Michael Jackson's Corner of the Sky: A Response to Craig Werner
Awkward, Michael, Michigan Quarterly Review
In an early version of his remarks, Craig Werner left a space for me to intervene by glossing over Michael Jackson's - and the Jackson Five's - initially gloriously productive and, ultimately, intensely frustrating Motown days. His readings of Stevie Wonder's wholehearted - and what Suzanne Smith has helped us to see as Berry Gordy's limited and strategic - engagement in civil rights activism are persuasive. Certainly, Stevie learned a great deal musically and about life from the older acts who formed Motown's still-incomparable first family - Smokey and the Miracles, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Temptations - who are justly renowned for an amazingly fruitful late- 1960s turn to politically conscious recordings like "Ball of Confusion," "Runaway Child, Running Wild," and "Masterpiece." However, Little Stevie's sense of a possible, even, for him, essential, relationship between art and politics developed in opposition to the corporation's official policy of general nonengagement and these legendary hitmakers' determined belief - up until the point when it was clear that fans would buy singles detailing black political struggle - that singing songs of sociopolitical anguish was the equivalent of career suicide.
As Werner argues in A Change Is Gonna Come, Little Stevie's musical interests extended beyond the "gospel/jazz/blues" impulses he has just outlined and included socially conscious white folk-pop music. If in the mid-1960s the Temptations and the Suprêmes saw integration as a means of expanding the size of their royalty checks, Stevie wanted material, spiritual, and pedagogical profits. He wanted to entertain, preach, and teach, and in 1966 he successfully covered Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," an examination of the persistence of American racism ("how many years can some people exist / before they're allowed to be free?") and myopic white indifference ("how many times can a man turn his head / and pretend that he just doesn't see?"). This cover of a song, whose melody was taken from a spiritual ("No More Auction Block") and that inspired Sam Cooke to write the song from which Craig took the aforementioned book's title, seems to have served as a spark for Stevie's latter compositions seeking "higher ground" and social justice.
One song seeking higher ground mentioned by Werner, of course, is "You Haven't Done Nothin'." Rather than emphasizing its anger, as Werner does, I want to recall its invitation to Michael Jackson and his brothers to "join" and to "sing along again." While credited guest appearances of this sort are commonplace now, they were relatively novel in the mid-1970s. Stevie didn't tell us that a then-unknown Minnie Riperton was "creeping" into his dreams at the end of Side One of his 1974 album, Fulfillingness's First Finale, but insisted that we know that we were listening to the joyous nonsense syllables of the J5. At that point, Joe's boys were down on their luck, their string of great bubblegum popped, their boy-group dazzle diminished, and about to leave Motown in search of artistic independence of the sort that Marvin and Stevie had fought for so successfully a half decade earlier. The group's vocal presence lightened up the atmosphere, but by no means diminished the impact of Stevie's harsh criticism of bullshitting politicians whose insincere, self-serving "songs" "we are sick and tired of hearing."
But at that point, we were also sick and tired of the Jackson Five and, indeed, of a gawky Michael, who was in danger of being confined to the status of child star that Stevie's declaration of independence helped him to avoid. Being too young to have been formed ideologically by the political movements that shaped Stevie, Michael's "impulses," to echo Craig echoing Ralph Ellison, veered in the direction of disco-era individualism, hedonism, and unresolved childhood crises, at least prior to his contributions to "We Are the World" and "Man in the Mirror." While Wonder appeared not to have been traumatized by his blindness (Werner quotes him in A Change Is Gonna Come as saying he's "lucky to be alive") and to have embraced and transformed into art what Werner called his "direct contact with the brutal experiences of black life," Michael remained traumatized by his lean blues childhood - and especially by his father's brutality. …