Enemy from the West: Jackson-mania in the USSR

This article from the Dangerous Zone fanzine (issue #10) takes us back to the anti-Western propaganda of the Soviet Union which also stigmatized Michael Jackson, despite his overly positive image at the time. The article is interesting because it demonstrates how rapidly Michael’s art spread across the world and influenced the youth — exactly the effect the Soviet Russia government feared the most. The period described in the article covers the beginning of the 80s, the times when Jackson-mania was reaching the USSR through the «iron curtain». There’s an interesting blog, Michael Jackson in the USSR, which shows many examples of how Michael’s style was copied by Soviet musicians, while the Soviet press treated him with contempt, calling him “a pop marionette” and an instrument used by the capitalist world to divert the Western youth from pressing global problems.

Eras have changed, ideologies have collapsed, the old country exists no more, and the Soviet propaganda sounds silly today, but Jackson’s art keeps influencing young people who have been embracing it for two generations.

“Why have you come here, enemy from the West?..”

Have you ever considered why Michael Jackson became widely popular in Russia only after the reformation period (known as «perestroika»)? It’s well documented that the Communism-building country was extremely picky in selecting performers for the Soviet listeners. Ask your parents, and they will give you names that have been long forgotten: Robertino Loretti, Karel Gott, Biser Kirov, a sonorous bunch of Italian singers dating back to the San Remo festival, and a few truly outstanding figures, such as Joe Dassin, Mireille Mathieu, Demis Russos and ABBA. The selection criteria for foreign performers included, first of all, loyalty to the Soviet structure, as well as impeccable behavior and public image.

But in the beginning of the 80s, nearly the whole world including semi-wild New Zealand tribes was crazy about flawlessly-mannered good-looking apolitical youngsters known as The Jacksons, and only the Soviet Union never heard of them behind its Iron Curtain. We wanted to understand how this happened, so we carried out an investigation of sorts and made a discovery we’d like to share with the readers. This is what we have found.

One our authors, Svetlana Samoilova, got hold of a book published in 1985 and discussing “undermining activities against the socialist countries”. Here’s a quote from the book:

“Hostile propaganda directed against us, the Soviet country, by the Western radio stations sees the opportunity in the admiration expressed by our young men and women towards contemporary dance rhythms and pop music.”

God forbid! Instead of studying the works of Marx and Lenin, irresponsible youngsters go to silly dance clubs where they are subjected to foul effects of the “rotting West.” What can be done about this? (This is one of the two infamous questions in the Soviet dialectics, “Who’s to blame?” and “What can be done?” asked by Herzen and Chernyshevsky respectively. They reportedly awoke many people and led them to a number of various misfortunes, including the above-mentioned Iron Curtain with its perfect soundproof texture. This is what happens when you don’t let people sleep well!) Of course, unsheathe your swords and gallop to save the young generation “sacrificed to the multibillion business”, i.e. the showbiz.

This rescue mission, which failed dismally (yay to that!), laid in diligent trashing of Western performers who, judging by that righteous book, were all drunkards and drug addicts. While one could agree that it wasn’t wise to join the club and follow his/her idols by doing whatever they were doing, a true talent cannot be drowned in a bottle or wasted — this much was proven by Eric Clapton, Freddie Mercury and many others. Furthermore, Michael has never even been caught doing anything of the kind. (“I take some small pride in thinking that I’ve come out pretty well, all things considered. I myself have never tried drugs — no marijuana, no cocaine, nothing. I mean, I haven’t even tried these things… I believe performers should try to be strong as an example to their audiences.” Michael Jackson, “Moonwalk”) As Barry Kleinman, the Dangerous Tour publicist in Great Britain said, “He is a gentleman. There are many performers in showbiz who cannot be called gentlemen.” Still, even the gentleman couldn’t please the Soviet Union countries. So how did this noble creature ended up in the crowd of staggering vicious rock stars?

You may not believe it, but he joined this wonderful company because of his “political indifference” and his “horrors.” It should be noted that there was only one American performer popular in the Soviet Union – it was singer and actor Dean Reed who admired the ideas of socialism and tried to promote them in the USA. And even he acted irresponsibly sometimes by performing songs of The Beatles. As for horrors, only Gogol (a Russian writer of the 19th century) was allowed to write whatever he wanted in his novel “Viy,” and Soviet film directors were allowed to make movies based on it without expressing concern for the impressionable young minds…

The book continues,

“Here is the story of new American pop music superstar Michael Jackson: It is said that his image was calculated with the help of a computer. A computer program considered all qualities and features necessary to conquer the musical market of the 80s. The machine created a model, according to which the wheeler-dealers of show-business (socialistic slang: a wheeler-dealer is someone who governs and owns business) chose a singer previously unknown (!!!) to anyone. Today, a handsome-looking young man with a high “feminine” voice, a lovely smile (thanks for the compliment, guys) and a slender wiggling body never leaves TV screens, newspapers and magazine covers. His concert tours are supported by such hype and frenzy that you might think an extraterrestrial arrived on Earth (oh yeah, those were the good old days!). Youngsters participate in numerous TV contests for “the best Michael impersonator.” The lucky ones who give their best in recreating grimaces and jumps of their idol will get a free trip to Hollywood. Plastic surgery clinics welcome those who desire to look just like their idol — they promise to make your nose and eyes “exactly like Michael’s.” The Jacksonmania virus spreads steadily, infecting thousands of girls and boys and helping those who launched it to earn big money. It fulfills the supertask — by using the template, to establish a mass production of Jackson lookalikes wiggling mindlessly and praising capitalism (when did he ever do that?!).”

Yes, the National Enquirer is nothing compared to this. Here is your answer: just like any artificially created organism living in complete isolation, the Soviet Union was extremely afraid of viruses. The Jacksonmania was obviously contagious — just like the Beatlemania before it, which was also met with active resistance. The fact that Michael never showed any vicious behavior made things even worse, because his decency could provide a reason to doubt the complete and utter indecency of other capitalists. Any ideology, be it politics or religion, bears no competition. The ideas propagated by Michael, due to their scale and simple sincerity, could “steal our great achievements, our great works” (as the KGB agent says in «Stranger In Moscow»).

When that book was published, «We Are The World» had not yet been written and recorded, «Man In The Mirror» and «Heal The World» did not exist, and «They Don’t Care About Us» (down with political indifference!) was still far in the future. But these songs would hardly have changed anything even if they had existed back then.

You could ask why we took the time to tell you all this. The Iron Curtain, thank God, has rusted and fallen apart, and we can hear every sound, every melody and every name from anywhere in the world. Well, we just wanted to talk about what was going on when some of us weren’t even born yet. For some reason, we think these lessons shouldn’t be forgotten. And also because we love song «Stranger In Moscow» – it just made us think…

Text by Svetlana Samoilova, Anastasia Kisilenko, 2000
English translation by justice_rainger

3 мыслей о “Enemy from the West: Jackson-mania in the USSR

  • 21.07.2014 в 14:30
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    Absolutely a must read! I’ve been perusing this site for a few days now, even re-reading passages before moving onto another equally thought provoking piece. There is so much more to read and I hope you all will continue writing.
    I am sincerely grateful to everyone here for sharing and especially to Karina, for her strength and wisdom in keeping this domain. She was right, this is a deeply personal space, one which allows for voices to be heard and the common denominator is Michael. He encouraged us to come together, find our strengths as individuals while always supporting one another. He unified us. Even now, his voice is a guiding light toward a greater understanding of ourselves, one another and our world.
    Thank you. ❤️

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