I’m Not Like Other Guys…

Michael Jackson has died, like Jill already pointed out. This is a continuation of my thoughts from that discussion about the influence and tragedy of Michael Jackson’s life. Hopefully (and with your help) with all the necessary nuance.

I feel like this is a good day to watch Thriller again, don’t you?

I have been thinking and reading about abuse a LOT lately, because of events that have been happening very close to home. Maybe that’s why I can’t help but read this short, musical film as a narrative about abuse, and the ways that abuse perpetuates itself.

It’s also a parody and homage to horror movies, of course. It came out days before my eighth birthday and was probably one of my own first exposures to horror — to a truly scary scenario beyond children’s stories. My little sister, who was five at the time, was inordinately terrified of the whole thing, especially Vincent Price’s monologue, but I made her listen to it over and over again. I usually told her when the scary part was (mostly) over. But there’s the rub, right?

It’s never over in this video. The terror keeps returning. You think Michael’s the nice boy of his childhood career and of Off the Wall. Then he says “I’m not like other guys” and turns into a monster. Then wait, it’s not real! Everything’s back to normal. He’s teasing, being nice, telling her he’s going to protect her. Then the darkness comes again, in the form of inescapable darkness that “though you fight to stay alive” always creeps in, and he becomes a monster for the second time. Then oh, it’s just a dream! He’s nice! But the last shot of the video lets you know that actually no, he’s still a monster. She’s not crazy; she’s not dreaming. It could happen again.

It wasn’t until ten years later that Jackson started talking about his own physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father, about how it was so bad that he’d get sick and start to vomit at the sight of his father later in life. So many, maybe most survivors of abuse can recognize the pattern of alternating “nice, friendly comforter” and “violent monster” that permeate the Thriller video. I recognize my own father’s terrifying outbursts of rage in it too.

The theme much stronger in that video than in most horror films. Jackson, abused throughout his childhood with fists and belts and taunts and deliberately-inflicted fear, steps into the role of abuser. In the fictional universe of the video, he’s compelled, without real choice. He tries to warn Ola Ray to get away; he tries to flee the undead and becomes possessed. “No mere mortal can resist the evil of the Thriller.” I don’t think I’m just reading all of this in, and I’m sure it’s been written about before. (But I couldn’t find any sources offhand.)

This is our third post about Michael Jackson. Some of you might be wondering why. He’s a pop-star, quite possibly an abuser himself. He’s a guy (or is he?) There’s so much media noise about him that people are forgetting about other issues — Michael Sanford, what’s happening in Iran. I don’t want any of that to be forgotten either, or a myriad of other smaller, lost issues. Today is also the Trans Day of Action here in New York City — please go and read that link!!

That said, I’m moved to write about Michael Jackson at this moment because he meant a lot in my life, and in Jill’s life too, and in many people’s lives. Why did we all watch the Thriller video over and over again? Why did I identify with Michael Jackson’s character?

Even at the age of eight, I had begun to believe that I was a monster too. That there was something horrible inside me that would mean I needed to be shot with a silver bullet or decapitated. My feelings had to do with a lot of things: family dynamics, pressure to perform, to be different, to be good. The fact that I had to move through the world as a mixed-race child. My troubled gender, and the trouble it put me in with my father and others. I think I recognized MJ as someone who was trying to deal with mixed-up feelings about race and gender too, and feelings of monstrousness. Maybe it was just in that one video, which was the title track of the best-selling album of all time, but it’s a crucial point in his story. In a smaller way, in mine too. In many people’s.

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21 comments for “I’m Not Like Other Guys…

  1. June 26, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    This is the single best post I have read thus far about MJ. Thank you, Holly.

  2. June 26, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    i second the first comment. i don’t think you’re reading too much into this at all. These are all valid connections.

    i also agree that there are other big things happening in the world right now, but we can’t deny the utter impact this one man had on all of us. i am inconsolable right now…

  3. June 26, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    It’s incredibly sad to think of that video in that context. So many layers …

  4. June 26, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    You know, Holly, I always had certain… mmmm… unarticulated thoughts when watching “Thriller,” especially as a kid. And looking at this post, I realize you’ve hit on something really important. Thank you. They’re unexpected, all of these feelings that Jackson’s death has brought out into the open, so I kind of feel like I’m paying for all those times I’ve treated him as a punchline. Or maybe not payment. Just another level of experiencing him and his music – a more visceral one.

    It’s never over in this video. The terror keeps returning.

    That’s it exactly. That’s what makes it so powerful.

  5. June 26, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Thank you so much for this post. I was watching Thriller last night, and had a similar revelation.

  6. June 26, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    Great post. Michael was a victim, a victim of monstrous cranks and lies. I believe he died of a broken heart in an abstract way. He gave so much of his soul to folks, and was made fun of, and YES by the very people who CLAIM to his fans right now, dancing and carrying on when just some time ago he was the butt of their jokes. He was different and his TRUE fans appreciated that. What would this would be without “interesting” people? His death is a life lesson. I’ll end there.

  7. June 26, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    damn this is brilliant. thank you holly.

  8. June 26, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    Chiming in on what others have already said: this is the best piece of writing I’ve seen on Michael Jackson in the flurry of the past 24 hours. Thanks for sharing it.

  9. denelian
    June 27, 2009 at 1:57 am

    this post resonates with me.
    the first time my step-dad beat me was because of Michael Jackson – i told him that i was going to marry MJ when i grew up, step dad said something like “but he’s a black man” and i said “who cares? he’s cute” and my step-dad pulled off his belt and spanked me ten times for “getting smart”
    when i ran crying to my mom, she thought i was making up the belt (that he had just spanked me with his hand, which they both did), and spanked me again for lying. and when i told her *why* step dad had spanked me, she slapped me in the mouth for “being dirty”
    which i never understood, because my *mom*, unlike my step dad is not deliberately prejudiced against black people (shs is prejudiced, but she doesn’t think she is. she thinks that she can’t be a bigot because we are Cherokee… i’m still trying to teach her to see reality…)
    so i spent years building a secret collection of MJ stuff – tapes, posters, i had a Thriller “action figure”, everything.
    when the child-molestation cases came out, it didn’t even phase me at first – MJ had always be associated with abuse in my mind, my step dad would do something to me and then i’d go hide in my closet listening to BillieJean over and over. most of the songs from Thriller were actually used by one of my shrinks in some of my therapy years ago (i can’t remember what it’s called, but its a treatment for PTSD where you voluntarily subject yourself to triggers over and over, so that you reassociate them with something that isn’t tramatic)

    i hadn’t thought about any of this in years, i just avoided talking about Michael Jackson because of the weirness – MJ was a tangible good for me as an escape from my step dad, but after step dad died, hearing MJ music sometimes triggered flashbacks. so i went out of my way to not listen to MJ, to not read about MJ, etc. even after i went through the therapy. it was just easier.
    i was very weirded out about him dying, but i didn’t realize why until your post made me think about it. i’ve been sitting here writing in my journal, mapping out everything. i had horrible nightmares last night that were actually full of scenes from Thriller except my step dad was playing MJ in my dream…

    anyway, all this babbling is me saying “Thank you Holly – i’m not sure i would have figured out what my problem was without your post!”
    and, also, thank you MJ – you had a very fucked up life, you (probably) did some really bad things – but you also did a lot of good; i know i am not the only person who was helped by your music, your dance, your energy, and i am sure i am not the only surviver of abuse who took heart and inspiration from your sucess in spite of your abuse. i hope you have a *nice*, easy, non-abusive and not invaded by celebrity-dom life in your next cycle on the Wheel.

  10. Shelby
    June 27, 2009 at 2:26 am

    Thank you so much for this. As an abuse survivor I’m having such a hard time putting together the feelings I have for Michael Jackson. On one hand, I feel like he formed a huge part of my identity as an African American. The Motown stuff was the background to every Christmas or family celebration of my childhood. So even though I’m only 22, I’ve felt and really connected with all of his music for my entire life. And as embarrassed as I am to admit it, I’m definitely grieving right now.
    But then I have this sense of betrayal and sadness toward him (as a member of my community and our collective identity) for continuing the cycles of abuse. And it’s triggering because it mirrors the feelings I have for the people who hurt me: the hatred I have for what they did, but then the recognition of their humanity and the fact that they did genuinely good things too. And I’m not sure I know how to reconcile those two realities. And I definitely relate to the point you made here about feeling like a monster. I think living through abuse affects your humanity in such a way to make you feel monstrous or non-human.
    I watched ‘Moonwalker’ after I read this post and it’s amazing to see how much this man just DID NOT want to be or see himself as a human being. I mean he goes from being a dancing rabbit, to a car, then a giant indestructible robot…
    He’s such a complex figure and I relate to him in a way that kind of scares me. I’ll be thinking about Michael Jackson and this post for awhile…

  11. Ellie
    June 27, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    I need a tissue. This was a really touching article. Michael Jackson’s HIStory album was the first CD I ever owned, and I used to watch Thriller over and over as a little kid, it was my first experience with music as an escape. I think a lot of us identify with him, in our own personal lives, and as feminists in general. Are we not constantly at odds with societal pressure to be something we’re not? Whiter, or prettier, or less outspoken?

    It is nice to know that I’m not the only one who will remember Michael Jackson for the way his music and history influenced my life.

  12. June 27, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    -nods- it’s really too bad; I think his only hope would’ve been somehow -not- being a celebrity anymore. one layer of monstrosity too many.

  13. June 27, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    btw, was rereading the Maureen Orth pieces in Vanity Fair & caught a bit where apparently Joe Jackson used to get the kids out of bed (to practice) at two AM by putting on a werewolf mask and appearing at their window. also told Michael that there were people in the audience who wanted to shoot him and the only way to avoid them was to -keep moving-.

    wonder how he’s feeling now. i mean, he got what he wanted, right? the ultimate stage parent. Father of the King of Pop. yay.

  14. June 27, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    But then I have this sense of betrayal and sadness toward him (as a member of my community and our collective identity) for continuing the cycles of abuse.

    definitely can feel that too. you know, I’d forgotten the name of the kid who’d taken him to trial? wonder how he’s doing, not that I hope they drag him back to the limelight. just…yeah. poor kid.

  15. June 27, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    there’s also something interesting about–werewolf v. zombie. traditionally the werewolf’s about repressed sexuality and rage, usually masculine–i mean, hairy palms ffs. teeth, claws, animal.

    A zombie’s something else. Living dead, innit? When you keeping moving and going through the motions even when all the vitality’s been drained out of you, frozen at the last point of development before you “died.” What else has Jackson been for at least the past few decades or so?

    also, hate to say it, but he actually looks less like a zombie in the zombie makeup here than he did irl toward the end of his life.

  16. haloo
    June 28, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    This was as finely considered a commentary on MJ as we are likely to get for the next 50 years. Kudos, Holly.

    I can’t say I can relate to Mike. I don’t think many of us truly can, though. If we could, we would all be out making wonderfully skewed pop music of our own. that other people would lap up like thirsty dogs in the desert. and then what made us unique would get us hounded and dissected by the masses. on a truly terrifying scale.

    I have no envy for Mike. and I can’t possibly comprehend the waking nightmare his day-to-day had to be. I’m just glad he made my brain spin on some axes I never knew existed.

    maybe, someday, we’ll all learn a lesson from this. and grow. until then, I’m just going to walk around mystified and dazed by this world’s inhumanity to those selected as “others”, like some victim from an atomic age horror movie.

  17. productjunkie
    June 29, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    Hey, I just read this.

    So smart. Spot on. Thank you.

  18. June 29, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    I have had many conflicting and emotionally jarring thoughts watching the non-stop media coverage and listening to MJ music marathons on local radio stations. Your post helps me process a lot of that, and I appreciate it.

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