Willa: A few weeks ago, Lisha McDuff and Harriet Manning joined me for a very interesting discussion about Harriet’s new book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask. In fact, it was so interesting we couldn’t stop! We continued our discussion through email even after the post went up, and in the course of those emails Harriet suggested a fascinating idea:
Perhaps, because racial identity by appearance is still so fundamental to our perception of others, racial facial features (in Michael Jackson’s case skin colour and nose shape) are processed by our brains as being “bigger,” more all-encompassing than they actually are. So, even when a face has otherwise not changed much, if these particular features – these strong racial signs – are altered, the perception is that the whole face has radically changed, when in fact it has not.
Lisha and I were both blown away by this, and now we’re all itching to talk about it. Harriet, I really think you’re onto something important here. Thank you both so much for reconvening to talk this over!
Harriet: You are very welcome, Willa, but it was born out of all our thoughts, so a group effort!
Willa: You know, this idea reminds me of a book I read a long time ago – like 25 years ago, so I may not be remembering it exactly right – but I was totally fascinated by it. It’s called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. According to Edwards, most adults can’t draw very well, but it isn’t a skill problem – meaning, an inability to draw lines on paper. It’s a perception problem. Her theory is that most adults have the skills we need to be able to draw very well, but ironically our knowledge of the world gets in the way.
For example, she says if you give an adult a photograph and ask them to draw that image, most draw something pretty amateurish and not very accurate. But if you turn the same photograph upside down and ask them to draw it, they do much better. In fact, most can draw it fairly well.
Lisha: I read that same book many years ago too, Willa, and that’s exactly the way I remember it as well. I always wished I had a little more time to spend on the drawing exercises in the book. Apparently the drawing isn’t really the difficult part. It’s the seeing that is really hard to do.
Willa: Exactly! She says the problem is that most of us don’t really look at the world around us – or in this case, the image on the photograph. We look just long enough to label it – oh, that’s a face or a chair or a cat – and then we try to draw our idea of what a face or chair or cat looks like. We think we’re drawing what we see, but we aren’t. We’re drawing what’s in our mind’s eye instead.
But most of us don’t have a mental image of what an upside-down face or chair or cat looks like, so when we try to draw the image that way, we’re forced to actually look at what’s in front of us and draw the shapes and lines the way they actually appear on the photograph. So our ability to sketch the image on paper is much better – sometimes astonishingly better.
Lisha: Amazing, isn’t it?
Willa: It really is, and like you I’d love to spend some time working through her exercises. Anyway, I wonder if something similar was happening with public perceptions of Michael Jackson’s face. We tend to look at a face just long enough to categorize it – oh, that face is black/white/Asian, young/old, male/female, handsome/not handsome – and then once we’ve categorized it we don’t really look at it anymore. We think we are, but we aren’t. We’re just looking at it long enough to label it. And as you pointed out, Harriet, some signifiers are more important than others in determining those labels: for example, the color of your skin, the shape of your eyes and nose, the color and texture of your hair, the length of your eyelashes, the color of your lips.
Harriet: Yes, “important” because dominant culture (from which we take our cues) has defined certain features as such in its constructions of race and gender.
Willa: That’s an important point, Harriet. They are just social constructs – or social “conditioning” as Michael Jackson would say. But even though they’re “just” constructs, they’re still very powerful. We can see how powerful they are by looking at how people read and respond to Michael Jackson’s face.
When he was young, people would look at his face just long enough to label it (young, black, male) and then would only see the labels, not his actual face – which as Betty Edwards suggests is fairly typical. But when he began altering some of the signifiers we use to determine those labels, people would think “young,” “black,” “male,” but his face didn’t really fit those labels anymore. It set up a dissonance between what we saw and the labels we had stored in our heads. So as you suggested in your email, Harriet, this caused people to think his face had radically changed when it hadn’t. It was actually the way we interpret his face that had changed, not his face itself.
Lisha: That was certainly true for me back in the 80s as a non-fan. I remember when photos from the Victory tour hit the newsstands, it was really hard to believe that was actually Michael Jackson – he looked like a totally different person to me. I had to really study the photos to see it was him, especially since I had missed the Off The Wall era. The shape of his nose and his skin color had changed a bit – no doubt about it – but what I remember most is how the new, thinner eyebrows threw me. I don’t think I could rectify the image of a good looking black male with feminine, old-fashioned Hollywood arched eyebrows and makeup. At the time it was fashionable for women to have full eyebrows and very natural looking faces, like Brooke Shields. So, it was startling and confusing to see this. It was amazing how these details changed the way I interpreted his entire face – to the point he was unrecognizable.
This is what Michael Jackson looked like in my mind’s eye back in the early 80s, and this is what he looked like in Victory tour photos:
Willa: Those are great examples, Lisha, and I know what you mean. I’ve experienced that too – of doing something of a double take when he came out with a new look, like for Thriller or Bad or Dangerous or HIStory … It seems like he unveiled a new look for each album. And sometimes it was a radically different look, altering his image at a more fundamental level than just a new hairstyle – a level that really challenged the mental image I had of him.
And maybe, as you suggested, Harriet, those shifts in the image we had in our mind’s eye is what led people to believe he’d had far more plastic surgery than he’d actually had.
Harriet: I think his changes in image also revealed how business-savvy he was, too. He was a kind of recurrent reinvention, which worked to keep him “new,” fresh and exciting.
Lisha: Yes, for sure. At the time I think I assumed it was all about marketing but I don’t think that way anymore.
Willa: That’s a good point – it did capture a lot of attention and keep him “fresh and exciting,” as you said, Harriet. But like you, Lisha, I think there was a lot more going on as well.
Just as a mental experiment, I’ve been playing around with two photos that illustrate this issue of “seeing” and “labeling” very well, I think. I really like these two photos because they look very similar to me, but we tend to interpret them very differently. The first one – from 1987 – registers fairly clearly as “black” and “male,” while the other – from 2003 – is more ambiguous. What I mean is, if you don’t know who it is, it’s harder to figure out how to label it. Here are those two photos:
And here are black-and-white xeroxed images of the same photos:
In the black-and-white xeroxes, you can’t see the difference in skin tone, or the red lipstick in the later image, so the racial and gender signifiers don’t stand out so much. What you do see – much more clearly, I think – are the basic lines of his face, and those are unchanged.
Harriet: What an excellent experiment, Willa. Thinking this over and studying these images, I have become very aware of the parts that makeup and hairstyle play also, plus that of the camera. Willa, you go into the latter quite a bit in “Re-Reading Michael Jackson,” don’t you? Makeup, hairstyle and camera angle (and linked to all of these, the context in which a photograph is taken) massively affect an image of a face. Here in the UK (and in the US too, I am sure) there is a tabloid trend for juxtaposing two hyper-different images of someone famous, such as an image taken at a red carpet event versus a caught-in-the-street paparazzi shot. Google Images comes up with these comparison shots a lot, too. The trick (and that is exactly what it is) illustrates very well the huge effects on imagery of makeup and hairstyling, photography and context.
But furthermore, in the case of Michael Jackson – amidst the attention given to his plastic surgery and skin change – the role played by more “regular” physical processes affecting appearance, such as weight change and aging, have been continually denied. Weight change, for example, drastically alters someone’s face especially if, like Michael Jackson, they are of a slight build; then, even a very minimal weight change up or down can have a big effect, especially in the face. If you compare images of Michael Jackson in 2001 around the release of Invincible (and his protests against Sony bosses) with 2009 This Is It rehearsal photos, weight change plays a big part in the difference. Here is an example photograph from each era respectively:
The two images you select, Willa, visualize (to my eye at least) the effects less of plastic surgery than weight change and/or that of the work of the camera. I’m sure everyone will have noticed how sometimes, when an image is moved or played about with (quite often when trying to resize it) its proportions can change? This can make a face quite slim or really quite rounded in comparison to its original. The later photo of yours, Willa, looks like it might have been subject to this.
Willa: Really? Because to me the proportions and lines of his face look exactly the same in both photos. That’s why I like them so much. He’s 15 years older in the later photo, and the hollows of his cheeks have become a little more pronounced, but other than that the basic structure of his face looks exactly the same to me. The only differences are surface signifiers such as lipstick and false eyelashes.
Lisha: Yes, I agree with you, Willa. I think the basic structure of the face looks the same though we tend to focus on the differences. With Michael Jackson you have to look very closely and very deliberately to see the actual structure of the face because the surface signifiers somehow really take over.
Harriet: So I guess we are highlighting our own argument: that impressions or readings of an image can be variable, even polar opposite, and (in my case but not so much yours, Willa) based on certain features over fundamental structure. However, the more pronounced “hollows of his cheeks” you do note, Willa, are signs of weight loss and/or aging I would say, in which case his whole face would likely have been a little slimmer at the time the second photo was taken.
Lisha: He does look slimmer in the second photo through the cheeks, which could be due to weight loss, aging, or even medication used to treat skin and scalp issues. I can see a tiny difference in his overbite that might be the result of cosmetic dentistry. But the interesting thing to me is that I think we’re pretty used to absorbing some changes in the appearance of entertainers and performers, including surgical procedures, that aren’t magnified like they are here. You don’t have to go beyond the Jackson family to look for some good examples this. We sort of accept their beauty and fabulousness and don’t comment too much about the changes they have made.
But with Michael Jackson, this is not the case. His changing appearance caused so much confusion and produced some very strong reactions and assumptions. Still does.
Harriet: Yes, and there were a whole host of reasons for this. I would put part of our resistance to his “change” down to the amazing longevity of his career that started at such a young age. This meant that he was forced to contend with an inescapable ever-present pictorial past of himself as distinctly black-skinned and boyish. Subconsciously, I would argue, we always perceive Michael Jackson in relation to these early images, which continue to float around in the media, continue to have cultural currency, and yet provide nothing but an outdated mode by which to try and “read” him. This, I think, further fuels the common perception that Michael Jackson’s face altered in a way that needed explanation through excessive plastic surgery more than was ever actually indicated.
In addition to Michael Jackson’s ever-present pictorial past, I wonder whether his highly distinctive choreographic and iconic self-repetition also worked to highlight his physical change.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Harriet. So for example, every time he performed “Billie Jean” it was compared to his iconic performance at Motown 25?
Harriet: That’s exactly what I mean, yes. It’s a bit like if two woman wear the same dress: we suddenly focus in on their differences not their similarities. The same process works in mimicry more broadly, as with the many Michael Jackson impersonators.
Lisha: I wonder if that could be a part of it and I agree that we compare Michael Jackson against his own past. I also think we subconsciously judge his appearance against a huge number of images we have previously identified as things like “young,” “entertainer,” “black,” or “male.”
Here’s another piece of photographic evidence that was highly persuasive to me – an image taken from a rehearsal for This Is It. This photo convinced me that my eyes play tricks on me when I look at Michael Jackson.
The shadows across his face obscure his skin tone and makeup here, sort of like those black and white xeroxes do. I was struck by how differently I see his features in this photo compared with the way I usually interpret them. His eyes, nose, and mouth all register as much more “African” to me, though many assume he surgically altered his face to look more “white” or “female.”
Harriet: I guess if we were to apply our own thesis, though, this photo would rather exemplify the “interfering” roles played by camera, lights and makeup (or rather “non makeup”)?
Lisha: Yes, that’s true, but it’s a rare opportunity to observe what happens when some of the most common techniques are absent. My understanding is that this image was captured for documentation/study purposes only, not for promotional use. It’s one of the very few photos where I cannot see the effects of makeup contouring (strategic use of light and dark shades of makeup), special poses or “attitude” for the camera, flash photography or other strong lighting on the face.
Willa: Yes, and those poses or “attitudes,” as you called them, have a powerful effect. You can really tell when he is adopting the pose of Michael Jackson, icon, and when he isn’t.
Lisha: Yes, there is no doubt he knew how to work the camera!
This keeps reminding me of one of my all-time favorite TED talks, which was presented by neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor a few years back. Dr. Taylor gives a brilliant explanation of how each side of the brain functions, and I think it really supports and expands on what we are talking about here. She says the function of the right brain is to perceive sensory information in the present moment (possibly even well enough to draw it as Betty Edwards says), while the left brain methodically categorizes all that information, kind of like a serial processor on the computer. While the right brain is busy collecting information, the left brain is analyzing and interpreting it in order to project out possibilities for the future.
Michael Jackson so forcefully disrupted how we perceive, analyze and interpret his appearance, I think it’s important to grasp how this works. It’s worth watching Dr. Taylor’s talk and consider why Michael Jackson might have been cuing us to step to the right of our left brain.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, that is fascinating! It’s like the two sides of our brains represent two completely different ways of understanding the world. As Dr. Taylor points out, the right side is more sensory, while the left side is more analytical. The right side is focused on the present moment, while the left is constantly making comparisons with the past and projecting out into the future, as you mentioned. The right is more about feeling, while the left is trying to capture what we feel and express those emotions through language. In fact, the “mind chatter” our brains tend to constantly engage in comes from the left side of our brains, according the Dr. Taylor.
It was really interesting to hear her talk about her stroke, which was in her left hemisphere and how, ironically, she felt an unexpected sense of euphoria as it was happening. It’s like her right side was momentarily released from the constraints of her left side, and it reveled in that freedom.
She also said that, during her stroke, she couldn’t distinguish her own boundaries, which was very interesting to me. She couldn’t tell where “she” ended and the rest of the world began, so in a very literal sense she experienced the phenomenon of “you’re just another part of me.”
Lisha: Yes, Dr. Taylor goes into detail about this in her book, My Stroke of Insight. I thought it was a fascinating read. She also talks about a fact we all accept as scientifically true – that our bodies are made up of about 70 percent water – and she claims this is also quite literally true. Once the part of your brain shuts down that interprets the body as a separate, solid mass, you can actually perceive the body as a liquid and experience that as a part of your ordinary reality.
Willa: Wow, that’s fascinating! I’d love to experience that somehow – without having a stroke, of course …
Lisha: Me too! She said she really liked knowing her body was liquid and it was one of the last parts of her brain to heal from the stroke. According to Dr. Taylor, “you’re just another part of me” is not just a philosophy, it is a scientific truth. Perception is everything – which begs the question – what’s really out there?
Harriet: “What’s really out there?” We need to come back to this!
Willa: That is the question, isn’t it? And can we ever know what’s really out there? Philosophers have debated that for centuries.
So in terms of what we’ve been talking about with perceptions of Michael Jackson, the right hemisphere of the brain is trying to gather in all the sensory input available at any given moment – it’s trying to collect “what’s really out there” – while the left is trying to make sense of it. It’s categorizing and labeling that input, and putting it within a historical context. That ties in exactly with what Betty Edwards says in her book, though she emphasizes that our left side also prioritizes and filters what we look at, and therefore what we see.
That leads to another reason why Michael Jackson’s face was so misinterpreted: our perceptions were strongly influenced by the constant narrative of plastic surgery that was repeated again and again in both the tabloids and mainstream press. That narrative shaped the mental and cultural filters through which we saw his face, and those filters are really powerful. It gets back once again to what Michael Jackson called our cultural “conditioning.” We were “conditioned” to see the effects of plastic surgery whenever we looked at him, and so we did.
Harriet: Absolutely, and I think that’s why it’s important to consider the role of the stereotype here, for in the realm of identity formation (which is where we are in grappling with “reading Michael Jackson’s face”), it is the stereotype that largely creates this conflict between the two interpreting parts of our brain. In understanding Others, the stereotype is deployed: built on previous “knowledge” and imagery, it “makes sense” of a person by, as you say, Willa, categorizing, labeling, and contextualizing. Meanwhile, though, the other side of our brain knows that to a large extent this is all just a construction, a fiction, and that there is other “matter” (parts of a person) left undiscovered and unexplained. Because this “matter” is more difficult, less instant in interpretation, we leave it out.
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting, Harriet.
Harriet: Not only did Michael Jackson have to contend with pervasive stereotypes of masculinity and blackness, he had to contend with the stereotype of the Hollywood plastic surgery addict that generated once his face began to change. By this, he provides a wonderful example of someone (an “Other”) onto whom multiple stereotypes were projected but none of them fitted. He therefore generated lots of this remaining “matter” that our brains couldn’t quickly make sense of, and this “stuff” just got left behind in our reading of him. It just got submerged and forgotten (or in some cases, was maybe not even ever acknowledged).
Lisha: I think you’ve just hit the nail on the head. The multiple stereotypes we tried to project onto him just wouldn’t fit. There were too many labels and categories being disrupted all at once. We lacked a quick, easy explanation that could make sense of this.
Harriet: Totally, and the result is really quite confounding. My own brain, for example, is constantly battling between two visions and two readings: Michael Jackson radically changed aesthetically, and Michael Jackson didn’t really change aesthetically much at all. And this conflict continues despite the close observations we have made here, which point toward the latter.
Lisha: You’re touching on something that I find in many aspects of Michael Jackson’s work, Harriet, when you say Michael Jackson appears to have both changed and not changed aesthetically. I’ve noticed Michael Jackson is not an “either/or” type of guy – he’s a “both/and” proposition. If you’re looking closely, his face appears to have both radically changed and stayed the same over the years.
I decided to take a look at the psychology literature to see if I could find some research that would support what we’re talking about here in terms of perception and how the brain could potentially misinterpret visual information. I’m really amazed by what I am finding, especially in the area of facial perception and race. Apparently facial perception is a rather complex brain function – it isn’t nearly as straightforward as you might think. Belief and expectation radically alter what people actually see. This is something that has been studied for years.
For example, there was a study in 2003 by Eberhardt, Dasgupta, and Banasynski titled “Believing Is Seeing: The Effects of Racial Labels and Implicit Beliefs on Face Perception.” Researchers morphed head shots together until they had an ambiguous photo that 50 percent of respondents identified as a “black male,” while the other 50 percent identified the exact same photo as that of a “white male.” The photo was given to another group who were then asked to draw the photo. Each copy of the photo was randomly labeled either “black” or “white.”
Participants were told that they would receive a nice monetary bonus if the next group could correctly identify the photo from their drawing of it. But despite the incentive for making an accurate drawing, the “black” and “white” labels altered what participants drew and their drawings were consistent with their beliefs about the labels. This study was summarized by Adam Alter in an article that appeared in Psychology Today magazine titled “Why It’s Dangerous to Label People: Why labeling a person ‘black,’ ‘rich,’ or ‘smart’ makes it so.” Here is one of the photos used in the study and two drawings of the same photo:
Harriet: Lisha, this article is so in tune with what we have discussed.
Willa: It really is!
Harriet: This is the nub:
The people we label as “black,” “white,” “rich,” poor,” smart,” and “simple,” seem blacker, whiter, richer, poorer, smarter, and simpler merely because we’ve labeled them so.
Of course, as a society we like labels because they help us to apparently understand the world around us and our place in relation to it. As the subtitle of the article puts it, with them we are constantly “decision making.” Michael Jackson shook up decision making in so many ways it was almost like society couldn’t cope with it, so we over-compensated in defining him, as in the extensive plastic surgery narrative / imagery that was so strongly projected that we all came to believe it. I personally think we need to take from Michael Jackson’s cues and look towards a utopian way of Being without “decision making” though this might be a big ask …
As you put it, Lisha, labels are largely about “either/or”; that is, they are often structured as an oppositional binary (black/white, man/woman young/old etc). But Michael Jackson blew this out the water by being a “both/and proposition”: Michael was black and white, young and old, and (in many ways) man and woman, and this quality is visualized in his face, which “appears to have both radically changed and stayed the same over the years.”
Lisha: It’s as if he didn’t cross boundaries – he inhabited them. And it’s much easier to believe these changes were achieved through plastic surgery than it is to consider our own psychological lapses in perception.
Willa: That’s interesting, Lisha. I hadn’t thought about it that way before – that we prefer to believe the difference is out there, in him, there rather than in us, in our own minds.
Harriet: The “both/and proposition” that is visualized in Michael’s face, and the complexity of perception and identity more broadly, makes me think of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit doodle in Philosophical Investigations. The doodle, which many will recognize, depicts at once the outlined images of a duck and a rabbit, and therefore also their continual oscillations.
This doodle has been applied (I’m thinking here by W.T. Lhamon Jr. in his wonderful book Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop) to illustrate how two identities can be held together, can be variably seen either together or separately or even with the exclusion of the other but all the while together in a kind of “third.” This is Michael Jackson all over to my mind and what I understand to be at the core of his attraction. He could be anyone and everyone. Michael Jackson was not about strict definition or separation but about crossing and merging and bringing us altogether, label-free, as one.
Willa: Or as three-in-one. That’s really interesting, Harriet. So it’s not a process of becoming one by shedding or denying our differences – a oneness of homogeneity – but by developing a more complex understanding of identity, of the multiplicity of identity.
Harriet: That’s it, yes, in which “difference” becomes less absolute and all-encompassing.
Willa: To be honest, I’m still kind of blown away by what you were talking about earlier, Harriet – about stereotypes and how half our brain applies those kinds of labels to help us quickly identify and categorize sensory input, while the other half realizes those labels aren’t true – that it’s “all a fiction and that there is other ‘matter’ (parts of a person) left undiscovered or unexplained,” as you said. That’s such an interesting idea, and I wonder if this kind of double knowledge – with half our brains (the more accessible part) thinking one thing while the other half (less accessible) secretly knowing it’s not true – helps explain something that’s been a big mystery to me.
Before Michael Jackson died, it seemed that most people believed he was utterly corrupt: a pedophile, a drug addict, a plastic surgery addict, a man who used his fame and his wealth to twist other people – especially the parents of young boys – into doing whatever he wanted. But the moment he died, there was this outpouring of grief, and public opinion shifted dramatically. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would so many people grieve so deeply and feel such tenderness for an utterly debauched rock star? I can understand how people might change their minds gradually as more sympathetic information began to emerge, but it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t gradual. It was instantaneous. Why would people feel such a profound sense of loss if they genuinely believed he was “a monster,” as he himself describes it? I just can’t understand that, and I’ve puzzled about it a long time.
I wonder if this sort of double knowledge you’re talking about, Harriet, helps explain it. I wonder if, at one level of consciousness, people saw the tabloid headlines and heard the innuendo and seemed to accept those horrible labels that were being forced onto him. They threw him into “a class with a bad name,” as he says in “They Don’t Care about Us.” But at a deeper level, they knew it wasn’t true, knew it was just a fiction, knew those monstrous labels didn’t fit him. So when he died, that deeper knowledge led to a grief that couldn’t be explained.
Harriet: That is intriguing and very insightful, Willa. In other words, death allows us to finally “feel” without (social) restriction. It is like the death of a person rids us of the limitations imposed on us by a society fearful of difference, of the “matter” that cannot be explained by labels, which, deep down, each one of us knows is really there.
Lisha: I absolutely believe this is true. One of my favorite research projects is to log onto the “Toys R Us” mega-store website and search their merchandise using the search term “Michael Jackson.” They offer dozens of Michael Jackson products for children – puzzles, games, toys, child-size glitter gloves, etc. If as a culture we really believed Michael Jackson was “an utterly debauched rock star” who committed crimes against children, would we be mass producing these products?
Willa: That’s an excellent question, Lisha. And would there be so many CDs of Michael Jackson songs performed as lullabies to play for your children as they go to sleep? I just did a quick search on Amazon and there are five different CDs of Michael Jackson lullabies. Would Amazon really be selling Michael Jackson bedtime music for children if people genuinely believed he was a pedophile? I don’t think so.
Lisha: I actually started a collection of Michael Jackson baby CDs to illustrate this very point – if Michael Jackson is safe enough for your baby’s nursery, then Michael Jackson is safe, end of story!
Harriet: I agree, but I can’t help but wonder if it is also about seeing a market (the mothers of young children) and exploiting it. After all, when there is a fortune to be made anything can happen, as Michael Jackson himself knew only too well.
Willa: Yes, but would the mothers of young children be buying if they really thought he was a child molester?
Lisha: And would the demand for these products be high enough to mass produce them for a giant mega-store chain like “Toys R Us”?
Harriet: Maybe I am being too skeptical, but a large tranche of the demographic of Michael Jackson fans will be mothers of a child-bearing or rearing age, don’t you think?
Lisha: It’s a good question and I don’t really know for sure. Those of us in Michael Jackson’s age bracket (age 55) are more likely to buy these for grandchildren rather than our own kids, so maybe there are at least two strong markets there – mothers and grandmothers.
Harriet: I wanted to return to something that is just so fundamental to “reading Michael Jackson’s face,” and that is what you touched on earlier, Lisha, that “perception is everything, which begs the question – what’s really out there?” As philosophers have explored and identified at length, nothing is really “out there” because it is all filtered by our own individual interpretation. That is, there is actually no “true” reality and no “truth.” It seems to me that in Michael Jackson’s face we see this impossibility of grasping at reality, at “truth.” Not only do we all seem to read Michael Jackson in very different ways, some of us also read him differently within our own minds at different times (sometimes he has changed aesthetically and sometimes he has not).
I’m sure people can recall the collection of promo shots released ahead of Michael Jackson’s appearance on Oprah Winfrey back in 1993. This is one of them:
From the commentary I have found it seems this image (and the decision to “black out” Michael’s face), was quite widely read as a marketing ploy used to entice viewers by playing on the cultural fascination with Michael Jackson’s face. However, I wonder if there was actually more going on. The decision to “black out” the detail of Michael’s face could be read as a very public recognition on his part of the issue we have raised in this discussion: the huge problem we have with the (mis)interpretation of visual information and especially that relating to identity.
Perhaps Michael Jackson is saying here: “People will see what they want to see anyway.” It could be his resignation to this or, more likely I would say, a way by which he was inviting us to think very seriously about how we saw, or didn’t see, his face.
Willa: I agree. It reminds me of the Invincible album cover, where instead of being “blacked out” his face has been “whited out” to the point where the details of his face have been lost. So as you say, in both cases we are left to fill in the image for ourselves. As he sings in “Is It Scary,” “I’m gonna be exactly what you wanna see.”
Harriet: A face is like a mirror: it can reflect back at us (it “mirrors”) what we want, hope or expect to see, rather than reflect what is really there. This photo perhaps argues this. So, to read Michael Jackson’s face we need rather to read ourselves. I’m reminded here of the phenomenon “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” which shifts the power away from the subject towards the spectator in the creation of visual image, meaning, and significance. I go into this in the conclusion of my book and consider it paramount in discussion of Michael Jackson, whose ambiguity – his “both/and proposition” – allowed this interpretative process in a very elaborate way.
Lisha: It’s absolutely true. With this is mind, we should have another look at the HIStory teaser, one of Michael Jackson’s most misunderstood works. His first appearance in this film (1:14) is quite possibly my all time favorite Michael Jackson image for all the reasons we have talked about here. We’re not just looking at Michael Jackson, we’re confronting our own psychological projections and seeing who we believe he is.
Harriet: And there it is. Brilliant.
Willa: It really is. He continually reflects our projections back at us in ways that utterly amaze me.
So before we wrap up I wanted to mention a couple of things. I’m sure everyone is very curious to know more about the new album, Xscape, scheduled to come out in May. Damien Shields has an interesting post describing each of the songs predicted to be on it.
And there’s a new book coming out the end of June that ties in with the ideas we’ve been talking about today in fascinating ways. It’s by Lorena Turner, a photographer and sociologist who contributes to the conversation here sometimes, and it’s called The Michael Jacksons. I’ve only read a few chapters, but I’m really intrigued by what I’ve seen so far.
It looks at Michael Jackson impersonators not only in terms of how they interpret and reenact and memorialize Michael Jackson himself, but how they continue his legacy of “performing” race and gender in fluid ways. Lorena quotes J.Martin Favor that “Race is theatrical – it is an outward spectacle – rather than being anything internal or essential,” and looks at how Michael Jackson and his impersonators “perform” his/their identity. I’m really looking forward to seeing how she develops these ideas. Here’s a link with more information, as well as a gallery of some of her photos.
Harriet: I am really excited about Lorena’s book, not least because it is closely linked to my own work. I mean by this that we could understand Michael Jackson impersonation as being part of the theatrical tradition of blackface minstrelsy, a tradition that was built on (cross-racial) impersonation – performers “putting on” and “taking off” an Other’s body. Despite the minstrel show’s racism for which it is best known, the tradition could at times in its long history articulate cross-racial admiration and alliance (“love”). This reminds me of Michael Jackson impersonators who are so dedicated to and passionate about their subject. Depending on their individual skin color, Michael Jackson impersonators even “black up” or “white up.” I understand Lorena plans to include a chapter on the history of blackface impersonation.
Willa: Yes, I think that’s true. She mentions blackface minstrelsy in the pages I read, and also looks at the history of black artists performing for white audiences, from minstrelsy through Motown.
Lisha: Sounds fascinating!
Willa: It really does. So thank you both so much for joining me! It’s always such a pleasure to talk with you.
Willa: Joie, the recent tensions between Russia and Ukraine have me thinking a lot lately about the buildup to the war with Iraq, that unsettling period of time when the U.S. was working itself into a mindset where we as a nation felt justified invading a foreign country that had not attacked us. And that has me thinking about “All in Your Name,” a song Michael Jackson wrote during that deeply disturbing time when we were on the brink of war.
To me, it’s a powerful but complicated call for peace, a song filled with intense internal conflict as he questions his own deeply held beliefs – the things “the wise men” have told us that he was raised to believe. It’s so poignant and heartfelt to me, but I don’t think we’ve even mentioned it before, have we?
Joie: No, I don’t think we have, Willa, and that’s probably because this song really only came to light about a year or so ago when it was rumored that Barry Gibb, Michael’s friend and collaborator on this song, was thinking about releasing it. And for a long time, there were small snippets of the video to be found online before the entire thing finally surfaced. And I’ll admit, Willa, I actually don’t know a whole lot about this particular song, except that you have fallen in love with it.
Willa: Well, I guess that’s true, Joie – I guess I have fallen in love with it. I’ve certainly been kind of obsessed with it lately, haven’t I? By the way, here’s a clip of the full video, for those who haven’t seen it:
This song seems to have been inspired by the looming war. As The Guardian reported when Barry Gibb released the first one of those snippets you mentioned, “Apparently, Jackson showed up at Gibb’s doorstep with the unfinished song … about three months before the United States invaded Iraq.” And we can see allusions to that conflict in the lyrics, like in these lines: “it burns like a flame / Any ground that I claim.”
But to me, “All in Your Name” is about so much more than that. To me, this song is addressed to God, and it’s directly questioning all the things that have been done “in Your Name” – not just religious wars but all the things we do in God’s name that hurt one another. For example, “the wise men” have told us,
There’s just one religion
One family of love
We suffer the children
As God cries above
And that “family of love” can be interpreted many different ways, such as a religion or a nation. Or it could mean the typical heterosexual family – for example, in the opening verse he says we’ve been told “that a woman and a man / Should go by the plan.” But now he’s questioning the things he was raised to believe.
It feels to me, listening to the opening verses of this song, that he’s having a crisis of faith. He’s questioning beliefs that have guided him since childhood and formed the bedrock of his life. He was raised in the church, and his deeply held religious beliefs helped him find his way through some very difficult times. I mean, just think of all the incredibly talented singer-songwriters who’ve become successful and then destroyed themselves in some way, from Hank Williams to Amy Winehouse. And Michael Jackson rose higher than any of them, but his religious faith helped keep him grounded and productive.
But now he sees that some of those religious teachings are being used as justification to harm or even kill others, and he’s deeply troubled by that. So he’s asking why God allows these terrible things to happen – or more specifically, why God allows them to be done “in Your Name.”
Joie: Hmm. I see your point, Willa, and I understand where you’re coming from. When you look at the lyrics in that way it does sort of sound like a “crisis of faith” situation may be going on here. But I’m not so sure that’s what it is. Looking at these lyrics in a different way, it occurs to me that maybe he’s not so much questioning his beliefs as he is reaffirming them. As he says in that first verse you mentioned,
Now I got a mission
The story unfolds
What the wise men have told you
Is already known
That a woman and a man
Should go by the plan
And we find out
How high we can fly
To me, he’s not questioning those teachings, he’s stating them as fact. “His mission” is to follow those teachings and to “find out how high we can fly.” He goes on to say in the second verse,
There’s just one religion
One family of love
We suffer the children
As God cries above
Again, he says these things like they are statements of fact, not as though they’re meaningless platitudes in which he no longer believes.
Willa: So … I think I see what you’re saying, Joie. So when he says “There’s just one religion,” you don’t think he’s expressing the idea that there’s just one true religion – mine – and all other religions are wrong? That’s how I interpreted it, and that he disagreed with it. Instead, you think it’s more a Unitarian idea – that all religions are simply different aspects of the same thing?
Joie: I wouldn’t say different aspects of the same thing. I’m just referencing the idea that all religions lead to God. And I sort of think that’s what he means by the chorus when he says,
Follow me through the gates of paradise
They’re the same
They’re the same
Basically, I think he’s saying that all those roads may be different – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, etc. – but the path eventually leads to the “gates of paradise,” or heaven. But the paths we take to get there are all the same, so why are we fighting so-called religious wars in the name of God when we are all “one family of love”?
Willa: That makes a lot of sense, Joie. And the idea that we’re all “one family of love” sounds very Michael Jackson, doesn’t it? But if he’s presenting this idea in a positive way, why is God weeping?
Joie: Well, I didn’t say he’s presenting this in a positive way. I actually don’t really think there’s anything too positive about this song. But I would think the meaning of that line would be obvious. God is weeping for the same reason Michael Jackson is. He never intended for his children – us – to fight and kill one another. And he certainly didn’t want it to happen “in His name.”
Willa: Well, I agree with that. I definitely get the sense in these opening verses that Michael Jackson is saying we’ve gone astray – that he’s asking why terrible things are being done in God’s name, or rather “in Your name.” He’s speaking to God directly. And to be honest, I think my reading of those opening verses is strongly influenced by the knowledge that they were written during the buildup to the Iraq war.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq was a response to September 11th. The men who hijacked those airplanes and drove them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were Muslim, and many of them seem to have been motivated by religious reasons. I was living in the Arab District of Singapore when those attacks happened, and the people in that neighborhood were horrified by it. And they could not have been kinder. I would be out walking with my son, who was only 3 then, and total strangers would come up and say, Are you American? We are so sorry for what’s happened in your country. This is not what Islam is about.
We were living right by the big Sultan Mosque – you could see it from our apartment – and I loved going out on the balcony and listening to the call to prayers. My son and I would walk by it almost every day, and after the attacks they immediately put up kiosks of information, and religious leaders would stand outside and answer questions. Mainly, they were explaining what Islam meant to them – that it is a religion of peace, and love, and respect for yourself and others. They were appalled that those attacks may have been carried out in the name of Islam. To them, that was a perversion of what Islam is all about.
And then President Bush, an evangelical Christian, led us to war against Iraq, which had nothing to do with September 11th. None of the 19 hijackers was from Iraq. The only connection is that it’s an Arab country with a predominantly Muslim population. But that’s ridiculous – I mean, imagine the U.S. invading Korea after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, or invading Sweden after Germany sank the Lusitania. It would make no sense. It’s the wrong country. I mean, you shouldn’t invade another country for any reason, but especially when it’s not even the country that attacked you …
But I think we invaded Iraq because President Bush didn’t see it as a war against a country so much as a religious war – a war against Islam, or what he called “Islamic extremists.” He even called it a “crusade” a couple of times, and of course the Crusades were a series of medieval invasions by Christians against “the Infidels,” meaning Muslims.
This is the context for Michael Jackson writing “All in Your Name,” and that really shapes how I interpret it. He’s protesting a religious war, and all the terrible things that have been done “in Your name.” As the song says,
Where is the peace
We’re searching for
Under the shadows of war?
Joie: Well, Willa … I almost feel like I’m the wrong person for you to be having this conversation with, because I have never been a political person. I can’t tell you my thoughts on why Bush led us into war against Iraq, because I honestly don’t have any. And I certainly can’t even speculate on whether he saw it as a war against a country or a war against a certain religion. And maybe the fact that I don’t have that context when approaching this song helps me to see it in a more objective, less political light.
But getting back to the song itself, I still feel like he’s reaffirming his faith rather than suffering a crisis of faith. For example, in the first part of the chorus when he goes on to ask,
So what is my life
If I don’t believe
There is someone to watch me?
Follow my dreams
Take all my chances
Like those who dare?
And what of our world
What does it become
When the damage is done?
I get the feeling he’s saying that even though there are such horrible things going on around the world that are all being done “in Your name,” he’s still going to believe in God and in the teachings he was raised with. Because if he doesn’t, then “what is his life”? If there’s no one to watch over him, if God is not even real, then what happens to his life? What happens to our world, for that matter? What does it become when the damage of not believing is done? As he says in the chorus when he attempts to answer his own questions – “only God knows.”
Willa: Oh, I agree, Joie. I agree that in the first chorus he is asking himself, “What is my life / If I don’t believe?” That’s why I said I see him working through an intense personal struggle – a spiritual struggle – in these opening verses and choruses. (And I think there are actually two distinct choruses in this song – one sung by Barry Gibb and the other by Michael Jackson. They’re labeled Chorus A and Chorus B in the lyrics we recently added to the Lyrics Library.)
The way I interpret it, in the two opening verses he’s thinking about September 11th and the looming war in Iraq and rejecting all the violent, militaristic things being done in God’s name. But then in the first chorus, the one sung by Barry Gibb, he turns the questions on himself, and asks himself if that means he’s willing to reject his religious faith. As we’ve talked about before, he was a deeply spiritual person, and his faith sustained him through trials most of us can’t even imagine. Is he really willing to abandon his faith? To me, he’s in deep conflict about that – he’s really torn by it.
And then that beautiful bridge comes in. And Joie, this may sound crazy, but I interpret this section as the voice of God. To my mind, Michael Jackson is in terrible conflict – he’s asking first God and then himself some extremely difficult questions, questions that go to the heart of his beliefs and his worldview – and then he imagines God’s voice coming in and responding to his questions:
Realize I’ll be there
To love you and understand you
To leave the light on and understand
Until we all know
Til we all know
I’m not a religious person but, Joie, this is so moving to me. I see this song as a journey: he begins by questioning God, then undergoes a deep internal struggle as he questions himself and his beliefs, and then he imagines God coming to him and reassuring him that “I’ll be there / To love you and understand you.” And with that, he emerges from his inner conflict with a renewed faith in a loving God.
Joie: I don’t think that sounds crazy at all, Willa. In fact, I think you may have just explained this whole song. I think somehow we have ended up at the same place on this one.
Willa: I think you’re right, Joie. We interpret the opening verses pretty differently – even opposite ways – but by the end we both see him recommitting himself to his beliefs. But even though he has reaffirmed his faith, I don’t think his beliefs are the same as they were before. He’s no longer a Jehovah’s Witness – no longer believes the doctrine of any particular church – nor is he going to blindly accept what “the wise men” have told him.
Joie: Well, that’s true too.
Willa: Instead I see him moving more toward that idea you mentioned earlier, Joie, when you quoted the second chorus – the one he sings over and over in the outro:
It’s all in the game
It’s all in your name
Follow me through the gates of paradise
They’re the same
As you said earlier, he seems to be saying that many different religions offer a path to their vision of paradise, but “They’re the same.” In other words, they are simply different paths to the same place.
Joie: Today, Willa and I are joined by our friend and contributor, Lisha McDuff. Thanks for spending time with us today, Lisha. What have you been up to?
Lisha: Well, Joie, I’ve been pretty busy! Can you believe I just graduated from the University of Liverpool with a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies?
Willa: And her dissertation was on Black or White!
Joie: Congratulations on that achievement!
Lisha: Thank you so much.
Joie: So ladies, I’ve been thinking about the first time we all sat down for a chat when we talked about how many of Michael Jackson’s songs can be described as a “sonic sculpture.” And I was thinking that there is a song out there that we have never really talked about before that is a perfect example of this “sonic sculpture,” and that’s “Morphine.” It has always been one of my favorite MJ songs. I love it for so many reasons, but mainly because it’s simply so aurally fascinating to listen to.
The subject matter of the song is a little bit of a departure from what we normally see from Michael Jackson. It’s a bit darker in tone than what we’re used to, but part of me feels that the music is so fascinating because the subject matter is so dark. Like this is something he did purposely in order to convey a certain emotion, or evoke a certain mood about the song. Does that make sense?
Willa: It does – it makes a lot of sense. I hadn’t thought about “Morphine” specifically as sonic sculpture before, but I think I know what you mean, Joie, and I wonder if it feels so “sculptural” in part because of the abrupt transitions from the first part into that very different middle section, and then from the middle section back out to the last part. Those transitions are so rough and abrupt, almost violent, that they really call attention to the structure of this song in a way most songs don’t.
Joie: I like how you describe that, Willa. “Violent” is a good word to use here because it truly does feel that way.
Willa: It really does. When transitions flow easily from one part of a song to the next, a lot of times you don’t even notice – you just drift along with the flow of the song. But that isn’t the case here. We’re forced to notice the architecture of this song because the transitions – the seams between the sections – are so glaringly obvious. And I think those rough transitions are really important to both the feeling and meaning of “Morphine.”
Lisha: It’s interesting that I hadn’t necessarily thought of “Morphine” in terms of sonic sculpture either, but now that you’ve mentioned it, Joie, you’re absolutely right. It does makes sense to approach it that way. There is a lot going on in this song – all kinds of industrial noise, machinery, and electronic sounds swirling around all over the place. I hear a buzzing sound vibrating right through my head much of the time, and at other times I strain to hear a far-off conversation, as if it is behind a door at a distance.
We know Michael Jackson was interested in how the ear can judge distance and identify the location of sound in space. His recordings spatialize sound in such fascinating ways. “Thriller,” is a great example of this, recorded and mixed by Bruce Swedien. Another is Disney’s Captain EO, which was the first 5.1 surround sound film ever made. Michael Jackson also experimented with a 3D binaural recording process known as “holophonics,” which was trademarked by Hugo Zuccarelli. The pillow talk introduction to “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” is an example of holophonic sound.
Zuccarelli’s recordings are like ear training exercises that demonstrate how recorded sound can be manipulated to occupy a specific location in an imaginary sonic space. You need headphones to get the full effect, but here is an example of a sonic sculpture titled “Haircut”:
It’s really interesting to listen to “Morphine” with this kind of spatialization in mind. I’m really glad that you encouraged us to approach the song as sonic sculpture, Joie.
Joie: Thanks for sharing that example, Lisha. It’s really interesting to listen to.
Willa: It really is! I swiped my son’s headphones and listened to that clip, and the way the sounds seem to occupy specific points in space and even move around you is amazing! It really reminds me of the slamming door and footsteps walking across the sound space in “Thriller,” as well as a lot of the background sounds in “Morphine,” like the knocking and television sounds off in the distance.
Joie: There are all sorts of wonderful and interesting sounds going on in the background of “Morphine,” some of them very surprising and unexpected. At times I even think that I hear what sounds like water dripping incessantly from a faucet. Do either of you hear that?
Lisha: No, I don’t! Where is that one? I missed it!
Joie: Maybe it’s a sound that I’m oversimplifying as dripping water because my mind can’t easily label it, but I hear it in the first half of the song running at measured intervals in the background. Interestingly, I don’t hear it after the abrupt middle section of the song.
Lisha: Wait a minute, Joie! I think I know what you’re talking about and what a wonderful description of that sound! I think you mean a percussive sound that occurs in the far right portion of the sound field just after the rhythm starts. It happens on the upbeat of 4 and then it occurs every 8 counts after that. Is that the one you mean? It does sound like a slow drip from a water faucet!
Joie: Yes! That’s it!
Lisha: That’s the fun of listening to these tracks, there is always something new to discover.
And as you pointed out, Willa, there are two separate and distinct sound worlds happening here, like another song has been dropped right into the middle. “Morphine” could very well be Michael Jackson’s best rock/heavy metal vocals ever, but suddenly in the middle section there is a relaxed, gentle vocal accompanied by piano, flutes, and strings. It is a startling contrast that makes for an interesting sonic experience, but a very challenging one – it certainly deals with a difficult subject, that’s for sure.
Joie: You know, I almost feel that the subject matter is one of the most interesting things about this song. I happen to be a pretty big fan of rock music in general. I love “80s hair metal” for instance, and I could (and often do) listen to bands like Aerosmith and Guns N Roses all day long. And as any fan of rock music will tell you, drug use is a big staple as far as musical themes go in that genre. In fact, in many genres.
But one of the things that set Michael Jackson apart from the rest is that he typically didn’t sing about things like drugs and sex. So “Morphine,” with its blatant, in-your-face look at drug use – from the drug’s point of view no less – is quite jarring. Every bit as jarring as the abrupt transitions that Willa mentioned earlier.
Lisha: You’re making an excellent point. Drug use is a conspicuous topic in rock music from the 1960s onward and illegal, recreational drug use is often characterized as a positive, mind-expanding experience. This seems to reflect some of the core values of rock, such as spontaneity, authenticity, and an opposition to rigid rule-following and authoritarian thinking.
However, I think “Morphine” comes from an entirely different point of view and expresses a very different set of values. “Morphine” does not address or promote recreational drug use. Instead, it problematizes legal, pharmaceutical medications that are prescribed by physicians to treat patients with serious medical concerns.
Willa: That’s true. This isn’t your typical “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” song by any means. It isn’t talking about getting high. Instead, “Morphine” is focusing very specifically on doctor-facilitated drug addiction, or even doctor-induced drug addiction.
Joie: And the lyrics in that abrupt middle section are very telling, and very personal, I think. Every time I listen to this song, I can just imagine Michael lying on a doctor’s table as these words are softly spoken to him:
This won’t hurt you
Before I put it in
Close your eyes and count to ten
I won’t convert you
There’s no need to dismay
Close your eyes and drift away
Can’t you just imagine that? A doctor assuring him that “I won’t convert you into a junkie – just close your eyes and drift away from the pain.”
Lisha: Oh, I certainly can imagine that! The music in this section is soothing, but so sad and haunting at the same time. The doctor is offering some welcome relief from severe pain, but I get this sinking feeling that the situation is much more complicated than what the doctor is willing to represent.
And I agree with you, Joie – this song feels deeply personal. I noticed in the liner notes that Michael Jackson wrote, composed, performed, and produced this song. He also did most of the arrangements himself and he even takes a turn on percussion, drums, and guitar.
Willa: Really? I didn’t know he played guitar …
Lisha: Well, maybe not in the strictest sense of the word, but I’d be willing to bet he knew his way around on it. One of his closest musical collaborators, Brad Buxer, talked about Michael Jackson’s relationship to musical instruments in an interview with the French magazine, Black & White. He said Michael Jackson was a fantastic musician and it wasn’t really necessary for him to have a high level of proficiency on any particular musical instrument. According to Buxer, “He instinctively understood the music. It was just part of him …”
Buxer played keyboards and piano on “Morphine,” but didn’t collaborate on composing the song, as he did on others. Michael Jackson had worked out the entire record in his head and communicated what he wanted to hear to Buxer:
He sang all the parts, whether the piano in the middle of the song, or those sheets of synth on the chorus. Everything is his. On this song, I simply carried out his ideas.
I am also thinking about what you said earlier, Joie, when you described the lyrical content of this song as a personification of the drug itself. That’s such an interesting idea and I thought of lines in the song that could easily be read that way:
Trust in me
Trust in me
Put all your trust in me
But I think there is another strong possibility here too – that the lyrics represent a doctor who is encouraging a patient to have complete faith in their experience and expertise as a medical professional.
Willa: That’s true, those lines could be interpreted either way – as encouraging the patient to trust the drugs or trust the doctor – and it’s chilling either way. I hadn’t thought of those lines as referring to the drug itself – that’s a really interesting way to look at that, Joie – but it makes perfect sense. I mean, just imagine Michael Jackson looking at a bottle of propofol, for example, and thinking those words: “trust in me” to give you a good night’s sleep. Or think of Dr. Conrad Murray speaking those lines. It’s really frightening either way.
Lisha: Yes, it is. And the theme of trusting the doctor happens again, about a minute and a half into the song (1:32 and repeats at 4:16). I hear what sounds like a knock at the door and a woman saying in a very stern, authoritarian voice, “you heard what the doctor said.” This is an audio clip from David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man. It’s taken from a scene in the film when the Elephant Man is frightened, distrustful, and reluctant to comply when asked to follow the doctor into his office. The head nurse intervenes and commands him to do as “the doctor said.”
Here’s a clip of the movie. The scene in the doctor’s office begins at 15:02 and the audio portion sampled in the song is at 16:25:
Willa: Wow, Lisha, you’re right! I didn’t know that – that he was sampling The Elephant Man in this section – but you’re right, he does. That seems very significant to me.
Lisha: To me, too. It feels like a really important part of the song.
Willa: Oh absolutely. Apparently the story of John Merrick (or Joseph Merrick – he’s been called both names) really resonated for Michael Jackson. You and I talked about that a while back, Joie, in the Leave Me Alone post. So it’s significant for that reason, but also thematically, I think – how it ties in with the idea of a doctor not always acting in a patient’s best interests.
I just watched The Elephant Man again after not seeing it for, heavens, years and years, and I was struck by how much it focuses on Dr. Treves. He’s on screen nearly as much as Merrick is. And while he rescues Merrick from the abusive Mr. Bytes, who was exhibiting him as a carnival sideshow, Dr. Treves’ motives aren’t purely benevolent either. As an older doctor says,
I for one am sick and tired of this competitive freak-hunting by these overly ambitious young doctors trying to make names for themselves.
Over the course of the movie, as Dr. Treves begins to see Merrick in a more sympathetic way, he begins to question himself and his reasons for seeking out Merrick and befriending him so publicly:
I’m beginning to believe that Mr. Bytes and I are very much alike. It seems that I’ve made Mr. Merrick into a curiosity all over again, doesn’t it? But this time in a hospital, rather than a carnival.
He goes on to say,
My name is constantly in the paper. I’m always being praised to the skies. Patients are now expressly asking for my services.
All because of the publicity he’s gained from being the Elephant Man’s doctor. And that horrible scene where he puts Merrick on display for the auditorium full of doctors feels very similar to how Merrick was put on display in the carnival.
So in his own way, Dr. Treves has made a career for himself out of publicizing Merrick’s physical afflictions, just as Mr. Bytes was doing. And it seems to me this somewhat predatory relationship between doctors and patients is a key element of that middle section of “Morphine.”
Joie: Wow. Willa, I’ve seen The Elephant Man many, many times; I just love that movie. But I’ve never thought about it in terms of “Morphine” before. That’s a really interesting parallel you’ve drawn.
Lisha: It really is, and I am very interested in how much the movie focuses on Dr. Treves. At about 1:37 minutes into “Morphine,” just after we hear the nurse bark out “you heard what the doctor said,” I think I also hear the voice of Dr. Treves, played by Anthony Hopkins. Do you hear the male speaking voice in this part as being that of Dr. Treves? It’s off to the right and at a distance, so it’s very hard to make out.
Willa: I think so. It’s a British accent and it sounds like his voice to me, though I can’t make out the specific words. And then there’s the sound of raucous laughter, like from a television soundtrack. There’s laughter in The Elephant Man too, and it’s not happy laughter. In fact, it generally means something exploitative is happening to Merrick. In fact, throughout the movie, laughter is almost always a cruel thing.
Lisha: Yes, it sounds like there could be a laugh track right after Dr. Treves’ voice, possibly suggesting these medical problems are a source of entertainment for some? It’s incredibly cruel.
In terms of sonic sculpture, I noticed how this sequence is spatialized from left to right. The knock is heard in the left side of the sound field, the nurse’s voice is in the center, Dr. Treves voice is on the right, and the laugh track sound is even farther to the right. It kind of swirls around the listener/patient in the story and gives the feeling of being disoriented and vulnerable.
Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting interpretation, Lisha. It feels that way to me too.
Lisha: It seems that just about everyone had a predatory relationship with John Merrick, including his doctor. It’s not hard to imagine why Michael Jackson identified with him so strongly. There’s the Carny who exploits Merrick as a freak show attraction, the hospital employee who profits from bringing crowds in at night to view him, the upper class who are eager to be associated with him when it is fashionable to do so, the mean-spirited mobs who taunt him. And of course, I couldn’t help but notice a strong parallel to Michael Jackson when women scream and go crazy at the sight of him, too.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Lisha, and the movie explores that in subtle ways, I think – both the fear people feel toward Merrick as well as the complicated yearning for the Other. There’s that horrible scene where the two young women from the tavern are forced to kiss him and then kiss the lecherous man who brought them. And then there’s the much nicer scene where he meets the actress who befriends him. They trade lines from Romeo and Juliet, and then she kisses him and says, “Oh Mr. Merrick, you’re not an Elephant Man at all. You’re Romeo.” She also gives him a glamorous photo of herself, which he places beside his bed.
And then a lot of women, especially the nurses, want to mother him. Dr. Treves’ wife seems to feel this too. She begins to cry when he shows her a picture of his absent mother, saying,
She had the face of an angel. I must have been a great disappointment to her. … If only I could find her so she could see me with such lovely friends here now. Perhaps she could love me as I am. I tried so hard to be good.
In the movie it’s implied that his mother abandoned him because of his afflictions, though apparently in real life she suffered physical disabilities as well, and loved him and cared for him until her death when he was 10. Either way, he lost his mother’s protection at a young age, and other women tried to step in when he was older and care for him the way a mother might have – something we see with Michael Jackson also. So Merrick’s relationships with women are very complicated – just like his relationship with his doctor, Dr. Treves.
Lisha: Yes, I agree.
Willa: So I don’t mean to get off track, but you know those buzzing and popping “electricity” sounds at the beginning of “Morphine” that you guys mentioned earlier? They evoke very specific images for me, and I was wondering if they do the same for you. It sounds to me like electricity running up two diverging wires and then popping at the top, which for me means one thing: Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory! Do you know what I mean? And Dr. Frankenstein is so interesting to think about in terms of this theme of predatory doctors.
Here’s a trailer from the 1939 classic, Son of Frankenstein, with Basil Rathbone as Dr. Frankenstein, Boris Karloff as the monster, and Bela Lugosi as Ygor. It shows the scene where those zapping electrical currents bring Frankenstein’s creation to life. You can hear buzzing and zapping sounds throughout, and you can very clearly see those diverging wires with the electrical current arcing between them at 1:03 minutes in:
Lisha: Wow, that’s brilliant! I was wondering what those sounds might be depicting. I think you’re really onto something here, Willa, especially when we think about the song as sonic sculpture. When I listen to the opening of “Morphine” through headphones, I notice that the electrical buzzing sound is right at the top center portion of the sound field – it feels like it’s actually buzzing inside my head.
Willa: I know what you mean, Lisha. It feels that way to me too.
Lisha: Now that I think about it, it feels like I could be in the middle of one of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments! What is so interesting is that the location of the sound not only changes the physical and emotional effect of the sound, the location also creates a literal meaning.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Lisha! I see what you mean – it’s like the location of the sound all around us kind of positions us as listeners on the table, like we’re one of Frankenstein’s experiments. And of course, in “Morphine” we’re in the same position. “Morphine” situates us so we’re lying on the table, listening to a doctor tell us to relax as he injects a drug into our veins.
Joie: Willa, I love that Frankenstein imagery because I’ve always gotten the same feeling from those “electricity” sounds. And I think the fact that those sounds conjure up the same imagery for both of us is significant.
Willa: I think so too.
Lisha: I’m also thinking about the sound of water dripping that you identified, Joie, and I noticed that when the Elephant Man makes his first appearance in the film, I can hear the sound of water dripping in that dark, damp basement he is kept in. (In the movie clip posted above, it is around the 12:00 minute mark.) I guess it’s impossible to say what the sounds in “Morphine” were actually intended to depict, unless someone can tell us what the thought process was. But when you add all this up, it definitely begins to paint a picture.
Joie: As you said, Lisha, it’s impossible to know for certain what the intention was, but … it certainly seems that it all fits, doesn’t it?
Lisha: It does to me.
Joie: And Lisha, I never would have thought about that water dripping in The Elephant Man. Great catch!
Willa: Me neither, but all these connections between The Elephant Man, Frankenstein, and “Morphine” make perfect sense, don’t they? Just looking at the doctor/patient relationships, there are so many parallels between them – between Dr. Treves and John Merrick, Dr. Frankenstein and the monster he creates, and the doctor injecting morphine into the veins of his patient, who seems to represent Michael Jackson himself since the lyrics indirectly refer to the scandals surrounding him.
In all three cases the doctor has a privileged social position (in the case of Dr. Frankenstein, he’s a baron as well as a doctor) while the patient is a social outcast – a “freak,” a “monster,” a man accused of being a child molester. Yet in all three cases, the more we learn the more we sympathize with the “freakish,” “monstrous” patient and come to distrust the distinguished doctor treating him.
Joie: That really is interesting, isn’t it? Especially with the story of Frankenstein where we are left to question which one is really the monster, the doctor or his patient. I think this is a theme that Michael Jackson obviously identified with a great deal.
Willa: Oh, I agree. I think this is a very important theme for Michael Jackson. We see it explicitly in the lyrics to “Monster” and more subtly throughout his work. Over and over we see this impulse to take us inside the minds of those who are perceived as “monstrous” or outcast and encourage us to see things from their perspective. And you’re right, Joie, that’s a central theme of Frankenstein also – at least, it is in the novel. Some movie versions handle it differently. But in the novel, our feelings keep flipping upside-down as our sympathies shift back and forth between Dr. Frankenstein and the being he created.
That’s something we see in “Morphine” also – this emotional tension as our feelings pull us first one way and then the other. And it manifests itself on several different levels, like in the unusual way this song is structured, as we talked about earlier. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me this functions in a very complex way – in part because our emotions, our intellect, and our physical affect are often at odds with each other.
What I mean is that if I just listen to this song without really thinking about what it means, I feel very unsettled during that turbulent, pounding opening section. It’s so jarring and industrial, and his voice is practically screaming. And some lines of the lyrics are sharp as knives, like “I hate your kind, baby / So unreliable” and “You hate your race, baby / You’re just a liar.” It’s so painful to me to hear him sing those words, and imagine what it must have felt like for him to hear comments like that.
Then that beautiful middle section comes in and I start to relax. I have to say, I love his voice in this section. It’s just lovely, with the simple tinkling of a piano, followed a little later by strings and flutes, as you mentioned, Lisha. It’s all very simple and soothing and beautiful.
And then the jarring, pounding, industrial sounds start up again as we’re yanked into the third section, and it unsettles me all over again.
Joie: And I believe that unsettled feeling was his intention here.
Willa: I think so too. So the structure of “Morphine” has a significant emotional, even physical, effect but I think there’s more going on here.
If I were to interpret this song without thinking about the lyrics, I would assume that the first and third sections are depicting an industrial, mechanized, artificial world, and that the middle section is an escape into nature – into the “real” world, the natural world.
But that isn’t true. The lyrics flip that around. The first and third sections are depicting the “real” world, the harsh reality of his world after the 1993 allegations came out and the publicity machine turned against him, and the middle section is what’s false and artificial – a drug-induced escape from the real world.
Lisha: It is temporary relief from agonizing pain, but even that momentary escape is problematic.
Willa: Exactly. So there’s a dissonance between how these three sections feel and what they mean, between what’s perceived as “real” and what isn’t, and that’s so interesting to me.
The overall result is that when I listen to this song, I’m kind of a mess, frankly. The first section puts me completely on edge. Then that soft middle section begins and my body begins to relax – but at the same time, my mind is saying, Danger! Danger! Don’t succumb! Then the third section hits and I don’t know what to do. I want to escape all that jarring, abrasive confusion and I kind of want to go back to the relative quiet of the middle section, but I know I shouldn’t.
So my mind, body, and emotions are all confused and in a state of conflict – which is an approximation of the experience of addiction, I imagine.
Joie: I think that was a wonderful analogy of addiction, Willa, and really thought provoking. Just like “Morphine” itself.
Lisha: The song captures the reality of the situation quite well. In the case of a severe injury or agonizing pain, the suffering of the patient simply has to be addressed. It’s the only compassionate thing to do, and I can feel that in the soothing effect of the music in the second section. Yet, there is something so terribly sad, haunting, and dark about that music, too.
Willa: Oh, I agree.
Lisha: It’s a feeling of not knowing which is worse, the treatment or the illness, the solution or the problem, the painkiller or the pain. Those contrasting musical sections could just keep repeating in an endless, vicious cycle.
Willa: Yes, just like the cycle of addiction. So in a very real sense, Michael Jackson isn’t just singing about addiction in “Morphine” but recreating the physical and emotional experience of addiction, and forcing us as listeners to experience it for ourselves.
Lisha: As you said so well, Joie, it’s a thought-provoking sonic sculpture.
Willa: This week I’m thrilled to be joined by four people doing fascinating work researching, thinking about, and writing about Michael Jackson. Lisha McDuff is a professional musician and musicologist whose graduate research focused on Black or White. Sylvia J. Martin is a visiting assistant professor of anthropology who has written numerous articles on Michael Jackson’s cultural function, both in the U.S. and around the world. Several of her articles can be accessed from our Reading Room. Eleanor Bowman is an environmentalist with a master’s in theology, and she is currently working on a book that looks at how Michael Jackson’s art can help move us toward a new relationship with nature. And Veronica Bassil has a Ph.D. in English and American literature and has written two books on Michael Jackson: Thinking Twice about Billie Jean and Michael Jackson’s Love for Planet Earth. Thank you all so much for joining us!
So you all recently attended Brad Sundberg’s seminar in Orlando. Lisha and I talked with Brad in a post a few weeks ago as he was preparing for it, and it sounded wonderful! I’m so curious to hear all about it.
Sylvia: The seminar was fantastic. It was also great to meet each other and everyone else who attended.
Lisha: Oh, I agree. What a treat it was to meet you, Brad, Matt, and all the other seminar participants. It was an incredible weekend.
Eleanor: Yes, it was really wonderful. I just wish everyone in the Dancing with the Elephant family could have been there! Just getting to meet Veronica and Lisha and Sylvia and talk about Michael in person would have been enough for me, but then we got to meet other MJ fans and hear their stories – and then, on top of all that, we got to hear from Brad and Matt and hear all about their up close and personal experiences with MJ. Well, it was almost too much for me to take in.
Veronica: Yes, I learned a lot, and it was great to be with everyone sharing our love for Michael and his work. And it was especially great to meet the posters from Dancing with the Elephant – Lisha, Eleanor, and Sylvia.
Willa: So what were some standout moments for you?
Sylvia: It was fascinating to be able to hear isolated tracks of Michael harmonizing on “Liberian Girl.”
Lisha: Wasn’t that amazing? Brad played the background vocals for “Liberian Girl” and then isolated the tracks so we heard each part separately as Michael Jackson sang the four-part harmony: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. It really showed his amazing vocal talent, his wide vocal range, and his impressive command of music theory and harmony. Every note had to be chosen so carefully to create those close, dense harmonies.
Brad and Matt talked about how Michael Jackson had all of these parts worked out entirely in his head, something that really amazes me. They, too, were blown away by Michael Jackson’s mastery of song construction and marveled at how he could sing every line of each individual part in its entirety, knowing exactly how each part should fit in with the other elements of the song.
I remember that in Toronto Brad also talked about Michael Jackson’s background vocals. He said each line of a four-part harmony like this would typically be doubled, or stacked, four times. That means a four-part background vocal would have a total of 16 tracks or 16 vocal parts. It’s like hearing a small choir of only Michael Jackson’s voice.
Veronica: Yes, that was really fantastic, and you said it well: “a small choir” of just MJ singing all those different harmonies! Matt also emphasized the amazing ability Michael had to know exactly where all the sounds would go in a musical creation – the harmonies, the melody, the music, the ad libs – he knew where everything would go in a stereo performance. I loved hearing those extraordinary harmonies from “Liberian Girl.”
Eleanor: And we heard them on the speakers they brought from the Westlake Studios! It was like hearing Michael Jackson for the first time. I was just stunned.
Lisha: I thought those speakers had such a luscious, refined sound – absolutely beautiful. Brad said those were the exact speakers Michael Jackson used at one time for listening to playback. I was thrilled to get to hear what they sounded like.
Sylvia: The weekend was made extra special by being able to visit Epcot the next day with Brad and Matt and hear the behind-the-scenes from Matt about Captain EO.
Eleanor: I have to admit that going to Epcot to see Captain EO was a peak experience for me. And, I got to see it sitting right next to Matt Forger! What a privilege. Brad had reserved the theater for us and I was looking for a seat when Matt motioned me over to a seat next to him. I think it was the best seat in the house for the best sound and 3D experience. Actually, it was 4D – the seats moved and bumped with the movement of the spaceship. It was fantastic.
Lisha: I was absolutely crazy about Captain EO too, for so many reasons. For starters, I think the storyline is brilliant. It’s the hero’s journey – an epic tale of good versus evil using the power of sound and music as a vehicle in the transformation of consciousness. In the hands of Michael Jackson, this epic story is cleverly disguised as a 17-minute Disney attraction.
Veronica: Yes, Lisha, that’s an excellent point. And the songs “We Are Here to Change the World” and “Another Part of Me,” as well as the storyline of transforming a deadened, mechanized planet into a vibrant, pastoral world, emphasize the change to global harmony.
Eleanor: Yes, I loved the storyline and the way it was realized, with all the special effects. In fact, I was so focused on Michael in 3D that I could hardly concentrate on the story. After experiencing Captain EO, I think Michael should be 3Deified in all his short films, and concert videos. And even though Michael didn’t write the story (I asked), we know he never sang a song that he didn’t believe in, so I’m sure Captain EO perfectly represents Michael’s vision of the ills besetting our planet and how to fix them.
So, for me, with my environmental interests, everything about Captain EO was mesmerizing. It seemed so revelatory of who Michael Jackson was and is, his role as a change agent, his concern for Planet Earth – even though it supposedly took place in a galaxy far, far away. The film shows a planet that has become a wasteland, as Veronica says, deadened and mechanized – a vision of our future? our present? But Michael sees its underlying beauty, and through his love, his deep sense of connection, expressed in the song “Another Part of Me” and sent out through the lightning from his fingertips (“sending out a message to you”), he transforms the Supreme Leader from a monster into a beautiful woman and her dying planet into a world filled with life.
Like Lisha says, it is an epic tale about the transformation of consciousness, a transformation that we desperately need, a transformation that I believe Michael, through his art, is bringing about. Speaking personally, I can attest to the fact that he certainly transformed mine.
Lisha: I think that’s a wonderful interpretation, Eleanor – it really makes sense in the context of his larger body of work.
Sylvia: I appreciate its environmental transformation, but I don’t care for the characterization of the Supreme Leader. The Disney and fairy tale trope of ugly equals bad and beautiful equals good is to be expected but eye-rolling nonetheless. Why must her supposed inner beauty be externalized? Who does that benefit, and why? Once again, a strong and flawed woman needs to be neutralized; after her transformation she is silent, passive, and pleasing to look at.
Veronica: Thanks for your comment on the Supreme Leader, Sylvia. I read some posts from people who saw the film as young kids, and they spoke about how scary it was for them – and the portrayal of the Supreme Leader was part of that. Indeed, one could argue she is a kind of Medusa figure, with metallic coils instead of snakes in her hair.
I agree that EO is the main character/hero and the Supreme Leader (Anjelica Huston) is rendered into a passive beauty at the end, silently waving as she sits on the shoulders of her attendants. On the other hand, her initial intent is definitely hostile – she wants to turn her captives into “trash cans” and give EO “100 years of torture” in her “deepest dungeon” – so he has to resist that or there would be no more story.
Eleanor: I agree that if you understand the Supreme Leader as symbolizing the feminine, the film is sexist and offensive. But if you see the Supreme Leader as symbolizing nature, as I do – which makes sense as nature traditionally has been symbolized as feminine, and clearly the Supreme Leader is an extension of her planetary world, just as it is of her – then the story is inspiring. And EO’s use of the term “beauty” reminds me of the slogan “Black is Beautiful,” where beauty was a term used to express value and worth, not just physical attractiveness. And maybe this is a stretch, but the use of 3D may be a clue that we are to look deeper – that the story, like most things, can be read on many different levels. The medium is the message.
This is the way I read Captain EO: in telling the Supreme Leader that he sees her beauty, EO is telling us that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” and that traditional Western attitudes toward nature – that “behold” nature as something to be controlled, that “behold” matter and the material world as inert, dead, mechanical, worthless (ugly) – are cultural constructs which can and should be changed. If we can change our perceptions of nature, if we can see its worth and understand that we are “just another part of it,” we will change the way we interact with it. Who benefits? We all do.
Veronica: Eleanor, I like your reading that the Supreme Leader is a reflection of her planetary world, and that when EO makes a comment about “someone as beautiful as you,” he is seeing the intrinsic worth and value of the natural world, which is “another part” of us all – “not dangerous.” I appreciate too your reference to a powerful message of the 60′s: “Black is Beautiful.” EO tells the Leader she lacks a “key to unlock” her beauty, and this key (music) is his gift, which transforms the planet, as well as the Leader and her people. I compared her to Medusa, and it is interesting that when Medusa is defeated by the hero Perseus, the winged horse Pegasus, is born. Pegasus is a symbol of imagination and creativity, and a freedom from restrictive mental constructs that distort our ability to see the world and each other.
MJ sings that the planets are all in line “waiting for you” – waiting for us to join in and no longer be isolated. The metal coils and cables bind the Leader so that she is suspended above the ground and limited in her movement, compared to the final scenes when she walks on the ground and joins the community, one formed by dance as well as music. The power of music (in the form of MJ’s “lightning bolts”) changes the warriors into dancers who follow his beat, and MJ’s dancing is part of his transformative creative energy.
Sylvia: Also, after the male hero essentially “rescues” the female protagonist (from herself), there’s no hint of a romantic pairing. This is a Disney film, after all, and an interracial pairing probably wasn’t on the agenda. In fact, I always notice how right after EO kisses her hand, he steps right in front of her, completely obscuring her face with his, giving a big grin to the audience who are on the receiving end of his joy. It’s all about EO!
Eleanor: Yes, there is no hint of a romantic pairing, but I don’t think this is a romance. This is a mythological representation of an interaction between humanity and nature, where humanity, as usual, is represented as male and nature, as usual, is represented as female. But, in EO, the symbol for humanity is also black, which is nontraditional. Since the standard for the fully human in our society is usually the white male, the fact that EO is black is pretty revolutionary. As a nontraditional representation of humanity, EO is not bound by traditional perceptions. He can establish a new relationship, a non-exploitative relationship, with nature. Like MJ, EO is a black change agent in a white society. I did note the fact that MJ upstaged Angelica at the end, but after all, for his fans, it is all about MJ.
Lisha: I have to agree with you, Eleanor, that EO is taking us into the symbolic, mythic realm. I love the idea that the Supreme Leader could be seen as symbolizing Mother Nature herself – especially since she is so agitated at the moment, unleashing her terrible, destructive forces on her inhabitants who are so thoughtlessly invading and destroying the planet. Personally, I have no problem whatsoever mythologizing that kind of power as uniquely feminine. To my way of thinking, the forces of nature, mythologically speaking, belong in the realm of the feminine.
But I have to say, Sylvia’s point is well taken too. This story can be seen as reinforcing the Evil Queen trope that is so prevalent in fairy tales such as Disney’s Snow White, which is highly problematic from a feminist point of view – “eye-rolling,” as you said, Sylvia. I can think of some other problematic readings of the story too, in terms of one group of people invading and conquering another and then imposing their beliefs and ideals onto that group.
But for me, the more symbolic readings of the story offer the most satisfying interpretations. Another way to look at it would be from a Jungian point of view, a framework that Michael Jackson himself was interested in. The Supreme Leader from this perspective could be seen as representing Captain EO’s own psychological projections. In this scenario, the hero’s journey is a metaphor for a battle that is fought from within the human psyche.
According to Carl Jung, the dark, shadowy, unknown parts of the male psychology are known as the “anima” or the inner feminine. (In female psychology, this is the animus, or the inner masculine – think Beauty and the Beast.) The anima is the ugly, unwanted, unclaimed aspects of the self that must be discovered and battled against so that the whole, enlightened self can emerge. Because very few of us are truly aware of our own negative tendencies, the truly repulsive, monstrous, disowned parts of ourselves must be projected onto others. Myth is a powerful way of speaking to the unconscious mind – that frightening, unknown territory where we do battle with the forces of evil. According to the myth of Captain EO, music is a vehicle for this inner awareness and transformation.
Sylvia, I thought you identified an incredibly important moment towards the end of the film when Captain EO bows before the Supreme Leader, kisses her hand and then turns to face the camera, expressing his joy that the light of dawn has arisen and the forces of darkness have been dispelled. The Supreme Leader is now in her true form of goodness, truth, and beauty. If you look closely, when Captain EO turns towards the camera, the Supreme Leader doesn’t completely disappear behind him. She is quite tall, even taller than Captain EO. (In the theater, you can see this especially well.) For a brief moment, they appear to merge into a single being, symbolically integrating the masculine and feminine – the conscious and the unconscious – which is often spoken of as enlightenment, or dawn.
Willa: Oh, I love your reading of that, Lisha!
Lisha: In Jungian terms, this is known as the bright anima projection. No doubt I’m being influenced by the music here too – this is also the cue for “Another Part of Me” to begin. The story has many other elements of myth as well, such as Captain EO’s small helpers who assist the hero in his journey.
Veronica: Yes, and I’d like to mention EO’s helpers: Hooter, the elephant; Idey and Odey, the hairy, two-headed navigator; and Fuzzball, the flying monkey with butterfly wings who saves EO from menacing warriors by tying their whips together. These creatures are talking animal companions and goofball comics, especially Hooter, and give the film lightness and show EO as decidedly non-heroic. Indeed, at the start of the film we learn he and his crew are about to be booted out of the fleet. Hooter and Idey and Odey were performed by real people in costumes, including the robot Major Domo; Fuzzball was a puppet. Fuzzball and Hooter were a big part of the EO franchise.
Lisha: From the mythic point of view, these helpers magically appear just when the hero seems doomed. From out of nowhere, they provide some small assistance that literally saves the day, such as when Fuzzball ties the whips together. He ends up freeing Captain EO at precisely the moment he seemed trapped and destined to fail.
It was so wonderful to experience the film’s 3D effects on the big screen and get a sense of how the little character Fuzzball would whisper into Captain EO’s ear or zoom right off the screen and fly right up to the viewer, as if making a personal connection. There were many little details like that are missed if you don’t see the film in a theater designed to show the film.
Eleanor: Seeing Captain EO at Epcot was the first time I had ever seen it. I wanted my first-time experience to be spectacular, and it was. I am so grateful to Brad and Matt for making that possible and for enabling us to share the experience with each other. I heard that Disney is planning to discontinue showing Captain EO, which makes me very sad.
Veronica: Absolutely, Eleanor, seeing Captain EO as it was meant to be seen – in 4D – was a peak experience for me too. I have to say, Captain EO blew me away. I saw it three times, and its excellent 3D and 4D effects make one appreciate how this film, created in 1986, is still so engaging and exciting today. Not only did the seats shake, but there were blasts of air around my legs to simulate the feel of the whips threatening Michael. The 3D effects made EO’s spaceship and his little companion Fuzzball appear to hover in the air in front of our seats.
Seeing Michael as Captain EO in 3D is of course wonderful, and it was heart-warming to see crowds of people, from all age groups, enjoying this film, as we saw while sitting outside talking to Matt. Matt told us that in the early days, Captain EO was the premier attraction and there were long lines to see it.
Willa: I can vouch for that – I was in those crowds in the 1980s.
Lisha: That’s so cool, Willa!
Veronica: The song “Another Part of Me” was later expanded for the Bad album, released in 1987. On the Bad tour, Matt said it would always drive the crowd wild. He was asked during the seminar why it was chosen over “Streetwalker” and speculated that it helped to tie in with Captain EO, but perhaps more importantly “Streetwalker” was too similar to “The Way You Make Me Feel” in tone and subject.
Lisha: Yes, I remember one of the seminar participants raising the point that “Streetwalker” has a similar theme to “The Way You Make Me Feel,” making “Another Part of Me” a better overall choice for the album. We got to hear some early demos of “Streetwalker” that I thought were fabulous, as well as some later revisions. I’d love to know more about how Michael Jackson felt “Streetwalker” might have fit into the Bad album.
I will say, it was pretty intriguing to hear Matt and Brad speak of what a crowd-pleaser “Another Part of Me” was in live performance. It’s not like Michael Jackson was short of crowd-pleasing material for his concerts! So, I was surprised to learn “Another Part of Me” was such a stand out in terms of crowd response.
Veronica: Joe Vogel describes “Another Part of Me” as “the spacey synth-driven groove about the cosmic power of music to bring about global peace and harmony.” It is also associated with the Harmonic Convergence of the planets that occurred in 1987, to which the lyrics refer:
The planets are lining up
We’re bringing brighter days
They’re all in line
Waiting for you
Willa: Oh that’s interesting, Veronica. I didn’t know that, and always wondered what that line meant about “the planets are lining up.”
Veronica: In August 1987 there was an alignment of eight planets in the solar system in a grand trine. This alignment was, according to José Argüelles, a key leader of the Convergence event, to usher in a period of cleansing before the Mayan calendar date of 2012, and indicated an energy shift from war to peace. Well, we are still waiting for that to happen. But I am so glad that MJ sent us his “major love” and considered us all another part of him, another interconnected part of a global family.
I attended a local gathering to celebrate the Convergence. It was a big deal in 1987. Does anyone else remember it?
Eleanor: Yes, Veronica. I remember it well.
Sylvia: Yes, I remember it, too.
Eleanor: I was living in Huntsville, Alabama, at the time, and there was a convergence in downtown Huntsville to celebrate it. I had no idea that Michael was referencing the Harmonic Convergence in the lyrics of “Another Part of Me.” That is so fascinating. Layers on layers. But, of course, it fits perfectly.
Veronica: It was an important worldwide, cultural phenomenon and was supposed to signal the beginning of a new dawn, a new evolutionary cycle. Argüelles asked people to gather at sacred sites at dawn and hold a vision of healing and peace in a moment of unified collective consciousness, the first time this had been done on a global scale:
There comes a point when things have to change. A vibration signal was sent out. Where the signal was coming from–whether it was coming from our genetic coding, whether it was coming from the Earth, whether it was coming from outer space, or whether it was coming from all of those–this signal went out and people responded to a signal. It is very much like when a species gets a signal to change the direction of its migration pattern. The signal was, “go back to the Earth … if you want peace on this planet, go back to the Earth.”
Argüelles believed the positive, peaceful energy of people’s synchronized thoughts and feelings would create a “circumpolar rainbow bridge” around the Earth: “This is a positive visualization. A rainbow bridge around the Earth is a totally healing image. This is the healing of the Earth, the healing of our hearts, and the healing of our lives, and instant evolution.”
There were Native American prophecies about “Rainbow Warriors” who would emerge to save the Earth: “There will come a time when the birds will fall from the trees, the rivers will be poisoned and the wolves will die in the forests. But then the warriors of the rainbow will appear and save the world.” I find it so fascinating that the rainbow is also identified with Captain EO, on his t-shirt, where it even lights up, and when he leaves the planet, there is a rainbow sheen that flickers around his ship.
And things did change in unexpected ways not too long after this – the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union fell apart, Nelson Mandela was released, and the apartheid regime in South Africa ended. Around the 2012 date, we have large democratic uprisings in various countries protesting unjust and oppressive governments, such as in Egypt and the Ukraine, and other changing attitudes, such as the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of cannabis. Maybe a transformation of consciousness, such as MJ envisioned, is happening after all?
Eleanor: Well, we know where the signal was coming from: Michael Jackson!
Veronica: That’s funny, Eleanor! To add another comment on Captain EO, in Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle, edited by Christopher R. Smit, Carl Miller’s chapter on “‘We are Here to Change the World’: Captain EO and the Future of Utopia” draws an interesting parallel between MJ and Captain EO. The author sees MJ in his portrayal of Captain EO as representing a kind of cyborg, an amalgamation of animal, human, and mechanical, a transgressive composite that shows the open-endedness of the future: in this way MJ is “the archetypal postmodern figure of utopian potential.” The world of the Supreme Leader is in fact close to what our own world is becoming; thus, Captain EO‘s “rewriting” of that world is like the historical re-evaluation of MJ’s legacy that led to the re-emergence of Captain EO in Disney’s theme parks: “the revival of Captain EO offers a testament to both the transformative dimensions and the contemporary relevance of Jackson’s art.”
Sylvia: I haven’t read Miller’s piece yet but it sounds interesting. In the meantime, I want to approach the idea of “utopian potential” a little differently.
I remarked to Lisha after one of our viewings that MJ was like a black Luke Skywalker, that franchise having recently left its indelible mark on pop culture when EO was made. And in fact, an intriguing interpretive lens for Captain EO is Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is a term which was coined in the 1990s, and you may hear it applied to the work of Janelle Monae today, yet it really started to become evident in literature, music and popular culture in the 1970s. Afrofuturism draws from Black Science Fiction and cosmology, and, as writer Ytasha L. Womack explains, refers to the past as well as to the future (in fact, here she references Michael’s moonwalk as part of the cosmology).
With regards to Afrofuturism’s roots in “ancient African culture” and mythology that Womack mentions, we can think of Remember the Time. In fact, at various points in Michael’s body of work there are engagements with the past/futurist themes of Afrofuturism; in addition to EO there was his reading of the ET storybook, the imagery of The Jacksons’ Can You Feel It music video, and Scream’s space ship.
As Afrofuturism scholar Valorie Thomas and others have noted, musicians who are considered foundational to Afrofuturism include George Clinton with his P-Funk mythology and 1975 album Mothership Connection, which includes the character of Starchild, an alien who arrives on earth in a spaceship. In the song “Mothership Connection,” Clinton sings that they’re “Gettin’ Down in 3D” – a lyrical call to which Michael would respond a decade later with Captain EO.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Sylvia. I hadn’t heard of Afrofuturism until a few weeks ago, and I still know very little about it, but from what I’ve read it really does tie in with Michael Jackson in so many ways. For example, many works described as Afrofuturism offer a kind of gritty utopian vision of a truly multi-cultural society – one that incorporates Difference and Otherness in positive, even joyful ways. That’s very Michael Jackson.
And as you mentioned, Sylvia, it’s futuristic, but in a way that doesn’t deny the past, but merges the past and present into the future. It reminds me of Light Man at the beginning of This Is It - he’s a being from the future, but he’s wearing a spacesuit made of video screens that display important scenes from the past.
Veronica: Yes, that’s a great point about Light Man and the blending of past, present, and future. I see EO as part of this. In fact, our discussion here is reminding me of my own past – memories of the Harmonic Convergence and a lecture I attended in 1982 by the historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, titled “Waiting for the Dawn” (and we know the name EO means “dawn” in Greek). In this lecture, Eliade suggested that the most significant event of the century was the re-valuation of non-Western spiritual traditions, namely Asiatic and Third World, including so-called “primitive” traditions, such as shamanism:
The discovery (or re-discovery) of the value and significance of non-Western spiritualities represents a cultural innovation, for it launches a dialogue and an interrelationship with the others, that is, the representatives of the Asiatic and archaic traditions.
In his view a human being is “par excellence an historic being” in the sense that any human “is continually fascinated by the chronicling of the world,” by what happens in the world or in the soul. Thus, the “essential necessity” of stories, of narrative and the imaginary world, whether of myth or artistic creation, each of which creates “imaginary universes.”
Lisha: Looking at Michael Jackson through the lens of Afrofuturism is pretty fascinating when you think about Scream, for example, as part of an album titled HIStory: Past, Present, and Future. That’s an album concept I find very intriguing. I’m also thinking about the feature film Moonwalker, with its futuristic sci-fi effects blending into the past and present in the Smooth Criminal segment set in the Club 30s.
Sylvia: HIStory: Past, Present, and Future fits very well into the Afrofuturism canon, and there is much to be said about that album!
Lisha: Most definitely.
Willa: I agree. In fact, much could be said about all those examples. You’re right, Sylvia, Afrofuturism really is a fruitful way to approach Michael Jackson. And Lisha, I agree that those sci-fi elements of Moonwalker are heightened by the fact that they’re embedded in a 1940s-style film noir setting, so we really do see the “Past, Present, and Future” blending together.
Lisha: Moonwalker also fits into the themes we see in Can You Feel It, and Captain EO. As Eleanor pointed out, Michael Jackson wasn’t credited for writing Captain EO, but I can certainly see his influence throughout. The concept of Afrofuturism helps to clarify this. I also think it’s worth mentioning another one of Michael Jackson’s sci-fi adventures, the video game Space Channel 5.
Sylvia: Yes, as you can see, Afrofuturism is a very useful perspective on Michael’s body of work; not only do we observe these past and future references in his work, but his apparent otherworldliness was, and is, evident to fans. And Margo Jefferson makes her own reference to Michael’s otherworldliness (and Clinton’s alien?) in her book with the choice of her title for the chapter on Michael’s uncanny child star experiences, “Star Child.”
Afrofuturism, as Chardine Taylor Stone writes, is a space for imagining all kinds of transformations and possibilities for members of the Black Diaspora, formed as it was by the experience of being snatched by violent intruders to a strange, new land(s). It is a way to envision new relationships to space, technology, power, fashion, and sexuality, among other things.
In EO, a black man is captaining a ship and entrusted with gifting the Supreme Leader – a not insignificant responsibility which Michael carries out in a unique manner. In fact, we can think of Michael’s experience of making EO with its new spatial dimensions and his working in a leadership capacity with the best that Disney and Lucas (Industrial Light and Magic) had to offer in technology and resources as an off-screen Afrofuturist endeavor.
Willa: That’s a really interesting way of looking at that, Sylvia – that in his work as a businessman, industry leader, and artist, Michael Jackson is enacting off screen the heroic journey he’s depicting on screen.
Sylvia: Yes, Willa, I think so, too.
Veronica: Speaking of fashion in Afrofuturism, Sylvia, EO’s spacesuit was quite wonderful, as well as the one he wore on stage when he emerged from a spaceship! The portrait of him by Arno Bani, apparently meant for the cover of Invincible, is in that mode as well.
Lisha: You know, these mythic storylines are so entertaining and fun that it’s easy to forget how deeply instructive they are for the human psyche. When you think about the influence of African American musical achievement globally, it’s easy to see that this is not just fantasy escapism but a powerful factor in “imagineering” the future of the planet and beyond, to borrow a term from Disney himself.
Sylvia: It is sobering to have this conversation about Afrofuturism given what has happened in the past year in one of the American states which hosts the Disney fantasyland where EO continues to play and where we also all converged for the seminar: Florida. The historical legacy of white male fear of, and violence towards, young black males – and its sanction – continue to play out in the so-called “postracial” world and in fact not far from where a Black futurist vision continues to be screened and celebrated.
Lisha: I agree, Sylvia. The reality is that we still see many counter examples to this vision of the future, which naturally is deeply disturbing.
Sylvia: As soon as I landed at the airport in Florida for the In the Studio with Michael Jackson seminar, my first thought was, “This is the state where a jury found George Zimmerman innocent.” Then, this past week another Florida jury found another white man innocent of murdering yet another black male teen: Jordan Davis. While Captain EO may have striven to transform consciousness through music, we learn of Michael Dunn’s fury at the loud “thug music” Jordan and his friends were playing and we see in that instance a complete breakdown in the vaunted power of music to unite us, derailed as it was here by deep-rooted racial prejudice, gun violence, ignorance, and arrogance. Tensions between the past, present, and future become poignantly apparent within this geography.
Veronica: Excellent point, Sylvia, in terms of the recent deaths of two young black men at the hands of white/Hispanic men in Florida juxtaposed to the supposed harmony envisioned in Captain EO that we saw at Epcot. It’s true that music was the source of conflict and death and did not unite in the event you refer to – but does that mean it can’t unite or that it hasn’t transformed people? Recent studies have shown the healing power of music – for example, music therapy has helped a number of people, including shooting victim Senator Gabrielle Giffords.
Michael believed in the power of music to transform and uplift, not just on an individual level, but on a larger social scale. Whether right or wrong, or just a quixotic effort, he tried to heal through his music and art. It’s sad but perhaps more realistic to think that this was just a dream – as he sang in “Earth Song”:
I used to dream
I used to glance beyond the stars
Now I don’t know where we are
Though I know we’ve drifted far
Captain EO shows an optimism that MJ later countered with trenchant social-political criticism on the HIStory album, released after the first allegations.
Sylvia: Thanks, Veronica. And you’re right, music can and certainly does unite people and mobilize communities all over the world – it has for centuries. But as with the Jordan Davis murder, we see how in a certain context music becomes racialized and even criminalized to the degree that that it is used as an excuse to act in such a hostile manner. I guess, though, this is one reason why Afrofuturism resonates for some – it allows for imagining a less restricted existence. And Michael certainly did that through his music and art, as you mention.
Willa: Yes, he did. Though to me, even the murder of Jordan Davis, as terrible as it was, points to the power of music. Music can unite us, sometimes in positive ways but sometimes in tyrannical or authoritarian ways – the Nazis’ use of Wagner is one extreme example. But music can also be powerfully disruptive and transgressive. The Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the U.S. were both energized by music, and in a more recent example, the band Pussy Riot is at the forefront of a rising feminist, anti-homophobia movement in Russia.
So music can give disenfranchised people a way to come together and resist a repressive majority, and this disruptive power of music lies at the heart of hip hop. That’s what Jordan Davis and his friends were doing with their “thug music,” I think – they were using music to stake out an identity that critiques and disrupts the dominant majority. And Michael Dunn felt so threatened by that – by the disruptive power of music – that he began firing bullets into their car.
Eleanor: Yes, as Sylvia says, “deep-rooted racial prejudice, gun violence, ignorance, and arrogance” are alive and well in Florida, as they are in most parts of this country, and music can certainly arouse angry reactions, as Michael knew. Just think of the way the dad reacts to Macaulay Culkin when he pumps up the volume in Black or White. But I have not given up on Michael’s dream of using music to change the world. And I don’t think he did either. How he held onto it, given all he went through, amazes me.
Veronica: Yes, Eleanor, his determination and courage to hold to his values were unfailing, and he sought to empower others to do the same. He sings in “Another Part of Me”: “This is our mission / To see it through.” And he certainly did see it through all the way to the end of his life, as we see in This Is It and his message of love and protecting the environment as an individual responsibility: “They? They who? It’s us, or it will never be done.”
Lisha: Music is a powerful force – religions, politicians and rebels use it, governments and the status quo fear it. I’m convinced Michael Jackson never lost sight of that. It’s awe-inspiring to think about the massive number of people who may have seen a Michael Jackson work like Captain EO and been influenced by it on some level.
Matt said when Captain EO opened it was the number one attraction at Disney. People (like Willa, for example!) had to wait in line for hours to get to see it. We were unbelievably fortunate to get a private showing with Brad Sundberg and to hear about the music production directly from Matt Forger, who recorded, mixed, and designed the sound.
Sylvia: Overall, the two of them provided quite a window onto the sonic experience of working with MJ. Both Brad and Matt (and Brad’s daughter Amanda) are extremely personable, patient, and generous. We peppered them with lots of questions!
Lisha: Yes, I felt like I got a very good idea of why Michael Jackson valued and trusted them so much. Spending so many hours in the studio, month after month, you can see why he needed people who were extraordinarily fun to be around, but also incredibly talented, competent, and deeply committed to their work. I saw for myself that Brad and Matt are genuinely that way, and there is no doubt they felt the same way about Michael Jackson.
Sylvia: They humanized Michael, yet they also presented a very professional and very gifted individual. Also, this may seem a mundane point, but I appreciated that Brad and Matt pointed out the amount of organization and coordination that the whole process of recording, mixing, and finishing required. Matt mentioned that besides the creative and the technical aspects, the studio engineering process for a hugely commercial album necessitates a lot of logistics, even down to numbering and naming tracks. As he remarked, organizing tracks and tape reels is dull work, but mandatory in order to deliver a product on that scale to the record label. I know this from my own experiences in editing. Bruce Swedien was apparently a mastermind at overseeing the logistical work and efficiency that went into engineering an album, particularly in the analog era.
Matt’s point underscores Michael’s situation as a commercial artist: a free-floating gift – in this case, song – must nevertheless submit to the rationalization process for the capitalist market with efficient systems for organizing labor and the materials necessary to carry out the work. And that is a complex thing, with all sorts of implications. Anyway, there are a lot of people who played a part, however small, in getting these amazing albums (and short films) to us!
Eleanor: Yes, Sylvia, and not just in getting them to us, but in the creation itself. I really had no idea what a huge part the sound engineers played in the production of music. I learned so much. I hate to reveal my ignorance, but I used to think of the recording process as just that, the process of recording a musical performance as played and sung, with the goal being to reproduce the sound as perfectly as possible. The performance was the art, the recording was just … the recording.
But, listening to them, I began to understand the whole process so differently, and appreciate the incredible amount of work that went into the album production. But the greatest revelation for me was that, in so many instances, they were in on the performance itself from the outset – working right along with Michael, midwifing his music into being. I was so moved by their dedication and commitment to helping Michael achieve his artistic vision – if someone can have a vision of a sound. Their connection with Michael was so deep and personal that they became an extension of his musical imagination.
Willa: That is so interesting, Eleanor. I’ve been doing a little bit of research about the history of popular music, and apparently the way artists think about the recording process changed radically in the 1960s. Before then, the goal of music recording was simply to capture a snapshot of a musical performance – as you say, Eleanor, “to reproduce the sound as perfectly as possible.”
But then in the mid-1960s, with the release of more experimental albums like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, that flipped upside-down. Bands began experimenting with sound and creating things in the studio which they then struggled to reproduce on tour. So it’s like the center of creativity shifted from the stage to the studio, from the act of performing live to the act of creating new sound experiences in the studio, which makes the work of people like Brad, Matt, Bruce Swedien, and Quincy Jones incredibly important. They aren’t just trying to duplicate what audiences hear at a Michael Jackson concert – they’re actually “an extension of his musical imagination,” as you said so beautifully, Eleanor. So it’s really fascinating to hear details from Brad and Matt of how his albums evolved and came together in the studio.
Eleanor: Yes, Willa. Things really did get completely “flipped upside-down.” I remember Michael, in This Is It, saying that he wanted to make sure that the musical performance was as close as possible to the music created in the studio, the music as heard on his albums. He said that was what the fans came to hear and that was what he wanted to give them.
Willa: That’s a great example, Eleanor! It perfectly illustrates this – that in his concerts he was trying to recapture what had been created in the studio, rather than the studio recording trying to capture what had happened on stage.
Eleanor: But, in fact, it really was impossible for Michael Jackson to exactly reproduce his music, as recorded, on tour. For starters, he couldn’t sing the lead vocals and the backup vocals simultaneously! It was, as you say Willa, a struggle.
Lisha: That’s exactly right. You’re raising such an important point, and I think this is something Matt and Brad indirectly helped us to understand. In popular music, the recorded work of art in many ways challenges the definition of the musical work itself. The roles of the composer, lyricist, performer, producer, and engineer have begun to blur all together, so much so, that it sometimes difficult to define the true authorship of the record.
From a performance point of view, “Man in the Mirror” is a great example. We all know the song was composed by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett, but it is often referred to as a song “by Michael Jackson.” Somewhere along the way Michael Jackson’s performance, frozen in time through recorded sound, has assumed ownership of the song, in that any other performance we hear today would be understood as a cover of a Michael Jackson song.
Record producers and engineers also challenge traditional ideas of authorship in that they often contribute so much to the sound of the recording that they take on a significant creative role. Record producers such as Phil Spector, George Martin, and Quincy Jones are certainly thought of in this way. The same could be said of innovative recording engineers like Mark Linett (Pet Sounds) and Geoff Emerick (Sgt. Pepper) and Bruce Swedien (Thriller, et al.).
Sylvia: Good point, Lisha. It’s somewhat similar in Hollywood film and television production. For instance, a lead actor on a long-running TV show may claim ownership of the character she plays even though writers, directors, producers, editors, and studio executives author the role in various ways, as it is her performance that is visible to the public. This is especially the case if the show’s writers, directors, and producers come and go but the actor remains the same.
Lisha: One interesting side note is that Matt told us both George Martin and Geoff Emerick were present in the studio for the recording of “The Girl Is Mine.”
Willa: Wow! That’s sure intriguing, isn’t it? I wonder if there’s any footage of that?
Lisha: I’ll guess that if anyone knew the answer to that, they probably wouldn’t tell us! But surely there must be – talk about a historic moment.
I was thinking Captain EO is a good example of how challenging it can be to really define the authorship of recorded music. We know Michael Jackson was the composer, lyricist, performer, and producer of the songs heard in Captain EO, but we learned there was also a tremendous amount of responsibility given to Matt Forger, who recorded and mixed the songs. Matt described John Barnes as “a one-man band” working with Michael Jackson on “We are Here to Change the World” and “Another Part of Me.” Matt was also the theatrical sound designer for EO, working for the first time ever in 5.1 surround sound – a technology that was developed by Disney specifically for Captain EO – so he and the Disney engineers made an incredibly important contribution to Captain EO as well. But the entire film, really, is a recorded musical work – many contributed to it from a variety of disciplines.
Eleanor: I agree with you, Lisha, that in the production of music, especially today, the lines are blurred. The extent of Brad’s and Matt’s involvement in the creation of Michael’s music really made me question the whole idea of authorship or ownership, especially when an artist’s vision requires the knowledge and expertise – and artistry – of others to realize it. In trying to resolve this issue in my own mind, I thought about the music of classical composers and how I knew a piece of music was “theirs.” For example, I used to be able to recognize a piece of music by Bach, whether or not I had ever heard it before and regardless of who was playing it or singing it, from hearing only the first few notes, not because I know anything about the structure of his music, but because I have learned to recognize my own experience of it – a certain kind of “feeling tone” – as unique to Bach. And, based on my emotional experience, I recognize the music as indisputably Bach’s. It’s like it is an expression of his DNA. Is it the mark of great artists, and of great artistry, that their art is instantly recognizable as theirs?
Lisha: It’s hard to say, I suppose just about any kind of music could potentially have some recognizable features, good or bad. But it’s certainly true that in popular music, the demand for distinctive, original material is extremely high and there is no doubt that Michael Jackson met that demand. One of the things that really sets him apart is how he merged his distinctive sound with equally impressive visuals and original dance moves.
Sylvia: Yes, there is a totality to Michael Jackson’s work that few in popular music can match.
Eleanor: Michael Jackson’s dancing certainly sets him apart from anyone else on the stage. It is instantly recognizable – as is the feeling it gives me. Does Michael Jackson’s music – the music on his albums – carry his own unique artistic stamp? I believe it does.
Lisha: I believe it does too.
Eleanor: Matt said that, in producing music, Michael wanted to hit a target emotionally and that it was his job to interpret what that meant. I really liked that Matt said that. And, in my estimation, no one hits a target emotionally as perfectly as Michael Jackson does. I guess that in the final analysis, my feeling is that the power of Michael Jackson’s artistic vision was so strong that it influenced every aspect of the production, from start to finish, including the choice of a song, if it was written by someone else, the choice of a producer, or the choice of the sound engineers. And the power of his vision, among other very important, things, sets him apart and makes the music “his.” Which is not to diminish in any way the extraordinary contribution of the sound engineers and the amount of teamwork involved.
And I wanted to add that Michael’s vision, and playful, open approach, extended to “found sound” as well as surround sound. Brad told a funny but painful story about Michael repositioning a plywood screen to give himself a little more dancing room while recording “Dangerous.” The panels fell on him and the sound of them falling and hitting him was picked up by the mic. It was kept in, and a version of “Dangerous” containing it was ultimately released. Brad said that, in true MJ style, he finished the recording, and then Brad took him to the hospital to be checked for a concussion.
Lisha: Yes that’s a painful story, but from a musical point of view it is absolutely hilarious that he chose to put the sound of a studio accident in a song titled “Dangerous”! And how long have we been listening to this song without knowing what it was we were hearing? The fact that the engineers can take the ordinary sound of some objects falling and create a musical joke is utterly fascinating to me. The creative process seems limitless – contributions can come from anywhere within the system.
Sylvia: The issue of fluid forms of authorship is just another reason why the seminar – although geared towards MJ fans and MJ music aficionados – could actually be an appealing experience for anyone who is interested in music, performance, engineering, or the recording industry in general. There’s definitely a wider audience for this type of seminar. Brad and Matt’s memories and observations are really a testament to the possibilities and innovations of 1980s and 1990s American studio engineering for popular music. What other solo artist at that time was operating on this scale of resources?
Lisha: That’s probably the biggest question on my mind right now. Is there another artist in history who has ever created such massive musical productions with these huge multi-million dollar budgets? I certainly can’t think of one. I agree that learning about these recordings would be of interest to anyone interested in music as recorded art.
Eleanor: Yes, I think, as you point out, Sylvia, that the resources Michael had available allowed Matt and Brad to really push the envelope. So we were learning from the best about the best!
Lisha: Matt and Brad were quick to credit their employer, Michael Jackson, as well as their superiors, especially Bruce Swedien and Quincy Jones. They displayed a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for everyone involved and felt it was ultimately a group effort. It was definitely quite a team.
Veronica: I agree so much with what you all said about the complex teamwork needed to bring an enormous and ground-breaking project like Captain EO into being. Matt Forger, who worked on Captain EO throughout, all the way to its star-studded opening, was a marvelous window into that experience. He emphasized the evolving technology: in music, from large 24-track analog tapes, which were then transferred to laser disks, to digital recording – and in film, finding ways to create all those special effects before computers and CGI were available, using what Matt called “stop and go” special effects and building miniatures.
Brad and Matt emphasized that Michael was a “team player” and worked well with others. Brad talked about how the general motto in the studio was “Take the work seriously, but not yourself,” something that Quincy repeated with his saying, “Leave your ego at the door.” Matt emphasized over and over that MJ’s “work ethic was second to none,” and that others, including himself and Brad, would put in 16-hour work days, and sometimes MJ and Bruce Swedien even slept in the studio.
Lisha: Yes, and this went on day after day, week after week, year after year. I don’t think it’s generally understood how long and how hard Michael Jackson and his team worked to create these albums. Even before the formal recording sessions started, Michael Jackson could have a group working at Hayvenhurst for a year or more before even getting to day one of the formal recording process. Who knows how long he might have been working on a song even before that!
Veronica: Matt pointed out that in all MJ’s projects, “The creative intent is the highest priority.” And the creative intent was to strive for “the strongest emotional connection” possible, to make the listener feel the music emotionally. The songs were often born years, even decades, before and slowly worked their way into being. The albums took years, Matt said.
Eleanor: Yes, that really impressed me, Veronica! Although many people see art and technology – just as they see art and pop music – as occupying separate spheres, Michael clearly saw technology and popular music as a powerful means of achieving “the strongest emotional connection” and expressing himself as an artist.
Veronica: Matt also explained that the surround sound system for Captain EO was calibrated to meet specific music standards for highs and lows, designated by THX-approved systems, and that the four places where the film was shown – Anaheim, Epcot, Paris, and Tokyo – were checked through equalizers for sound quality.
Captain EO was shown in those four theaters for a relatively short time, from 1986 to the mid-90s, when the allegations caused the removal of the movie, and it was only restored in 2010 after MJ’s death. It is a work that has not yet received the full attention it deserves, having disappeared for such a long time. I agree with Sylvia, it is an important part of MJ’s Afrofuturism, as well as an even earlier work The Wiz – artist Derrick Adams sees this film as foundational for Afrofuturism. (Here’s a link.) I like Lisha’s reference to the “mythic” qualities in EO – such as the rainbow on his shirt and the name EO, meaning “Dawn” – and in MJ’s art in general. (And, Lisha, yes, the title HIStory: Past, Present, and Future is a very puzzling and intriguing title. It’s a fluid and complex “HIS story” for sure!)
I just wish that the film could somehow be made more generally available. There is so much there and I feel very grateful to Matt and Brad for bringing a greater understanding of the effort and dedication of so many to bring Michael’s “creative intent” into being. As Matt said, “The logistics were huge.” By the way, a recent interview with Matt is on Damien Shields’ blog, and a worthwhile video on The Making of Captain EO shows how meticulous the work was.
Lisha: Yes, I’m with you on that, Veronica. I would really like to see Captain EO made available to the public in some form or another – it is certainly worthy of much more attention. What a fabulous weekend we had learning about it and so many other Michael Jackson projects. Brad and Matt have more seminars coming up. I hope we get to do it again soon!
Willa: So Joie, on a number of occasions when asked about the scandals that surrounded him, and the way the media turned against him and really vilified him in later years, Michael Jackson suggested that one cause was jealousy. And I always interpreted that to mean that certain individuals (like Evan Chandler) were jealous of him, and that’s certainly true.
But then Lisha McDuff, Harriet Manning, and I did a post a few weeks ago about blackface minstrelsy and how it was motivated in part by envy – racial envy. And then the other day I was listening to a 2002 phone interview with Steve Harvey, a black comedian and radio host, and I was really struck by the fact that when Michael Jackson talked with him about jealousy, he said “us” – not “me” but “us,” that people are jealous of “us” – and I think that “us” means successful black entertainers.
It’s funny – that one little word opened my eyes to a completely different way of interpreting what he’d been saying all those years. It seems to me now that he’s not talking so much about personal jealousy, though of course that’s part of it, but about racial jealousy – the jealousy of whites against successful blacks. As he tells Steve Harvey,
They hate to see us grow and build and build, and there’s nothing wrong with that [with growing]. They can and it’s ok. What can I do but reinforce the talent that God gave me? That’s all I want to do, is share the love and gift of entertainment. That’s all I want to do. I don’t want to hurt anybody.
Here’s the interview, and the part about jealousy starts about 8 minutes in:
Joie: I had forgotten all about this Steve Harvey interview, Willa. And speaking as a Black American, I agree that he’s talking about race when he makes his jealousy statement.
You know, this is actually an issue that many black people have struggled with and talked about among themselves for many, many years. Michael’s statement that, “They hate to see us grow and build” is a very real phenomenon in our society, and it has been going on since the birth of our nation. Or rather, I should say, since the end of slavery in our nation. And he wasn’t just talking about successful black entertainers. He was talking about any Black American who has found great success in whatever field they happen to work in, whether they’re famous or not. In fact, I believe that it’s one of the prevailing factors for all the backlash President Obama has seen during his time in office.
Willa: I agree. Part of the backlash – against Michael Jackson and Obama as well – is caused by racial prejudice, I think, but I hadn’t thought about it before in terms of jealousy – racial jealousy. That’s interesting, and it’s also interesting that Michael Jackson’s words seem pretty obvious to you and not so obvious to me. I wonder if that’s intentional, and it gets back to the idea of “language and power” that we talked about with Bjørn in a post a while ago – that Michael Jackson is using language in a subtle way so that it means different things to different listeners.
You know, if we look at his exact words, he’s speaking in a pretty indirect way. He never says the words “black” or “white,” and actually never mentions race at all. But still, if a listener is familiar with that ongoing conversation that you’re talking about, Joie – one “that many black people have struggled with and talked about among themselves for many, many years,” as you say – then his words are obvious, but if a listener isn’t aware of that context, then that just goes right past them. So I wonder if he’s speaking in a careful way with two distinct audiences in mind – specifically, if he’s talking in a way that immediately resonates with blacks, but doesn’t alarm or offend whites because we don’t really get what he’s saying.
Joie: It’s interesting to me that you think that, Willa. That he’s talking in some sort of code or something in order to connect with the black audience but not alarm or offend the white audience. Because to me – and probably to any other black person listening to this interview – he’s not speaking in a careful way at all. In fact, when I listen to this interview, I hear him speaking in a very relaxed, very open way. He’s not being cautious and careful with what he says because he knows that there’s no reason to. He’s speaking to another black entertainer, and his two black co-hosts, on a radio show geared toward a black audience. He obviously felt very comfortable with his surroundings in that moment. And he obviously knew that he was among people of a similar background (the Black American experience) who would understand immediately what he was talking about. So there was no need to speak “in a very careful way with two distinct audiences in mind.” So, I’m saying that I don’t think he was purposely talking in code or anything.
Willa: Well, that’s true, Joie – he does sound relaxed and comfortable. But still, a lot of things are left unsaid, like the words “black” and “white.” It’s like there are gaps between his words. And he’s not just speaking to a black audience – radio waves go out to everyone – and whether it’s intentional on his part or not, I think different listeners interpret his words very differently. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they fill in the gaps differently.
There’s a similar situation in the song “Ghosts,” which was written after the 1993 allegations and strip search. Here’s the chorus:
And who gave you the right to scare my family?
And who gave you the right to scare my baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
And who gave you the right to take intrusion
To see me?
And who gave you the right to shake my family?
And who gave you the right to hurt my baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
You put a knife in my back
Shot an arrow in me
Tell me are you the ghost of jealousy?
A sucking ghost of jealousy?
He’s talking about the false accusations and the strip search (“who gave you the right to take intrusion / To see me?”) as well as the scandals that followed, and once again he suggests the real motivation behind them is “jealousy.” He never mentions race, and I never interpreted it that way – as racial jealousy. I thought he was just saying that Evan Chandler and Tom Sneddon and Diane Dimond and all those other figures working so hard to bring him down were envious of him and his success. But now I’m wondering if I was misunderstanding him – that he was talking specifically about racial jealousy – something Harriet mentioned was part of blackface minstrelsy, and a much larger cultural narrative as well, for more than a century.
Joie: Ok, I guess I see where you’re going with this. And when I think about it, there were no accusers or “other figures working so hard to bring him down” as you say that I can think of who were black. So, maybe you’re on to something.
Willa: Well, that’s true – none of the people working hardest to smear him were black, unless you count Stacy Brown. Just as importantly, it’s very interesting how different people reacted whenever he suggested – however indirectly – that the scandals plaguing him were tinged with racism or racial jealousy.
For example, in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson said that the public persecution he faced “has been kind of a pattern among black luminaries in this country.” When Jesse Jackson asks him, “How are you handling it?” he replies,
I’m handling it by using other people in the past who have gone through this sort of thing. Mandela’s story has given me a lot of strength – what he’s gone through. The Jack Johnson story … called Unforgivable Blackness. It’s an amazing story about this man from 1910 who was the heavyweight champion of the world, and thrust into a society that didn’t want to accept his position and his lifestyle. And what they put him through. And how they changed laws to imprison the man, to put him away behind bars just to get him some kind of way. And Muhammad Ali’s story … All these stories that I can go back in history and read about give me strength.
Here’s a link and the discussion of race starts about 4:15 in. It’s an astute reading of his situation, I think, and places the false allegations against him – and the police and public response to those allegations – within a context of other successful black pioneers who have been targeted by the authorities.
However, his words caused outrage, as well as some pretty snide remarks. In an opinion piece in The Los Angeles Times, a white academic, Elaine Showalter, wrote this:
Although he has tried to present himself as a target of racist envy and malice, comparing himself to Nelson Mandela (the ace of race cards) in an interview with that swiftest of spiritual ambulance-chasers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jackson’s race is as indeterminate and ambiguous as his sexuality.
Elaine Showalter was a groundbreaking feminist scholar in the 1980s – I read some of her work back then and had a lot of respect for her – and I can’t believe she of all people would be so oblivious and write something so simplistic and so snootily patriarchal. This is really troubling, I think, in many different ways – not the least being her assumption that, because his skin is no longer dark, he’s somehow disqualified from talking about race or pointing out the racism that surrounds him.
Joie: Yes, that remark is incredible, isn’t it? And you just want to ask her, you know … if she had suddenly found herself with a disease … let’s say breast cancer for instance, and had to have both her breasts removed, would she suddenly not be a woman anymore?
Willa: Wow, Joie. That’s a powerful question. I never thought of it like that before …
Joie: Or if there was a disease out there that caused a white person’s pigment to darken, would she no longer be allowed to identify herself as Caucasian? I mean, she’s not just saying he’s disqualified from pointing out the racism that surrounds him. She is saying that he no longer has the right to identify with the black race. That he no longer has the right to call himself a Black American. Her very comment is incredibly racist on so many levels.
Willa: That is really interesting, Joie. When you reverse the situation, it really highlights just how much she’s talking from a privileged position, doesn’t it? Why does a white person feel she has a right to decide if a black person is black enough to suit her? That isn’t just incredibly offensive, it’s nonsensical. I can’t imagine a black person ever saying that about a white person.
I mean, picture a person with two white parents who grew up in a white community, as Michael Jackson did with two black parents in a black neighborhood in Gary. And then try to imagine some sort of circumstance where a black person would say that person wasn’t white enough to speak from a white perspective. I just don’t think it would ever happen, and it wouldn’t make sense if it did because we don’t have a cultural history of blacks forcing whites to meet their expectations of whiteness. But we have a very long history of whites forcing blacks to fit white definitions of blackness, as Lisha and Harriet and I talked about.
But I shouldn’t oversimplify this. It wasn’t just whites who reacted badly to the Steve Harvey interview. An opinion piece by Sinclere Lee in Black News Weekly was just as snarky:
If Michael Jackson is guilty of anything and should go to jail, for, it’s when he compared himself to Nelson Mandela. I know Nelson Mandela! I met Nelson Mandela when he came to Washington! Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest freedom fighters in the world! Nelson Mandela spent 27-years in prison to free the Blacks in South Africa, and you can’t do a day in jail! Michael, don’t believe that shit Jesse Jackson is telling you, you are no Nelson Mandela!
Joie: And to me, this is a ridiculous statement because Michael Jackson, and Jesse Jackson for that matter, both knew Nelson Mandela personally as well. Michael didn’t simply “meet” the man when he came to Washington. He knew Mandela very well. He and Mandela were actually very close friends for many, many years.
And Michael wasn’t comparing himself to Mandela in that comment. He was saying that he uses Mandela’s story as a source of inspiration to deal with the blatant racism he was experiencing. There is a huge difference.
Willa: I agree completely, Joie. And what can possibly be wrong with saying that Nelson Mandela inspired him?
But while this article is just as bad as the Showalter piece in some ways, there’s an important difference, I think. While Lee criticizes Michael Jackson for comparing himself to Mandela (which he doesn’t do, as you pointed out), she doesn’t scoff at the idea that racism is involved, the way Showalter does.
Joie: That’s true, she doesn’t. In fact, she never even veers off in that direction. Her main focus is simply the fact that she was personally offended by the thought that Michael was comparing himself to such a great freedom fighter.
Willa: Exactly. And I think that difference is subtle but important. Elaine Showalter seems to think it’s ludicrous to suggest that racism played a role in determining how Michael Jackson was treated by the police and the press (while I think it’s incredibly simplistic to assume racism wasn’t involved) but Sinclere Lee doesn’t make such a naive assumption. While a white academic may think racism played no part in it, Lee knows better.
Joie: That is interesting, isn’t it? You know, Willa, sometimes I wonder if you could take a poll now that everything is over and done with and Michael is no longer with us … how many people today, white and black, would admit that race played a factor in how he was treated by the press and the police? You know, now that we’ve all gotten a little distance and perspective. I wonder what people think today. Does that make sense?
Willa: It does, and that’s another really interesting question, Joie. My sense is that feelings about Michael Jackson have softened a lot since he died, and people are much more likely to see him as innocent now that he’s gone. We talked about that in a post last spring. But I don’t think people in general – and white people in particular – are ready to acknowledge what a huge influence race and racism had on how the allegations were perceived by the police, the media, and the public. The idea of racial prejudice, and especially racial envy, makes whites very uncomfortable, I think, and most whites don’t want to even consider it. But the more I think about this, the more I think Michael Jackson was absolutely right, and racial jealousy was at the heart of it.
I mean, it’s very interesting to really look at what people are actually saying at different points, and how they’re saying it. Look at what Evan Chandler tells him the last time they meet. He points his finger at him and shouts, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down.” The implication seems to be that Michael Jackson has risen too high, and now Evan Chandler is determined to take him down.
Randy Taraborrelli expresses a similar idea in his biography. Based on Chandler’s accusations, the police conduct a strip search, and here’s how Taraborrelli leads into his description of what had to be a humiliating and truly horrible experience:
The bottom line is that Michael has done whatever he wanted to do for most of his life, living in a world of privilege and entitlement simply because of who he is. … However, in December of 1993 Michael was about to experience, if just for one day, what it might be like to live in the real world, where people often have to do things they may not necessarily want to do.
This passage is so shocking to me. You would think Taraborrelli’s focus would be on the evidence, and whether the strip search confirms or contradicts Chandler’s accusations – supposedly that’s the point of it, after all – but it isn’t. Taraborrelli is much more focused on the psychological impact of the strip search, and the effect it will have on how Michael Jackson sees himself and positions himself in the world. Taraborrelli seems very critical of Michael Jackson “living in a world of privilege and entitlement,” and now the strip search is going to bring him back down to “the real world,” and Taraborrelli speaks approvingly of that. He seems to think it’s appropriate that Michael Jackson will be brought down, “if just for one day.” And it really feels to me that Taraborrelli’s words express quite a bit of jealousy.
Joie: Well, you know how I feel about Taraborrelli, and I believe that there are several spots in that book where he comes off as jealous of his subject. So, I agree with you completely on that statement.
Willa: But is it jealousy because of his wealth and his celebrity? Or is it racial jealousy? Or is it a combination of both – is he jealous that a black man, especially, has been so successful? I really wonder about that, especially since both he and Evan Chandler talk specifically about the need to bring Michael Jackson “down.”
That language and imagery of bringing him down reminds me of a horrifying scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin that we talked about in a very painful post a long time ago. Rosa, a beautiful young slave, a teenager, tries on a dress belonging to her owner, Maria. Maria walks in and sees her wearing it, becomes furious, and sends Rosa to the whipping house. Here’s Maria’s explanation for why she orders such an extreme punishment for such a trivial offense:
She has all her life presumed on her delicacy, and her good looks, and her lady-like airs, till she forgets who she is; – and I’ll give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!
So Maria isn’t angry so much because of the dress, but because it’s a sign that Rosa “forgets who she is” – that she is a young black woman, and a slave. Maria feels very threatened by that, especially since in many ways Rosa is more truly “lady-like” in her looks and bearing than Maria is. So Maria intends to shame her and remind her of “who she is,” and scorch it into her memory so severely she’ll never forget again. In other words, Maria wants to bring about a psychological change in Rosa, and “give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!”
It seems to me that’s exactly what Taraborrelli is talking about with the strip search – that it will cause a psychological change in Michael Jackson that will “bring him down” from his “world of privilege and entitlement” – and what Evan Chandler is talking about when he points his finger and shouts, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down.” And I think it’s what Michael Jackson himself is referring to in “Morphine” when he sings, “I’m going down, baby.” He’s being brought down by the same impulse that brought down Rosa more than 150 years ago.
Joie: That’s an interesting comparison, Willa. And one you’re probably right about. But, I guess what I’m getting at is, I wonder if people’s attitudes about the whole situation … and really about his whole life … I wonder if their attitudes are truly shifting and softening, or if it’s simply a case of “don’t speak ill of the dead.” Do you know what I mean?
Willa: I do, but I don’t know the answer. And I’m not sure people themselves know why their feelings have changed, or how deeply they’ve changed. Or what truly motivated their feelings against him to begin with. I mean, maybe feelings have softened because he’s gone, so there’s no reason to feel threatened or jealous of him any longer.
Joie: I don’t know. I’m not even sure why it matters or why that question sort of haunts me. I guess I just feel like here was this special, beautiful, talented, loving man who only wanted to make the world happy, and he was ridiculed and persecuted and hated for it. That bothers me.
Joie: So, Willa, I’ve been wondering if you ever go through phases where you don’t listen to a certain song for a long time, and then suddenly, you can’t seem to get it out of your head. Like, for example, there are times when I won’t listen to certain things – like Michael’s early, Motown work – for several months. And then all of a sudden one day, no matter what I do I just can’t seem to get “Dancing Machine” or “Looking through the Windows” out of my head. Do you ever do that?
Willa: I do! And sometimes it isn’t even a song I like.
Joie: Oh, I do that too! I hate it when that happens!
Willa: I know. It’s not so bad if it’s a song you love, but sometimes it isn’t. Though if I think about it, sometimes I realize that song is telling me something I need to hear right then.
Joie: Hmm. Now that’s an interesting way of looking at it. Next time that happens I’ll have to think about what the song is trying to tell me.
Willa: It can be fun trying to figure that out – kind of like trying to interpret dreams and see what your subconscious mind is puzzling over, even though you may not realize it. Though I have to say, I’m not very good at it – generally it remains a mystery. Sometimes I can make sense of it, but most times it just seems completely random.
Joie: It certainly does feel random usually. Well, I’m asking because there is a song that I have been singing to myself for about a week or so now, and it’s one that I have not listened to for probably a year, at least. It’s “Blues Away” by the Jacksons.
The song is on their 1976 album titled simply The Jacksons, the first one under their new name and their new label, and it was actually one of the very first songs that Michael wrote himself that was released.
Willa: That’s true. In fact, I think it was the first. He also helped write “Style of Life” on the same album, but that one he wrote with Tito – in fact, Tito is listed first, meaning he’s the principal author. But “Blues Away” credits “Michael Jackson” alone, and it seems to be the first released song he wrote entirely on his own.
Joie: It’s a simple little song, just over three minutes in length, and it’s sort of sweet, but also sort of sad in a way. The chorus of the song says “You can’t take my blues away, no matter what you say.” And I have always been sort of intrigued by this, and I’ve spent considerable time wondering about it. So, I thought maybe we could talk about it and I could get your take on it.
Willa: Sure, that sounds fun. You’re right, it is a fairly simple song – it doesn’t have the depth or complexity of a lot of his later work. Just think about “Billie Jean,” which was released only three years later. “Billie Jean” has so much going on, musically and thematically – though it handles it all so effortlessly it’s easy to overlook just how complicated it is. But even a relatively simple song like “Blues Away” can be a challenge to interpret. Like a lot of his songs, its meaning is subtle and ambiguous. It slips around.
For example, if someone told me this was a courtship song – a song a guy was singing to a girl he wants to go out with – and if they told me the title was “Blues Away,” I would guess that he’s telling the girl he has the blues without her, and if she goes out with him it’ll send his “blues away.” That would be a more typical approach – kind of like “Ain’t No Sunshine.” But that isn’t what he’s saying.
Joie: No, it’s not what he’s saying at all, and actually, I’m not entirely sure that this is meant to be a courtship-type song. Although it does feel that way at times. The first verse opens this way:
I’d like to be yours
So I’m giving you some time to
Think it over today
But, you can’t take my blues away
No matter what you say, babe
So, at times, it does feel like a courtship song. He’s telling her that he’d like to go out with her and maybe be her boyfriend, but he’s not sure how she feels so he’s giving her some time to think it over. But then in the next breath he tells her that no matter what she decides, it’s not going to take away his blues. He’s still going to be a little bit depressed, even if she says yes.
Willa: Exactly, which isn’t at all what you’d expect, so I can see why you aren’t sure if this is really a courtship song or not. I’m not sure about that either.
I’m going to go way out on a limb here, but I don’t think Michael Jackson was a romantic – at least not in the conventional sense of the word. What I mean is, a lot of romantic songs seem to suggest that if two people really love each other, then that’s all they need to be happy. The rest of the world just sort of fades away into the background, and doesn’t really matter anymore. All they need is each other.
But I don’t think Michael Jackson saw things that way. I don’t think he ever could forget the rest of the world, or even his own troubled feelings about things. It reminds me of something he wrote in Moonwalk in 1988:
My dating and relationships with girls have not had the happy ending I’ve been looking for. Something always seems to get in the way. The things I share with millions of people aren’t the sort of things you share with one. Many girls want to know what makes me tick – why I live the way I live or do the things I do – trying to get inside my head. They want to rescue me from loneliness, but they do it in such a way that they give me the impression they want to share my loneliness, which I wouldn’t wish on anybody, because I believe I’m one of the loneliest people in the world.
That’s such a different way of seeing things. He expresses a profound loneliness – as he says, “I believe I’m one of the loneliest people in the world” – and just looking at his life story, I can believe it.
Joie: I agree.
Willa: He really was in a unique and terribly isolating position, wasn’t he? And generally, we think the cure for loneliness is to find someone who loves you and understands you, but he doesn’t seem to feel that way. Instead, he seems to suggest he has a loneliness so deep and absolute that sharing it can’t make it go away. It would just spread his loneliness to another person, and he “wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”
Joie: Willa, that is not only very interesting, but also amazing. I think you may have just put into words what he couldn’t fully express. We, as a society, do tend to believe that the cure for loneliness is to find someone who loves and understands you. Or at the very least, someone who simply accepts you as you are.
Willa: Oh, that’s a good point, Joie – someone who accepts you unconditionally, even if they don’t understand you.
Joie: But Michael didn’t feel that way. He didn’t share that belief with the rest of us. He seemed to be coming from a place much darker and more isolated than most of us could even fathom, I think. A place where his loneliness ran so deep that it permeated his soul. And he lived his life in a way that seems to suggest he feared his loneliness would only corrupt others if he let them get too close.
Willa: It feels that way to me too. But you know, the really odd thing is that, listening to his voice – which always seems to have a touch of sorrow in it, even when he was very young – helps our loneliness go away. That seems cruelly ironic, that his sadness helps us feel better, but it seems to … at least it does for me. He’s helped me through some really difficult times, and I’ve heard others say that too. He’s almost like an empath, taking on our troubles and helping us feel better, and I don’t think it would work the same way if he didn’t have that sorrow in his voice.
Joie: I think you are absolutely right! His voice does always seem to carry a measure of sorrow in it, and it did feel at times that he could feel our pain. That he already knew all about it because he had seen it or gone through it before himself. And you’re right, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of fans out there who will tell you that listening to his voice helped them through the toughest of trials in their lives. I’m one of those people too, Willa. And I love what you said about him being an empath.
You know, I’m a huge Star Trek fan, and my favorite Star Trek series is The Next Generation with Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. In that series, one of the main characters is a female Starfleet officer named Deanna Troi, and she comes from the planet Betazed, which is a race of telepaths who can hear your thoughts as though you’re speaking out loud. That’s how they communicate among themselves. They only lower themselves to speak when they’re dealing with “off worlders.” Well, Deanna wasn’t a true telepath because her father had been a human Starfleet officer, so while she could easily communicate telepathically with other telepaths, she couldn’t hear your thoughts. But she could feel your every emotion because she was an empath. And her empathic abilities gave her a very unique perspective on the people around her.
Willa: That’s a great description, Joie, and it reminds me of one of the original Star Trek shows. They meet an empath who not only feels the emotional suffering of others, but can also take on their physical suffering and heal it. One of the crew members – Captain Kirk, I think – is fatally wounded somehow, and even though she knows what it means, she takes on his wounds and his suffering, so he’s cured and she dies instead.
That’s an extreme example, but in some hard-to-define way Michael Jackson seems to have had an empathetic connection with people also – at least it feels that way to me – and in his own way was able to take on our suffering and help us feel better.
Joie: At times, it does seem like Michael Jackson must have had some kind of empathic ability somehow. I don’t think there’s ever been another person who just appeared to be so in tune with what others were feeling. And he seemed to have such a burden for the sick and the weak, almost as if he truly could feel their suffering.
Willa: I agree. And even those of us who never met him could listen to his voice and feel an emotional connection that just made you feel better somehow. He also inspires us to help others, as Sylvia Martin explores in an article we recently added to the Reading Room.
You know, thinking about all this in terms of “Blues Away” reminds me of a story from Randy Taraborrelli’s biography. When Michael Jackson was 13 or 14, his brother Tito decided to get married but Michael discouraged him, and his reasons are really interesting. Here’s what Taraborrelli says:
Michael felt strongly that Tito was letting their fans down by marrying, and attempted to convince him to change his mind. “Think about all the girls out there who love us,” he said, trying to reason with his brother one day in the Motown offices.
“They don’t even know us, Mike,” Tito said. “We can’t live our lives for perfect strangers.”
“But they do know us,” Michael argued, according to a witness, “and we owe them, Tito. We owe them.”
To be honest, this puzzled me for a long time. What difference does it make if Tito – or even Michael Jackson himself – gets married or not? It’s not like it would affect his voice, or his skill as a dancer. It shouldn’t affect his performance in any way. So why does he feel he “owes” it to his audience not to get married?
I think it’s because of how we relate to him, and how we project our feelings onto him and feel them reflected back at us. And I also think it’s because of the empathetic connection he felt with his audience. It required total dedication on his part – a willingness to open himself emotionally and commit himself fully and completely to his audience and his art. And he did that. He gave everything, body and soul. And I think he understood that from a young age – understood what was required of him to be who and what he was, to fill the cultural role he filled, and to be what we needed him to be.
Joie: I’ve never thought about it like that before, Willa. That’s really deep, isn’t it? And still so very sad. It’s almost like he willingly gave up his happiness so that he could make us happy instead. Sort of like someone laying down their own life for the life of his friend.
Willa: Oh, it’s terribly sad. You know, I think about his life sometimes, and all the things he went through, and it’s almost unbearable. I wish he could have found that “happy ending I’ve been looking for” that he talks about in Moonwalk. I wish his life could have turned out differently. I wish the 1993 allegations had never happened, or if they did happen that he was cleared somehow, and he could have found contentment and peace. I want it so badly it hurts – it’s like a physical ache – and I think a lot of fans feel that way.
Joie: I think they do too.
Willa: And maybe if he’d been more like Tito and made the same decisions Tito made, his life would have turned out differently. After all, Tito’s a very talented blues guitarist and performer and producer in his own right, as well as a father and grandfather. It is possible to be a musician and still have a happy home life.
But of course, Michael Jackson was so much more than a musician. He was an artist of a very rare caliber, and a transformative cultural figure who radically changed how we see ourselves and each other. And to be honest, knowing how dedicated he was to his art, I can’t really picture him making a decision different than the one he made. He lived his life with courage and passion and a total dedication to his art, and I’m filled with admiration because of that – as well as sadness for the things he gave up.
Joie: And he did give up so much when you think about it. You know, Willa, thinking about what you just said about the fans wanting so badly for circumstances in his life to have turned out differently … I truly agree with that statement. I think probably most of us who call ourselves fans would agree with that. But I have a confession to make. I sometimes think about Michael’s life, and about how dedicated he was to his art and how much he sacrificed to make us happy, and I feel extremely guilty about how things turned out for him. Does that make sense? And I’ve always wondered if others feel guilty or if it’s just me.
But getting back to the song, “Blues Away,” you know, that song was written back in the mid ’70s and I find it interesting to think that he knew even back then that his was going to be a life of sorrow. I mean, that’s basically what that song is saying, I think – that no matter what answer she gives him, no matter what happiness comes, there will always be that undercurrent of sorrow for him.
Willa: I think you’re right, Joie. As he tells her in that line you quoted earlier, “You can’t take my blues away, no matter what you say.”
Willa: This week Lisha McDuff and I are so honored to be joined by Brad Sundberg, who worked with Michael Jackson for nearly two decades. He served as Technical Director on the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory albums, and helped design the sound system at Neverland. While working on Bad, Michael Jackson gave him the nickname Really, Really Brad, as in “I’m Brad, I’m Brad, I’m Really, Really Brad.” That cracks me up!
Over the past year Brad has been offering seminars in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to share his insights as well as sound recordings from his work with Michael Jackson. Several of our friends and contributors – Lisha, Susan Fast, and Joe Vogel – attended his recent seminar in Toronto, and from everything I’ve heard it was incredible! Lisha asked Brad if he’d like to talk with us, and he said yes. Brad, thank you so much for joining us!
Brad: Thanks Willa, great to be able to hang out with you and Lisha.
Willa: I’m eager to hear more about your seminar, In the Studio with Michael Jackson. And I understand you’re planning a very special one at Walt Disney World about recording Captain EO. Is that right?
Brad: The seminars are a lot of fun, and I think this will be my 10th one! Each one is a little different, sometimes I add or remove segments as time dictates. Back in 1984 I first met Michael at Westlake Studios where he was recording Captain EO with Matt Forger. Matt and I have remained friends over the years and have worked together on countless Michael projects. Disney has strongly hinted that EO will be closing in 2014, so I thought it would be fun to bring Matt out to Orlando and do a seminar with Matt, with a strong emphasis on the Captain EO project. To make it even more fun we will do one full day in the studio for the seminar (with “Family Friday” dinner included!), then attendees will have the option to meet up with us at Epcot the next day to watch EO a few times together, ask more questions, and hang out in the park all day. I think it is going to be an amazing weekend for MJ fans.
Lisha: I’d say that’s an understatement! The seminar I attended in Toronto was truly incredible, plus I don’t think nearly enough has been said or written about Captain EO, so this is something I wouldn’t want to miss. Watching Captain EO at Disney’s Epcot Center is a totally different experience than seeing the film any other way, right? Not only was Captain EO the first film to include 4D effects (it is a 3D film that includes special effects inside the theater as well), it was also the first surround-sound film ever made.
Brad: That is correct! I was talking with Matt Forger several months ago, and we were talking about EO. I was a runner (get food, vacuum, roll cables, etc.) at Westlake in ’84/’85, when Matt was recording Captain EO. Disney actually developed a true-digital surround-sound system just for EO. Matt had to replicate how the theater would sound in the studio, so he had speakers all around the room, cables everywhere … it was awesome! But it allowed him to mix the music so it still sounds like Michael, but it also fills those giant theaters that Disney built.
Lisha: I’ve always wondered how that was initially planned and worked out, so I’m really anxious to hear more from Matt Forger about this. I did have the opportunity to see the film at Disney a while back and I remember there were speakers all around the theater, even in the back of the house behind the audience. Captain EO is historically important for a number of reasons, I think, especially in how it conceptualizes sound and the 4D effects. It must been have a thrill, Brad, to have witnessed all this being put together.
Brad: Here’s a funny side-note: my wife and I have always been Disney fans, and we would often go to Disneyland on Sunday nights for dinner. We were there on the Captain EO opening weekend, along with half of Los Angeles, and it was fun to see something I had been a very small part of in the studio take over Disneyland! We still have our original t-shirts, geeky as that may sound. And yes, the theater does have some Disney “4D” effects in it that make the experience far more immersive than seeing it on a computer screen. Plus the theater sound systems were originally tuned by Matt, so they sound amazing.
Lisha: I don’t think that sounds geeky at all! I’m sure you’re glad you hung onto to those original t-shirts – that’s such a great memory. And I agree that the sound system is amazing, plus I love all the special theatrical effects as well.
For example, I remember there are cables under each seat that create movement that is synchronized with the film. When the spaceship does its crash landing you can actually feel the impact of the crash in your seat. Another great effect is that there are tiny fans and misters installed in the seat backs, so when Hooter makes his elephant sounds, you get a little blast of air and mist right in your face, as if it’s coming right from his trunk!
Willa: That’s funny!
Lisha: It is! There are lots of special lighting effects too coming from every imaginable direction, even from under the seats, and a sparkling disco ball effect that happens when the “Supreme Leader” is transformed into a beautiful goddess. On the big screen there are lots of details that you can’t see watching it any other way, like the small colorful lights that ornament Michael Jackson’s electrified costume.
I thought the surround-sound effects were really fun, too. I especially remember the battle scene and the sound of laser gunfire moving rapidly throughout the theater. I could hear it zoom overhead from the back of the theater all the way to the front, immersing the viewer into the action of the film.
I’m afraid once Captain EO closes at Disney, there won’t be a way to experience the film as it was originally intended by its creators, Michael Jackson, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola, one of the most stellar creative teams ever assembled! This could really be the last chance to get to experience it.
Willa: Wow, Lisha. You’re making me feel like I really need to get down there before it closes. I haven’t seen Captain EO since, hmmm … 1986, I think, at Epcot Center. And I remember the seats jolting and vibrating but I don’t remember any mist from Hooter’s trunk! And I don’t remember that soundscape you’re describing so vividly – I can tell you’re a musician! I just remember that the sound and visual and physical effects were all pretty incredible.
Brad: Captain EO is unlike any sci-fi movie or music video (short film) ever created. It was a huge budget (for the time), and the talent pool is pretty remarkable. Yes, the costumes and hairstyles scream 80′s!! But it was the 80′s, and it was fun. I can’t say, nor do I know for certain when the attraction will close, but the rumors are growing that its days are numbered, so I would rather do an event now than wish I had in a few months.
Lisha: I understand the budget for this film was unprecedented. At a cost of $30 million for a 17-minute film, that comes to $1.76 million per minute! It’s the most expensive film per minute ever made, and it was a major undertaking for Disney, Lucas, Coppola, and Michael Jackson. As you said, Brad, half of Los Angeles turned up for the premiere!
For the fans who never had the opportunity to see Michael Jackson perform live, the 4D film experience might be as close as it gets, don’t you think?
Brad: Sadly, I suppose that is true. Did either of you ever get a chance to see him live?
Lisha: No, unfortunately! I’m one of the new fans. Several people have said it’s impossible to know what it was like to see Michael Jackson perform live unless you actually experienced it for yourself. How about you, Willa? That’s something I’ve wanted to ask you. Did you ever get to see Michael Jackson perform live?
Willa: No I didn’t, and for the opposite reason. I’ve felt a strong connection to Michael Jackson since I was really young, in elementary school, and it just felt so intensely personal I couldn’t imagine seeing him in a stadium with thousands of screaming people. And he never did a concert anywhere near where I happened to be at the time – I’m sure if he had, I wouldn’t have been able to resist. But still … I should have gone anyway. It’s hard to explain, but the first concert I ever saw was Aerosmith – a friend talked me into it and it was really fun, but pretty overwhelming for me – and I just couldn’t picture seeing Michael Jackson that way. It just didn’t feel right. I really regret it now though.
Lisha: Oh, me too. I really regret it – what was I thinking?
Willa: How about you, Brad? I imagine you were able to see him a few times. …
Brad: Can I tell you a quick story or two? When I was still in college in 1984 the Victory tour tickets went on sale in LA at Dodger Stadium. I really wanted to go, but you had to buy tickets in clusters for four in sort of a lotto set-up. It was complicated and expensive, and I just didn’t make it. Fast forward just four years to 1988, and I was watching the show with my wife from backstage at Madison Square Garden!
Brad: Now here’s the crazy thing – I had worked with and been around Michael extensively on EO and Bad, but I had never seen him on a stage. It was electrifying – it was like I knew him, but at the same time I had no idea who he was.
Willa: You know, I’ve heard several people say that, like Bruce Swedien and Frank Cascio, and I’m so curious about it. That must have been amazing to see him transform from his off-screen self to his on-screen self.
Brad: I was fortunate to see him perform many times on the Bad, Dangerous and HIStory tours, as well as during his rehearsals with the band and dancers. During one show in Paris in ’97 during the HIStory tour, my daughter Amanda (7 at the time) was on stage with several other kids during “Heal The World.”
Willa: Oh, that’s wonderful!
Brad: That was fun to see. But my favorite tour story was backstage during the Bad tour, at MSG NYC. Pepsi was the sponsor, and they had a “VIP Lounge” backstage. My wife Debbie and I were roaming around backstage, and I ducked into a bathroom. On the way out, headed back to the stage, I walked into the “VIP Lounge” to grab a Pepsi. There was only one other person in there: super-model Christie Brinkley! I said hi and we chatted very briefly, and I said I hoped she would enjoy the show, and walked out. Deb was waiting for me a short distance away, and she started laughing as soon as she saw me. I kept walking, and she laughed harder. I was dragging about 6 feet of toilet paper on my shoe. I told her who I had just met, and she laughed all the harder! OK, I’m getting off topic, and I’m embarrassing myself… what was the question again?
Lisha: Ok, I’m crying with laughter. Sorry, but that’s really hysterical! I hope that everyone is getting a sense of how much fun it is to hear you tell these stories!
Willa: That is funny! So I know very little about how musical films are made. Which generally comes first – filming or recording? What I mean is, with Captain EO were the songs recorded first, and then Michael Jackson sang to match them during filming? Or did the filming come first, and then he sang the songs to match the film? And at what point did you become involved in the Captain EO project?
Brad: That’s a great question, and the truth is somewhere in the middle. The music is recorded first, but sometimes the music needs to be edited to fit a certain scene. He was lip-syncing on film to the music Matt recorded in the studio. Captain EO was (to the best of my memory) in very early production when I started working at Westlake.
Willa: And what does that mean, “very early production”? I really do know very little about all this. Were the storyline, characters, songs, dialogue, choreography all pretty much set, or were details still being worked out?
Brad: I don’t know for certain, because we were only working on the music. Having been around many productions, my assumption is that most of the story had been written, but ad-libs and last-minute changes generally come in to play.
Willa: That’s interesting. And how involved was Michael Jackson in those last-minute changes and other decisions? Was he focused pretty exclusively on performing, or did he also have ideas about how he wanted the final piece to look or sound?
Brad: I know that Michael loved being around film productions. He loved to watch and learn the process from the pros. Knowing him, I would imagine he was very focused on his performance, and likely trusted the production team. After all, it’s hard to go wrong with Francis Coppola and George Lucas.
Lisha: Brad, can you tell us how you started doing your seminars, and what someone can expect if they would like to attend one?
Brad: Great question. The very short version of a long story is that I was approached by some French MJ fans to share my stories with them nearly two years ago. I flew to Paris for a few days in the summer of 2012, and we had a group of about 12 in a studio. I brought loads of tapes and it was somewhat disorganized but a lot of fun. I would grab a tape, play an old mix, and tell some memories I had about it.
Willa: Oh, that sounds fabulous! What an incredible experience.
Brad: They really enjoyed it, and I thought I would try it again in New York the following spring. I did two seminars there, but I added some video, and made it a bit more chronological in terms of my years working with Michael. Those seminars also went very well, and pretty soon I was doing them in Orlando, then Paris, Stockholm, Toronto, and now back in Orlando on February 8th.
Michael had a unique connection with many people, through his music, his dance, his benevolence, his humor, and maybe his pain. I didn’t walk in his shoes, nor was I his best friend – but I loved working with him, and I am proud to be able to call him a friend. I can still hear his laugh, I can still see his excitement over a great mix in the studio, or a new ride at the ranch. He was like no one you have ever met before. He was Michael – and if I can give people a sense of what it was like to be around him, that makes me happy.
Willa: That sounds wonderful. Everyone I’ve talked to who’s been to one of your seminars, Brad, just raves about it. For example, Stephenson went to one in New York and sent us an email about it with lots of interesting details and good comments, like this one:
He played parts of a 2 hour recording of MJ and Bill Bottrell creating Give In to Me – it was so amazing because the song – the music and lyrics – slowly emerged from the experimental sounds of Bill’s guitar and MJ’s singing, and you could hear it taking form piece by piece. WOW!!!!!
And just the incredible sound quality alone of your seminars … I’ve been told it’s like you’re hearing his music – I mean, really hearing it – for the first time. Following that with Captain EO at Epcot Center, with the full sensory experience as it was originally envisioned, is an added bonus.
Brad: Rumor has it that Disney is going to close Captain EO after an amazing run, so I reached out to Matt Forger and asked if he would join me for a seminar with a section specifically on Captain EO and Thriller. He agreed, so it will be a pretty special day.
As to what to expect, that’s a hard one. I go into each seminar with a bare-bones flow, and just see where it goes. Sometimes we spend a bit more time on Bad, or we dig deeper into Dangerous. I like to keep it fairly loose and not overly structured. There are certain moments that have been written about, and attenders really want to experience those, but I like it when someone comes and has no idea what to expect. I had one guest who brought her husband, who you would not describe as a mega-fan. He was a really cool guy, and it meant so much to me that he said he really enjoyed the day. I like to think that learning about Michael’s working style, and the group of amazing people in the studio could be of interest to a lot of people who may not think they are MJ fans. Having said that, I have certainly met some incredible fans who are so appreciative of what I am doing.
Willa: Oh, it sounds fabulous, and I would love to learn more about his working style and creative process! As I understand it, he composed most of his songs by capturing ideas with a tape recorder – is that right? He’d sing the melody, the harmonies, even sounds approximating drums or strings or horns or guitar licks to indicate how he wanted the instrumentation to sound. So he’d bring that into the studio, and then what? What’s the process for turning his ideas on a tape recorder into a song on an album?
Brad: We would sometimes give Michael a tape recorder, but keep in mind – Michael would lose something within 45 seconds of giving it to him. Seriously. It was more common for him to call Matt (or one of the team) and meet at a studio. We might bring John Barnes or Michael Boddicker to help get the track put together. Michael would sing the melody line, and the rhythm parts, and we would start putting it together in a sequencer. Other times he would simply sing the parts right to tape, and we would replace his voice with instruments later.
Willa: That’s so interesting! Lisha speculated that he did that – sang parts that were later replaced by instruments – in a post we did a few weeks ago. Lisha, you were right!
Lisha: I am so fascinated by how that worked!
Brad: He would also love to collaborate with other songwriters like Siedah Garret or Bill Bottrell on some songs. Once the song was past the demo stage, we would start bringing more musicians in to really take it to a new level. During my years with Michael, we never used digital pitch correction on his voice. He sang every note, every line, every part. I go into great detail about that process in the seminar.
Lisha: You mentioned in Toronto that Bruce Swedien’s secret for getting a great lead vocal is to just choose the right mic and record it properly in the first place! I’m not sure if people realize how closely you got to work with Bruce Swedien.
Brad: Oh man, Bruce is a dear friend and my mentor. My years with Michael would not have happened without Bruce, period. In 1986 I was working sessions at Westlake, and Bruce and I were becoming friends. I think he saw promise in me and asked if I wanted to sit in for the recording of Michael’s new album. Can you imagine?? I jumped at the chance!
Brad: During the day I would work on Taco Bell commercials (“Run for the Border!”), and at night I would watch Michael sing “Man in the Mirror” or “Smooth Criminal.”
Willa: Wow, that’s a contrast!
Brad: It was nothing short of amazing. When the album was released, Bruce’s assistant Craig went a different direction, and I became Bruce’s assistant (“Technical Director”) for nearly a decade. Next came Quincy’s Back on the Block, then Michael’s Dangerous and HIStory. The crazy thing is that each of those projects took sometimes two years or more when you factor in all of the production time, remixes, dance mixes, video mixes, on and on. Bruce is a master, is the master of his craft. His humor puts everyone at ease, but his ability to record and mix music, to create a sonic soundscape is beyond compare. There is no one like Bruce, and I am grateful for all that he has taught me.
Lisha: I read your interview in Bruce Swedien’s new book, The Bruce Swedien Recording Method, and I thought you really nailed it when you said, “when Bruce finishes a mix it actually leaves the speakers – it floats in front of you and all around you.” It’s just a magical experience listening to what Bruce Swedien can do with sound.
We all know there is a lot of technical know-how that goes into being a great sound/recording engineer, but I’m not sure it’s really understood how much artistry and just plain old good musicianship is required as well. For instance, at your seminar, Brad, I noticed that as you were speaking to the group, you were constantly listening and adjusting the way your voice sounded through the speakers. You reached over several times and made tiny changes that produced the most gorgeous quality of sound. It struck me as similar to the way a good musician listens and adjusts to what they are hearing.
Willa: That’s interesting!
Brad: Wow, Lisha, you were really paying attention! I drive my girls nuts because I will adjust the EQ in their cars, or make sonic adjustments when we are watching TV or a movie at home. I have even walked out of a movie theater during a movie because the sound was so bad.
Lisha: Occupational hazard! You also told a fascinating story about working with Bruce Swedien under less than ideal circumstances, and how you watched in amazement as he found a way to make it work. It really convinced me that the equipment and all the technical wizardry involved in recording is secondary to the artistry of the person running it.
Brad: I was working with Bruce one time in a home studio in LA. It was far from our typical pristine places like Record One or Hit Factory. It was a console in a living room with couches and lamps and typical residential surroundings. Nothing wrong with that, but not quite what we were used to.
Lisha: That’s putting it mildly!
Brad: Anyway, Bruce does a mix on this older console that gave me chills – it still does. It was so transparent and punchy, it didn’t match the place where it was born. Like going to Dairy Queen and getting a perfect rack of lamb chops and great bottle of wine. Bruce brings a level of talent to any room that no equipment, software, or gadget can replicate. God blessed Bruce with an amazing set of ears, and the talent to create sounds in a class all of their own.
Lisha: Speaking to a group of students at Full Sail University, Bruce Swedien said something that really stopped me dead in my tracks. In a very emphatic tone of voice he said: “The first thing I want to tell you is – no matter how good a song is, or how accomplished the musicians playing it are, a poorly done recording and mix of that song will leave you cold.” Here’s a clip:
What a dramatic statement to make! And I think he’s right. At the end of the day, the musicianship displayed by the recording/sound engineers is at least as important as any other musical element in a song. You and your colleagues played such a vitally important role in creating some of the finest records ever produced. It was truly a collaborative effort, and I feel like Michael Jackson understood that in a big way.
Brad: In no way is this meant to sound arrogant, but it is hard to describe how amazing it was to be in the same room with Quincy Jones, Bruce Swedien, Rod Temperton, Bill Bottrell, David Foster, Teddy Riley, Greg Phillinganes, Steve Porcaro, Siedah Garrett, Michael Boddicker, John Robinson, David Williams, Paulinho De Costa … The list goes on and on. Amazingly talented people, all working together, pooling those talents to make Michael’s records as musical, creative, and sonically incredible as possible.
It took an artist like Michael to bring that type of production army together. I hear things in those albums that bring back countless memories – but overshadowing everything was a love for what we were doing, and a love for who we were working for. I think Michael knew that, because he would work just a little bit harder than any of us. I don’t live in the past, but I was so blessed to be a part of something bigger than I could have imagined, and I am thankful to have been a small part of it.
Lisha: I just want to say that although you are very humble and self-effacing, Brad, no one should be fooled! It was apparent to me from watching you work that there’s a reason you got to be in the room with the greats. I can see that you strive for excellence in all that you do – in the seminars, in the studio, and at Neverland Ranch. I really think I understand why Michael Jackson valued and trusted you so much.
Willa: And I’m glad you’re sharing your memories of working with Michael Jackson and that incredibly talented team of musicians and recording artists, both through your seminars and with us today. It’s been really wonderful to hear you talk about it!
So I know Lisha is planning to attend your February 8th seminar in Orlando. If others want to come too, or want to find out about other seminars, how can they sign up or get more information?
Brad: February 8th in Orlando is going to be an amazing day. I haven’t seen Matt in years, so having him in the same room, sharing his stories and memories is going to be awesome. We will cover Thriller, Captain EO, Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory, plus a few surprises. It all takes place in a beautiful studio in Orlando, and I will bring my Westlake speakers. These are the exact same speakers Bruce used to mix Dangerous and HIStory. You will hear the music and mixes exactly the same as Michael did.
Additionally, I am bringing my catering rock star, Linda, back to prepare an amazing meal just like we used to have on “Family Fridays,” where Michael would encourage us to bring our families to the studio for a couple hours of laughter, stories, and great food.
Lisha: I can’t wait! See you there.
Willa: This week I’m so excited to be joined by Harriet Manning, the author of a fascinating new book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask, which was published recently by Ashgate Press, and Lisha McDuff, a professional musician and musicologist who wrote her dissertation on Black or White, approaching it in part as an example of “whiteface minstrelsy – or a reverse blackface minstrel performance.” Lisha shared some of her ideas about Black or White in a fascinating post with us last year. Thank you both for joining me!
Harriet: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Lisha: Thank you, Willa! It’s always a pleasure.
Willa: Oh, it’s always a joy talking with you, Lisha. And Harriet, there are so many interesting ideas in your book to talk about! But before we dive in, I’m curious to know how you first became interested in Michael Jackson, and in blackface minstrelsy. And then, how did you come to put them together?
Harriet: It started when I was learning blackface minstrelsy (the white theatrical parody of black dance, music and gesture). I was intrigued by the fact that despite its longevity (the tradition defined dominant pop culture throughout the 1800s in the U.K. and U.S.) it is considered long gone and its history is not widely known. I wondered how something so big could just disappear and pondered upon what form it might take today, when political correctness would no longer tolerate “blacking up.”
I did not know much about Michael Jackson but I got thinking: what if here was the legacy of blackface? I started studying the dance moves and the black stereotypes of the tradition and saw how Michael Jackson used these. A wonderful treasure trove opened: I had found the roots not only of MJ’s dance but also a mode by which to understand him and the various troubles he had to face.
Lisha: Harriet, that is so fascinating and I must say it’s been an eye-opening experience reading your book – not only for understanding how blackface minstrelsy is reflected in Michael Jackson’s work, but for understanding the minstrel show as “the first sellable pop form” of music. I think I’m just beginning to comprehend how prevalent this form of entertainment was at one time. So much of popular music can be traced back to blackface minstrelsy and I don’t think I was fully aware of that before.
Willa: I wasn’t either. I had no idea it was so incredibly popular, and for so long. Its popularity fluctuated, of course, but it held sway for over a century.
Lisha: That’s pretty incredible when you think about it – it’s such a huge cultural blindspot. As you were saying, Harriet, despite the minstrel show’s mass appeal in the 1800s, blackface parody seemed to vanish and it seems that most of us don’t have a clue as to how popular it once was. Was there a particular event that caused the British and American public to suddenly become aware of how offensive blackface parody was? What happened that caused such a dramatic shift in consciousness?
Harriet: The tradition became increasingly self-conscious in the mid-1800s with the lead up to the Civil War and then the abolition of slavery in the U.S. It fell out of vogue as its publics became uneasy with its racial content. The blackface mask then just became a stage convention and the overt racist material was removed. Then the mask itself disappeared.
Lisha: Interesting, since much of the same racist content still persists, but in a more subtle form. I’m so curious about what got you interested into really digging into this and uncovering even more about blackface minstrelsy?
Harriet: Blackface minstrelsy was part of a Black Music course I was doing for my music degree. I was really shocked by it. People need to know about it.
Willa: I agree. We do need to know about it, in part because we still see its influence today. On rare occasions we’ll see modern performers in blackface, like in Neil Diamond’s 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer. I can still remember how shocking that felt at the time, seeing Neil Diamond in blackface. And in the Do You Really Want to Hurt Me video by Culture Club, Boy George correlates the prejudice he’s been experiencing with racial prejudice, and there are pews of silent witnesses in blackface. Here’s a clip:
Lisha: Blackface is a really interesting choice in that clip, Willa, used very effectively as an “in your face” way of expressing how irrational and unconscious prejudice is.
Harriet: Do you read Boy George as equating racial prejudice with a sexual one?
Willa: I do. How about you, Lisha?
Lisha: Yes, I do. I’ve noticed that in a lot of discourse regarding gay rights, racial prejudice is used as a way to show how people have historically felt justified in discriminating against others, only to have their beliefs later exposed as terribly foolish and uncivilized. For example, it wasn’t so long ago that there were laws on the books restricting interracial marriage, just as today we still see laws restricting the rights of same sex couples.
Willa: That’s true, though I don’t know that civil rights leaders have always appreciated having their movement correlated with the LGBT movement. But there are a lot of parallels, as you say, and I think Boy George is subtly suggesting that in Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.
He’s on trial – we’re not sure why, but it seems to be because he expresses his sexuality in unconventional ways, or maybe it’s just because he’s different more generally. And the people judging him – the “jury of his peers” – is comprised of people in blackface acting in ways that enact the white stereotypes of blacks that were a staple of blackface minstrelsy. So he seems to be saying that, just as the dominant white population imposed their fears and prejudices onto blacks through blackface, the dominant straight population is now imposing its fears and prejudices onto him. And he’s doing it in a very “in your face” way, as you say, Lisha.
Lisha: Pun intended. It’s interesting how Boy George is looking backwards historically in this video, at a 1936 night club and a 1957 health club in London, as if re-examining old attitudes about race, gender and sexuality that need to be updated.
Harriet: Indeed blackface minstrelsy historically explored issues of sexuality and gender “under the mask” essentially because race and sexuality are profoundly aligned by their reliance on a “norm” (white and straight) and a different “Other” (black and gay).
Willa: I didn’t know that before – that the blackface tradition parodied gender and sexuality as well as race – and was very intrigued by that aspect of your book, Harriet. I’d really like to talk more about that today.
Lisha: I’m intrigued by this too. It really helped me understand how relevant the early minstrel shows are to Michael Jackson’s work.
But there is a fairly recent example of blackface I wanted to mention because I found it so surprising – a comedy act called “The Jackson Jive” that aired on the Australian variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday in October 2009. Unbelievably, this act was performed as a “song and dance tribute” to Michael Jackson following his death.
The performers and the host of the show seem completely unaware that this type of blackface parody could come across as offensive – not even the YouTube poster appears to have a problem with it! However, Harry Connick Jr., who was a guest on the program that night, said he would never have appeared on the show had he known such an act would be included. From my own (American) perspective, it’s shocking that anyone would find this kind of ridicule to be an acceptable form of entertainment.
Harriet: Absolutely. Also, what I noticed was that as the presenter invites Harry Connick Jr. to express his grievances, it apparently needs to be explained why: because the skit could be considered offensive “in his [Harry Connick's] country.” This implies that it is only America’s “problem” in a comment that then functions to get the show “off the hook.” Seriously not happy with that at all.
Willa: That’s a good point, Harriet. And Australia does have a long history of racism – just look at how the Aborigines have been treated – though their history is very different than ours. They didn’t have the institution of slavery that existed in the U.S. for centuries, but there were slaves in Australia and they do have a tradition of racism.
Lisha: No doubt about it. But one of the interesting things to me about this clip is how it demonstrates the geographical nature of racism. I think Harry Connick Jr. is right – this skit would have been perceived in a totally different way in the U.S. In fact, I don’t believe “The Jackson Jive” skit would air in the U.S. at all. I just can’t imagine any American broadcaster airing a blackface comedy act that ridicules race in this way. It’s not something I think Americans would tolerate, maybe because blackface parody is such a painful part of our history.
Harriet: It would never have aired in the U.K., either. I do admire Harry Connick Jr.’s explanation as to why he is offended. It reminds me of the problem with the golliwog (the manifestation of the blackface minstrel character with full moon eyes, wide smile, and woolly wig). The golliwog’s defenders say it is harmless, fun, and cute, but its history (rooted in racial ridicule) makes it none of these.
The clip makes me think of the 2004 Eminem video Just Lose It (discussed in my book), which provides another example of this sort of lazy racism (and in the form of a more overt contemporary “blackface” performance).
Willa: I like the way you express that, Harriet – “lazy racism.” That’s an excellent way to describe both of these. I hadn’t seen that “Jackson Jive” clip before, Lisha, and it’s thoroughly depressing. It’s especially troubling that they are performing “Can You Feel It” in blackface since that song is explicitly about overcoming racial prejudices, as Joie and I talked about in a post last August. It’s just horrifying to see this – and as you point out, Harriet, there’s an insinuation that if you find it offensive, it’s your problem.
As I remember, there was a similar feeling about the Eminem video when it came out – that if you were offended, you just didn’t have a good sense of humor and it was your problem. And it played fairly regularly on MTV, which is just as shocking as the “Jackson Jive” skit airing in Australia. Here’s a link to Eminem’s Just Lose It, though I want to warn readers that it’s really disturbing:
Lisha: The Eminem video is about as offensive as it gets, to my way of thinking. If Americans are tempted to claim the moral high ground for political correctness and for not tolerating a literal “blacking up,” then this video puts it all back into perspective. Harriet, you’ve pointed out that Eminem continues the tradition of minstrelsy with this white version of hip hop, parodying Michael Jackson in a way that is “in keeping with the harshest white portrayals of black men in traditional minstrelsy.” That’s even putting it mildly, don’t you think?
Harriet: It is, Lisha, yes. We should know better now, especially Eminem, who built his whole identity around his alliance with black artists. Eminem also went out his way to deny there was a problem with the video, which makes it even worse.
Willa: It really does. I hope these performers, including Eminem, evolve to a point where they are thoroughly ashamed of themselves someday. But this kind of overt reenactment or reference to blackface is fairly rare now, isn’t it?
Harriet: Overt references to blackface are rare, yes. This is for two reasons: firstly, because it is all too often a history “better off forgotten,” and secondly because, as the application of the mask has became increasingly socially unacceptable, it has been forced underground to become more subtle.
Willa: But while subtle, it can still have a powerful effect, as you discuss in your book. In fact, you suggest that the blackface tradition has had a pervasive influence on our perceptions of racial differences that is still very much alive today. For example, you point out that for a full century, blackface performers promoted a stereotypical view of blacks as violent and oversexed, with a secret longing to be white and to dress like upper-class whites – and this was generally presented in comic ways through the figures of the black dandy and the ignorant slave, Jim Crow.
And we still see those stereotypes today. Black men, especially, are all too often portrayed as violent and sexually aggressive, a prejudice that has significant legal and cultural implications. It may be one reason the police and public were predisposed to believe the 1993 allegations against Michael Jackson, despite all the evidence.
And white commentators often accuse Michael Jackson, and even Barack Obama, of being “too white” or “not black enough.” What they’re really saying is that Michael Jackson and Barack Obama don’t fit their stereotypical ideas of what it means to be black – stereotypes that were forged or at least deeply reinforced during the decades of blackface minstrelsy.
Harriet: Yes, blackface minstrelsy’s constructions of blackness, including the idea of black male hyper-sexuality, profoundly inform ways of thinking today. I don’t think it was any coincidence Michael Jackson courted accusations and persecutions for inappropriate (read “dangerous” and “uncontainable”) sexual activity. Black stereotypes today are all rooted in minstrelsy: blacks as mad, bad, and dangerous is today’s version of the most popular blackface character, Jim Crow, who was uncouth, unpredictable, and untrustworthy. This is a fundamental and direct legacy.
There are other ways blackface minstrelsy continues in contemporary pop culture as well, and not least in the form of the white appropriation of black music, dance, and gesture, usually without credit and in “whiteface.” But the legacy continues underground in another way: in the work and self-presentation of black performers.
Willa: Which as you point out in your book, is a very complicated performance – black artists “performing” their race for white audiences. And as you point out, that continues today in the violence, misogyny, and hyper-sexuality of much of hip hop.
Harriet: Yes, historically, black performers were denied access to the blackface minstrel stage until well after its heyday (after the Civil War). When they were finally allowed to present themselves in minstrelsy, they too wore the mask and played into the stereotypes of the tradition: black performers seemingly “gave in” in an apparent act of self-ridicule and disgust.
However, it has been suggested that there was much more to it than that, that black entertainers were actually working a double parody that said “if this is what you want me to be then this is what I will be” and they played to hitherto unseen extremes. So, it would seem they performed, sometimes or always, with a wink in the eye to in fact undermine the tradition’s racist constructions, and black audiences knew this (while whites tended to miss it).
Willa: This is such an important idea, and one of the most fascinating aspects of your book, I thought. And we see Michael Jackson overtly expressing this idea of “if this is what you want me to be then this is what I will be” in “Is It Scary,” for example, where he repeatedly sings, “I’m gonna be / Exactly what you wanna see.”
Harriet: Exactly. Another example is the whole Wacko image, much of which (in its early days at least) was generated by Michael Jackson himself. Mad, bad, and dangerous is what he repeatedly “told” us he was, not only in his music but also in his life. Looking at Michael Jackson, and indeed, hip hop acts, in this framework becomes really insightful.
Lisha: You know Harriet, that is absolutely incredible when you think about the lighthearted and fun part of the mad or “Wacko image” that MJ himself supposedly promoted (Bubbles and the hyperbaric chamber) and the fact that he put out two albums that are actually titled Bad and Dangerous!
Willa: I hadn’t thought of that, Lisha! You know, the first place I know of that phrase being used is Lady Caroline Lamb’s 1812 description of Lord Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” so it’s been around a long time. And interestingly, Byron and the other Romantic poets fostered that bad boy reputation, encouraging the public to see them in that way, just as Michael Jackson did to some extent. But I hadn’t linked that to the titles of the Bad and Dangerous albums before. That’s interesting.
Lisha: It’s also an interesting strategy for dealing with the child star/teen idol image that has been so difficult for adult performers to shed.
Harriet, you go into some detail about Michael Jackson putting on the blackface mask (I’m thinking hyper-sexualized, hyper-criminalized, rather than a literal blackface) using the panther dance in Black or White as an excellent example, a song that explicitly deals with race. I’ve always been intrigued by how Michael Jackson morphs out of the black panther to find a fedora hanging on the gate next to a pool of light, similar to what we see in live performances of “Billie Jean.” He then puts on the hat and steps into the “spotlight” to “perform” his race, gender, and sexuality. This scene always evoked blackface minstrelsy to me and I think you have identified precisely why this is so. But there is also something that feels radically different about it, too. Do you feel this as well?
Harriet: Yes, Lisha. The panther dance to Black or White is a good example of Michael Jackson playing the blackface minstrel character of “mad, bad, and dangerous.” He runs amok throwing trashcans, smashing windows, and acting out the animalist characteristics of the wildcat. Michael Jackson gives us (the white audience and music industry) exactly what we want, meaning white-created ideas of black masculinity.
However, what is different is that it comes after a happy vision of racial harmony (the main video in which “it don’t matter if you’re black or white”) making the performance of “mad, bad, and dangerous” an angry critique. It is a critique in its sheer extremity. It is a double parody.
The fact that Michael Jackson was condemned for the video and forced to issue a public apology shows how, as an audience, we cannot cope with the reality of its message.
Willa: I agree, and the panther dance is still excluded from the “official” Black or White video on Vevo, so apparently we still can’t cope with the power of his message, more than 20 years later.
What was most interesting to me in the Black or White section of your book, Harriet, was how you identify specific elements of the panther dance that you see as directly evoking and reworking the tradition of blackface minstrelsy – for example, his splayed-leg stance when he’s dancing on top of the car. Before I read your book, I didn’t realize that posture came straight out of blackface, and it seems significant to me that we see it in Black or White – which is a direct protest against racial stereotypes – and nowhere else in his work. I was really struck by that, and I think it’s important to nail down some of those details.
So in addition to the obvious “blacking up” of the color of the skin, what are other significant characteristics of blackface? What I mean is, are there certain gestures or dance moves or costumes that, when you see them, you immediately think of blackface minstrelsy?
Harriet: Yes, Willa, there are certain “blackface” gestures, and Michael Jackson embodies them all. The staple moves that made up the dances of blackface parody (dance was central to the performance as it reinforced the idea of black bodiliness) are all those of Michael Jackson’s own dance: angulated limbs with knee bends; spins and turns; toe stands (emphasizing the heel, as well as the toe, as slaves were traditionally portrayed as having large, flapping feet); sliding movements; and the crucifixion pose (originally down on one knee, arms outstretched in a visualization of black servitude).
Of note, in later blackface minstrelsy – when black performers took to the stage – white gloves would often be worn (made famous by Al Jolson in the movie The Jazz Singer) along with ankle cut pants and brimmed hat.
Lisha: Utterly fascinating. This opens up a whole other dimension to Michael Jackson for me.
Willa: And for me as well. For example, I had always assumed Michael Jackson adopted the white glove and the short pants with white socks to call attention to the movements of his feet and hands while dancing – and I still think that’s a large part of it. But then I think about Fred Astaire in blackface in “Bojangles of Harlem,” as Lisha and I talked about in a post a few weeks ago, with his cartoonishly large white gloves and the white spats on his shoes, and I wonder if there’s more going on as well – if Michael Jackson is reworking the blackface tradition as you suggest, Harriet.
If we look at the white glove and white socks that way, it’s remarkable that while that costume was designed to portray blacks as buffoons – as objects of mockery and scorn – Michael Jackson reclaimed that costume and made it elegant. Just think of how beautiful he looked at Motown 25. But he’s wearing the costume of blackface: the “white gloves … ankle cut pants and brimmed hat,” as you described it, Harriet. That’s an incredible transformation of how we “read” that costume.
Willa: It really is – it’s mind-boggling! I know we’ve all seen the Motown 25 performance a thousand times before but here’s a clip, and just look at how beautiful and elegant he is:
Wow. What a powerful act of reclamation and transformation.
Lisha: Stunning. And think of how often this iconic look has been admired and emulated all over the world.
Willa: And rightfully so! He’s completely redefined what that costume means and made it part of something many performers – including white performers – can only aspire to.
It’s also fascinating that you link the “crucifixion pose,” as you call it, Harriet, with supplication and “a visualization of black servitude” – I’m thinking of Al Jolson’s outstretched arms in The Jazz Singer – especially since many of Michael Jackson’s critics have interpreted that gesture in the opposite way, as evidence that he saw himself as the Messiah. So again, when we read him through the lens of the blackface tradition, it leads us to a radically different interpretation.
Harriet: This is it! What you say, Willa, lies at the heart of my reading of Michael Jackson and his genius and how, I believe, we should attempt to understand him.
Like the traditional blackface mask – through negotiations of racial, sexual, and gendered identities – Michael Jackson was amazingly clever at being readable in multiple ways and, furthermore, not just in multiple ways but in notoriously contradictory ones. This was a key reason for his enormous popularity (he could speak or “sing” to the individual and be what they wanted him to be). However, at the same time, it also allowed his downfall, providing fodder for his detractors. The “crucifixion” pose visualizes this: it was at once an image of black servitude and megalomania. The altered pallor of his face, his “mask,” also symbolizes this: his critics read it as black self-loathing but was it not rather a utopian vision of racelessness (“white” as not Caucasian at all but colorless)?
Traditionally denied to black performers, the blackface mask was reclaimed by Michael Jackson. In fact, he turned it inside out. Together with his lyrical and rhetorical calls for brotherhood, he completely obliterated it. No contemporary performer has ever come near to this.
So, that Michael Jackson danced out the dance moves of the traditional minstrel show really is just the start!
Lisha: Once again, I have to say I am absolutely amazed. Just when you think you might be on the way towards grasping the depth and breadth of Michael Jackson’s work, something like this comes along and blows your mind all over again.
Harriet, how common is it to see these dance moves and gestures in contemporary song and dance? For example, Willa and I talked earlier about Michael Jackson’s connection to Fred Astaire, and how often Astaire is cited in Michael Jackson’s work. But what is rarely mentioned is how much Astaire and the entire Hollywood musical genre owe to black dancers, including those who performed in the early minstrel shows.
Harriet: Blackface moves and gestures appear a lot, from tap dance to hip hop.
Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly took many black cultural gestures and ideas but never formally acknowledged this in tune with the entire production of the Hollywood musical genre, in which black performers were denied a part. This repeats the process of blackface minstrelsy: the denial of black self-representation but the white luxury to play with it. That Michael Jackson continually fought with criticism and condemnation for his self-representation, from his skin color and facial features to his angry panther characterization, also repeats this painful process.
Willa: I agree. It still astonishes me that white commentators feel they have a right to define what it means to be black, and then try to impose their definitions onto him. To me, that is the very essence of blackface – whites imposing black stereotypes onto blacks – so in that sense, the blackface tradition is still very much alive.
Lisha: So true. I’m thinking the “African warrior” scene in Black or White has a lot to say about white-created black stereotypes, when Michael Jackson makes his very first appearance ever with such light, “white” looking skin. In contrast to the other ethnic dance scenes in Black or White – which feature traditional dancers wearing their own authentic regalia – the black “African” dancers are dressed in obvious stage makeup and film costumes. They dance in a Broadway/Hollywood style of dance and their faces are smeared with white ash and painted in highly-stylized tribal designs. I see this scene as a parody of African-American dancers “whiting up” for the camera, performing their “African” heritage according to needs and expectations of a primarily white audience and white film industry. You could even think of African-American performers “whiting up” for the camera as Michael Jackson’s own “tribe” – the whiteface not used as a black parody of whites, but as an expression of the reality that black performers have tailored their “African-ness” to suit white sensibilities. In this way, the scene for me has much in common with the panther dance.
Willa: That’s so interesting, Lisha. I’d never thought about that until I read your dissertation. It’s interesting to think that they are “performing” black, especially since they’re then revealed to be on a Hollywood set, not in Africa. It reminds me of something James Brown said in a 1973 Jet magazine interview that Charles Thomson recommended and Destiny tracked down and shared with us last week:
I know I can act. All Blacks can act. The only reason we survive today is because we’ve had to act a certain way for the white man. Too many performers accept roles to act in movies when in truth they’re not allowed to act at all.
As you pointed out, Lisha, the “African” dancers in Black and White enact this “performance” of race that James Brown is talking about, and it’s also a very interesting reworking of the blackface tradition, on many different levels.
However, as you point out in your book, Harriet, blackface minstrelsy wasn’t simply a forum for promoting racial stereotypes and ridiculing black men and women, but actually a complicated brew of contradictory impulses. For example, in describing white appropriation of black gestures and dance moves, you say it was motivated by both “love” and “theft” – in other words, an appreciation for black expression as well as an impulse to steal it.
Lisha: “Love” and quite a bit of literal “theft”! Many whites have become quite wealthy exploiting black, musical, intellectual property.
Willa: That’s true, from blackface on through jazz and rock and now hip hop. And this “theft” not only enriches whites but also erases the achievements of black artists from public awareness. Joe Vogel talks about this in “The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music“:
The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.
And there were also complicated forces at work, psychologically, in this dual motivation of “love” and “theft.” As you point out, Harriet, minstrelsy mocked black men while also providing white men with a way to express and work through a sublimated “envy,” which was a fascinating idea to me – especially since Michael Jackson himself suggested a number of times that the backlash against him was motivated by jealousy.
For example, in your discussion of the “wench,” a white male enactment of black female stereotypes popular on the minstrel stage, you write that minstrelsy “showcased a bold and very public appreciation for the black male body in which cross-racial identification, including the envy of a supposed unsurpassed potency, lurked.” As you point out, this “presumed sexual potency” was very threatening “at a time when physical ‘manliness’ was especially important to white male working-class self-respect.”
So blackface minstrelsy certainly allowed white men to propagate hurtful stereotypes about what it means to be black, but it was much more complicated than that. For one thing, it also allowed those same white male performers and audiences to work through what it means to be white and male.
Harriet: Exactly, and this is where is gets very complicated. Recent documentation of the blackface tradition has brought to the fore the “love” that it also could have been seen to embody. These accounts argue minstrelsy was a way by which white men and woman could in fact secretly indulge and be close to blackness in a society in which this was otherwise condemned. Linked to this are theories arguing for (cross-racial) homosexual expression, in the transvestite “wench” stereotype particularly.
What is really most important here, though, is to understand that the blackface mask had the capacity to be inherently contradictory, and that Michael Jackson lived up to that.
Lisha: I find this kind of subterfuge in Michael Jackson’s work so delightful and nothing less than brilliant. I’m thinking about the film Ghosts, Harriet, and how you have interpreted some of the issues he addresses in this work.
Harriet: Ghosts (to which I devote a chapter in my book) is a masterpiece of turning ideas upside down, and documents in its narrative all of the racial stuff, dance, and imagery we have talked about. Through the film’s story of a scary “Maestro” character (played by Michael Jackson) being run out of town by villagers (who in turn get spooked by the Maestro and his “family” through dance and play), Ghosts embodies key issues we have noted: racism in the ridicule of the “Other” or the “different”; dance moves steeped in minstrel gesture; the process of the performer “giving others what they want to see” yet at the same time critiquing and undermining it through extremity of exaggeration.
But Ghosts also theatricalizes the mutilating impact that all this stuff must have had, and continues to have, on black performers. This comes in a powerful section near the end of the narrative. After the confirmation that the Maestro’s guests (despite having been “treated” to an awesome display of dance and song) still demand he leave town, the Maestro admits defeat and surrenders. With the aid of computerized special effects, we witness the disintegration of the Maestro. In an uncomfortable scene we watch the disappearance of Michael Jackson as he pounds first his fists and then his face into the ground so that he crumbles away until there is nothing left of him but dust.
Is this not what we saw in Michael Jackson’s real life too? An adherence to the performance of the constructions and traditions of blackface minstrelsy – to the blackface mask – that in the end was devastational, and the world just stood back and watched?
Willa: Yes, though in Ghosts the Maestro’s self-destruction is revealed to be an illusion – a performance designed to bring about important changes in the emotions and perceptions of the villagers. So once again – as in the blackface tradition – Michael Jackson is providing his audience with the stereotypes they’ve come to believe, and then exploding those stereotypes.
Harriet: Sure thing. Again, Michael Jackson turns our perceptions upside down; he turns the tables. Unlike the Maestro, however, not even Michael Jackson had the power and genius in “real” life to come back from the dead.
Lisha: Or maybe he did! For a sizable number of new fans, like myself, Michael Jackson’s work suddenly came to life in 2009, almost like a resurrection.
Willa: And he predicts that in Ghosts as well. After the Maestro dies, he comes back to life as a huge stone statue – a living work of art.
Harriet: Interestingly, it wasn’t long, back in June 2009, before rumors circulated that he wasn’t dead at all and that his death was a hoax.
Lisha: Yes, a very small handful of people said that, yet the media is so anxious to attach that to Michael Jackson fans in general. I’ve actually read quite a few news stories portraying Jackson fans as mad, bad, and dangerous – even suggesting that if Michael Jackson fans get angry, people should fear for their lives! Maybe the media and the public need the fans to play this role now that Michael Jackson is gone?
Willa: That’s an interesting take on that, Lisha. It’s true many media outlets seem determined to portray his fans as Wacko, but I hadn’t thought of it that way before – that now we’re filling the role of Other that he once filled.
Harriet: I wonder if it is rather a last ditch attempt to regulate Michael Jackson. Meaning, if his fans are understood as being hysterical or insane then his success and genius – his cultural and racial work – can be undermined and history rewritten. This relives the central process of blackface minstrelsy, whereby the black performing figure is molded and used by others and others’ needs; and, as was unfortunately the case with Michael, at the cost of the performer’s selfhood at best; his life at worst.
Lisha: I have a sinking feeling you might be right about that.
Willa: Hmmm. I don’t know – I think he subverted that in important ways, and reasserted his selfhood in ways we don’t yet fully understand. What I mean is, I think he resisted and rewrote the cultural narratives being imposed on him, just as he rewrote the meaning of the costume of blackface minstrelsy.
I feel like I’m not expressing myself very well, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t see his life as tragic. It’s certainly true that terrible things happened to him, but he fought back in creative and incredible ways. It’s like, if a promising athlete is paralyzed and spends the rest of his or her life on the couch imagining what might have been, that’s tragic. But if they somehow manage to achieve wonderful things despite their disability, then it isn’t tragic. Just the opposite. It’s inspirational. That’s how I see Michael Jackson – tragic things happened to him, but he responded in ways that continue to amaze and inspire me.
Lisha: No argument there!
Willa: So Harriet, I had one last question for you. Your book is fascinating and I’d love for all Michael Jackson fans to be able to read it, but it’s pretty expensive – as academic books often are. I just looked on Amazon and it’s $90 for the hardback, and even the Kindle edition is $70. That’s pretty steep. I think publishers price academic books so high because they generally don’t sell very many copies, so they need to charge more to cover their costs, and because they’re thinking most copies will be bought by university libraries where multiple readers will have access to them. I’m worried though that fans who don’t have access to a university library and can’t afford to buy it won’t be able to read it. Is there a less expensive way for fans to gain access to your book?
Harriet: My publisher has agreed to consider paperbacks next summer if sales are strong. In the meantime, a 50 percent discount is available for fans. Just go to http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409455103 and use this promotional code at checkout: A13IEC50. Fans can see more of the book and its illustrations at www.facebook.com/michaeljacksonblackfacemask.
Willa: You have some wonderful illustrations in your book and on your Facebook page, including photos from the shooting of Say Say Say where Michael Jackson seems to be evoking the tradition of blackface minstrelsy, as Joie and I talked about a little bit in a post last fall. He’s wearing a kind of variation of the blackface mask, but more clown-like and with painted tears in his eyes, which for me transforms the meaning of the mask from something burlesque – a comedy – to something much more somber and heart-felt – a tragedy.
Lisha: Well, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone that my favorite illustrations are the ones focusing on Black or White, since I am already on record as considering it one of the finest works of art of the 20th century! There are some really fascinating illustrations from the early minstrel shows in your book – juxtaposed with screen shots from the panther dance – that are of tremendous value to anyone interested in seriously studying Michael Jackson’s work. Harriet, your contribution to the already impressive body of scholarly literature on Michael Jackson, especially in regard to Black or White, is very significant indeed.
Willa: I agree, and I hope you publish your dissertation someday as well, Lisha. We need more Michael Jackson scholarship! Thank you both for the work you have done, and for joining me to talk about it. It’s been fascinating.
Willa: I don’t think there can be any doubt that James Brown was one of Michael Jackson’s earliest and most profound influences as a singer, dancer, and larger-than-life public figure. We’ve probably all seen clips of Michael Jackson’s 1968 audition at Motown, where he performs “I Got the Feelin’” in perfect James Brown mode – the inflections, the screams and drops, the a capella “baby, baby, baby” at the break, the spins and shuffles … even the confident way he grabs the microphone stand and slings it behind him at the opening notes. It’s a perfect imitation by an 9-year-old musical prodigy who loved James Brown and watched his every move. Here’s a clip:
This week Joie and I are very happy to be joined once again by Charles Thomson, a journalist who is probably best known among Michael Jackson fans for his insightful analysis of media bias in coverage of the 2005 trial. We have links to a number of Charles’ articles in our Reading Room, including a recent post he wrote about Michael Jackson’s participation in the 2006 World Music Awards in London, an event Charles attended, and how that event was reported in the media.
It’s fascinating, Charles, to read your first-hand account of the scene at Earls Court Arena, along with video footage you provide of the extremely warm reception Michael Jackson received there, and then compare that with the “chorus of boos” that was reported again and again in the London tabloids, and later the mainstream media as well. As you say in your post, this wasn’t a case of different observers interpreting a situation in different ways. It was “a purely fabricated story,” as you say, and that’s obvious from the video footage you provide.
But Charles, you’re also a “very passionate” James Brown fan, and you’ve even interviewed several people who knew him and worked with him, right? How did that come about?
Charles: Funnily enough, the last time I saw James Brown was less than three weeks before that World Music Awards ceremony in 2006. He appeared at the Roundhouse in London to perform a concert for the BBC. I was on Mr. Brown’s guest list and attended a pre-show press conference, where I got to ask him a question. What an honor!
Willa: Really?! You actually spoke to James Brown himself? That’s awesome! So how did you become interested in his music?
Charles: It was through Michael Jackson that I became a James Brown fan. I was roughly seven or eight when I discovered Michael Jackson and started collecting his music. My mother, who grew up listening to the Jackson 5, introduced me to his early output and to Motown in general. That’s where I developed my love of soul music.
I was always aware of James Brown, cited constantly by Michael and many others as the greatest entertainer of all time, but this was before the days of YouTube, before you could search “James Brown” and thousands of videos appeared.
Willa: It’s amazing how YouTube and sites like it have changed how we learn about music, isn’t it? It’s wonderful to have such a wealth of videos and films and concert footage available at your fingertips, but I have to admit I miss the days of going to the record store to buy albums.
Joie: Yeah, the entire music industry is in such a strange place right now. There are almost no record stores anymore. I mean, they don’t exist. I find something about that very sad. Even though it is awesome to have this wealth of music right at our fingertips, as you say, it’s just very weird to think that actual record stores – and even music sections in certain department and electronic stores – are dead.
And what you’ve just said about YouTube makes me think about my MTV rant. You know, I still think it is the height of absurdity to have a television station named Music TV whose programming has absolutely nothing to do with music anymore. And I’ve made a lot of noise in the past about how they should either change the name or get back to their roots. But the truth is, they really just need to change the name because the concept is now irrelevant since people can access YouTube and sites like it right on their laptops, tablets and phones.
Charles: It is sad that we are losing our record stores. The big HMV in Piccadilly, London, closed down recently and was replaced by a memorabilia shop, of which there are already about 10 within walking distance. It’s a shame so many people aren’t prepared to pay for good music. I always buy records by artists I like, because I want them to be able to make more.
That said, even 10 years ago – because I didn’t live in the city – my local record stores’ soul sections were rather pitiful. On top of that, I was too young to own a credit card and buy things online, and too young to travel into London on my own, where the record stores might actually have a decent selection. So for years, the closest I got to understanding why Michael loved James Brown so much was a live CD I found in a bargain bin at my local shopping mall. The power and energy of the performance was incredible but I’d never properly seen him in performance mode.
In 2004, I spotted in a newspaper that James Brown was taking part in a free concert in London and tickets were being raffled. I entered and won.
Willa: Wow, Charles, you seem to have extraordinary luck when it comes to James Brown! It’s like you were fated to cover him.
Charles: I do feel very lucky that I happened to spot that advert and happened to win tickets. Without those two pieces of incredibly good fortune, my life could have been very different. As it turned out, I only had a small window of time to see James Brown live before he passed away, so I’m glad I packed in as many gigs as I did.
That concert in 2004 was one of the first times I was allowed to go to London with my friends. I was 16. Other performers on the bill included Ozzy Osbourne and Rod Stewart, but James Brown – who was 71 – performed the longest and best set of the day. I queued for hours to get to the front and he was worth every minute. His band was mindblowing. He did his signature moves and the running man over and over again and seemed to barely break a sweat. I was hooked.
I saw him again in 2005 and then two more times in 2006. In 2005 I was right in the front row. He performed “I Got the Feelin’” with the “baby, baby, baby” breakdowns. It was unbelievable.
Willa: So he was in London a lot – more than I would have expected – and still performing a lot of shows, especially for a man in his 70s.
Charles: He toured constantly. It was pretty dependable that he would do a European tour every year. It not only kept Mr. Brown fit (and he tended to let himself go a bit once he clocked off, so it was good for him to keep working – he died during a two-month hiatus in 2006, the longest break from work he’d taken in about ten years), but there were dozens of other people who were reliant on him for their income.
For instance, the nature of his shows was such that his band had to be incredibly disciplined. They had to know probably 100 songs, and they had to be able to fall in and out of them at Mr. Brown’s whim. He would communicate with them through hand signals throughout the show. Michael Jackson did the same thing on the Bad tour, for instance, when he would signal how many “stabs” he wanted during the dance portion of “Another Part of Me” by placing discreet hand signals into his dance moves.
Willa: And apparently, some of James Brown’s hand signals to the band were fines! Each time he flashed five fingers at you, he was upping the fine. Soul Survivor: the James Brown Story talks about that about 40 minutes in. Here’s a link. That cracked me up, but it also shows just how aware he was of everything that was happening onstage with his band and background singers. If they weren’t giving it their all and meeting his expectations, he let them know it, right then and there.
Charles: Mr. Brown couldn’t put on a show the way he wanted by just hiring whoever was available as and when he felt like it. He needed his tightly-drilled band behind him – but to have that, he had to keep them working, or else they might not be there when he needed them.
Joie: That’s incredible.
Willa: I agree. I’d never thought about that before – that he had to provide steady employment for his band to keep them.
Joie: And it really explains why he was always known as “the hardest working man in show business,” doesn’t it?
Charles: His shows were stupendous. Although in later years he would fluctuate a little bit – sometimes sounding a little weak or not being able to dance as energetically as he usually did – the whole experience of his shows was extraordinary. It was like being transported back in time, or witnessing some incredible ancient ritual. Jonathan Lethem wrote a brilliant article called “Being James Brown” for Rolling Stone magazine in 2006, which included the most vivid, beautiful description of the magic and the mysticism of a James Brown show. I would advise everyone to seek it out.
More than anyone else I’ve seen, Mr. Brown was the epitome of the term “living legend.” It seemed slightly unbelievable at that gig in 2005, as I staked out my spot right in front of the stage, that the James Brown – of the TAMI show and of Boston ’68 and of Zaire ’74 – was about to appear mere feet in front of me and perform. I was convinced for a short while that I had made a boob and it was going to be some unknown singer/songwriter with the same name or something. The show was just euphoric. I’ve never experienced a gig like it since. It was dizzying. What an atmosphere.
The first thing he did after walking out and bowing was to give a few short bursts of “Make It Funky,” then throw the microphone towards the audience, catching the wire and yanking it back just before it hit someone. As it flew back towards him, he spun around 360 degrees and then caught the mic stand with perfect precision, immediately letting rip one of his trademark wails.
The show continued in that vein all night. He fell to his knees for “Man’s World” right in front of me. As he spun around during the upbeat numbers, beads of sweat would fly out across the front few rows. He did all his trademark moves (except the splits, of course) with gusto. During one song my camera started playing up and I looked down to see if I could fix it. As I looked up, I saw a microphone flying at my face and reflexively recoiled. Of course, it stopped about a foot short of my face and sprang up into Mr. Brown’s waiting palm, at which he burst out laughing. For the rest of the gig he kept coming over and flicking the microphone at me, then we’d share some laughter.
At one point he knelt down at the side of the stage, took off his bowtie and placed it in my friend Angela’s hand. She has since given it to me as I’m such a huge fan. It is a wonderful memento of what was easily the greatest concert I’ve ever been to. As I walked out after it ended, I could hear people all around me – the crowd was very young – expressing their shock and wonder at just how incredible he had been, given he was now in his 70s.
Joie: That sounds amazing!
Charles: I saw him twice more in 2006. The first gig was in July at the Tower of London – a great way to celebrate after finishing my college exams. Then, in September 2006 – just as I became a journalism degree student – he announced the BBC concert at the Roundhouse, which would become the fourth and final time I saw him live.
Willa: And that’s when you talked to him?
Charles: Yes. I had the brainwave of using my new student journalist credentials to apply for an interview. I was told he was only in town for a day and wasn’t giving any interviews, but his people invited me to the press conference, where I asked him a question about a new album I’d heard he was recording. That exchange, however brief, is one of my most cherished memories.
Willa: How wonderful!
Charles: There is a very short gif of us talking on my website. Sadly, he died less than two months after that press conference. Two years later I interviewed his former sideman, Fred Wesley, for the U.S. journal Wax Poetics. I knew Fred had been involved in that final album – which was never released – so I asked him about it. It got me wondering what had happened to those tracks, so I decided to find out. I interviewed anyone I could who was involved in the album – musicians, producers, songwriters, managers, vocalists – and wound up writing a 5,000-word article: “James Brown: The Lost Album.” Two extracts are available on my website, here and here.
It became the cover story on a magazine I published. Titled JIVE, it was my final practical project at journalism school. A thousand copies were printed. I still have some of them. You can read about JIVE here and view some sample pages here.
The James Brown article won me a feature-writing award from the Guardian newspaper a few months later, and I became a sort of go-to guy for articles about his life and work. Subsequent pieces have included an exclusive interview with his widow on the four-year anniversary of his death and an in-depth exploration of his humanitarian legacy.
Willa: I’m glad you mentioned that, Charles, because I don’t think his humanitarian work is very well known. I knew he played a concert in Boston the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and I knew that concert was credited by many with diffusing a very tense situation and preventing what could have been a destructive riot. On the 40th anniversary of MLK’s death, I heard an interview on NPR with David Leaf, the director of the film, The Night James Brown Saved Boston. Here’s a clip from that film:
I also knew he was very involved in promoting black empowerment and the idea that “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” But I didn’t know about his long history of charitable work until I watched Soul Survivor and another biography, James Brown: the Godfather of Soul. Here’s a link to that one also.
Charles: That concert in Boston was one of the defining moments in Mr. Brown’s career. It demonstrated his extraordinary significance to the black community. On the night of Dr. King’s assassination, riots broke out all over America – including in the black areas of Boston. The following day the city council was going to shut down his concert for fear it would attract rioters to the city center – the white neighborhoods – but they decided instead (without Mr. Brown’s permission) that they would televise the concert in a bid to keep people indoors.
Not only did the riots not spread – there were less reports of crime that night in Boston than there were on a regular night. The TV station showed the concert over and over again, back to back, and people stayed in all night to watch James Brown. His calming effect on the city’s black community was so incredible that other cities started asking for him. Washington immediately requested his presence, and he went there and calmed the riots too.
Willa: Apparently, this was when he became known as the Godfather of Soul. That title refers to the movie The Godfather, and it means that he was as powerful as a mafia don in his ability to control situations – only he controlled them by moving people with his music rather than threatening them with henchmen. So this idea we frequently see in Michael Jackson’s videos of music overcoming violence – like in Beat It, Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Smooth Criminal, Heal the World, Ghosts, even Captain EO – we see it literally happening through James Brown’s concerts after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.
Charles: The following year, Look magazine ran a cover story titled, “James Brown: Is He the Most Important Black Man in America?” The standfirst read, “Many men have gone from ghetto to glory, and forgotten. He bothered to come back.”
That was why, despite his various trials and tribulations, he retained the respect of America’s black community for the most part. The images of the crowds outside the Harlem Apollo for the public viewing of his body – no stars, no autographs, just a chance to pay respects – were unbelievable. Thousands and thousands turned out just to walk past his coffin and say a quiet goodbye. He commanded that respect because he never forgot his roots.
He refused to move away from Augusta, even though a relocation to Los Angeles would have aided his music career significantly. He gave to charities, funded a line of food stamps and handed out college scholarships at his concerts. Every year in Augusta he gave away hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys and bought thousands of Christmas presents for needy children.
Willa: That’s true. According to the documentaries I watched, he was very generous in giving back to help people in need in the communities that had supported him, especially Augusta and Harlem. And he was committed to promoting education, such as through his “Don’t Be a Dropout” campaign.
Charles: But like Michael Jackson, his humanitarianism extended beyond his actions and into his music.
Willa: Yes, as you point out in your article, James Brown saw music as a way to improve the world – to “take these kids to a better life and a better place,” as you quoted from his induction speech into the U.K. Music Hall of Fame. We definitely see that idea carried forward by Michael Jackson as well – that music and the arts can lift people up and inspire us to make the world a better place.
Charles: Bootsy Collins – James Brown’s bassist for a short time in the early 1970s – released an album about two years ago which included a tribute song called “JB – Still The Man.” It was a collaboration with Reverend Al Sharpton, who eulogized Mr Brown over a James Brown-style instrumental.
Willa: Here’s a video – from YouTube, of course! – and it looks like it was uploaded by Bootsy Collins:
Charles: One segment of the song goes:
Every time an artist goes in a studio and sings for a cause bigger than themselves, that’s James Brown. He’s still The Man. Every time we use our art and our music to lift those that are down at the bottom to look toward the top and dream for a better day, I know that James Brown is still The Man.
James Brown’s catalog is filled with socially conscious anthems – from “Don’t Be a Dropout” to “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothin’” to “The Funky President.” Even his Christmas songs were socially conscious: “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” He recorded music with humanitarian goals even when he knew it would make him unpopular. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” cost him a lot of airplay and a lot of contracts.
Willa: I didn’t realize that. That’s something we see in Michael Jackson also: the panther dance in Black or White was criticized for being too angry, “The Lost Children” was criticized for being too sappy, “Little Susie” was criticized for being too depressing, and “They Don’t Care about Us” was almost universally misunderstood and criticized as anti-Semitic. But even though he was heavily criticized for those songs and videos, he refused to stop trying to reach out through his music.
Charles: The humanitarian theme in Michael Jackson’s self-penned output was there right from the Jacksons days, with tracks like “Can You Feel It” – a funky track, designed specifically to pack out dance floors but also carrying a strong, positive social message. That’s textbook James Brown. But you’re right: he, like James Brown, also recorded humanitarian material in the knowledge that it might attract criticism. Can you imagine a less commercial song to release in the grunge era than “Heal The World”? A less “current” track in the mid-90s than “Earth Song”?
Willa: Exactly. He was in touch with musical trends, but his focus was always on creating work that is important and timeless, meaning it will last and be relevant even after current musical fads have shifted.
Charles: His more antagonistic, socio-political material was also steeped in James Brown influence. “They Don’t Care About Us” consists largely of a recurrent, abrasive drum track with staccato lyrics. Sure, lots of artists have recorded songs like that over the years – but it was James Brown who Michael cited as his greatest influence at any given opportunity. And when he sang lyrics like, “Black man, black male, throw the brother in jail / All I wanna say is that they don’t really care about us,” was the sentiment that far removed from James Brown’s “We’d rather die on our feet than keep living on our knees”?
Michael was raised on a diet of political music, of course. At 11, he was colleagues with Marvin Gaye during the recording of “What’s Going On.” He sat in on the recording of Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life, which included tracks like “Black Man.” He covered Sly Stone’s “Stand,” and Jermaine Jackson’s book revealed that a young Michael loved George Clinton’s Parliament / Funkadelic – no surprise since Michael had George take part in his 2003 documentary The One.
But as I said above – it was James Brown who Michael consistently cited as his greatest influence, so it would be rather naive to ignore the massive similarities in not only their humanitarian work, but their humanitarian and socio-political output.
Joie: I have to admit that this is all very fascinating to me. I have never really been a “fan” of James Brown in the true sense of the word. I mean, there are several of his songs that I can honestly say that I love, but I was never into him enough to bother with diving into his entire catalog of music or researching his history and humanitarianism.
But as a black child, I knew growing up that James Brown was an incredibly respected and well-loved human being in the black community. Among older black people – and I shouldn’t say “older” really, I just mean my parent’s generation – James Brown was like a hero. He was someone who had been in the trenches with them and had gone through the whole civil rights fight with them, and he could do no wrong. When James Brown sang “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” they sang that line loudly with him. He was, as the song says, “the man.”
Charles: As an aside – it’s interesting that “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” is rightly considered one of the most important songs of Mr. Brown’s career, but is almost exclusively talked about in terms of its lyrical content and its socio-political impact. I would urge anyone to set aside a few minutes one day to put on some headphones, turn “Say It Loud” up really loud, forget the lyrics for a little while, and just listen to the composition. It is one of the most incredible rhythmic compositions you’ll ever hear, complex but at the same time universally appealing. Even without the lyrics, it sounds almost militaristic. It’s like a call to arms. It was co-written with Pee Wee Ellis and is an incredible achievement.
Willa: Wow, I’m really going to have to go back and listen to it more carefully.
And it’s interesting to me that we were all first exposed to a different aspect of James Brown, and came to him through a different route. Charles, your first impressions were from listening to his music on CD. Joie, yours were from hearing your family talk about him as an important cultural figure. And mine were watching him as a dancer and performer on Soul Train. I babysat a lot in junior high and high school, and there weren’t many TV channels back then – just the three big ones and a few UHF ones that didn’t always come in very well. I’d be sitting in the dark in someone else’s house, trying not to creep myself out with all the odd sounds an unfamiliar house makes at night, and I always loved it when James Brown came on because he made me feel brave. For one thing, he was so energetic he completely changed the atmosphere – the house didn’t seem so empty when he was there. And he was fearless! He’d grab that microphone like it was a live thing and whip it around like he was wrestling a snake with his bare hands. You just couldn’t feel scared when he was on.
Joie: Energetic and fearless. I love that, Willa. Those are great words to describe him, I think.
Willa: He really was – extremely energetic and fearless. I remember going to see a laser light show at Stone Mountain, Georgia – gosh, 30 years ago – back when lasers were still pretty rare. It was the first laser light show I’d ever seen, and they played some classic James Brown songs while the laser traced an outline of a dancing James Brown on this huge rockface. It was frenetic! You got the impression even the laser was having a hard time keeping up with him. …
And of course, Michael Jackson learned to imitate that high-energy dancing from an early age, and then incorporated it into his own unique performances. He liked to vary the tempo of his concerts and include ballads and other quiet moments, but he could definitely turn up the dial and execute those quicksilver spins and shuffles when he wanted to. Here’s a clip of him from 1983, performing in classic James Brown style with his mentor looking on, and be sure to watch the spin. It’s incredible. He does three-and-a-half revolutions, I think – they’re so fast I can’t even count them. I don’t think an ice skater can spin that fast with skates on. Here’s the clip:
I love James Brown’s reaction! You can tell he got such a kick out of it. And here’s another clip 20 years later, from 2003, with Michael Jackson honoring his mentor once again:
So James Brown was an important figure in dance who had a tremendous influence on Michael Jackson, and he was a musical innovator as well. For example, in the tribute song you mentioned earlier, Charles, “JB – Still the Man,” Al Sharpton says,
He changed music as we know it … He literally changed the beat, to a 1 – 3 from a 2 – 4. He taught the world to be on the 1. That’s why he’s still The Man. Cause every time I hear a hip hop record on the 1, that’s James Brown.
That’s also discussed in Deep Soul: the Uprising of James Brown. Here’s a clip:
So his music was very rhythmically driven – as his drummer said, “it’s like a dinosaur walking” – and it was extremely important culturally as well as artistically. Deep Soul declares that “funk was defiantly black music.” As music critic Rickey Vincent explains, “Funk, it was a way to sort of signify that you’re celebrating everything about your raw life. You know, we’re trapped in these ghettos, but we got a lot of raw style.” This gets back to what Rev. Sharpton was saying also – James Brown is The Man both culturally and creatively.
According to his biographer, Bruce Tucker, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was like nothing that had ever come before. The “New Bag” is funk – the birth of funk. He moved the beat from the upbeat to the downbeat, added synchronicity, and invented a whole new genre of music.
Charles: Funnily enough, “Papa’s Bag” is often cited – including by Mr. Brown himself – as the first example of funk, but Brown experts look further back to tracks like “Out of Sight,” which had a pounding beat and an almost hypnotic rhythmic motif. In fact, “Papa’s Bag” doesn’t even have a 1-and-3 beat. Mr. Brown would often talk about coming up with the song in 1965 and stumbling on 1-and-3, but “Papa’s Bag” has a very clear 2-and-4 beat. His long-time manager Charles Bobbit told me a few years ago that Mr. Brown did this on purpose because, even decades later, he was very protective of his methods. According to Mr. Bobbit, he would refuse to enter into serious discussion of his work on most occasions, confiding in those around him that, “Them cats just wanna know where I’m coming from.” What actually spikes on the 1 in “Papa’s Bag” is the horns, not the beat.
Willa: Oh that’s interesting, Charles. I’ll have to listen again with that in mind and see if I can hear what you’re saying. You know, my understanding of music is pretty pathetic, actually, and it’s hard for me to figure out what’s going on in James Brown’s music, especially, because it is so complicated and so funky and so different.
But I’m really blown away by the idea that James Brown and his band created funk, a new genre of music. I used to think that music just evolved slowly over time, but the more I learn about music history, the more I realize that isn’t true. Every so often an incredible talent appears like a comet that changes the course of music, and then those innovations are gradually assimilated, and then another comet appears.
Bill Monroe invented bluegrass. It didn’t exist before him. That’s just astonishing to me. Southern Rock as we know it did not exist before Duane Allman and Wilson Pickett teamed up for their version of “Hey Jude.” And funk as a genre of music did not exist before James Brown “literally changed the beat,” as Rev. Sharpton says. And then I think Michael Jackson took that to a whole new level, inventing an entirely new genre of art. …
Charles: I don’t think Michael Jackson did invent a new genre of music. I can’t think of any sound or method he created that wasn’t already there. James Brown’s music sounded completely new and revolutionary. Michael Jackson’s just sounded incredibly good.
The three central tenets of funk were (1) the one-and-three beat, (2) the prominence of the bass and the drums and (3) the emphasis on rhythm over melody. Funk emerged in the early 60s. The last huge musical revolution had been rock & roll in the 50s, which was predicated almost exclusively on the two-and-four beat. Of course, one-and-three had been implemented here and there – but nobody had made a point of it; James Brown adopted it as his modus operandi. Additionally, he put the bass and drums at the front of the compositions, whereas they typically took a backseat to guitars. Thirdly, he gave his band the directive, “Play every instrument like it’s a drum,” meaning no melodic flourishes at all. Everything had to be rhythmic. The combination of those three elements constituted a completely new way of making music.
Conversely, Michael Jackson always worked within existing genres. Most of his early solo material fell comfortably within the genre conventions of soul, disco and traditional R&B. Off The Wall had a fair amount of jazz in it, too. The Bad album mostly sounded like typical 80s synth-pop with forays into genres like gospel and rock. Dangerous also explored those two genres, as well as classical and, of course, its overriding New Jack Swing sound. And so on and so forth.
What Michael Jackson did was to work within those existing genres – albeit sometimes fusing them in unusual ways (for instance, he was one of the first pop stars to start using guest rappers) – but to create his music to such a high standard that it set the benchmark for all of his peers. Did the Bad album constitute a new way of making music? No. But he made damn sure that of all the synth-pop albums recorded in the late 80s, it was one of the absolute best and would become one of the most enduring.
He was a perfectionist, meticulously recording dozens of songs per album, leaving years between releases, to make sure whatever he put out was the absolute best it could be. In this sense, he and Mr. Brown were very different. Mr. Brown would record entire albums in a matter of hours and largely hated retakes. Even if he or his band made mistakes, he would often put out the first cut rather than fix it. His saying was, “The first take is God. The second take is man.” It was all about the feeling for him.
One track with a mistake on, for instance, is “It’s a New Day.” Towards the end Mr. Brown starts singing the wrong line and has to quickly correct himself and rush out the right line as an afterthought. It’s noticeable, but the groove is so incredible that you don’t care. It just adds to that fantastic live and improvisational sound he cultivated.
I think both his and Michael Jackson’s methods were equally valid, but it’s an area where their music differed. Elsewhere, of course, Michael’s music displayed huge influence by James Brown. Perhaps the most immediately obvious similarity is their shared use of vocal tics like “ow” and “huh” throughout their recordings. James Brown explained the phenomenon in a 2005 interview with Jonathan Ross: “I used my voice like an instrument.” Michael took it that one step further, of course, and actually beat-boxed parts of his own songs.
While I don’t think Michael Jackson created any music genres, that’s not to say he wasn’t extremely influential. One area where his impact cannot be questioned is the music video. Nobody could deny his enormous influence on that art form. It could be argued, too, that Michael Jackson created a new genre of live performance – but the problem was that he did it so well that nobody who has since emulated it has been able to do it justice. By virtue of his colossal talent, Michael unwittingly set an impossible standard for his students and ultimately inflicted on us an endless parade of useless, fedora-fondling imitators – Usher, Chris Brown, etc – who I rather wish would just give up and go away, if I’m perfectly honest.
Willa: Hmmm … Well, I really like some of the new “fedora-fondling” performers who are following in his footsteps, though I agree they aren’t him. But that seems like an unfair standard! Someone like Michael Jackson is very rare indeed. …
And actually, when I said Michael Jackson created a new genre of art, I wasn’t referring to his music so much as his visual art, particularly the way he challenges how we “read” his face and body – and more generally, how we “read” race and gender and sexuality and nationality and identity and all those divisions we construct between ourselves and others. I don’t think we as a culture have even begun to understand this, which I see as his most revolutionary and important work.
But I do think he was innovative in his music as well, on many different fronts – for example, the way he juxtaposes different genres of music within one work to create a type of meaningful dissonance. Lisha McDuff talked with us about this in a post about Black and White, and then Susan Fast joined us for a post about his genre crossing more generally in both his recorded music and live performances. That’s an entirely new way of constructing music, and of thinking about how to convey meaning through music.
And like James Brown’s creation of funk, this new approach to composing music is important culturally as well as aesthetically since Michael Jackson often juxtaposes “black” and “white” genres in a way that subverts established racial hierarchies. For example, in her analysis of “Working Day and Night” from the Dangerous tour, Susan Fast told us, “Metal (the white genre) ‘serves’ the larger R&B/funk (black) genre.” That’s a subtle but powerful reversal.
Charles: Some of those genre-melding experiments were more successful than others, in my opinion. Personally, I think “Black or White” is a bit of a dog’s dinner and is often remembered more fondly than it might otherwise have been on account of the video being very good.
Willa: Oh heaven’s, Charles … “a dog’s dinner”? I’m speechless …
Joie: And I’m a little bit scandalized. While “Black or White” has never been one of my very favorites, I love the message of the song, and I certainly wouldn’t call it “a dog’s dinner.” But I have to admit, I love your British vernacular!
Willa: You’re being awfully diplomatic, Joie. …
Charles: His use of orchestral/classical musical was often very impressive, such as juxtaposing a haunting choral introduction with the hard, funky body of “Who Is It.”
That’s a very good point about the “Working Day and Night” performances. “Working Day and Night” is one of my all-time favorite Michael Jackson songs – whether on the album or on stage. Most of my favorite Michael Jackson songs are built on layers of rhythm, in the James Brown tradition. I found it very strange in later years that Michael would talk so often about how “melody is king,” given that the majority of his most popular material was rhythmic: “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” “Working Day and Night,” “Wanna Be Starting Something,” “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” etc. I’m looking forward to Susan’s book about the Dangerous album.
Willa: I am too! It’s supposed to come out this summer, I think, and I have a feeling it might go a long way toward changing critical opinion about Michael Jackson, the Dangerous album, and his work more generally – especially his later work, which has been terribly undervalued. Susan let me read a rough draft, and it’s fantastic! I was blown away again and again by her insights. I highly recommend it.
Well, thank you so much for joining us, Charles! I don’t always agree with you – a “dog’s dinner” indeed! Joie and I are going to have to work on you about that – but it’s always wonderful to talk with you.
And this feels like a very appropriate time of year to talk about James Brown. He died on Christmas Day seven years ago, and apparently Michael Jackson visited the funeral home and held a private vigil for him throughout the small hours of the night. A couple years later, after his own death, WRDW-TV out of Augusta carried a news segment about it. And while I hate to direct anyone to the New York Daily News, they actually ran a more in-depth article about it three weeks later.
According to Charles Reid, the funeral director, Michael Jackson showed up around midnight and stayed until dawn. He kissed James Brown on the forehead as he lay in the casket, and then curled a lock of hair on his forehead so it looked more like him. And he talked about how much he meant to him: “‘How important Mr. Brown was to him,’ Reid remembered. ‘What an inspiration he was.’” There’s something very touching to me about this – the image of Michael Jackson quietly holding vigil for the man who had meant so much to him for so many years.
Charles: Michael’s attendance at James Brown’s public memorial was his first public appearance in the U.S. after his trial. I think that is very significant and speaks volumes about his love for Mr Brown. I thought Rev. Al Sharpton’s introduction to Michael’s brief eulogy was very smart: “Even though he knows they’re gonna criticize him, Michael says he don’t care what they say. Michael came for you today, Mr. Brown.” Of course, that’s exactly what the media did the next day, mocking Michael for kissing his mentor on the forehead as he lay in state. Interestingly, Michael’s own memorial – and even his own coffin – were modeled on Mr. Brown’s. The teacher/student relationship continued right to the end.
The similarities between the aftermaths of their deaths didn’t end there. Michael was commemorated with a ceremony at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in the days after he passed away, attended by Rev. Sharpton. That’s another tradition which appeared to begin with Mr. Brown’s death in 2006. Rev. Sharpton gave a speech at an Apollo memorial to James Brown, which is far less-known than his shorter eulogy at the subsequent arena memorial Michael attended. While not definitive, I think that Apollo speech perfectly encapsulates the monumental importance of James Brown. It never fails to bring a tear to my eye. If I may, I’d like to end our discussion by posting that eulogy, as we approach the anniversary of his death:
Willa: That’s beautiful – warm and funny and powerful. And thank you again for joining us, Charles, and sharing your deep love and respect for James Brown.
Charles: Thank you for inviting me to take part in this discussion, which I have enjoyed enormously. Given the passion and the frequency with which Michael cited James Brown as his “greatest inspiration,” his life and legacy are rarely discussed and little-known in Michael’s fan community. I hope that people will seek out some of what we have discussed here – various documentaries and recordings – and he will acquire some new fans. Michael loved him for a reason. He was a true king.
Willa: So this week we’re going to take on a rather slippery topic: Michael Jackson’s nonverbal vocalizations, meaning the sounds he made with his voice that aren’t words, exactly. Yet those vocalizations can still carry a lot of meaning or evoke powerful emotion or add tremendous drama or texture to his songs. In fact, you could make the case that his nonverbal vocalizations are one of the elements that set him apart as a vocalist. But they’re hard to talk about simply because they are “nonverbal” and therefore outside language. How do you talk about something that’s “nonverbal”?
Joie wasn’t able to be with us this week, but I’m thrilled to be joined by two of our friends who are very interested in sounds and words: Lisha McDuff, a professional musician and musicologist, and Bjørn Bojesen, a poet and author of En Undersøgelse af Fænomenet Rim (or A Survey of the Phenomenon of Rhyming, for those of us who don’t speak Danish.) Thank you both so much for joining me! This is a challenging topic, and I’m so grateful to have you here to help grapple with it.
So I thought a good way to try to get a handle on this topic would be to look at some specific instances where Michael Jackson uses nonverbal vocalizations. For example, in their tribute issue after he died, Rolling Stone wrote this about “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough”:
Make a list of the top 10 “ooooh!” screams in history, and this hit has at least six of them.
For once, I agree whole-heartedly with Rolling Stone! So what are other examples that jump out at you as either classic Michael Jackson sounds or, on the flip side, give an indication of the wide variety of vocalizations he used?
Bjørn: Ouch, this is hard! Is there an MJ song where he doesn’t use any “non-words”? I think the sound most people associate with Jackson is “aoow!” (as in the beginning of “Black or White”), with “hee-hee” as a close runner-up. But this is guesswork! If I have to point at any particular song, I really like how he starts “Blame it on the Boogie”: “hee-hee-hee-hee.”
Willa: Oh, good choice! I love that too, especially the way the “hee”s start high and progressively drop down, almost like he’s playing scales with his voice.
Bjørn: In so many others of his songs his NVVs (non-verbal vocalizations) sound pained, but here it’s pure joy. You instantly know which song it is, and who the singer is. As you, Willa, and Joie revealed in a post some months ago, the song was also sung by Mick Jackson from Britain. It’s amazing to compare the two versions, and hear how “our” MJ makes this song his own just by adding some crystalline “tittering”!
Lisha: “Crystalline tittering” – what a poetic way of verbalizing the non-verbals, Bjørn! It’s so great to have a poet around. You both came up with some wonderful examples – NVVs that are as symbolic of Michael Jackson as the single sequined glove and the black fedora. Of course you could say the same about the vocal “hiccups” in “Billie Jean,” and the ad libbed “hoos” in the final chorus of “Earth Song.” These vocal sounds are so iconic, we often think of them as belonging only to Michael Jackson. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find an MJ impersonation that did not include them.
Bjørn: Or an MJ parody! In 2007, Chris Tucker did an absolutely unforgettable “hee-hee” on Conan O’Brien’s talkshow:
Lisha: Chris Tucker is absolutely hysterical! And he doesn’t miss a thing, does he? The “hee-hee” is a dead giveaway for Michael Jackson’s identity – it is a sound that has become synonymous with Michael Jackson.
And these vocalizations were such a powerful part of his performances, weren’t they? I absolutely loved Vincent Patterson’s story in Bad 25, when he tells what happened when Michael Jackson let out a full-voiced “hoo” on the set of The Way You Make Me Feel:
Willa: What a wonderful description! As Patterson says, “Everything stopped. We had to stop shooting because people just froze – they actually froze on the stage.” And I can believe it! That high, clear, powerful “hoo” is so arresting, even just listening to the video – a video I’ve watched a hundred times before. I can only imagine what it was like for the people there on set, hearing it live for the first time.
So what do you think makes these nonverbal sounds so compelling? For example, he could have used sounds from an instrument instead, or he could have sung sounds we recognize as words. What makes these sounds so powerful and expressive?
Lisha: Good question, and I wonder if anyone really knows how to verbalize the answer to that! Popular music scholars like to talk about “the grain of the voice,” based on a famous essay by Roland Barthes, which might give us a clue. If you think about the grain of a piece of wood, for example, there is an individual characteristic to that wood that could have aesthetic value. The same could be said of the voice, though it’s exceedingly hard to define and individual preference can easily come into play.
The grain of the voice is thought to be everything that makes a voice compelling, yet it lies beyond the scope of what you might learn about singing if you were to take singing lessons. It is beyond beautiful sound, good technique, and excellent breath control – though in the example above, all those things are present too.
Willa: That’s such an intriguing idea, Lisha. Is the grain of the voice part of what makes individual voices so unique? What I mean is that with “We are the World,” for example, even though everyone is singing in a somewhat similar style, pitch, volume, tone, tempo – all the usual characteristics we tend to think of when talking about sound – the voices are still so distinct and individualized. You don’t have to watch the video to pick out who’s singing what – it’s obvious from their voices. I don’t think anyone would confuse Willie Nelson’s voice with Ray Charles’ or Bruce Springsteen’s or Bob Dylan’s, for example, and they certainly wouldn’t confuse it with Diana Ross’ or Cyndi Lauper’s. Is that part of the “grain”?
Lisha: Well, actually it’s just a little different. As you pointed out, every voice has its own unique sound quality and no two voices are just alike. It’s the reason you don’t always have to identify yourself over the phone – you can just say “hey, it’s me” – and if the person knows you well, they know exactly who is calling. The musical term for this is “vocal timbre”; it’s the individual quality or tone color of the voice.
The “grain of the voice” is something more than timbre, that has to do with the aesthetic quality of the voice and the ability of the voice to go beyond the function of language or traditional musical expectations. It’s all of those undefinable qualities that account for why some can deliver a song in a very powerful and meaningful way, while others we just admire and move on – even if their performances were quite expressive and technically polished. They just don’t hit you where you live, so to speak. As I understand it, the “grain of the voice” is a way of describing how the voice works at the language and the music – it takes place beyond the realm of definable musical elements or linguistic function.
The example you gave of “We are the World” is an excellent way of clarifying this. If you think of voices like Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Dylan – those aren’t beautiful voices in the traditional pedagogical sense. Their singing doesn’t conform to the rules of great vocal technique like some of the others do. Yet, out of that amazing chorus of stellar vocal talent, those four singers are among the most respected – I would even say revered. It’s the “grain of the voice” that possibly accounts for the power of their vocal performances. They are very honest and convincing singers, capable of delivering a song in a way that really speaks to the listener.
Bjørn: That is really interesting, Lisha! I had never thought about voices like that before, and the grain concept really helps clarify some things. So, MJ’s “grain,” his way of using his voice in the music, might explain the power of his NVVs. Perhaps it might even explain why his verbal singing affects so many people beyond the mere meaning of the words?
Lisha: I think it at least gets us started in how to think about it. There is something very compelling about Michael Jackson’s voice that isn’t so easy to define. I think it’s one of the reasons a lot of TV talent shows inevitably feature a Michael Jackson episode. It’s quite a challenge for the judges and contestants to think about why Michael Jackson’s performances are so exceedingly difficult to match.
Bjørn: That’s a very good point, Lisha! One of the reasons why those rising TV stars can’t match MJ, I think, is that there is more to his singing talent than the quality of the voice itself.
Lisha: I agree.
Bjørn: Commemorating the fourth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, Joe Vogel posted a really wonderful description of MJ using a NVV in a non-song situation. He quotes Howard Bloom, who was a publicist for the Jacksons in the mid-1980s. Bloom was going to show the Jackson brothers some portfolios so that they might choose an artist for their next album cover:
We were all bunched together on the opposite side of the pool table from the art director. Michael was in the center. I stood next to him on his left. And the brothers were crowded around us on either side. The CBS art director slid the first of the portfolios toward Michael. He opened the first page, slowly … just enough to see perhaps an inch of the image. As he took in the artwork his knees began to buckle, his elbows bent, and all he could say was “oooohhhhh.” A soft, orgasmic “ooooh.” In that one syllable and in his body language, you could feel what he was seeing.
Willa: Oh, I can just picture that, Bjørn! It really conveys how expressive Michael Jackson could be, nonverbally, both through his voice and gestures – “his knees began to buckle … and all he could say was ‘oooohhhhh.’” What a great image!
And I’m intrigued by what you just said, Lisha, about Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan – how “their singing doesn’t conform to the rules of great vocal technique,” but their voices are still very expressive. It reminds me of the opening lines of an article I read a while ago in Village Voice, where critic Frank Kogan wrote, “An odd thing about Michael Jackson is that he has a totally spectacular voice but he doesn’t feel the need to amaze us with it. At all.”
I disagree with much of Kogan’s article, but I do agree with this. Michael Jackson had “a totally spectacular voice,” as Kogan says, but he didn’t put it on display – that wasn’t his focus. In fact, sometimes he’d make his voice rough or staccato or in some other way use his voice in a way that hid just how beautiful it was, but conveyed tremendous emotion and meaning, I think. And I wonder if this gets back to the idea of “grain” that you were talking about, Lisha.
Lisha: I think that’s exactly it, Willa. Serving the music was always Michael Jackson’s first priority. I honestly can’t think of a single example of where he indulges in a simple display of virtuosic vocal talent, though he certainly could have if he wanted to.
Willa: I agree. We know that Michael Jackson was very conscientious about his voice. He worked with a voice coach, Seth Riggs, for decades, and he’d meticulously run through an hour or more of vocal exercises before a concert or recording session to fully open his voice. He wanted to make sure that beautiful tenor and those pure, clear, high notes were available to him if he needed them. But his concerts and albums aren’t a showcase of beautiful notes. His focus was always on conveying ideas and emotion, on conveying something meaningful – as he said while still just a child, “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” And sometimes that means hitting a “crystalline” note, as you called it, Bjørn, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Lisha: Sometimes he withdraws his singing voice for musical emphasis. “Money” is the perfect example of this, also “Blood on the Dance Floor.” The verses are almost spoken rather than sung, and he uses very little of his voice, at times almost a whisper, which is such a perfect choice. The voice itself is carrying so much meaning in these examples, though it’s quite the opposite of a “showcase of beautiful notes.”
I also think it also goes back to what Bjørn was saying about Michael Jackson letting out an ecstatic “oooohhhh” when he saw that amazing artwork. It seems to me that human beings have a need to express themselves vocally. If you stub your toe or burn yourself in the kitchen, the first thing you do is vocalize with an “ow!” or “ouch!” Or if your team wins, or your favorite singer gives an amazing performance, you want to yell out “yyyeess!” “woo-hoo!” or “yeah!” Intense grief or anguish is associated with sobbing and wailing sounds. A big surprise is usually followed by a gasping sound – an audible inhalation. Disgust is often followed by “uh,” vocalizing a sharp exhalation. There are so many ways we use vocal sounds to express ourselves.
Willa: That’s a good point, Lisha, and maybe those exclamations are so evocative and emotionally powerful precisely because they’re prelingual – they happen reflexively before we have a chance to think and put our thoughts into words, so they seem more primal and maybe more true somehow.
Lisha: Or maybe they could even be described as translingual – in that they go beyond the function of language? Certainly Michael Jackson had a good command of language, but it seems there are times when language doesn’t fully support what he wanted to convey.
Bjørn: I’d say the ability to express our emotions is one of language’s primary functions! But I do see what you mean by the words “prelingual” and “translingual.” In linguistics, exclamations like “ouch!” or “yes” are called interjections. Unlike a verb (“to sing”), a noun (“a song”) or an adjective (“beautiful”), interjections cannot partake in the creation of phrases. Each interjection is like an autonomous phrase. When lifting your hand from a scorching cooking plate, there’s no need to formulate a phrase like “that hurt!” An “ouch!” says it all.
Some interjections are onomatopoeia or imitations of sounds in the world around us. Like when a child points at a cow and says “moo!” Other interjections are more spontaneous expressions of feelings, and this is where I see a direct link to Michael Jackson’s NVVs. As you point out in your book, Willa, one of MJ’s driving forces as an artist was his desire to help us see how belief influences our perceptions. We see a cow, think for a couple of milliseconds, then reach the mental conclusion “that’s a cow.” In that way, language helps us organize our impressions and gain some footing in the perceptional flux. The price is, however, that every time we use language to form a phrase, we also pass judgment on the world. To a certain extent, interjections are an exception to this.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn. I never thought of it that way – that interjections are nonjudgmental.
Bjørn: If you’ve never ever seen a cow, and then have your very first encounter with one, you might react by letting out a surprised “o!” – just like the romantic poets.
I think MJ’s use of NVVs has everything to do with a note he once wrote to himself concerning songwriting: feel, feel, feel, feel, feel, feel… His NVVs are so powerful because they derive directly from his feelings, with no intervention of analytical thought in order to put those feelings into words. A baby cries, a lion roars. Those sounds move us immediately, because they are natural or primal. They’re very impulsive, almost instinctive, reactions to emotions like fear, joy and wonder. They come directly from the heart, and MJ knew it (or felt it, I should say).
Willa: That’s a really important idea, Bjørn, and I think it gets to the heart of why these nonverbal vocalizations can be so powerful. It’s not just that we don’t need to say anything more than “ow!” when we burn our hand on the stove. If it hurts badly enough, we can’t say anything more – all we can do is moan, or gasp, or silently writhe on the floor. Language breaks down in the face of extreme physical or emotional pain – or extreme joy, as Michael Jackson describes in “Speechless.”
For me, the best example of this is the interlude in Smooth Criminal. Something terrible happens to Annie – we’re not sure what, but the implication is that she’s been shot by Michael, the Smooth Criminal (just as The Blond is shot by Fred Astaire’s character in The Band Wagon, and Charlotte is shot by Mike Hammer in I, the Jury- the two works Smooth Criminal is based on). Michael points his hand like a gun and shoots out the skylights, we hear the sound of a gunshot, and glass from the broken skylights crashes down on everyone in the nightclub. And importantly, there’s also a rupture in the flow of the video, and in language itself.
It’s like a psychotic break where Michael is forced to confront what he’s done and feel the pain of it, and there’s no singing or dancing or dialogue in this section – just stamping and moaning. It feels to me that we’ve entered a space of such intense emotion, language can’t function here. It’s like when you burn your hand on the stove and it hurts too much to speak in words, or when you feel emotional or psychological pain to such an extreme you can’t speak. We enter that primal, pre-verbal space in Smooth Criminal after Annie is shot.
Lisha: But isn’t Michael the guy in the white hat throughout this short film and the entire Moonwalker film? I’ve always interpreted him as the rescuer, not the perpetrator in Smooth Criminal. I think the long NVV “ooooo” helps to clarify this. It expresses the pain and agony he feels that Annie is not “ok” – the thing that motivated him to fight and restore order in the first place.
There was even a Sega Genesis home video game about Michael Jackson’s NVVs, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, that depicts this really well. The “first person shooter” in this game isn’t armed with guns or traditional weaponry. Instead, the player is armed with Michael Jackson’s NVVs and his iconic dance moves. The task is to rescue the little blond girl “Katie” from the evil Mr. Big and his henchmen:
Bjørn: Oh yes, I remember having played that game! The synthesized “hoows” sound worse than an underwater radio transmission of a cat, but no one is in doubt who the good guy is…
Lisha: Too funny, but you’re right, Bjørn! Michael Jackson was apparently very frustrated with the game sound technology available at that time. Perhaps that’s the reason the “hoows” are even used in a humorous way at times, like between scenes. Here’s a link to a Brad Buxer interview that discusses this (page 76).
Willa: That game is funny! I hadn’t seen it before, and I see what you’re saying about Michael being the rescuer. And I know how you feel, Lisha, about the idea of Michael shooting Annie. I really do. There’s something in me that completely rebels against that idea. It just feels so wrong.
But at the same time, I think what Michael Jackson is doing in Smooth Criminal is complicated but incredibly important. Our culture is steeped in stories of violence against women – or more than that, stories that glorify men who commit violence against women. That’s exactly what happens at the conclusion of I, the Jury and The Band Wagon. Both of those stories focus on a tough guy private investigator who crosses the line sometimes between legal and illegal, moral and immoral, and in both stories the protagonist shoots and kills the woman he said he loved and vowed to protect. And the really horrible thing is that, in both cases, he feels justified in killing her – and he’s presented as a hero, or rather a tough guy anti-hero, because of it.
I think that in Smooth Criminal, Michael Jackson is retelling those stories, or rather he’s “untelling” them – he’s evoking them and then undoing them. His protagonist, Michael, is morally ambiguous also. He’s “the guy in the white hat,” as you said, Lisha, but he’s also a “smooth criminal.” And he’s a mourner – think of the black armband. And he’s the narrator, since it’s his voice that sings the story of what happened. And he’s a member of the chorus, which like a Greek chorus in classical drama provides moral commentary (“Annie, are you OK?”). And to some extent he’s Annie also, since his voice sings her part as well. So he occupies many different subject positions.
Just as importantly, Michael isn’t nearly as hardened as Mike Hammer or Rod Riley, so his reaction to what happens is very different. Mike Hammer and Rod Riley seem liberated and reaffirmed as men when they kill those women, but Michael’s reaction is very different. Annie’s death is intolerable to him. It racks him with pain – you can hear it in his voice – and so we have that psychological break where language stops functioning, and all we hear are cries and other nonverbal vocalizations.
But this is just one interpretation. Both the song and video are really ambiguous about what exactly has happened, so it can be interpreted many different ways. And I fully understand where you’re coming from, Lisha.
Lisha: That’s really fascinating, Willa. I totally agree that Smooth Criminal is doing important cultural work when it untells “stories that glorify men who commit violence against women.” Now I have to go back and really re-think all this!
Bjørn: I really like that you introduced the wailing scene from Smooth Criminal, Willa. I was thinking about it as well, and how it shows the deep need we as human beings have to express ourselves with our voices, even when we’re in such an emotionally fraught state that we can’t produce words that point to anything in the outside world. When language breaks down, the barriers we set between us as humans also break down. (As an aside, scientists have just discovered that the one word that’s shared by most of the world’s languages is the interjection “huh”!)
Without all our words and labels, we’re no longer French or Chinese, teacher or student, sailor or politician, adult or child. We’re all just souls (or personalities or whatever one likes to call it) that happen to be embodied in a plethora of different shapes and colors. Each time MJ lets out an “ow!” he basically tells us “You’re just like me, I’m just like you” (or, in his own words, “You’re just another part of me”).
Willa: Oh, that’s a wonderful way of interpreting this, Bjørn! – his nonverbals as a way of bridging cultural differences.
Lisha: That is interesting, because when we use interjections like “ow!” or “ouch!” we are definitely speaking English and behaving in a way that is culturally acceptable in the English speaking world. I assume other languages have equivalent behaviors and expressions for crying out in pain. But the long “oooo” sound isn’t necessarily speaking English and it doesn’t seem limited to a specific language or culture to me.
Bjørn: Well, in my experience you don’t have to understand English in order to get Michael Jackson’s “aoows” and “hee-hees.” You could also say that laughter is a NVV – the whole world, from Greenland to New Guinea, would understand the laughter at the beginning of “Off the Wall” (and at the end of “Thriller”)! I even think it goes further, that he somehow uses his NVVs to destabilize the boundaries between humanity and nature. After all, the vocal sounds of animals are non-verbal. (In “Black Or White” the human Jackson uses both verbal and non-verbal vocalizations; the moment he’s transformed into a panther, he can only roar.) A good example would be the way he merges monkey sounds into the music in “Monkey Business.”
Lisha: Very interesting, Bjørn. And I wouldn’t rule out that some of those monkey sound effects are NVVs. After all, according to Bruce Swedien, it was Michael Jackson who produced the howling sounds in “Thriller.” For example, at about 20 seconds before the end of “Monkey Business” (at 5:26) there is a repeated “ach-a ach-a ach-a” sound followed by “hoo” (it’s on the far right if you’re wearing headphones) that sounds like Michael Jackson playing around with animal/monkey sounds to me.
“Monkey Business” also has something interesting in common with the album version of “Smooth Criminal,” which is the sound of the breath alone as a NVV. Just before the opening line, “Well Lord have mercy,” there is a dramatic intake of air, so close to the mic you can actually hear the air passing through the lips and teeth. And dang! Is it sexy the way he draws this breath!
Willa: Now, now, Lisha, compose yourself!
Lisha: Sorry, Willa, but it’s kind of hard not to notice!
Willa: I know what you mean. You can almost feel his breath …
Lisha: The way the song is recorded and engineered really contributes to this as well. You would have to be in very close proximity to someone to hear that much detail in their breathing and to hear such a soft voice so clearly, so the recording itself really conveys a sense of intimacy.
We also hear the sound of the breathing in the intro to “Smooth Criminal.” But in this case, the breathing gets faster and faster as the sound of the heartbeat begins to race, indicating a really frightening situation. What could be more cross-cultural, human, and natural than breathing and the beating of the heart? I think we could all agree, regardless of our cultural backgrounds, that the fast breathing in the intro to this song indicates fear and extreme anxiety, while the long, drawn out breath in “Monkey Business” is very relaxed and sexy.
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting, Lisha, that both songs begin with the sound of his breath, so close you can almost feel it, but it creates a very different effect – a feeling of intimacy in the first and a feeling of anxiety in the second. I hear something kind of similar at the beginning of “Is It Scary.” It’s like he catches his breath, but in a rhythmic way that’s both intimate and frightening.
Lisha: A brilliant example! “Is It Scary” uses this so effectively throughout.
Willa: It really does, though it’s not as intense as “Smooth Criminal.” I agree with you, Lisha – that quickening breath and racing heartbeat at the beginning of “Smooth Criminal” are really frightening. It’s almost like they create a physical entrainment, so our breath and heartbeats quicken in response to his. At least, I know mine does.
Lisha: The heartbeat is so audible, it’s as if the listener is being cued to identify with the protagonist.
Lisha: It feels as if you’re placed right inside his head before the song ever starts. Yet, it’s interesting how you and I interpreted “Smooth Criminal” so differently, which is informed by these NVVs. To be honest, we could probably find as many different meanings attached to all of these sounds as we find different interpretations of the songs, within a certain range of course. I mean, I doubt someone would hear that first breath in “Monkey Business” as fear and anxiety and the fast breathing in “Smooth Criminal” as relaxed and sexy. But, the exact meanings attached to these sounds will differ.
Having said that about differences in interpretation, I have to agree with Bjørn that there is also something powerful about breaking down language in an attempt to speak to our commonalities rather than our differences. For example, the entire chorus of “Earth Song” is a NVV, sung on “ah” and “oo.” Michael Jackson abandons language altogether here, not only to break down the boundaries between people, but to “destabilize the boundaries between humanity and nature,” as Bjørn said so well.
Willa: Which fits perfectly with the meaning of the song. The video reinforces this idea since we primarily see images of nature during the chorus. During the first quiet chorus, we mainly see the destruction of nature. During the second and third repetitions we see humans digging their hands into the devastated earth, reconnecting with nature, and that powerful wind begins to blow. … And then in the final glorious chorus, we see a vision of nature triumphant, with herds of animals restored to their rightful place.
Bjørn: Furthermore, those NVV choruses muddle the musical genres… I know many pop fans find classical music boring, because there’s no human voice they can relate to. (This includes the somewhat “unnatural” voices heard in opera.) Conversely, aficionados of classical music often find pop music too superfluous and ephemeral, maybe because it’s based on an individual voice (or voices) rather than some “timeless” instrumentation that talks directly to people’s deeper selves and doesn’t require any translation. Now, “Earth Song” works on both levels, doesn’t it?
Willa: It really does.In the chorus of “Earth Song,” his voice is literally his “instrument” since, to me anyway, it functions like an instrumental section – but he creates it with his voice, as you pointed out, Lisha. And the fact that it’s made of nonverbal sounds rather than lyrics is a big part of that, I think.
Lisha: I hear the “ah” and “oo” sounds not as instrumentals but as lead vocals all the way! Joe Vogel called attention to how these nonverbals work on several levels – as a cry for the earth, as humanity crying out together as one human family, and as a personification of the earth itself – Mother Earth crying out in pain. It’s a stunning example of the power of NVVs and Michael Jackson’s vision as a composer.
But speaking of NVVs as a part of the musical score, there are some fabulous examples of how Michael Jackson uses NVVs as instrumentation. For example, in the beginning of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” about 9 seconds in, the guitar line is actually a blend of guitar and Michael Jackson’s NVVs, “duh-tah duh-tah dum.” He is using his voice as part of the accompaniment and I would bet my last dime the vocals came first, and that the guitar sounds were chosen later to imitate the voice.
“Don’t Be Messin’ Round” is a gold mine for understanding how Michael Jackson used NVVs as a compositional technique. You can hear the song isn’t quite finished by how the NVVs are slowly being replaced by the instrumentals. A good example is at 3:58, about the last 20 seconds of the song, where you can hear the guitar imitating the voice.
Willa: Wow! You really can! I hadn’t noticed that before.
Lisha: The NVVs show how Michael Jackson would “write” music by recording his voice, rather than using a pencil and paper. Because of his exceptional vocal talent, this was an extremely efficient way for him to work. Like in the bridge at 2:38, I hear “bop-bop bah dup-bah-dup” as a trumpet line. My guess is that if this song had been finished, we would have heard a trumpet or brass section there. Hearing the line sung like that gives me a lot of information about what he wanted to hear, much more than just seeing it written out on the page, which is always an approximation of sound.
Bjørn: Yet I’ve occasionally seen claims that Jackson wasn’t a “real” composer, since he didn’t write notes like the classical composers. But who knows, maybe he was actually far ahead of his time, a composer who’s consciously ditched notes and paper because they aren’t “necessary” (as he said somewhere in his Mexico deposition)?
Lisha: I agree. I don’t think of Michael Jackson as a pre-literate composer, but as a post-literate composer. It’s a big mistake to assume “real” composers “write notes like classical composers.” The traditional way of writing music on paper is just a way of storing and communicating musical information. Michael Jackson had an extremely efficient method of doing both that I think is far more clever.
Bjørn: Maybe too clever for the critics? Composition and songwriting is yet another area where Michael Jackson liked to mix up everything. For example, he sometimes seems to have used an offbeat pronunciation on purpose. Remember all those discussions about things like “shamone!” or the exact lyrics of the world’s most famous denial, “The kid is not my son”? (“The chair is not my son,” as David Letterman heard it!) Jackson does a lot of roaming in the borderlands between “composing” and “improvising,” “meaning” and “not meaning,” “voice” and “instrument,” “man” and “nature,” and even “man” and “machine” – as when he uses a vocal synthesizer in “Leave Me Alone.”
And speaking of “Don’t Be Messin’ Round,” I think it’s amazing how Michael Jackson’s voice is capable of creating an independent space in the air and the listener’s mind. Did you get a chance to hear the original “Slave to the Rhythm” when it leaked? In the first seconds of that song, it is as if MJ is drawing energy out of thin air and then setting the stage for the entire song with his NVV’s! It’s so powerful, his sounds almost feel like physical objects. There’s a loud “hoo!,” then a string of commanding “chuck-chuck-chuck,” another “hoo!,” vocal hiccups and strained “ah!”s mixed with waxing-waning “woahoaow” lamentations, climaxing into a double “hoo! hoo!” Only after 22 seconds does the actual singing begin…
Lisha: I love those NVVs in “Slave to the Rhythm”! I was also thinking about the beginning of “Workin’ Day and Night” and how he’s got two different NVV hooks going at the same time – “de-dum dah” and “uh-ah uh-ah” – that are like extra percussion instruments. The Michael Jackson Immortal soundtrack really highlights this. I can even hear a “chu-chu” vocalization that blends with the percussion shakers.
Bjørn: While we’re at it – I just re-listened to “Speed Demon.” The NVVs of that song are very unusual. Once again, some 20 seconds pass before the singing begins. MJ sets the stage with three very guttural “chu!”s, followed by a peculiar, almost girlish “oo!” followed by another trio of “chu!”s. Nearing the end of the song, he lets out an entire NVV “monologue”: “oouh!” (2:55), “ogh!” (2:58), [“girlish”] “ah!” (3:00), “urh!” (3:03), “hoow!” (3:05). It reminds me of the printed sound effects in comics (“boom!,” “ugh!,” “kapow!”).
Willa: I agree! And that’s a great way of describing it, Bjørn.
Bjørn: I wonder if he created this particular “chu!” especially for “Speed Demon”? (It’s so throaty it sounds like cockney English or my own language Danish!) To some extent it carries the whole song – just like the “dah!” sound pervading “Bad.”
Lisha: In my opinion, “chu” was absolutely created for “Speed Demon,” as an onomatopoeia for the motorcycle engine sounds. Listen carefully and you can also hear a percussive rattling or shaking sound when the rhythm begins, after the engine revs up for the first couple of seconds of the song. If you’re wearing headphones you will hear it on the left side for 8 counts, then it moves to the right side for 8 counts, and continues to alternate left and right. That’s not a pre-recorded sound effect or another percussion instrument, but a very soft, whispered, rhythmic, NVV! And it’s a complicated pattern, not even sure how I could try to write that out without the benefit of hearing the isolated track, but it sounds like an imitation of an engine purring or rattling to me.
We talked earlier about how expressive Michael Jackson’s NVVs can be, and how they so effectively communicate emotion, but oftentimes they are used as sound effects or part of the instrumentals as much as anything else. And they are often so understated and blended into many different layers of sound, that they’re not necessarily noticeable. And they are just so imaginative, giving such amazing variety to the sound. There seems to be no limits when it comes to Michael Jackson’s imagination.
A favorite example is “Stranger in Moscow.” If you listen carefully, just before the vocals start, there is a short, whispered “tuh” sound, placed irregularly on the off beats, that adds a very soft, percussive sound. Later in the song, just after “when you’re cold inside” (1:42) he repeats that soft sound, “tuh tuh tuh tuh,” but it sounds like he’s actually breathing in on some of them, which creates a slightly different color. I mean, who else thinks like that?
In the line “how does it feel,” the word “does” is heavily accented and one of the sounds accenting that beat is a whispered “huh” that is brought up in the mix. But all these details often go unnoticed. You just feel the power of the music and the lyric blending with all these sounds.
Willa: Well, they certainly went unnoticed by me! That’s one thing I love about talking to you both – you highlight details I would never notice on my own. I feel sometimes like I’ve been listening to these songs for years and not really hearing them. It’s so fascinating to begin to hear some of the things you guys hear.
For example, I never noticed those “tuh tuh” sounds you’re talking about, Lisha, even though “Stranger in Moscow” is one of my favorite songs and I play it often. But you’re right – you can definitely hear them at several key moments. I hear them most clearly in the “We’re talking danger … I’m living lonely” section (about 3:45 in). It’s like an explosive exhalation occurring at regular intervals, almost like we’re listening to him lift weights or do some other kind of hard physical labor. And that repeated sound subtly conveys the feeling that he’s under duress and carrying a heavy load. At least, that’s how it feels to me.
Lisha: Great example, Willa. That exhalation feels very labored to me too, which adds so much weight musically to the song. It’s endlessly fascinating to listen for all these sounds and to try to understand how they are being used.
Oh, and I just can’t resist at least one more example of these very subtle NVVs, which is “People of the World,” a charity song that Michael Jackson wrote and produced for the people of Kobe, Japan in 1995, after a devastating earthquake:
Although it is in Japanese and Michael Jackson doesn’t sing on this track, his writing and production work are unmistakable. You can hear him literally breathe life into the song with a whispery NVV just before the vocals begin (1:38), and as a repeated percussive effect on off beats throughout. I am a huge fan of this song.
Bjørn: I can understand why. I’ve never heard this song before, and it is really beautiful. (Pop music by other performers often makes me cringe, so that ought to be proof enough that Michael Jackson’s spirit is alive in this song!) Thank you for sharing.
Lisha: I admit, I got a little addicted to it. It’s amazing that I feel like I somehow understand what is being said, though I don’t speak a word of Japanese. I guess that goes to the power of music and non-verbal musical expression!