On October 1, 2009, the Center for Race & Gender hosted the national symposium, “Michael Jackson: Critical Reflection on a Life & A Phenomenon.” Inspired by the rich papers and performances at this event, UC Berkeley professors Tamara Roberts (Department of Music) and Brandi Wilkins Catanese (African American Studies & Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies) were invited to edit a special issue of the Journal on Popular Music Studies (vol 23, issue 1) focusing on Michael Jackson’s extensive and transformative cultural production.
This exciting issue, “Michael Jackson in/as U.S. Popular Culture,” is now available online and features a wide variety of topics about and approaches to Jackson’s profound impact on popular culture. Below is the introduction by Roberts & Catanese which defines the scope of this important publication.
Michael Jackson in/as U.S. Popular Culture
Tamara Roberts & Brandi Wilkins Catanese (eds)
This issue of JPMS is being published on the eve of the second anniversary of Michael Jackson’s premature passing. Since June 25, 2009, an astounding number of symposia have explored his legacy and importance to a wide variety of scholarly fields. And indeed, the complexities of Jackson’s life and career make it unsurprising that people working on everything from celebrity studies to visual culture to gender and sexuality studies would all want to opine about his significance to their fields. However, a trend in this multidisciplinary embrace of Jackson is the relegation of his musical artistry to ancillary status. Michael the musician (and do not we all speak of him by first name sometimes, as if we know him?) merely becomes the excuse to talk about Michael the reclusive celebrity, the gender transgressor, the eccentric parent. In light of these scholarly trends, we are honored to have helped develop this special issue, which will be among the first to offer sustained scholarly analysis of Michael Jackson’s work that is squarely situated within the field of popular music studies.
By any measure, Jackson is one of the most popular musicians of the contemporary era, and therefore the analysis of his work is instructive not just about his particular professional trajectory but also about the broader dynamics of the music industry. With a focus on the many dynamics embedded in the term “popular music,” this issue explores why and how Jackson functions as a lens through which to understand the greater narrative of popular music in/as U.S. culture. This focus does not exclude the aforementioned forces of celebrity, visuality, kinship, and social identity categories, for Jackson embodies the potent symbol of the crossroads: his body and music function as sites in which discourses of race, gender, and sexuality intersect. What does it mean for one’s music to be “popular,” and how is popularity inflected by racialized understandings of gender? How does the popular music economy, with its current emphasis on celebrity, shape musical practice?
The essays in this issue attend to the entire trajectory of Jackson’s career, from the Jackson 5 years, through the waxing and waning popularity of his solo career, to his untimely death and the multiple acts of remembrance that it spawned. Taken together, the authors help to position music as the primary vehicle through which Jackson and his audiences have negotiated his complicated place in the public sphere—and continue to do so. The interdisciplinary methods of the scholarship collected here demonstrate not only how contemporary tools of cultural theory and analysis help us to read Jackson’s work, but also how Jackson’s career complicates these very theories, at times exposing the limits of their utility, inspiring authors to advance and refine the interpretive frameworks of their fields. In the spirit of interdisciplinarity, we are pleased to have had the opportunity to play with form in this issue: in addition to traditionally formatted scholarly articles, we also include a collection of Musings, spaces where a variety of authors reflect on what Jackson and his music have meant in their own experiences and the lives of others, from US college classrooms to bars in Brazil and public spaces in the former Soviet Union. Original photography and poetry also supplement these expository musings, and as we conclude our work on this issue, we are struck by how the effort to analyze Michael Jackson’s body of work as a musician (sonically, visually, and in its embodied manifestations) makes clear the vital, clarifying role that the field of popular music studies plays in articulating some of the most fundamental dynamics of our society.
The impetus for this special issue was the symposium “Michael Jackson: Critical Reflection on a Life and a Phenomenon,” sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender on October 1, 2009, and we acknowledge all of the participants in that symposium, whose combined contributions gave us a sense of this project’s potential. We are grateful to Alisa Bierria, CRG Associate Director, for her role in bringing this issue to life. Finally, we appreciate the generous time and attention of outgoing editor Kevin Dettmar and current editors Karen Tongson and Gustavus Stadler.