On a cool March night last year, I arrived at the bowling alley/concert venue Brooklyn Bowl to celebrate a good friend’s 30th birthday. I had spent the previous week eagerly anticipating the event, not because we’d be seeing a performance by a musician I greatly admire, but because we’d instead be dancing and sweating and singing along to the music of a performer I greatly admire. We were there to see a Michael Jackson tribute band.
Unfortunately, when the band, wittily called Who’s Bad, took to the stage, my excitement dissolved into confusion. The lead singer certainly looked like Michael Jackson — at least from far away and when I stood on my tip-toes to catch a glimpse beyond the heads of hundreds of people — but he didn’t really sound like him; inevitably, he sounded a lot worse. Who’s Bad had fantastic energy, and as they cycled through MJ’s greatest hits, I had to give them credit for giving it what seemed like their all. And I did dance, because MJ’s music in almost any form flips a switch inside me that makes my legs start moving. But the confusion continued to nudge my brain. Was this really more fun than gathering in someone’s living room and dancing to Michael Jackson’s own recordings of his songs? I couldn’t tell.
These thoughts returned to me when I sat down with Lorena Turner’s book The Michael Jacksons, published last year by Little Moth Press. The book is the end product of a journey, funded in part through Kickstarter, to track down, photograph, and interview Michael Jackson impersonators, or “representers,” as Turner comes to call them. In total, she photographed 35 of them and interviewed more, which still seems to amount to a small slice of an undoubtedly very large subculture.
What makes a good Michael Jackson representer — is it the image, the voice, the dance moves, or some combination of the three (all in coordination with the context)? Turner attempts to answer these questions in the written portion of the book, which consists of an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion, all penned by her (and in dire need of copy editing). She sorts the representers into three categories — lookalikes, impersonators, and tribute artists — and explains that the expectations of each are different: a lookalike “relies on the physical resemblance to Michael Jackson and the quality of the costume”; an impersonator “employs a skilled use of character in his or her performance, and might incorporate some singing, dancing, and more character-appropriate language”; a tribute artist “is freed to explore their Michael Jackson performances more fully, and in more individualistic ways.”
If that all sounds a bit dry, particularly given the rich subject matter, it’s because it is — the book is billed as an “ethnographic monograph” on its title page, and the writing has the tone and feel of an academic paper or thesis. And yet, contrary to how I imagine “ethnographic” studies are meant to go, Turner spends too much time on her own experiences, no time on at all on the broader social milieu of impersonation (what of Elvis, Lincoln, and Marilyn?), and far too little time on her actual subjects. Only two chapters are devoted to the routines, lives, and rituals of some of the MJ representers; they are by far the most fascinating. It’s there that Turner’s grand ideas about how “the Michael Jacksons embody both the fluidity of identity, and the power of blackness as a cultural signifier” and how “their performances, the particular ways in which they create the character of Michael Jackson, transcend skin color, racial identity, and gender identity” play out.
Jen Amerson, for instance, is a white single mother who “during the summer months … can support her two children with the income she earns impersonating Michael Jackson at parties, reunions, and meetings.” She performs mostly for black audiences. Meanwhile, Jovan Rameau, an African American man with an MFA from the Institute of Advanced Theater Training at Harvard, spends his days loitering on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where he finds that “‘black people absolutely refuse me, saying that I’m too black,'” and “‘white people love me for my authenticity.'” There are certainly fascinating dynamics of identity to be explored through the Michael Jacksons, but too often Turner’s theories feel unmoored from her examples.
Where the book springs to life is in the photographs (unsurprisingly, since Turner is primarily a photographer). Turner writes at one point that she hoped to capture her subjects in “a moment, however fleeting, when the essence of their individuality was visible through the Michael Jackson visage.” And indeed, what’s most striking is how wide a variety of people and images are represented within a group ostensibly devoted to imitating one man (albeit a man with many styles and periods). A handful of representers, among them Rameau, look so startlingly convincing in both facial features and expression that it prompts a few seconds of mental configuration. Others, like MJs Raven (Crystal Pullen), wear Jacksonesque clothing and strike Jacksonesque poses but look basically like themselves, conjuring an idea of the real MJ more than anything else.
The best photographs show performers whose appearances simultaneously display and collapse the distance between representer and represented — for example, a portrait of HollywoodMJ Christof (Christof Ryulin) that also graces the cover. Ryulin’s face, hair, and hat plausibly suggest ’90s-era Michael Jackson, from the light skin tone to the structure of the nose to the chin cleft and delicate lips. But as you gaze at the rest of the image, you stumble on two hands that don’t seem like they could possibly belong to the same body as the head, because of both their color (brown) and size (large). This is Michael Jackson as exquisite corpse, Michael Jackson in a crucible of melted time, Michael Jackson as vessel and as mantle.
How does it feel to wear that mantle and shape it to yourself? What would drive you to do it? These are the questions I can’t stop asking after reading The Michael Jacksons. We’ll need another book to answer them.