The following conversation was originally posted on May 22, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
We also wanted to give a reminder that Veronica Bassil’s new book, That Wonder in My Youth: Michael Jackson and Childhood, will be available for free tomorrow through September 2. Here’s a link.
Joie: Today, Willa and I are joined by our good friend, and frequent contributor, Lisha McDuff, and we’re talking about the title track of Michael’s HIStory album. More specifically, we’re talking about a certain aspect of that title track. Thanks for joining us again, Lisha!
Lisha: Thanks so much for having me!
Joie: Ok, ladies, here’s a question that I know we’ve all thought about many, many times, and I would be willing to bet that just about every Michael Jackson fan has pondered at least a dozen times while listening to this multi-layered song. What do all of those dates at the beginning and the ending of “HIStory” mean, and do they have some personal significance for Michael beyond their obvious significance to the rest of the world?
Willa: I think they have tremendous significance. For example, there are two dates set off by themselves at the beginning of the track – all the other dates come at the end. And as you pointed out, Lisha, when we first started kicking around the idea of doing a post on “HIStory,” those two have special significance.
Lisha: Exactly so. The first words spoken in the song are “Monday, March 26, 1827,” and “November 28, 1929.” Although it is never spelled out what these dates specifically reference, I find it interesting that these happen to be two important dates in music history: the death of Ludwig van Beethoven and the birth of Berry Gordy, Jr.
Willa: So do I. Putting those two dates together the way he did suggests Michael Jackson saw a connection or correlation between these two men. We don’t tend to think of them together, but Michael Jackson had tremendous admiration for both of them, and they both had a huge impact on music history. More specifically, they were both important transitional figures in the history of music.
I think most people would agree that Beethoven was one of the greatest classical composers, if not the greatest. But he also helped usher in the Romantic period in music. You know much more about this than I do, Lisha, but he helped bring about the shift from Classicism to Romanticism, right?
Lisha: That’s absolutely right. Beethoven seemed to have one foot in the Classical era and the other in the Romantic era of Western music at the same time. He is considered the bridge between these two periods.
Willa: And as the founder of Motown, Berry Gordy was also a transitional figure. He led the way in integrating “black” music into the “white” mainstream in a way that was extremely popular with both blacks and whites. And that changed the face of music in America and around the world.
Lisha: Berry Gordy essentially redefined pop by insisting it was just as black as it was white and this appealed to a very broad audience. Gordy’s impact is felt not only in American popular culture, but all over the world, as you said. He is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in all of recorded music.
I have to say, citing these dates at the top of the song is such an interesting choice, we could probably focus our entire discussion on those two dates alone!
Joie: I agree.
Willa: Me too.
Lisha: I also suspect these dates have been highlighted not only for what each of these men contributed, but also for how their contributions have been historicized.
There is no question that Beethoven is commonly thought of as one of the most important composers in all of music history, if not the most important. How we think about Beethoven is fundamental to our concept of what a composer is, what a musical work is, what intellectual property is, and what a musical genius is. The history of Western music in many ways revolves around the Beethoven paradigm and the Austro-German musical canon. It’s the Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms history of music we’ve all been taught in some form or another.
But scholars are increasingly challenging this. Does it really make any sense that musical genius could be isolated to specific time periods in Austria and Germany? And what exactly is musical genius anyway? The time has come to think a little more critically about it, and I’m guessing Michael Jackson thought quite a bit about this when he highlighted the death of Beethoven and the birth of Berry Gordy at the beginning of the song. I think we’ve all been cued to take Beethoven terribly seriously, but we usually don’t think about popular music or non-European composers in the same way.
Willa: I agree completely. In general, critics tend to maintain a strict division between “high art” composers like Beethoven and “popular” music producers like Berry Gordy, and it’s almost heresy to mention them in the same breath. But Michael Jackson repeatedly challenged that division between high art and popular art, and this is one more great example of that.
It’s also really interesting, Lisha, that you seem to see the reference to “Monday, March 26, 1827” not only in terms of Beethoven’s death, but also as representing the “death” of the canon. Is that right? In classical music, as well as other “high art” forms such as literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, or even relatively new forms like film, the canon tends to be dominated by dead white men, as the saying goes. So in that sense, by juxtaposing the date of Beethoven’s death and Berry Gordy’s birth, Michael Jackson is also suggesting the “death” of one way of thinking about music – which privileges a small group of men from Germany and Austria, as you said – and ushering in the “birth” of a new way of thinking about music.
Lisha: Yes, I believe that Michael Jackson is highlighting a new paradigm and inviting us to think about popular music and American musical achievement in a much more serious way. But, believe it or not, the idolization of the great “dead white men” in music history is a more recent phenomenon (historically speaking, that is – 19th and 20th century) that essentially revolves around our reverence for Beethoven. In many ways Beethoven’s death represents the birth, not the death, of the musical canon. So perhaps Jackson is suggesting that the death of the canon is best represented by the birth of Berry Gordy.
Willa: Oh, interesting!
Lisha: The whole idea of musical genius (commonly conceptualized as the solitary, autonomous, slightly mad composer, touched by the heavens, who remains true to his art by resisting political pressures or economic considerations) is more or less based on how we historicize Beethoven. Earlier composers, like Bach and Mozart, were employed by the church or the court, and their music was created primarily to satisfy the needs of their employers and to express their views and ideals.
But Beethoven challenged this and felt artists should be much more autonomous and free from any interference or worldly demands. As a result of his influence, the role of the composer was elevated and composers were ultimately given much more status, recognition, and control of their work. Musicians became very focused serving the composer’s vision and the great “musical work,” a concept that has been attributed to Beethoven.
It’s interesting that in the liner notes of “HIStory,” a credit is given for a sample taken from the children’s film Beethoven Lives Upstairs. To be honest, I have never found the sample in the track. I don’t know if I just keep missing it or if it was possibly omitted in a subsequent revision, but I’m interested in how this film relates to “HIStory.”
Willa: Well, the bells tolling in the background at the very beginning of the film remind me of the bells tolling in the background as Beethoven’s date of death and Berry Gordy’s date of birth are spoken in “HIStory.” Could that be it?
Lisha: Hmmm. In the beginning of the film I hear church bells ringing, and in “HIStory” I hear orchestral chimes. So, I don’t think they are the same instruments or the same sample. But now that you mention it, it is really interesting how similar the pacing of the bells and chimes are. That’s a very astute observation, Willa. I also noticed that the first words spoken in both the film and the song are “Monday, March 26, 1827.” Of all the dates mentioned in “HIStory,” I do believe this is the only one that also includes the day of the week (“Monday”). The rhythm and pacing of the voiceovers sounds pretty much identical to me. I’m getting the feeling that this film is a bigger inspiration for the track than I thought.
Watching the film, I was amazed by how precisely it reinforces the Beethoven paradigm and the myth of the composer as a god-like musical genius who can also be very peculiar, difficult, a bit mad, and terribly misunderstood. The film doesn’t miss a single cliché really. But it might be next to impossible to find a film on classical music that doesn’t historicize the composer this way. I’m thinking of Amadeus for example.
I don’t know if either of you have had a chance to see Motown The Musical, the new Broadway show written by Berry Gordy, but it’s a fabulous production that allows Gordy himself to historicize his own work. Far from expressing any desire to remain free of commercial, economic forces or other worldly demands, Gordy says that he envisioned Motown as a music company that would mimic the auto industry’s assembly line model of production. He recently explained this in a fascinating interview with the Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic, Hedy Weiss:
Willa: Wow, that really is very different from the Beethoven model, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not at all the solitary artist working obsessively alone on his magnum opus as you described, Lisha. In fact, it’s almost the total opposite.
You know, what this reminds me of is Andy Warhol, another artist who incorporated assembly-line production methods to create art, especially his screenprints – art that also questioned the divide between high art and commercial art, as we talked about in a post last fall.
Lisha: It is fascinating to me that these artists who lived and worked in a fiercely capitalistic society found themselves embracing this model, either as a critique or an expression of their own time, place, and life conditions. Remember that the songwriter/producer/arranger team behind the early Jackson 5 hits was Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, and Deke Richards and they were all credited for their work as simply The Corporation.
Willa: Oh, that’s right! And Andy Warhol called his studio The Factory. That’s really interesting that what Berry Gordy was doing in music, Andy Warhol was paralleling in visual art.
But getting back to the differences between the Beethoven and Berry Gordy approach – I’m trying to think where to position Michael Jackson in terms of these two models, and as with so many things, he doesn’t seem to belong strictly in either camp. As he mentioned many times in interviews, the inspiration and ideas for his songs often came to him when he was alone with his tape recorder. But when it came time to develop his ideas into songs for an album, he followed a much more collaborative approach to music production – more like the Berry Gordy model.
Lisha: Yes, that’s true, but he often worked in the conception stage with other musicians and songwriters as well. It is a highly collaborative approach that reimagines the role of the composer. The genre of rock takes quite a different approach and places a very high value on performers who author their own music, more like the Beethoven paradigm. But in the pop/Motown model (also in the Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building tradition), the songwriter primarily serves the performer and producer’s needs. In this model, I would say it is actually the performer whose importance is elevated.
However, Michael Jackson could be in a league of his own due to the fact he was so highly accomplished as a performer, singer, dancer, producer, songwriter, arranger, lyricist, musician, choreographer, film director, stage director, lighting and costume designer, businessman and marketing genius … I could keep going, but you get the idea. Of course David Bowie, Madonna, and Prince are examples of other multi-talented artists who also worked this way. But, when you look at how deeply Jackson understood all these disciplines and the way he orchestrated all these elements to work together, it does suggests he was the solitary genius behind a truly impressive body of work.
Willa: I would agree with that!
Lisha: It’s also true Jackson became very wealthy and powerful early in life so he was freed from subsistence needs or worries that his art would not be funded. Yet, he often seemed to measure his success as an artist in terms of units sold. My guess is that he believed his impact and reach were directly related to strong sales and aggressive commercialism.
Joie: Wow, you guys! You know, the two of you together are really fascinating to listen to sometimes. Have I ever told you that? This is already a completely engrossing conversation and we just got started!
Willa, I love what you said about it being the “death” of a very old and tired way of thinking about music – and truly great music – which privileges a small group of dead white men. And, as Lisha put so well, “Does it really make any sense that musical genius could be isolated to specific time periods in Germany and Austria?” So, I think we’re all in agreement that Michael did in fact have some very deliberate reasons for opening the song with these two dates.
Now I’m interested to know about the other dates at the end of the song. And maybe it’s a little weird that we’re focusing only on those dates in this conversation instead of talking about the lyrics or the actual song itself, but to me the dates have always been the most intriguing aspect of this song. Every time I listen to it, I always turn up the volume at the end so that I can try and decipher another date or two. It can become a very obsessive exercise. Have either of you ever counted them? Do we know how many dates there are? Willa, you started an actual list of all those dates, didn’t you?
Willa: Yes I did, but it’s pretty rough, with big gaps in some of them – and I’m sure I’m missing others altogether. I have a really hard time hearing some of them.
Joie: Yes, so do I.
Lisha: I’ll admit I really had a hard time with this, too. But in struggling with it, I think I discovered a trick for listening to all those dates. With a little practice and a good set of headphones, it’s possible to hear the entire segment clearly without missing any of the dates mentioned.
The spoken dates at the end of the song have been organized into four different threads that are staggered and layered on top of each other. The secret to hearing them all is to concentrate only on one thread at a time without getting distracted by competing sounds. It really helps to focus on the location of the sound as well. For example, the first thread begins in the top portion of the sound field, slightly to the right of center. It starts just after the final chord of the song (5:41) and sounds like:
February 11, 1847 Thomas Edison is born
December 30, 1865 Rudyard Kipling is born
December 7, 1903 The Wright Brothers first flight
January 15, 1929 Martin Luther King is born
October 14, 1947 Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier
February 9, 1964 The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show
November 10, 1989 The Berlin Wall comes down
Now go back (5:42) and try to isolate the second thread, which is located in the left channel of your headphones:
January 18, 1858 Daniel Hale Williams is born
August 8, 1866 Matthew Henson is born
May 29, 1917 John F. Kennedy is born
September 1928 The discovery of penicillin
January 17, 1942 Muhammad Ali is born as Cassius Clay
April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight
April 12, 1981 The first Shuttle flight
The third thread is located on the right (5:43):
November 19, 1863 Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg address
December 5, 1901 Walt Disney is born
November 2, 1920 The first commercial radio station opens
October 9, 1940 John Lennon is born
July 17, 1955 Disneyland opens
July 20, 1969 Astronauts first land on the moon
Finally, listen once again to the top portion of the soundfield, but this time it is slightly to the left of center (5:44). You should hear:
April 9, 1865 The Civil War ends
October 28, 1886 The Statue of Liberty is dedicated
January 31, 1919 Jackie Robinson is born
November 28, 1929 Berry Gordy is born
December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger
Joie: Oh. My. Gosh. You have just cracked this code wide open! I have never been able to hear all of that in its entirety before, but now that I’ve gone back and listened with your notes in front of me, it’s all right there – like a long unsolvable puzzle has just been made crystal clear! That is amazing! I am thoroughly impressed. Both with your listening skills, and with your earphones!
Willa: Me too! I bow before you, Lisha. I can tell you have those incredible musician’s ears – your list is way better than mine!
Lisha: You guys are too funny! But it is thanks to Bruce Swedien’s brilliant engineering work that this segment is so beautifully organized.
Willa: That’s true, but still … some of these I hadn’t heard at all, like “the discovery of penicillin” and “Disneyland opens.” And there’s the second mention of Berry Gordy’s birthday. I didn’t realize that date was spoken twice, at the beginning and ending of “HIStory.” That tells me that, to Michael Jackson, this was a very significant date.
Lisha: Very significant indeed. I believe the importance of Gordy’s musical contribution is reinforced throughout the song. Probably the biggest difference between the Beethoven and Motown paradigm is that one compositional form is written while the other is based on recorded music. Popular music takes such a different approach to music that musicologists are having to rethink how to analyze, interpret, and historicize it. This new approach is often referred to as the “new musicology,” and it is a radically interdisciplinary field of research.
In “HIStory,” I believe Michael Jackson is pointing towards this shift between written and recorded music with those two dates at the top of the song and the track illustrates this quite well musically. It includes music from the classical and instrumental band repertoire, but there is also a lot of studio and technical wizardry involved. There are also two very important events in recording history that have been included towards the end of the track (6:10). The first of these is a historical clip of the first promotional recording ever made in 1906:
I am the Edison phonograph, created by the great wizard of the New World to delight those who would have melody or be amused.
Layered over this is a second clip of Thomas Edison himself, recalling the first words he spoke to create the world’s first phonograph recording in 1877:
Mary had a little lamb
It’s fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go
Believe it or not, Edison made his first recording in 1877, just 50 years after the death of Beethoven.
Willa: Seriously? Edison’s first phonograph recording was only 50 years after Beethoven? I never would have guessed that. It’s funny how our perceptions of time can telescope in and out. Like I was reading something the other day about how the Beatles “invasion” of America 50 years ago is actually closer in time to World War I than it is to us today. That stunned me.
Lisha: It’s really disorienting, isn’t it? Somehow I thought there were bigger gaps between these events as well.
Willa: Oh I know, and I think Edison and his phonograph have a lot to do with that. What I mean is that I think video and sound recordings compress our perceptions of history. We can “see” the Beatles performing on Ed Sullivan and experience it for ourselves, so it feels close in time to us. Beethoven lived before that recording technology was invented, so we will never experience him in the same way – never hear his actual voice, never see his body move. So in that sense he feels “prehistoric” to us, meaning he existed before recorded history – before history could be captured in sound and video recordings.
Lisha: Interesting, and I agree completely. Recordings keep these events much closer in our memories.
Willa: Exactly. The Beatles played on Ed Sullivan 50 years ago, but for me they also played there yesterday, which is the last time I experienced that performance. I saw them on Ed Sullivan just yesterday. Mentally I know it happened 50 years ago, but emotionally it feels really familiar to me, even though I was too young to experience when it originally happened.
So that’s another reason Edison and his phonograph would be important in a song about “history.” They’ve profoundly changed how we perceive and experience history.
Lisha: Great point as always, Willa.
Willa: Thanks, but I’m sorry, Lisha. I interrupted you in mid thought. You were talking about the huge shift from written music to recorded music, and how you think “HIStory” not only suggests that shift but also kind of reenacts it in how the song is structured, with passages of classical music at the beginning and audio clips of Edison and his phonograph at the end. That is such a fascinating idea, especially when you think of the huge impact audio recording has had on music – not only on how it’s distributed, but how it’s conceptualized and created. I’d really like to get back to that, if we could.
Michael Jackson, especially, used music technology as a “compositional tool,” as you pointed out in some fascinating comments to a post Joie and I did a long time ago with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson. As you said in one comment under your pen name, Ultravioletrae,
I have no doubt if Jackson needed music notation he would have used it, but his own method of recording on multi tracks was far more efficient and desirable than pencil and paper or music notation software. Reading and writing in musical notation would have been a tremendous liability for a musician like him. As an example, he worked with complex, subtle rhythms that can’t be accurately notated, only approximated.
Before I began talking with you about all this, I tended to think of recording music as part of the distribution process – something musicians did to capture their music in a format where it could be shared with others. But you’ve helped me see that recording has become far more than that. It’s now an integral part of composing and creating music, but in a very different way than the Beethoven model.
Lisha: The whole idea of the great “musical work” as an exclusively written compositional form is most likely a direct result of the Beethoven myth and how we have elevated the status of (dead, white, male) composers. It’s hard to let go of this image of the composer because it has become so ingrained in the culture. But music is an aural phenomenon, so it makes an awful lot of sense to use the technology we have available to store musical information in an aural format.
When recorded music first began, the goal was to simply replicate a live performance as accurately and realistically as possible. But there were a couple of game-changing events that essentially changed all that. The first was guitarist Les Paul’s innovations in multi-track recordings, which allowed Paul to layer sound in a very creative and imaginative ways. As Bruce Swedien once told Sound On Sound’s Richard Buskin:
The first time I really got excited about pop music was when I discovered that it was possible to use my imagination. That had come with a record that I myself didn’t work on, Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “How High the Moon.” Up to that point the goal of music recording had been to capture an unaltered acoustic event, reproducing the music of big bands as if you were in the best seat in the house. It left no room for imagination, but when I heard “How High the Moon,” which did not have one natural sound in it, I thought, “Damn, there’s hope!”
Think about the imaginative way all those dates in “HIStory” are staggered and layered over each other. That is a great example of Michael Jackson and Bruce Swedien’s imaginative use of the recording studio as a compositional format, made possible by Les Paul’s inventive approach to recording.
Another milestone in recording history happened in 1967 when the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album Rolling Stone named “the greatest album of all time.” After retiring from touring in 1966, the Beatles turned their attention to the recording studio and racked up an unheard of 700 hours in the studio to make Sgt. Pepper. The album pushed the limits of multi-tracking and the recording technology so far that the recording process itself came to be recognized as a compositional format. With no plans to return to the stage, the recording itself became the “musical work.” Any attempt to perform it live would be understood as a replica of the recording, a 180-degree flip from the original use of recording technology.
“HIStory” includes the written music paradigm with an orchestral performance of “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, followed by several examples of American military-style band music. In these examples, musicians perform from printed music and attempt to recreate the composer’s intentions down to the most minute detail. The way this music was conceived, created, and performed revolves around the concept of the written “musical work,” which has been set in stone through the printed score.
But in recorded music, the role of the composer is reconceived when the “musical work” is a sound recording that also contains significant contributions from the performers, producers, and engineers.
Willa: That’s fascinating, Lisha, and it really is a very different way of thinking about a piece of music, isn’t it? In the classical model, you have the ideal vision of the piece as imagined by the composer and “set in stone” in his manuscript, as you said, and the goal of everyone after that is to try to stay true to that ideal.
The new model is not only more collaborative, as you said, but also much more fluid – perhaps too fluid, as we’ve seen with all the remixes lately – where songs are kind of a perpetual work in progress. I think it was Brad Sundberg who said that Michael Jackson would sometimes continue to make small modifications to his songs even after an album had been released, so one Dangerous album might have a slightly different version of “Black or White” than another one that came out just a few months earlier. And even songs where there is a fairly “definitive” version, like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” or “Billie Jean,” are sampled and integrated into new songs by other artists, so we can hear snippets or song shadows of them on the radio in different settings, leading us to think about them in new ways.
In other words, what I’m trying to get at is that in the new model, songs are not “set in stone” at all – they are constantly shape shifting.
Lisha: Yes, that’s definitely true, and this has created a lot of confusion in the area of intellectual property and determining who has the right to profit from a recording. But when you think about how much more sound information is contained in a musical recording as opposed to a sheet of printed music, in many ways the opposite is true. For example, I know far more about what Michael Jackson wanted “Billie Jean” to sound like than I know about what Beethoven wanted his music to sound like.
Willa: Well, that’s true, Lisha! Interesting – so music is more fixed in some ways, and more fluid in others.
Lisha: I also think classical music is not as fixed as most of us imagine. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which is featured at the beginning of “HIStory,” is a piece of music that has been reorchestrated numerous times. The version we hear on the recording is actually an arrangement or “remix” by Maurice Ravel! And over the years, musicians change their thinking about how composers like Beethoven should be performed, and debate the merits of many different performances.
But no one has to guess what Michael Jackson wanted to hear – we have a definitive record of it. And what would be the point in trying to replicate his recordings anyway? The record company is happy to manufacture as many copies as anyone would like to buy.
Willa: That’s certainly true. So this paradigm shift in how music is composed – from a model of a lone composer writing notes on paper to a very different model of a team of musicians and sound engineers working in a studio – that shift was facilitated by new technology, like Edison’s phonograph. But also by new production models, like Berry Gordy developed at Motown and Michael Jackson experienced from a young age. So if we look at “HIStory” the way you’re suggesting, Lisha, it makes perfect sense that Michael Jackson would place Beethoven, Edison, and Gordy in such prominent positions.
Lisha: It makes a lot of sense. Especially because the old paradigm currently still exists along with the new. It really hasn’t gone anywhere yet, though we see more and more signs of its decay. As far as I can tell, there is always a period of overlap between musical eras. It’s not that easy to define when one ends and the next one begins. I think it’s important to think about how we have historicized the past and how we will historicize our present moment in the future. After all, the concept of the album is HIStory: Past, Present and Future. I think Jackson could be advocating that as we historicize great music in the future, we don’t fall into the trap of preferencing “dead white men.” I concur!
Joie: Wow, you know, I’ve never thought about “HIStory” in terms of music before, if that makes any sense. I’ve always just thought about all those dates, and the enormity and importance of the game-changing, history-making events they represent.
But what you’re saying, Lisha, is that Michael actually used the song itself not only to highlight those history-making events, but also to make us aware of this great shift from the Classical music paradigm to the “new musicology,” as it were. And what better way of doing that than by pointing repeatedly to Berry Gordy, a man who took that new musicology and pretty much created a whole new genre and style of music. Ask almost anyone around the world and they can probably tell you what the Motown Sound is and who created it.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and he created an appreciation for “black music” around the world as well, and then helped break it out of that fairly segregated category, so black music and black artists became much more integrated into popular music generally.
And of course, we see that in Michael Jackson as well. He won one Grammy for Off the Wall: Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. R&B traditionally means “black music,” so he basically won an award for best “black music.” He was extremely upset about that and vowed his next album wouldn’t be ghettoized like that … and of course, his next album swept the Grammys. Thriller didn’t just win Best Album of the Year, it won six other Grammys as well. And it’s the biggest-selling album of all time, around the world, to many different races of people.
That leads into another important aspect of “HIStory” – that it also pays tribute to black artists, politicians, sports heroes, and other figures and shows the huge impact they’ve had on history – not just black history but human history. The roll call of important dates includes the birthdays of Martin Luther King, Daniel Hale Williams and Matthew Henson (I didn’t know who they were – I had to look them up), Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, as well as the day “Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger.” And the audio clips that form the sound “collages,” as you called them, Lisha, commemorate Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, Muhammad Ali proclaiming he is “the greatest of all time,” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Often black pioneers and historical events are relegated to “black history,” but Michael Jackson placed them front and center in his list of important dates, demonstrating that he sees them as a very important part of our history – the shared history of all of us. Anyone who thinks Michael Jackson forgot his roots or didn’t feel pride in his race needs to pay closer attention to “HIStory.”
Joie: Oh, don’t even go there, Willa! That is a whole other conversation that we could, and probably should, have someday. But you’re absolutely right in saying it.
Well, Willa and I want to thank Lisha again for joining us today. It’s always an interesting and thought-provoking conversation when you’re here! We also want to encourage readers to check out Lisha’s lyrics and sound collages in the Lyrics Library.
The following conversation was originally posted on March 13, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
Also, Veronica Bassil has just published a new ebook, That Wonder in My Youth: Michael Jackson and Childhood. And to commemorate Michael Jackson’s birthday, she is generously making it available for free from August 29 – September 2. Here is a link.
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.
The following conversation was originally posted on February 27, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
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!
The following conversation was originally posted on December 19, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
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.
The following conversation was originally posted on December 5, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
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!
The following conversation was originally posted on October 24, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
Willa: Last spring, longtime contributor Bjørn Bojesen shared his version of “Bili Ĝin,” which is an Esperanto translation of “Billie Jean.” That led to a behind-the-scenes discussion of Michael Jackson and foreign languages, with Joie, Bjørn, and me all brainstorming about songs or short films where he sang or incorporated words in a language other than his native English. This was such an interesting topic for us we decided to take the discussion online and talk about it in a post. Thanks for joining us, Bjørn, and for sharing “Bili Ĝin” with us!
So Esperanto is actually a good place to start this discussion since it’s such a Michael Jackson kind of concept. As I understand it, Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s using elements of many different languages to help promote global peace and understanding. Specifically, it was created by L.L. Zamenhof to provide a neutral means of communication that bridged divisions of language, nationality, and ethnicity. I can see how this would appeal to Michael Jackson since crossing boundaries and healing divisions is something he did throughout his career. And as you recently mentioned, Bjørn, he incorporated an Esperanto passage in the promo film for HIStory. Is that right?
Bjørn: Yes, that’s correct. At the very start, right before the soldiers come marching in with their heavy boots, an unseen man shouts out a declaration in Esperanto. Take a look:
In the YouTube video, there are some glitches in the subtitles, but the anonymous person’s message goes like this: “Diversaj nacioj de la mondo” (Different nations of the world) / “konstruas ĉi tiun skulptaĵon” (build this sculpture) / “en la nomo de tutmonda patrineco kaj amo” (in the name of global motherhood and love) / “kaj la kuraca forto de muziko” (and the healing power of music). A few seconds later, one of the smelters also shouts in Esperanto: “Venu ĉi tien!” (Come over here!)
The promo created quite a stir in the Esperanto community when it aired. Why would MJ use a snippet of Esperanto? I have no idea whether he actually spoke Esperanto, but I guess he scripted the lines (in English): “in the name of global motherhood and love, and the healing power of music.” Doesn’t this sound very MJ to you? I mean, just the idea of a universal motherhood instead of the usual brotherhood…
Willa: It really does. It sounds “very MJ,” as you say, and it’s also interesting how those words undercut the visuals. What follows those words is a show of military force, with goose-stepping soldiers evocative of Nazi military demonstrations. So there’s a strong tension between the Esperanto words, which describe the statue they’re building as a tribute to “global motherhood and love,” and the accompanying images, which place the statue in a military context.
Bjørn: Yes, but this tension only exists if you understand the words! 99.8 percent of the viewers would have no clue what the voice actor was saying. So, why didn’t MJ simply let the man speak his lines in English?
Willa: Well, that’s a good point, Bjørn – and I have to admit, I’m one of the 99.8 percent!
Joie: As am I. You know, Bjørn, I find this fascinating and I’m also really surprised by it. I had no idea those words were spoken in Esperanto. I don’t ever remember hearing that at the time of the video’s release. I just remember all the controversy over the film itself being declared hateful and narcissistic. But you ask an interesting question … why didn’t he simply use a language that was more easily recognizable to the masses? Even if he didn’t use English, he still could have used Russian or Spanish or even Japanese. Any other language that more people would hear and immediately recognize. But instead, he chose Esperanto. And Willa and I are of the belief that he rarely did anything artistic without a very precise reason for it. So I am intrigued.
Bjørn: I think you’re touching on something important, Joie, when you talk about a language that’s “more easily recognizable to the masses”! This is exactly why many upper-class art aficionados can’t stand Michael Jackson – they think he’s just feeding “the masses” with stuff they can easily digest. But I think MJ had a perfect understanding of this balance between being accessible and being esoteric. By dropping such small hard-to-get references – like his basing the You Are Not Alone video on the painting Daybreak by Maxfield Parrish – Michael Jackson added interpretational depth to his art. By the way, wasn’t it the MJ Academia Project that first revealed that the HIStory promo video is essentially a spoof of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Hitler propaganda film, Triumph of the Will?
Willa: I think so … at least, that’s the first place I heard it.
Bjørn: With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that the initiator of Esperanto, Zamenhof, was a Jew…
I also think MJ is reflecting on his own use of language. His mother tongue happens to be English – which since World War II has functioned as a second language for huge parts of the world. The English language helps MJ get his message across to the masses, but at the same time it gives native English-speakers like him a communicational advantage (while others have to search for words, you can just keep talking).
Esperanto is the wannabe international language with the potential to put speakers of different mother tongues on a more equal footing. Say all the countries of the UN decided to make Esperanto a global second language, and began teaching it in every classroom on the globe. That would give people from any culture a basic tool for communication – but it would also mean that native English-speakers would have to “make a little space.” So, in this promo video, MJ is somehow endorsing the idea of Esperanto. By letting the language “guest star,” he questions the status quo (using native languages for international communication). I guess you could call it an artistic discussion about language and power.
Willa: That’s a really interesting way to look at that, Bjørn. And we could push that idea of challenging “language and power” even further if we consider that English as a “global” language began with British imperialism and colonialism. As the British Empire spread around the world, so did English culture and language, with many indigenous people encouraged or even forced to give up their native language and use English instead. And of course, racism in the United States is a direct result of British colonialism and the slave trade. So in that sense, English can be seen as a language of oppression – the language of those colonizing and displacing indigenous people around the world.
So getting back to the HIStory teaser, it’s interesting that in the visuals he’s strongly pushing back against efforts to silence him and “put him in his place” following the false allegations of 1993, and in the Esperanto spoken parts he’s pushing back against English, the language that to some degree silenced his ancestors and tried to keep them in their place.
Joie: Wow. Really interesting way of looking at that, Willa!
Bjørn: Yes, I agree, Joie, I hadn’t thought about it like that either! So, if the HIStory teaser is a kind of rebuttal – to Nazism and colonialism and the extinction of native languages caused by English and other “big tongues” – couldn’t Liberian Girl be seen as an attempt to recover what was lost? Even if the song’s intro is in Swahili, which is an East African language, and most of MJ’s forebears probably came from West Africa…
Joie: Ah! Very clever thinking, Bjørn! We could almost say the same thing about the coda at the end of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.'” The Cameroonian chant, “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah.”
Willa: Wow, you guys, that is so interesting! I really like the idea of approaching those two from this perspective. You know, both of them seem to address the issue of representation and interpretation – or misinterpretation – to some degree, and in both the use of an African language signals a major shift in the mood of the song/video. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” he talks about how the media distorts meaning – like in these lyrics, for example:
I took My Baby to the doctor
With a fever, but nothing he found
By the time this hit the street
They said she had a breakdown
Most of the song is pretty edgy and fearful, and that’s all in English. But then the Cameroon part starts, and suddenly this edgy, trippy song shifts and becomes joyful and triumphant. It’s a very dramatic shift in mood.
There’s a similar shift in the Liberian Girl video. It begins in black and white, with an eerie, sustained, high-pitched note vibrating in the background as the camera pans around what seems to be a British colony in Africa. A waiter walks out of the Cafe Afrique, we see workers in African dress, and then a white missionary in European clothes with a rosary and clerical collar. The camera follows the missionary until he walks behind a beautiful black woman; then the camera stops on her. She looks up and speaks directly to the camera in Swahili, and suddenly everything changes. The black-and-white tone gives way to vibrant color, and we discover we’re not in colonial Africa but modern day Hollywood, in a studio filled with glittering celebrities.
One of the things that’s most interesting about this, in terms of language and colonialism, is that Liberia is an African nation founded and, in effect, re-colonized by free blacks and escaped slaves from the U.S. in the 1800s – people whose ancestry was African but who no longer had a home country to return to. And its official language is English, the only language this diaspora of people had in common. So it’s almost like the English language was re-colonized, just as the nation-state of Liberia was – the language of the colonizer was reclaimed and reappropriated by the colonized.
And we see that idea suggested in Liberian Girl as well. All the celebrities are milling around and Whoopi Goldberg asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Speilberg sitting in a director’s chair, implying he’s the director, but he’s looking at his watch and he’s no more in control than anyone else. Then at the end of the video we discover who’s really been calling the shots: Michael Jackson, behind the camera. So he has reclaimed the Liberian Girl video as his own, just as the former slaves from America reclaimed Liberia and English as their own.
Bjørn: Well, the problem with this interpretation, Willa, is that Liberia was already inhabited when the African-Americans founded it! Just like Israel was already inhabited by Arabs when it was founded as a place where Jews could live in peace. To my understanding, today the “original” Liberians – talking various African languages – are second-class (or at least less fortunate) citizens in a state dominated by English-speaking “American” Liberians (with ancestors ultimately hailing from many parts of Africa, not just Liberia).
I don’t know a lot about Liberia, and I can sympathize with the idea of the ex-slaves reclaiming “English as their own” (after all, who doesn’t love his mother tongue?) But I do think that Jackson’s use of African languages in these songs reflect a longing for the uncolonized past, maybe even for a romantic Africa that never really existed (or, perhaps, for a “garden of Eden” that could come into existence in the future!) As the linguist Ben Zimmer pointed out on his blog the day after MJ had died, the chant in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was heavily inspired by a line from “Soul Makossa” by the Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango. (Dibango sued MJ for plagiarism, but they reached an agreement out of court.) Here’s “Soul Makossa”:
Dibango sings “ma ma ko, ma ma sa, ma ko ma ko sa,” which is in his native language, Duala. So, MJ’s chant isn’t really in any African language – but so close that is certainly sounds African. In the same way, he uses Swahili (from East Africa) as a symbol of (idealized) Africanness, even if the actual Liberia is in West Africa, far away from the places where people speak Swahili… So, for me, the use of African languages in these songs are really more about a “longing for paradise on earth” as it was before colonization, and as it could become once again.
Willa: I think that’s a very important point, Bjørn – that he’s referring more to an idea than an actual place. After all, after the shift in Liberian Girl, we aren’t in Liberia; we’re on a movie set in Hollywood, so he’s clearly demonstrating that the opening scene wasn’t really a scene from the actual nation of Liberia, but a Hollywood depiction of “exotic Africa.” The challenge for us, then, is to figure out what idea, exactly, he’s trying to get across when he sings with longing about a girl from Liberia.
It’s interesting in this context to think about the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Harriet Beecher Stowe sends Eliza, George, and the other escaped slaves to Liberia. For her, it represented a place where they could be safe and free, and where their son Harry could grow and thrive. For her, it truly meant a “paradise on earth,” as you said, Bjørn, but it also reveals a despair about her own country. Stowe didn’t think it was possible for them to ever be truly free in the United States, or even Canada, so she had to send them to Liberia to ensure their freedom.
But I don’t think Michael Jackson ever did give up on the United States – though he had good reason to, and he chose not to live here after the 2005 trial. And I think Liberia, as a concept, means something different for him than it did for Stowe.
Bjørn: That’s really interesting! I guess I’ll have to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin some day. Stowe’s “Liberia,” as you describe it, reminds me of Bob Marley and the other Rastafarians, who saw Ethiopia as a Promised Land. The name Liberia, which comes from the same Latin root as “liberty,” roughly translates as “the land of the free.” I once made an Esperanto translation of “Liberian Girl,” where the ethymology really shines through: Liberianin’ means “Liberian girl” as well as “girl from the country of freedom.”
Willa: Really? You translated “Liberian Girl” also? That’s wonderful! And I love the alternate meaning of “girl from the country of freedom.”
Bjørn: The rainforest sounds at the beginning of the song (a prequel to “Earth Song”?) could indicate that MJ used “Liberia” as a metaphor for Paradise. Now, “Paradise Girl,” that’s a little spooky, if you think about it. But I’ve always thought this song wasn’t about “Liberia” at all, but rather about a girl who’s very far away from the singer. Like MJ’s (extreme!) version of “Distant Lover,” if you know that Marvin Gaye song!
Okay, let’s get back to the language question. Why does Michael Jackson’s Liberian girl, whoever she is, speak in Swahili? Is that just to add some exotic spice, or what do you think?
Joie: Well now that is a really good question, Bjørn. And while I really enjoy picking apart a song or a short film and trying to analyze it and discern its true meaning, I also sometimes think that maybe a cigar is just a cigar. What would be wrong with adding in Swahili, or any other foreign language for that matter, for the sole purpose of adding a little exotic spice to your creation? Maybe he simply thought it sounded cool.
Willa: You’re right, Joie, it does sound cool, and it perfectly fits that space in the song. We know he was fascinated by sounds – found sounds, manufactured sounds, the sounds of nature, the sounds of the city, the sound of words – so it’s very possible he chose those phrases simply based on their sounds and rhythms.
But I’m still intrigued by the fact that both “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and Liberian Girl focus on American pop culture and the entertainment industry, and how certain things are represented or misrepresented within that industry. And both include an African phrase that serves as an important pivot point – one that changes the whole mood of the work. That seems significant to me. But what does it mean?
As you mentioned, Bjørn, “Liberia” shares the same Latin root as “liberty.” As I understand it, the name “Liberia” was chosen to emphasize that this new nation was envisioned as a place where former slaves could find peace and liberty. So it seems significant that Michael Jackson evokes Liberia, but more as an idea than a physical place, as you suggested earlier. And to me, that’s reinforced by the fact that he incorporates Swahili, but it’s Swahili that has become unmoored from its native country and is now being used in a Hollywood video that to some extent critiques Hollywood.
The lyrics to Liberian Girl suggest something similar when he says their romance is “just like in the movies”:
With two lovers in a scene
And she says, “Do you love me?”
And he says so endlessly,
“I love you, Liberian Girl”
So their romance is presented as something of a fantasy, something that’s been scripted by Hollywood. In all of these cases, it’s like he’s both evoking a fantasy and critiquing it at the same time, and looking at where it comes from. For example, in Liberian Girl he’s evoking the exotic while questioning what it means to be labeled as exotic.
Joie: That is a very interesting interpretation, Willa! Sometimes you really do blow me away with how your mind works. It’s fascinating!
Willa: Thanks, Joie, though I might be totally missing the boat with this one – it’s pretty subtle what he’s doing. It’s just so interesting to me that he begins Liberian Girl with a classic scene of “exotic Africa,” then reveals it’s all just a Hollywood fabrication, and then suggests that the real exotica is Hollywood itself. And the Swahili phrase is the turning point where our perceptions are flipped inside out.
Joie: Do either of you know what that Swahili phrase means? I would be very interested to know what she’s saying in the opening of the song.
Bjørn: According to the album booklet, it means “I love you too – I want you too – my love.” (Google Translate seems to agree, although it renders mpenziwe as ”lover”.)
Joie: Huh. I don’t think I ever knew that before. I’ve always simply wondered at the meaning. I can’t believe it was in the album booklet all this time and I never noticed.
Bjørn: No worries, Joie, an album’s booklet is often the last thing I study too! But you know what? It just struck me there’s an interesting semantic evolution going on in this song: It starts with rainforest sounds that don’t have any particular meaning to the average listener (but who knows what the animals are really saying?) Then it progresses to a line spoken in Swahili, which to the vast audience is just as meaningless as the sound of a bird. Then, at last, Michael Jackson starts to sing in English, and because we understand the language, all of a sudden we don’t hear his words as ”sounds” any more, but as meaningful pieces of information… Perhaps Jackson added Swahili just to emphasize that the meaning we assign to words really is arbitrary, and that we might as well be in a situation where Swahili carried the information, and English was some unintelligible but exotic spice, just like the language of the forest, or even the sound of instruments…
Willa: Wow, that is fascinating, Bjørn! And if we interpret the opening that way – as examining how we make meaning – that progression of sounds is paralleled in the visuals as well. As you say, the sounds gradually become more intelligible as we move from bird song (something we don’t understand and can never understand) to Swahili (something most of us don’t understand at first but can if we put a little effort into it) to English (which for most Americans is our native language). And the visuals begin with the Cafe Afrique sign, then pan out to the Casablanca-like scene, and then keep panning out to show the Hollywood set. So as we telescope out, the images become more familiar – closer to home, in a way – and our understanding of what we’re seeing shifts and gradually becomes more clear: we’re watching a film being made.
Bjørn: This film, as you say, is being referenced to in the lyrics as well: “Just like in the movies… With two lovers in a scene…” So maybe the chief function of the Swahili phrase is to underscore the very otherworldliness of this cinematic fantasy, much like the Elvish phrases in the Lord of the Rings movies or the Na’vi dialogue in Avatar. Yes I know, Swahili is a living language spoken by real people. But still, hardly anyone in Liberia speaks Swahili! As pointed out earlier, Swahili is an East African language. Its native speakers live along the Kenya-Tanzania coastline.
What’s intriguing about Swahili, however, is that it’s become a truly international language in much of Eastern Africa! Millions of people in Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya use Swahili to get their messages across a multitude of linguistic boundaries. It is, indeed, the closest we get to an African “Esperanto.”
Willa: Really? I didn’t know that.
Joie: Neither did I.
Willa: That’s fascinating to think about it as “an African ‘Esperanto.'”
Bjørn: If we look at it like that, the openings of “Liberian Girl” and the HIStory teaser are very similar: Something is being said by a non-MJ person in a cross-cultural language, before MJ himself enters the stage and reassures his English-speaking listeners that they’re not wholly “lost in translation”!
“Stranger in Moscow,” interestingly, takes the opposite approach. Here MJ’s loudly sung English-language lyrics are followed by another man whispering in the lingua franca of the Cold War Communist world: Russian.
Willa: Wow, Bjørn, that is so interesting! And to me, it feels like the Russian in “Stranger in Moscow” functions in a very different way as well. It reinforces the edgy, unsettled mood of the song, as well as the theme of alienation from his home country.
Joie: I agree with you, Willa. “Stranger in Moscow” has always been one of my favorites and I think it’s because it is such a beautifully constructed song. But you’re right, the use of Russian in the song really heightens the sense of loneliness, isolation and despair that he’s trying to convey here. The alienation as you put it. Whenever I listen to this song, I actually get the sense that his sole reason for using Russian here is to make us feel those negative emotions more fully.
Willa: It feels that way to me too, Joie, and that feeling intensifies once we learn what those Russian words mean: “Why have you come from the West? Confess! To steal the great achievements of the people, the accomplishments of the workers…”
Joie: Yes. It’s very intimidating, isn’t it? Imagine being a stranger in a strange land, detained by these scary officials and having those questions barked at you over and over again!
Willa: Or to bring it a little closer to home, imagine the police asking you, Why are you so kind and generous with children? Confess! It’s to lure them in so you can abuse them …
What I mean is, it wasn’t just the KGB who interrogated people in intimidating ways – the Santa Barbara police investigators did the same thing, and not just to Michael Jackson but to young children as well. They interrogated Jason Francia over and over again when he was only 12 years old. As he said later, “They made me come up with stuff. They kept pushing. I wanted to hit them in the head.” Like the stereotypical image of the KGB, they were determined to wring a confession from him.
And I think that’s the idea Michael Jackson is trying to get at here. He’s not pointing a finger at the Soviets – he’s pointing a finger at us, and saying in some ways we are as much of a police state as Cold War Russia. And the shock of that realization has made him feel like a stranger in his own country.
Bjørn: That’s fascinating, Joie and Willa. I hadn’t thought about it like that. Both “Stranger in Moscow” and “Liberian Girl” mention specific locations in their titles, which is a very unusual thing for MJ to do. (Most of his titles are quite unspecific – just think about “A place with no name”!) And both songs use great regional languages to create a specific mood. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of Jackson’s short films, but I have remarked a couple of times that Russians have commented that the scenes in Stranger in Moscow look nothing like Moscow at all.
Willa: That’s true. You can tell from the street signs and the close-up of the American quarter that it was filmed in the U.S. And that seems very deliberate – he wants us to know he’s really in the U.S. though he feels like he’s in a strange land.
Bjørn: So, I wonder if MJ is using Moscow and Russian in a metaphorical way, just like he uses Liberia and Swahili to evoke a dreamlike vision of Africa. Thanks to the Cold War, Russian must sound like a very alien language to many Americans. And Moscow must still be the very ”eye of the tiger” to some folks! (Poor Russian MJ fans!)
So, without demonizing too much here, we might say that while Jackson uses Swahili as a paradisaical or “angelic” language, Russian, as used by the KGB agent, does duty as the language of his demons…
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn! Or maybe the Russian is evoking a frightening unknown. In other words, it’s not so much that Russian is “the language of his demons,” but that Americans once demonized it because we didn’t understand it and were afraid of it. I have friends a little older than I am who remember the Bay of Pigs, and the school drills for what to do if the Soviets attacked with nuclear bombs. And the main feeling they remember is the uncertainty – the fear of something powerful that you don’t understand, that can attack at any time without warning. I can certainly understand how Michael Jackson might feel that way about the Santa Barbara police …
Joie: Wow. That’s really deep, Willa. And Bjørn, I love what you said about the “angelic” language and the “demon” language. I think it’s clear that both languages were used in very different ways to convey two very different realms of emotion, and that is very fascinating.
Bjørn: Yes, it is! And just as the languages help the music paint these emotional landscapes, the music also influences the way we – as non-speakers – perceive these foreign languages. Personally, I find Russian quite a beautiful language, with all its mushy sounds. And, importantly, it is whispered, as if the KGB agent is telling a secret. If we hadn’t just heard MJ’s lament, we might have thought it was a lover whispering something to his beloved, much like the Swahili girl in “Liberian Girl.” And this makes it all the more frightening – it’s like a cold embrace, followed by a stab.
Willa: Wow, that’s a fascinating way to look at that, Bjørn – and pretty chilling too.
Bjørn: So, in “Liberian Girl,” “Stranger in Moscow,” and the HIStory teaser, Michael Jackson uses bits of foreign languages to help create a mood or atmosphere. And the languages he uses have all – at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication: Swahili, Esperanto, Russian. Furthermore, the pieces seem to highlight different aspects of foreignness: the exotic and alluring (Swahili), the unfamiliar and strange (Esperanto), the threatening and repulsing (Russian).
Willa: And there’s another song that fits this pattern also: “They Don’t Care about Us.” It begins with a woman saying “Michael, eles não ligam pra gente,” which is Portuguese for “Michael, they don’t care about us.” As you said of Swahili, Esperanto, and Russian, Bjørn, Portuguese is another language that has “at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication.” Like England, Portugal was a powerful nation during the colonial era, and as a result, Portuguese is the official language of countries around the world, from Europe to South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
Joie: That’s very true, Willa. You know I think most people just think about Portuguese being spoken in Brazil and, of course, Portugal. But it’s actually the official language of many African nations, like Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau, and others. And, as you said, even in Southeast Asia. It’s interesting to think of it as “rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication,” because it really did at one point.
Willa: And still does in some regions – like I didn’t realize it was so widespread in Africa. That’s interesting, Joie. And to get back to what you were saying, Bjørn, about the different emotional effect of each of these languages, the Portugese lines at the beginning of “They Don’t Care about Us” have always struck me as sorrowful, in an almost maternal way – like the sorrow of a mother who cares deeply for her children and has seen too many of them come to harm.
Bjørn: You opened up my eyes here, Willa and Joie! I have to confess I’ve never heard that Portuguese part before. I gave the song another listen, and couldn’t hear it – but then it occurred to me that it had to be in the video! I’m a great fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but a lot of his films I haven’t watched in their entirety. So, I went to YouTube, and heard that phrase spoken for the first time.
I wonder, though, to what extent Portuguese is being used to create an emotional effect, and to what extent it’s being used to evoke an idea of “Brazil” – after all, the film does take part in real-world Brazil (not a fantasy “Liberia”), where Portuguese is spoken as the main language.
Willa: That’s a good point.
Bjørn: But if we look at the emotions, I do agree with you, Willa, that it sounds like a caring mother speaking to her son. By the way, those people who like blaming MJ for having a “Jesus complex,” should take an extra look… In the exact same moment as the Brazilian mother figure says the name “Michael,” the camera pans to the famous Rio statue of Christ the Redeemer…
Willa: Oh heavens, Bjørn! You’re just trying to stir up trouble, aren’t you?
Bjørn: Well, yes and no, Willa. This being an academic discussion, I don’t think I’d do the readers any favor by censoring what I see! It’s a fact that the name and the statue appear at the same time, and I’d like to think it’s intentional. But okay, let’s save the interpretation of that for an ”MJ and religious symbolism” post!
So, in the four “foreign language songs” we’ve looked at so far, we’ve got an Esperanto-speaking worker, a Swahili-speaking lover, a Russian-speaking agent and a Brazilian-speaking mother… MJ himself, however, still sings in his native English. The foreign culture remains inaccessible and different. Interestingly, on a couple of occasions he did cross the border, so to speak. I’m of course thinking about the versions he did of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” in two of the world’s great international languages: Spanish and French… What do you think about them?
Willa: Well, my first reaction is that I love them – they are both exquisitely beautiful, I think. And it’s interesting for me to hear a Michael Jackson song the way non-English speakers must usually hear them – where the meaning comes not so much from the words he is singing but from the expressiveness of his voice.
Joie: That’s an great point, Willa, one that I don’t often ponder. But it’s interesting to think about how non-English speakers perceive Michael’s music. Especially since his music is so very beloved all over the world. But you’re right that they must experience it much differently than native English speakers do.
You know I went through a similar phenomenon back in my teen years when I had a huge crush on the guys of the Puerto Rican boy band, Menudo. They would release albums in both Spanish and English, and oddly enough, I found that I really loved those Spanish speaking songs, even though my Spanish has never been all that great. To this day, I often find myself singing them.
Bjørn: When I discovered Michael Jackson’s music as a child, I hardly understood anything he was singing. I just liked the sound of it! So I can certainly follow you there… “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” isn’t among my favorite MJ songs, but I agree it’s nice to hear him sing in Spanish (which I understand) and French (which I don’t really understand). Why did he choose this particular song, do you think? I mean, if it was to promote the Bad album in Spanish- and French-speaking countries, he could have handed the translators the song ”Bad”… (I just hear it: ¡Porque soy malo, soy malo!)
Willa: That’s great, Bjørn! I’ll be thinking about that next time I hear, “Because I’m bad, I’m bad …”
So I don’t know why he chose “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” but it’s a beautiful song and it’s a duet – one of his few duets – and that would allow him to interact with someone while he was singing, someone fluent in Spanish or French. Maybe that’s part of why he chose this one. I don’t know about Spanish, but he did speak passable French. In fact, in the 1980s he was interviewed in French by a Montreal reporter, and he answered in French. And he loved Paris – he even named his daughter Paris. And of course he always liked to bridge boundaries, as we discussed at the beginning with Esperanto.
So thank you so much for joining us, Bjørn, and for adding a European, multilingual perspective! We always love talking with you, and hope you’ll join us again soon.
The following conversation was originally posted on September 26, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
In other news, Elizabeth Amisu and Karin Merx are about to launch a new website, michaeljacksonstudies.org, that they envision as an “online centre of academic studies regarding MJ.” It’s a wonderful idea, and could become a very useful resource for those interested in a deeper understanding of Michael Jackson’s work.
Willa: A few weeks ago our friend Lisha McDuff sent us a link to a documentary about the biggest pop star of his time, and it was so fascinating to me – especially the way he redefined art to include areas we don’t typically think of as art, like his fame, his public persona, his speaking voice, and even his face.
However, as the documentary makes clear, in a way he was forced to make his face part of his art because he suffered from auto-immune disorders that attacked the pigment of his skin. In the documentary, there are photos that show large white patches on his cheek and neck where the pigment has been destroyed. People who knew him later in life say his skin was unnaturally white, and he sometimes wore makeup that made it even whiter.
He was also very self-conscious about his nose – he thought it was too “bulbous” – and he almost certainly had plastic surgery to make it smaller and thinner. And he was known to wear god-awful wigs that he intentionally “damaged” himself, whacking at the front with scissors and dying the bottom layers a dark brown, while leaving the top layers white or silvery blonde.
Of course I’m talking about the Pope of Pop, Andy Warhol – an artist Michael Jackson met several times and pays homage to in his Scream video. Lisha, thank you so much for sharing that documentary, Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture, and for joining me to talk about it!
Lisha: It’s such a privilege to talk with you again, Willa, especially about the connections between Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson. Ever since I read your book and your brilliant analysis of Andy Warhol’s self-portrait in Scream, I’ve been fascinated by the connection between the two and the way both artists dared to challenge and redefine the boundaries of art. In your book, you wrote:
While Warhol forced us to look at Campbell soup cans and think about our relationship with consumer culture in a new way, Jackson forced us to look at him – the little boy we’d loved since childhood who grew up into something unexpected – and challenged our assumptions about identity and race, gender and sexuality.
That is especially interesting when you think about how Michael Jackson must have understood himself to be a trademarked product early on in life; he developed a star persona at such a very young age.
Willa: That’s a good point, Lisha. Motown not only produced music but also thoroughly groomed their artists, giving them lessons in speech, etiquette, fashion, demeanor – how to eat and drink in public, how to walk and talk, how to give interviews in a way that presented an appealing persona to a large crossover audience. And for Michael Jackson, those lessons started at a very young age, when he was only 10 years old.
Lisha: I’ve often wondered what it must have been like – learning to create a star persona that was even younger than his actual age. And what was it like for him to watch that star persona depicted as a cartoon character every Saturday morning on television? There are very few people in the world who could relate to that – developing a sense of self while learning to craft a public persona at the same time.
So I never imagined how many striking similarities there were in the lives of Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson until I watched this documentary. I realized that both men grew up in steel towns, Pittsburgh and Gary, because their fathers were steel workers. They were teased about their noses growing up and they suffered from medical conditions that destroyed their skin pigment and caused early hair loss. They became shy and soft spoken. And as adults, both men responded in such an unexpected and wildly imaginative way, it has captured the public’s attention ever since – by creating a larger-than-life celebrity persona – using glasses, wigs, light skin and a re-sculpted nose. You could easily argue that Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson’s greatest works of art are: Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson.
Willa: I agree, Lisha. When we think of art, we’re used to thinking about music, dance, painting, fiction, drama, poetry, sculpture, film, and all the other easily recognizable genres of artistic expression. But Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson didn’t just create incredible works of art – they also challenged how we define art. And perhaps their most important and experimental work hasn’t even been recognized as art, and that’s their innovative work with the art of celebrity and mass media, including the creation of a public persona, as you say, that captures and reconfigures the public imagination in important ways.
And that interest in celebrity seems to have started at a young age for both of them. Warhol became obsessed with celebrities, starting a scrapbook of photos and autographs while still in elementary school. One of his prized possessions was a signed photograph from Shirley Temple addressed “To Andrew Warhola.” And of course, Michael Jackson later became fascinated by Shirley Temple as well, though for him it wasn’t just admiration. Because she was a child star and suffered some of the same experiences he had, he identified with her and seemed to feel a deep connection with her. Later they became friends, and he describes their first meeting in a very emotional way – like two survivors reuniting after a tragedy.
The Warhol documentary talks about his celebrity scrapbook, including the Shirley Temple photograph, about 8 minutes in. Here’s a link to the full documentary, Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture, though it’s a bit spicy in places – people with children probably shouldn’t watch it with them in the room:
The discussion of Warhol’s face and public image – especially his visual image – begins about 12 minutes in, and picks up again around an hour in. And here’s an extra treat: there’s an image of Michael Jackson on the cover of Warhol’s Interview magazine at 1:13:20.
[Note: Unfortunately, this link no longer functions. Here's a new link, though the times are a little different. For example, the picture of Michael Jackson on the cover of Interview is at 2:10:25.]
Lisha: The influence of Shirley Temple on both of these artists is stunning to me. In Victor Bokris’ biography of Andy Warhol, he describes just how much Warhol truly idolized Shirley Temple. She inspired his basic philosophy of life: “work all the time, make it into a game, and maintain your sense of humour.” Warhol even took dance lessons to emulate her, and it was in reference to Shirley Temple that he famously said: “I never wanted to be a painter; I wanted to be a tap dancer.”
Willa: That’s so interesting, Lisha. I’d heard that quote before, but I thought he was joking!
Lisha: According to his nephew, James Warhola, Warhol privately maintained that kind of child-like spirit throughout his life. Warhola wrote a children’s book titled Uncle Andy’s, which describes Warhol’s home as a giant amusement park full of carousel horses, antiques and all kinds of “neat” art. Sounds a lot like Neverland to me!
Willa: It really does, doesn’t it?
Lisha: I think it’s safe to assume Shirley Temple and that child-like spirit influenced how both these artists viewed celebrity as well. As Crispin Glover says in the documentary, “There are certain people in history that you can just put a few things together and that’s the person, like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, or Groucho Marx.” You can easily see what he means. A stove pipe hat and beard = Lincoln. Nose spectacles and mustache = Roosevelt. A mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, and cigar = Groucho. Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson are most definitely that way.
With Andy Warhol, the light skin and the silver wigs immediately come to mind. Matt Wribican, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, said that the wigs were something Warhol began to formally think of as art, and he actually framed some of them for that reason. Ultra Violet, a Warhol “superstar” from The Factory days, described how Warhol was creating a new mythology through his art – the mythology of Hollywood and the American Dream. Prosperity, glamor, and celebrity were a big part of Warhol’s art, and his own celebrity persona could be interpreted as an extension of that.
With Michael Jackson, we think of the unprecedented fame, the hair and sunglasses; the sequined glove and the fedora, the signature dance moves, the “hee-hee” and “aeow”! That’s the cliched pop star image of Michael Jackson, anyway.
Willa: That’s true, and it’s fascinating to really think about how those symbols function, and how powerful they are. For example, my son decided to dress up as Michael Jackson for Halloween a few years ago, so he put on a black fedora, a black jacket and pants, and white socks. I suggested he make his hair dark as well, but he said no, that wasn’t necessary – and he was right. My son went around the neighborhood as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Michael Jackson, and everyone immediately knew who he was. He didn’t have to look like Michael Jackson – he just needed to tap into that iconography Michael Jackson had created for himself. Those symbols overrode everything else so completely, my neighbors looked at a little blond boy and immediately thought “Michael Jackson.” And my son understood that at 12 years old – better than I did, actually.
Lisha: Isn’t it interesting that it seems to work for all ages, races, ethnicities and body types, boys and girls as well? As long as you have some combination of those symbols, it is immediately recognizable. And come to think of it, there isn’t just one group of symbols that identifies Michael Jackson either. A retro 1980s club in my neighborhood invites people to come dressed as their “favorite Michael Jackson.” Think of the possibilities.
Willa: That’s awesome! And you’re right – there’s different symbology for different decades. A red leather jacket evokes a different era than a white T-shirt and black pants.
Lisha: Yes, for different eras and for different characters and songs, too. There are just so many of them: the armband, the surgical mask, the hair falling across the face, the glitzy military jackets, the arm brace, the glitter socks and black loafers … symbols that refer back to Michael Jackson and the whole “Michael Jackson” mythology. For example, the red leather jacket in Thriller or Beat It, and the white suit and hat in Smooth Criminal are symbols that were intended only for those specific songs and short films. And they became so inextricably attached to the music, it became necessary to include them in live performances as well. These symbols help form the characters that make up the whole “Michael Jackson” mythology.
I remember reading an interview once with David Nordahl, one of Michael Jackson’s portrait painters, who talked about the contrast between Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson,” the celebrity. Jackson didn’t like to sit for his portraits, so Nordahl painted from photographs. Believe it or not, he said it was difficult to get a good photograph of Michael Jackson unless he was “being Michael.” To an artist’s eye, Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson” even photographed differently.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, that is fascinating! And I think I know exactly what Nordahl is talking about. I’ve looked at thousands of Michael Jackson photographs, including a lot of candids, and it’s true – you can really tell when he’s “being Michael,” and when he isn’t. It’s like he strikes a pose, turns on the high beams or something, and transforms. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that distinguishes Michael Jackson from “Michael Jackson,” but you can sure feel it when you see it.
Lisha: To a great extent, you could say that all stars have carefully constructed personae and masks they use to create a public image. The music and film industries study these images very carefully because the celebrity/star system is crucial to how they market their products. But in the case of Michael Jackson, I feel like there is a lot more to it. Has there ever been a star persona that was so complex and radically changing as Michael Jackson’s? I believe there is a far more serious artist at work here who, like Warhol, is not at war with celebrity, mass media, or commerce. In fact, I believe he saw it both as art and as a delivery system for his art.
Willa: I don’t know, Lisha. I see what you’re saying, and I agree wholeheartedly that he was a very sophisticated choreographer of celebrity and the media, both to deliver his art and as an element of his art. In some ways, the mass media became part of his palette for creating his art, and I think that is so important and revolutionary. I really want to dive into that idea more deeply during our discussion today.
But at the same time, I do think there were times when he was “at war” with the mass media. You know, Warhol basically felt that all publicity was good. Regardless of whether the media was praising you or criticizing you, it was all good as long as they were still talking about you. As he said, “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.”
But I think Michael Jackson would complicate that, in part because of his experiences with racial prejudice and other prejudices, in part because of the molestation scandals, and in part because of some frightening experiences with uncontrollable mobs of people when he was a child. I think those experiences gave him a deep awareness – maybe even a fear – of mass hysteria and that mob mentality that can take over sometimes. And when the media is portraying you in ways that are completely counter to your core beliefs, and in ways that feed a type of mass hysteria based on ignorance and prejudice, I think he would strongly disagree with Warhol.
Lisha: I have to say you’re making some excellent points. And there’s no doubt that being a celebrated and powerful young black man dominating the entertainment industry is a very complicated situation to be in, bringing out all kinds of ignorance and prejudice.
Willa: Exactly, and those are complications Warhol never had to confront, or maybe even consider.
Lisha: But didn’t Warhol experience a lot of prejudice in his life, too? At a time when the white, male, heterosexual art world frowned on his appearance, his sexuality, and his success as a commercial artist?
Willa: Well, that’s a very good point, Lisha. Warhol did face resistance and prejudice from “the white, male, heterosexual art world” – and that world was pretty macho and homophobic, especially in the 1950s when he was starting out. I guess I was thinking about their public personae, specifically their faces as a provocative form of art. Warhol changed the shape of his nose, lightened his skin (in part to even out his skin tone from loss of pigmentation), wore wigs – and that public face challenged social norms and became an important part of his art, as we were discussing earlier. But it didn’t set off the firestorm that resulted when Michael Jackson did the exact same thing.
The color of your skin, the shape of your nose, and the color and texture of your hair have all been designated as racial signifiers, so when Michael Jackson dared to alter those signifiers, he was entering a cultural no man’s land. That simply wasn’t an issue for Warhol – that’s what I meant by “complications Warhol never had to confront, or maybe even consider.” Warhol’s changing appearance was noticed and commented on, but it didn’t set off the wave of hostility generated by Michael Jackson’s changing appearance, with accusations that he hated his race or had betrayed his race, or was brazenly attempting to “be white.”
Lisha: I think that’s exactly right. There was a much different reaction to Jackson’s appearance than there ever was to the same changes in Warhol, which generated so much hostility towards Jackson. But, even so, I still have to wonder – was Michael Jackson truly at war with celebrity and the media in general, or was he attempting to update and correct flaws in the system?
Willa: That’s an excellent question …
Lisha: Like Warhol, I think Michael Jackson was actually interested in some P.T. Barnum-style controversy, but there is an element in this that is beyond the celebrity’s control. One false allegation, fictitious scandal or unfair prejudice can ruin everything an artist has worked for their whole lives, through no fault of their own. We know the mob mentality is very real. Personally, I am very proud of the Michael Jackson fans who continue to challenge the media and expose some of the disastrous consequences created by the intersection of profit, news, and entertainment. I think Michael Jackson wanted to cooperate with the star system and use it to do good things, but he did not hesitate to point out where things went dangerously wrong, which again became part of his art.
Willa: I see what you’re saying, Lisha, and that’s an excellent way of framing this, I think: that he both used the celebrity media in some ways and critiqued it in others, and in fact used it to critique itself. And I agree that Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson both engaged with and choreographed their celebrity in new and fascinating ways – ways that suggest their celebrity itself was an important part of their art – and I’d like to get back to what you said earlier about David Nordahl and the distinction he makes, and others have made as well, between Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson.”
For example, I’m reminded of something Bruce Swedien mentions in his book, In the Studio with Michael Jackson. He worked with Michael Jackson for 30 years, and he and his wife Bea knew him – meaning the gentle-artist-working-in-the-studio side of him – very well. But then he’d step on stage, transform into “Michael Jackson,” and just blow them away. Swedien says, “Bea and I have traveled with Michael to his concerts, all over the world, [and] we have often thought that we don’t know Michael Jackson, the performer, that amazing person on stage.” They were like two completely separate beings.
Lisha: People who saw that say it was truly astonishing. In My Friend Michael, Frank Cascio fondly remembers going to his first Michael Jackson concert, when he actually had to ask his father, “Is that the same Michael Jackson who comes to the house?” The onstage transformation was so complete.
Willa: Oh, I imagine it was astonishing! And then, of course, there’s the “Michael Jackson” who existed in the media, and that’s a completely distinct entity as well. And in some ways it’s the most interesting of all, because it is such a deliberate creation. As you mentioned earlier, Lisha, it’s far more than presenting a positive image to the public. Instead, he seems to be exploring the constructedness of identity, and challenging the way we “read” identity based on physical cues, especially cues of race and gender. That’s something we see to some extent in Andy Warhol as well, like in the photographs in the documentary where he’s wearing lipstick and eyeshadow, so adopting signifiers normally associated with women, though still clearly a man. Here’s one image:
Willa: It really does. But what perhaps defines our identity most of all is our voice, and Warhol even had a separate public and private speaking voice – something that’s frequently been said of Michael Jackson as well. I was very surprised to hear Warhol’s voice talking to his brother on the phone (about an hour and a half into the documentary) because it’s so different from the slow, banal public voice we’re used to hearing.
We don’t know much about Warhol, the person behind the public persona – he’s a shadowy figure that we, the public, rarely saw. He was a devout Catholic who went to mass every week, a shy workaholic, and an innovative artist completely dedicated to his craft. But his public persona is very different: crassly materialistic, flippant, ironic, affectless, detached – an observer who drifted through the studio watching others create his work for him. In a couple of interviews, he said he wasn’t involved in creating his art anymore and wasn’t sure who was doing it – maybe his mother, maybe the cleaning lady. That’s a fabrication, of course, but that’s the image Warhol very deliberately created for himself.
And then Michael Jackson takes that to a whole new level …
Lisha: Sorry, I have to take a minute and recover from the thought of Andy Warhol telling the press that he wasn’t sure who was creating all that artwork, but possibly his mom or the cleaning lady were doing it. That’s about the funniest thing I’ve ever heard!
Willa: Isn’t that hysterical? He really was very funny …
Lisha: Though I have heard that Mrs. Warhola did actually sign some of Andy Warhol’s artwork for him – he just loved her handwriting. In fact, she is credited with creating this 1957 album cover with her son, for The Story of Moondog by Louis Hardin. It reminds me of Michael Jackson’s collaboration with his mother, Katherine Jackson, who contributed the shuffle rhythm in “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
Willa: Oh, really? I hadn’t heard that, about either of them. Though if it’s true that Andy Warhol’s mom did that album cover, she really did have wonderful handwriting.
And I guess we shouldn’t laugh too hard when Warhol implies he wasn’t creating his art himself because there’s an element of truth to it. What I mean is, Warhol didn’t create all of his prints himself. He was very involved throughout the process – designing them, specifying production details, reviewing them all – but he didn’t craft them all with his own hands. We don’t expect Calvin Klein, for example, to stitch every Klein garment – if he designs it, that’s sufficient to legitimately put his name on it. Yet there is an expectation that an artist will craft all of his artwork himself. Warhol challenged that, even calling his studio The Factory, and this is another area where he merged commercial art with high art to create not just new works, but a new aesthetic. And that new aesthetic is reflected in his persona as well.
Lisha: Exactly. This was an excellent point that Dennis Hopper brought out in the documentary and he’s absolutely right. We tend to forget that all the great European masters had other painters working in their studios under the artist’s direction. It’s not like a single artist got up on the scaffolding and painted the Sistine Chapel. But there is such a powerful cultural myth in circulation – that of the tortured artist all alone in their garret, working away on a great masterpiece while refusing to “sell out” for their art – as in Puccini’s famous opera La Boheme. In reality, I believe that is a notion of 19th century Romanticism more than an accurate reflection of the creative process. But once you tune in to that story line, you can see how prevalent it is.
Willa: That’s an interesting point, Lisha, and we see that bias toward the “solitary genius” even now in critical responses to Prince and Michael Jackson, for example. Prince is seen as the solitary genius alone in his studio, playing most of the instruments on his albums himself, while Michael Jackson was much more collaborative and perceived as more of a commercial artist. His thinking seemed to be that, if a musician dedicated to an instrument could play it better than he could, why not bring in the best?
Lisha: Being a musician, I would certainly agree with that! But, the myth of the solitary mad genius is such a cherished cultural icon that, in a lot of ways, I think we’re still having Beethoven-mania!
Like Warhol, Michael Jackson took the idea of working in collaboration to the extreme. On Dangerous, for example, the first album Jackson served as executive producer for, he had 3 production teams working simultaneously in 3 different studios for about 18 months to create the finished product. I don’t know if we’ll ever see those kind of production values again. The people who worked on the recordings talk about the unbelievable attention to detail that went into them, and the willingness of everyone involved to go all the way to create the best result humanly possible.
And though Jackson could be famously controlling of every detail, he was also very flexible in allowing creative input to come from anywhere within the system. For example, Bruce Swedien, a recording engineer, gets a writing credit on “Jam.” Bill Bottrell, a producer/engineer, created the rap and many of the rock/country instrumentals on “Black or White.”
So Michael Jackson was receptive to the ideas and talent around him, and he really used this to his advantage. Warhol seemed to have this ability as well – receiving help, ideas, and inspiration from many different sources. Apparently it was an art dealer, Muriel Latow, who suggested he should consider painting something as everyday and ordinary as a can of soup – the rest is history.
And I was surprised to learn that Andy Warhol actually did eat Campbell’s soup every day of his life; it wasn’t all postmodern irony and a critique of consumer culture as I had thought. His mother always had Campbell’s soup for him when he was a child, and it really seemed to mean a lot to him – warmth, nourishment, a mother’s love. He was painting his reality, and I see those paintings differently when I understand that about him, as opposed to his cool, detached celebrity persona.
Willa: Oh, I agree – I’ve always been struck by what a feeling of comfort I get from his Campbell’s soup paintings. They’re often interpreted as an ironic statement, as you say, and I can see that intellectually, but that isn’t how they feel to me emotionally. There’s a real feeling of warmth and reassurance there. It’s like he’s saying that the comfort people once found in the familiar icons of the Catholic church – the paintings of the Virgin Mary, for example – they now get from the familiar icons of consumer culture, like Campbell’s soup cans. So while artists in past centuries painted and sculpted religious iconography, his focus is on the new consumer iconography. It’s a brilliant insight.
Lisha: It truly is a brilliant insight, the marriage of the precious and the everyday. That’s something we see in every aspect of Michael Jackson’s work, from the high production values he brings to the devalued genre of pop, to the exquisitely made, hand-beaded couture jackets he wears with t-shirts and Levi’s 501 jeans. Creating art and myth through his celebrity persona is just another good example.
And as you were saying earlier, Willa, Michael Jackson takes the idea of the celebrity persona to a whole new level. I don’t even see how you could make an argument against it. I’m sure you’ve seen the 60 Minutes interview with Karen Langford, Michael Jackson’s archivist, when she displays some of his early writing which is now called the “MJ Manifesto.” It was Michael Jackson’s stated goal that “MJ” be a completely different person, a whole new character that he had big plans and ambitions for.
Willa: That’s funny, Lisha – I’ve been thinking about the manifesto also. Here’s what he wrote:
MJ will be my new name. No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a tottally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang “ABC,” “I Want You Back.” I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.
And you’re right. It really does show how deliberate he was in thinking about and creating this new persona, this “whole new character” of MJ, doesn’t it?
Lisha: Every album had a new one. I’ll never forget the shock and awe of standing in the grocery store checkout line in 1984 searching for a photo of Michael Jackson, since that is about all anyone was talking about in those days, and when I couldn’t find it, somebody had to explain to me that I was already looking at a photo of Michael Jackson. It totally blew my mind as I tried to rectify the earlier Michael Jackson image I knew with the Thriller/Victory tour image I saw. Of course no one could even imagine what was yet to come. He morphed again and again, to the racially ambiguous character in Bad, to the boundary-crossing Black or White character on Dangerous, to the colorless alien “Other” in Scream for the HIStory album.
Willa: Which raises an important point – that the personae Warhol and Michael Jackson created weren’t necessarily intended to be appealing. They were much more complicated and provocative than that. As the narrator asks near the beginning of the documentary,
But who was Andy Warhol? On his journey from Andrew Warhola, he would not only change his name but also customize his personality to create a mechanical, factory-produced brand name that would embody the celebrity and consumer culture of the times.
That “mechanical, factory-produced” aspect of his “brand” was not especially attractive, at least not in the traditional sense. And neither were his wigs, for example, or his crassly materialistic public persona. But his wigs, his persona, and his brand aren’t judged by traditional standards of beauty or appeal because it’s understood that they were part of his art, and so they have to be interpreted in more complex ways, like art.
And I think this is one way a lot of critics have really misunderstood Michael Jackson. It is generally assumed that in his later career, he was trying to produce something attractive, something appealing to a mass audience, and failing. But if we look at the lyrics to “Is It Scary,” for example, we see that he was doing something much more complicated and interesting than that. Among other things, he was forcing us to confront our own prejudices – prejudices the press and public were trying to impose on his face and body because he was signified as “black,” as “male,” as a “pop star” or “just a pop star” – and later, horribly, as a “freak” and a “monster.”
So how does it change our perceptions if we begin to look at Michael Jackson’s public persona as an artistic creation, like we do with Andy Warhol? And how do we interpret it if we approach it that way?
Lisha: Well, I think it would have been a much easier path for Michael Jackson had he initially made his private medical conditions public, broken the myth, and explained the changes in his appearance. He could have become an advocate for those like him who suffer from vitiligo and lupus, raising awareness of these diseases. I don’t think he would have had to take the relentless media bashing and persecution that he did, if that was his goal.
But instead of benefiting just a few, I think Jackson saw a much bigger opportunity that still has tremendous cultural resonance today.
Willa: I agree absolutely. I don’t think we’ve even begun to measure the impact his changing face – as a work of art – has had on us psychologically, as individuals, and culturally, as a global society.
Lisha: It’s true. Dr. Sherrow Pinder, a Multicultural and Gender Studies professor at California State University at Chico, has argued that as Jackson challenged the notion of “natural bodies and fixed identities as prearranged and controlled,” he had to be “culturally resisted, restricted, or worse, punished and humiliated in order for society to safeguard the realm of normality.”
Willa: Absolutely, and the intensity of that backlash is an important indicator of just how profound and threatening this was – his transgression of a “fixed identity,” as Pinder calls it, based on traditional notions of race, gender, and sexuality. Michael Jackson challenged them all by “rewriting” his body, thereby complicating how identity is read through the body.
Lisha: Media all over the world continue to speculate and fabricate stories about “Michael Jackson,” often disregarding factual information that has been available for some time. The media fiction almost always follows some variation of the “wacko,” “freak” or “monstrous figure” narrative, reflecting more about society’s need to “normalize” him than it ever did about Michael Jackson. And Jackson became so acutely aware of his function as a mirror of collective thought that he began exploiting it for artistic purposes, as in “Is It Scary” (“I’m gonna be exactly what you want to see / It’s you whose haunting me, because you’re wanting me to be the stranger in the night”) and “Threatened” (“I’m the living dead, the dark thoughts in your head / I heard just what you said, that’s why you’ve got to be threatened by me”).
Willa: And we see that idea enacted literally in Ghosts when the Maestro enters the Mayor’s body, holds a mirror to his face, and forces him to witness his own inner “freakishness.” That freakishness the Mayor detests isn’t in the Maestro – it’s in himself.
Lisha: That is such a brilliant scene – demonstrating his true mastery of the phenomenon.
And yet another mythic, artistic creation of “Michael Jackson” was ready to “Heal the World,” imagining a new empathic civilization into being. One of his most impressive feats was to magically strip away the color of his skin to physically demonstrate once and for all “it don’t matter if you’re black or white.” When it became clear some still didn’t get the message, he took it a step further and became colorless – literally colorless. Scream and Stranger in Moscow demonstrate this so clearly.
Willa: And it’s fairly clear that was a deliberate decision. Both videos were filmed in black and white with overly bright lights on his face to wash out the color, even gradations of color.
Lisha: Absolutely. To me, it is obvious that this is the work of a brilliant and game changing artist. I hate to admit that it wasn’t until after Michael Jackson’s death that I finally looked at his work and realized what a new kind of art it was – imaginative and exquisitely crafted music full of sonic innovations and so-called “high art” aesthetics, synthesized with imagery and myth, delivered to the masses through the devalued genre of pop and the celebrity star system. But it was so much more – exploding off the stage and screen into our social discourses and everyday lives, encouraging us to go beyond our confused and violent past.
And although I wasn’t paying attention at the time, I came to realize how powerfully affected I was by Michael Jackson, without even knowing it. From 1969 to 2009, Michael Jackson was a constant presence, and I don’t believe you can overestimate the impact he made. Judging from the intense media coverage of his death, I wasn’t the only one who suddenly wondered what it was going to be like to live in a Michael Jackson-less world.
Willa: Oh, I agree. I believe Michael Jackson profoundly altered our perceptions, our emotions, and our affective responses to differences of race, gender, sexuality, religion, family relationships – stereotypes of all kinds – though we may not realize it yet. As you said, we were “powerfully affected … without even knowing it.” And I believe he also revolutionized our ideas about art, though he was so far ahead of his time we don’t realize it yet. Some of it we still don’t even recognize as art! We were in the midst of a gripping artistic experience without even knowing it.
It’s going to take a long time for art criticism and interpretation to catch up with him, I think, and begin to comprehend the enormous impact he’s had, both in terms of art and how we conceptualize art, and in terms of the deep cultural shifts he helped bring about. And that’s another way to evaluate an artist – by the depth and extent of their influence.
Near the end of the documentary, the narrator describes how Warhol’s influence is a constant presence in contemporary life, and then asks, “How can we miss you if you won’t go away?” You could ask the same question of Michael Jackson. He legacy is everywhere – from direct artistic influences on music, dance, film, fashion, to more subtle but perhaps more important cultural influences, such as how we read and interpret gender and racial differences.
Lisha: You know, that’s just the thing. Michael Jackson is everywhere you look. And do we really understand why he continues to have such an impact? The entertainment industry is full of crazy antics, plastic surgery, glam rockers wearing make-up, gender bending and so on. Rita Hayworth is a good example of a performer who “whitened up” her Hispanic ethnicity to become the glamorous “Gilda” onscreen. So why is everyone still tripping on Michael Jackson? I think it will take a while to understand all this. Until then, we’ll keep “dancing with the elephant.”
The following conversation was originally posted on September 12, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
A bit of news: Elizabeth Amisu has posted an interesting analysis of Dancing the Dream that made us want to read it all again. Here’s a link to her article. Also, we wanted to let you know that we’ve added a new page to our website: the Treasure Chest. This is a place where you can share some of your favorite Michael Jackson videos, tributes, poetry, whatever. Here’s a link.
Willa: So Joie, in our last post, we kicked off the new season with a look at one of Michael Jackson’s first videos, Can You Feel It, which he made in 1981 with The Jacksons. And we ended up looking at how the Jacksons themselves are portrayed in this video as almost mythic figures. They’re the size of Titans and kind of translucent, like something supernatural, and they’re sprinkling golden stardust on amazed earthlings and giving them a supernatural glow also. Through these images, Michael Jackson seems to be saying something important about the role of the artist, and how he believes artists can use their art – their “golden stardust” – to bring about social change.
Joie: That’s an interesting summation, Willa. I like the way you put it all in a very tidy package.
Willa: Thanks! Anyway, for some reason, that discussion reminded me of Say Say Say, a video he made two years later with Paul McCartney. It’s very different in tone and feeling from Can You Feel It, but Say Say Say also has some very interesting things to say about the cultural function of artists. But it approaches it in a different way – not by portraying artists as supernatural figures, but as tricksters and con artists.
Joie: Once again, Willa, the way your mind works astounds me! I would never have drawn a connection between Can You Feel It and Say Say Say. But I think I see where you’re going with this, and I am amazed. Tell us more.
Willa: Well actually, Joie, you’re the one who opened my eyes to Say Say Say and got me thinking about it in a new way, back when we did a post on Michael Jackson’s repeated use of an on-screen audience. As you described back then, “Mac” and “Jack” are both entertaining their audience and scamming them at the same time.
Joie: Hmm. That was an interesting and fun conversation. But how does that relate to Can You Feel It?
Willa: Well, just that both videos are talking about specific ways artists can use their art to make the world a better place. Can You Feel It approaches that question in an almost mythic way, while Say Say Say takes more of a historical approach. What I mean is, it takes a pair of modern musicians – Paul “Mac” McCartney and Michael “Jack” Jackson – and places them within a long tradition of troubadours and vaudevillians and other traveling performers. And then it looks at the different ways they interact with different audiences, and how that brings about subtle changes. In other words, it looks at their cultural function, just like Can You Feel It does, though it approaches it in a different way.
Joie: Okay, I see what you’re getting at. But something you just said struck me, Willa. You mentioned the “long tradition of troubadours and vaudevillians and other traveling performers.” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about musicians and life on the road. You know, many bands are on the road almost constantly. Some performers, like Michael Jackson for instance, really didn’t care for touring that much. We’ve all seen the video clip of him talking about how he hated touring because it was hard on the body, etc.
Willa: Oh, do you mean this one?
I love this clip! He is too funny. …
Joie: But there are many bands out there who actually love being on the road, and they’re out there for over a year and a half at a time, promoting a single album. Then they go back into the studio, make another album, and get right back out on the road all over again. And if you think about it, with the exception of making an album, all those traveling troubadours and vaudevillians lived out their lives on the road in much the same way.
Willa: That’s true, Joie. And he seems to be exploring that life in Say Say Say. The Mac and Jack characters are almost like gypsies – another tradition of traveling musicians.
Joie: Ah, gypsies! I forgot about them, but you’re right! They’re part of that whole tradition of traveling troubadours and con artists as well.
Willa: Exactly. I don’t know that gypsies really were con artists, but that’s how they were perceived. In fact, that’s come to be an important part of the mythology of gypsies – that they weren’t just musicians but peddlers of exotic, even magical, objects, as well as fortunetellers with an uncanny knowledge. And they were tricksters who could help you out, but maybe not – maybe their magic trinkets could trick you and work against you.
So there was an aura of magic and intrigue around them, and when they came to town, they disrupted everyday life with a spirit of carnival that was both fun and unsettling. And we definitely see that in Say Say Say. When Mac and Jack roll into town, the villagers flock to them but aren’t quite sure if they should trust them or not.
Joie: That’s a really good description of what we see at the start of the video, Willa. Everyone is gathered around to watch the presentation and see what’s going on. They’re all very curious about the supposed “medical” potion that will make them strong. You can see the uncertainty and the skepticism on all of their faces. But yet, they can’t walk away because they are fascinated.
Willa: Yes, and what fascinates them is a performance. Only they don’t know it’s a performance, and neither do we, actually. We’re in the same position as the villagers at first. Mac is selling a magic potion “guaranteed to give you unbelievable power,” and a slim figure from the audience – Jack, though we don’t know that yet – volunteers to give it a try. He’s so weak he can’t even get the top off the bottle, but one sip sends him spinning, and then he’s able to beat a strongman with bulging muscles in an arm-wrestling contest. The villagers flock to buy the potion, and Mac winds up leaving town with a satchel full of money. Then we discover the strongman is traveling with him, they stop and pick up Jack on the outskirts of town, the strongman gives him a smile, and we realize the whole thing was a scam.
But what’s interesting is that it’s a scam that’s also an artistic performance. Everything the villagers experienced was scripted ahead of time by Mac and Jack, just like a play, and it has actors and a plot, like a play. Only this play crosses the line between reality and art because it doesn’t announce itself as art, so the villagers think it’s real. And it has real effects – it encourages the villagers to buy the potion. So is it real, or is it art? We’re used to drawing clear distinctions between the two, but that question doesn’t really make sense in this case because it’s both.
And it’s fascinating to me to think about all that in terms of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic – for example, in terms of the changing color of his skin – because I see that the same way. It’s an artistic performance that we (the audience, the media, the commentators on his life) didn’t see as art, so it blurs the boundary between what’s real and what’s art also. To some extent, it was very real – he really did suffer from vitiligo, suffered terribly – but it was also an artistic performance. And it was a performance that had real effects. I think it profoundly influenced how we think about racial differences.
Joie: That’s an interesting parallel you’ve drawn, Willa. I’m not sure I would have made that connection between Say Say Say and Michael’s skin disorder, but I can totally see your point. You have a unique way of looking at things that always amazes me somehow.
Willa: Well, I don’t want to push that connection too hard – that’s just an example. There’s lots more, like think of the times he and Slash played out a charade that Slash was taking over the stage – that he was playing his guitar out of control and couldn’t or wouldn’t stop. Stagehands would even come from off stage and try to drag Slash off. It was all just an act, but if you weren’t in on the joke, it wasn’t clear if it was real or not.
Michael Jackson did things like that quite a bit, so it’s really interesting to me that Say Say Say begins by depicting an artistic performance, but it’s a different kind of art. It’s not like a painting that sits in a frame on the wall. This is art that refuses to stay on the wall. It jumps out of its frame and draws everyone into the performance. Looking at it that way, Say Say Say is presenting a very different view of art, and of the artist as well – as a trickster or con artist who engages everyone around him into his art, not just as an amused audience but as unwitting performers.
Joie: You know, Willa, this video is all about presenting that different type of artistic performance. They repeat that theme in the latter half of the film as well when we see them onstage doing their vaudeville act. And again, it’s a performance that’s also a con in a sense, because they end up using it to elude the police who come looking for them over the whole “Mac and Jack” wonder potion scam.
Willa: And because they’re pool sharks, apparently. At least, Mac is. …
Joie: But what I find truly interesting about this video is that our tricksters are actually con artists with hearts, because separating these two scenes of possible criminal activity is a sweet little interlude where we see Mac and Jack, and their two cohorts, delivering a large satchel of money to an orphanage. So we learn that they aren’t just out there conning the public for their own selfish gain. Instead, they have a much more noble cause. They are actually a small band of Robin Hoods, if you will – taking money from those who can afford to spare a little, and giving it to those who have nothing.
Willa: I agree, and that’s a great way of describing it, Joie. They really are like Robin Hoods, aren’t they? In their own small way, they’re helping to redistribute wealth from those who have enough to those who don’t.
But they don’t just provide the orphans with money – they entertain them also. Mac performs magic tricks, pulling a bouquet of flowers out of thin air, while Jack walks across a balance beam, then spins and bows. And they’re singing the entire time, so they bring music to the orphanage as well. And actually, that suggests another function of art: it can provide joy or inspiration or comfort to those who are having a hard time, and maybe lift the spirits of those who are feeling down.
Joie: Oh, my goodness, Willa! You make that sound like an afterthought, or like it’s just a pleasant side effect or something. But to me, that is the most important function of art! Of any kind of art, no matter what it is – painting, dancing, music, whatever.
I know that there are probably those out there who will disagree with me on this, but that’s ok because they would be perfectly correct in doing so. Because I think art functions as many different things to many different people. Don’t you? I mean, trite as this may sound, but some people – maybe even most people – couldn’t care less about the political message or the social implications behind a particular work of art. They just know that it moves them in some way and it makes them feel happy or sad or pensive, or whatever it makes them feel. Whether it’s a song or a painting, or a performance.
Willa: Hmmm … Is that the most important function of art? Wow, I’m going to have to think about that. That’s one of the things I love most about our conversations, Joie – you always make me think!
Boy, I’m really going to have to think about this for a while, but my first response is to wonder if maybe this isn’t one of the dividing lines between entertainment and art. I’d say the primary function of entertainment is to move us – to engage us emotionally and make us feel “happy or sad or pensive,” as you say. But to me, art has to do much more than that. I guess I would say that, for me, the main distinction between art and entertainment is that entertainment tends to reinforce what we already think or feel about things. So if a light-hearted song makes us feel happy or a John Phillips Souza march makes us feel patriotic or a Norman Rockwell painting makes us feel nostalgic, then that’s entertainment. But while art can definitely move us emotionally, it also challenges our preconceived ideas about things. There’s always something a little unsettling about art, even though it can be as pleasurable as entertainment, because at some level it forces us to question ourselves and how we see and respond to the world.
And to me, what’s so incredibly powerful about Michael Jackson is that he’s both an entertainer and an artist. He caught our attention as an entertainer, and we fell in love with him as an entertainer. As Berry Gordy said at his memorial service, he was perhaps “the greatest entertainer that ever lived.” But we can’t get him out of our minds because he’s also an artist. His work disturbs us in a way that won’t turn us loose – we, as a culture, can’t stop thinking about him – because he was also a powerful artist … the most important artist of our time, I think.
Joie: Willa, I’d like to say that I don’t disagree with you. But … just for the sake of playing devil’s advocate here for a minute … if we apply what you just said, about Michael Jackson’s work both entertaining us and disturbing us “in a way that won’t turn us loose,” to other entertainers, then can we say that someone like E.L. James, for instance, is also a powerful artist? After all, her erotic trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey – which no one would call a literary masterpiece by any means – was both entertaining, and it greatly disturbed us in a way that won’t turn us loose. We, as a culture, can’t seem to stop thinking about it. But I’m not sure I would call her a powerful artist.
It’s a bit of a reach but, I guess the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t believe there always has to be an unsettling component to art. I don’t find anything disturbing or unsettling about any of Edgar Degas’ ballerina paintings, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, or even B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” for that matter. And those are just three small examples of great art that moves us emotionally. I’m sure if I really sat and concentrated on making a list, I could find many, many more examples.
Willa: Those are great examples, Joie, and they can really help clarify this, I think. I’m not talking about a moment’s titillation of sex or violence that shocks us for a few days or even a few years and then fades away. I’m talking about an earthquake that permanently shifts the landscape, forever changing how we experience our world.
I don’t know much about Fifty Shades of Grey, but from what you just said it sounds like a temporary titillation. But Degas and the Impressionists were something completely different. Looking back, we tend to forget they were radicals whose work was rejected by the Academy. Paintings of ballerinas, everyday ballerinas, made from blobs of bright color smeared onto the canvas? That was heresy! Everyone knew a proper painting should portray the nobility sitting stiffly upright, or maybe a scene from Greek mythology, and should be meticulously crafted with careful, invisible brush strokes. The Impressionists challenged all that, and revolutionized how we see and experience art. To them, the important thing was to try to capture the experiential essence of a moment – of seeing and feeling and experiencing that moment – and it’s a measure of how completely they changed our ideas that they became the new normal. Today, when we think of the great works – the masterpieces of western art – many of the paintings that immediately spring to mind are Impressionist paintings.
You could say the same about Beethoven. Like the Impressionists with visual art, Beethoven revolutionized how people thought about and experienced music. He remains one of the most influential composers of all time. And B.B. King influenced a whole generation of blues guitarists, and through them rock guitarists. You can still hear his influence all over the radio, especially when you hear a high wailing guitar solo. R&B and rock music would sound different today without B.B. King.
It’s too early to tell what Michael Jackson’s long-term impact on the arts will be – and that’s not even talking about his cultural impact, such as how we think about race and gender. But I think it will be far greater than his direct influences on music, dance, videos, fashion, visual art, though those are huge. I think he’s doing something far more fundamental, and challenging how we define art itself.
Joie: Well, I don’t want to get sidetracked on this, but I have to point out that Fifty Shades is more than just temporary titillation that shocks us for a minute and then we let go of it. No one is letting go of it. That’s the point.
Willa: I’m sorry, Joie! I didn’t mean to dis Fifty Shades. I know absolutely nothing at all about it, other than what you’ve told me.
Joie: Well interestingly, it has become as much a part of our cultural experience as Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And, much like Thriller helped to revolutionize the record industry back in the early 1980s, Fifty Shades of Grey is helping to do the same for the publishing industry. At least the fiction side of it.
There are millions of women out there who have begun writing for the first time in their lives, all because of a fascination with E.L. James’ titillating little story. The term Fan Fiction has become a household word. And hundreds of those women have begun branching out, using Fan Fiction as a springboard to create and self-publish their own original works of fiction. This is an exciting time to be a fiction writer because of outlets like Amazon and Book Baby, making self-publishing so easy and accessible.
But it’s the writers who have found success in unconventional ways – like Ms. James and her titillating read that began as Fan Fiction – who are fueling the imaginations of readers and inspiring them to try their hand at creating something as well. Much like B.B. King and his influence on a whole generation of blues and rock guitarists. I think that counts as “an earthquake that permanently shifts the landscape, forever changing how we experience our world.”
Willa: You could be right. It is impressive that she’s inspired so many other women to write.
Joie: Like I said, it’s an interesting topic, but getting back to our conversation about Say Say Say, the point I was trying to make is that I believe that art can be many different things to many different people. And for me personally, the most important function of art is that it provides joy and inspiration and comfort. It makes me feel happy, it lifts me up when I’ve had a difficult day, it soothes me when I’m feeling down. I don’t care what the political message was behind it, or what social injustice the artist was attempting to address when he or she created it. My only concern is how it makes me feel in the moment. That’s a very real function of art. But I wasn’t saying it was the most important function. I said it was the most important function for me.
Willa: I think I see what you’re saying, Joie, and I agree that connecting with an audience is really important. It doesn’t matter how innovative a work is – if no one cares about it, it isn’t going to survive. And I think Michael Jackson himself would agree with you too. When asked what makes a good music video, his first response was that “it has to be completely entertaining.” So I hope it didn’t sound like I don’t care about that, or think it isn’t important. Michael Jackson’s music and films move me more than I can say, and I wouldn’t care about them nearly so much if they didn’t.
But some artists do more than move us or soothe us or make us feel better. Some actually change the current of art and send it flowing in a new direction, and they lead us to think about art – how we define and experience art – in a new way. And I think Michael Jackson was one of those rare people. He was constantly pushing the boundaries of art, and questioning the role of the artist and of art itself. That’s developed more fully in his later work, but it’s interesting to me that we can see elements of it in his early work as well.
For example, Say Say Say begins with Mac and Jack as traveling minstrels, as we mentioned before – a tradition that goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. Then later we see them doing a vaudeville show, as you said, Joie. That’s a tradition that’s very problematic for black artists because performing in blackface was such an prominent part of vaudeville. So it’s significant, I think, that they paint their faces during that section – not in blackface but as crying clown faces. And then, they subtly evoke film musicals also since, during the vaudeville show, they’re kind of re-creating the “Fit as a Fiddle” number from Singing in the Rain, as Nina pointed out in a comment last year. Here’s a clip of “Fit as a Fiddle”:
So Say Say Say is a very fun and entertaining video – and I don’t in any way dispute that, or think it isn’t important – but it’s more than that. It’s also subtly taking us on a tour through the tradition of music performance or music theater – from traveling troubadours to the vaudeville stage to Hollywood musicals – and it’s both celebrating and questioning that tradition, I think.
Joie: That’s an interesting take, Willa. And it makes me wonder where they could have gone with it, you know? As you say, they subtly take us on a tour through the tradition of music performance or music theater – and I wonder what that video may have looked like if they hadn’t stopped at a certain point, but instead kept the history lesson going up to the present. From traveling troubadours and Hollywood musicals, up through the traveling concert tours of today. Now that would have been interesting!
Welcome to Summer Rewind 2014! Over the next few weeks, we’ll revisit some posts from this past year that we think deserve a second look. The following conversation was originally posted on August 29, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
Willa: Hi Joie, welcome back! Did you have a good break, despite all the controversy this summer?
Joie: Yes, I actually had a great summer! I did a lot of traveling for family weddings and such, which can sometimes be very stressful, you know? And as far as the controversy, I really just did my best to avoid it all. I didn’t watch a single news clip about the AEG trial. It was very liberating and refreshing to bury my head in the sand and pretend it wasn’t happening. You?
Willa: That’s funny, Joie – you’ve always been so informed about everything, and I’ve gotten most of my Michael Jackson news from you! What will I do now?
So I had a really fun summer also. We went to Yellowstone, which is so beautiful, and saw a huge bull moose and a grizzly bear and a black bear and a pair of sandhill cranes, and lots of elk and bison. It was wonderful. And I didn’t avoid the news, but I didn’t seek it out either. I figured if anything important happened, it would filter its way through the fog. It seems to me that at times like these I need to stay focused on what’s meaningful and nourishing to me, which is his art, and remember why Michael Jackson and his work are so important.
Joie: I think you’re right, Willa. It is important to go back and rediscover the magic, so to speak.
Willa: Exactly. And you know, we’ve talked a lot over the past two years about his music and dancing and films, as well as the way his public persona – even his face and the color of his skin – became an important element of his art. But we still haven’t taken an in-depth look at some of his most iconic films – films like Beat It and Billie Jean and Smooth Criminal. We’ve touched on them, but we haven’t really settled in with them the way we did with You Rock My World or In the Closet or Give In to Me. So one of my goals for this year is to get back to basics and take a close look at some of those classic films, and it seems to me a good place to start is Can You Feel It.
Joie: I would love to talk about Can You Feel It.
Willa: Oh good! I would too. It’s the first film where he’s listed as a producer and creative consultant – as it says in the credits, this film was “conceived and written by Michael Jackson” – and you can really feel his creative input throughout. He wrote the song with his brother Jackie, recorded it with The Jacksons, created the concept for the film, and then helped carry that vision through to completion. Here’s a remastered version that’s really wonderful, I think:
Joie: You know, Can You Feel It, to me has always been sort of like the mother of Michael Jackson’s video genius. It really was kind of the short film that started it all. And you can see from the very beginning that making short films was going to be an area where he was going to excel. It was just spectacular. If you watch it now, you’ll undoubtedly think that some of the special effects are pretty cheesy. But you have to remember that it was created back in 1980, and at that time, those special effects were cutting edge.
Willa: Well, maybe I’m kind of cheesy because I like those special effects, especially in the opening sequences. And I think it’s true that in many ways this is “the mother of Michael Jackson’s video genius,” as you said – not only because of the visuals but because of the ideas as well. We see the seeds of concepts that will resonate throughout his work for the rest of his career.
Joie: That’s very true.
Willa: And these are not small concepts either – they are immense in both scale and importance. He’s already thinking about how to bring about significant social change on a global scale. For example, Can You Feel It begins with images of a mythical landscape and a deep voice telling us a creation story:
In the beginning, the land was pure. Even in the early morning light, you could see the beauty in the forms of nature. Soon men and women of every color and shape would be here too, and they would find it all too easy sometimes not to see the colors and ignore the beauty in each other. But they would never lose sight of the dream of a better world that they could unite and build together in triumph.
The song hasn’t even started yet, but we already see evidence of Michael Jackson’s deep love of nature, and how he links that love of nature with racial equality, social justice, and love for one another.
Joie: And the idea of working together to make the world a better place (for you and for me and the entire human race). You’re right, Willa. We hear all that before the music even begins. And as you said, those are concepts that would stick with him throughout the rest of his career and resurface on album after album.
Willa: That’s true, and it’s all there in that initial creation story. But you know, what really caught my attention when I watched Can You Feel It recently is that it then goes on to tell a “re-creation” story – a story of a new creation or transformation, or rather a series of new creations and transformations – and it does so in a way that feels very Biblical to me. You know the Bible much better than I do, Joie, but it begins with a creation story also. Here are the first lines of Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good. …
And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. …
And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.
So both the Bible and Can You Feel It begin with a story of creation: “In the beginning …” And this world that is created is beautiful but not perfect, because people aren’t perfect. In fact, in Genesis, only a few chapters after the initial creation story, we read that people have become so “corrupt” and “full of violence” that God decides to wipe them out and start over. Only one righteous man and his family are spared, along with a representative pair of each kind of animal. So in the story of Noah’s Ark we have a re-creation story: a flood washes over the surface of the earth and destroys everything, and then that destruction is followed by a new beginning.
We see echoes of that in Can You Feel It. Immediately after the initial creation story, the music begins and we see one of those special effects you were talking about, Joie – an image of water washing over the entire world. So as with Noah’s flood in the Bible, the earth is being washed clean of corruption and violence, and we are about to experience a re-creation as we begin to move toward “a better world.”
And then we see something interesting: Randy Jackson’s character lifts a rainbow over his head. This is Biblical also. In the Bible, God promises that he will never again destroy his creation through flooding, and he creates a rainbow as proof of that promise. As God tells Noah, “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant. … Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.”
Joie: That’s true, Willa. And you know, we also see that in many of the creation stories of Native Americans. I’ve always enjoyed reading the creation myths of various tribes, and many of them have this same sort of re-creation theme to them that you’re talking about. Like the Sioux for instance. Here is part of their creation story:
The Creating Power said to himself, “l will sing three songs, which will bring a heavy rain. Then I’ll sing a fourth song and stamp four times on the earth, and the earth will crack wide open. Water will come out of the cracks and cover the land.” When he sang the first song, it started to rain. When he sang the second, it poured. When he sang the third, the rain-swollen rivers overflowed their beds. But when he sang the fourth song and stamped on the earth, it split open in many places like a shattered gourd, and water flowed from the cracks until it covered everything. …
So after the flood comes the rebirth, or re-creation:
The Creating Power said to them, “The first world I made was bad; the creatures on it were bad. So I burned it up. The second world I made was bad too, so I drowned it. This is the third world I have made. Look: I have created a rainbow for you as a sign that there will be no more Great Flood. Whenever you see a rainbow, you will know that it has stopped raining.”
Here’s a similar tale from the Cree:
After the Creator had made all the animals and had made the first people, he said to Wisakedjak, “Take good care of my people, and teach them how to live. Show them all the bad roots, all the roots that will hurt them and kill them. Do not let the people or the animals quarrel with each other.”
But Wisakedjak did not obey the Creator. He let the creatures do whatever they wished. Soon they were quarreling and fighting and shedding much blood. The Creator became very angry.
“I will take everything away from you and wash the ground clean,” he said.
Still Wisakedjak did not obey the Creator. He did not believe until the rains came and the streams began to swell. Day after day, and night after night, the rains continued. The water in the rivers and the lakes rose higher and higher. At last they overflowed their banks and washed the ground clean. The sea came up on the land, and everything was drowned except one Otter, one Beaver, and one Muskrat.
The narrative, of course, goes on to the rebuilding of the earth. But, we see this notion of a Great Flood over and over again in the creation stories and myths of the varying Native tribes of America, and I find it fascinating. And, you’re right, Can You Feel It is telling a very similar tale here.
Willa: Wow, that’s so interesting, Joie! I’ve read quite a few American Indian trickster tales, but not too many creation stories – though in some cases, the trickster is the creator of all things. I didn’t realize some of those creation stories had a flood that washed the earth clean of wickedness. And it’s interesting that in the Sioux story, there’s a rainbow “as a sign that there will be no more Great Flood.” You can really see how some archetypal stories are told again and again, across time and across cultures. But there are some important differences between them also.
You know, Michael Jackson was raised in the church, so I assumed the origin of those ideas in Can You Feel It was Biblical, but now I’m reconsidering that. After all, the landscape is clearly the American southwest with its mesas and arches, and that supports your interpretation, Joie. And near the end, a tribal elder steps forward, and he has a look of knowing in his eyes. He seems awed by the vision in front of him, like all the other spectators, but he also seems to understand what’s happening in a way the others don’t. So I really think you’re onto something.
Also, there’s the image of a new race – a golden race – springing forth from a blue watery globe, like the earth. Later we see a face inside a powerful ring of fire, like the sun, and it’s a female face. To me, that supports your interpretation also since Christianity is very male-centered, with power and authority centered in God the Father, while older, more Earth-centered modes of spirituality tend to be more female-centered, with a focus on Mother Nature as the giver of life.
Joie: Well, I really wasn’t offering any sort of “interpretation,” Willa. Only an observation.
Willa: Well, it’s a different way of seeing things – a different approach or context for interpreting what’s happening.
Joie: But it is very interesting, isn’t it? And I like what you said about Christianity vs. Native beliefs. It does seem to tie right in.
Willa: It does, doesn’t it? And it’s interesting how it also ties in with a deep love and respect for nature, which is something Eleanor Bowman talked about when she joined us in a post last spring.
So all of these creation stories and re-creation stories suggest a yearning for enlightenment, in a way. It’s like the physical world was formed perfect and good, and so were our bodies, but our minds are easily corrupted by envy and greed and hatred and violence. So we need to reach a state where our hearts and minds, our compassion and understanding, are as perfect as the physical world we were given to inhabit. We see this yearning in Can You Feel It also, in the emergence of the golden people. But what’s interesting is that when the first golden person appears about halfway into the video, s/he is being sprinkled with golden stardust – and that stardust is also sprinkling down on a lot of everyday people, who then develop a golden glow as well. So those golden people aren’t some new race in the future. They’re us!
And it seems important to me that the stardust is coming from the hands of the Jacksons, who appear golden also, but kind of translucent, like supernatural figures, and they’re taller than skyscrapers. And these towering golden figures are sprinkling golden stardust on everyone.
Joie: Almost as if they are the creators, or the tricksters, in this creation tale they’re telling.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Joie! I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that’s really intriguing. And you know, the Jackson really were creators in a literal sense – they were creators of music and dance and art.
It seems to me that, in Can You Feel It, Michael Jackson is predicting a major transformation and cultural change – a change that will lead to an enlightened way of living together in harmony, and “loving each other wholeheartedly.” And I think the golden stardust the Jacksons are sprinkling about is music and art. That’s what artists give to the world, and that’s how they bring about transformation and social change.
Joie: Ah! I like that interpretation, Willa! Very nicely done! And it makes perfect sense.
Willa: It does make perfect sense, doesn’t it? He’s so brilliant – I just love looking at his work and seeing all the details, and then thinking about how those details fit together. He never fails to amaze and inspire me.
But I want to get back to this idea of the Jacksons as creators. You know, one of the many criticisms leveled against Michael Jackson was that he had a messiah complex – that he thought he was the second coming of Christ or something like that – and critics point to examples like Can You Feel It as evidence of that. But I think that’s an overly simplistic interpretation that leads to misunderstanding.
Throughout Michael Jackson’s work, we see him developing a new definition of art and an expanded vision of the role of the artist. He believed artists had the power to bring about deep social change by changing perceptions and attitudes, prejudices and emotions. For example, artists have the power to use their art to rewrite our cultural narratives – like our myths and creation stories – so we see ourselves and our relation to each other in a new way.
That’s how Michael Jackson hoped to change the world – through music and art. But that doesn’t mean he saw himself as a messiah. Instead, he saw himself as an artist – but it’s a far greater definition of “artist” than we’re used to. And importantly, he imagined a world where we are all artists, where we all share “the dream of a better world that we could unite and build together in triumph.”
Joie: I think you’re absolutely right, Willa.
Willa: So Joie, can you believe we’ve just finished our third season of posts at Dancing with the Elephant?
Joie: Did you ever think it would run this long, Willa? I know I didn’t. And I honestly can’t believe we’re coming up on the 5 year anniversary of Michael’s passing. That blows my mind.
Willa: You know, it’s funny – sometimes it feels like he’s been gone a really long time – longer than five years – and sometimes it feels like it just happened. I mean, you’d think after five years it wouldn’t hurt so much, but it still does.
I just read a powerful article, “Throwing Stones to Hide Your Hands: The Mortal Persona of Michael Jackson,” by Elizabeth Amisu, where she compares the media persecution he had to endure to a public stoning, and it really struck a chord with me. It did feel at times like a public stoning – or at the very least, a very public kind of bullying. It’s almost like he was bullied to death. And it’s just really hard to come to grips with that – not just with his death, but with all the events the last 16 years of his life leading up to his death.
Joie: Hmm. Bullied to death. That’s an interesting way to put it, but unfortunately, it’s completely accurate.
So … Willa and I had something special in mind for today’s post, however …
Willa: However … it’s not quite ready. That’s my fault. I thought it would be ready in time, but it isn’t.
Joie: It’s not her fault. … In any case, we’re simply going to leave you with our heartfelt gratitude for your continued support.
Willa: Yes, we both wanted to say a very sincere thank you to all of you. Our goal from the beginning was to explore the many facets of Michael Jackson’s art in all its wondrous complexity, to learn more about his art as well as his ideas about art, and maybe help change the way people think about him and his art, and how he used his art to bring about social change.
Thank you so much to all of you who’ve joined us on this journey, and thanks especially to those who’ve participated in the conversation and shared your ideas. We’ve learned so much from you.
Joie: Yes. Thank you! So, getting back to that special project … when it’s completed, we will post it right here.
Willa: And we hope that will be soon. As most of you probably know, we don’t publish new posts from June 25th to August 29th. Instead, each year during that time we revisit some of our older posts that we think deserve a second look, and we’ll be starting Summer Rewind 2014 in a couple of weeks. We hope the special post will be ready before then.
Joie: But if it isn’t, we will interrupt the Summer Rewind and post it then. We hope you all have a wonderful summer.