Abstract: The Michael Jacksons: An Ethnographic Monograph. By Lorena Turner. Los Angeles, California: Little Moth Press, 2014. $34.95/£24.07 approx. 40 full-colour Illus. 8 x 9.4 inches; 168 pages. Hardcover. 978-1628909555
Book review by Elizabeth Amisu, MA, PGCE, editor of The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies and author of The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife.
Amisu, Elizabeth. “Academic Book Review of ‘the Michael Jacksons: An Ethnographic Monograph’ by Lorena Turner.” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies2, no. 4 (2016). Published electronically 20/6/16. https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/book-review-of-the-michael-jacksons-an-ethnographic-monograph-by-lorena-turner/.
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Academic Book Review of ‘The Michael Jacksons: An Ethnographic Monograph’ by Lorena Turner
By Elizabeth Amisu
Lorena Turner’s The Michael Jacksons: An Ethnographic Monograph begins with a retrospective of Jackson’s immortalisation through memorials, ‘Michael Jackson is still the gold standard to which today’s pop music stars want to aspire’ (7). In her ‘Introduction’, Turner combines personal recollections of the aftermath of Jackson’s death with the visual interpretations which later became synonymous with the artist himself. Poignant illustrations, such as the tribute wall at the Apollo Theatre are peppered through (12), as Turner brings our attention to Jackson as symbol, and the strange combination of weird and wonderful that Jackson’s personas brought into the public consciousness.
It is the visual that Turner frames the most, for her book is not necessarily about Michael Jackson himself but about those who impersonate him and the meaning and significance they bring to his representation through their impersonations. The following section consists of ‘Plates’, sometimes subtle and sometimes striking images of Michael Jackson impersonators in all their array of costumes and make-up. They embody Jackson in a variety of unusual and enigmatic ways. In various shades of skin, various costumes from throughout his career, some only recognizable by a band of rhinestones, and others facsimiles of the artist with a slight skewed strangeness that provokes the eye to view again and again.
What is it that compels these impersonators? Sean Vezina, a Hollywood Tribute Artist is quoted, ‘I am dedicated to this… I will be different’ (31). In the eyes of Rocky Jackson, a Tribute Artist from Queens, New York, it is clear that Jackson’s Smooth Criminal successfully traverses gender, while remaining elegant (51). The impersonators are a range of ages, ethnicities, genders, and they cross the liminal space between character and caricature.
‘Chapter One – A Career Overview’ provides the necessary summary of Jackson’s life, from birth in Gary, Indiana, to death in the Holmby Hills, California. Turner really excites, however, when she focuses on Jackson’s physical appearance and how ‘the roundness of his eyes, the deep arch of his eyebrows, the evenness of his skin tone and redness of his lips… clashed with cultural ideals of blackness and masculinity’(99). For her, these impersonators ‘are performances of a polymorphous self-creation’, one that defies ‘received notions of gender, sexuality, age and race’(99). What they represent the desire to be undefined and indefinable by the rigid labels of culture.
‘Chapter Two – The Performance of Race, A Brief History’ harkens back to the rise of blackness as a performative, as discussed emphatically in Harriet Manning’s, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask (Ashgate, 2013), but what Turner explores in a novel way is the fact that the impersonators ‘are not race, or gender-obsessed; their Michael Jackson is neither black nor white, male nor female, but a hybrid, uniracial person like themselves’ (105).
‘Chapter Three – Hollywood Boulevard’ explores Jackson as a Hollywood idol, a product along the lines of Marilyn Monroe and Madonna, while ‘Chapter Four – July 2009, The Los Angeles Memorial for Michael Jackson’ engages with the ‘anonymous pathos’ (111), the contradictions which appeared at Jackson’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame just a few days after his death. Quoting Whitman, ‘I contain multitudes’ (119), Turner recalls how the mimicry of impersonators’ performances turn symbols in on themselves, conveying further how Jackson manipulated his own image into a force for global liberation and more fluid and traversable notions of identity.
‘Chapter Five – How Representers Construct Their Michael Jackson’ is the most theoretical and complex chapter of the book by far and a particularly rewarding read for those interested in the documentation and description of ‘a growing sub-cultural phenomenon within popular culture’ and the ‘postmortem canonization process’ that this catalyses. Turner assesses how the impersonators create their version of Jackson through costume, make-up, symbolism, props, dance moves, assigning them levels of presentation and of visibility, as well as character traits. What she does most effectively here is codify impersonation as a cultural phenomenon, naming many of its moving parts.
In ‘Chapter Six – Narratives of Representers’, Turner gives the impersonators a unique voice of their own, listing their personal stories, anecdotal evidence of how they came to the craft of impersonation and where they usually perform. This provides delicious morsels, such as the amount of money a performer might make in a single day, their ages, their qualifications, and the reactions of others to them.
The Michael Jacksons: An Ethnographic Monographcloses with an endearing conclusion, in which Turner ties up all the facets of her research. It would be helpful for lay-readers to begin with this introduction, as it sums up the main arguments that the book makes in a simple and concise way.
Turner’s book does not shy away from the complexity of Jackson’s representation, rather, she embraces it with gusto, in a way that provokes further research and further consideration. By opening up a dialogue between Jackson’s impersonators, his representers and their perspective, and the representation of the artist himself, Turner transcends the space between who he was, and who they are.
Lorena Turner holds an MFA in Fine Art Photography, and now develops social science research projects with a heavy visual component. She is the author of The Michael Jacksons: An Ethnographic Monograph, and has also completed a project on post-conflict identity in Rwanda, and a longitudinal study with an Afro-Colombian community living outside of Cartagena examining the impact of Colombia’s neo-liberal policies there. She is a lecturer at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Find out more at themichaeljacksons.com.
Elizabeth Amisu, author of The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife, holds an MA in Early Modern English Literature from King’s College London. She is co-founder and editor of The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studiesonline. For The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies she has edited two publications, An Academic Companion to Michael Jackson Studies and Michael Jackson’s Dream Lives On: An Academic Conversation – Michael Jackson & Prince; written several articles and book reviews, most notably ”Throwing Stones To Hide Your Hands’: The Mortal Persona Of Michael Jackson‘, which has been translated into Spanish and Italian; ”The Isle is Full of Noises’: Revisiting the Peter Pan of Pop‘, available in German; ”Crack Music’: Michael Jackson’s Invincible‘, also in Italian; and ”Heard it Through the Grapevine’: Are We Losing Michael Jackson All Over Again?‘, also available in Spanish.