Having read many articles and some of the academic papers written about Michael Jackson and his art and influence on popular culture, I admit to sometimes being bemused by what I read.  In some cases, others are seeing, hearing and finding meanings quite different from my own understanding of the work being discussed.


Michael’s friend and co-worker on stage and in the studio, Brad Buxer, made a comment at an In the Studio with Michael Jackson seminar which resonated with me and in particular my reactions to some of the analyses I’d read about Michael and his work.

Brad had been personally involved with many songs from the early stages and seen how they evolved into something quite different from what might have first been envisaged.  ‘Morphine’ was cited as an example of this.

Perhaps Michael was keeping his total intent, his complete vision, close to his chest, until the work had reached such a stage as he could see how to have that vision fully realised (take, for example, the period of time it took for ‘Earth Song’ to evolve into the ‘magnum opus’ that it became).

But, in the many instances where Michael himself has not given us more than superficial insight into the work, how do we know if we have analysed it accurately?  And is that possible at all?

I come from a school of thought that suspects in many cases, things are over-analysed to the point where the work being studied takes on a life (or lives) of its own in the minds and articles of those who think they have cracked its code.

This raises the question: can anyone other than the artist know the true meaning of their art?  Furthermore, with performance art in particular, unless the artist works in complete isolation in terms of writing, performing, recording and filming the videos, how can we know how much the ideas, suggestions and experience of others have contributed to the final outcome?

Performance art is usually a collaborative process, with the artist as the instigator and principle component of the work.  At any point in the process though, input from someone in the studio or listening to a demo may prompt the artist to take the work in a completely different direction.

It is inevitable that we judge the work of others from our own place in the universe, from within our own skin, if you like.  How can it be otherwise?  True detachment from the self is impossible – impartiality is a myth we’ve been sold by those who would have us accept their viewpoint as the RIGHT or ONLY one worth considering.

Denying the impossibility of true detachment from our subject is, I believe, akin to denying our individuality.  We might start out by agreeing with someone on several matters, and then come across something where our opinions deviate markedly.  Suddenly we realise that we are not of one mind on all matters after all.  The truth is, nobody is.

So, if you don’t agree with someone’s analysis of one of Michael’s songs or short films or anything else about him (or anybody) do not despair.  You probably have plenty of company.

I often wonder what Michael would think about the way we analyse and dissect his art?  Surely he would be appreciative of it being discussed seriously in academic circles, so long as it was being done with an open mind and, yes, even love.  The intentions of most academics I have come to know who have published work on Michael Jackson are fans as well as teachers, lecturers and authors.  A lot of their motivation comes from a desire to have Michael’s art and his life receive their due recognition as important and influential components of modern popular culture.

As for dissecting and analysing the work… when I find myself in disagreement with something that has been written, I remind myself that the sum of the art is greater than its various parts – and without the artist, it wouldn’t exist.

Kerry Hennigan
January 2017