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Civil Rights Moonwalk: Michael Jackson, Armond White, and Democracy

Civil Rights Moonwalk: Michael Jackson, Armond White, and Democracy

by Micah Towery on December 3, 2010

We’ve all justified seeing a particular movie or following a TV show by saying “It’s terrible, but it’s just entertainment/pop/etc.”–I know I have. There’s that niggling feeling that we should not have enjoyed that film/show as much as we did. But this justification is an easy-out, something that is surprisingly accepted among even the most erudite and critically astute circles. Indeed, it seems acceptable even in modern critical discourse about film. For Armond White, this is an indefensible critical blasphemy. And as difficult as the line is to hold (and exhausting, to be honest), I find I must agree with him.

I’ll get into that in a few paragraphs, but first I want to look at White’s incredible self-published collection of essays on Michael Jackson–Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles–which I hope to will serve as the foundation for a general exploration of White’s idea of criticism and argument for why I think White is an important critic.

While reading through Keep Moving, readers can watch White evolve as a critic. The essays themselves are various pieces that White wrote concerning Michael Jackson from the mid-80s onward. While the insights about Jackson are impressive, what is more interesting to me (for the moment) is how these essays give context and depth to what is too often dismissed as a troll-like, curmudgeonly attitude by critics of the critic. White explains his own evolution:

In reviewing my Jackson pieces [for the book]…I was forced to recall my own relationship to Jackson. It had changed from my customary critical skepticism to sincere awe. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Thriller when it first appeared in 1982; it didn’t fit in with my rockist criteria for album art. But Thriller won the world for its superlatively crafted program of single tracks; it was an album in music culture’s original sense–a collation–while I was infatuated with the cohesive impudence of Prince’s 1999….I was not prepared for the subtle revolution of Thriller.

To read White discuss what makes Michael Jackson significant is an honest pleasure. Moreover, it’s fascinating to watch White navigate the racial and social issues of the day (and today) in his criticism. Armond White’s ability to cut through the bullshit and say something lasting and worthwhile is on display. Take, for example, White’s meditation on Jackson’s line “if…you’re thinking about being my baby / It don’t matter if you’re black or white”:

That phrase, coming from anyone else…would be highly offensive. But the sentiment has to be taken more seriously coming from Jackson, who literally has inscribed that belief in his flesh.

Michael’s physical transformation isn’t a game of truth or dare like the costumes put on and cast off by Madonna or David Bowie. Consider that the one identity Madonna and Bowie never flirted with is as a racial Other. But their “probity” is more shrewd than judicious; they know the identity from which expressive freedom customarily is withheld. Silence is their ultimate taboo. But silence unleashes the part of Jackson that always was suppressed in song. He dances free of the personal, social, racial constraints that are inseparable from Jackson’s Black and human experience in ways that empowered whites may never understand.

It’s important that Black folks understand Jackson’s physical appearance isn’t anything so superficially pathetic as wanting to be white. His greatest desire–which he sang passionately about in “Man in the Mirror”–is to “lift yourself” above the common, petty fetters and divisions that affect most people’s lives.

White’s ability to connect the dots between Jackson’s music and his publicly private life is part of what makes him a great critic (and, perhaps, problematizes our cultural distinctions between “public” and “private”). White is always attempting to outline the shape of the person in his criticism. I believe this is why the auteur film critic Andrew Sarris is so important to White, because he must always be able to trace a piece of art back to its human element. And this ability to find the human is what convinces me that White’s criticism is fundamentally a humanist criticism. It’s what lends weight to White’s ability to “speak truth to power.” I find that so many who are concerned with “speaking truth to power” are really just concerned with their own power and semiotics. But this focus on the human person allows White to cut right to the heart of cultural issues without getting lost or tossed around in the media firestorms that accompany cultural events.

Because of that, White’s primary concern in this book is understanding Michael Jackson through his art. This focus yields amazing insights. See White’s commentary on the perennial (or at least what was perennial) controversy over Jackson’s skin color:

Most artists submit to [the Black performer’s understood contract with the white-controlled world of show business] to some degree. Jackson’s only gone the Jewish entertainer’s nose-job ritual–known as the “Hollywood circumcision”–several organs better.

Almost a hundred years after minstrel shows, Jackson has engineered the ultimate critique/reversal of the blackface tradition. His plastic surgery answers the exploitation and humiliation that have always loomed ambiguously before Black performers who were ready to give the marketplace the hairstyle it demanded….

His new face is just a manifestation of the compromises he’s forced into as a private and public person, as a naive young man in an industry of predatory cunning, as a powerful Black cultural presence skeptically admitted into a largely white hierarchy….

Michael Jackson has become the social and ethnic anomaly he was raised to be….Jackson has fashioned himself into what the Western world has ordained: an androgynous, uniracial creature of presumably limitless appeal.

While the media has focused on how strange Jackson had made himself (and let’s admit it–most of us gawked along with them), White’s insight shifts the burden of guilt where it rightfully belongs: our desire, channeled through the media, to be at once fascinated and disgusted.

There’s much more to say about White’s book on Jackson. In many ways, it’s a beautiful book, and it almost brought me to the verge of tears at points. While reading, I was filled with regret about what Jackson went through as an artist; how I was (and still am) implicated in that. It made me wish that I could go back and appreciate the man more while he was still alive.

But now I want to speak more broadly about White as a critic (I plan on coming back to the Jackson book later). I mentioned White’s humanism. I really do believe that White’s is one of the great practitioners of a critical humanism. You may totally disagree with his analyses of films (which, at points, can be admittedly bizarre); you can find his tone and j’accused sloppiness frustrating, but that a true humanism at the basis of his criticism, I believe, is above reproach. At times, White may fail to live up to his own humanist standard, but who doesn’t? That’s not a glib dismissal of White’s failures as a critic. It’s only to say that White’s failures to live up to a standard don’t negate that standard.

One thing that confirms White’s humanism, in my mind, is his deep and abiding belief in democracy. That White believes in democracy might seem counter intuitive, given some of the statements he’s made about bloggers (which we generally believe to be the ultimate democratic medium):

The Internetters who stepped in to fill print publications’ void seize a technological opportunity and then confuse it with “democratization”—almost fascistically turning discourse into babble. They don’t necessarily bother to learn or think—that’s the privilege of graffito-critique. Their proud non-professionalism presumes that other moviegoers want to—or need to—match opinions with other amateurs….The journalistic buzzword for this water-cooler discourse is “conversation” (as when The Times saluted Ebert’s return to newspaper writing as “a chance to pick up on an interrupted conversation”). But today’s criticism isn’t real conversation; on the Internet it’s too solipsistic and autodidactic to be called a heart-to-heart. (Viral criticism isn’t real; it’s mostly half-baked, overlong term-paper essays by fans who like to think they think.)

And in print, “conversation” is regrettably one-sided. Power-sided. This is where the elitist tendency sours everything. The social fragmentation that fed the 1980s indie movement, decentralizing film production away from Los Angeles, had its correlative in film journalism. Critics everywhere flailed about for a center, for authority, for knowledge; they championed all sorts of unworked-out, poorly made films (The Blair Witch Project, Gummo, Dogville, Southland Tales) proposing an indie-is-better/indie-is-new aesthetic. The sophomoric urge to oppose Hollywood fell into the clutches of Hollywood (i.e., Sundance). Similarly, the decentralized practice of criticism now scoffs at former New York Times potentate Bosley Crowther, while crowning a network of bizarro authorities—pompous critics who replace Crowther’s classical-humanist canon with a hipster/avant-garde pack mentality (from The Village Voice to Time Out New York to IndieWire).

This quote might seem to confirm that White is just a poor, confused man: he attacks centers of power, while at the same time favoring a “canon”? I don’t believe White is confused, however. Let me explain by way of G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton explained what he felt the basic principles of democracy to be–and I think you’d be hard pressed to find any better explanation:

This is the first principle of democracy:  that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately.  And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common….It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on.  For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well.  It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose.  These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.  I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses.  I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them.  In short, the democratic faith is this:  that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves–the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state.  This is democracy….

This definition is so useful because it brings into relief the belief opposite to democracy: that the things that humans hold in common should be ruled by those “who know better.” According to White’s jeremiads, you have an unfortunate convergence of power-interests and a supposedly democratic groundswell of bloggers. Hence the reason why White likes to quote Molly Haskell so much: “The internet is democracy’s revenge on democracy.” White is not a know-nothing populist. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a democrat.

White, like Chesterton, believes genuinely that people should deal with their own business, not be forced to submit or be coerced by the will of corporate interests (every bit of White’s criticism that I’ve read confirms this). But that doesn’t mean that anything goes either, that the “mob” knows best. For White, the critic is there to help the masses. But he does so not as a gatekeeper of “artistic greatness.” The critic may be the defender of a canon but does so as an advocate.

And this is the problem with the “it’s just a movie” defense. When we allow movies (or any art for that matter) to fall into that cheap dichotomy, we actually subject ourselves to the gatekeepers of “greatness.” We cut off our critical legs and have to wait until the right people say it’s OK to take something seriously (note how White is excoriated for taking a film like Norbit seriously). Who else but the elites will determine whether a piece of art is to be considered “actual art” or “just pop”? Pop must be treated with utmost seriousness because otherwise we leave ourselves at the mercy of the same gatekeepers we thought we just escaped. I ask you: who decided we must take Lady Gaga more seriously than Brittany Spears? Beats me, but somewhere along the line it was obviously decided, though both are selling records just fine. Of course, White says it best (and more pithily):

To discuss movies as if they were irrelevant to individual experience—just bread-and-circus rabble-rousers—breeds indifference. And that’s only one of the two worst tendencies of contemporary criticism. The other is elitism.

White believes desperately in the role of the critic as a guard against both an anti-human indifference and the elitism that capitalizes (literally) on indifference to enslave us.

This brings me full-circle to White’s book about Jackson and White’s deep-seated critical humanism. If Chesterton is right, then the democratic ideal comes from a fundamentally humanist impulse, one that should guarantee the dignity (and equality) of individual persons. Now, compare Chesterton’s explanation of democracy to White’s final denunciation of the power structures that are incapable (or unwilling) to recognize the actual greatness of Jackson:

When the current President of the United States grudgingly admitted to “have all his stuff on my iPod,” it seemed either disrespectful or just further submission to the will of the media elite. What POTUS didn’t say was that even a relative “ditty” like the imperishable “P.Y.T.” was more than “stuff.” Listen to the way Jackson took R&B’s romantic entreaty and sang it as more than booty-begging or nut-busting but as the epitome of goodness. It is the kind of manifold richness that many people underestimate in Black pop (even when made apparent by a white postmodern brainiac like Green Gartside who deconstructed Jackson’s aesthetic into Scritti Politti). MJ’s “Wooooo’s” and “repeat after me” were sensual and rhetorical confirmations of personal and communal loving. He solicited call-and-response from the world–and got it. “P.Y.T.” makes the joy of life and art into one–it’s just an added blessing that you can also dance to it. If that doesn’t justify our democracy, then trade MJ’s Civil Rights moonwalk for a goosestep.

“Civil Rights moonwalk” (aside from being a brilliant turn of phrase) is the perfect example of how deadly serious White is about pop art. Pop isn’t “just pop.” The very principles of democracy can be at stake in a song. And while MJ is certainly an “elite” in a sense, White spends most of his book on Jackson explaining how the real core of Jackson’s songs are, in fact, personal expressions of the democratic ideals (see, especially, the essays “The Gloved One Is Not A Chump” and “Screaming To Be Heard, Book I”).

What is most important to White, however, what confirms MJ’s greatness is the fact that, despite all the media “kicking dirt in [MJ’s] eye,” despite Jackson’s confused and troubled response to the perverse demands of fame (which the media creates then capitalizes on later), despite the attempts of cultural gatekeepers to keep Jackson relegated within preordained modes of entertainment, Jackson’s art cannot be “reduced to pop,” because it speaks on a deep, visceral level. The level on which Jackson was operating is demonstrated by the outpouring of grief for Jackson by the “victorious plebiscite” (which AOL explained was a “seminal moment in internet history. We’ve never seen anything like it in scope or depth.”), whose “resistance to media fiat” White says “is proof of democratic goodwill in action.”

~~~

While I hope this post stands independently as a commentary on White and his book, it’s also a bit of a continuation of some of my thoughts on the relationship between art and democracy, which I hope to continue with later in order to answer some of the excellent questions that were asked in my original post.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel Silliman December 4, 2010 at 3:57 pm

I’m suspicious of the move whereby “the media” is made to be some entity that the public or people and also the specific critic are not a part of. It seems like a bit of sleight of hand that allows us a ficitonal independance.

Who is the media? And isn’t White a part of it? And isn’t it, whatever it is, something we’re caught up in? I don’t see how I can criticize it as an outside force, or as something that other people do.

Anonymous December 5, 2010 at 1:40 am

i’m not sure we’re always-already part of the media in the same way we’re part of other things. perhaps in some ways, but i think it’s a little easier to draw a line between an individual and the media than, say, the individual and the economy.

i do get the impression that white could articulate a pretty clear vision of who he thinks “the media” consists of…it’d be a good question to ask him though: “who, in your mind, are you criticizing when you speak about ‘the media’?”

Daniel Silliman December 5, 2010 at 6:56 am

And it’d be good to ask, how is it that you (Arnold White), as a critic, are not also a part of that beast called “the media.” Since you clearly are also a part of it, doesn’t that mean, you know, that the media doesn’t all think/say the same thing about MJ et al?

My objection isn’t quite as periphreal as it might seem, and I’m not *just* making it because I think the always-already move is important …. if, as White suggests and you agree, pop is important and should be taken seriously, then why it isn’t taken seriously is an important question. “Because the media made us take it unseriously” seems to me to be a bad answer and a bit of a dodge.

Go back to the Spears/Gaga comparison (which was a really great comparison!): was it really the media that made us take the one the one way and the other the other? How did it do that?

I came to the importance pop/trash/pulp through Zizek, and also David Foster Wallace’s non-fiction and Chuck Klosterman (who is his own level of pop/trash/pulp) and here’s my thesis:

Because this stuff is so important, and says important stuff about who we are, it’s emotionally too revealing, and because it’s important and because it’s revealing, we (in different levels of we) cover it up with “it’s just pop” and “it’s not serious.”

Daniel Silliman December 5, 2010 at 6:58 am

Armond White, *Armond* White. Ar-gh. That was a stupid mistake.

Anonymous December 5, 2010 at 5:03 pm

well, it’s not so much about the media having all the same opinion. i think they could enact a whole range of emotions, but the terms on which an issue is primarily discussed are revealing. so the media primarily looks at the jackson question as “what’s going on with him?” they may hint at different feelings about it, ranging from sympathy to derision, but my general experience has been that they ignore, more or less, their own role in the issue.

but you bring up an important point. i probably should be more careful before i let a blanket term do so much heavy lifting for me.

i think your answer about why we don’t take pop seriously (that it reveals something about us that makes us uncomfortable) is good, and i would certainly say that’s part of the spectrum of the answer. i do think that there are some things that are marketed to us to make money, that we know on some level we should not patronize, but do anyway because we have accepted the dichotomy of art/pop. i don’t know if it’s that the “media made us do it,” but the media certainly reinforces that idea terms of the debate that allow us to make such a decision. for white, i know he sees critical voices in the media as a necessary force to help guard against those things in our democracy. at current though, someone like white is always “outed” as a curmudgeon, and thus relegated to the realm of “fun-spoiler.” so once again we fall into the serious art/fun pop dichotomy. armond white is a curmudgeon because he wants to spoil our fun pop.

which kind of comes full circle back to the question of “aren’t we a part of the media?” are we responsible for this dichotomy and does the media only give us what we want? this is where i think we should make distinctions about individuals and media. white is a part of the media. you and i are also. but we’re only allowed to do so in certain roles. which is OK–i guess it’s a package deal. i suppose there will always be elites in the media. i don’t know–i have to stew on this a bit more. but i’m glad you brought up this question…

one thought about gaga/spears. now that i think more about it, i think a hegelian model might be more appropriate: thesis: spears; antithesis: some indie band; synthesis: gaga. that is, lady gaga is attempting to blur those lines between pop and art. where i personally think gaga goes wrong is that rather than overcoming that (wrong) distinction, she swallows the whole thing up, cynical assumptions and all.

more thoughts later perhaps.

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