For a figure as enigmatic as Michael Jackson, one of the more fascinating paradoxes about his career is this: as he became whiter, he became blacker. Or to put it another way: as his skin became whiter, his work became blacker.
To elaborate, we must rewind to a crucial turning point: the early 1990s. In hindsight, it represents the best of times and the worst of times for the artist. In November 1991, Jackson released the first single from his Dangerous album: Black or White, a bright, catchy pop-rock-rap fusion that soared to No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained at the top of the charts for six weeks. It was his most successful solo single since Beat It.
The conversation surrounding Jackson at this point, however, was not about his music. It was about his race. Sure, critics said, he might sing that it “don’t matter if you’re black or white”, but then why had he turned himself white? Was he bleaching his skin? Was he ashamed of his blackness? Was he trying to appeal to every demographic, transcend every identity category in a vainglorious effort to reach greater commercial heights than Thriller?
To this day, many assume Jackson bleached his skin to become white – that it was a wilful cosmetic decision because he was ashamed of his race. Yet in the mid-1980s Jackson was diagnosed with vitiligo, a skin disorder that causes loss of pigmentation in patches on the body. According to those close to him, it was an excruciatingly humiliating personal challenge, one in which he went to great lengths to hide through long-sleeve shirts, hats, gloves, sunglasses and masks. When Jackson died in 2009, his autopsy definitively confirmed he had vitiligo, as did his medical history.
As the King of Pop’s skin got lighter his music became more politicised, and 1991’s overlooked album encapsulated this radical moment in music