To give a detailed example of this, we can explore one of the major modes of rebellion addressed in Jackson’s art: norms of sexuality and gender. The “Thriller” music video (1983) is a goldmine of an example. A thirteen-minute horror short spun from a five-minute pop song, its significance in the world of pop cannot be understated. In 2009, its lasting influence was marked when it became the first music video to ever be inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.7 In terms of Jackson’s mythology, this piece of dramatic filmmaking is compelling for the way in which it presents an otherwise innocent pop star.
Throughout the course of the video, Jackson is transformed twice from the sweet boy next door in a Letterman jacket into a predatory monster. First, he is presented as a werewolf, attacking his girlfriend (portrayed by co-star Ola Ray) against his own will when his inner beast emerges. But this is just one of several surreal plot twists, as Jackson and Ola are discovered to have simply been watching a movie of these events, and Ola is once again safe with Jackson, her charming date. While walking home from the movies, they pass a graveyard where zombies begin to rise from the graves, and Jackson is again transformed, this time into a thirsty zombie. He leads the zombies in that ludicrously famous dance routine, then the scene cuts and Ola awakens, realizing it was all just a dream — or was it? As Jackson heads to bring her home, he pauses to look into the camera, revealing the monstrous yellow eyes of the werewolf.
The radical ambiguity embedded into this video is wonderful. Within one artistic work, we see Jackson publicly presented as both a virile creature, filled with aggressive desire, and as an unassuming, playful teenager. The video serves to strongly suggest darkness and subversion lurking below the surface personality of the dreamy pop idol. Thriller is far and away the best-selling pop album of all time, with over a whopping 100 million+ copies sold worldwide. Given this fact, the idea of Jackson shape-shifting sexual attitudes has a good deal of weight. Jackson embodies contradiction, even at his most seemingly straightforward. Indeed, it is not even quite his ambiguity that is radical here; it’s his lively embrace of myriad modes of gender expression, all incorporated comfortably into his singular being.
It’s certainly not unusual for a pop star to present themselves as subversive, a “bad boy” — but in the case of “Thriller”, it feels somehow smuggled in. This was not the Jackson that posed for the cover of Bad, clad in a leather jacket, confrontational and fierce (though even there, his thick eyeliner hardly screams testosterone). The Jackson that graces the cover of the Thriller album is in soft focus, reclining in almost lilting femininity, completely non-threatening. On the inside jacket of Thriller, furthermore, we find Michael communing with tiger cubs, domesticating dangerous exotic beasts with his near-mystical innocence and softness. Yet the beastly potential lurks within him too, and in the “Thriller” video, he embraces its presence, celebrating it in dance. For Jackson, his power as a Nietzschean lion is in his ability to “thrill” us, to challenge our preconception and shock us.
In fact, comparing the Bad and Thriller album covers is a helpful way to clarify and deepen Nietzsche’s anti-authoritarian stance. The lion is not meant to be the final stage of existence, nor is one meant to renounce mores simply because it is popular to do so. In one of my favorite aphorisms from The Gay Science, Nietzsche’s 1882 work which directly preceded Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he rails against witchcraft for this very reason: “Heresy is the pendant of witchcraft and surely no more harmless and least of all anything essentially venerable. Heretics and witches are two species of evil human beings; what they have in common is that they also feel that they are evil but are impelled by an unconquerable lust to harm what is dominant (whether people or opinions)”.8
In other words, Nietzsche advocates for a thorough questioning of one’s values and beliefs, in order to free oneself from dogma. To be dogmatically rigid about opposing the prevailing order is as philosophically small-minded as dogmatically accepting it. In self-identifying as evil, the witch or heretic simply accepts the dominant morality, though he revels in taking the opposing stance within it. So, when I refer to Jackson saying “no” to norms, I am not referring to Jackson’s boldness in proclaiming that he’s “bad”, as he does in the title track from that album of same name. Rather, I am referring to his boldness in owning and expressing a variety of possible modes within his single person. “Bad” is a possibility that he tries on for size, as is “dangerous” — yet so too is the mildly effeminate and gentle man of the Thriller cover. Varying attitudes and correspondingly sculpted images are swapped out regularly with levity — the levity of one who is not chained to any single identity.
7 “Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ Added To National Film Registry”. Billboard 30 Dec 2009: n. pag. Web. 7 November 2011.
8 Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. New York: Random House, 1974, 104.