It’s no surprise that pop star Michael Jackson gets more attention on late-night television than he does in the classroom. But the balance shifted Thursday and Friday, when he became the focus of a Yale conference, “Regarding Michael Jackson: Performing Racial, Gender, and Sexual Difference Center Stage.” Sponsored by the Department of African American Studies and the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies, the conference provided an interdisciplinary look at the life and cultural significance of Michael Jackson.
The conference drew from almost every conceivable discipline. There were talks on black music, plastic surgery, child psychology, family life, pedophilia, and even the architecture of Jackson’s California Neverland Valley Ranch. The conference was not a tongue-in-cheek or light-hearted look at a man who often inspires more punchlines than academic papers, but an intellectual view of a pervasive cultural figure. To those present, it was hardly different from other conferences at Yale.
And yet, the idea of a conference devoted to Michael Jackson evokes a very visceral reaction, and we’re not quite sure why. Some students felt strongly that a conference on Jacko, especially a two-day affair, had no place at an institution like Yale. Others worried that such a conference might glorify the controversial star. Whatever the reaction, there were definitely some who were uncomfortable with the conference. Maybe it’s because most of us have such preconceived notions about Michael Jackson. But there’s more to it than that. It can seem strange to study Jackson when he is still very much a part of our culture. To study him can seem too self-reflexive, and it’s unclear whether or not we have enough distance from Michael Jackson to be truly objective about him and his place in our society.
But the conference was valuable for this very reason. It’s important to scrutinize pop culture, and part of what made this conference so compelling was its contemporary subject. Although we’re not advocating a pop culture lecture series, scholarship shouldn’t be deemed irrelevant or unimportant solely because its subject is contemporary culture. Studying Michael Jackson has the potential to do some very important things; Jackson is a highly interesting case study of race and gender, and seems well-suited as a topic that could bring those two disciplines together. The most valuable aspect of this conference was its collaborative nature and the interdisciplinary dialogue that it inspired.
But we wished this conference had seemed like less of an anomaly, and was more representative of the work going on at Yale. We’re not counting down the days until the Britney Spears conference, but there’s certainly room for more interdisciplinary scholarship at Yale. We’ve seen some of it — the Sept. 11 teach-ins are a good example — but Yale should make these types of collaborations more common. The Michael Jackson conference could be a great jumping-off point. If Michael Jackson is what it took to bring all those ideas and academics together, then the conference — however else it is viewed — will have been a resounding success.