Using a white and red batting glove caked in dirt, I concealed the poison ivy on my right hand. That weekend, I had helped weed and clean up the back yard, only to be rewarded with twenty dollars and an annoying, irritating rash. With the wellbeing of my fellow campers in mind, I decided to wear the glove so that I could still interact with my friends and not miss any activities my second week of camp. The previous week, I had just caught up with my buddies, and I looked forward to my first summer in the oldest boys’ group. Just as every other thirteen-year-old would think, I was the man. Being one of the oldest guys in the entire camp—besides the counselors, of course—in my mind, I essentially ran the place. Before it even began, I knew that this was going to be an amazing summer.
When Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, it did not strike me as all that significant. The fact that I had to look up this date on the Internet shows this particular day does not stick out in my mind when I think of the “King of Pop.” Celebrities die every year. Some die tragically young. Others make it into their nineties and even a few years after that. I cannot remember where I was when I heard he had died. All that does stay with me is my incidental tribute to this iconic figure, and my struggle to accept both his art and his seemingly destructive lifestyle.
The way I saw it, I was simply wearing a tattered old batting glove I used in the Junior Majors. My team was called Bruce Park Sports—named after the sporting goods store in Greenwich, CT—and our team colors were red and white. I was by no means a good baseball player. I was fast. I could run balls down in the outfield, and I could steal bases with great ease. I could not, however, hit a ball to save my life, but who needs to hit when you can bunt? Yes, I was that kid. Still, I took great pride in my team, and I wore my batting gloves knowing exactly what I was representing and who I was playing for. At least I thought I knew.
It turns out, the week before I got poison ivy, Michael Jackson died. As I walked around camp the following Monday, sporting the flashy glove on my right hand, the counselors immediately saw the connection between MJ and me. I received praise from my head counselor Jim—a huge fan—and he gave me his best “hee hee” and crotch grab. As amusing as this was, I could not help but think about the person I was “honoring.” I felt conflicted. For the rest of the day, the reactions I received were mixed. I witnessed a lot of moonwalking and high pitched squealing of course, but I also saw a few looks of confusion and concern on the faces of a few campers and even counselors. Depending on their reaction, I would either fess up and tell them I was covering up my poison ivy or I would pretend I was mourning over the death of a great performer.
Part of the reason I felt the need to lie, besides my middle-child attention-seeking, was because I was not sure what his death really meant to me. In some ways, I felt guilty for not even noticing the connection in the first place. I had glossed over his death as if it were nothing. It felt like nothing to me at the time, but seeing for myself how strongly people felt toward him—both good and bad—led me to think more about who Michael Jackson really was.
The Michael Jackson I pictured was different from the person most people envisioned. I did not see the cute smiling face singing in the Jackson 5. I did not see the teen heartthrob tearing up the dance floor. My version of Michael Jackson is the one portrayed in Scary Movie 3 where he pops out from underneath a blanket and looks like a middle-aged white woman. In the movie, enormous implications of child molestation surround this image. As I watched this film for the first time, his depiction was both comical and downright horrifying to me. It also became increasingly more difficult for me to separate my love for his talent and my hatred for the person he had become.
In September 2009, I went to go see Michael Jackson: This is It with my best friend Scott. As the calm and level-headed friend in our dynamic duo, I always checked Scott when he was being rowdy and ridiculous. Our fourth grade teacher, Ms. Nadler, sat me next to him because I “make him a more well-behaved student”. Although, for every ounce of goodness I brought out of him, Scott returned the favor by bringing out the mischief in me. He was one of the only reasons I ever got in trouble in elementary school. I am thankful, however, that Scott introduced me to Michael Jackson. We used to play Mario Kart on the GameCube and listen to every MJ album ever produced. We tried for hours at a time, attempting to master his famous lean—with very little success. We admired him. I heard his voice, and I could sense the power behind his delivery. I pictured a strong and confident man, willing to take on the world and everything it might throw at him.
I soon learned the tragedy behind that voice. Michael had changed over the years from that confident young man to a plastic-looking, insecure mess. Julian Vigo mentions in her article about the body of Michael Jackson and the meaning behind its transformation:
Michael Jackson’s body defied definition: he was sexless as he interpreted the roles of both man and women; his sexuality was represented as either nonexistent or hyperactive, between the media sensationalism of his not possessing a sexuality whatsoever to his preying upon children…(Julian).
Why was this one transformation so particularly unsettling to me? James Baldwin, in his article “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” illustrates the concept of the freak as defined by American society and how it affects us, describing how Michael Jackson fulfills this role. According to Baldwin, Jackson fails to adhere to America’s standards of normality, making his difference—his new skin color, plastic surgery, and bizarre behavior—a threat to the structure of society (page #). In this way, Jackson went from a common household icon to an almost Voldemort-like creature. “He who shall not be named” became the object of ridicule and shame.
Scott—of course—pressed me to watch Michael Jackson’s new documentary with him “for old time’s sake.” I, of course, could not say no. I watched it with an open mind, remembering the many hours of enjoyment I received listening to his music. I tried my best to keep those good memories in mind and appreciate this great tribute, yet as soon as I saw his face, I almost felt sick. His appearance alone had a physical and nauseating effect on me. Where his face should have been, I saw something eerily resembling a mask. Even though he looked relatively normal, Jackson still maintained a creepy, alien-like quality. Roger K. Moore describes this as “the ‘uncanny valley’ effect whereby a near human-looking artifact can trigger feelings of eeriness and repulsion. Although such phenomena are reasonably well documented, there is no quantitative explanation for the findings and no mathematical model that is capable of predicting such behavior” (page #). Even science is incapable of explaining why exactly this man had such a troubling effect on me. His sexual ambiguity and abnormality troubled me even further.
He was increasingly harder and harder to look at as the movie went on. The only times I felt at ease were during his performances. Even up until the very end, Michael Jackson could still perform. His voice sounded exactly the same, and he could still dance like he owned the world. At those times, I saw a completely different person. The flashing lights and explosions obviously helped disguise his terrifying face, but I noticed a difference between the Michael I saw on stage and the Michael I saw in the news. As I watched him perform, I thought to myself that there is no way this man could be the perverse and messed up criminal the media has made him out to be. Then when the film cut to a close-up of his face in his dressing room, I had questioned my own sanity. I struggled with my love of his music, knowing he might be a terrible and deranged individual.
In my attempt to find meaning in my batting glove, I thought a lot about what defines a person. Should we look at his or her contribution to the world separately from the kind of person he or she is? Should art be viewed as separate from the person who created it? This was an idea I returned to later in high school my senior year, when I was asked to consider whether or not Woody Allen should be recognized and praised for his life’s achievements. In my Intro to Film class—chosen specifically because of its enjoyable material and light workload—I had to grapple with the fact that Woody Allen may have sexually abused his adopted daughter. In order to formulate my argument, I read both the allegations by Dylan Farrow and Allen’s defense against those accusations. Based on what I read, I believed both of them. In order to help the class make up its mind, as our teacher could see we were all struggling to take a side, Mr. McKenna showed us a watercolor painting of a river flowing underneath a bridge. He asked us our opinion of the painting. He then asked us if our opinion of the painting changed, knowing that Adolf Hitler had painted the piece. I tried in that class to judge Hitler’s piece as a distinct and individual entity free from his monumental war crimes. Letting go of my hatred for him, I eventually found myself analyzing his painting by studying his brushstrokes and his color composition. The emotional effect of the painting—not the artist—left me feeling surprisingly serene.
Now, the leap from Adolf Hitler to Michael Jackson is—to say the least—extraordinary. By no means can one honestly compare a crazed dictator and an eccentric pop singer. Still, the connection I make is rather telling about the way society and the opinions of others shape the way I understand overly scrutinized people and their actions. Looking back to the young, attention-seeking teenager I was when I wore the glove, I almost felt pressured to dislike both Michael Jackson and his music based on the reactions of certain adults. I will still never ignore the vicious rumors or his horrid transformation, but I will proudly blast “Bad” in the car and strut around as if I were still rocking my red and white batting glove.
Baldwin, James. “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” in Collected Essays (The Library of America, 1998)
Moore, Roger K. “A Bayesian Explanation of the ‘Uncanny Valley’ Effect and Related Psychological Phenomena.” Scientific Reports 2 (2012): n. pag. PubMed. Web.
Vigo, Julian. “Metaphor of hybridity: the body of Michael Jackson.” Journal of Pan African Studies 3.7 (2010): 29+. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.)
Moore, Roger K. “A Bayesian Explanation of the ‘Uncanny Valley’ Effect and Related Psychological Phenomena.” Scientific Reports 2 (2012): n. pag.PubMed. Web.