I was watching a video the other day in which Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire, his nose fell off and he invited kids to sit on his lap. It was only later that I realized it was a parody. At first I thought it was a highlight reel of his career.
I was watching another video in which a young Muslim girl, frustrated with being harassed because of her ethnicity, blows herself up inside an airport terminal — except it’s all make-believe, her fantasy of revenge. Realizing that we all have revenge fantasies at some time or another — and as long as they remain fantasies, they’re harmless and normal — I assumed some artist was offering a psychological insight, and everyone else watching would get that.
But I was wrong on both counts. This is America, land of the free, home of the brave, and breeding ground for controversy. This is a country that saw a one-second glimpse of Janet Jackson’s breast on national television and reacted as if someone had replaced “Sesame Street” with “Deep Throat.” So it’s no surprise that both of the aforementioned videos are raising a ruckus, even though neither figures to destroy the fabric of our society, or even wrinkle it.
The Michael Jackson video, “Just Lose It,” is the handiwork of rapper Eminem. It falls into the category of gimmickry rather than music. The song itself is instantly forgettable.
Yet Michael has guaranteed that this video will enjoy a long and healthy life by demanding that cable channels remove it from their rotations. With yet another grievous miscalculation in a career rife with them, Michael has provided Eminem with the kind of publicity one can’t buy.
There isn’t enough acreage on Neverland Ranch to accommodate the number of people in the media and the arts who have taken shots at Michael Jackson. The reason is simple: Michael has provided plenty of ammunition.
If you invite young boys to sleep with you — and later admit it in an interview, no less — then you can’t complain if somebody points out the unusual nature of that proclivity. If you have plastic surgery as often as other people have haircuts, then you can’t gripe if someone takes a jab at your phony proboscis.
If you can't take the heat ...
And if you continually get yourself into legal scrapes because of alleged molestation incidents, then you become a goblin representing the fears of young children rather than a crusader for their well-being — a fact Eminem points out rather emphatically, albeit crudely, in “Just Lose It”: “Come here, little kiddie, on my lap. Guess who’s back with a brand new rap.”
Michael was less than pleased. In a recent interview, he said: “I am very angry at Eminem’s depiction of me in his video. I feel that it is outrageous and disrespectful. It is one thing to spoof, but it is another to be demeaning and insensitive.”
Michael needs to take responsibility for being Michael. He won’t, of course, because that would require emerging from his freakazoid existence and acting like the rest of us. But he brought all of this on himself, and it’s disingenuous of him to cry foul now. He has descended from the pinnacle of pop into a national joke, and the public just went along for the ride.
In “Cinnamon Girl,” Prince doesn’t attempt to spoof. He’s pointing out the dire societal and human consequences of allowing ignorant, bigoted, narrow-minded people to trod on the rights and dignity of others simply because of their race, religion or ethnicity. And naturally, by doing so, he has brought the ignorant, the bigoted and the narrow-minded out of the woodwork.
Just her imaginationKeisha Castle-Hughes, nominated for an Academy Award for her splendid performance in “Whale Rider,” plays an Arab-American teenager in post 9/11 America. After an airplane crash, we see Hughes’ character is persecuted because of her Arab ancestry. She is seen taping a video, and then detonating a bomb in an airport. But immediately the scene rewinds, and we then realize it was all just her imagination. She was pushed to the brink, and it caused her to have horrible thoughts.
But because we live in an environment driven by fear, there are many who hear about a Prince video involving an Arab girl and a bomb and it causes them to see the controversy and not the message. It could also be that the ones expressing the most outrage over this Prince video are of the same ilk as those who would persecute Muslims for being Muslims.
It’s just a video. It doesn’t denounce the United States of America. It denounces racism. It doesn’t promote terrorism, it promotes tolerance. It provides a portal into the mind of a fictional character who is angry and frustrated enough to contemplate — but never act upon — the worst.
I’ve contemplated — but never acted upon — the worst, whatever that was for me. I’d venture to guess that most people have, whatever it is for them. If you insist you haven’t had dark thoughts at moments of peak anger, you’re either a saint or a liar.
Prince illuminates these dark thoughts in an effort to raise awareness. He’s not trivializing terrorism, he’s urging understanding. If he has to show a bomb going off in an airline terminal in order to achieve his goal, it’s probably because there are a lot of people out there who don’t seem to be getting the message otherwise. Certain people need a bomb to explode — figuratively speaking — in order to make them pay attention.
Both “Just Lose It” and “Cinnamon Girl” are directed at a young audience already saturated with images of celebrity misdeeds and global violence. Anything Eminem and Prince can put on film isn’t nearly as outrageous as the reality that inspired them.
Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.