Michael & Me (scapegoat yr idols)

Note: This is an old post from my old, now-defunct blog, written shortly after Michael Jackson died. Rerunning it in his honor and memory on this, the second anniversary of his death.


The day after Michael Jackson died I found myself waiting for hours and hours in the Secaucus NJ train station. There were mishaps going into the Catskills to see my grandparents. Amongst the time-killing activities of buying corn nuts, searching for soy milk and searching for Wifi, I read a piece in New York magazine about the Chew-Holdens; some hippie family in Prospect Heights who bought a brownstone and grows gardens and shops at the co-op and all sleep in the same bed. “Co-sleeping”, it’s called? I’d heard about parents and babies “co-sleeping” together, and I’ve obviously heard of various different family members sharing beds because of space and/or financial constrictions. I’d never heard of a park Slope co-op family choosing to push a twin against a king size mattress to make one enormous bed for the parents and two (six and ten year old) girls to “co-sleep” in together because it’s, like, wholesome and qualite´*. “If [husband] and I ever need privacy,” the mother explained “there are plenty of other places in the house.”

To be blunt (and probably bigoted) I have a lot of problems with this idea of “co-sleeping” with children that old, at least when it’s Park Slope hippies deciding to do it. It sounds like a nightmare of horrible boundaries and lack of privacy to me, for everyone involved. Are the parents freaks who want to make sure their kids don’t masturbate or something? Seriously. Do they really like having their kids in bed with them every night? Despite the fact that there are like one million rooms in the brownstone that could easily be different bedrooms? Why? Is their sex life that uncompelling?

I don’t think the Chew-Holdens are going to be tarred and feathered, and I don’t think they should be. I don’t think they should be investigated for possible child abuse based on their choice of sleeping arrangement, however much it grosses me out. But one big happy “family bed” when there are so many other options so readily available does raise a red flag, automatically. The possibility of sexual abuse does flash in my mind.

Over the weekend I watched a lot of coverage on Michael Jackson’s death, on both the news and music networks.

My sister and partner and I talked about how important Michael was and is, at least to anyone who cares about music, pop culture, or racial politics. His role in popular music can not be overstated. He was at the absolute top of his field in so many areas— a great, great singer, dancer, writer, music video visionary…we couldn’t think of anyone who was that amazing in that many different fields. Watching the video network specials really reminded me of how fucking good so much of his work was. I remembered how I felt when I was five and got Thriller. How much I loved–with my heartLOVED –that music, how I stared at the photo of him in the gatefold with the tiger cub and fell in love, how beautiful he was. How the hooks dug in and wouldn’t let go. How Billie Jean used to always give me chills. My 80s trinity was Michael, Cyndi, Madonna, but Michael was the first. First vinyl I ever owned. I remember when my dad brought it home for me and my older sister, and my mom put contact paper on a big piece of cardboard for us to “breakdance” on while we listened to it.

I stopped following Michael Jackson news after awhile. I didn’t buy any of his music post-Bad, though I enjoyed a lot of his videos and singles. I loved the “Scream” video. When it came out in the mid-90s I knew someday it would look dated, but couldn’t imagine it, it seemed so NEW. I have to admit, I still kind of like Michael and Janets’ wardrobes. Shiny vinyl pants with those black shirts with the…ridges? All over? I still kinda think that’s a hot look.

I was an alternateen then, so Michael was no longer a staple. I avoided most media coverage in those later years, which all seemed to come from the “what a freak” angle. I didn’t want to read that. I didn’t want to hear lurid speculation or offensive jokes or revel in diagnosing the man. I didn’t care that he dangled his baby out the window. Yeah, bad move, but why the obsessing? Based on the infamous Living with Michael Jackson interviews that I saw for the first time on MSNBC this weekend, it seems like he was in a bad way in those days. It was very sad. He seemed in ill health, and was not handling whatever Valley of the Dolls uppers/downers combination he was on very well; though for all I know, he wasn’t on any drugs and was having some other kind of issue that was making him act doped up then manic and twitchy and shaking. It’s possible, the fuck do I know other than that he really did not seem okay, and it made me really sad to see.

The thing that makes me saddest about Michel Jackson’s death is, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, that he never seemed to find any peace, he never seemed to have healed.

I saw Deepak Chopra on Larry King, talking about his friendship with Michael. He said that once upon a time Michael called him up, wanting to learn how to meditate. Deepak went to Neverland one weekend and they became friends. Eventually, Micahael asked him for a prescription for Oxycontin (if you’re like me and didn’t know, that’s Dr. Deepak Md to you,) which Chopra refused. He didn’t give much detail, but said Michael was abusing prescription pills, which he got through crappy Hollywood doctors who get their kicks (and ka$h) enabling celebrities with drug problems. He rightly pointed out that more people are dangerously addicted to prescription drugs than illegal drugs (and yet—no drug war on the pharmaceutical companies!)

Anyway. Deepak Chopra also said his kids spent time with Jackson, had traveled with him, and that he felt completely comfortable leaving his kids with Jackson unsupervised.

I’m told that one of the big scandalous revelations in this interview was that MJ admitted to having sleepovers with kids, including sometimes sleeping in the same bed with them. He didn’t apologize for it, and lashed out at those who found such behavior problematic, for turning something loving and innocent into horror.

Now. People talk about juggling your appreciation for Jackson’s music with your reservations about his personal life. I don’t give a fuck how “weird” he is. When I was young and watched the Muppets, I most identified with Gonzo–the “weirdo”. I think I identified a bit with the MJ under tabloid attack–why are we supposed to condemn him, exactly, even if he did sleep in an oxygen chamber and try to buy the elephant man’s bones? Fuck, if I were Michael Jackson I’d probably want the Elephant Man’s bones too, if they’re not buried, if they’re being gawked at in some exhibit somewhere. The plastic surgery makes me sad, makes me angry at white supremacy, but it doesn’t make me hate him–who the fuck am I, as some white girl, to hate on or ridicule him for that?

The only thing that really makes me uncomfortable being a fan is the possibility that he molested kids. That’s fucking horrible. I’m not going to defend the behavior of a fucking child molester.

Some people seem to accept that Michael Jackson was a child molester. Why?

I can empathize with the visceral horror one feels when it seems like sexual abuse of any kind is being swept under the rug, that victims are slandered while perpetrators walk away. I understand if someone can’t deal with Michael Jackson because of the abuse allegations. But most mentions of it seem to lump it together with his plastic surgery, just another freaky scandal, another handful of mud to throw.

My basic, political, position is that I believe people when they say they have been abused. If a kid says they were molested, they were molested. But. Shit happens. There are situations where parents decide a kid was molested for purposes of getting money, and/or some other whacked-out reason. Maybe Michael Jackson was a child molester, but at least as plausible to me is that some greedy or disgruntled parents decided to call Michael Jackson a child molester. I didn’t follow either molestation scandal much, I found them upsetting. Based on my limited knowledge of both cases, after reading up a little now to try to better understand, I don’t really have any reason to believe that he’s guilty, and tell me if you’re more educated than I am and feel differently.

The sleepover admission was apparently near-tantamount to an admission of criminal guilt in the public imagination. I don’t think Michael’s sleepovers make him any more guilty of child abuse than the co-sleeping habits of the Chew-Holdens do. I see both as potentially problematic, but neither as necessarily sexual. Yet “he got away with it” is an accepted sentiment in many circles.

Why is Michael Jackson a pervert and the Chew-Holdens qualite? Well, the Chew-Holdens are wholesome white liberals in park slope. Amongst their peers, they are probably admired or jealously scorned out of insecurity, hated with the kind of misplaced anxious energy that often manifests in peer-pressured CSA memberships where the vegetables never get eaten and the parents feel resentful of their produce burden. If fellow liberals took issue with the co-sleeping, it’d likely be out of a fear of their own inferior, less dedicated parenting.

Michael Jackson wasn’t a qualite white liberal, he was a Black man whose presentation stirred race and gender panic. His ambiguity triggered anger, bigotry, hatred. The way he talked, moved, transformed physically, pushed buttons and freaked people out, especially, if the post-death fallout is any indication, white men who felt threatened. He couldn’t be easily boxed into race/gender/sexuality categories except for the all-encompassing “freak”, within which all is possible except recognition of humanity.

The racism in the “he got away with it!” vitriol is hard to deny. There’s a special place in pop cultural hell for black men accused of harming whites. An obvious point of comparison to Michael’s not guilty verdict is OJ Simpson’s–white America is still not over that miscarriage of justice despite the many many more wrongful convictions and acquittals that have piled up (and could be organized around) since. If we want to stick with The Fame, before the recent turn-about Phil Spector had a long time as a legally not-guilty man after murdering his wife. I don’t recall the same critical mass of (white) outrage.

There’s another reason the Chew-Holdens are role models and Michael’s sick. My partner said, “Well, I guess if it’s an adult that’s not in the family, people find it more suspect”. But WHY? A child is far more likely to be sexually abused by someone in their family than by Michael freakin’ Jackson. Isn’t that the unfortunate, less politician-friendly reality of child sexual abuse? Kids are usually abused by those closest to them, and often the abusers are respectable members of the community. Scandals involving such are meant to reaffirm the status quo misconception of sexual abuse—OMG, this respectable businessman raped his daughter! That’s a story because it’s seen as an exception. Our culture displaces this epidemic, which cuts across demographic lines and effects a horrifying number of people, onto pervs and trash and freaks. MJ was a freak par excellence.

The sleepovers are the smoking gun? It’s Michael Jackson, for god’s sake, who everyone knows had a traumatizing non-childhood and thus was obsessed with an idealized version of the state, with saving the children from what he needed saving from. He wanted physical affection rather than abuse, he wanted to feel loved and cared for, so he recreated this such relationships in his adult life. Many of us work through these dynamics in our romantic relationships, he didn’t seem to have that option. It’s unusual and eccentric, and, beyond that, it absolutely raises red flags. But: I can conceive of such strangeness without molestation. His sleepovers don’t make him guilty. And there’s something wrong with a media that congratulates the Chew-Holdens for being closeknit, loving, and GREEN, while blasting MJ as a sick freak. Especially as the Chew-Holdens all sleep together every night, not as some special occasional fun thing. The thought of sleeping in the same bed with my parents every night at age ten causes me to hyperventilate with privacy deprivation, instant panic attack!

Jackson is a scapegoat that allows us to ignore and misrepresent the reality of sexual abuse. It usually doesn’t involve satanic rituals or complicated “games” involving whole pre-schools of kids and adult accomplices, or fanciful sleepovers with the king of pop. The reality of most child sexual abuse is much more banal and quiet and private and devastating. I haven’t seen the MJ scandals raise public interest is stopping child abuse, developing resources for victims, figuring out how to viably treat perpetrators, changing our culture to build respect for children and listen to them…no, as is so tragically often the case in instances where child sexual abuse becomes part of a media spectacle, actually helping abused kids and preventing future abuse has nothing to do with the story. That story would be hegemony-threatening rather than reifying. It wouldn’t be a good old times Coney Island freakshow.

The fact that Michael was one of the artistic geniuses of my lifetime and one of the most commercially successful, and still got treated so disrespectfully saddens me greatly. The fact that anyone is complaining about all the coverage his death is getting angers me. Ok, yeah, I’m disgusted that the news networks were all MJ all the time all weekend, even as no new information came in, even as there was a whole rest of the world where things were happening that should be news, but this kind of news media spectacle isn’t new or unique. I’m a bit less offended by the constant coverage of the sudden-seeming and untimely death of one of the biggest public figures of our time than I am when it’s “breaking update: young white lady still missing”. He certainly earned the non-stop coverage on music or entertainment-oriented channels, and should have been a top story elsewhere as well. I don’t remember much outrage when the media obsessively re-chronicled all the details of Princess Diana’s death. She wasn’t even our Princess, whereas Michael was certainly our King.

Let’s remember why:

*Qualite (adj.)
Of or pertaining to wholesome goodness with marked bourgeois connotations, inherently alienating to me, often w/ marked liberal connotations.

e.g.: Terra Blues, off-white, activists who are always happy, yoga pants, anything that could be described as tastefully messy, The Park Slope Food Co-Op, anyone in good standing at the Park Slope Food Co-Op, Angelica Kitchen, NOW, being anti-makeup, being anti-porn [i just realized this would make an incredible category in $25,000 pyramid!], muted colors, obsessive cleanliness, no worse yet – people who just smell like shampoo ALL THE TIME, people who academically/anthropologically “take an interest in” social movements though have no interest in taking part in them, etc. (from here.)

In Loving Memory of Poly Styrene

Poly (far right) performing with The X-Ray Spex

The X-Ray Spex not only expanded punk rock’s palette sonically, but stylistically and demographically. They presented a cogent, creative anti-Capitalist critique that was miles ahead of the adolescent anger of many of their peers, to say nothing of the intelligent radicalism of their race and gender politics. And they were fun. Poly was plenty pissed off, but she sure knew how to have a good time singing about what was fucked up in her world. The X-Ray Spex personified what I, as a highschooler, thought of as Real Punk Rock when such a phrase actually meant something to me. They were daring, rebellious, and spat in the face of convention, including punk rock convention. Poly was an ideal punk front person–bold and unique and passionate, with truth after truth she insisted on telling through The Spex’s series of indelible singles. She dressed as oddly as she pleased, as any good punk should, and her excellent style pushed the boundaries of punk’s commentary-through-fashion. Her plastic dresses and braces were a revelation. She virtually remade punk rock into the big umbrella of intelligent misfits its true believers like pretend it can be. According to my memory of what Poly’s said, The Spex ultimately disbanded because their post-Germ Free Adolescents sound refused to stagnate. They got musically weirder, and more experimental, and a chunk of their base turned on the band, heckling and pelting them at shows. I can’t for the life of me find the interview where she says this right now, and I don’t want to perpetuate a convenient myth of a narrative, but it’s sadly unsurprising if Poly and the Spex, ultimately were too challenging to the emerging genre they helped define.

I haven’t even talked about her voice. Poly’s vocals were both immense and relateably human. She could employ a ‘luded out sing-song, then turn on a dime and let loose an earthquaking bellow that shook you deliciously to your core. Large swaths of Bikini Kill-era Kathleen Hanna’s extremely effective vocal qualities and techniques are directly reminiscent of Poly’s pioneering style, a comparison Hanna herself acknowledges as legitimate. When I was in high school, I was able to take for granted that women could not only scream into a mic in front of loud guitars (and sax!), but fuck with their delivery in all sorts of interesting and exciting ways. Poly had an amazing voice, but the way she utilized it was revolutionary. Most of the riot grrrl and other feminist-ish punk/influenced singers I listened to in high school owed much to Poly’s brave and experimental approach (as they do to kindred spirit and rabble rouser Ari Up, who also recently died tragically young of cancer.)

This is probably my favorite X-Ray Spex song:

Today, all the songs on Germ Free Adolescents, the band’s classic 1978 album, feel both timely and timeless. The band still manages to sound ahead of the curve of what passes for punk music today, and the lyrics…well, the lyrics, despite being very much of their moment, hold up impeccably. “1977 and we are going mad/1977 and we’ve seen too many ads/1977 and we’re gonna show them all/Ah-pah-thy’s a draaaaaag!” Poly thrillingly railed on the chorus of “Plastic Bag”, and you could just as easily substitute 2011 to make the song work, if you had a singer with even half as much talent, charisma, and conviction. On the ironically subdued chorus, in between the narrator’s moments of white hot clarity, she muses “My mind is like a plastic bag/that corresponds to all those ads/it sucks up all the rubbish that is fed into my ears/I ate Kleenex for breakfast/and used soft, hygenic Weetabix to dry my tears” and “My mind is like a switchboard/with crossed and tangled lines/contented with confusion/that is plugged into my head/ I don’t know what’s going on/It’s the operator’s job, not mine”

This resonates with me as much today as it did in the ’90s, when I wore out my CD copy of the blessedly, finally reissued album. The reissue had a different song order than the original, supposedly, and I’d often program my CD player to the original pressing’s sequence (I felt the album worked better with “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” as a thrilling bonus track coda rather than up front, and generally enjoyed being a bit obsessive in my fandom of a band this awesome). The Sex Pistols were fun, at least when they weren’t whining about some lady having an abortion, but The X-Ray Spex were a real blast. They were not only entertaining as hell, but convinced me that older punk must have a lot to offer (the first time I heard the Pistols I was pretty underwhelmed–this angsty pop was what caused all that fuss?) leading me to some highlights of the golden age (loosely defined)–The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Slits, the stuff I still listen to today.

Poly Styrene
Why was there a painting of this iconic photo hanging in the Facebook office in The Social Network?

Sadly, Germ Free would be the Spex’s last album until (most of them) reunited in the ’90s for the disappointing (to me) Conscious Consumer. Poly released a difficult to find solo album called Translucence in 1980, and a couple other unrock-y works over the decades, but generally slipped off the musical radar. She found solace with a Hare Krishna temple for some time, until they, like the punk rock, proved too screwed up and stifling. According to an interview published just last month, she left over reports of pedophilia in the community, as well as her fatigue over pressure to get married. “I did get engaged once, but couldn’t go through with it. Some of them were misogynistic, too crazy,” she said. This interview was part of Poly’s tragically truncated promotion of her recently released solo album, Generation Indigo. I want to post this asap, so I’m not going to wait til I can include a proper reaction to the record, but you better believe it’s in my iTunes and I’ll be listening carefully.

This blog post could go on for days. Memories and anecdotes have been flooding my brain since I heard the terrible news earlier this week. The Spex remain one of my all time favorite bands to this day, and Germ Free Adolescents one of my absolute favorite albums. Poly Styrene is the #1 reason why. I’m so grateful for what she’s given me, and hope those of you who haven’t had the good fortune of listening will do so, now.

Poly Styrene 1957-2011

RIP Ari Up

Where to begin. It’s been a few days and I’m still sad, still a bit shocked, still listening to The Slits a lot, but the latter is nothing new. I always listen to The Slits a lot because they continue to be a reliable source for joy and inspiration. And they’re always just a lot of fun.

Ari Up

I’m sorry I didn’t see Ari Up live more, I took her constant stream of New York shows for granted. I did see a reincarnation of The Slits open for Sonic Youth’s live presentation of Daydream Nation a few years ago. I was delighted by Ari’s undying punk spirit, spitting in the eye of confused, misogynist hipster who were horrified to see a woman in her 40s unapologetically jumping around the stage in a flippy little skirt while singing odes to shoplifting. Ari Up exuded boundless love for her audience and herself, at the same time as flipping off all the bullshit surrounding us and within us.

A friend recently asked why I single out Vampire Weekend for criticism for cultural appropriation when the entire history of pop music is of the same. It would be an injustice to the question if I tried to fold a real response into this post, but a short answer is: compare Vampire Weekend and The Slits. The difference (besides one being boring and the other revolutionary) is a matter of sincerity and respect. With the encouragement and mentorship of Don Letts, the Slits began incorporating reggae into their punk rock, creating a mind blowing new sound with all kinds of interesting and complicated implications. While one could critique The Slits and Ari Up on grounds of cultural appropriation, their orientation towards the music that influenced them was more one of sincere engagement and exchange than opportunism, gimmicks, and entitlement.

You can hear the difference in the music. The music still moves me so much. The funny thing is, when I first started listening to The Slits as a high school Riot Grrrl, I liked their earlier, dirtier, straight-forward Punk Rawk more than the reggae stuff. At that point I really connected to loud messy guitars and cared less about rhythm than the energy with which one hit the drums. I loved the first half of In The Beginning and tended to skip the second. Everything reasonable I read about punk history was like “Cut, Cut, Omg Cut is the classic of classics” but when I first heard it, it was like the premiere performance of Rites of Spring. My brain just couldn’t make sense of it–how was this punk rock? That delightful puzzle is what has kept me listening for more than a decade, new gifts unearthed each time I hear these songs.

Apart from the Slits contribution to The Punk Rock, where would pop music be without them? The lineage runs directly into so many vital artists–Bjork, M.I.A., Madonna…

Almost everything I love about Ari Up can be heard on The Slits cover of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, a song that by all means should be a gimmicky train wreck. Instead it’s transcendent.

“New Town” is one of my favorite songs on Cut. Budgie (better known for Siouxie and the Banshees) is drumming here, and while he was only briefly a Slit, I wanna give him his due because I fucking love his work on this:

“New Town” is a great example of Ari Up’s imaginative and emotionally resonant lyrics.

Since we’re on it, here’s another of my favorite Slits songs, “Shoplifting”. This is a beloved Peel Sessions version, more up my high school alley. Ari was just a young teenager herself:

Here’s the song as performed by a recent incarnation of the group less than a year ago:

“Ten quid for the lot? We pay fuck all!”

A good in-depth look at The Slits can be found in Zoe Street Howe’s Typical Girls? The Story of The Slits.