Is Your Baby Going to Be Black or White? Michael Jackson, “Black or White” (1991)

June 25, 2009.  Rest In Pop, Michael Jackson.  I’ve watched Michael’s 1983 Motown Special performance of “Billie Jean” over and over on youtube, showing it to everyone I can grab: While Michael was a great creator of vocal hooks, the MJ hook that seems definitive now, a video exclusive, is his unstoppable gesture of hooking up his pants like a kid under attack by puberty, a man-to-be just starting to know the sweet demon.

Life is too short to write about material that isn’t great, but Michael made a significant song with an awful video in 1991, “Black or White,” that may well hit a certain nail on the head as regards race difference.  Here is a version:

“Black or White” is a message song.  The refrain is “If you’re thinkin’ about my baby it don’t matter if you’re black or white.”  What makes the video awful is the Disney World treatment of the message, Michael romping on stage sets with stereotyped African hunters, Wild West Indians, Thai dancers, Cossacks, etc., followed by a serial morphing of wholesome faces into each other, a televisual conquest of ethnic diversity, at the end.  It’s gauche, it’s banal, it seems like an unauthorized use of world cultures and current events and the Statue of Liberty and Macaulay Culkin and everything else.

But the song says that my baby is beyond black or white, which is a peculiarly pointed way of asserting that love does not discriminate.  Does it not?  Brotherly love, no, religious love, no, but the fact of race is that sexual love massively does discriminate, that people belong to populations of restricted eligibility for dating and mating.  Of course it’s just a matter of choice; we could snap our fingers and make the whole scheme disappear and the fact of race with it.  But we mostly don’t.  Precisely our baby, the product of our sexual love, is hostage to our choosing, and we are hostage to it.  We can’t betray (or plenty of folks will try to stop us from betraying) that baby who will grow up and go to school and church and be able to get a job amongst families we eat with, families we trust much more than the others.  The vast majority of us are sold into that system, and we’re afraid of big trouble in doing things differently.

In “Black or White,” Michael confronts all this in a Michaelish way.  There’s his own racially strange persona as of 1991, which is much to the point of this song, but there’s also that quality in his performance of just crossing into adulthood, as though the big things are just dawning on him.  He is old enough to be sexual, pleading for his “baby” in that way, but he is still obviously someone’s baby in the sense of being someone’s child.  In hitting on the baby issue, he gives us a chance to do a double-take.  Yes, let’s think about the baby.  Even if we have to watch those “Black or White” babies playing together on top of the world one more time.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Identities, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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