The theme of the femme fatale is a prominent one in Michael’s work; something that has led to accusations of his being misogynistic. This is a somewhat myopic perspective, as well as one easily discredited. Fundamentally – after all – the very idea of the femme fatale is one that acknowledges the power that women can wield.
During the 1984 Grammy’s – when Michael won an unprecedented eight awards – upon his acceptance of one of the gongs, there is a moment when Quincy Jones whispers in Michael’s ear. Instantly, Michael turns back to the microphone and gives a shout-out to “the girls in the balcony”. Later on in the ceremony – when Michael once again returns to the podium to collect another prize – Michael jokes about having made a deal with himself to remove his aviators if he went on to break the record for the number of Grammy’s won in a single night. In what seems to be an afterthought, after taking off his glasses, Michael also dedicates the gesture to “the girls at the back.”
Michael’s companions that night were Brooke Shields and Emmanuel Lewis. Candid backstage footage of the event that was recently made public shows Michael, Brooke and Emmanuel in an elevator. Whilst the three are hidden from public view, Brooke is essentially ignored at the expense of Emmanuel. Though as soon as the elevator doors open, Michael once again takes Brooke’s arm.
Michael’s behaviour in the footage is certainly susceptible to close-minded and cynical judgement. However, it is important to bear in mind that at this juncture in Michael’s life, it seems he purposely curtailed the gratification of his libido in an effort to concentrate on his primary focus – his galvanised career. Also – and by no means less significantly – Michael’s apparent disinterest in sex at this point was perhaps a consequence of his uniquely peculiar upbringing: one that had left him hesitant with regards to such matters. What with the mystifying messages that had bombarded his maturing psyche: the bewilderment of being torn between a profound loyalty to his venerated stay-at-home mother and her deeply religious views, and the negative contrast of a dedication to a life on the road in which witnessing behaviour of sexual immorality was par-for-course. Michael’s repulsion at the disrespect for his mother and in the treatment of groupies at the hands of his father, lends further support for his love of women in its own right.
Besides, Brooke and Michael remained close, regardless. In words disclosed by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Michael rues the day that Brooke attempted to get amorous with him, but he was too nervous to indulge:
“I sincerely liked Brooke, I liked her a lot. She was one of the loves of my life… I was at the Academy Awards with Diana Ross and she just came up to me and said: ‘Hi, I’m Brooke Shields. Are you going to the after party?’ I said: ‘Yeah’ and I just melted. So we get to the party and she says: ‘Would you dance with me?’ And we went on the dance floor. And man, we exchanged numbers and I was up all night, spinning around in my room, just happy. She was classy. We had one encounter when she got real intimate and I chickened out. And I shouldn’t have”
Michael’s friendship with Brooke survived longer than his relationship with Emmanuel did; with her being regularly seen accompanying Michael in the ensuing years. Similarly, once Michael’s marriage with Lisa Marie Presley was over, they remained on good terms – with Lisa Marie frequently flying out to see Michael all over the world whilst he was on the road with the HIStory tour.
Michael’s adoration of his own mother is well documented, but in the foreword he contributed to a recipe book, he reveals an appreciation for the magical nature of motherhood in general:
“Remember when you were little and your mother made a pie for you? When she cut a slice and put it on your plate, she was giving you a bit of herself, in the form of her love. She made you feel safe and wanted. She made your hunger go away, and when you were full and satisfied, everything seemed all right… You may think that your apple pie has only sugar and spice in it. A child is wiser… with the first bite, he knows that this special dish is the essence of your love.”
Michael intentionally chose a female guitarist to tour with him, with Jennifer Batten remaining a tour stalwart of his for a decade. There are a gamut of nuances in Michael’s on-stage relationship with Jennifer that, due to their subtleties, perhaps offer a more genuine level of evidence for Michael’s intrinsic respect for women than can be found anywhere else. In the ‘Dirty Diana’ performance during one of the Wembley Bad tour shows, guest guitarist Steve Stevens – the guitarist on the record – is given “time to shine” (to use Michael’s expression when he is emboldening This Is It guitarist, Orianthi – incidentally, another guitarist specifically chosen with the intent of subverting gender stereotypes and making a statement in support of women). Yet, Michael is still seen at pains to ensure that the crowd recognise Jennifer’s contribution as well as the guest performer’s.
Jennifer herself gets her own “time to shine” during the sonically incongruous guitar solo she is gifted with for ‘Working Day And Night’. The incongruity throws extra spotlight on Michael’s unorthodox decision to employ the services of a woman in the role.
This mutual fondness between Michael and Jennifer can also be seen in footage of the ‘Beat It’ solo during the Copenhagen HIStory tour show. At its denouement, Michael seems slightly out of sorts, and as Jennifer exits stage-left and Michael gives her an affirmative pat of gratitude, Jennifer responds by providing Michael with a reassuring nudge. A nightly-repeated dance move of Michael’s during the ‘Beat It’ solo was a crouched toe-stand, the successful conclusion for which – in order to maintain his centre of balance – meant having to hold Jennifer’s leg for support.
In songs inspired by Jackson family dynamics, such as ‘Superfly Sister’ and ‘Monkey Business’, Michael laments some of the actions of certain members of his family. In the words to the latter track, Michael bemoans the loose morals of the male members of his family, singing,
“Your brother’s gone and kissed/ The mother-in-law / I might tell dad about what I saw / Your brother didn’t make a nickel or dime.”
Michael’s propensity for generalising a theme in order to appeal to a larger audience – such as in ‘Leave Me Alone’ – was second to none. But in ‘Monkey Business’ the glove is well and truly off, with the intended recipients of the message being perfectly clear. And although Michael switches between third and first person perspectives, in an effort to afford him the liberty of ambiguity – and therefore seeming less direct in his accusations – the subject matter of taking his family’s indiscretions to task remain a courageous choice of his. The lyric “I might tell dad about what I saw” is instantly endearing in its childlikeness, and reveals a great deal about this facet of Michael’s personality.
Though the song ‘Superfly Sister’ is in itself a direct rebuttal of sexist attitudes – a judgement on the superficial rating of women by men, with its repeated refrain reminding us that, “Push it in, stick it out / That ain’t what it’s all about” – in said track, Michael does not hold back in discriminating from highlighting his disappointment with some of the lifestyle choices of his siblings, regardless of their gender. As he sings,
“Susie like to agitate / Get the boy and make him wait / Mother’s preaching Abraham / Brothers they don’t give a damn.”
Michael’s love for his sisters was, nevertheless, very evident. He produced music with all three of his sisters, even giving the Bad album outtake ‘Fly Away’ to his eldest sister, Rebbie, for her 1998 album Yours Faithfully, as well as writing the track ‘Centipede’ for her.
In the 1983 Unauthorised interview undertaken with LaToya, the effortless repartee between Michael and his sibling is there for all to see. In an interview a decade later, Oprah Winfrey asks Michael if he has read LaToya’s ‘tell-all’ autobiography – to which he responds that he hasn’t, because he doesn’t need to as he understands LaToya’s true heart. It was this rational attitude that enabled Michael to forgive the misguided comments made by LaToya during the media frenzy of 1993. Michael understood that the essence of his sister was one of vulnerability, and that she had become a coerced and powerless victim of egregious abuse. This trait of vulnerability being a familial one – that would eventually contribute to Michael’s ultimate demise.
Janet’s steadfast backing of Michael throughout his tribulations is legendary. Not only did she team up with Michael to duet with him on his post-allegations comeback single, ‘Scream’, but also – with total disregard for the contemporaneous status of her career being at its zenith – chose to join Michael on stage to receive the song’s 1995 MTV Video Music Award for ‘Best Dance Video’. Furthermore, not being content with the constraints of the effusive praise she could vocally shower upon Michael as part of her stolid advocating of him, she brazenly wore a t-shirt bearing the words ‘PERVERT 2’ emblazoned across its back. You smear Michael, you smear Janet – was the very direct message.
One of Michael’s later femme fatale works was ‘Blood On The Dance Floor’. The imagery of “She stuck seven inches in” and “Since you seduced her / How does it feel / To know that woman / Is out to kill” was interpreted by some commentators as a sexist reference to promiscuous women and their role in the spread of HIV/AIDS – an idea immediately rebuffed by Michael. It would be disingenuous of me – considering my stance on the criminal ubiquity of the discrediting of the nuances in Michael’s art – to dismiss this interpretation outright. But one need only look to ‘Smooth Criminal’ or ‘Little Susie’ for evidence of Michael’s penchant for a dark lyrical narrative. Though both of those examples are comprised of tales depicting Michael’s concern for their female protagonists.
This concern is also apparent in Michael’s songs that feature prostitutes as their central characters. Michael empathises with the plight of the ‘streetwalker’, and makes an effort to expose the reasons for their finding themselves in such desperate circumstances. The narratives of ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ and ‘Hollywood Tonight’ both involve girls having to resort to prostitution in order to survive.
The Dangerous campaign became an all-out attack to convince anyone sceptical about Michael’s heterosexuality. The ‘Give In To Me’ and ‘Who Is It’ videos are loaded with sexual connotations, and the ‘Remember The Time’ video – to great chatter at the time – featured Michael’s first on-screen kiss (with David Bowie’s wife, the pulchritudinous Nubian model Iman, in her role as a Pharaohess, becoming the much-envied recipient). However, such subtleties were flagrantly dismissed with for the ‘In The Closet’ video, in which Michael’s interactions with Naomi Campbell are intimate, to say the least (particularly in pictures taken during rehearsals, where Michael’s enthusiasm for incorporating the suggested stimulation of Naomi’s – let’s say groin – into a proposed dance move, completely belie the myth of a shyness with women in his more mature years).
Candid footage of Michael in his forties portray Michael as very much the heterosexual man. During film shot in the back of cars that are swarmed with baying fans, Michael is seen excitedly commenting on the attractiveness of some of the girls, who he liked to call “Fish”. In other footage, when Michael was given free reign of a supermarket – granted upon his request to experience something resembling normality – in-between riding around the aisles on the trolleys, Michael picks up a magazine adorned with the image of his friend Elizabeth Taylor, before turning to hold the picture towards the camera, smiling coyly and saying, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!”
These latterday examples suggest the truth of Michael’s sexual orientation, due to their possessing an irrefutable sincerity about them. But there are also many quotes taken during the Jackson 5 years, in which all the brothers’ hot-blooded-male credentials are apparently cemented. One such supposed citation from Michael being,
“…I have this weakness – I love looking at girls!’”
However, it would be further disingenuous of me to promote such quotes as being the verbatim thoughts of a teenage Michael. In the same way Michael and his brothers were coached with regards portraying a benign stance on issues such as black rights for the sake of commercial potentiation, so they also were in context of their views on their female fanbase. Nonetheless, the idea of the dubious credibility of such quotes is fascinating in itself. The practice of public perspectives on Michael’s sexuality being enforced by pedantic and paranoid profiteers, solely concerned with the palatability of his image, was a system heavy with repercussions for the person that would become the adult Michael.
This entrenched understanding that Michael had of public relations became the reason he was so careful – and so clever – when it came to camouflaging the political messages contained in his later work. Michael understood it was merely a matter time before people unveiled the messages in his art. To have managed this tight-rope so expertly with such faith in the long-game, was a manifestation of startling genius.
Perhaps counterintuitively, to find the ultimate proof of Michael’s attitude towards women, one need look no further than his face. It was a face that he had initially wanted to be seen adorned with lace for the cover of the Bad album – a desire overruled by his record company, who took it to the other extreme, insisting on a relatively macho image of Michael instead. Far from being misogynistic, Michael elevated femininity to the extent that he was completely comfortable in androgenising himself – he voluntarily absorbed the feminine into his appearance.
Michael viewed himself as a visionary: a sincere and plausible surmising borne as a consequence of his having been a uniquely positioned observer in the spiritual evolution of humanity. For a third-of-a-century, his career had entailed entertaining hundreds of millions of souls brought together as a result of love. There exists an intriguing correlation between Michael’s unshackling himself of the craving for commercial success in favour of philanthropic achievements, and his acquiescence in allowing himself opportunities to succeed in romantic love. Though Michael effortlessly stirred millions of women into maniacal frenzies, this phenomenon of his fainting fanhood became by no means an exclusively female occurrence. As Michael said,
“But I am finding today, and it is so true, that guys today are really changing and I have watched it happen through my career. Guys scream with the same kind of adulation that girls do in a lot of countries. They are not ashamed.”
Michael had witnessed the change in behaviour of male fans over the decades he had been performing. He witnessed in real-time the increasing confidence of people celebrating the emancipated self. Michael had intuited society’s increasing intolerance of paternalistic orthodoxy. Archaic attitudes that he so sublimely subverted himself in his total reimagining of the stereotypical family unit.
This was Michael’s power.