Michael Jackson and Prince are still playing with their racial and sexual personas

by Francis Davis

EVEN WITHOUT having recorded together, Michael Jackson and Prince will forever be linked as the two male pop stars most emblematic of the 1980s—a decade in which a performer’s songs often served as little more than background accompaniment to mass speculation about his or her private sexual identity. Along with Madonna, who is their most obvious female counterpart, Jackson and Prince transformed eighties pop into a public guessing game. The question surrounding a new release by any of these gender-benders wasn’t just whether the song was any good but what it could be interpreted to reveal about the singer.

As cultural constructs, decades seldom begin or end on schedule. What we now refer to as “the sixties,” for example, really began in the dark winter months between November 22, 1963, and the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the following February, and lasted into the seventies. In many ways the eighties are still with us, and so are Michael Jackson and Prince, each of whom released a new album toward the end of last year. Jackson’s Dangerous (Epic EK-45400) made news, though not for its music. According to the magazine Entertainment Weekly, whose tally will have to be accepted on faith now that the offending footage has been snipped, Jackson reached for his “private parts” thirteen times in the original version of the video for “Black or White,” the first song from Dangerous to be released as a single. Most of his clutching and stroking occurred during a silent four-minute coda in which he also smashed the windows of a parked car and hurled a garbage can through a storefront, in apparent homage to the character played by Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing.

The video amounted to a brilliant publicity stunt. It got everyone talking about Michael Jackson again, just as the album was due to arrive in the stores. But those who faced the task of explaining his behavior to small children were unamused. Didn’t Jackson, who cultivates a childlike image and whose new best chum seems to be Macaulay Culkin, the eleven-year-old star of My Girl and Home Alone (and co-star of the “Black or White” video), realize that he was setting a bad example with his auto-eroticism and his “wilding”? What seemed significant about the question was its implicit acknowledgment that preteens are the only ones who still take Michael Jackson seriously. The rest of us have outgrown him.

MUCH WAS riding on Dangerous, which the record industry—in a slump, along with the rest of the economy—hoped would lure consumers back into the stores, just as Jackson’s Thriller did in 1982 and 1983. But Thriller, still the largest-selling album in history, racked up its phenomenal figures (more than 38.5 million copies sold worldwide) as part of a package with Jackson’s groundbreaking videos, his electrifying dancing on a 1983 Motown TV special, and his Neverland androgyny. In buying Thriller, pop fans were buying the new Michael Jackson, the former lead singer of the Jackson 5 grown up exotic.

That was nine years ago, which is practically a millennium in pop music—roughly the span from Elvis Presley to the Beatles, or from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to punk and Saturday Night Fever. As Timothy White, the editor-in-chief of the music trade paper Billboard and the author of Rock Lives (which contains one of the very few in-depth interviews Jackson has ever granted), observed during a recent conversation we had about Jackson, it’s difficult for a pop star to reinvent himself once he has become a commonplace in millions of people’s lives. Although Dangerous entered the charts at No. 1—not just in the United States but in England, Australia, Finland, Spain, and Switzerland—its sales somehow seemed as irrelevant as Presley’s did after the Summer of Love.

Reflecting Jackson’s determination to show that he still has what it takes to unify divergent tastes, as he did with Thriller, Dangerous sounds like it was crafted for compatibility with radio playlists rather than for the satisfaction of the home consumer. Remember “Billie Jean”? In “Who Is It,” Dangerous has a new song just like it, right down to the driven beat and Jackson’s shivered vocal interjections. For album-oriented rock stations there’s “Give in to Me,” a heavy-metal ballad with Slash, from Guns N’ Roses, on guitar. “Heal the World,” a big showbiz anthem about saving the environment and such, ends with a duet between Michael and a little girl in which her voice blends into his. The chorus modulates and swells just as in “We Are the World.” In the mood for some light gospel? Take your pick, “Will You Be There” or “Keep the Faith.”

Beginning a minute too soon (with an excerpt of an uncredited orchestral performance of Beethoven’s Ninth) and ending a minute too late (with Jackson’s spoken ruminations, delivered in an embarrassing sob), “Will You Be There” typifies the album’s excesses. Dangerous is almost salvaged by the seven (out of fourteen) tracks that Teddy Riley had a hand in waiting and producing. Riley is a maven of “new jack swing,” a light-on-its-feet pop style that applies sophisticated studio techniques to hip-hop and rap. Some early reviews of Dangerous chastised him for upstaging Jackson’s songwriting with his computer-generated beats and his streetwise musique concrète—car horns, shattering glass, and the like. This misses the point. What’s important in contemporary black pop isn’t songs per se but melodic hooks that can be isolated and extended to double as dance grooves; a “finished” song is just raw material for a producer like Riley. He lends Jackson some badly needed street credibility, which is presumably what he was hired for, and you have to wonder why Jackson made the insipid “Black or White,” not a Riley track, the album’s first video and single.

As catchy as the numbers co-produced by Riley are, the emotions Jackson expresses on them never seem quite genuine. He sounds vexed and ambivalent, and not just because Riley frequently plays his voice against itself, by having a chorus of buoyant Michael Jacksons repeat a song’s hook ad infinitum, in opposition to the Michael Jackson delivering the rest of the lyrics through clenched teeth. The strangest, if most compelling, of these tracks is a heterosexual love song inexplicably called “In the Closet,” which takes the form of a dialogue, part spoken and part sung, between Jackson and an unidentified “mystery girl” rumored to be Madonna. The song has such a narcissistic edge to it that at first I assumed the second voice was Jackson’s, slightly speeded up to raise its pitch. On “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” which Jackson had no role in writing, he admonishes the media for speculating about his personal life rather than addressing genuine social issues such as drug addiction, illiteracy, homelessness, world hunger, and “strange diseases [for which] there’s no cure.” In addition to failing to persuade us that he has more than an elementary interest in or understanding of any of these problems (given a few minutes in front of a TV, the little girl on “Heal the World” could probably have come up with an identical list), he fails to acknowledge that out preoccupation with what seem to be his efforts to undo his race and gender through cosmetics and plastic surgery (plus whatever sympathy we might be ready to extend to someone so obviously uncomfortable inside his own skin) supplies what little emotional pull there is in “Why You Wanna Trip on Me” or any of his other new songs.

Without endorsing the offensive notion that blackness is something that has to be earned, it’s possible to understand the point of view of a black writer like Gary Dauphin, who, in commenting on the “Black or White” video in The Village Voice, expressed disgust with Jackson for his “trip about his face, something that instead of conjuring up a smooth cyberpunk universe, suggests Porcelana fade cream, conks, and of course, lynchings.” In the video the most admired of the special effects with which Jackson and the director John Landis show off their $4 million budget is a fifty-second “morphing” sequence that some reviewers have interpreted as a reference to Jackson’s own facial metamorphosis. In the sequence the faces of thirteen different people of various races and ethnicities—including a Sumo wrestler and a Rasta— blend into one another in rapid succession. More significant, in their own way, are the special effects that land Jackson in the African bush and the Old West and enable him to sing and dance in the Russian snow, on an industrial highway, and in the Statue of Liberty’s torch. These grant him a mobility heretofore granted on screen only to the casts of Looney Tunes and Metrie Melodies. Kinship with them now seems to be his destiny.

What used to appeal to listeners, both black and white, about black performers like James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and even such Motown smoothies as Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson was their “authenticity,” the indisputable realness of their music and the cultural values it embodied. By comparison, recent black performers, including the comic-strip militants Public Enemy, have transformed themselves into self-caricatures as insubstantial as the “Toons” in the 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, who were understood to be standing in for racial minorities. A glance at any Guns N’ Roses video should be enough to persuade us that black performers aren’t contemporary pop’s only Toons. But because pop music plays such a large part in shaping both black self-image and white perceptions of black culture, more is at stake in the persona of a performer who is black. As a group, pop stars aren’t even the worst offenders. That distinction belongs to those NBA players (even the dignified Julius Erving) who permit themselves to be stereotyped in commercials as overgrown homeboys with nothing on their minds besides sneakers, soft drinks, and junk food.

The video of “Remember the Time,” the second single from Dangerous, features the Pharaoh Ramses II and Nefertiti. Its depiction of ancient Egypt is pointedly Afrocentric, as if to deflect charges that Jackson is out of touch with his own people. A joke making the rounds is that it features an all-black cast, except for the star. Jackson conforms to an embarrassing stereotype—that of the black man altering his features in order to pass. At this point he has a complexion as pale as that of the man in the moon and a pert little reindeer nose like Annette Bening’s. No one in any field, black or white, seems more the product of an animator’s inkwell than the thirtythree-year-old man who would be America’s inner child, the singer whose video tells us that we’re all the same without acknowledging that some of us have to make ourselves over practically from scratch to get that way.

WITH HIS lanky hair, doe eyes, and horsey jaw, Prince (whose full name is Prince Rogers Nelson) looks like a cartoon centaur; his fondness for baring his jutting torso in his videos and on his album jackets reinforces the effect. He’s a Toon with what Pauline Kael, in her review of Purple Rain, the first and best of his four movies, aptly described as “a knowing, parodistic edge.” Although his recording career began in 1978, Prince’s big year was 1984, when Purple Rain opened in theaters and its soundtrack album stayed at No. 1 for twentyfour weeks.

A few years earlier, on the song “Controversy,” from the album of the same name, he had posed the questions “Am I black or white?/Am I straight or gay?” In point of fact, both his parents are black, although the role he gave himself in Purple Rain (and in Graffiti Bridge, the silly 1990 sequel) helped to foster the myth that he was the child of an interracial marriage—which, in terms of combining elements of funk and hard rock, he was, and much more so than Jackson. Given his eye for buxom leading ladies and backup singers, and his rumored sexual involvement with some of them, it’s probably safe to assume he’s straight.

By raising such questions about himself at a time when similar questions were being raised about Jackson, Prince emerged as the anti-Michael—a racially and sexually ambiguous superstar for those who preferred their heroes with a knowing, parodistic edge. It helped that Prince, a guitarist who also plays a number of other instruments, was a better musician than Jackson, and it didn’t hurt that he was almost as fluid a dancer.

Prince is the composer of a song called “Jack U Off,”and another called “The Cross.” Without his musicianship—and without his irony—he might be Jim Morrison in eyeliner, a messianic satyr blending religious and sexual imagery and preaching orgasmic salvation. But his songs tend to be comically smutty instead of pretentiously so; they’re great fun even (or maybe especially) at their most sophomoric. The major influences on him as a handleader and record producer would seem to be James Brown, Sly Stone, and George Clinton—a modern funk triumvirate whose influence is universal. I bet that his record collection also includes, besides albums by Brown, Stone, and Clinton, party albums of the sort that used to be clandestine best sellers in black neighborhoods and on fraternity row, by the likes of Rudy Ray Moore, Blowfly, and Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts.

In some ways Prince is now even more outdated than Jackson. For one thing, the hedonism espoused in his lyrics risks making his songs seem like remnants of the disco era, the era before mainstream America became conscious of AIDS. For another, his albums, including last year’s Diamonds and Pearls (Paisley Park/Warner Bros. 25379), featuring his latest band, the New Power Generation, continue to strive for the sound of a performance on stage—a hard-rock ideal antithetical to the current trends in black dance music exemplified by Jackson and Riley’s collaboration on Dangerous.

Diamonds and Pearls shows a vitality utterly lacking on Dangerous, thanks to Prince’s sense of himself as a pop savant and his ability to synthesize everything from 1960s psychedelia to rap while sounding deliriously contemporary instead of archly postmodern. The psychedelic touches include a sitarlike guitar line on a mock-gospel song called “Thunder” and a wonderfully incongruous string section (reminiscent of those on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request) that fades in briefly on “Push,” a slice of energetic new jack swing that puts Jackson and Riley to shame. The New Power Generation’s resident rapper is Tony M., who captures the style’s street rush far better than Heavy D and L.T.B., the rappers enlisted by Jackson. Rosie Gaines, NPG’s big-voiced backup singer, also raps convincingly here and there, as does Prince himself, most notably on a randy little ditty called “Gett Off,” whose hook—about “twentythree positions in a one-night stand”— is impossible to shake once you’ve heard it.

The cheesy organ sound that pop fans of my generation are lifelong suckers for (remember “96 Tears,” by ? and the Mysterians, from 1966?) bubbles up on “Daddy Pop,” which also boasts falsetto and bass vocal trade-offs, à la Sly and the Family Stone, and a girlgroup chorus by Gaines. It appears again on “Cream,” which reuses and toughens a riff from “Bang a Gong,” a 1972 hit by glam rocker Marc Bolan and his group T. Rex. At this point Prince is even able to recycle himself to good advantage, as on “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” a moody ballad that sounds something like “When Doves Cry” but avoids unflattering comparison by speeding up as it goes along. “Insatiable” and the title track poke gentle fun at the falsetto love declarations of the Stylistics and other virginal-sounding early 1970s “sissy” soul vocal groups. The references to do-ityourself camcorder porn in the lyrics of “Insatiable” would be confirmation enough that this isn’t the Stylistics. So would the Frank Zappa chord progressions and the flashes of heavy metal on “Diamonds and Pearls.” The only track that misfires is “Strollin’,” Prince’s condescending take on the lounge jazz his father used to play, replete with George Benson—style guitar.

Prince has made a number of bad career moves, including his three movies after Purple Rain (Sign o’ the Times, the best of them, was a great concert film, but nothing more), and his decision not to release The Black Album, a 1987 album considered to be his best work by some of those who have heard bootlegged copies of the tapes. No longer the pop figure of the moment, he appears to be settling into a phase of his career in which he will continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of each new release and still be taken for granted. Diamonds and Pearls reached the Top 10, but unlike Purple Rain (or, for that matter, Dangerous), it wasn’t greeted as a pop event. Even so, nobody his age in pop matches his allaround skills as a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, producer, bandleader, and image manipulator. Miles Davis, who recorded a few unreleased sides with Prince in 1987, said that Prince has the potential to be “the new Duke Ellington of our time, if he just keeps at it.” That’s going much too far. But say this for Prince: he doesn’t sound at all presumptuous when, on “Gett Off,” he samples a few lines from an old James Brown record and has the temerity to sing along.