Moonwalk in academia (English)

Michael Jackson is not only flourishing on iTunes but also in science. In the past five years, academics have devoted themselves in large numbers to studying the works of the King of Pop. Apparently, Jackson has influenced an astonishing number of scientific topics. But even before his death ‘Dr. J.’ was no stranger to academia.

Michael Jackson receiving a honorary degree from Fisk University

Sticking their necks out

Yale University (USA) was one of the first institutions that stuck its neck out to scientifically approach Jackson’s work. Remarkably enough, the prestigious University did so back in 2004, when Jackson was still alive.

A conference was organised about Jackson’s self-expression with which he had shifted borders related to race, gender and sexuality. The latter was a sensitive subject, to say the least. In the same period, Jackson was under fire because of alleged child abuse. Nobody knew then that he would be fully acquitted one year later. In any case, the choice of topic seemed controversial.

That was also the opinion of the Yale Daily News. Writer James Kirchick accused the organizers of the conference of academic nihilism. Jackson himself was labelled “a disturbed individual who engages in questionable sexual activity.” This alone, Kirchick argued, was reason enough to avoid Jackson as a subject of study.

Of course, when it came to Jackson, objectivity was rarely maintained, not even in academic circles. This was something the university newspaper could not deny. Jackson might have seemed controversial at the time, his work certainly had value as a starting point for an interdisciplinary dialogue.

Michael Jackson books

At a safe distance

In the wake of Yale, other academic institutions followed, but at a safe distance and only after Jackson had passed away. Scientists from, among others, Harvard, Princeton, Notre Dame and Berkeley reviewed Jackson’s origins and artistic choices.

What stood out, both within and outside of academia, was that Jackson was posthumously counted as a black artist. Duke University (USA), for example, offered the study programme ‘Michael Jackson and the Black Performance Tradition’.

This topic was not self-evident. Jackson’s changing skin colour, caused by the skin disease vitiligo, was one of the reasons why his substantial contribution to black music was undervalued for a long time.

It was not until after his death that this perception changed. Instead of a white ‘Wacko Jacko’ – the derogatory nickname with which Jackson was dismissed during his life as an otherworldly eccentric – he was posthumously declared ‘black’ and was called a ‘genius’ and ‘phenomenon’ in symposia titles.

Academic posters with Michael Jackson symposia

In 2015, Jackson – together with the African American writer and poet Maya Angelou – will be the subject of a new study programme. From July 13 to 18, the African American Arts & Heritage Academy in West Virginia (USA) will organise a summer academy on the work of both artists.

Jackson’s business empire

Jackson was interesting for academia not only in terms of race or gender, but also in terms of business, as evidenced by the MBA course ‘Michael Jackson: The Business of Music’. With this course, Clark Atlanta University (USA) drew in students who wanted to learn how Jackson had built up his business and financial empire.

More academic projects followed. Two librarians of the Texas Tech University (USA) compiled a special bibliography, which showed that Jackson’s influence reached far beyond Hollywood. The King of Pop had influenced serious topics such as mass communication, psychology, medicine, chemistry and even technology. “We could do a whole reference book on Jackson resources and still not cover it all,” the researchers wrote in their preface.

One and a half million dollars

Yet, Jackson’s appearance in the world of academia did not come entirely out of the blue. Although he had only completed high school, Jackson understood the importance of a good college education.

For this reason he founded an academic scholarship programme along with his sister Janet and the United Negro Scholarship Fund. The one and a half million dollars that he donated to the programme over the years were strategically invested, allowing the ‘Michael Jackson Scholarship’ to continue to exist to this very day.

Michael Jackson donating to his Scholarship Fund

The new Dr. ‘J.’

Jackson’s philanthropic efforts did not go unnoticed. As a token of recognition, Jackson received an honorary doctorate from Fisk University in New York in 1988 – a great honour, he thought, and the White House agreed with him. President Ronald Reagan sent Jackson a personal message: “Michael, I’m sorry that Nancy and I could not be with you for this very special day, but I want to congratulate you for the honours you are receiving tonight from the United Negro College Fund and the honorary degree awarded you by Fisk University. Let me be the first to call you the new Dr. ‘J.’”

Subtle self-mockery

More than ten years later, the prestigious Oxford Union Debating Society invited Dr. ‘J.’ to come to England. Despite criticism about Jackson’s imperturbable focus on children, he decided to use his visit to Oxford to launch his ‘Heal the Kids’ initiative.

His speech at the debating society was personal. Jackson discussed his years as a child star, the difficult relationship with his father Joe, and his personal experiences as a father of two of his three children at the time. The critical Oxford audience was pleasantly surprised by Jackson’s story, which he brought with subtle self-mockery and sometimes in tears.

Michael Jackson giving his Oxford Union speech in 2001

Still, Jackson did not feel inferior in Oxford. “Human knowledge consists not only of libraries of parchment and ink – it is also comprised of the volumes of knowledge that are written on the human heart, chiselled on the human soul, and engraved on the human psyche,” he said in his speech.

In this regard, with the many highs and lows that Jackson had experienced in his apocalyptic life, few could hold a candle to him. He received a standing ovation that lasted five minutes.

One line in a book

Jackson drew his knowledge not only from life experience, but also from books. “What’s so great about reading is that there might be something that you feel or want to say and you’ll come across it as a line in a book. You can sometimes read in one line in a book something that you’ve spent a lifetime trying to work out,” Jackson once said.

Wherever he resided, stacks of books were always close at hand. The fact that he held an academic honorary degree, made no difference. There was always something to learn, according to the King of Pop.

No one can tell how far Jackson’s moonwalk in academia would have progressed if he had still been alive. But the fact that his artistic and musical legacy resounds loudly in academia is beyond dispute. Many a scientist can only dream of that.

© Annemarie Latour

Note: This article is also available in Dutch.

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