Friday, March 11, 2005

Michael Jackson and the American Love of Clarity

Ann Althouse reacts to one writer's assertion that what bugs Americans most about Michael Jackson is that we don't like ambiguity. The writer to whose article Althouse reacts feels that Jackson's racial, ethnic, and sexual vagueness is bothersome to we rigid Americans.

Althouse responds:
It's interesting to meditate on the love of clarity and the fear of ambiguity, and maybe we do need to have more appreciation for ambiguity -- especially as we look to art and artists. The real problem with Michael Jackson, however, is not the general ambiguity of his looks, his music, and his fantasyland ranch. It is the very specific ambiguity about his relations with children. There is a special value to clarity -- a special responsibility to be clear -- when an adult deals with a child. I think we Americans accept and indulge many inexplicable eccentricities in our artists, but if we can't understand what you are doing with a child, it sets off our sense of responsibility to the child.
I thought that was an outstanding response and told Althouse so in an email in which I said the following (it's slightly edited for grammar and well, for clarity):

I think that your reaction to the piece on Michael Jackson's ambiguity was right on.

In spite of the American love of clarity, we also have fallen in love with artists who display it the Marx Brothers with their double-entendres, the pastiche of overt sexuality and Bible Belt spirituality exhibited by Elvis, or the studied vagueness of Bob Dylan.

Dylan, in particular, has elevated ambiguity to amazing heights. I remember that once, before he went through his evangelical Christian phase, he was asked if he believed in God. All he said was, "It must be amazing to be God." [This was in a TV Guide interview prior to NBC airing a concert from his Rolling Thunder concert tour.]

That was a typical Dylan non-response response that raised more questions than it answered, adding to his mystery and allure.

Dylan is the King of ambiguity and along with Lennon, McCartney, and Bono, has created probably the most popular music of the past forty years. I think that those two facts are connected.

Even those displaying androgynous personas have been readily embraced by Americans. David Bowie in his 'Space Oddity' phase, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich have all mined US popularity from ambiguity.

Prince, with his volcanic mixture of rock and R&B, black and soul, also rode the crest of varied ambiguities to success and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But, as you say, I do think that Jackson disturbs us by his unwillingness to be clear about the nature of his attitudes toward and relationships with children. He shouldn't be ambiguous about such things. There is too much at stake.

1 comment:

Knemon said...

Good post - but I think Bowie's androgyny was more pronounced in the "Ziggy Stardust"/"Aladdin Sane" period.