Monstrous Flatness and the Man in the Mirror:
The Public Text of Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson has had access, for the past four decades, to a much broader audience than most artists and entertainers of our period enjoy. The questions that his presence in our cultural lexicon have raised have allowed for large scale conversations of a type that do not generally occur in our discourses about pop stars. For the most part, however, discussions of the content of his work in music and video, as well as serious speculation about the implications of his peculiar, intricately calibrated persona, have been relegated to fan page chatter and sensationalist TV exposes. The content of Jackson’s work warrants serious analysis—the performer has consistently dealt with pop subject matter in nuanced, challenging ways, especially in regard to his responses to the media itself. In this, Jackson’s persona is inseparable from his work, as he has come to embody a type of celebrity that refuses to make distinctions between art and life.
As one of the most tele-visual humans of all time, Jackson is an authority on the status of the American human in the relatively young culture of the hyper-real and the simulated. The trajectory of Jackson’s childhood development was directly related to the desires of culture, and his eventual physical, artistic, and commercial deterioration can be understood as the rubble of damage inflicted by a lifetime spent as the object of a collective gaze of unprecedented scale. The ways that Jackson chooses to deal with that gaze, and his meditations on his own life as a native of the hyper-real, are clarified and enriched when understood through semiotic analysis.
Jackson’s highly stylized performance of gender in many of his music videos, as well as his performance of “raced” and “de-raced” personae, resemble drag performance—his renditions of the media’s sanctioned types are slickly calculated and, being almost absurd in their artificiality, they signal the emptiness of the postures themselves. He dons and sheds these caricatures with ease and, at times, with impertinence.
Through close analysis of Jackson’s videos, I intend to explore the relevance of his visions of technology, identity, and celebrity to the discourses surrounding contemporary media studies. A careful accounting of the construction of his persona and our culture’s responses to it will allow me to reevaluate his relationship to racial and gendered identities and attempt to situate him within the existing history of popular representation.
Cara Smulevitz received her BA in art history from the University of Illinois at Chicago. In the coming years, she will be pursuing a doctoral degree in media studies, as well as engaging in as much aimless speculation as humanly possible.
Thesis Advisor: Kymberly Pinder, Associate Professor, Director, MAAH Program; Art History, Theory, and Criticism
Thesis Reader: Maud Lavin, Associate Professor, Visual and Critical Studies; Art History, Theory, and Criticism
Margaret Olin, Professor, Chair; Art History, Theory, and Criticism