That dead star of immense gravity and uncertain orbit

(This is a preliminary chunk of a piece I'm writing for the upcoming zer0 volume on Michael Jackson, The Resistible Demise of Michael Jakson, coming out this December. This take on Captain EO is part of a broader question about the transition from an artist of tremendous pop cultural value making "apolitical" music to an artist increasingly detached from any sense of which way the cultural wind was blowing, coupled with massive inertia and capital that allowed him to continue to "matter". It is at the extended point of this turn, the moment also of emergent neoliberalism, that the music self-declares as something political: the pseudo-universality of it from after Thriller on, the rise of the maudlin sincerity of NGO culture, the one-world-hypothesis of imposed market relations that couldn't be further from the "there can be but one world" thought of Communism. Here I tackle Captain EO, that child's primer for late capitalist imperialism and the early germ of what Michael will become after the point at which he should have died.)

Things go to glittering shit.

Can't you see?
You're just another part of me.
Woo! Another part of me.

- "We Are Here to Change the World", from Captain EO


A year of surfaces and of what should not have risen to them. Unmoored, unwanted, the cargo ship Khian Sea wandered the oceans with its haul of toxic waste, angling for a trench deep enough and or island unlegislated enough to swallow it. Elsewhere, in the midst of supposed disarmament, domestic nuclear – and nuclear domesticity, finally yuppie-stretched to its breaking point – blew its lid. In Chernobyl, toxic winds blew, sicknesses started and stuck around.

Meanwhile, on other surfaces of public awareness, the hidden-in-plain-view obscenity of U.S. foreign policies of aid and condemnation, support to the lesser evil and funds to the anti-Communist, roared into sight. Ronald Reagan signs the Goldwater-Nichols Act. Early and persistent signs that the war of civilizations was no longer about American freedom versus Stalinist discipline. Rather, the capitalism claimed under lumbering American hegemony, deregulation, and supposed melting all solid national boundaries into the air of wired markets and demilitarized zones of engagement versus the new oldest enemy, unincorporable fundamentalisms, radical Islam.

Neoliberalism starts to hit its stride. The Space Shuttle Challenger goes up, and then up in smoke.

And in the world of culture, Michael Jackson buys a pet chimpanzee, becomes increasingly tabloid-known as estranged from reality, releases Captain EO, and lives on past the point of his death.


From this play of surfaces, deviations, and betrayals, two questions:

What does it mean for a giant to persist past his cultural death, to become a tidal behemoth detached from the ground, and circulating, dictating trends, effecting patterns of resistance and attraction? To not die correctly but to linger on?

How to understand Jackson’s trajectory? An artist of tremendous political and cultural symbolic value who made “apolitical” music. And then who became that cultural behemoth, out of touch with the times, who mattered largely as the slow articulation of a carnival wreckage, yet who increasingly functioned as a “political” artist, his themes dominated by the gloss of globalization-era universality?

Our answer, or any answer capable of grasping this tectonic shift, can only be formed along lines of materialist analysis: a situating of this not-unexpected disaster in its historical moment. That moment is precisely the coming-of-age of neoliberalism and the accompanying cultural forms that provide its illusions of resistance and care. This is the moment of 1986, of Captain EO, which is not only bound to its moment but which is a consummate, unnerving document of the era that points the nasty way forward.

In what way is 1986 a registration, after the fact of his real death 23 years later, of Jackson’s “death”, of his momentous persistence? This is neither a Thriller-esque zombie undead nor a resurrection. Just the sheer force and banal fact of the momentum of those with enough cultural capital to go on, ceaselessly. The dead star. To keep making the same damn moves, increasingly drug-hollowed and haunting, for fans to still cry out and weep for someone whose greatest cultural relevance became his uncanny insistence against innovation in favor of minor recombinations. And not to go out like an Otis Redding, snuffed out mid-burn.

As for the trajectory of the music toward “political” orientation, a chronology explains a lot. In 1988, N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton. In 1990, Public Enemy released Fear of a Black Planet. And in 1991, in the video for “Black or White,” Michael Jackson has Macaulay Culkin standing on a stoop in “hip-hop” clothes, rapping the words, “I’m not going to spend / My life being a color.”

Race blind.

That level of total and utter disconnect from the way that the cultural wind is blowing is mirrored, in dark inversion, by the deep connection between the “politicization” of his music with the metaphysics, cultural presence, and structure of the NGO (non-governmental organization). The disavowal of enemies that results in the depoliticization of those you colonize. The false universality of inclusion of those enemies who you don’t dare call as such. That massive flow of capital and technics of empire of which the appearance of an under funded bunch of humanitarians is simply the most advanced tactic in the world of the spectacle. That surface skating of the refusal to address systemic change, money and idealism thrown at problems that swallow massive swathes of the world in hunger and war.

In short, when Michael stops making music to dance to and starts making music to convince us – or perhaps himself – to “heal the world.” At the very moment when he begins to address the world at large, and no longer from his singular, uncertain position, is the point where he leaves the world behind for his own peculiar orbit.

Is there something constitutively new in this shift? Is it a great betrayal of what he was, not just in the musical form but in what he meant to people? Perhaps against some others in this volume, I see it as there from the start. A tendency waiting to emerge, for the underground grandiosity of pop music itself to overleap its own boundaries. A body of work of pure surface and shine that may have traversed the machinic march of disco and may have made it into something gorgeously inorganic, but only to welcome the cold new world of the Reagan years.

That is another question, a longer work of division and digging. Here, it is the question not of where the “betrayal” started but where it becomes impossible to ignore, where the contradictions not only of Jackson but of a historical conjuncture gained enough gravity, mass, and hurtling force of repetition to give shape to the years that followed.


To beat up Captain EO, the Francis Ford Coppola directed, George Lucas executive produced, Jackson starring "3-D musical motion picture space adventure" for Disney theme parks, for being reactionary or political problematic would be hitting a dead horse shaped punching bag. Too easy, expected, and not very productive. It is, after all, a Disney production, which pretty much guarantees its ideological fuckedness.

What is worth considering, however, is the particularity of its political awfulness. For, at the end of the day, Captain EO is a child's primer for neoliberal imperialism, anticipating the Washington Consensus era of humanitarian interventions and economic prescriptions in all its self-congratulatory anxiety.

It is also the early triumph of the mass cultural figure that acted, along with the boldness of yuppie consumerism, as capitalism's public relations life-support system: the emergence of NGO culture. The clanging discordance between the brutal consequences of forced reform packages for developing natures and the pious diversity speak of New Age tinged one-worldism. Like a time capsule with blundering aliens, power-of-love musical lasers, and choreographed group dance numbers, Captain EO is a promise to the globalization barbarisms of the near future.

The cosmos.

Of course, its near futurity is cast in the swirling milky garb of a distant galaxy, against the backdrop of the cosmos writ large. A broken glass sound of chimes, surging symphonics, and a twinkle of light (which turns out to be a small asteroid to be destroyed by our heroes). And the narration:

The cosmos. A universe of good and evil where a small group struggles to bring freedom to the countless worlds of despair.

It is no great stretch to hear the prescient echo in this of so much of the neoliberal discourse about the world order. Even the cosmological scale is not out of place, the telescoping slippage between local zones of engagement and an ongoing battle between incompatible conceptions of the universal. Even more, the fraught relation between how to relate these conceptions to the real situations they aim to capture.

What steps in here, then, to this deadlock, is the "small group," presumably on the good side of the cosmological equation. Guerilla freedom fighters, sniping from the mountains against occupying forces? A Leninist vanguard setting off the tinder of international revolution? A messianic group with the holy task conviction of the need to intervene into the course of history? Not exactly: "A ragtag band led by the infamous Captain EO."

The rag-tag bunch. And as always, that military cut of coat.

What distinguishes the fantasy of Captain EO/Michael as freedom-bringing missionary of the unity of the cosmos from these other historical figures isn't so much the soft tone of his speech or the emphasis on love and beauty. (Because as the film shows us, one can speak softly and still carry a big musical number, transforming laser stick.) It is the resolute ahistoricity of the mission he has been assigned, the fantasy of the band of misfits fighting the good fight against a time that has no place for them. Forget the normal difficulty of the small group waging war against imperial orders. They have the double task of convincing history that the era of war is over and of declaring their enemies to be allies all along, who were so clouded with rage and mistrust couldn't see their inner beauty. The aesthetic vanguard no longer burns the museum for being a graveyard. It tells those graves that they have beautiful souls waiting to be unlocked.

Tellingly, Michael's shimmering garb retains that shadow of citation: it is futuristic, technical, pure, and above all, insistent in its vaguely military look. A look that surfaces throughout his costuming, from its Napoleonic incarnations, the red armbands and fake medals, the naval coats and epaulettes and collar stripes, to its peak in the massive statues of him made for HIStory, when the continued demolition of statues of Stalin in the Eastern Bloc met its match in the erection of Michael as dictator, Michael as guarantor and inheritor of history. A bandolier-strapping revolutionary set to rewrite the books of the present to tell his story, an arc in which his fall from grace is neither degradation or misrecognition, but a necessary work of forging this history.

Here, though, nine years before HIStory, we have yet to reach the full fallout of History declared with the end of the Soviet Union and the further totalization of global markets. This burgeoning narrative is a different one. Here, it is precisely that of the ragtag band, the scrappy underfunded heterogeneous crew united by a true belief in their ability to change the world. The ones who latch onto the present with the tenacity of those who know the despair of countless worlds and the conviction of being part of a continued project to bring freedom, to circumvent the normal channels and procedures. They won't be expecting just one man... To be the non-state, non-political actor on the world stage, to be the principle of NGOs without the money and time that makes them possible (and which was the very foundation in 1992 of Jackson's own NGO/charitable organization, the Heal the World Foundation).

Part of the particularity of Jackson's vision in Captain EO is that of a world of scrambling non-expertise, of happy accidents, Inspector Clouseau-like bumbling, and the plucky spirit that will win over hearts and minds in the end.

And the part that most sums this up is the awfulness that is Hooter:

Hooter, a likely ancestor to Jar Jar Binks. Apparently Lucas has long had a fondness for alien characters so insufferable that you pray for their death.

Hooter, the oddly abject multiple trunk-orifice-farting buffoon who constantly derails their plans, exists solely as an excuse to show Captain EO's beneficence, his gentle Christ eyes at those who mean well. Everyone deserves a place in the rickety ship of freedom sharing, especially those who compensate for total incompetence with total idiocy, supposedly endearing to the children at Disney but which I can only imagine as rather terrifying.

The obvious reference through Captain EO, and the touchpoint that reveals the specificity of it as a product of both its historical moment and the trajectory of Jackson as a cultural figure, is the Star Wars trilogy. EO is explicitly a Star Wars reloaded, from its special effects to its "quirky" side characters. Yet it inflects not only the look and trope of the film, but, more than that, the not-so-buried undercurrents of it. In other words,
the cultural seepage of Lucas' trilogy is taken as a given for watchers of Captain EO: Jackson's Lucas-film exists only in the minimal differences it draws out between itself and its source material.

The framing device and minor cues are all there: from the talented but not respected savior gifted with mysterious powers, to the "oh, Hooter" that may as well be "oh, R2." Yet when we approach the crew's destination, things start to go off-kilter, and the messianic imperial clarity of Star Wars warps in Jackson's anamorphic lens.

A world of trash, a world worth defending

From afar, this is Death Star, part two, with a spacefighter chase through its channels pulled directly from Star Wars. Then we get closer... and it turns out to be a world of scrap, a
refashioned landfill, cobbled and salvaged into something liveable. This junk aesthetic continues to the henchmen of the Supreme Leader, rising from the piles of industrial waste, legions of filth and fury.

Whatever they are, they are definitely not the Taylorist-Fascist white gleam of Stormtroopers

As such, not the manufactured consequence of an all-powerful, financialized empire, but survivors of something like that empire, staking a claim on an inherited landscape. Not built from scratch, not installed, but wound into and through its landscape.

(This, the site and position of the enemy, may be the site of Jackson's betrayal of what he was and the we forged around his cultural presence: the one dancing on and working through, the flawless occupation of an inherited landscape, the industry bordering on "the ruins of punk and the chic regions of synthesizer pop" (from a TIME article about the music world before Thriller). Stepping into the wasteland, making it his own. Then becoming the Empire against which he was posed, at least by fans. Becoming that Death Star and dead star of immense gravity and uncertain orbit, an artificial world in all its impossible disconnection from any world we might call home.)

Giger Khomeini?

This imperial cast-off world gains its deep historical specificity with the first hissing words of the "Supreme Leader" to Jackson and his companions:

Silence! Infidel! You infect my world with your presence!

From the designation of "Supreme Leader" to the specificity of infidel as epithet, she is coded explicitly as the figure of
Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, albeit in H.R. Giger electric cable bondage wear. Two years before the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the supposed threat of Khomeini's Shi'a Pan-Islamism was apparently palpable enough to worm its way into the smiles-and-lasers world of Jackson's Epcot vision.

It also brings to the surface the heart of the superficial politics that would come to swallow Jackson, the universalizing one-cosmos justification of the invading saviors (EO himself states that they have come "uninvited and unannounced") versus the singularity of a world, of the "countless worlds of despair" each being someone's world.

Uninvited and unannounced.

The arrival of the NGO shock-troops is indeed an infection of the whole world. For what they bring with them is that global vision, that perversion of communist universality and its having the key to unlock it: no longer class analysis, but market relations, smart bombs, and puppet democracies. (Or, in this case, music to unlock the beauty hidden inside this world of rage and trash.)

Our protagonists in a not-very-democratic throne room to be "transformed" by high tech, smart weaponry

But in Captain EO, no one is very high up the totem pole. The Supreme Leader doesn't seem to rule supremely past her trashworld and small retinue of guards. And EO and his band? Just lowly scouts, sent to bring a gift to one more self-declared Supreme Leader. A war of minor threats and colonization. A war with an absent empire, a force somewhere propelling the whole infernal machine, an empire visible only in the do-gooders who come as the cultural tendrils of the dominant order to be.

For what they bring, after all, is the declaration of the inner beauty of the Supreme Leader, which just needs a key to unlock it. To bring a gift to someone as beautiful as you... Or as it is more commonly phrased in our times of the planned decimation of peoples and local economies: to bring market relations to someone as democratic as you...

And so begins the central set piece of the film, the song "We Are Here to Change The World," the song that sets the template for the terrible, sentimental, hollow, derivative, unhinged pseudo-political output that came to dominate his post-Bad output and cultural position. Some images give a sense:

The robots transform into instruments/prototypes for cheap tie-in toes to be sold at Disney stores.

Once defenders of the junkland, now jumpsuited backup dancers

A different sort of rainbow coalition.

From bound to the machine...

... to mass subcultural pompadour dancer

The beautifying laser power of the collective belief in the democratic good of the cosmos.

After the choreographed fight, the dance, the transformations, the film concludes the ultimate neoliberal coup de grace, the refusal to call your enemies enemies, instead folding them back into your narrative, the shaming of having to accept the cultural terms of occupation and be thankful. Here, a jubilatory Stockholm Syndrome that takes the form of the transformation/"unlocking the inner beauty" of the Supreme Leader herself.

The acceptable kind of Arabness: a sort of Princess Jasmine-like garden of Hellenic temple and exotic yet non-threatening delights. Undoing the industrial sexiness of the clawed Supreme Leader.

The Christian overtones of the song ("We're on a mission in the everlasting light that shines / A revelation of the truth and chapters of our minds")are not out of place with this rendering of the Islamic militant into the mere window dressing of a Garden of Allah.

The liberated thank those who freed them from their way of life.

The site of resistance into a Hellenic temple of democratic roots. Replacing the proper, yet telluric, universality of radical Islam with the pseudo-universal of globalized capital and the unquestionability of democracy. Removing the ground from which one can say you don't belong here: but there is just one world, we're just trying to heal it. Undermining even the right to the wastelands of capitalism, even the scrap heaps produced in the wake of making one smooth, globalized empire of circulation. And above all, the end of the age of enemies, the obscene non-question at the end of a gun: we're doing this to help you, this war is for your sake, don't you want to be modern and democratic? Why are you still resisting?

Our job here is done.


The soft-hue and multi-color death knell of other modes of living. Pockets of the universe that resist. Of the singular we of that talented young black man that many saw Jackson to be. Before he, and the apologists of neoliberalism, started to believe his own bullshit, when he should have shuffled off this earth but instead went to the cosmos. The sounds of a silent gliding moonwalk over countless worlds of despair. The non-contact of the end of difference and enemies, replaced by all being part of him. The obscene universal embrace of those who secede from the world of the living and the dead.


Anonymous said...


socialism and/or barbarism said...

That's pretty optimistic to imagine that anyone will be doing much cashing in from this book. Hell, I'd be happy if that were the case.

Anonymous said...

padding the bibliography, aggregating 'cred', making actual bread - as the case may be... you're still dogpiling on top of his grave along with corey feldman, us magazine and michael's daddy.

socialism and/or barbarism said...

So? I find that kind of piety bullshit. For two reasons:

1. I didn't know the man, didn't particularly care about him. Graves exist to be robbed, if you can find something interesting to do with what you find.

2. The fact that people are "dogpiling" on his grave, that there is this mix of grief and total rapacious cashing-in, is reason enough to think and write about this.

Johanna said...

I'm with you, as per bar conversations. But I don't get the always already thing. I want to Rock With you has vestiges of a utopian queer moment that I wouldn't want to dismiss in one fell swoop. -jo

socialism and/or barbarism said...

Indeed, there are glimmers and moments worth saving. I'm just kicking back a bit against some sense that the early years hailed generally to a radical collective "we." That may be the case (especially in songs like I Want to Rock with You), but I think I'm responding to, what for me, is an overvalorization of what the music was, different from what people retroactively demand it to have meant. Maybe some of it is simply that I've never been a tremendous fan. More of it is that I think those utopian moments are exceptions in a broader tendency toward the pseudo-political that was there, if not from the start and across the board, then certainly not far below the surface.

Seb said...

Picking up where my anonymous colleague left off...

1) "Graves exist to be robbed"... An understandable sentiment, if you were a 15-yr-old Marilyn Manson fan who'd just read Bakunin For Beginners. I understand you're trying to make this dovetail with your whole "salvagepunk" ethos, but this smacks too much of adolescent cosplay. Then again, I also can't fathom why people take black metal seriously, so there's a schism...

Besides, ever since the world realised that MJ was, in fact, mortal (probably around his big 30th birthday rebranding) people have been picking his pockets & cutting swatches from his epaulettes with each step he took towards the tomb. Robbing his grave is, at the very least, overkill & unoriginal.

2) So it's worth talking about the fact that people are talking about him? Wow, good argument - the same kind of recursive induction that navel-gazers, sycophants, vultures, publicists, network heads of programming, and people who know who Kim Kardashian is all use to justify the 24-hour hypecycle of "celebrity" trivia, slogans over substance, rubbernecking reality TV, and "debates" reduced to vacuous soundbites. Give the people what they want! Then tell the people about how what they want is being given to them!

Is that really all there is to cultural theory these days?

socialism and/or barbarism said...

If you've read anything I've written, as I know you have, you'd know that's not what interests me with cultural theory and that it isn't what I write about. You've got a bad slippage between content and historical form going on here. I don't give a shit about celebrities. What is of more interest - not particularly to me, but there can be productive takes on this - is the relation between regimes of capitalist accumulation, political ideology, and the "star system". And the heart of what I wrote is that MJ himself is one of those rare instances where we see that whole mess knotted up in a single figure. More than that, a figure who became aware of this position and hence exerted tremendous sway, thereby producing certain conditions and ideas about what popular culture is that we all still have to deal with now. In other words, it isn't worth talking about anyone that the buzzing self-consumptive world of the media talks about it - it's worth considering the historical and structural shifts that underpin and can, on occasion, be detected in their inane frenzy.

If you want to caricature any cultural theory that is interested in thinking this as the same thing as Kardashian soundbites themselves, go for it. But if you really can't or don't want see a difference between the two, I can't and don't really care to try and convince you.