Saying The Unsayable, Part 3: Gender
Just as Michael Jackson’s racial appearance has gradually morphed from black to white, the visible signs of his gender have become more ambiguous. In the late 1970s, he had a mop of short, curly hair and got about in a tuxedo. By 1990 his hair was ponytail-length and he was wearing obvious makeup, pseudo-military outfits and mirrored aviator sunglasses, like a kind of camp Gaddafi. By the end of his life, even this kind of performativity seemed beyond Jackson. He just looked like a woman.
My use of the word ‘camp’ is deliberate. Ambiguous, arch gender performance was par for the course in Western ’80s pop. Boy George, Adam Ant, and assorted hair-metal bands and New Romantics were continuing the androgynous, disco-and-David Bowie tradition of the ’70s.
Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video reveals some sense of this irony. Wearing a letterman sweater in the video’s film-within-a-film, he informs his date, “I have something I want to tell ya … I’m not like other guys,” before transforming into two different ‘selves’ – a werewolf and a zombie – that the video clearly considers ‘monstrous’.
Yet, his songs are strangely un-ironic, narrating a masculinity that’s mainly signified by criminality. This sits uneasily with Jackson’s stagey androgyny – in the ‘Bad’ video, gang leader Wesley Snipes appears bemused by a gyrating Jackson dripping in silver-buckled vinyl, shrieking how “bad” he is. Jackson’s gender, like the sound in-between, has been lost in translation; it makes an unconvincing spectacle as well as disobeying social rules for interpreting gender. But Jackson’s non-verbal vocalisations can help make sense of gender in his music.
It’s interesting here to compare different understandings of Jackson in the Soviet Union, where in 1988 he was chosen to promote Pepsi. “Russians like men who look like men and women who look like women,” said Pepsi’s US translator at the time. “When you add their distaste for [Western] rock music to the fact that they can’t tell if Michael Jackson is male or female, they find him absolutely horrifying.”
Soviet teenagers, however, loved him. Of course, to a generation just awakening to glasnost and perestroika, Jackson’s ambiguity probably represented the general glamour and exoticism of Western pop music. But the point I want to make is that Jackson’s gender performance may have made more sense to them because they didn’t understand the words.
It might be difficult to imagine Jackson’s high-pitched screams as articulations of masculinity. But Simon Frith notes that masculinity in pop music depends on the qualities with which we endow particular vocal pitches: “The high [male] voice is heard as the young voice, and rock is a youth form”. Further, Frith argues that the high-pitched male voice in Western pop isn’t effeminate; it’s “the sound of seduction, of intimacy, of the private man … [W]e now take it for granted that a male voice will move up a pitch to register more intense feeling, that the more strained the note, the more sincere the singer.”
This might explain the sublime yowls of soft-metal singers including Axl Rose, David Lee Roth and Steve Tyler, or the keening of indie popsters such as Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. But Michael Jackson’s shrieks are not expressions of masculine intimacy. Indeed, they seem calculated to distance the listener: their loudness rudely disrupts any illusions of privacy or sincerity.
Earlier, I quoted the reviewer Frank Kogan on the hardness and iciness of Jackson’s voice. Kogan elaborates: “Michael’s not throwing his voice into these songs; he’s deliberately spare”. Jackson interrupts each phrase with snarls or hiccups that clamp down on meaning, unlike the tonal semantics employed by soul singers, which open meaning up. So, despite his aggressive lyrics, Jackson doesn’t draw his masculinity from action, but from dispassionate, unrelenting observation. To use his own preferred criminological metaphors, he’s a stalker, not an attacker.
This masculine severity is most evident in ‘Smooth Criminal’, which finds poetry and almost pleasure in a violent attack on a woman. Jackson’s vocal tones are harsh; his voice seems strained – or more precisely, restrained, as if deliberately limiting his expressive capabilities. The repetitive, chant-like melody of the verse spans only four notes. Jackson begins each line with expulsions of breath, and pauses in the middle of phrases, seemingly for no other reason than rhythmic effect.
Despite the song’s refrain, “Annie are you okay?”, there’s no hint that Jackson is an active participant in the scenario he narrates. Nor, despite the fact that Annie is obviously not okay, does Jackson imply that he deplores her bloody end. The non-verbal vocalisations act as a distancing tool, establishing that Jackson’s impassive control over the narrative is a trope of masculinity.
The breakdown section of the video is especially fascinating because it shows the non-verbal vocalisations escaping the lip-synched song and spilling over into the world of the video. One of Jackson’s screams breaks the ceiling of the club (a glass-shattering trope he was to repeat at the aggressive, car-destroying end of the extended ‘Black Or White‘ video), triggering a dream-like sequence in which Jackson’s finger-clicking, moans and percussive vocal effects appear to put the entire crowd under his control.
The spell is broken by Jackson’s kinetic dance routine. It actually reminds me of the moment in ‘Thriller’ in which the nightmarish tension of encroaching zombies culminates in the instant transformation of Jackson into their menacing leader. Like ‘Thriller’, the ‘Smooth Criminal’ choreography is a stylised performance of masculine restraint as Jackson and his dancers pop-lock, hip-thrust and spin across the floor, even defying gravity, Gravity, you see, is for pussies.
While the masculine theatrics of ‘Bad’ belong on the Broadway stage (the video comes across like Beat Street meets West Side Story), the striking thing about this video is the way Jackson and his gang of toughs soundtrack their dance moves with all manner of grunts, snarls and Nutri-Grain-esque yells. It’s actually quite weird in a music video to see Jackson alternating between mouthing the words on the recording and adding his own sounds live; the famous high-pitched “Hoo! Hoo!” cries towards the end of the song are performed by Jackson on set, rather than on the soundtrack. The ‘badness’ he insists he possesses might not be especially convincing, yet his barrage of vocalisations is an exercise in masculine intimidation.
This is an edited version of an academic paper that was first presented at the 2003 Australasian conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, and later published in the musicology journal Context.
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