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Text and Meaning in Michael Jackson's Xscape (part 4)

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“It is difficult to listen to ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ without thinking about the ongoing #BringBackOurGirls campaign.” –Article Excerpt (Aberjhani)

What television audiences experienced with the debut of “Slave to the Rhythm” was Mr. Jackson as transhumanist art in its more positive and inspiring holographic form. Anyone who finds that statement unsettling probably should not.

At least one potential definition of transhumanist art is the creative representation of a person, such as in a work of visual art or literature, which utilizes advanced technologies (or allusion to such technologies) to symbolize humanity as an enhanced species closer to cyborgs or angels than to apes. In its broader philosophical framework, transhumanism is a futuristic ideology that studies both the likely pitfalls and potential benefits of employing technology to enhance the physical, intellectual, and overall psychic capacities of human beings.

If you accept the above definitions and are comfortable acknowledging that transhumanism as a concept, art form, and movement are quite real, then it should not be too difficult to consider that Jackson himself often employed elements of transhumanist art in his work. The King of Pop in fact utilized his own physical being as a canvas upon which to paint conceptions of humanity that went beyond socially-assigned demographics.

Critics and Categories

Neither color, nor gender, nor nationalities were categories comprehensive enough to fully define him. Images such as that of the giant statue of himself in the History video (there were nine of them actually), the defiance of gravity in “Scream,” and the body and facial morphing at the end of “Black or White” reveal an entity hungry for an existence without falsely-imposed boundaries. There are other examples as well.

Critics of Jackson’s use of transhumanist art often comment in negative or ridiculing terms. However, they rightly do not associate him with any kind of transhumanist agenda because his work as a humanitarian leaves no doubt about his deepest concerns. A more valuable way to acknowledge his use of the genre might be to recognize how it sometimes suited, or accommodated, his battles to break down racial and social barriers, encourage self-empowerment, and replace the impulse to blindly destroy and pollute beauty with a will to consciously create and sustain it. He took risks, as all of history’s greatest artists have done, that did not always produce the best results. What may be most important is that he tried to share with people, through his art as a whole, awareness that individual lives do not have to be restricted to convenient but painfully insufficient categories.

The “Slave to the Rhythm” hologram was eerie and electrifying, yes. But it also extended the performing artist’s visible, sonic, and cultural presence in a way that is almost as powerful as that provided by his rockumentary, This Is It.

The Artist as Witness to Human Triumphs and Tragedies

“Do You Know where Your Children Are” may be the most socially conscious of the songs on Xscape. Many individuals of Jackson’s generation will recall that while growing up a public service message broadcast every night on television stating, “It is now 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?”

If children were not where they belonged at that time of night, you might hear telephones ringing or parents’ voices yelling throughout the neighborhood to get them there. Most children themselves, whether tweens or teens, generally hurried off before receiving a parental summons. The message would repeat every hour up until midnight

This sixth track on the album, with the riveting opening bass line inserted by Timbaland, is so danceable that you almost forget how serious the song is. But then Jackson cuts loose in the final verse and closing choruses with ecstatic utterances that sound almost as if he’s singing in tongues. It is one sign of how fiercely urgent he believes his message is and that urgency makes it clear that he is delivering more than an exceptional performance. He is fulfilling the role (some have described it as sacred) of the artist as witness to humanity’s triumphs and tragedies.

It is difficult to listen to “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” without thinking about the ongoing #BringBackOurGirls campaign. In fact, the song is a sobering reminder that what happened in Nigeria is only one overwhelming example of the unconscionable brutalities––whether caused by Boko Haram, civil war in Syria, or mass shootings in the United States––that destroy children’s just-beginning lives nearly every day.

On the surface, “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” masterfully illustrates the cycle of criminality in which too many youth find themselves trapped after fleeing abusive treatment within home environments. There is in fact much more occurring in a much broader social scenario:

“The police come round the corner
Somebody there told
He’s arresting this little girl
She’s only 12 years old…”

The 12-year-old’s victimization only begins at home where she has been betrayed by those whose love she had been taught to trust. Her maltreatment is multiplied numerous times over by others to whom she turns for help, and then again by the very legal system charged with protecting society’s innocents.

One of the great ironies of Jackson’s life was that he was persecuted over allegations of sexual abuse––subsequently declared unfounded by the courts and/or withdrawn by accusers–– while he traveled the globe and saw in one country after another how cruel humanity sometimes treats its children. One of the great victories of his life was that he never allowed the persecution to stop him from working––virtually right up to the end of his life–– to alleviate the various forms of suffering that children worldwide experience. The atrocious number of suicides attempted daily, and the numbers of children who starve to death or die from a lack of proper medical attention speak chillingly for themselves.

NEXT: Text and Meaning in Michael Jackson's Xscape Part 5: A Gangsta’s Broken Blue Heart

by Aberjhani
author of Journey through the Power of the Rainbow
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance

More on the Life, Music, and Legacy of Michael Jackson

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