At least two identical tweets were shared in a three-minute span, of which the one above was the first and most viral; both queried who had updated Jackson’s Instagram pronouns. In addition to a screenshot of the @michaeljackson Instagram account, “he/he” appeared next to Jackson’s normally rendered name.
Earlier Iterations of ‘Michael Jackson’s Pronouns Were He/He’
As early as 2019, a Reddit user posted to r/ShowerThoughts joking about Jackson’s “he/he” pronouns:
A Twitter user made a similar joke, racking up engagement and suggesting the notion had been floating around for a while:
The Use of Pronouns in Social Media Biography Fields
It’s not precisely clear when the addition of pronouns to social media “bio” fields became commonplace, but as of 2020, the practice was commonly considered newsworthy when undertaken by a prominent cisgender person.
An article published in December 2020 about Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook’s addition of pronouns to his Twitter bio reported:
Apple CEO Tim Cook looks to have made the change recently. On December 5, his bio reads “Apple CEO Auburn Duke National Parks “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'” – MLK. he/him.” A Wayback Machine screenshot from November 27 shows that his pronouns were not in his bio then, so he made the change sometime after November 27.
“Introducing yourself as a cisgender person with your pronouns – which are words that are used to refer to someone without using their name – can make a more inclusive and safe environment for trans people to also share their pronouns…Another easy way to normalize sharing your pronouns is to add your pronouns to your social media bios or email signature” GLAAD advises.
A February 2021 article about the increasing addition of pronouns to social media bios said of the practice:
Using pronouns is a key element of being an LGBT+ ally and is something that is effortless to do, but means the world to others.
Firstly, change your signatures on emails and your social media bios. This has the practical benefit of making clear how you would like to be referred to, while also signalling to others that you will respect their gender identity and choice of pronouns.
By 2021, it was not unreasonable to assume that most people on social media were at least peripherally aware that fellow users, celebrity or not, often added their preferred pronouns to their social accounts.
Jackson and ‘He/He’ or ‘Hee Hee’
Jackson’s individualistic style of singing involved specific vocalizations:
Jackson’s unique vocal attributes quickly entered the pop culture lexicon, occasionally forming the basis of similar jokes:
A June 11 2011 article about Jackson’s life and career examined an album described as “more than 30 years later … tight and self-disciplined.” Subsequently, its author alluded to the presence of the singer’s “vocal tics”:
This sense of restraint is a vital part of all Jones’s collaborations with Jackson. The singer’s vocal tics – the gasps and shudders that punctuate almost every song – play a big role in this, creating the impression of a singer desperate to cut loose and express himself in movement. But there’s never any excess in the music to undermine Jackson’s hunger. On Thriller and Bad, the restraint starts to curdle into tension on songs such as Billie Jean and Smooth Criminal, and Jackson sounds compellingly trapped. After Jones suggested Jackson find newer, more modern collaborators, this sense of musical restraint began to vanish: epics such as Stranger in Moscow or Earth Song were more grandiose than anything Jackson had tried before, but also somehow more private, too.
Jackson’s punctuation of standard lyrics with “hee hee” or other word-like vocalizations was the subject of a September 2003 paper in Context: Journal of Music Research, “Saying the Unsayable: The Non-verbal Vocalisations of Michael Jackson” [PDF]. On its second page (after acknowledging Jackson’s then-recent difficulties), author Melissa Campbell explained:
Instead, the aim here is to investigate the Jackson phenomenon through an analysis of one of its key attributes: Jackson’s idiosyncratic non-verbal vocalisations. This may seem like a frivolous enterprise, or even like the worst excesses of academic fandom. After all, despite believing himself the Artist of the Millennium, Michael Jackson looks suspiciously like a washed-up Eighties star whose wacky personal life has usurped his musical talent. Do his increasingly banal songs really warrant further academic attention? I believe they do. The non-verbal vocalisations are one of the best-known yet least-investigated aspects of Jackson’s music.
But Jackson is the subject of this article for another, more important reason: his non-verbal vocalisations open up potential readings of pop music beyond ideas like ‘songs as text’ or ‘music as affect.’ This unproductive dichotomy has led to something of an impasse in popular music studies. Of course, songs are texts: they contain semiotic cues which can be ‘read’ by listeners (and watchers of music videos), and analysed by researchers. However, these signifiers exist within and between cultural contexts; their meanings are largely connotative rather than denotative. By contrast, some musicological analyses are almost purely denotative: reducing pop songs to verses, phrases, video frames, even syllables.
Subsequently, Campbell described examples of Jackson’s “idiosyncratic non-verbal vocalisations”:
‘An odd thing about Michael Jackson,’ notes Village Voice critic Frank Kogan, ‘is that he has a totally spectacular voice but he doesn’t feel the need to amaze us with it … On dance songs he makes his voice as hard and compact as the percussion, reducing himself to icy shards and chilly wails.’ Other critics have referred to these ‘wails’ as ‘yelps,’ ‘coos and hiccups.’ There is the instantly recognisable, high-pitched ‘Hoo!’ or ‘Ow!’ and the related ‘Hee-hee!’. Jackson also punctuates his lyrics with gutteral grunts and sharp expulsions of breath, and creates rhythmic ‘beatbox’ effects.
What do these non-verbal vocalisations mean? It is arguable that they are primal screams of deep anguish or pleasure, innately representative of the inner emotions that escape expression in Jackson’s lyrics and melodies. However, that argument does not accord with how stylised they are, nor why Jackson uses them so much and so predictably. On the other end of the signification scale, they might be just a pastiche of trills, tics and vocal embellishments from other musical eras and styles, with no specific meaning at all. Perhaps Jackson picked them up as a child imitating his soul singer idols, and now, like bad grammar, he finds them hard to shake. That possibility needs unpacking.
Michael Jackson’s Instagram Account
Michael Jackson has an active Instagram account with the handle @michaeljackson, and it is a verified account.
However, Jackson’s posthumous Instagram account did not include any pronouns (including “he/he.”)
In May and June 2021, a screenshot of a tweet claiming (or joking) that someone changed Michael Jackson’s Instagram pronouns to “he/he” was popular, an evolution of an older joke previously conveyed only in words. The addition of an edited Instagram screenshot of the “he/he” pronouns revived the one-liner, which was perhaps also more readily funny as more users added pronouns to their biography. The humor was derived from familiarity with Jackson’s “vocal tics” or “non-verbal vocalizations,” which very frequently included “hee hee.”