Yipee! I have come across a small article* by Eric Lott (my intellectual crush of the mo), in which he vindicates pop as appropriate fodder for cultural studies. Though pop culture is not his expertise, my long-held suspicion that he has been communicating telepathically with me has finally been confirmed (hi Eric!) as evidenced by this gift he’s offered to the alter of mah blawg.

I’ve always felt the critique that Michael Jackson’s video for Black or White is simplistic is well, simplistic. I love both this video and this song, and even as a kid I had picked up on more complex dimensions than Jacko’s many critics would grant him, but never had it been well-articulated until now. Lott explicates Michael Jackson’s video for Black or White, as an example of sophisticated racial critique. I will spare you all the intellectual jargon. Below are some of Lott’s better points for your Michael Jackson-related pleasure (god knows if I haven’t stopped worshiping Jackson by now, I never will). Long live the King of Pop!

– The video begins with MacCauley Culkin listening to the guitar riffs of Slash from iconic white rock group Guns ‘n’ Roses. His father demands he “turn that noise off!”, whereby Culkin responds by striking a chord and blowing his father, still sitting in his Easy Chair to Africa. “[Jackson] locates the source of white rock and white suburban rebellion in culture of the African diaspora, the ultimate referent of Culkin’s power chord.”

-The father– the white patriarch– is being schooled by Culkin and Jackson in the cultural and historical significance of this so-called noise.

-The emphasis on the racial construction is evident throughout the video, from the apparent approximation of west-African dancing in the first scene to the “playacting” of Native American slaughter in the next, stressing in each vignette “the violence on which America rests”, Jackson is able to “embrace its victims through imaginatively and self-consciously constructed cultural acts.”

-The scene set in India where Jackson dances with the Indian women in the midst of an urban setting “complete with a factory in the background” is a testament to “the (industrial) leavings of imperial history”.

-Jackson fiercely affirms cultural hybridity in the bridge as he breaks through a wall of fire, that is comprised of KKK burning crosses:
I ain’t gotta do jack
I ain’t gotta do stuff
I ain’t gotta do gravy
Ooh when the going gets rough
I ain’t scared of no brother
I ain’t scared of no sheets
I ain’t scared of nobody

-Lott denies Culkin’s lipsynced rapping is an example of blackface, as the option is “forcefully displaced by the prominent golden forelock” emerging from Culkin’s ballcap. It is therefore a moment of humorous identification without the racism-as-comedy legacy of minstrelsy.

-As Jackson emerges from the Statue of Liberty torch, he sings “don’t tell me you agree with me/ when I saw you kickin’ dirt in my eye,” Jackson refuses to hide behind the torch; he will be heard and acknowledged as a black man that is also a white man and a citizen of the world.

-In the final morphing sequence, we are able to imagine that race is mutable “the burden of its construction lifted; boundaries between self and other are permeable…”, ending with the self-aware pull back and director’s “cut”, underscoring the performativity of race and gender.

-In the controversial final scene (banned from television), Jackson– a Black Panther– “insists on the link between black male sexuality and political resistance”. The final gesture has Jackson throw a trashcan through a storefront window, mirroring the resonant ending of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. “There really is a riot going on, and Jackson has danced us directly into it. No wonder nobody wanted to see the end of Black or White!”.

-“Taken as a whole, Black or White conjures an incredible depth and complexity of responsiveness to the ongoing predicaments of racial demarcation in America.”

The racial history of America, and larger globalizing forces have just as much to do with “black or white” as they have to do with “men or women”. Given the nature of his critique, I’ll further this reading to say that Jackson is taking a stand, too, for feminism. Whether he knows it or not is beside the point.

* Lott, Eric. “The Aesthetic Ante: Pleasure, Pop Culture, and the Middle Passage”. Callaloo, Vol 17, No. 2 (Spring 1994).

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