Michael Jackson the Man.

There are things you notice when you watch a string of Michael Jackson videos back-to-back, things you probably didn’t notice when you were eight.

One of them is how obsessed with masculinity Michael Jackson’s Thriller- and Bad- era work seemed to be. In Thriller, he tells his girl he’s not like other guys, and he’s both a threat to her and her savior. Beat It is all about his alpha dog ability to stop a gang fight through dancing (“Don’t wanna be a boy/You wanna be a man). Bad, above, is full of macho-posturing, and this was when the crotch grabbing really started in earnest. (Lyrics: “Your talk is cheap/You’re not a man.”)

Sometimes, his masculinity is being challenged, and he overcomes the challenge.  This is especially true in the video for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” which I remember as one of my favorite songs.*

In the beginning, a group of men are laughing at Jackson’s attempt to get the girl, saying, “You don’t know about women.”

Then he gets her. Through dancing and singing, obviously.

This continued through to “You Rock My World,” which would have been a better song and video if he wasn’t at that point so painful to look at.

He got more macho just as he began to look more feminine. One of the first things I remember learning about Michael Jackson is that, by the Bad cover — which is the last one I really remember seeing on a vinyl album in a rack at Wal-Mart — he had had surgery to make it look as though he always had eyeliner on. Even a nine-year-old knows that’s different from your run-of-the-mill Pop star.

In today’s New York Times, Alastair Macaulay wrote  a really fantastic review of Jackson as a dancer, and notes that Jackson was projecting a sense of androgyny early in his career. That’s true, but I’m not really sure the conflicting tones were purposeful, or at all embraced, by the troubled soul Jackson proved to be.

*I’m trying to remember if this was in the Moonwalker movie, or if we just had the video recorded on the same VHS tape we had recorded Moonwalker on. Does anyone know? Also, as an aside, doesn’t Moonwalker become an extremely weird movie now that you’re older?

** Macaulay calls the socks Jackson wore during the Motown 25th anniversary special off-white. Those socks were sequined, sir.

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8 comments to Michael Jackson the Man.

  • His apparent obsession with masculinity is something I noticed too, and long before he died. I don’t think Michael was sexually-confused as far as his orientation, but maybe gender-confused or a good example of a genderqueer, and he had his own way of expressing it.

    I don’t know if this is true for everyone who’s gender fluid but, from my own experience, I find myself obsessed with gender norms and with needing to “prove” that I’m a woman, and it’s shown itself in the past as an awkward (and obvious) attempt to be something I’m not. Gender fluid people don’t inherently identify as trans, and unless the person can let go of the label, they may forever have a hard time with understanding where and how they belong.

    Gender fluidity is something I recognized in Michael, and I can’t explain how. He had a lot of things that could’ve impacted his identity as a whole, but the gender issues seem built in, in my perspective. I’m not an expert, but that’s just what I think. :)

  • QM: It’s all on the same tape. It’s burned into my brain, I watched it so many times.

  • In all honesty when I think gender was an issue that Michael was afraid to be honest about. I really believe that he was a frustrated trans woman that would have transitioned had he not lead such a public life. I feel the fame, religion and family pressures combined to keep him from being really honest about who he was. Though he was a constant crotch grabber I feel that was more a statement of him wanting to remove his penis rather than an affirmation of its existence.

  • Thank you for this post, mostly because I finally sat down and rewatched the Thriller video, which I’ve been wanting to do since he passed. I LOVE the zombie dance routine 8 min in. And after reading this post and the linked NYT article, and remembering Michael mostly from his most recent years, it actually feels like he’s performing as a man in this video. The sock hop/letterman scene, the date he’s on, etc. It’s really disorienting, and interesting, and the comments in this thread are insightful.

  • devessel

    I, too, have been watching videos round-the-clock and find myself noticing things at 40 that I didn’t fully realize as a teenager and young adult.

    There are quite a few examples of Michael as victim/protagonist being challenged to defend his manhood or being told that he would never amount to anything . One wonders whether he was expressing delayed frustrations based on what he was told when younger. There must have been times when he was mercilessly teased for being too this or that, or not nearly enough. Even viewing the comically Nothing Compares to You Featuring all the brothers save him, one wonders if he was constantly struggling to be The Man in a house full of hot Jackson men. Seriously–just think of a house full of Grown.Jackson.Men. Damn.

    Indeed, when I see Keep It In The Closet, Remember the Time, You Rock My World, and any other video where there is a female lead opposite him, it is clear that he ALWAYS gets the girl, be she a queen, desirable model, neighborhood hottie, barfly, etc. Even when I think of the stories of his legendary business acumen, I can’t help but think of it all as a well-financed plan to clown all haters–to out-own, out-strip, out-sell, out-pace, and just prove that all who ever said ‘no’ to him would eventually live to see themselves bested. A NYT writer said it best today when he noted Michael’s ability to assert his proper place in the pantheon even when just singing a hook within an ensemble piece like We Are The World “‘Scuse me, genius coming through”. Exactly.

    Really: after Thriller, we got Bad, then Invincible, and Blood on the Dancefloor(!) Look at songs in latter years that were either really angry or really melancholy or really spiritual . Dude had a lot of feelings other than happy-happy-joy-joy-shake-your-bodydowntotheground to express. It’s like he was finally going to sing something other than the Crow Creed from the Wiz (another disturbing parallel). And he’s making sure that enough of it is immortalized that you could take your time and figure it out, even if it’s after he’s gone.

    I really pray he’s found his peace away from all of the pain.

  • the black scientist

    in her book On Michael Jackson margo jefferson looks at the michael the man and how he transformed so drastically in the public eye. she relates him to a old time carnival spectacle in the way that he changed in front of the world and confused many people while doing so. people were intrigued and bemused. i don’t personally think he was trans, nor that he ‘wanted to be white’ (as i’ve heard suggested over the years). but i do think that he challenged our concepts of race, gender, and sexuality just by being who he was. jefferson highlights the fact that from the time that he was 6, he was not just a superstar but a sexualized black male child star crooning love songs he couldn’t have known much about. his life has been extremely *different* from the moment he was a young boy. i mean, we like to forget that the man was a sex icon from the 60s up until about the 90s.

  • quadmoniker

    Yeah, I agree that there was something more complicated going on than mere self-loathing.

  • lemang

    I share your sentiments that there was more to him than him wanting “to be white” or trans as some believe. In addition, i realised that a lot of us have been trying to pin him down and box him into our black/white world, and he pushed our ideas of race, gender and sexuality, simultaneously, I came to the realisation that MJ was so elusive that at times, as a fan, i got mad. and I appreciate that he wasn’t just an entertain, he was a great humanitarian and was a social and political activist. I am reminded of the songs, “heal the world,” “We are the world.” “they don’t really care about.” and “earth song.”

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