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Smooth Criminals: Michael Jackson & the Last ‘Thriller’ in Cebu

Late last night, passing from the waning phase of my jetlag from the Philippines to the jarring realization that my actual sleep schedule in the States has always been fucked up, I sat in a stupor watching the relentless media coverage of Michael Jacksons death: the prurient repetition of the 9-1-1 phone call; the heartrending messages of mourning from his inner circle of tortured show people like  Liza Minnelli  and Liz Taylor; the  Larry King Live  blindsiding of Miko Brando by Deepak Chopra, who accused Michaels intimate coterie (Miko implicitly included) of enabling the pop star’s alleged prescription drug dependency.

Just when I thought all  this  had to be the sideshow, Anderson Cooper and one of his lady sidekicks on CNN clarified the stakes for me by nervously cackling at the “freakish” spectacle of the CPDRC inmates preparing their  last “Thriller in Cebu” tribute for MJ this Saturday.

AC and his gal pal really lost it during the quick cut close-ups of Wenjiel Resane, the transsexual inmate who famously originated the “girlfriend” role in the prisoners’ mass  “Thriller” reenactment, a viral video sensation that’s racked up over 20 million hits since it debuted on YouTube in 2007.

“Yikes!” the devilishly handsome, gay Vanderbilt exclaimed as Wenjiel whipped her hair back in a bluster of baby powder make-up.

ACs sidekick in the Tina Fey glasses (I think Erica is her name), could only respond to Anderson’s awkward, tell-tale giggle of self-recognition by  vamping quickly into a he/she, gender trouble joke:

“I don’t remember THAT guy! Or was it a woman? I don’t know if I wanna know which one it was…”

I cant deny the quick cut humor of the video and its awkward close-up. Wenjiel is also clearly hamming it up for the cameras. But I still have plenty of reasons to be suspicious and pissed off about AC and his gal pals gigglesnorting. What exactly were they laughing at beyond clever editing?

Were they laughing at Wenjiels trannyliciousness? Laughing at those crazy Filipinos for being such over-the-top show people with a flair for jazz hands, even in a maximum security prison? Were they laughing at the fact that Anderson was hair-flipping in his heart, but holding it together for the broadcast? (Clearly this is my very reparative read). Or were they laughing at how appropriate a tribute like the Cebu inmates video truly is for Michael Jackson who, as  Richard Kim explained so eloquently  in  The  Nation, is a “freak like me, a freak like you.”

En masse, through their own spectacle of disciplined collectivity, the CPDRC inmates embody MJ’s many demons as well as triumphs: their accountability to an opportunistic and violent task master; their troubled relationship to race as it intersects with celebrity; the naive belief that success and fame will set you free if only in your own mind. These logics associated with MJ’s tragedy also expose the world to the Philippines’ vexed relationship to American popular culture, to all its “whiteness and promises”–as a typo on the  Magic Mic  karaoke lyrics to The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” once declared.

(For a ferocious, thoughtful and affecting take on Michael’s blackness and gender,  see Ernest Hardy’s beautiful words, excerpted here at length:  “Coming of age amidst proud shouts of ‘Black is beautiful’ and effortlessly embodying the adage, but somehow getting infected with the centuries-old disease of white supremacy and internalized racism that will have you repeatedly take a knife to your natural born beauty”¦ thats so very Black…So many of the tributes being written, especially by Negroes, and most especially by Negro males, think they are bestowing the ultimate praise on him by positioning him alongside conventional, traditional soul men or icons of Negro male cool. Make that unquestionable hetero Negro male cool. But the thing about Michael, especially in his adolescent and early adult years, was that he resonated so powerfully precisely because he upended and shimmered beyond gender convention…Mike evolved from childhood mimicry of the masculinity of soul titans to something more complex and more layered. It was his. And it eventually housed a much more problematic sexuality.”)

During the frenzy of the 2007 release of the CPDRC “Thriller” video,  Wenjiel  remarked in a CNN Asia interview that “I tried being a performer before, but no one took any notice”¦Now, in jail, I have become a star.” She continues to share a single cell with about a dozen other transsexuals in the CPDRC, offering us another perspective on Erica’s joke to Anderson on CNN:

“We clearly know who the star is in this prison!”

Like their exemplar, Michael Jackson, the CPDRC inmates bear the burden of having their own fame stand in for real reform. Despite the positive PR generated by throngs of tourists who now make special trips to the Cebu prison just to see the inmates’ performances, the penal justice system in the Philippines continues to devolve to Marcos-style totalitarianism at the hands ofGMA and her cronies.

As I mentioned in an MLA talk this past year, the emergence of the CPDRC dance videos coincided in 2007 with the end of a 4-year  moratorium on capital punishment in the Philippines, which was abolished after the first People Power revolution in 1986, but crept back into the criminal justice system in 1993. The man who reintroduced the death penalty into Filipino law was Congressman Pablo Garcia of Cebu. The man who choreographed the inmates re-enactments of “Thriller” among other pop hits, is Byron F. Garcia, the Congressmans son.

Byron choreographed the routines in his official capacity as Consultant on Security for the Cebu Provincial Government, a position he was appointed to by the Governor of Cebu,  Gwendolyn Garcia“”his sister.

Though the Garcia’s bureaucratic family melodrama may be the  real  ‘Thriller in Cebu,’ I’ll leave that muckraking for another moment in time when we poptimists  of the world won’t have as much leeway to play fast and loose with metaphors about monarchs.

The King of Pop’s tragic fate as a songbird trapped in a gilded cage wrought by the media, as well as of his own making, has and will continue to shape every story about his life and untimely death. And yet I worry that in the frenzy of it all, Michael Jackson’s earnestly critical relationship to spectacles of suffering on scales both global and intimate will garner little attention (with the noteworthy exception of course, of  Jason King’s stunningly comprehensive take on MJ’s voice, life and humanitarian efforts on his blog, “Passed the Curve”).

Like the legions of poptimists he leaves bereft with his passing, Michael Jackson never stopped believing in the power of pop to (at the very least)  try. To try to say something important, even if it sounds  silly and schmaltzy, or fails miserably. To try bringing the world together even as it all falls apart (as he so famously did when he climbed atop an SUV to wave to spectators at his own arraignment in 2005). To try giving your best performance day in and day out, even if it kills you.

I conclude here with the memory of  that  Michael Jackson, popping strident and soft. Michael imagining himself in prison in “They Don’t Care About Us.” Michael rehearsing “Human Nature” alone on stage, picturing himself in front of his audience, preparing to sing and dance not just for us, but also  with  us, despite our eerie absence. Michael saying, Michael singing the things we needed to hear. Or at least trying with all his heart to. – (KT)