The mention of Michael Jackson’s name is enough to generate interest — some may admire the artist’s talent and some may think of the child molestation charges he faces today. But behind all of his antics lie the complications of growing up in the spotlight, New York Times cultural critic Margo Jefferson said at a lecture Wednesday.
Jefferson said Jackson has become an American icon whose life has been sprinkled with controversial headlines, a result of his troubled family life and impressions made upon him by his celebrity friends and rivals. Her talk, titled “Michael Jackson: Archeology of a Child Star” and organized by an African American Studies seminar on “Black Feminism,” attracted a crowd of about 20 people, many of them graduate students.
Jefferson began her lecture by explaining Jackson as we see him today.
“He manages to stay a child but also plays with ways of being an adult,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson touched on some of the most outrageous parts of Michael Jackson’s life story, pointing to the image broadcast around the world of Jackson holding his infant son over a balcony in Berlin. But she said Jackson’s antics can be attributed in part to the media’s fascination with the singer since his youth.
“It is very hard when you look at this to not think of little Michael Jackson thrown out onto stages at the little age of nine, 10, being followed by masses of teens and adults,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson’s review of Jackson’s childhood began with lighter observations such as sibling rivalry between the Jackson Five, both at home and in the professional world. But as Jefferson probed deeper into Jackson’s life, she highlighted both the pressures he faced by what she said was an abusive father and his extreme loyalty and love towards his mother.
Touching on the roles of Jackson’s supporting mother and businessman father, Jefferson characterized the Jackson family as “Victorian.”
“[Jackson's father] is the stage father who lives out his lack of talent by making his children succeed,” Jefferson said. “[His] mother is there to nurture and take care of the home and the hearth, for spiritual repair and maintenance work for the abused children.”
As Jackson grew older, Jefferson said, he began to make his own friends, including A-list stars Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Fonda.
Jefferson examined several of Jackson’s videos during her talk, including “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” “Rock With You,” and his on-stage performance during the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards. She said she sees a connection between Jackson’s public presentation of himself and his private life.
“The videos show how body, voice, costume choices are demonstrating his drives, constructions of himself, needs and transitions,” Jefferson said.
She wrapped up her discussion with an analysis of how Jackson’s famous dance technique has evolved over time. Jefferson said some of Jackson’s more shocking moves serve as a way for him to release built-up emotions, such as aggression.
While some audience members said they were familiar with Jefferson’s work, Kimberly Brown GRD ’06 said she was drawn to the talk by an interest in Jackson’s life.
“I feel more and more like Michael Jackson is doing something with his gender; this interests me,” Brown said.
Jefferson said her in-depth research into Jackson’s life has helped her uncover some of the pop icon’s mysteries, but she added that she has mixed feelings about the star.
“He breaks my heart, but I think he is amazing, and in certain ways I love him,” Jefferson said.