson’s attention) they were performing their fan identity in other ways, for example by taking photos of themselves in front of posters or billboards with Jackson. The fans would imitate the Jackson’s poses, to the amusement of by-passers. As the European tour leg collided with the launch of the Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix album, the diary contains the author’s impressions of the new album, especially with regards to the Superfly Sister lyrics:
‘We were chilling in front of Hyatt all day and we were unbelievably and terribly bored. The only interesting moment happened when Heron – Fíci’s friend from England, wrote down the Superfly Sister lyrics. My impression is that no one else has managed to write a nastier piece, Michael totally showed off well again. Well, at least we had fun.’
The researched group of fans successfully integrated into the structured hierarchies of the ‘so-called’ European fans, in order to get closer to Jackson. However, they also used their own visual strategies to grab attention, such as through clothing or crafted banners. As the tour was considered a special event, the fans recorded their memories through diaries, photographs, signatures or sound devices and some of these were subsequently published online.
In conclusion, the identity of Michael Jackson’s Czech fans included normalized whiteness and affiliation with Central Bohemia, especially Prague. However, Jackson was not subject of the otherness even though he did fit the criteria for otherness that the diary entries pointed out in other contexts. These Czech fans were not immune to racism and were acutely aware of that.
Ivana Recmanová is a graduate student of linguistics and communication theory at Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic. She is an official contributor to The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies and her articles include, ‘Thoughts on Michael Jackson’s Lyrics and Gender‘ and ‘Academic Book Review Of ‘Xscape Origins: The Songs And Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind’ By Damien Shields‘. Ivana’s research interests include the use of mathematics, physics, biology, and computer science in linguistics, identity studies, and textual analysis. Find out more about Ivana here.
1 http://www.michaeljacksonweb.cz/praha.htm. „Where the statue appears, Michael will reportedly arrive – such was Michael’s promise. But even the biggest optimist would not believe that Prague would witness the world premiere of the HIStory tour and that Michael would spend here 5 busy days which would turn our capital upside down…’
2 Špaček, Ladislav. Deset let s Václavem Havlem (Mladá fronta, 2012), page 108.
3 http://dyna-mj.wz.cz/monaco_1996.html – ‘…approximately a week before that, Helena, whom I barely knew at that time, called me that Michael would be in Monacco for a week, attend the World Music Awards, that a couple of people go there, too, and if I had about 10,000 [CZK], I could go, too.’
Dyna’s Website: http://dyna-mj.wz.cz/dyna.html
Novinky | MichaelJacksonWeb.cz. http://www.michaeljacksonweb.cz/
Největší fanynka Michaela Jacksona v ČR, Denisa Prepslová – ‘Zatím nemůžu poslouchat ani jeho hudbu’ | Michael Jackson yesterday, today & forever. http://allmichaeljackson.blog.cz/0907/nejvetsi-fanynka-michaela-jacksona-v-cr-zatim-nemuzu-poslouchat-ani-jeho-hudbu
Špaček, Ladislav. Deset let s Václavem Havlem (Mladá Fronta, 2012).
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