What Does That Even Mean?

Writer Michael R. Jackson and Citizen senior editor Kevin Quinn question our current use of language and discuss the need for precision in art and contemporary discourse.

In Conversation Michael R. Jackson and Kevin Quinn
Issue 003

Michael R. Jackson took the theater world by storm with his bold, electric, irreverent musical, A Strange Loop, for which he wrote the book, music, and lyrics. Before it went to Broadway, it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2020. Once on Broadway, it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2022, catapulting Jackson to national recognition for bringing the story of a queer black man trying to find his identity, artistically and otherwise, to audiences not used to such unapologetic presentations of blackness. Indeed, Usher, the musical’s main character, is trying to write what he calls a “big, black, and queer-ass American Broadway show.” Jackson succeeded tenfold in that endeavor. In addition to the show’s enormous artistic power and skill, the cast was all queer and all black. Usher’s story, which mirrored Jackson’s own in some ways, benefitted immensely from the grandness of Jackson’s vision and the precision of his craft. It is no surprise that Jackson went on to receive countless other accolades for the show in addition to following it up with TV projects and his second musical, the critically acclaimed White Girl in Danger.

Despite his success or perhaps because of it (A Strange Loop also debuted in London on the West End, where it won the Debut Award for Best Composer, Lyricist, or Book Writer), Jackson insists on making sure he holds himself to the highest standards possible. He is not afraid to move away from trends in the culture in which art is created out of expedience. Rather, he uses art to communicate beyond the times in which it was created so that it achieves lasting effect.

In this conversation, Michael R. Jackson (MRJ) and Citizen senior editor Kevin Quinn (KQ), high school friends, revisit conversations about art, craft, and culture that they’ve had with each other for years. They wonder at the ways in which language is taken for granted, how meaning is obscured, and how tuning out the noise might help us achieve the kind of transcendence that only art can produce.

KQ: Hello, Mr. Jackson. How are you?

MRJ: Good, how are you? 

KQ: Oh, you know what the nurse says to Juliet, “I am aweary.”

MRJ: You’re aweary? 

KQ: That’s where we are now. 

MRJ: That is where we are for real. 

KQ: How was your day?

MRJ: Pretty good. A day of this and that.

KQ: You’re in rehearsals. How is that going?

MRJ: Oh, it’s going well. I just have a lot of rewrites that I have to sort through. It’s fine. It’s just a lot to do.

KQ: Understood, understood. I know you’ve just gotten home from rehearsals—

MRJ: No. I actually was not in rehearsals today. I was at home just working on rewrites. So it’s fine.

KQ: Yet still, I don’t want to, as they used to say in church, belabor the time. 

I sent you a crude list of things I wanted to use as a jumping-off point. But beyond how we have casually had this conversation about art, the state of art, where it is, where it’s going, where it isn’t going, I have a weariness not just about what’s going on in the world right now, but also about the responses to what’s going on in the world, on the parts of people who are artists as well as from lay people. I think my weariness is largely orbiting around a kind of, I don’t know, inertia in the critical faculties. You know what I mean?

MRJ: Yes, I do. 

KQ: I want to talk about it in a more structured way. Your work and your art position themselves to effectively do something that still matters, that is not consumed by inaccuracy. So, I’ll move on to my first question. There seems to be so much cultural noise in discourse but very little respect for precision and clarity. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

MRJ: I keep coming back to the fact that we can’t even agree on what words mean, language itself. It’s subject to absurdity and politicization so much that words are meaningless. Like “fascism.” I wouldn’t even recognize actual fascism now because it’s applied to everything. 

KQ: Or “terrorism.”

MRJ: Or “genocide.” All of these words have a meaning. As a writer, as a reader, I’m trying to understand what words mean and put them together into sentences that mean something worth thinking about or feeling. I send that sentence to you in something called a book or an article or a newspaper or whatever, and you read it and decide its meaning. That’s communication or transmission between two people. But that transmission is being constantly disrupted by the subjectification and politicization of meaning. 

KQ: I’m always saying or thinking these days, “What does that even mean?” 

MRJ: It’s become very clear to me that part of this push to subjectify meaning is actually an attempt to take control. It’s a power move.

KQ: Yes.

MRJ: Because if you can suddenly start treating language like a colonial project and say, “These words don’t mean this, they mean that,” people who care about language are rendered powerless. Teachers and professors are suddenly viewed as oppressive, and every word they use is picked apart. All of their syllabi are inherently tainted by words that actually mean the opposite of what people say they mean. There’s a real power grab happening.

KQ: Unexamined.

MRJ: It’s how people use the word “problematic.” It could mean anything. It’s just vibes. Does it mean bad? Good? Does it mean up? Down? Often, what it means is, “I don’t like it.”

KQ: Yes. “I don’t like it.”

MRJ: “It makes me feel bad.”

KQ: Making a word a pejorative in order to shut things down. We can’t just say, “I don’t like this.” It has to be—

MRJ: It’s “I don’t like it, and we can’t even talk about it.” 

KQ: Because it’s “problematic.”

MRJ: Yes.

KQ: You used this phrase sarcastically, “It’s all just vibes.” I feel like we are in a moment where there is uncertainty that art has a purpose and function, and a measurable effect on the world. How do we evaluate or use or think about art in a context in which we can’t even agree on meanings? Can something be “good”? Is there even a value in being “good”? Some people think nothing is “good” or “bad.” It’s just how you feel. “Vibes.”

MRJ: When I’m looking at art, I have to look at all of it. I have to look at how it is made, how it is constructed, what does every part of it put together add up to? And that means I have to “read” it. All art. I was just at the Tate Modern looking at visual art this way. There are many ways to read it, but at the same time, if it’s put together well and is any good, the artist’s intentions are going to translate. 

KQ: I love that.

MRJ: In most instances, the artist has a point of view that they’re trying to communicate. And because they’re trying to communicate, they’re going to be intentional about how they construct. Art is not there to be a subjective Rorschach test in which you see whatever you want. 

KQ: Yes.

MRJ: And it’s frustrating because sometimes people have taken my work to mean whatever they want it to. But I trust that most people do “read” it.

KQ: You can’t control how people experience it, but you can control how you build it. What’s bothersome is that some people who consume art don’t think they have to “read” it. So how should we evaluate art? Should we, even?

MRJ: I don’t know whether “good” or “bad” are the right words to use. Maybe we should simply describe it. Is it well-made? Is it effective? Does it work? An undergrad playwriting teacher of mine used to say that characters had to be able to carry their own weight from one side of the stage to the other. Similarly, I ask, does a piece of art have its own mobility?

KQ: That’s good. 

MRJ: It might be something I don’t like or might not be my taste, but I can see that it is constructed in a way that won’t fall apart.

KQ: Yes.

MRJ: Think of it even in terms of the Platonic ideal. This thing is a table, this is a laptop, this is a keyboard by my computer. If I bang on it, it’s not going to fall apart.

KQ: Right.

MRJ:  Great works of art are similar. They’re sturdy.

KQ: What makes a work of art disintegrate? To use your metaphor, what makes something not a good table?

MRJ: I’ll use a play. If the characters are not believable, or if their behavior as constructed by the playwright does not cohere with the rules of the universe that they have made. 

KQ: I like that you said “that they have made.” 

MRJ: You set up the rules. And the characters inside of that have to cohere with them. If they suddenly go in another direction, then that means the universe you’ve created also has to respond to that direction. And if it doesn’t, and I think, “Wait, I thought on page 45 X, Y, and Z”. If the work ignores that inconsistency, then I know what you’ve made is not that sturdy or is flawed. There are works that are amazing and worth experiencing that still have flaws, but, to me, the truly great works? They’re like Teflon.

KQ: Why is this standard useful for us when we consume art? And do you sense that people no longer care about such standards?

MRJ: I think it’s useful because art is about communicating an idea to someone, and when those moments of communication happen, the artist makes something intangible in their mind tangible for others. Transcendence comes out of that. And that’s really how the world changes.

KQ: That’s what art at its best does.

MRJ: It actually transmits information. Do I think people have started not to care? This is where the focus on subjectivity comes into play. I think some people think subjectivity is transcendent—that if you can be all things to all people, that’s how we can suddenly move to a higher consciousness. 

KQ: That’s a word.

MJR: Many folks employing these tactics seem to come out of very academic spaces. They know what they’re saying is bullshit, but the bullshit seems to be the game. The bullshit is their transcendence. Then they communicate the bullshit to other people who then make their own bullshit out of it. And then it’s subjective meaninglessness masquerading as liberation and radicalism and usefulness. And nobody ever stops to ask this central question: what does it mean?

KQ: Yes. “What does it mean?”

MRJ: I’m now just like, what does it mean? And I say, “This actually doesn’t mean anything.” 

KQ: I would say that to my students, especially on essays. “What does that mean?” Or simply say to them, “This doesn’t mean anything.” And press them to dig deeper. 

MJR: There’s a vulnerability in that because if you say what you mean and stand behind it, especially in this sort of digital world where the magpies will come for you, you can’t rely on vibes.

KQ: Final question. When you get down to doing your own work, what’s the imperative that you give yourself?

MRJ: To say what I mean and to create a whole journey from point A to point Z. I’m not coasting on vibes; I actually have a point of view because I’m not just a writer; I’m also a reader. So, I’m not only a playwright; I’m also an audience member. When I see my own work in front of me, I can hear and feel the peaks and valleys. I want to be as clear as I can so that I can arrive at a moment of transcendence.

KQ: I love that.

MRJ: I began writing as a child because I felt alone, isolated. I had all these thoughts and feelings and images and stories that I could not communicate, that I needed fiction and art to express. But I wanted that expression to be something that people could look at and understand—that they could carry with them and come back to. 

KQ: What a standard. 

MRJ: It’s like whenever I see a Turner painting. It never gets old. Ever. I can only hope as an artist that my work does that: takes somebody’s breath away again and again.

KQ: That’s a great place to end. Thank you for talking to me.

MRJ: I loved it.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


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