An Interview with Ryan Garey

Abstract: In this interview, Ryan Garey discusses his Master Thesis and how Michael Jackson influenced him and what he envisions for his future with Michael Jackson.


Garey, Ryan. “An Interview with Ryan Gary.” Interview, The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 3, no. 2 (2016). Published electronically 21/10/16.

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An Interview with Ryan Garey by The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies

Q1 – Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a musician, an academic, a teacher and a student. I love nothing more than writing about or discussing how better education can save the world, as well as what counts as “better.” I have played piano and various instruments since childhood, and I dabble in song writing and recording from time to time.

I grew up around Salt Lake City. I recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue an academic career in law, a shift inspired by questions about copyright and authorship that I encountered while studying Michael. I am also a lifelong devotee and amateur karaoke-er of Michael Jackson.

Q2 – What inspired you to write your thesis on Michael Jackson’s Bad? What was its genesis?

When I entered my master’s program at Montana State University, I had a fairly traditional conception of how my academic career would go, which included pursuing some well-recognized literature subspecialty like “pre-1900 American lit” or “Postcolonial lit” or the like. But then I had lunch with a professor who asked me what I had very strong feelings about, what I was really passionate about. He rejected a few of my academic-sounding answers and insisted that I get more personal. I told him I loved music. Great, he said, what else? I said I felt a lot of tension in my life about what it means to “be a man.” He told me that I had my thesis project – simply intersect those ideas, and because you’re passionate about them something meaningful will come.

It didn’t take more than a few days to land on the idea of looking at Michael Jackson in terms of gender. Of course the scope and angle of my project shifted and grew over time, but I quickly realized that one of my lifelong heroes embodied not only my recreational interests but my academic ones as well. (read Ryan’s Thesis here>>)

Q3 – How was your thesis received in the University, did you have full support when you proposed it?

I was lucky to go to a school that afforded me a high degree of independence in my research and writing. I half-doubted the idea would have a warm reception, but surprisingly it did. My thesis chair had just edited a collection called Deconstructing Brad Pitt, so I had a hope that studying a pop celebrity wouldn’t be an absurd proposition to him. My other committee members seemed to take my proposal almost as a dare – they wanted to see whether I could say something that amounted to academic rigor instead of fan-boy raving. They ultimately passed me, so I presume they found my thesis material university-worthy.

Q4 – In your opinion, how can Michael Jackson Studies be effective in schools and universities?

Studying Michael Jackson makes you ask yourself whether you’ve been caring about the wrong things. More specifically, he makes you realise that what you’ve perceived as “natural” is actually artificial or arbitrary. Michael Jackson’s music and videos and dance take a previously ossified picture of society and fracture it. Once the lines between the pieces manifest themselves, you are free to pick them up, examine them, move them around in your mind. If “critical thinking” involves considering how a certain thing came about and how else that thing could look if conditions were different, then Michael Jackson Studies can engender new forward-looking critical approaches in our students, especially now as society clings to the sinking wreckage of the bio-techno binary split. He was decades ahead of society in considering that age- and body-related development are not fixed and naturally intertwined but are malleable constructs.

Q5 – Which subjects do you find suit Michael Jackson Studies best?

Literary Studies, Cultural Studies, Pop Culture Studies, Gender Studies, and other descriptive Sociological disciplines. Any subject trying to “study” Michael Jackson has to be comfortable with uncertainty and inconsistency. The non-answer disciplines, those with looser methodologies, are often maligned in the empirically-driven university culture of the United States. But these are the disciplines best-equipped to confront Michael and find meaningful things to say about society, art, and identity politics. I personally find “diagnostic” approaches of his psychology or history to be less compelling, but my opinions come laden with my biases.

Q6 – What are your feelings about the attempt to appropriate Jackson into academic circles now?

There’s a process vs. identity dilemma when studying Michael Jackson. If we try to pin down “who he really is,” we have only captured one picture in one moment and have sanded down his velocity and direction and movement. But if we focus on his movement or development over time, we get a general picture or arc but cannot capture any coherent “identity.” To attempt to capture his “essence” in one paper or one book is an effort, in my view, to claim Michael Jackson for your own purposes – to use your version of him as a logo for your brand, to recreate him as the perfectly-tailored spokesperson for your platform. I am wary of that. An effort to synthesize the many issues Michael Jackson presents requires a multi-disciplinary focus, which encourages academic cooperation and resists simplification.

Michael Jackson, in my view, is more of a lens than a subject of study. As more academics turn towards Michael Jackson, I hope we can leave the end-goal of “getting him” to one side and focus instead of the beautiful chaos he opens.

Q7 – If you had the chance to meet and talk to Michael Jackson what three questions would you ask him?

  1. You harmonize with yourself quite often, but how do you feel about singing with other people? What is that like for you?
  2. What is your favorite song that never made it onto an album? Will you sing it for me?
  3. Can I please play in your band?

Q8 – There is often a “low culture” stigma attached to studying Michael Jackson at a high academic level. How do you think this affects those who wish to complete research in Michael Jackson Studies?

The relatively recent rise of disciplines like Gender and Cultural Studies shows that we are beginning to value relations among people and their environments over economic and cultural capital. Academics ought to have been cured of their arbitrary distinctions of aesthetic value by The Great Gatsby almost a hundred years ago, but many have yet to be convinced despite the mountains of theory and research that dismantle the pretension of a high/low culture divide. If these are your colleagues, I hope you still have the bravery to submit a proposal anyway.

Sure, you can’t just march up to your department chair and tell her that a long history of studying certain types of works means nothing in terms of clout and reputation. But if you’re looking for gravitas, all of the sophisticated and insightful publications in this Journal demonstrate that Michael Jackson Studies has as much current relevance as any other topic. Perhaps I’m just a naïve youngster, but I think the stigma is already eroding quickly.

Q9 – What, if any influence did Michael Jackson have on you? Professionally? Personally?

He got me a master’s degree, for one! On a personal level, studying him gave me the eyes to see a whole web of ways to enact masculinity and helped me to define my own. Also, his fashion. I think about him every time I shop.

Q10 – What do you think the legacy of Michael Jackson’s art is?

I’m going to use my one cop-out answer here: I don’t think “the legacy” exists. I think he still reigns over the airwaves as an invisible sonic king. But everything the listeners/viewers bring to the table (their histories, thoughts, beliefs, and especially the spaces they occupy in the web of society) affects the way the sounds waves are received. For a great many, the waves harmonize with and solidify their lived experiences. For many others, the waves will clash with their lives, a dissonance that simply makes certain things noticeable that were imperceptible before. This dissonance is the legacy of Michael Jackson for me.

Q11 – What do you think will be the view of Michael Jackson, in say a few hundred years?

That he was the normal one and the rest of us were strange and backwards. Jean Baudrillard called Michael Jackson a savior of sorts, freeing us from what our conceptions of what bodies could be and look like. Jackson may be viewed one day as an early pioneer of technological body-engineering, and he will certainly be remembered as one of society’s most important barrier-breakers for Othered bodies. And his music will still be played on the super-oldies radio stations.

Q12 – Final thoughts: After you completed your thesis, do feel you want to conduct more research and write further on Michael Jackson, or are there other artists/writers you have your eye on for future research?

I would research and write more about Michael Jackson in a heartbeat. My next idea would be to take a more longitudinal look and juxtapose the title tracks of all his albums. I have considered writing about David Bowie and others. But as I mentioned in my thesis, Michael Jackson’s status as “most popular musician of all time” is what really makes his subversions move the mass-culture needle. Since “low culture” deserves its academic redemption, I’ll stick with Jackson for now.

My future dream-projects include writing about how copyright and trademark law effect Michael Jackson’s art and image, and managing the legal affairs of Michael Jackson’s estate.

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

Ryan Garey is an popular culture scholar with an MA in English. His research interests include gender and class relations and hegemony in popular music. His Master’s thesis, _Who’s Bad? Disrupting Cultural Reproduction Through Representations of Michael Jackson_, explores the subversive potential of Jackson’s art in society. Ryan is currently a law student at UCLA.

You can read his thesis here>>

Check out more of our wonderful academic interviews here.