Written Elsewhere: Billie Jean in The New Yorker

In a recent issue of The New Yorker (Dec 24 & 31, 2012) Bill Wyman uses the publication of Randall Sullivan’s biography of Michael Jackson (Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson) as an opportunity to present his own reflections on the pop icon while saying barely anything about the biography.

In essence, that critical move is ok—review essays are not book reports after all—but the review, which focuses more on the cultural milieu of Jackson and his negotiation of ethnicity, cultural change and fame, leaves in the reader little sense of the focus of the book and next to no idea of which notions are drawn from the biography and which have sprouted full-formed from the reviewer’s mind.

Not that we can really blame Wyman. Have you ever met anyone who has nothing to say about Michael Jackson? He was one of the biggest and probably one of the last of the great entertainment titans. In the modern media environment, when everything is so clustered and people’s entertainment choices are so varied, can we imagine anyone standing so far and above the competition?

My first memories of Michael Jackson are connected to the greatest selling record of all time, Thriller. When I was too small to be watching it, I used to OD on MTV at my babysitter’s house (this was before even kindergarten). The iconoclastic and world-changing video “Thriller” was in heavy rotation. I was both scared to death of it and fixated on its possible showings.

That two-sided response to Jackson—awe/delight alternating with consternation—typifies responses to figures like Jackson. Part of the attraction of thinking and writing about his cultural position in the 1980s is that personally and commercially he bounded (as he tried to transcend) issues of race and identity. I am old enough to see significant change in race relations in my country but also young enough to remember growing up without thinking about race at all.

Part of this, of course, was due to the fact that I grew up in a racially homogeneous area. One thing that strikes me when I look back, however, is that I have no memory of anyone or anyone’s parents dismissing or denigrating Michael Jackson because of his race. Indeed, my second memory of the superstar—following hiding from his creep-out eyes at the end of “Thriller”—was riding around the barely-there suburbs of southern Maine as a school-friend and his mother searched for Michael Jackson wallpaper to decorate his room. His room in a centuries-old farmhouse on a dirt road.

(No one had any. The disappointed friend settled on train wallpaper instead. How the passions of youth can be re-directed!)

The point of this anecdote—apart from framing a larger cultural figure within my own personal experience—is to illustrate the extent to which Michael Jackson did succeed in transcending most expected and accepted boundaries of the day. The subsequent arc of his life’s narrative—meteoric rise to bizarre revelations to sustained marginalization and finally a sudden (but not altogether surprising end—is one familiar from other era-defining stars (e.g., Whitney Houston) and one so clearly similar to the so-called heroic pattern or monomyth as to demand questions about the interrelation between the stories we tell, the behaviors we exhibit, the way we frame new events and the powerful gravitational pull of sequences and narrative logic.

But, of course, I digress. The whole reason I am up in arms about this otherwise typical New Yorker article (breezy, long on a falsely-objective narrative perspective with an implicit argument, but short on evidential rigor), is that for once, without having to try, something amiss jumped out at me before I finished the first page.

In discussing “Billie Jean”, which he dubs Jackson’s “greatest song”, Wyman Writes “[i]ts protagonist has been accused of fathering a son with a young woman; his denials (“the kid is not my son”) are undercut both by the facts (“His eyes were like mine”) and by that relentless bassline tiptoeing around the morally compromised speaker” (133).

Alarm bells went off in my brain because this is a song I know well. This is a song I have listened to a thousand times. And never once have I thought that the singer (to separate the persona of the song from the artist who performs it) is even closely admitting guilt with the line “his eyes were like mine”). Yet, because I can often be a sucker for victim narratives, I checked with my wife for detail

Now, the reasons I consider my wife an authority are as follows: (1) she has listened to the song her entire life as well; (2) she grew up in a very diverse area where there were multiple and competing views of Michael Jackson; (3) she has been a life-long fan of hip-hop, pop, an R&B. When I read her the quote from Wyman, her response was: “I don’t know why you still read that magazine”.

(I don’t know if I have ever heard someone dismiss The New Yorker as cultural elitist yet lacking in intellectual heft so concisely. The comment might not seem so loaded—but communication also comes from gesture and tone. To be fair, I do appreciate the magazine’s content and have been a subscriber for a decade.)

But, because I am also a sympathetic reader, I listened to the song and tried to figure Wyman’s assertion out. His claim about the sinister nature of the bassline also seems wrong. I have always felt that the sinister nature had more to do with the dangers of public life, the almost predatory pursuit of the girl in the song, and the heart-wrenching chance that the singer might falter in his resistance.

Billie-Jean-is-not-my-lover-michael-jackson-12956380-1032-1200But let’s go back to the verse. The full lines Wyman quotes from are “she told my baby we’d danced till three, then she looked at me / Then showed a photo my baby cried his eyes were like mine (oh, no!)”. It is possible to read this the way Wyman does, that the singer is reflecting on the fact that the child’s eyes look like his and is therefore revealing implicit guilt; or, taking the same general approach, the singer could be conceding that the eyes are similar to his and thus anticipating more trouble for this (in which case the admission is a case of anxiety about what others will think and in no way a confession of guilt).

Or, we could hear these words the way my wife and I agreed we always have, that the singer is paraphrasing the assertion of the girl in the story—that he is merely reporting his own anxiety at being confronted by a girl who his making such a claim with trumped up evidence. Hence, from a narratological perspective, we could say this is a case of reported character-text (since the speaking event is focalized around the singer’s perspective). How’s that for some jargon?

The bigger point to be made is this type of wide-eyed reporting of a frightening event seems more plausible for the character developed for the singer in the song (whose naivete is established by the fact that everyone has to tell him not to “break young girls’ hearts) and more credible to the figure cut by Jackson later in life, a man Wyman almost cleverly points out may not have fathered his own children much less any with groupies.

So, I have spent a thousand words more than I meant to on this issue. My objection to the article is that (1) it seemed like a rather superficial treatment of a topic many readers younger than the average New Yorker subscriber might have some strong feelings about and (2) the interpretation of a classic song was offered up without support or any real examination. Wyman might not be wrong about the interpretation of the line (and, in turn, the song); but he is certainly presumptuous in assuming it is the only interpretation.

And, to be fair, MJ might have given us a clue to the problems of the situation in the chorus of the song. In the line the singer quotes his mother as saying “And be careful of what you do ’cause the lie becomes the truth”. Partly, this is a mother’s warning about keeping ‘real’; but, as a guidepost for reading a song it is a warning about the categories of truth and lies in any artistic representation and, like the liar’s paradox, a reminder that it is often impossible to tell one from the other. And, like his legacy as Wyman claims, such statements are essentially ambiguous.

What do you think, my brother—have I gone too far this time?

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