Viewing America Through Michael Jackson
A conversation on celebrity, race, pedophilia and the Church sex abuse scandal
The sudden death of Michael Jackson this past summer took the world by surprise and led to spontaneous fan tributes around the globe and countless conversations about the King of Pop’s place in popular culture. Many of those conversations are bound to be revisited with the release this week of This Is It, a film that promises behind the scenes footage of Jackson’s final days as he was preparing for sold out London concerts. While many of the discussions sparked by his passing have dealt with his enormous talent (and his equally enormous strangeness), his ever-shifting appearance, the charges of pedophilia and the issue of race, we are fairly certain that the conversation that erupted in the Busted Halo® office, is unique. Over the course of the following exchange between Tom Gibbons — a white thirtysomething seminarian studying to be a Paulist priest — and Mirlande Jeanlouis — a young, black Haitian-American — the conversation shifted from topics on many people’s minds, such as Jackson’s status as a role model, race in America and pedophilia allegations, to a much more unusual one on how charges of child molestation and the Church’s sex abuse scandal affect someone studying for the priesthood.
Mirlande Jeanlouis: Our original conversation was sparked over the idea of Michael Jackson being a role model. What did you think of that when you first heard people saying it?
Tom Gibbons: I remember watching the news and finding out he had died. Everyone was gathering at the Apollo Theater and there were a few people there who said he was a role model. At that moment I thought to myself, “I have never in my life thought of Michael Jackson as a role model.”
I was always able to appreciate that he was an amazingly talented person and that he brought a lot to the music community and to pop culture… but when someone said “role model” it was hard for me to forget all the other stuff that went along with Michael Jackson — the pedophilia allegations, Neverland, Bubbles the monkey. What about you?
MJ: When I heard he died I definitely felt a sense of loss, because as far as I am concerned I have never lived in a world where he is not famous, where he is not entertaining people, where he is not speaking out for the poor or for children.
When I heard someone refer to him as a role model I immediately thought of him as a role model in his career. I didn’t think he was a role model in every single aspect of his life. There were definitely things that I thought were suspicious. Neverland, to me, isn’t 100 percent kosher for a 40-year-old man, however it didn’t occur to me that him being a role model would necessarily be a bad thing.
When I was younger and going to Catholic school, we had to memorize “Heal the World” and perform it. [Laughs.] To them it was a big deal that a pop star made a song like that and it was child-friendly. I think there was a positive feeling towards that. It was only later that I found out he was in the Guinness Book of World Recordsfor being the one celebrity who represented the most non-profits.
Mirlande Jeanlouis: Michael’s “Bad” video was a good example of him showing different kinds of black experience. The story before and after revolved around this kid going to a fancy school and then going home to his friends that weren’t going to that school. And they had some issues with him… I definitely felt [when going to Catholic school and then Columbia] like people looked at me different… I felt like Michael put that experience in a music video, and he put the emotion of it in a dance sequence, which I thought was really creative.
TG: I think it is interesting that you said he had done many things for poverty and the poor. Because I think sometimes we forget that in 1985 he did “We are the World.” But you feel that is one of the legacies that he carried on.
MJ: Yes and I thought of something while you were talking; you didn’t grow up how and where I did. Because Michael’s “Bad” video was a good example of him showing different kinds of black experience. The story before and after revolved around this kid going to a fancy school and then going home to his friends that weren’t going to that school. And they had some issues with him. They felt like he wasn’t the same person because he had gotten a certain kind of education. Or they thought he was thinking that he was above them, even if he didn’t feel that way.
TG: Did you have that experience? You went to Columbia for college; you went to Catholic School before that…
MJ: I definitely felt like there was a difference between me and someone who didn’t; they may have felt like I thought that I was above them because my parents were putting way more money into my education than their parents, who sent their kid to public school. It doesn’t mean that their parents didn’t care, but it does set you apart a little bit. You’re wearing a uniform… you look visually different… and I think there were certain people who may not have wanted to be friends with me for that reason. They assumed things about me because of how I looked — not because I was black but because I went to a private school, or a Catholic school even. I don’t have the same friends that I had when I was younger.
But I think that going to Columbia, and that education track of my life, a lot of people didn’t relate to it, so being friends with me didn’t seem like an option they wanted to pursue.
TG: Was that a struggle for you, or did you just say to yourself, “I’ll be friends with other people?”
MJ: It was a struggle for me because when I was younger it was easier to make friends with people in my own neighborhood.
TG: Because those distinctions weren’t there at that point of your life…
MJ: Right. There was no Columbia University. There was no Catholic school uniform. Everybody was going to the same school. But I definitely felt like once those distinctions came in, people looked at me different. I might not have looked at them different, but they looked at me differently.
And even if I did look at them different, it didn’t mean that I didn’t want to be their friend. I felt like Michael put that experience in a music video, and he put the emotion of it in a dance sequence, which I thought was really creative.
I think “Beat It” was a little bit like that, but “Bad” pushed it over the edge. In “Beat It,” he was trying to end a gang fight — because he’d much rather have people be artistic and stuff like that — and I liked that video too because he was showing gang signs where a lot of minority groups know what that’s like… that’s their neighborhood. He had actual gangbangers in the video… he was hiding in his trailer during filming, but he was still doing it.
So I feel like he was depicting experiences that minorities have before anyone else — even before NWA — or other people who were from that area of the American experience were doing it.
Tom Gibbons: In 1992, after the Rodney King verdict was read and as the LA riots raged, the first President George Bush got on TV and asked for public calm… with no acknowledgement that this city is rioting because of a big injustice that had been committed. But after the Gates incident in 2009, the fact that the President of the United States landed on the side of the black citizen and not the white cop was a big deal. You could feel parts of white America saying, “Whoa, we’re not used to this!”
TG: And me watching “Beat It” growing up in the fifth grade, I was thinking, “Oh, what’s going on here?”
MJ: You weren’t thinking that those might be actual gang members…
TG: I didn’t know what gang-members were. [Chuckle.] “Oh, they’re in the city and they’re dancing… just like West Side Story!” Those cultural touchstones were lost on me… which is why I didn’t get right away that there was such affection for Michael Jackson specifically in the black community. I just saw him as someone who put out catchy tunes. I’m not speaking for all of white America obviously, but…
MJ: But you weren’t thinking with the “Bad” video: “This is what some black kid is going through somewhere.”
TG: Exactly. By the time I had gotten more plugged into those kinds of experiences (through doing volunteer work and going to black churches for a number of years) Michael Jackson was already out of my life, I had moved on to other music.
But going back to Michael as a black artist, the one thing that caught my eye (and a lot of people’s eyes) is that he actually started physically becoming white. How did that go over? Because this was beyond just getting work done on his face, but he actually became white.
MJ: He looked whiter than some white people…
TG: I was wondering if he was trying to become a white person, and what are the dynamics involved with that?
MJ: Some black people may have been offended because he had chosen to be as light as he could be. But I think most people in the black community felt as though it was part of the weirdness; it was part of the “mélange of crazy,” so they didn’t take too much offense.
Besides, in the black community there is that group that feels that the lighter you are, the more beautiful you are. There is that group that thinks the straighter your hair, the more beautiful.
TG: So it’s almost like, “If he can do it, then I don’t blame him.”