The random bite of the media got a hard grip on Michael Jackson last week. The subject: some allegedly anti-Semitic lyrics on his new album, HIStory. The offending words, from the song “They Don’t Care About Us,” are:

Jew me, sue me, everybody do me

Kick me, kike me, don’t you black and white me.

The words and the response are a prime example of the tragedy that occurs when a sloppy and vulnerable artist collides with an irrational and mean-spirited press.

There was glorious if predictable weirdness during Diane Sawyer’s live 40-minute talk with Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley two weeks ago: Jackson’s infantile behavior; Presley’s utter vapidity; a wedding video that basically confirms suspicions that the pair’s kiss on last year’s MTV video awards was their first; and the flat statement from Jackson that he intends to continue his dalliances with prepubescent boys. The biggest surprise was Sawyer’s unremittingly tough questioning. When she brought up “They Don’t Care About Us,” Jackson responded earnestly with what struck me as the chat’s only moment of unconflicted sincerity: “It’s not anti-Semitic because I’m not a racist person. I could never be a racist. I love all races of people. . . . When I say [those words], I’m talking about myself as the victim.”

I heard those words to mean that he intended the slurs as epithets directed at himself–i.e., “Go ahead, call me a Jew, call me a kike.” On one level, it’s easy to see why his accusers have gone batshit: his explanation is a little outre, and the juxtaposition of the phrases “jew me” and “sue me” are unfortunate, particularly in the way “sue” in this context reinforces the racist meaning of the verb “jew.” Accordingly, Jackson has been roundly condemned as anti-Semitic, most prominently by Jon Pareles of the New York Times. And Howard Reich in last Sunday’s Trib drew comparisons between Jackson and a “remarkable flowering of boldly anti-Semitic lyrics” in gangsta rap.

It’s difficult to side with Jackson for a number of reasons: his mastery of PR makes him readily able to defend himself; he’s a largely ridiculous figure whom few take seriously anyway; and he may be a space alien. But there are arguments in Jackson’s favor. The first is that, contrary to Reich’s statement, racism in a song by an artist of Jackson’s stature is unlikely–it would, indeed, be unprecedented (in rap, that “remarkable flowering” comes down to one or two slurs from Ice Cube and something of a borderline case from Public Enemy). While there seems to be a minor but stubborn streak of anti-Semitism in the black arts community (and, to me, a more disturbing unwillingness in the rest of the community to condemn it when it surfaces), the fact remains that explicit racism in pop songs is extremely rare–this in a genre that’s by comparison brimming with hostility toward women and gays.

Granted that such a remark is unlikely: as Reginald Psmith once siad, one shouldn’t confuse the improbable with the impossible. Is Jackson just making up excuses for a long simmering racial rage? Arguing against this contention is Jackson’s place in the pop firmament. A lunkhead like Ice Cube is in the business of manufacturing intentionally offensive music. Jackson, by contrast, comes from a solid 30-year tradition of open-armed, benevolent soul music and has ridden his crossover dreams and messages of tolerance and inclusion to a rarefied commercial plateau. Songs like “Beat It,” “Man in the Mirror,” and “Black or White” are somewhat vague but earnest recitations on these themes. The worst you can say of these songs is that they’re a cynical exploitation of “one world” homilies; even then, why would the financially canny Jackson jeopardize his carefully constructed facade with such epithets?

A fallback position of his critics is that it’s inappropriate for Jackson to use Jewish suffering as a metaphor for his own victimization. This is an intellectually incoherent charge. If you accept that he’s acknowledging Jewish suffering, then he’s not being anti-Semitic.

But let’s take the charge at face value: is this appropriation defensible? On one level, yes: Jackson, who grew up black in America, has a right to sing about victimization; also, as the subject of extremely well-publicized child molestation charges, he has a right to sing about that experience as well. That said, consumers and critics are allowed to greet these conceits with the ridicule they deserve. This, to me, is where the heart of the matter lies. “They Don’t Care About Us” is patently not anti-Semitic, but it is a grasping, inappropriate, almost megalomaniacal song of poor-little-rich-boy complaints and rock star self-aggrandizement. Like much of his recent recorded work, his public actions, and the Diane Sawyer interview, it reveals an aging boy child as divorced from reality as can be imagined. Denaturing the lyrics, as Jackson agreed to do last week, will be a productive move only if he realizes what it was that actually hit him. Bad art is a crime that usually goes unpunished: here it hasn’t.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Steven Arazmus.