Michael Jackson, Identity Politics and the Ego-Skin: From Morph to Mask

Michael Jackson has danced away forever. He leaves behind the brilliant image of a consummate genius of music and dance, — untimely death included. He also represents the tragic face of identity politics in the United States, at the end of the twentieth century. If Barack Obama stands for the triumph of such politics, in the beginning of the twenty-first century, as his mixed race solidly allies white and black, Michael Jackson stands for the previous stage, when sacrifice was still necessary for victory and black battled white.

Michael Jackson’s slough shows all the traces of this physical and psychic fight, where the “Ego-Skin”, described by Donald Winnicott, is strongly associated with the “Thinking Self”.  He wanted to prove that skin color could be reversible, that under the surface we are all colorless, diaphanous as he himself had become. Some feminists try to show that under the social roles that differentiate men and women, there is no biological sex, and that trans-sexualism is a viable option. Michael Jackson wanted to establish that under skin colors, there are only human beings, and that trans-coloring is also a viable option. The ultimate crossover … with a systematically organized jamming of all traces and marks, turned into a lifestyle.

His exploration took him quite far, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who tests the drugs on himself. He finished as an écorché, a scorched and yet delicate corpse, as in the clip “Ghosts”, harnessing the risk with the help of parody, pastiche and self-mockery. His morphed skin carried the illusion far into unexplored lands. The special effects of digital media arrived just in time to support the epidermal mirage and paste all sorts of masks on his slough as in “Thriller”. Invisible to the naked eye, they produce a hyper-reality that clouds normal vision as they place reality and fiction on the same level. Reality then becomes a potentiality as any other one and it is plastic. Michael Jackson, in the history of media, is the one who crossed over from reflecting in the looking glass to being reflected back through the looking glass, recto-verso from wonderland. He combined analogical specularity to digital spectacularity: while television reflects reality, special effects reflect a fantastical spectacle. Television anchors the immediate self in the physicality of the world whereas digital technology releases the dynamic self into the virtuality of simulation that allows for experiments with multiple modalities, not quite possible in reality.

Michael Jackson makes a success of these round trips by means of a genre that he contributed to create, the video clip. Spectacles like “Thriller” or “Bad” are mini-films (in their long version), made by such film makers as John Landis or Martin Scorsese. They reinvent also the “chorus line” of American musicals, with the boss of the gang as leader of the troupe, — all to the benefit of MTV. He thus created all the visual matrices that have been exploited by popular culture around the world since.  He coincided with digital spectacularity, where what is entertaining is the range of illusions of reality associated with the range of our demultiplied human powers. He invented the way as he made his own way through such spectacles, the ultimate illusion being his symbolic and visual moonwalking —an illusive dance step that glides onwards while shifting backwards and yet always maintains Michael Jackson in the center of the screen focus.

Michael Jackson sculpted himself into these morphed masks, in simulated environments where he connected his personal “slough” to that of the African-American cause. He identified his dynamic self with identity politics that claimed for equal rights between the various ethnic and racial groups in the United States. In virtual life, he even restored the balance to the advantage of the African-Americans, whose street steps he digitized into striking freeze frames. He used musical and dance performance to explore psychic spaces associated with the body at the very moment when the image of the political body underwent enormous changes in the United States. As a result, he could graft his Ego-Skin to the body-politics of the Blacks, to the point that he could embody the identity malaise of a whole population, sometimes with anger sometimes with (self)mockery.

Michael Jackson took on the bad image of the blacks, in settings that framed gang wars as if they were gangster movies of the 30ies (“Beat it”). This bad image goes back to the initial detachment between blacks and whites, created by the situation of slavery. This situation proceeds systematically to the untying of the cognitive links of attachment (between mother and child, man and woman, individual and community), links that are essential to assert one’s psychic integrity. Slavery, real and mythical, has disrupted for a long time the process of self assembly of the African-Americans. This initial cut was sublimated by Michael Jackson, who realized fully that even the glory of the Jackson Five was not enough to break the glass ceiling of social integration. He staged the African-American inheritance and projected it onto the American imagination, his personal “HIStory”: Egypt and the black Pharaohs in “Remember the time”, voodoo and the religion of the living dead of the Caribbean in “Thriller”, the drums of Africa transported in America, filling the favelas of Brazil in “They don’t care about us”.

Every slough which Michael Jackson shed behind him was a posture of the paradoxical representation of the blacks in America, with copies corresponding more or less to reality. In certain cases, the digital spectacle allowed him to act on the world (“We are the world”), in others to think critically about the world (“Bad”); in others yet, he invented the world (“Ghosts”) or superimposed these diverse processes in a complex multimedia show (“Scream”).

But if in digital art, the control over the Ego-skin is inebriating and liberating for the dynamic self, such is not the case with reality where skin control reveals itself to be cruel to the immediate self, as the plastic slough congeals into a rigid mask. Michael Jackson became then like the man without shadow: he sold his skin to the media devil and, as in the fantastic tale, he lost his reflection, both in the looking glass and through the looking glass. The virtual space of suture became a real space of rupture. His Ego-Skin did not blend with his Thinking Self as he matured. Quite the reverse. His spectacular entertainment theme house, Neverland, conjures up the image of a Peter Pan mesmerized in Hollywood, that of a child who did not want to grow or rather who did not want to go out of the virtual space of childhood where everything is possible.

Michael Jackson’s tragic end is quite disturbing in the country of the happy end. It shows the stress lines in the process of self assembly … and also the limits of democratic assembly if it is not supported by all the political body, if it is left only to the dangerous exploration of a genius all by himself. Eternal child, Michael Jackson becomes in death the object of a last mediamorphosis: he is being transformed into a major “figure”, more than a simple pop icon. In time, his figure will be subjected to many kinds of interpretations: media, medical, musical, political arguments will be brought to bear without ever exhausting the possibilities of more interpretations. Long live the king of pop!

Links with video-clips mentioned:

« Scream » : www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNl2Pm9-7Vk

«We are the world » : www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmxT21uFRwM

« Bad » : www.dailymotion.com/video/x4c08e_michael-jackson-bad-moonwalker-kids_music

« Beat it » : www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uqxo1SKB0z8

« Ghosts » : www.dailymotion.com/video/xuu4o_michael-jackson-ghost_music

« Thriller » : www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtyJbIOZjS8

« They don’t care about us » : www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCqQ2JcQWGs

« Remember the time » : www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDxsM5jLNxM

Divina Frau-Meigs, Paris, 30 juin 2009

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Michael Jackson, Identity Politics and the Ego-Skin: From Morph to Maskby Divina Frau-Meigs est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Paternité-Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale-Pas de Modification 2.0 France.

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2 commentaires sur “Michael Jackson, Identity Politics and the Ego-Skin: From Morph to Mask”


  1. Hi Divina,
    I’m editing an anthology on the meaning of michael jackson. your piece interests me. if you may be interested in participating in this humble project, shoot me an email at thegirlcanwrite@hotmail.com for more info.Cheers, Lorette


  2. […] Jackson as an example of a paradox in identity politics. He was inspired by James Brown; Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire among others. He had a strict […]


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