Updated: Sep 19, 2021
Michael Jackson's They don't Care About Us or an aspect (among others...) of the interpretation and the political appropriation of an artist and a work.
Michael Jackson has often, if not always, throughout his career, been subject to political interpretation and appropriation, even though he is always described as a spiritual and apolitical theocrat who officially refused to swear on the American flag and did not vote, due to his early religious convictions.
No artist of international stature and notoriety escapes this process of capitalization, which consists not in placing the artist in search of political and secular valorization, but, on the contrary, in seeing the holders of temporal powers put themselves on stage next to the artists in order to recover their symbolic, charismatic - and financial - power...
This type of scenario is more than repetitive throughout Michael Jackson's career, due to the particular situation related to his racial identity and his unprecedented degree of success. (We could mention, among others and as an example, the presidential campaign of 1984 where Michael Jackson was the guest of honor of the White House and of the outgoing President Reagan, at the same time as the ally of Jesse Jackson, notably around electoral strategies implemented through the Victory Tour).
With the HIStory album, Michael Jackson was seen as taking a further step in social and identity affirmation: indeed, he seemed to stage an identification with the wider African-American community and to pose even more as a victim of injustice which, according to the black nationalist interpretation (an ideology which had a revival in the public especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s), would point the finger at a racist dominant culture.
Michael seems to be giving, through this album and the associated videos made by black activist filmmaker Spike Lee, several responses to the publicized cases of racist violence against blacks that culminated in the recorded video of the 1991 assault on civilian Rodney King (featured in the short film TDCAU) and the subsequent public judicial pardon of the four white police officers responsible - an event that particularly aggravated a sense of deep alienation within the black community at the time.
Michael Jackson, here, would use these core values as sources of symbolic power and formulate an outlawing of the dominant culture and its forms of racial oppression. He seems to express a fundamentally skeptical view of outgroups, namely the defenders of the dominant white culture and political system, and to relay a distrust and disaffection towards those who sit in the seats of power.
Within this newly expressed sensibility of the singer, his inscription in a Black male identity heavily imbued with the psychological scars of racial oppression is central, and presents the listener or viewer with a highly reactive and ideologically powerful expression of Black rage.
While "Scream" and other HIStory songs imply a strong empathy with the concerns of Black nationalism, none subscribe as much as TDCAU to the notion of belonging to an African American identity group and the feeling of being disempowered.
Musically, the song is in the vein of the sonic and dramatic urgency of violent rap, melodically compressed, structured around a verse-chorus sequence, set to a concise, emotionless rhythmic loop that drives the piece practically from start to finish.
(We find this same deeply mechanical, almost pseudo-industrial vibration in "Scream").
The multiplication of vocal tracks, performed on Michael Jackson's voice on the 2nd and 4th beats of the verses, seems to represent a sense of collective retaliation and pushes the style of the song towards the same militarizing ambiences that integrate its visual settings, both on the HIStory World Tour and in the short musical films.
This military anthemic character is ratified by the hook of the main chorus, the repetition of a single line chanting the title of the song, in which Michael's voice is multiplied in an unharmonized unison. This repetition gives the track a fervent immediacy, only slightly offset by the restless accompaniment on lush synthesizers that gradually seep into the mix.
The piece is gradually enriched by a vocal trajectory that grows in intensity until the end, where it spills over into a prolonged series of Michael Jackson's signature vocal cries that surpass, by combining them, the vocality of rap, the theatricality of rock and the emotionality of gospel.
The text is a testament to Michael Jackson's empathy for his brothers of color and the brutality they endure, as well as a personal account of his mistreatment at the hands of the police, the criminal justice system and the media corporation. This text thus balances a critical interpretation of the prevailing moral crisis against minorities in American society with the personal plight of the 1993 scandal. He attacks the futility and ignorance behind white supremacy and racial discrimination. He sees this as a flaw in a great multitude of societies.
He even draws a parallel between the barbaric nature of the media and the dangerous gun violence that occurs on the streets of the United States. But while Michael Jackson seems outwardly dismayed by the tumultuous state of the world, he soon comes to reaffirm his own loyal resilience, no matter what physical or psychological abuse might harm him. His own virtue and righteousness is underpinned by a deep spiritual sense and faith in his eventual redemption.
While Michael Jackson has claimed that TDCAU is about the liberation of all groups of outcasts, his own ability to discriminate was at the time questioned by his own perception and anti-Semitic undertone in the second verse. Such was the controversy over the use of terms like "Jew" and "kike" that the singer had to go back to the studio, after several public denials of any ill intent, to replace these terms with "chew" and "hike".
(In any case, the words appear as they are in the score, because on the recording the words are covered with a percussive sound).
Michael Jackson's position as a representative of all oppressed people was thus called into question. It was pointed out by Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies that such terms should not be used in a form of expression with such an unstable and ambiguous meaning as a pop song; according to the Rabbi, these terms had a hateful and violent meaning anyway, and hatred is too serious a subject to be implied (quoted in "Jewish Reponse"). Thus, even though a closer reading shows that Michael Jackson places himself more as a victim than as a violator, the implication here is that popular music must forego textual complexity in the name of a politically correct absolute.
If we look beyond whether or not Michael Jackson intended the words to be interpreted as ethnic slurs, this event highlights the contention with black nationalism, within which the most extreme factions of the movement, and particularly the Nation of Islam (which at the time was funding Michael Jackson's HIStory Tour and other productions) and its modern leader Louis Farrakhan, have been accused of displaying notable anti-Semitic leanings.
Let us digress here to note that Louis Farrakhan, the charismatic leader of the Nation of Islam, had declared in 1984 that, although a gifted artist, Michael Jackson portrayed a young Black man "in a way that all of us [the Black community] should reject," that of an androgynous and effeminate young man that his organization was fighting against by "asserting the heterosexual capitalist patriarchy as the primary vehicle of Black empowerment. Ten years later, he turns to the artist, taking advantage of the Chandler trial to recuperate his symbolic capital and argue his own political agenda by making Michael Jackson a martyr figure victim of racist motivations, claiming for example that what happens to Michael Jackson (the mistreatment he suffered during his arrest and his body examination) shows how African-Americans, even if they are famous or wealthy, remain in the minds of whites slaves who are belittled at every opportunity.
In another passage of the text, Michael Jackson appeals to his own normalcy, namely his honest and respectable demeanor in the face of rumors about his sexual deviances. He invokes, in effect, the centrality of family to African American life, contrasting this with the inadequacy and humiliation suffered by a Black patriarch abused by white lawmen. He laments a suppression of the freedom guaranteed to blacks by the Emancipation Proclamation and chastises White America for its ignorance and gross racial inequality.
He sees himself as both a victim of hatred and shame. The humiliation he suffered during the 1993 scandal seems to have led him to dis-identify with his own belonging to America. And, in another historical detour, he refers to the formative bastions of the Civil Rights Movement, namely Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. claiming that if they were still alive, these leaders would not have allowed such injustices to take place.
The reference to the illegitimate incarceration of black men in the third verse is the most explicit indication of the demographic with which he most strongly empathizes. What is tricky here, and recurrent in his song lyrics, is that while he emphasizes his own African American background and heritage, he reaffirms that he does not want to be categorized as either White or Black.
In this sense, these words are an open reference to 1991's "Black or White", which seems to denote an acceptance of himself as a racial subject whose behavior is not representative of a difference between White and Black, but of a mixture of these polarized cultural types, or, in other words, an exemplary case of transracial postmodernity and liberal universalism. (The video for Black or White contains a morphing sequence that is meant to show that our epidermal differences are not just illusions.)
Thus, in the case of TDCAU, where it is vital that he position himself as a figure of otherness in the face of a White oppressive system, he has been criticized for complicating the question of his social identity. It may simply be that what he wants most is for the media to stop scrutinizing the look on his face. After all, one need only look to his 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey in which he declares that he is "proud to be a black American" and "proud of [his] race", a sentiment reiterated in a 2002 radio conversation with Steve Harvey, as evidence of his enduring commitment to African American cultural and racial dignity.
In terms of music, the use of hard rock and riffing essentially mirrors the paradoxical status of the narrative visual, and vividly highlights his postmodern approach to composition and performance. This technique amplifies the universality of the recording, whereby the heavy metal guitar becomes emblematic of a virile anger that transcends any blackness, a kind of rage apprehended as "generically normative" denoting an aesthetic that in Western society is generally codified as White. As Suhail Malik has argued about "Beat It" or "Black or White," the incorporation of rock into Michael Jackson's music is both a political and commercial strategy, intensifying the appeal of his signature sound while allowing him to manufacture an idiom of expression of suffering, persecution, and anger in a way that is easily distinguished from his more conservative pop-soul detours.
In this sense, despite the way the rap-sensitive vocal inflections of the main vocal line indicate a definite affinity with contemporary Black music and its cultural practices, the overall sounds lean more in the direction of a transracial ideal characteristic of the particularly postmodern Jacksonian mode of expression.
(The rock style is revisited towards the song's climax, where, as in "Dirty Diana", the coda itself is set around a slightly modified guitar quote from "Beat It".)
Finally, let us note that although TDCAU calls for an essentialized and collective racial solidarity, Michael Jackson, both through sound and image, represents the unique specimen of individualism and fragmented subjectivity.