It was 1997, I was around 6 or 7 and the HIS-story tour was played everywhere in Europe at the time. I was literally glued to the screen and mesmerised by the golden costume and avant-gardiste new technologies used for the show. Michael was always a huge symbol in my family and a repair of Black representation. I come from a third generation of Black Europeans, and ever since my maternal grand-parents left Africa in the early 60s to settle in Bruxelles, Belgium, my mother always told me how she, her brothers, sisters and mother sat to watch television -then it was not colored- listening to the Jackson 5 singing I Want You Back. The African-Americans, it is true, were not only excellent in what they did but they were, in the 1980s and 1990s for us Black Europeans, a model of success and hard work. We admired them and all the things they achieved. I was also a former dancer all my life and Michael was a huge figure to all of us too. During that year of 1997, we were even more gifted with the Ghosts video cassette.
It is more than obvious that as a French-speaking child at the time, I could not understand English. I even thought Michael would somehow sing bad words in French in his song. (I heard him say “Salope” in the chorus of Thriller). Despite his legendary status and tremendous talent, my child eyes would mostly admire him for his beauty, singing and dancing skills above all. It is 13 years later, in 2010, during my second college year that I really got into the message of what Jackson was singing in both the album HIS-Story and Blood On The Dancefloor.
By 1995, Jackson had become rebellious, standing up to the Hollywood machine. Songs such as Money, D.S., Tabloid Junkie would be crucial testimonies which definitely preceeded the brutal treatment other child celebrities would have to deal with 15 years later, in this case I am thinking about Britney Spears. We all knew about the change in his color, but it is with the songs I deemed annoying and too slow as a child and a teenager that I truly began to understand Jackson from a social point of view. Prisoner of his wealth and worshipped everywhere, he was the first global icon from the 1980s, and a very important symbol of power, unity and American prosperity during the Cold War. It is more than important to recognise that the conflict was also cultural. Michael belonged to the new generation of MTV from which, a false image of unity and racial equality in the USA was portrayed worldwide. Such statement would also fuel the propaganda of the American Dream.
Yet, by listening to his 1995 songs –Stranger in Moscow, Money– or even pieces from the Blood On the Dancefloor cd –Is It Scary– one realises that MJ had to battle a severe depression, some feelings of low self-esteem, loneliness and a constant judgement from the outside. He was never treated as a fair human being but a “weirdo”, a freak, an animal destined to be exposed at the zoo. These two albums were a clear response to the unfair treatment of the media. They never had an ounce of compassion for him at all. This state of mind would be highlighted by the music videos and the Ghosts short film proves our point.
A true underrated masterpiece, Michael showed how his dance moves and performances were even more sophisticated than before. Yet, if unfair critics considered the movie to be a second Thriller, Ghosts is actually a deep social statement made by the singer who definitely knows where he stands: among the outcasts. The story evolves around an isolated man, played by Jackson- who lives in an abandoned and dirty manoir filled with entities deprived of speech, until they are disturbed by an abusive patriarch surrounded by kids and other family members and friends who hope to threaten Jackson’s character. It is true that the problematic of the patriarch is extremely present in MJ’s videos. In Black or White, Ghosts or many other videos made to be funny, the father is always an oppressive figure who prevents the children from becoming who they are. (This is a clear hint at the trauma experienced at the hands of Joe Jackson)
In the video, Jackson also plays a lot with voyeurism giving the audience the most horrific faces he can make. He distorts his eyes, his flesh, turns into a monster, a skeleton, alternates between phases of joy and anger, being threatening at times, and even breaks his face against the tiled floor.
The short movie asks us one question: who are the monsters? And why are the monsters ghosts? Are they invisible spiritual entities Jackson can make appear out of nowhere, or do these creatures hide voluntarily to stay away from individuals who have constantly shamed them and rejected them from not being normal or living in the norm? The castle is isolated and the mere existence of such abnormal individual threatens the peace of the good society. The appearence of the monsters reveal that society is responsible for the demise of the outcasts. Society condemns, attacks and rejects those who can not fit in. One specific symbol in the movie is how the hosts alternate between period of fear, angst and admiration watching the dancers and Jackson execute the most elaborate dance moves before their eyes. This conveys the message that society only likes to exploit the creativy of the isolated. Their pain and rejection give them a sense of authenticity the norm is deprived of. In reality, the outcasts are the ones who can truly change the norm for they are filled with the strength of their unique vision. The rise of flamenco in Spain could be one example. Created by Africans, Gypsies, Jews, Arabs and Andalusians, the genre now stands as the official symbol of Spanish identity. Yet, the originators are still exluded from enjoying the results of their creation as they remain discriminated -see the appropriation of singer Rosalia.
Society creates its own monsters and the reclusion experienced by the entities in the movie embody the consequences of such isolation. The constant disdain and contempt imposed upon the individuals who do not correspond to the perfect social vision of the Western sphere nurtures low self-esteem, abusive behaviors and somehow leads to the emergence of serial killers. If some were deeply evil since the beginning and had no regret in the pain they inflicted onto others, the majority of them has been pushed to the edge by the good members of society who turned a blind eye, ridiculed them and had few consideration for their inability to follow a perfect scheme. A serial killer or marginalized individual carry, for the most part, a certain attitude which is never represented as the norm. Such difference would be another factor to justify their execution or condemnation. We judge the final products, the brutal actions, consequences, yet, society would never take any responsability for the roots of the problem. Sending a troubled woman who was failed by society her entire life to the electric chair would be easier than facing the real mistakes and failures of the system we created.
Ghosts allows us to wonder who are the monsters? Are these people dancing with Michael and deprived of speech really repulsive or does society and its biased ideas of the norm did condition our brains and minds to believe such things and to condemn those who are different from the perfect? It is true for Michael that the media, the judgements of others led him to the self-hatred of his self and deep sad mental issues which would have plagued him for the rest of his life until 2009. Life in the Western sphere, especially under the capitalistic reign, not only forces us to deny the existence of those who failed to enter such crazy system, but worst, we deny and suppress any traits within us which would link us to the outsiders. For this reason, depressed women and men, unhappy with their jobs, careers, who married and began a life to please their parents would rather cheat on their spouse, take antidepressant pills or do drugs to evade and suppress the unknown within them, fearing the ultimate explosion could send them live to the other side, where the ghosts and monsters live.
The Western sphere is sick yet, the technological developments and our ability to show a fake good life on social media give us a superficial satisfaction of success all the while comparing ourselves to others. The freaks and rejected are abandoned yet they ignore everything about their own power. They are not loved or embraced yet they enjoy a good amount of freedom, hence a strength the good citizen would never experience. Ghosts by MJ is a good social symbol of it. Made in 1997, it embodies the decay of the society we live in, the pain judgement inflict and the strong desire of the isolated to stand up and fight against the dominant and corrupted.
As I am going to be 30 in 2021, I think about the tremendous pain Jackson had to deal with over the past few years. From the false accusations of paedophilia, the disgusting allegations, the mockery, the contempt, the media could never operate without the support of the fools. Capitalism made us passive and ready to live through the lives of celebrities. Instagram and Facebook did not help at all. Such brutality would be applied to Britney Spears and others who had been despised and ridiculed for their mistakes. It is time for many of us to be mature and stop relying on false informations which destroy people’s lives. Celebrities or not, famous or not, words hurt and that could contribute to the birth of a monster too.