Sheila Heti

Michael Jackson Is Not My Only Friend


Tomboyfriend, “The End of Poverty” (2008)

This is a music video by my friends Margaux Williamson (images) and Ryan Kamstra/ Tomboyfriend (music). The reason I love it is not only because I think it’s great, but because my friends made it. That is, it’s not only because my friends made it that I think it’s great, but it’s great because my friends made it.

One of the main functions of art, as I understand it, is to soothe the fears or anxieties of the artist by making external and plastic what is ephemeral and inner and haunting — to make one’s feelings about life manifest in a form, in the hope that doing this will somehow tame them.

I know the context in which Margaux and Ryan made this video. I watched Margaux downloading clips of teenagers from YouTube to collage together; I’ve seen Ryan singing in his room. It’s incredibly meaningful to me because the world as I live in it has been made plastic. I talk to these people every day, we pound the same sidewalks and eat in the same shops. We talk about the same things over and over again, in the same ways. I know what keeps them up at night. Their anxieties are my own, and I can see them objectively in this video.

There is something about this art that makes it feel made for me — no less than the art that I make is, in large part, also made for me.

That’s because this is literally true. The art of your friends really is for you. All the art of the world is also for you. But don’t you feel like those artists whose work most moves your heart are, in the most profound sense (whether or not you could or would ever want to meet them) your friends?

All day on Twitter and Facebook and everywhere people have been reminiscing about Michael Jackson, who died on 25 June. A friend who is utterly unsentimental about his friends and never keeps in touch, seems to be crying into his keyboard from Vancouver.

Something interesting happens when an artist becomes a friend; what does it mean for an artist to be one’s friend? I think it means that they share the same anxieties, the same fears as you do. Their art makes it feel like you’ve been talking, like their fears are your own.


Michael Jackson, “Thriller,” (1983)

If “Thriller” wasn’t actually the first music video I saw, it certainly is the first one I remember seeing. And it scared the shit out of me. But I stayed pressed into the couch, a little girl. I knew that the fear it inspired in me was the good sort of fear, without knowing quite what that meant. In retrospect, the good sort of fear is the fear you already have; it’s the fear that great art reminds you of — of all the things that you’ve been hiding, that you can see now clearly for the first time.

In the case of the video above, “The End of Poverty,” the people who made it actually are my friends. But what’s most amazing is not only that this is true, but that it feels like they’re my friends—the same way it feels like Manet is my friend, or Charlie Kaufman, or Michael Jackson. The streets they pound are my own.

Because they had the courage and heart to show it, I know what keeps these artists up at night. It’s what — unbeknownst to me until I saw their work — has been keeping me up my entire life, too.

Update: A friend recently pointed this video out to me: a perfect mixture of Margaux’s technique with MJ’s style.


Moonwalk Tribute to Michael Jackson

- Sheila Heti

  • Sven Neuspepas

    …your friends out-sing the cynics, out-dance the doubters and outperform the pessimists ; )

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Sheila Heti is the author of "The Middle Stories," "Ticknor," and "How Should A Person Be?" —  chosen by The New York Times as one of the 100 Best Books of 2012. She's also published an illustrated book for children, "We Need a Horse," featuring art by Clare Rojas, and a book of "conversational philosophy" called "The Chairs Are Where the People Go," with Misha Glouberman. She works as Interviews Editor at The Believer and has contributed many interviews with writers and artists to the magazine. She is also the creator of the Trampoline Hall lecture series and The Metaphysical Poll, which collected the sleeping dreams people were having of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primaries (It was clear from the dreams that Obama would win). More Sheila Heti here.