MJ Studies Today XXXVI

Abstract: In this month’s MJ Studies Today column, Kerry Hennigan looks at Michael Jackson’s art and beliefs about childhood in the context of the work of some of the Romantic poets and authors from the Golden Age of children’s literature.  She suggests that considering Jackson’s work as a modern expression of the same Romantic tradition can lead to better understanding of his creative vision.


Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, and administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group, Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts.

REFERENCE AS:

Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today XXXVI (16-12-2018).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 6, no. 2 (2018). http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xxxvi/.


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“The Magic, the Wonder, the Mystery” – Perceptions of childhood as expressed in the art of Michael Jackson and in Romantic poetry and children’s literature By Kerry Hennigan

Copyright Kerry Hennigan

“The 19th century saw the development of what is sometimes called the Cult of Childhood, with adults exultantly celebrating childhood in texts and images. The connections with the Romantic ideal of childhood are clear, but many writers of the ‘Golden Age’ of children’s literature… went further, even expressing a longing themselves to be children once more.”

– Professor Kimberley Reynolds, “Perceptions of childhood” [1]

Many may think of Michael Jackson’s self-avowed love of children and views on childhood as unusual, strange and even unhealthy. However, Jackson was following in the tradition of celebrated British Romantic poets and writers of the 18th/19thcenturies in the sentiments he expressed in some of his lyrics, speeches and other works, including the conversion of Sycamore Valley Ranch into his own personal Neverland.

Of course, while we can consider his work in the context of the literary tradition of Blake, Wordsworth and Barrie, Michael was actually expressing a facet of his personality which was irrepressible – a consequence of his personal lack of experience with what most would consider “normality” for a youngster growing up in the 1960s and 70s.

It has often been said that, as a child star, Michael Jackson was an old soul inhabiting a young body; someone who sang with the emotions of an adult while still a pre-teen.  Comments like this certainly highlight his prodigious talent; but also indicate that he was unfairly hamstrung by the exploitation of it in terms of his limited opportunities to enjoy a childhood that did not involve long hours of hard work and high expectations of success.

Despite having achieved unprecedented fame and wealth before reaching adulthood, as a man in his 30s Michael sang unambiguously of “the painful youth I had” in the song “Childhood” (1995), which he proclaimed his most autobiographical work. [2]

Michael Jackson was someone with a strong desire to help children experience the kind of childhood he believed he’d lacked.  He wanted to help them to a better life, to better health or to develop their talent.  He could get lost in the joy of watching children at play, as evidenced by the song “Speechless”.  He worried about all “The Lost Children”, and asked of their parents “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” [3] [4] [5]

In Britain during the Industrial Revolution, many children were put to work in jobs that were often dirty and unhealthy, with little concern for the welfare of the child.  The poets focused on different themes that reflected how they felt about children in oppressed social circumstances or those marginalized by their ethnicity.  Michael Jackson’s song “Little Suzie” is a modern work on the same Dickensian-like theme (it has always reminded me of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Match Girl”). [6]

Poets like Blake and Wordsworth believed that children were innocent and especially close to God.  They were also receptive to the experience of Nature in all its beauty and wonder.  Children were considered to be a force for good. As noted by Professor Reynolds, “In children’s books (and other kinds of literature and art too) childhood innocence, goodness, frankness and vision regularly restore the moral wellbeing of adults and society.” [7]

That Michael Jackson also believed this is evident from statements he made in interviews and speeches, such as at the 1993 Grammy Awards, when he said “The magic, the wonder, the mystery, and the innocence of a child’s heart, are the seeds of creativity that will heal the world.  I really believe that.” [8]

In the same speech he expressed his sensitively to the pain suffered by children all over the world.  He elaborated on this in an interview with Adrian Grant in 1998:

“Being a world traveler, I’m touched and moved by everything that happens, especially to children.  It gets me emotionally sick, and I go through a lot of pain when I see that type of thing.  I can’t pretend as if I don’t see it.  It affects me very much.”[9]

Michael was ridiculed and reviled for his sensitivity.  Some critics just did not believe him.  Like Peter Pan’s creator, J.M. Barrie, his friendships with children prompted claims of impropriety from those who did not understand how an adult male and unrelated child could possibly enjoy an innocent relationship despite the lack of any evidence to the contrary.  The idea of such impropriety was abhorrent to Jackson; it was the antithesis of all he believed, the ideals he strove to achieve throughout his career, and the focus of his philanthropic work.

“People say I’m not okay

‘Cause I love such elementary things

It’s been my fate to compensate,

For the Childhood

I’ve never known” [10]

The art and philosophy of Michael Jackson are heirs to the work of the poets and authors of the Romantic and Golden ages who were enraptured by an idyllic vision of childhood and believed in the healing potential of children.  Perhaps if critics of Jackson’s work could view it in this context, they might better understand what he was talking, writing and singing about.

They might even better understand him.


Sources:

[1]  Reynolds, Kimberley “Perceptions of childhood” British Library https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/perceptions-of-childhood(2014) accessed 21 November 2018

[2]  Jackson, Michael “Childhood” from the album History: Past, Present and Future, Book 1(1995).

[3]  Jackson, Michael “Speechless” from the album Invincible(2001)

[4]  Jackson, Michael “The Lost Children” from the album Invincible(2001)

[5]  Jackson, Michael “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” from the posthumously released album Xscape(2014)

[6]  Jackson, Michael “Little Susie” from the album History: Past, Present and Future, Book 1(1995)

[7]  Reynolds, Kimberley “Perceptions of childhood”

[8]  Jackson, Michael  Transcript of speech made at the 1993 Grammy Awards https://www.truemichaeljackson.com/speeches/grammy-awards-1993/accessed 22 Nov 2018

[9]  Grant, Adrian Michael Jackson: Making HIStory, Omnibus Press (1998)

[10]  Jackson, Michael “Childhood”

Further reading:

SparkNotesWordsworth’s Poetry – Themes, Motifs & Symbolshttps://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/wordsworth/themes/accessed 22 Nov 2018

SparkNotesSongs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake. Main Ideashttps://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/blake/plot-analysis/accessed 22 Nov 2018Encyclopedia Britannica J.M. Barrie Scottish Authorhttps://www.britannica.com/biography/J-M-Barrieaccessed 22 Nov 2018

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