Jackson ends the Bad album the same way he commenced it: with a question. In the same way that it is impossible to answer the question “Who’s Bad?” in any definitive way, the final question leaves us profoundly unsure. “Are you okay?” is sung dozens of times in the song “Smooth Criminal,” and the information is even demanded at times: “Tell us that you’re okay.” But the answer refuses to be pinned down, and the only response available is “I don’t know.” This serves to loosen and fray meaning, calling the fixity of any ideology into question.
The last chapter showed how simulacra try to sanitize Michael Jackson, to repair the ruptures he causes in the hegemonic order. But his body is the one commodity that counters this effectively: it parodies itself and exposes the simulacra, along with the ideological constraints they impose, as constructs. I end this project by integrating the lyrical and corporeal subversions from Bad to prove once and for all that pop culture can have a decidedly counter-hegemonic effect. Because of the fluid nature of Michael Jackson’s aestheticized body, any simulacrum created to disarm it automatically creates new counter-hegemonic impulses at the moment of its inception. Any view of Jackson, hegemonic or not, thus forces us to “confront the vulnerability of our own identities” (Scott 180). Jackson’s performances of body, race, sexuality, and gender break open these categories and show that they are constructed. This opens up social and cultural identities to scrutiny and clears space for alterity to be on par with the “norm,” or better still, for the norm to be irretrievably decentered and lost.
Before an analysis of “Smooth Criminal,” a brief review of the discussion surrounding subversion via popular culture is warranted. Michael Jackson’s pop art irrefutably opens up hegemonic norms to critique. But many theorists have drawn an abysmal picture of how much cultural change these subversions can actually do before expiring, being sanitized, or being absorbed into the service of hegemony; in the case of Michael Jackson, Halberstam’s discussion of bodily subversions and Hebdige’s thoughts on stylistic subversions provide particularly pertinent commentary. While they correctly show that the body and style are not, on their own, sufficient to constitute lasting subversive discourse against a hegemonic norm, this analysis of “Smooth Criminal” shows that the two done in concert just might have some staying power.
Dick Hebdige explains that through the material aesthetic of clothing and objects, subcultural style presents a direct, intentional subversion of dominant ideology (Subculture 101) in a different way than language can. By putting familiar objects in unexpected new contexts, like wearing safety pins on a jacket, subcultural style “disrupt[s] and reorganize[s] meaning” (105-106) by showing the expected cultural norms to be arbitrary, one among many choices. Wilson also argues that fashion has subversive potential and crosses social boundaries, “making us aware of the masquerade” of gender and “the normative nature of social practices” in general (437-8). Through this norm-defying process of removing a symbol and giving it new context, Hebdige claims that “meaning itself evaporates” (117).
He also argues that counter-cultural style is too easily commodified. When a punk jacket with patches and pins is mass-produced and sold by the thousands in chain retail stores, it becomes the norm, the expected, and no longer disrupts or reorganizes. The mass consumption ruins the subversive potential of this style (Subculture 103). A norm, and thence regulated meaning, are restored. In the case of Michael Jackson, any wardrobe change he makes already takes place in the context of popular culture, not subculture; so according to Hebdige, Michael Jackson’s fashion would have no potential to upset dominant norms. Yet I question the applicability of this theory in the context of Bad. Jackson starts the album dressed in a punk-biker fusion outfit, and ends it in a dapper white suit, which seems to be a move from rebellion towards conformity. Yet “Smooth Criminal” is even more destabilizing than “Bad” (as explained in greater detail below) precisely because it appears to be conformist on some levels, including the dress.
In regards to Hebdige’s concerns about subcultural style, what if a particular stylistic subversion is not reproducible and consumable in a material sense? Michael Jackson’s body, for instance, can be captured, reproduced, and commodified as simulacra, as copies, but the body continues moving and changing, not allowing the copies to lock it down, to recapture any evaporated meaning. In this sense, Michael’s bodily subversions could be understood as an evaporation, an annihilation, of meaning.
Jack Halberstam theorizes queer genders and sexualities as places for subcultural subversion. He notices the cycle of appropriation Hebdige shows and asks us to “rebel” in more and more radical ways to push the bounds of what pop culture can reabsorb. Halberstam seems dedicated to theorizing these subversions in subcultures and not in popular, mainstream culture. He views popular culture’s attempts at subversion as “fantasies of difference that erupt on the screen only to give way to the reproduction of sameness” (Queer Time and Place 84), essentially throwing up his hands at the inevitability of cultural reproduction in the pop culture space. He sees subcultures as “alternatives within an undisciplined zone of knowledge production” (Queer Art of Failure 18), undisciplined by the watchful eye of mainstream Ideological State Apparatuses; they are undisciplined, but they remain unseen by most people, and therefore ineffective at creating any sort of change in culture at a systemic level.
These theories present a conservative diagnosis of the effects of cultural subversion, saying it either ends in reabsorption into the mainstream or remains in the tiny pocket it was created for. Michael Jackson’s subversions have already “failed” for both of them, because he operates in the popular culture realm: he has been endlessly commodified, and his queer body has been made publicly visible and spectacle-ized. But when these “failures” happen at the same time, a new sort of pop culture subversion is born. The commodification of a “normal” body, the endless proliferation of it, would be a reabsorption. But he has a decidedly queer body, an ever-changing body. As the commodification of his body continues while his body is physically changing, multiple and distinct versions of a commodified body spring up, purporting to represent the same person or identity. Thus, through its own mechanism of absorbing and sanitizing subversions, hegemonic culture reveals itself as a construct, desperate to maintain itself. What many perceive as Jackson’s “failures” may have been his greatest successes.
But what do these subversions do in culture? Where Hebdige and Baudrillard say that subversion makes meaning itself evaporate, Stuart Hall makes a more careful diagnosis: “There is all the difference in the world between the assertion that there is no one, final, absolute meaning … and, on the other hand, the assertion that meaning does not exist” (“Articulation” 137). Meaning-making and meaning-interpreting still happen in the material world despite there being no “one, final, absolute meaning,” which highlights meaning-making “not as a natural but as an arbitrary act – the intervention of ideology into language” (137).
Hall’s distinction enriches the discussion of Michael Jackson’s subversive body. Even though I have shown time and time again that Jackson as a commodity continually destabilizes fixed meanings, this does not annihilate meaning or pretend meaning doesn’t exist. Michael Jackson does not simply evaporate or explode hegemonic ideologies. Rather, Jackson’s subversions create an infinite proliferation of meaning. He exposes the ideological intervention in language as arbitrary and endlessly proliferates meanings so as to open up previously foreclosed meanings and take from dominant meanings their exclusive or preferred status.
A classic example of the endless proliferation of meaning, “Smooth Criminal” underscores how discontinuous the relationship is between expectation and reality, between a symbol and a meaning. This happens through two major avenues: through bodily demonstrations (in particular, by showing the body doing things it isn’t “supposed to” do); and through an elaborate double-entendre throughout the entire song, forcing a constant misidentification of who the Smooth Criminal is, whether they are actually “criminal” at all, and what constitutes criminality to being with.
The Discursive Body Versus the Dancing Body
Scholars who theorize the body’s importance in disrupting hegemonic culture have different theoretical perspectives on how it should be used and what it does, but in general many seem to agree that the body it tied to identity, and that a focus on aestheticism displaces identity. Mario Albrecht asks us to “embrace the potential of certain kinds of bodies to transgress, rethink, and reshape these discursively constructed identity categories and consequently render them potentially less rigid and stultifying” (722, emphasis mine). It is true that bodies can do cultural work by pushing against boundaries, but he and I disagree on which “kinds of bodies” do this and what sort of reshaping they do. Aligning “kinds” of bodies with “kinds” of identities simply propagates normative ideals and boundaries rather than eliminating them.
Albrecht thinks of the aestheticized body as a bad thing that serves dominant ideology, whereas the “freakish” body that is not aestheticized has potential to transgress boundaries and break open the normative boundaries that police bodies. He claims that Jackson’s body presents “the possibility of offering a transgression away from the disciplining effects” (715) of normative discourse because it “refuses to be aestheticized and subsequently contains the potential to call into question the social power that demands discipline” (714). It is true that Jackson’s body calls into question the social power that disciplines bodies, but I disagree that it refuses to be aestheticized. Jackson’s body is purely aesthetic: it is notable precisely because of its changing cosmetic appearance. It embraces the changeability of the aesthetic, and thence derives its power to legitimately question social discourse. It is not the freakish non-aestheticized body but the spectacle-commodity body that has this meaning-reshaping potential.
The commodification of Jackson’s body is precisely what calls into question the normative discourses and the social power given to those discourses. It is the non-fixity of identity, the performance, the movement in the public sphere that constitutes this power: “Jackson refuses to fix his identity within normative categories and consequently his performances evoke uncertainty and anxiety” (Albrecht 711, emphasis mine). A non-aestheticized body can be easily fixed in place, ignored, or stopped in time in a way that a moving and performing body, one that owns its commodity and aesthetic status, cannot. The movement of the body continually shifts away from any ideologically inflected meanings attached to it, carrying all those meanings and none of them at once.
Both Seth Silberman and Mario Albrecht mention a desire to “access the meaning behind Jackson” (Albrecht 708, Silberman), and both see the discourses and artifacts surrounding him as a trail of breadcrumbs. These writers, however, ask a question that has its roots in hegemonic norms, a question that demands a one-to-one correlation between author and work, between identity and body. Instead I ask, what if the discourses and artifacts are the meaning? Instead of sorting through them to look for meaning in an elusive “identity” of Michael Jackson, why not take the artifacts, the images, the stories—the commodified body—as meaningful all on their own? They are a product of Jackson’s ambiguous body, a polysemous text that refuses to be singularly identified.
Butler says that it is through “disidentification with those regulatory norms…that feminist and queer politics are mobilized. Such collective disidentifications can facilitate a reconceptualization of which bodies matter” (qtd. in Albrecht 716). Moreover, disidentifications can help us reconceptualize how bodies matter. A body that draws attention to aesthetics rather than a subterranean identity is much more radically subversive than a body that touts an alternative identity. Rather than simply trying to expand which identities are important, Michael Jackson’s body renegotiates the level of importance society gives to identities in relation to bodies. Perhaps through Michael Jackson we can grasp the possibility of disidentifying with the concept of unified identity itself, and dispense with all the cultural anxiety about how identity should be and how bodies should represent that outwardly. This would not merely give social acceptance to a few more “kinds” of identities and bodies, but would instead constitute an infinite, endless proliferation of what kinds of identity / body combinations can exist in society.
It is not only Jackson’s changes in physical appearance that give his body subversive power; his dancing and movements inspire awe and make the viewer rethink what is possible for bodies. In his analysis of Jackson’s music videos, Julian Vigo says that “the gesticulations of the dancer invoke dialogue by virtue of pure spectacle. … what he presents is a product of a cultural heterogeneity” (31). Two moves in the “Smooth Criminal” video exemplify Vigo’s analysis and show how the aestheticized, commodified body can redefine norms and champion cultural heterogeneity.
In Chapter 2, I discussed the debut of the moonwalk in the “Bad” video and how it defies the “normal” forward motion of the human body. It reappears in “Smooth Criminal,” but in a new and perfected form: Michael moonwalks while remaining in the same place on the stage. The mechanics of the move are much more difficult now, as he has to pull back on the ball of his front foot and push forward his rear foot simultaneously, keeping the weight of his body evenly dispersed between them to ensure equal friction for a smooth-looking glide. Whereas the moonwalk in “Bad” showed that humans can walk in two directions, this move shows that humans can walk without direction as an objective at all. Instead of thinking of movement as an unimportant mechanical act whose only significance lies in questions like “Where are you going? Where are you coming from?” (Deleuze and Guattari 25), Jackson uses the aesthetic of the movement itself as the purpose. Life doesn’t just go forwards or backwards toward things for reasons; it can move toward nothing and be beautiful. This is a proliferation of possibilities for not only the way human bodies move but for why they move.
In the second important sequence, famously know as “The Lean,” Michael and his troupe pause on the stage standing upright and bend from their ankles 45 degrees forward. It is clearly impossible for the unassisted human body to bend that far forward without falling over on its face, but the “natural” body never was a deterrent to Jackson’s imagination. He and his costume designers invented shoes that had a mechanism in the heel that could latch onto inconspicuous hooks in the stage to support his weight (Bush 156-162), allowing him to perform “the lean” to live audiences and prove that it wasn’t a mere cinematographic stunt. But when the patent was leaked and it was revealed “how he had been able seemingly to defy gravity on stage,” he lamented to costumer Michael Bush, “It was supposed to stay magical. Why would they ruin it for everybody?” (Fast 73, Bush 162).
The magic and mystique of the move captivated me before I knew the “secret,” but the creativity involved in inventing the shoes and the execution on stage and in the video still remain just as stunning after finding out. Knowing about the shoes makes no difference: Jackson proved he could think outside the bounds of what was considered possible and give the body new powers it didn’t have before. He not only pushed the limits of the natural body, but redefined how those limits are conceived and enforced. It didn’t matter what limitations the given surroundings put on him. Just as Stuart Hall said that change becomes possible only when the terms of the argument are up for debate, Jackson opted to change the terms his surroundings placed on him. What can a body do? What should a body do? “Whatever I can imagine it doing,” Jackson always answers.
Smooth Criminal as a Double Narrative
In addition to a truly transformative dance performance, the “Smooth Criminal” video and lyrics destabilize any notion of “one true meaning” and thus call into question larger societal constructs that insist on fixed meanings. While more interpretations are certainly possible, this analysis draws a picture of two readings, one in which Michael is a bystander singing about an event of criminality or domestic abuse, and another in which he is actually the smooth criminal and the victims are hegemonic ideologies.
As the video begins Michael enters what appears to be a speak-easy. All eyes are on him and no one moves for several silent moments. When Michael suddenly flicks his hand, several men reach for their guns anticipating a shootout. It turns out that Michael is armed with a coin, which he then flicks into a jukebox on the other side of the room. As the coin falls, the song “Smooth Criminal” starts – and on the second beat of the song Michael uses his hand in the shape of a gun to shoot the man standing closest to him.
This opening sequence orients our attention to the body and the power inherent in it, and also ties this corporeal power to money. The initial coin-flip shows how Michael’s body is tied to money in instances of gaining power over others, and this continues throughout the video. This is not simply a capitalistic allegory: the money does not give power here, but rather represents something about the power already inherent in the body. Michael participates in some sort of dance-off with a few men (which he obviously wins) and he takes all their money after winning it. He also throws a stack of cash into the air before jumping onto the stage to do a complex dance sequence. This video actually disrupts the idea that money gives power. Instead, it shows that the commodified body, the one that is valued based on its aesthetics, has subversive potential.
Michael’s entrance also highlights the ambiguity of good and bad in the song, including who is actually the “criminal” here, whose violent acts against others are considered “criminal,” and why. The motive for Jackson entering the club is quite unclear, which leaves open to interpretation whether he is a “good guy” or a “bad guy.” On the one hand, he wears a white suit, and white has traditionally signified purity, heroism, or goodness in Western societies. Yet his suit recalls the mobster style of the prohibition era, so he could be a “criminal” in the sense of bootlegging. Also, he appears to have “trespassed” a zone that “belongs” to the others, so their suspicion of him could be justified. This opening sequence has opened up many possibilities and sets the tone for these equally-ambiguous lyrics from the first verse:
As he came into the window
It was the sound of a crescendo.
He came into her apartment,
He left the bloodstains on the carpet.
The first question with these lyrics is the same question all the patrons of the club are asking about Michael: who is “he”? “He” is likely the smooth criminal referred to in the song’s title, but is it Michael (as the video might suggest), or is it someone else (as the third-person pronoun sung by Michael suggests)? Another less obvious question has to do with sequence: is he leaving blood on the carpet before he strikes down Annie? Has he been hurt, or is this blood from a previous victim?
The lyrics of the song alone suggest a forced entry and aggravated assault situation by an unknown man, or possibly an instance of domestic abuse, with neighbors or friends trying to take care of the victim after the fact:
Annie, are you okay? Will you tell us that you’re okay?
There’s a sign in the window that he struck you a crescendo Annie.
He came into your apartment, he left the bloodstains on the carpet.
Then you ran into the bedroom, you were struck down, it was your doom.
But the video makes us question such a straightforward interpretation. The only person who has done any breaking in is Michael, and the lead female actor seems distressed by his presence, or at least concerned. These observations, in conjunction with the above lyrics, suggest that Michael is the smooth criminal. But if this is the case, would he really implicate himself in domestic violence?
This contradiction can be enlightened (or heightened) by the discussion of the word “bad” from Chapter 2 and the connection in the final chorus of “Bad”: “I’m smooth, I’m bad.” In the interpretation of Jackson as the smooth criminal, the role he takes on must be a continuation of the kind of Bad-ness he claims in the title track (bad as good, bad as non-bad, bad as progress). The tie between “smooth” and “bad” signals that what he does in the “Smooth Criminal” song and video are “good” things, or non-bad, non-criminal, progressive things. Criminality, hence, only has meaning in relation to a law (as that which breaks it); and some laws, the hegemonic in this case, ought to be broken. In short, the smooth criminal may be the protagonist rather than a domestic abuser.
Michael sings to Annie at the end of the chorus: “You’ve been hit by … you’ve been hit by … a smooth criminal.” The obvious reading of these lines renders Michael as an innocent bystander recounting events that happened to Annie and the escape of the perpetrator. But to drive home the point of the unfixity inherent in this song, I pursue the alternate reading above: Who is “Annie” in the video? No women are struck (several men are, but mostly by one another and not Michael). Michael strikes the club as a whole—his presence disrupts the normal operation. So “Annie” may not be a person at all, but rather an institution, a construct, society itself, and Michael is the smooth criminal doing damage to it. A meta-commentary on this interpretation: I am placing primacy on the visual rather than the lyrical content to show the importance of the aestheticized body in disrupting cultural production. This reading takes the visual as if it were the “Real” and then subordinates the lyrics, placing them in the subsequently-logical interpretive positions.
The video and song present a similar moment in two different ways: after the second chorus in the song, a man’s voice on a megaphone yells, “Okay, I want everybody to clear the area right now!”; in the video a swat team with guns surrounds the building. Both of these moments signal some sort of police intervention in response to Michael’s “criminality” (again, understood as opposed to a law). Why would the police show up to help a speakeasy or underground operation that runs contra them? Michael’s disruption at the club obviously has further-reaching consequences. Police involvement signals an enforcement of cultural hegemony: the club-as-institution (Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus), whose task it is to win the complicity of the masses in the hegemony, has been “struck down” by the smooth criminal; therefore, the police must step in to forcibly sustain the hegemony (what Gramsci explains as a last resort).
Despite police intervention, it is too late for “Annie.” The composition of the club’s patrons has changed—while many remain as they were when Michael entered, several are now dancing with him, an uptake of the counter-cultural (non)norms he offers. The dancers represent a new heterogeneity, spurred by an aesthetic-body-icon who presents to them the subversive possibilities of the body. The institution has not been able to absorb the subversion, a new and welcome change of direction from the assumptions of Hebdige and Halberstam. When asked, “Annie, are you okay?” the only response the institution can give is a resounding, “I don’t know!”
Michael Jackson is not a Christ figure preaching a way to salvation—he shows multiple possibilities pointing in multiple directions. After he fires a machine gun at all the police surrounding the building (a direct attack on the cultural hegemony), another man takes up the machine gun and helps Michael leave the club. Crucially, he and the other patrons continue the battle against the norms that the club and the police enforce even without Michael present. This shows that Michael is not the solution per se, but rather what he does is the solution. He has impressed a new cultural logic on these people, so they continue dancing and shooting and subverting, perpetually, even after he has left.
Just as in “Bad,” the question (and not the answer) figures as the destabilizer: “Are you okay?” can only be answered, “I don’t know!” many times over. Jackson’s body takes the concept that identity is performative and turns it on its head in a revolutionary gesture: bodily performance and movement are disidentification, they are the way out of identity, the way to resist being fixed or determined by an identity. Performance, it turns out, is a way to dis-identify. The aestheticized, commodified body breaks the cycle of sanitation and absorption, disrupts the mechanism of cultural reproduction, and endlessly proliferates multiple, new meanings.
The key strategy in Michael Jackson’s subversions of hegemony is not trying to evaporate or annihilate meaning, but instead to endlessly proliferate it. This more nuanced treatment of the arbitrariness of meaning allows us to understand the mechanics of power distribution. An ideological perspective acknowledges that power is actual and real and here, and that people can grasp it in very specific ways. This perspective respects preexisting material conditions in the world while still retaining hope that they can be rearranged, and power redistributed.
The representations I have shown and analyzed throughout these chapters have been of a very particular nature: they automatically subvert cultural hegemony, and they do it even better when the hegemony attempts to sanitize and reintegrate them via simulation. On the one hand, a viewer can simply accept a representation of Michael Jackson that disrupts dominant cultural expectations: Michael’s dancing body doing un-human-like movements and thus redefining what counts as human. On the other hand, a viewer can reject such an interpretation of the subversive event and try to incorporate it into the dominant order: “Michael is just being a weird person at that moment,” or “I like ‘Thriller’ Michael or teenage Michael or little boy Michael better because he looked better back then.” But even this rejection implicitly acknowledges, in the very moment of sanitation and reabsorption, that one is choosing between versions of a person, acknowledging the plurality of identity and disavowing a unified identity. Both choices, to accept and to reject Michael Jackson, have a disorienting effect on the game of identity. Michael Jackson radically questions the terms of the argument in order to “increase displacement in the game, and even to disorient it, in such a way as to make an unexpected ‘move’ (a new statement)” (Lyotard 16). And his unexpected move turns out to be moving in unexpected ways, which displaces and disorients all of us players from the presupposed rules of our cultural game.
I cannot call these moments from Bad any kind of prescriptive or formulaic “solution” to the problem of cultural hegemony. Answers as such create stop signs and create stagnant environments (Hodge) by attempting to fix down meaning. This thesis has not been a prescription of what to do so much as a description of what has been done, a look at how the past has shaped and continues to shape the present. So how can we take this lengthy look at Bad and apply important principles to keep such cultural subversions coming? We can apply Michael Jackson’s aesthetic politically. His aesthetic ostensibly plays the game of commodity capitalism on the surface, but actually serves to internally disrupt it. I call, then, for an endless proliferation of such destabilizing art, which proliferates heterogeneity and serves the purpose of democratization.