The Child in The Mirror: A Nietzschean Reading of the Myth of Michael Jackson

The character of my fondness for Michael Jackson and Friedrich Nietzsche is very similar. Despite both of these men being extremely influential and leaving behind highly celebrated bodies of work, they are also both often considered tragic cases on the historical stage. They were driven to obsessive heights, if not madness, by their devotion to their craft and their vision for the world. Yet I have never looked upon either of them with anything short of deep respect. Even in their tragedy, these men are beautiful to me. I hope to… reveal two visionaries reaching out to one another from across historical eras and spheres of influence. In the act of aligning these two boldly trailblazing artists, I hope to lend an admirable and rich philosophy to a pop star, and to lend the romance and marvel of pop to the life’s work of a philosopher.

This can be done through an act of mapping the mythology of Zarathustra, a character that Nietzsche has invented, onto the mythology of Michael Jackson. For indeed, MJ as we the public witnessed him — onstage and in the media — is a sort of myth. In so doing, I don’t mean to conflate Zarathustra with Nietzsche himself, or treat Thus Spoke Zarathustra as some thinly veiled autobiography. However, there are certainly elements of Zarathustra’s story which do have parallels to Nietzsche’s own life, and of course myriad instances in which Zarathustra’s speeches echo Nietzschean concepts discussed in detail in his other writings. Furthermore, Nietzsche had enormous affection for Zarathustra; there is strong evidence to show that a man spiritually kindred to Zarathustra is a man that Nietzsche likely would’ve admired. In Ecce Homo, he writes that “Zarathustra has more courage in him than all other thinkers put together” and insists that he has with Thus Spoke Zarathustra “given mankind the greatest gift that has ever been given it”.5

Let us take a look at the teachings given voice by this courageous character.

 

Shared Virtue: “Take a look at yourself and then make a change”

Right at the start of Zarathustra, we are given a handy interpretive framework for understanding the process of personal growth, as Nietzsche uniquely defines it. This one is the first of Zarathustra’s many speeches, entitled “The Three Metamorphoses”. In this parable, Zarathustra characterizes three major phases of self-evolution: the camel, the lion, and the child.

THE CAMEL

In the camel stage, those among us with the requisite discipline and inner strength are loaded up with burdens. These burdens may be interpersonal and tangible, or perhaps more psychological or spiritual. Zarathustra cites possibilities as disparate as: “being sick and sending home the comforters”; “loving those who despise us”; and “stepping into filthy waters when they are the waters of truth”.6 In Nietzsche’s view, the process of growing to be a free thinker is the most difficult process one can undergo, and the one which defines exceptional men. Indeed, “free thinking” is probably far too gentle a term — what he means is an unflinching and exhaustive critical examination of one’s personal systems of value and meaning. Not all are equipped for this task. Many would find the act of routinely dissembling themselves to be too painful. So we might say that in recognizing someone as being in the “camel” stage, we are watching them pass a test of discipline and diligence, even when (or perhaps, especially when) unpleasant. As Nietzsche writes, “What is difficult? asks the spirit that would bear much, and kneels down like a camel wanting to be well-loaded. What is most difficult, O heroes, asks the spirit that would bear much, that I may take it upon myself and exalt in my strength?”6

Finding sublime beauty in the strength of the beast of burden is a way to speak mythologically about the early years of Michael Jackson. He found his place in the limelight as the scrappy, adorable boy wonder in The Jackson 5 — yet the toll of his young celebrity is one of the topics most often raised in discussions of Jackson’s life: that old cliché, of the child star robbed of a normal adolescence and thus never able to properly enter adulthood. Of course, for Jackson, it was more than simply a childhood spent on stage and screen that changed him permanently. He endured great trauma as a child. His father Joe was extremely abusive, driving Jackson and his brothers through horrendously long rehearsals, while verbally abusing them and even whipping them with a belt if ever they achieved less than perfection (see: Michael Jackson’s interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1993, and his interview with Martin Bashir in 2003’s Living with Michael Jackson interviews below for his discussion of these events).

Although Jackson spoke openly in interviews and public speeches about his childhood abuse, he also insisted that his father’s severity contributed to his discipline and skill as an artist. In a 2001 speech to Oxford Union about his Heal the Child initiative, Jackson said his father Joe “wanted us to be the best performers we could possibly be… my father was a managerial genius, and my brothers and I owe our professional success in no small measure to his pushing.” While this is certainly not the kind of burden that anyone should have to face, shades of Nietzsche’s “camel” echo through Jackson’s childhood history. Despite having experienced so much pain as a child, he was still able to foster an extraordinary lifelong passion for his craft. He was even fueled by his past injustice to become a global voice for reconsidering the authority of children in our society (more on that in a bit). Jackson’s spirit could, and did, “bear much”, while never ceasing to carry on with his work.

 

THE LION

After this stage of burden comes a stage of clearing away, of life-affirmative destruction. This is what Nietzsche calls the lion stage. Having proved strong in the face of great hardships (whether internally or externally imposed), the individual is now ready to cast away those mores and so-called absolute truths that he has inherited from society. This act of renouncement with such ferocious intent can be envisioned as the roar of a lion. Where the individual once saw a value system as natural, it is now seen as authored. This crucial step to reclaiming one’s own authorship — one’s own authority — is to, in contemporary parlance, “Fight the man.” As Nietzsche writes, “The creation of freedom for oneself and a sacred ‘No’ even to duty—for that, my brothers, the lion is needed”.6

In the case of Michael Jackson, his attempts at expressing his own voice and establishing his own identity in adulthood were rooted in strange and fantastical whimsy on a grand scale. Michael Jackson was weird. Yes, he was odd. Yet in his role as a pop star in the public sphere, there is much more to be said. Jackson was mythically weird, in such a way that his queerness can be understood as his particular type of lion’s roar. His means of carving out a place for himself were a series of “no”‘s to established norms, both in pop music specifically and society more generally.


Sources

5 ECCE HOMO, 61; 5.
6 Kaufmann, Walter, ed. The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Viking Penguin, 1954, 138-139

 

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Written by
Vee Hua 華婷婷

Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/them) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the Editor-in-Chief of REDEFINE, Interim Managing Editor of South Seattle Emerald, and Co-Chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. They also previously served as the Executive Director of the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences.

Vee has two narrative short films. Searching Skies (2017) touches on Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States; with it, they helped co-organize The Seventh Art Stand, a national film and civil rights discussion series against Islamophobia. Reckless Spirits (2022) is a metaphysical, multi-lingual POC buddy comedy for a bleak new era, in anticipation of a feature-length project.

Vee is passionate about cultural space, the environment, and finding ways to covertly and overtly disrupt oppressive structures. They also regularly share observational human stories through their storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE!, and are pursuing a Master’s in Tribal Resource and Environmental Stewardship under the Native American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.

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Julia Berkowitz
Julia Berkowitz
9 years ago

Wonderful and thought provoking article. Thank you!

Sandra Faikus O'Brien
Sandra Faikus O'Brien
9 years ago

wow! Fascinating! I really appreciate the ideas presented by this article.

morinen
morinen
9 years ago

Great article! You saw and highlighted the core, most important things in Jackson. Fascinating parallels. Thank you!

Tabinformed
Tabinformed
9 years ago

Very insightful article shedding light on the motivations of two great artists.

Madi G
Madi G
9 years ago

Thank you. A really thought provoking article that connects the dots for me for MJ’s life, philosophy and art. I believe that his creativity was unparallelled in pop music and culture. He challlenged us and himself in ways that only now are being realized, studied and analyzed. Thanks again for adding to this discussion and apprecation of his life and work.

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