Patricia Nell Warren

Michael Jackson: Goodnight, Sweet Prince...or Princess

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | June 26, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Media
Tags: Beat It, King of Pop, Michael Jackson, sexual orientation, Thriller, transgender, We Are the World

It was an amazing night, with recession, war, torture and politics put on hold as people all over the world turned out for Michael Jackson. Even conservative CNN news anchor Wolf Blitzer turned to mush before our eyes as he confirmed news of the artist's shocking death and remembered how "we all grew up with Jackson and his music."

Anybody who thought the King of Pop had been dethroned by criminal allegations and financial disaster had to think again. All over the world, young people who weren't even born when MJ unleashed those first dance moves had gathered in the streets to play his music and tell the news crews how they grew up with the late star-- how personally they took his life and death and art.

As one who grew up with Elvis Presley, and came out with Elton John, and grows old with Lady Gaga, I've got Jackson looming big in my own lifeline. Like many of us, I've wondered. Was he gay or transgendered? Some of us have tried to claim him. But Jackson was never one who could be nailed down with an orientation or gender label...or any label, for that matter.

As one of Jackson's business associates said in last night's interviews, "With Michael Jackson, you never knew for sure."

Yet onstage and in music videos, MJ gave us ongoing glimpses of his inner world. He was the shapeshifter -- now this, now that, in the blink of an eye. "Beat It" had him looking quasi-macho and trying to deal with tough guys. But "In the Closet" had him looking just like a young tomboy dyke as he romanced a lipstick lesbian. For that song, I found his choice of title interesting. And I always had the feeling that the teen girlfriend Jackson pursued through so many songs was really that elusive female side of himself that he finally decided to reveal through cosmetic surgeries. Yet establishing himself as a father of three children kept one moon-walking foot firmly in the camp of men.

Michael's music had several messages with a powerful appeal for older children and teens. One -- the battle to figure out who you really are. Two -- the battle with all those adult powers that try to take control of your life and crush you. Three, the battle against violence, to protect the weak and vulnerable among those you love. Those are powerful messages with young people all around the world, and I think they explain a lot about Jackson's enduring appeal with four generations of fans -- even those fans who are now older adults themselves. Burning teenage questions have their own habit of shapeshifting -- coming back in a new incarnation, when adults find they have to struggle to further re-define their old definitions.

Jackson's messages come stunningly clear in "Thriller," that most popular and influential music video of all time. It starts out by spoofing B horror movies, then suddenly veers into a hair-raising exploration of how to deal with terror by transforming yourself into the terror. The teen kid promises to protect the girlfriend from the fiendish undead who corner them. But is he a fiend himself? That moment when the zombies fall into a machine-perfect pop-and-lock chorus number with Jackson is a turning point in the modern history of music and dance. Is he? Isn't he? At the end, as the fiends crawl back into their graves and the teen hero walks her home, he gives us a fiendish grin over his shoulder, and the viewer is in on the secret -- for now, anyway.

In short, Jackson's career one of those cases where impact and image are amped by leaving the definition in the eye of the beholder.

As that career got mired ever deeper in issues around debt, health problems and allegations of sex offenses, the volcanic fire and anger of his earlier performances began to wane. Before our eyes, he changed into a tired old lady...yet he still seemed to have a hold on that gentle kid who sang "We Are the World." A low point in his image timeline was that moment during the 2005 trial in Santa Barbara, when he arrived late in pajama bottoms, looking uncombed and ill.

A few months ago, as Jackson announced his final "This Is It" concert series in London, it seemed hard to believe that he could re-light enough of that old fire, day after day, to get through a contract commitment for 50 appearances. But fans believed him -- and rushed to spend $85 million on a ticket sell-out. Days before his death, Michael was actually rehearsing at Staples Center in L.A.

For the moment, the media world is upside down. Yesterday Google and other major websites crashed with the Jackson search overload. Farrah Fawcett's death and the "Bruno" premiere got pushed into the crawl on the bottom of the TV screen, along with the Gov. Sanford scandal, the Iraq war, the Iran revolution, global warming, and President Obama's ongoing efforts at "change."

In a couple of days, "news" will be back to "normal." Meanwhile, investigation of Jackson's death, along with custody battles over his children and lawsuits over the aborted concert series, will surely drag out the drama for weeks, even months. No doubt Fred Phelps will picket Jackson's funeral and try to convince us that Michael is dancing with the demons in Hell.

Meanwhile, losses suffered by the concert promoters will surely be made up by new music sales. "Thriller" is back at #1 on the iTunes chart, and other Jackson albums have crashed the top 40 as well. The fans are speaking loud and clear.

Good night, sweet prince...or princess...whichever you are...were...are. Or maybe it's good morning, since your music will go on thrilling millions of us for new generations to come.

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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 26, 2009 10:22 PM

I loved his art, but I am concerned at the degree of distraction this business had caused. Americans love to live in their insulated bubble and will give up anything in order to feel secure.

While on lurks the specters of Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and our own domestic economy and human rights issues.

As always thank you Patricia.

I'm a little disappointed how little examination there's been about his "brush" with pedophilia. I can't imagine being one of the kids he allegedly molested and watching the world idolize him like a dead king.

Actually, since yesterday, the media HAVE been boring back into this subject -- especially MSNBC, with their love of law-enforcement programs.

I've been troubled by this question too.
Did Jackson have a fixation on young children, probably owing to his tortured childhood? Absolutely. Was he living in denial about how his fixation was being interpreted by many people? Absolutely. Then there are the allegations that Jackson's money and fame got him off when he was tried.

The problem -- as you find out when you go back over records of the two trials, especially People v. Michael Jackson in 2005 --is that the justice system had its shot at Jackson for 12 years, but they couldn't prove anything conclusive.

A variety of nagging questions came up
regarding some of the parents and witnesses. Even the now-famous description of Jackson's penis did not hold up. In the end, because of lack of conclusive evidence, the 2005 jury found Jackson not guilty on all counts.

It's also significant that later Children's Services made no attempt to take Jackson's own children away from him -- which they would surely have done if they'd felt they could make a solid case that Jackson was an unfit parent.

I'm 46 years old and grew up with Jackson and Fawcett in the background. I remember when Elvis died, The news was all Elvis all the time for weeks.

And even though I was into Heavy Metal when Jackson came out with Thriller, I thought that was a very well thought out music video. MTV really changed the impact of that song. One night several weeks a go me and my girl were sitting around in the evening drinking beer, unwinding, goofing off, and we went to youtube and did a 80's retrospective. I played all the old tunes that were on MTV, when MTV didn't suck crap through a garden hose. MTV made thriller HUGE!!
I liked the end part when he turned around and Ze's eyes went all CRAH-ZAY! Cool.

Michael Jackson did have a anydrogynous quality about him and it made me wonder about my gender questions as I grew up. I wondered if it was just an act to get attention, but I really believe Ze, broke the mold. Ze was really different gender wise.

Jackson missed some important facts though, reality is reality, and the hard drugs will kill ya. Nearly killed me, before I got it in my late teens. Sad really, for all Ze's money and talent, Ze was probably miserable. Money doesn't solve everything and sometimes it is a burden.

A burden I would like to endure.

Ze will be missed.


Today at Rev. Steve's Cyber-Pulpit: "Michael Jackson, Billie Jean and The Bartender with the Cute Butt."

Patricia, this is a nice tribute to MJ. One thing that really bothers me about the Twitter, Facebook, and Google crashes in the past 2 days is that the news of Iran has completely dropped off the radar. People were asking what it would take to get millions of Americans to riot in the streets like they have been doing in Iran. Obviously it takes the death of a pop star to get Americans to go out in the streets. What does that say about us as a nation?

If we can't dance, we don't want to be part of the revolution. (With apologies to Emma Goldman.)

Serena, I've been asking myself this question ever since Americans had the Presidential election stolen from them in Florida. Instead of taking to the streets, Americans said, "Whatever," and we got four years of Bush.

Clearly the Iran protests are done by thousands of Iranians who feel that their backs are to the wall. In spite of the horribly repressive punishments that they know are coming (executions, etc.) they feel that they have nothing to lose by taking that risk.

But as yet Americans evidently don't feel they have any reason to take to the streets. I wonder what it will take to move our country to that point. In my opinion, we have yet to see the full face of the economic nightmare that is developing, as more and more people are laid off and their unemployment runs out. Maybe when enough Americans feel they have nothing to lose, that will motivate some real street-protest action.

I don't get it. MJ was sausage factory corporate pop. Sky Saxon of the seeds, who also died Thursday, influenced every punk band or garage band that aspired beyond covers of Free Bird. Would anybody today imitate Jackson's yelp or his half-assed dance moves except in an act of conscious irony?

MJ was product. If you bought it, one of you is born every minute.

This was all overkill. And some of the same broadcasters who ridiculed Michael Jackson a few years ago are now behaving as though he died for our sins.

Sorry, one who works with children who have been abused I am with Bil on this one. He may have been a genius when it came to music but MJ was no saint and I too feel sorry for any of his victims to have to go through this media blitz of how wonderful the dead are...even if it was his addiction that took his life.

Children are easy to abuse and neglect...they are perfect victims who are unable to protect themselves and who are not developmentally to the point where they are able to "provide the proof" the legal system needs.

People die everyday......let's get back to the living and the important things in the world...enjoy MJ's music if you want...but let's not turn him in to something he wasn't ....

Angela Brightfeather | June 28, 2009 3:40 AM

As to MJ, people are now just discovering his real impact in the entertainment area. He was in his own way, as seminal a breakthrough in music as Led Zeppelin was. One thing is for sure, like LZ we will be hearing his songs in our elevators for many years to come and seeing his image elevated as the ultimate showman to beat on stage.

As to MJ's wanting to have children around him all the time... considering the fact that he never had a childhood himself and might have been trying to experience that missing part of his life is a matter for psychiatrists to ponder. But those children had parents who drove them to Neverland and dropped them of there and I have to wonder their culpability and reason for that also.

As for the war in Iran, the new news of the same old predictable news is that the Iatolla is saying that the CIA sparked the actions in the streets and somehow organized over 3 million people to protest in the streets of Tehran within 24 hours after the election. What a joke. the CIA can't even find Bin Laden in 8 years, but they can organize a 3 million person protest overnight in a country on the other side of the earth. Obviously they overestimate the CIA just a tad. Now let's see if the rest of the world catches on to that little tidbit of deductive reasoning.

I doubt that Mr Jackson was either gay or transgender. He was simply phenomenally immature. That quality, lubricated by enormous money, turned him into an isolative, self indulgent child who walled himself from reality.

His "spiritual advisor," Dr Firpo Carr, publishes frequently in the LA Sentinel and has written vile pieces on all components of the LGBT community, going so far as to refer to Dr Cai McMahon(woman of operative history) as He and Sir and to outrageously declare that Lesbians are a health risk.

I'm sorry, but referring to Michael Jackson as a princess when he never identified as female is offensive.

If a straight author did an article about Brandon Teena entitled "prince or princess?" we would be justifiably outraged. When an LGBT author does an article about Michael Jackson with the same title ... that's somehow ok!?

When it comes to transgender women who pass on, we fight hard to make sure their gender identity is respected.

Let's respect Michael Jackson's gender identity in his death as well.

Jackson's somewhat feminine appearance was debated from his teen years -- and more so as his ongoing cosmetic surgery (and use of lipstick) made him look more and more like a woman. It does raise the question of why he did that, and there's no disrespect in wondering about something that was so visible. See example of this discussion at Newsvine.

So, while Jackson may not have announced a public change of gender identity, something was going on with him. He may have been one of those individuals who was born with an extra female chromosome. He may even have been aware of that fact. We will never know for sure, of course.

As to "prince and princess," it referred to Shakespeare's famous line in "Hamlet" -- "goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels conduct thee to thy rest." In view of this gender debate that followed Jackson all his life, the spin I put on that line seemed appropriate and dignified (a princess is royalty, after all). I'm sorry that anybody took it differently.

Pippa Hudson | April 13, 2010 2:35 PM

That line "Goodnight sweet prince or Princess" still brings a lump to my throat to recall. It's the most perfect, apt, respectful phrase written about and in the wake of Jackson's death.

A. J. Lopp | June 29, 2009 8:18 PM

Tonight (June 29) Brian Williams ended NBC Nightly News with a short treatment about how the African-American community has claimed MJ as one of their stars, but at the same time, for decades they have felt "uneasy" about him --- because of the pedophilia questions, the sexual identity and/or orientation questions ... and the fact that, the more money he had access to, the more he sought to bleach his face white. For all his musical and performance genius, MJ was not a good example for having a "Black is Beautiful" attitude.

Setting aside any judgementalism about MJ's desire for European-light skin, I have a simple, medical question: In recent years, what was the medical process he used to appear so white? Am I right to assume it wasn't just a daily application of white-face make-up?

I find the question fascinating. Regardless of whatever cosmetic surgeon, cosmetician, or skin specialist he might have visited, he still was born with a certain number of genes that normally result in a certain level of melanin production. Did one of his cosmetic sorcerers actually figure out how to turn off melanin genes? Was it some other trick? Or was it all just boxes and boxes full of Cover Girl foundation?

Then, I have a more volatile question: If it is true that even among African-Americans lighter skin tones are socially preferred, and if there is a common method for permanently lightening skin, then why isn't this method in more common usage within the AA population? Why was MJ virtually the only household example of this?

[Forgive me if I am stomping in where angels fear to tippy-toe ... but it won't be the first time I've been known to ask naively rude questions about the elephant in the living room.]

In 1993, on the Oprah Winfrey show, Jackson stated that he had been diagnosed with vitiligo and lupus in 1986. Vitiligo is a chronic disorder that causes spreading depigmentation in your skin. It occurs when the melanocytes (which are the cells producing skin color) start to die, or can't function for some reason, creating a patchy look that is very visible.

The condition can be found in some African Americans, as well as other populations with dark skin, like First Nation people, for instance. When I was a kid in Montana, I had a Cree friend who had vitiligo. It's still little understood by medicine. But it may be caused by a combination of autoimmune, genetic, and environmental factors.

Lupus itself is an autoimmune disease, so that may have been a factor in Jackson's case. Jackson may have sought treatment that would get rid of the patchy look by giving all his skin the same lighter tone. If you search on YouTube, you can find early photos of him with the patchy look.

Despite the constant rumors that Jackson was having his skin bleached to look like a white person, most African Americans know about vitiligo and accept Jackson's diagnosis.

A. J. Lopp | July 2, 2009 2:06 AM

After posting my question, I did find some info about vitiligo. I also read that many of the popular skin-lightening treatments contain hydroquinone, which kills some of the skin's melanocytes, but also is suspected of being a carcinogen.

Despite the constant rumors that Jackson was having his skin bleached to look like a white person, most African Americans know about vitiligo and accept Jackson's diagnosis.

This may be true ... but even Quincy Jones recently rambled in an interview with Charlie Rose (this is my paraphrase), "But Michael surrounded himself with pictures of blonde-haired, blue-eyed, light-skinned boys ... and I just never understood it," and the subtext was clearly that Michael, to some extent or another, went through life wishing he looked that way himself. And hearing that remark from Q led me to the questions that I started with, above.

I'm not sure we'll ever connect all the dots concerning Michael Jackson's interior life. Thanks, Patricia, for your informative reply.