Willa: This week I’m thrilled to be joined by four people doing fascinating work researching, thinking about, and writing about Michael Jackson. Lisha McDuff is a professional musician and musicologist whose graduate research focused on Black or White. Sylvia J. Martin is a visiting assistant professor of anthropology who has written numerous articles on Michael Jackson’s cultural function, both in the U.S. and around the world. Several of her articles can be accessed from our Reading Room. Eleanor Bowman is an environmentalist with a master’s in theology, and she is currently working on a book that looks at how Michael Jackson’s art can help move us toward a new relationship with nature. And Veronica Bassil has a Ph.D. in English and American literature and has written two books on Michael Jackson: Thinking Twice about Billie Jean and Michael Jackson’s Love for Planet Earth. Thank you all so much for joining us!
So you all recently attended Brad Sundberg’s seminar in Orlando. Lisha and I talked with Brad in a post a few weeks ago as he was preparing for it, and it sounded wonderful! I’m so curious to hear all about it.
Sylvia: The seminar was fantastic. It was also great to meet each other and everyone else who attended.
Lisha: Oh, I agree. What a treat it was to meet you, Brad, Matt, and all the other seminar participants. It was an incredible weekend.
Eleanor: Yes, it was really wonderful. I just wish everyone in the Dancing with the Elephant family could have been there! Just getting to meet Veronica and Lisha and Sylvia and talk about Michael in person would have been enough for me, but then we got to meet other MJ fans and hear their stories – and then, on top of all that, we got to hear from Brad and Matt and hear all about their up close and personal experiences with MJ. Well, it was almost too much for me to take in.
Veronica: Yes, I learned a lot, and it was great to be with everyone sharing our love for Michael and his work. And it was especially great to meet the posters from Dancing with the Elephant – Lisha, Eleanor, and Sylvia.
Willa: So what were some standout moments for you?
Sylvia: It was fascinating to be able to hear isolated tracks of Michael harmonizing on “Liberian Girl.”
Lisha: Wasn’t that amazing? Brad played the background vocals for “Liberian Girl” and then isolated the tracks so we heard each part separately as Michael Jackson sang the four-part harmony: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. It really showed his amazing vocal talent, his wide vocal range, and his impressive command of music theory and harmony. Every note had to be chosen so carefully to create those close, dense harmonies.
Brad and Matt talked about how Michael Jackson had all of these parts worked out entirely in his head, something that really amazes me. They, too, were blown away by Michael Jackson’s mastery of song construction and marveled at how he could sing every line of each individual part in its entirety, knowing exactly how each part should fit in with the other elements of the song.
I remember that in Toronto Brad also talked about Michael Jackson’s background vocals. He said each line of a four-part harmony like this would typically be doubled, or stacked, four times. That means a four-part background vocal would have a total of 16 tracks or 16 vocal parts. It’s like hearing a small choir of only Michael Jackson’s voice.
Veronica: Yes, that was really fantastic, and you said it well: “a small choir” of just MJ singing all those different harmonies! Matt also emphasized the amazing ability Michael had to know exactly where all the sounds would go in a musical creation – the harmonies, the melody, the music, the ad libs – he knew where everything would go in a stereo performance. I loved hearing those extraordinary harmonies from “Liberian Girl.”
Eleanor: And we heard them on the speakers they brought from the Westlake Studios! It was like hearing Michael Jackson for the first time. I was just stunned.
Lisha: I thought those speakers had such a luscious, refined sound – absolutely beautiful. Brad said those were the exact speakers Michael Jackson used at one time for listening to playback. I was thrilled to get to hear what they sounded like.
Sylvia: The weekend was made extra special by being able to visit Epcot the next day with Brad and Matt and hear the behind-the-scenes from Matt about Captain EO.
Eleanor: I have to admit that going to Epcot to see Captain EO was a peak experience for me. And, I got to see it sitting right next to Matt Forger! What a privilege. Brad had reserved the theater for us and I was looking for a seat when Matt motioned me over to a seat next to him. I think it was the best seat in the house for the best sound and 3D experience. Actually, it was 4D – the seats moved and bumped with the movement of the spaceship. It was fantastic.
Lisha: I was absolutely crazy about Captain EO too, for so many reasons. For starters, I think the storyline is brilliant. It’s the hero’s journey – an epic tale of good versus evil using the power of sound and music as a vehicle in the transformation of consciousness. In the hands of Michael Jackson, this epic story is cleverly disguised as a 17-minute Disney attraction.
Veronica: Yes, Lisha, that’s an excellent point. And the songs “We Are Here to Change the World” and “Another Part of Me,” as well as the storyline of transforming a deadened, mechanized planet into a vibrant, pastoral world, emphasize the change to global harmony.
Eleanor: Yes, I loved the storyline and the way it was realized, with all the special effects. In fact, I was so focused on Michael in 3D that I could hardly concentrate on the story. After experiencing Captain EO, I think Michael should be 3Deified in all his short films, and concert videos. And even though Michael didn’t write the story (I asked), we know he never sang a song that he didn’t believe in, so I’m sure Captain EO perfectly represents Michael’s vision of the ills besetting our planet and how to fix them.
So, for me, with my environmental interests, everything about Captain EO was mesmerizing. It seemed so revelatory of who Michael Jackson was and is, his role as a change agent, his concern for Planet Earth – even though it supposedly took place in a galaxy far, far away. The film shows a planet that has become a wasteland, as Veronica says, deadened and mechanized – a vision of our future? our present? But Michael sees its underlying beauty, and through his love, his deep sense of connection, expressed in the song “Another Part of Me” and sent out through the lightning from his fingertips (“sending out a message to you”), he transforms the Supreme Leader from a monster into a beautiful woman and her dying planet into a world filled with life.
Like Lisha says, it is an epic tale about the transformation of consciousness, a transformation that we desperately need, a transformation that I believe Michael, through his art, is bringing about. Speaking personally, I can attest to the fact that he certainly transformed mine.
Lisha: I think that’s a wonderful interpretation, Eleanor – it really makes sense in the context of his larger body of work.
Sylvia: I appreciate its environmental transformation, but I don’t care for the characterization of the Supreme Leader. The Disney and fairy tale trope of ugly equals bad and beautiful equals good is to be expected but eye-rolling nonetheless. Why must her supposed inner beauty be externalized? Who does that benefit, and why? Once again, a strong and flawed woman needs to be neutralized; after her transformation she is silent, passive, and pleasing to look at.
Veronica: Thanks for your comment on the Supreme Leader, Sylvia. I read some posts from people who saw the film as young kids, and they spoke about how scary it was for them – and the portrayal of the Supreme Leader was part of that. Indeed, one could argue she is a kind of Medusa figure, with metallic coils instead of snakes in her hair.
I agree that EO is the main character/hero and the Supreme Leader (Anjelica Huston) is rendered into a passive beauty at the end, silently waving as she sits on the shoulders of her attendants. On the other hand, her initial intent is definitely hostile – she wants to turn her captives into “trash cans” and give EO “100 years of torture” in her “deepest dungeon” – so he has to resist that or there would be no more story.
Eleanor: I agree that if you understand the Supreme Leader as symbolizing the feminine, the film is sexist and offensive. But if you see the Supreme Leader as symbolizing nature, as I do – which makes sense as nature traditionally has been symbolized as feminine, and clearly the Supreme Leader is an extension of her planetary world, just as it is of her – then the story is inspiring. And EO’s use of the term “beauty” reminds me of the slogan “Black is Beautiful,” where beauty was a term used to express value and worth, not just physical attractiveness. And maybe this is a stretch, but the use of 3D may be a clue that we are to look deeper – that the story, like most things, can be read on many different levels. The medium is the message.
This is the way I read Captain EO: in telling the Supreme Leader that he sees her beauty, EO is telling us that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” and that traditional Western attitudes toward nature – that “behold” nature as something to be controlled, that “behold” matter and the material world as inert, dead, mechanical, worthless (ugly) – are cultural constructs which can and should be changed. If we can change our perceptions of nature, if we can see its worth and understand that we are “just another part of it,” we will change the way we interact with it. Who benefits? We all do.
Veronica: Eleanor, I like your reading that the Supreme Leader is a reflection of her planetary world, and that when EO makes a comment about “someone as beautiful as you,” he is seeing the intrinsic worth and value of the natural world, which is “another part” of us all – “not dangerous.” I appreciate too your reference to a powerful message of the 60′s: “Black is Beautiful.” EO tells the Leader she lacks a “key to unlock” her beauty, and this key (music) is his gift, which transforms the planet, as well as the Leader and her people. I compared her to Medusa, and it is interesting that when Medusa is defeated by the hero Perseus, the winged horse Pegasus, is born. Pegasus is a symbol of imagination and creativity, and a freedom from restrictive mental constructs that distort our ability to see the world and each other.
MJ sings that the planets are all in line “waiting for you” – waiting for us to join in and no longer be isolated. The metal coils and cables bind the Leader so that she is suspended above the ground and limited in her movement, compared to the final scenes when she walks on the ground and joins the community, one formed by dance as well as music. The power of music (in the form of MJ’s “lightning bolts”) changes the warriors into dancers who follow his beat, and MJ’s dancing is part of his transformative creative energy.
Sylvia: Also, after the male hero essentially “rescues” the female protagonist (from herself), there’s no hint of a romantic pairing. This is a Disney film, after all, and an interracial pairing probably wasn’t on the agenda. In fact, I always notice how right after EO kisses her hand, he steps right in front of her, completely obscuring her face with his, giving a big grin to the audience who are on the receiving end of his joy. It’s all about EO!
Eleanor: Yes, there is no hint of a romantic pairing, but I don’t think this is a romance. This is a mythological representation of an interaction between humanity and nature, where humanity, as usual, is represented as male and nature, as usual, is represented as female. But, in EO, the symbol for humanity is also black, which is nontraditional. Since the standard for the fully human in our society is usually the white male, the fact that EO is black is pretty revolutionary. As a nontraditional representation of humanity, EO is not bound by traditional perceptions. He can establish a new relationship, a non-exploitative relationship, with nature. Like MJ, EO is a black change agent in a white society. I did note the fact that MJ upstaged Angelica at the end, but after all, for his fans, it is all about MJ.
Lisha: I have to agree with you, Eleanor, that EO is taking us into the symbolic, mythic realm. I love the idea that the Supreme Leader could be seen as symbolizing Mother Nature herself – especially since she is so agitated at the moment, unleashing her terrible, destructive forces on her inhabitants who are so thoughtlessly invading and destroying the planet. Personally, I have no problem whatsoever mythologizing that kind of power as uniquely feminine. To my way of thinking, the forces of nature, mythologically speaking, belong in the realm of the feminine.
But I have to say, Sylvia’s point is well taken too. This story can be seen as reinforcing the Evil Queen trope that is so prevalent in fairy tales such as Disney’s Snow White, which is highly problematic from a feminist point of view – “eye-rolling,” as you said, Sylvia. I can think of some other problematic readings of the story too, in terms of one group of people invading and conquering another and then imposing their beliefs and ideals onto that group.
But for me, the more symbolic readings of the story offer the most satisfying interpretations. Another way to look at it would be from a Jungian point of view, a framework that Michael Jackson himself was interested in. The Supreme Leader from this perspective could be seen as representing Captain EO’s own psychological projections. In this scenario, the hero’s journey is a metaphor for a battle that is fought from within the human psyche.
According to Carl Jung, the dark, shadowy, unknown parts of the male psychology are known as the “anima” or the inner feminine. (In female psychology, this is the animus, or the inner masculine – think Beauty and the Beast.) The anima is the ugly, unwanted, unclaimed aspects of the self that must be discovered and battled against so that the whole, enlightened self can emerge. Because very few of us are truly aware of our own negative tendencies, the truly repulsive, monstrous, disowned parts of ourselves must be projected onto others. Myth is a powerful way of speaking to the unconscious mind – that frightening, unknown territory where we do battle with the forces of evil. According to the myth of Captain EO, music is a vehicle for this inner awareness and transformation.
Sylvia, I thought you identified an incredibly important moment towards the end of the film when Captain EO bows before the Supreme Leader, kisses her hand and then turns to face the camera, expressing his joy that the light of dawn has arisen and the forces of darkness have been dispelled. The Supreme Leader is now in her true form of goodness, truth, and beauty. If you look closely, when Captain EO turns towards the camera, the Supreme Leader doesn’t completely disappear behind him. She is quite tall, even taller than Captain EO. (In the theater, you can see this especially well.) For a brief moment, they appear to merge into a single being, symbolically integrating the masculine and feminine – the conscious and the unconscious – which is often spoken of as enlightenment, or dawn.
Willa: Oh, I love your reading of that, Lisha!
Lisha: In Jungian terms, this is known as the bright anima projection. No doubt I’m being influenced by the music here too – this is also the cue for “Another Part of Me” to begin. The story has many other elements of myth as well, such as Captain EO’s small helpers who assist the hero in his journey.
Veronica: Yes, and I’d like to mention EO’s helpers: Hooter, the elephant; Idey and Odey, the hairy, two-headed navigator; and Fuzzball, the flying monkey with butterfly wings who saves EO from menacing warriors by tying their whips together. These creatures are talking animal companions and goofball comics, especially Hooter, and give the film lightness and show EO as decidedly non-heroic. Indeed, at the start of the film we learn he and his crew are about to be booted out of the fleet. Hooter and Idey and Odey were performed by real people in costumes, including the robot Major Domo; Fuzzball was a puppet. Fuzzball and Hooter were a big part of the EO franchise.
Lisha: From the mythic point of view, these helpers magically appear just when the hero seems doomed. From out of nowhere, they provide some small assistance that literally saves the day, such as when Fuzzball ties the whips together. He ends up freeing Captain EO at precisely the moment he seemed trapped and destined to fail.
It was so wonderful to experience the film’s 3D effects on the big screen and get a sense of how the little character Fuzzball would whisper into Captain EO’s ear or zoom right off the screen and fly right up to the viewer, as if making a personal connection. There were many little details like that are missed if you don’t see the film in a theater designed to show the film.
Eleanor: Seeing Captain EO at Epcot was the first time I had ever seen it. I wanted my first-time experience to be spectacular, and it was. I am so grateful to Brad and Matt for making that possible and for enabling us to share the experience with each other. I heard that Disney is planning to discontinue showing Captain EO, which makes me very sad.
Veronica: Absolutely, Eleanor, seeing Captain EO as it was meant to be seen – in 4D – was a peak experience for me too. I have to say, Captain EO blew me away. I saw it three times, and its excellent 3D and 4D effects make one appreciate how this film, created in 1986, is still so engaging and exciting today. Not only did the seats shake, but there were blasts of air around my legs to simulate the feel of the whips threatening Michael. The 3D effects made EO’s spaceship and his little companion Fuzzball appear to hover in the air in front of our seats.
Seeing Michael as Captain EO in 3D is of course wonderful, and it was heart-warming to see crowds of people, from all age groups, enjoying this film, as we saw while sitting outside talking to Matt. Matt told us that in the early days, Captain EO was the premier attraction and there were long lines to see it.
Willa: I can vouch for that – I was in those crowds in the 1980s.
Lisha: That’s so cool, Willa!
Veronica: The song “Another Part of Me” was later expanded for the Bad album, released in 1987. On the Bad tour, Matt said it would always drive the crowd wild. He was asked during the seminar why it was chosen over “Streetwalker” and speculated that it helped to tie in with Captain EO, but perhaps more importantly “Streetwalker” was too similar to “The Way You Make Me Feel” in tone and subject.
Lisha: Yes, I remember one of the seminar participants raising the point that “Streetwalker” has a similar theme to “The Way You Make Me Feel,” making “Another Part of Me” a better overall choice for the album. We got to hear some early demos of “Streetwalker” that I thought were fabulous, as well as some later revisions. I’d love to know more about how Michael Jackson felt “Streetwalker” might have fit into the Bad album.
I will say, it was pretty intriguing to hear Matt and Brad speak of what a crowd-pleaser “Another Part of Me” was in live performance. It’s not like Michael Jackson was short of crowd-pleasing material for his concerts! So, I was surprised to learn “Another Part of Me” was such a stand out in terms of crowd response.
Veronica: Joe Vogel describes “Another Part of Me” as “the spacey synth-driven groove about the cosmic power of music to bring about global peace and harmony.” It is also associated with the Harmonic Convergence of the planets that occurred in 1987, to which the lyrics refer:
The planets are lining up
We’re bringing brighter days
They’re all in line
Waiting for you
Willa: Oh that’s interesting, Veronica. I didn’t know that, and always wondered what that line meant about “the planets are lining up.”
Veronica: In August 1987 there was an alignment of eight planets in the solar system in a grand trine. This alignment was, according to José Argüelles, a key leader of the Convergence event, to usher in a period of cleansing before the Mayan calendar date of 2012, and indicated an energy shift from war to peace. Well, we are still waiting for that to happen. But I am so glad that MJ sent us his “major love” and considered us all another part of him, another interconnected part of a global family.
I attended a local gathering to celebrate the Convergence. It was a big deal in 1987. Does anyone else remember it?
Eleanor: Yes, Veronica. I remember it well.
Sylvia: Yes, I remember it, too.
Eleanor: I was living in Huntsville, Alabama, at the time, and there was a convergence in downtown Huntsville to celebrate it. I had no idea that Michael was referencing the Harmonic Convergence in the lyrics of “Another Part of Me.” That is so fascinating. Layers on layers. But, of course, it fits perfectly.
Veronica: It was an important worldwide, cultural phenomenon and was supposed to signal the beginning of a new dawn, a new evolutionary cycle. Argüelles asked people to gather at sacred sites at dawn and hold a vision of healing and peace in a moment of unified collective consciousness, the first time this had been done on a global scale:
There comes a point when things have to change. A vibration signal was sent out. Where the signal was coming from–whether it was coming from our genetic coding, whether it was coming from the Earth, whether it was coming from outer space, or whether it was coming from all of those–this signal went out and people responded to a signal. It is very much like when a species gets a signal to change the direction of its migration pattern. The signal was, “go back to the Earth … if you want peace on this planet, go back to the Earth.”
Argüelles believed the positive, peaceful energy of people’s synchronized thoughts and feelings would create a “circumpolar rainbow bridge” around the Earth: “This is a positive visualization. A rainbow bridge around the Earth is a totally healing image. This is the healing of the Earth, the healing of our hearts, and the healing of our lives, and instant evolution.”
There were Native American prophecies about “Rainbow Warriors” who would emerge to save the Earth: “There will come a time when the birds will fall from the trees, the rivers will be poisoned and the wolves will die in the forests. But then the warriors of the rainbow will appear and save the world.” I find it so fascinating that the rainbow is also identified with Captain EO, on his t-shirt, where it even lights up, and when he leaves the planet, there is a rainbow sheen that flickers around his ship.
And things did change in unexpected ways not too long after this – the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union fell apart, Nelson Mandela was released, and the apartheid regime in South Africa ended. Around the 2012 date, we have large democratic uprisings in various countries protesting unjust and oppressive governments, such as in Egypt and the Ukraine, and other changing attitudes, such as the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of cannabis. Maybe a transformation of consciousness, such as MJ envisioned, is happening after all?
Eleanor: Well, we know where the signal was coming from: Michael Jackson!
Veronica: That’s funny, Eleanor! To add another comment on Captain EO, in Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle, edited by Christopher R. Smit, Carl Miller’s chapter on “‘We are Here to Change the World’: Captain EO and the Future of Utopia” draws an interesting parallel between MJ and Captain EO. The author sees MJ in his portrayal of Captain EO as representing a kind of cyborg, an amalgamation of animal, human, and mechanical, a transgressive composite that shows the open-endedness of the future: in this way MJ is “the archetypal postmodern figure of utopian potential.” The world of the Supreme Leader is in fact close to what our own world is becoming; thus, Captain EO‘s “rewriting” of that world is like the historical re-evaluation of MJ’s legacy that led to the re-emergence of Captain EO in Disney’s theme parks: “the revival of Captain EO offers a testament to both the transformative dimensions and the contemporary relevance of Jackson’s art.”
Sylvia: I haven’t read Miller’s piece yet but it sounds interesting. In the meantime, I want to approach the idea of “utopian potential” a little differently.
I remarked to Lisha after one of our viewings that MJ was like a black Luke Skywalker, that franchise having recently left its indelible mark on pop culture when EO was made. And in fact, an intriguing interpretive lens for Captain EO is Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is a term which was coined in the 1990s, and you may hear it applied to the work of Janelle Monae today, yet it really started to become evident in literature, music and popular culture in the 1970s. Afrofuturism draws from Black Science Fiction and cosmology, and, as writer Ytasha L. Womack explains, refers to the past as well as to the future (in fact, here she references Michael’s moonwalk as part of the cosmology).
With regards to Afrofuturism’s roots in “ancient African culture” and mythology that Womack mentions, we can think of Remember the Time. In fact, at various points in Michael’s body of work there are engagements with the past/futurist themes of Afrofuturism; in addition to EO there was his reading of the ET storybook, the imagery of The Jacksons’ Can You Feel It music video, and Scream’s space ship.
As Afrofuturism scholar Valorie Thomas and others have noted, musicians who are considered foundational to Afrofuturism include George Clinton with his P-Funk mythology and 1975 album Mothership Connection, which includes the character of Starchild, an alien who arrives on earth in a spaceship. In the song “Mothership Connection,” Clinton sings that they’re “Gettin’ Down in 3D” – a lyrical call to which Michael would respond a decade later with Captain EO.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Sylvia. I hadn’t heard of Afrofuturism until a few weeks ago, and I still know very little about it, but from what I’ve read it really does tie in with Michael Jackson in so many ways. For example, many works described as Afrofuturism offer a kind of gritty utopian vision of a truly multi-cultural society – one that incorporates Difference and Otherness in positive, even joyful ways. That’s very Michael Jackson.
And as you mentioned, Sylvia, it’s futuristic, but in a way that doesn’t deny the past, but merges the past and present into the future. It reminds me of Light Man at the beginning of This Is It - he’s a being from the future, but he’s wearing a spacesuit made of video screens that display important scenes from the past.
Veronica: Yes, that’s a great point about Light Man and the blending of past, present, and future. I see EO as part of this. In fact, our discussion here is reminding me of my own past – memories of the Harmonic Convergence and a lecture I attended in 1982 by the historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, titled “Waiting for the Dawn” (and we know the name EO means “dawn” in Greek). In this lecture, Eliade suggested that the most significant event of the century was the re-valuation of non-Western spiritual traditions, namely Asiatic and Third World, including so-called “primitive” traditions, such as shamanism:
The discovery (or re-discovery) of the value and significance of non-Western spiritualities represents a cultural innovation, for it launches a dialogue and an interrelationship with the others, that is, the representatives of the Asiatic and archaic traditions.
In his view a human being is “par excellence an historic being” in the sense that any human “is continually fascinated by the chronicling of the world,” by what happens in the world or in the soul. Thus, the “essential necessity” of stories, of narrative and the imaginary world, whether of myth or artistic creation, each of which creates “imaginary universes.”
Lisha: Looking at Michael Jackson through the lens of Afrofuturism is pretty fascinating when you think about Scream, for example, as part of an album titled HIStory: Past, Present, and Future. That’s an album concept I find very intriguing. I’m also thinking about the feature film Moonwalker, with its futuristic sci-fi effects blending into the past and present in the Smooth Criminal segment set in the Club 30s.
Sylvia: HIStory: Past, Present, and Future fits very well into the Afrofuturism canon, and there is much to be said about that album!
Lisha: Most definitely.
Willa: I agree. In fact, much could be said about all those examples. You’re right, Sylvia, Afrofuturism really is a fruitful way to approach Michael Jackson. And Lisha, I agree that those sci-fi elements of Moonwalker are heightened by the fact that they’re embedded in a 1940s-style film noir setting, so we really do see the “Past, Present, and Future” blending together.
Lisha: Moonwalker also fits into the themes we see in Can You Feel It, and Captain EO. As Eleanor pointed out, Michael Jackson wasn’t credited for writing Captain EO, but I can certainly see his influence throughout. The concept of Afrofuturism helps to clarify this. I also think it’s worth mentioning another one of Michael Jackson’s sci-fi adventures, the video game Space Channel 5.
Sylvia: Yes, as you can see, Afrofuturism is a very useful perspective on Michael’s body of work; not only do we observe these past and future references in his work, but his apparent otherworldliness was, and is, evident to fans. And Margo Jefferson makes her own reference to Michael’s otherworldliness (and Clinton’s alien?) in her book with the choice of her title for the chapter on Michael’s uncanny child star experiences, “Star Child.”
Afrofuturism, as Chardine Taylor Stone writes, is a space for imagining all kinds of transformations and possibilities for members of the Black Diaspora, formed as it was by the experience of being snatched by violent intruders to a strange, new land(s). It is a way to envision new relationships to space, technology, power, fashion, and sexuality, among other things.
In EO, a black man is captaining a ship and entrusted with gifting the Supreme Leader – a not insignificant responsibility which Michael carries out in a unique manner. In fact, we can think of Michael’s experience of making EO with its new spatial dimensions and his working in a leadership capacity with the best that Disney and Lucas (Industrial Light and Magic) had to offer in technology and resources as an off-screen Afrofuturist endeavor.
Willa: That’s a really interesting way of looking at that, Sylvia – that in his work as a businessman, industry leader, and artist, Michael Jackson is enacting off screen the heroic journey he’s depicting on screen.
Sylvia: Yes, Willa, I think so, too.
Veronica: Speaking of fashion in Afrofuturism, Sylvia, EO’s spacesuit was quite wonderful, as well as the one he wore on stage when he emerged from a spaceship! The portrait of him by Arno Bani, apparently meant for the cover of Invincible, is in that mode as well.
Lisha: You know, these mythic storylines are so entertaining and fun that it’s easy to forget how deeply instructive they are for the human psyche. When you think about the influence of African American musical achievement globally, it’s easy to see that this is not just fantasy escapism but a powerful factor in “imagineering” the future of the planet and beyond, to borrow a term from Disney himself.
Sylvia: It is sobering to have this conversation about Afrofuturism given what has happened in the past year in one of the American states which hosts the Disney fantasyland where EO continues to play and where we also all converged for the seminar: Florida. The historical legacy of white male fear of, and violence towards, young black males – and its sanction – continue to play out in the so-called “postracial” world and in fact not far from where a Black futurist vision continues to be screened and celebrated.
Lisha: I agree, Sylvia. The reality is that we still see many counter examples to this vision of the future, which naturally is deeply disturbing.
Sylvia: As soon as I landed at the airport in Florida for the In the Studio with Michael Jackson seminar, my first thought was, “This is the state where a jury found George Zimmerman innocent.” Then, this past week another Florida jury found another white man innocent of murdering yet another black male teen: Jordan Davis. While Captain EO may have striven to transform consciousness through music, we learn of Michael Dunn’s fury at the loud “thug music” Jordan and his friends were playing and we see in that instance a complete breakdown in the vaunted power of music to unite us, derailed as it was here by deep-rooted racial prejudice, gun violence, ignorance, and arrogance. Tensions between the past, present, and future become poignantly apparent within this geography.
Veronica: Excellent point, Sylvia, in terms of the recent deaths of two young black men at the hands of white/Hispanic men in Florida juxtaposed to the supposed harmony envisioned in Captain EO that we saw at Epcot. It’s true that music was the source of conflict and death and did not unite in the event you refer to – but does that mean it can’t unite or that it hasn’t transformed people? Recent studies have shown the healing power of music – for example, music therapy has helped a number of people, including shooting victim Senator Gabrielle Giffords.
Michael believed in the power of music to transform and uplift, not just on an individual level, but on a larger social scale. Whether right or wrong, or just a quixotic effort, he tried to heal through his music and art. It’s sad but perhaps more realistic to think that this was just a dream – as he sang in “Earth Song”:
I used to dream
I used to glance beyond the stars
Now I don’t know where we are
Though I know we’ve drifted far
Captain EO shows an optimism that MJ later countered with trenchant social-political criticism on the HIStory album, released after the first allegations.
Sylvia: Thanks, Veronica. And you’re right, music can and certainly does unite people and mobilize communities all over the world – it has for centuries. But as with the Jordan Davis murder, we see how in a certain context music becomes racialized and even criminalized to the degree that that it is used as an excuse to act in such a hostile manner. I guess, though, this is one reason why Afrofuturism resonates for some – it allows for imagining a less restricted existence. And Michael certainly did that through his music and art, as you mention.
Willa: Yes, he did. Though to me, even the murder of Jordan Davis, as terrible as it was, points to the power of music. Music can unite us, sometimes in positive ways but sometimes in tyrannical or authoritarian ways – the Nazis’ use of Wagner is one extreme example. But music can also be powerfully disruptive and transgressive. The Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the U.S. were both energized by music, and in a more recent example, the band Pussy Riot is at the forefront of a rising feminist, anti-homophobia movement in Russia.
So music can give disenfranchised people a way to come together and resist a repressive majority, and this disruptive power of music lies at the heart of hip hop. That’s what Jordan Davis and his friends were doing with their “thug music,” I think – they were using music to stake out an identity that critiques and disrupts the dominant majority. And Michael Dunn felt so threatened by that – by the disruptive power of music – that he began firing bullets into their car.
Eleanor: Yes, as Sylvia says, “deep-rooted racial prejudice, gun violence, ignorance, and arrogance” are alive and well in Florida, as they are in most parts of this country, and music can certainly arouse angry reactions, as Michael knew. Just think of the way the dad reacts to Macaulay Culkin when he pumps up the volume in Black or White. But I have not given up on Michael’s dream of using music to change the world. And I don’t think he did either. How he held onto it, given all he went through, amazes me.
Veronica: Yes, Eleanor, his determination and courage to hold to his values were unfailing, and he sought to empower others to do the same. He sings in “Another Part of Me”: “This is our mission / To see it through.” And he certainly did see it through all the way to the end of his life, as we see in This Is It and his message of love and protecting the environment as an individual responsibility: “They? They who? It’s us, or it will never be done.”
Lisha: Music is a powerful force – religions, politicians and rebels use it, governments and the status quo fear it. I’m convinced Michael Jackson never lost sight of that. It’s awe-inspiring to think about the massive number of people who may have seen a Michael Jackson work like Captain EO and been influenced by it on some level.
Matt said when Captain EO opened it was the number one attraction at Disney. People (like Willa, for example!) had to wait in line for hours to get to see it. We were unbelievably fortunate to get a private showing with Brad Sundberg and to hear about the music production directly from Matt Forger, who recorded, mixed, and designed the sound.
Sylvia: Overall, the two of them provided quite a window onto the sonic experience of working with MJ. Both Brad and Matt (and Brad’s daughter Amanda) are extremely personable, patient, and generous. We peppered them with lots of questions!
Lisha: Yes, I felt like I got a very good idea of why Michael Jackson valued and trusted them so much. Spending so many hours in the studio, month after month, you can see why he needed people who were extraordinarily fun to be around, but also incredibly talented, competent, and deeply committed to their work. I saw for myself that Brad and Matt are genuinely that way, and there is no doubt they felt the same way about Michael Jackson.
Sylvia: They humanized Michael, yet they also presented a very professional and very gifted individual. Also, this may seem a mundane point, but I appreciated that Brad and Matt pointed out the amount of organization and coordination that the whole process of recording, mixing, and finishing required. Matt mentioned that besides the creative and the technical aspects, the studio engineering process for a hugely commercial album necessitates a lot of logistics, even down to numbering and naming tracks. As he remarked, organizing tracks and tape reels is dull work, but mandatory in order to deliver a product on that scale to the record label. I know this from my own experiences in editing. Bruce Swedien was apparently a mastermind at overseeing the logistical work and efficiency that went into engineering an album, particularly in the analog era.
Matt’s point underscores Michael’s situation as a commercial artist: a free-floating gift – in this case, song – must nevertheless submit to the rationalization process for the capitalist market with efficient systems for organizing labor and the materials necessary to carry out the work. And that is a complex thing, with all sorts of implications. Anyway, there are a lot of people who played a part, however small, in getting these amazing albums (and short films) to us!
Eleanor: Yes, Sylvia, and not just in getting them to us, but in the creation itself. I really had no idea what a huge part the sound engineers played in the production of music. I learned so much. I hate to reveal my ignorance, but I used to think of the recording process as just that, the process of recording a musical performance as played and sung, with the goal being to reproduce the sound as perfectly as possible. The performance was the art, the recording was just … the recording.
But, listening to them, I began to understand the whole process so differently, and appreciate the incredible amount of work that went into the album production. But the greatest revelation for me was that, in so many instances, they were in on the performance itself from the outset – working right along with Michael, midwifing his music into being. I was so moved by their dedication and commitment to helping Michael achieve his artistic vision – if someone can have a vision of a sound. Their connection with Michael was so deep and personal that they became an extension of his musical imagination.
Willa: That is so interesting, Eleanor. I’ve been doing a little bit of research about the history of popular music, and apparently the way artists think about the recording process changed radically in the 1960s. Before then, the goal of music recording was simply to capture a snapshot of a musical performance – as you say, Eleanor, “to reproduce the sound as perfectly as possible.”
But then in the mid-1960s, with the release of more experimental albums like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, that flipped upside-down. Bands began experimenting with sound and creating things in the studio which they then struggled to reproduce on tour. So it’s like the center of creativity shifted from the stage to the studio, from the act of performing live to the act of creating new sound experiences in the studio, which makes the work of people like Brad, Matt, Bruce Swedien, and Quincy Jones incredibly important. They aren’t just trying to duplicate what audiences hear at a Michael Jackson concert – they’re actually “an extension of his musical imagination,” as you said so beautifully, Eleanor. So it’s really fascinating to hear details from Brad and Matt of how his albums evolved and came together in the studio.
Eleanor: Yes, Willa. Things really did get completely “flipped upside-down.” I remember Michael, in This Is It, saying that he wanted to make sure that the musical performance was as close as possible to the music created in the studio, the music as heard on his albums. He said that was what the fans came to hear and that was what he wanted to give them.
Willa: That’s a great example, Eleanor! It perfectly illustrates this – that in his concerts he was trying to recapture what had been created in the studio, rather than the studio recording trying to capture what had happened on stage.
Eleanor: But, in fact, it really was impossible for Michael Jackson to exactly reproduce his music, as recorded, on tour. For starters, he couldn’t sing the lead vocals and the backup vocals simultaneously! It was, as you say Willa, a struggle.
Lisha: That’s exactly right. You’re raising such an important point, and I think this is something Matt and Brad indirectly helped us to understand. In popular music, the recorded work of art in many ways challenges the definition of the musical work itself. The roles of the composer, lyricist, performer, producer, and engineer have begun to blur all together, so much so, that it sometimes difficult to define the true authorship of the record.
From a performance point of view, “Man in the Mirror” is a great example. We all know the song was composed by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett, but it is often referred to as a song “by Michael Jackson.” Somewhere along the way Michael Jackson’s performance, frozen in time through recorded sound, has assumed ownership of the song, in that any other performance we hear today would be understood as a cover of a Michael Jackson song.
Record producers and engineers also challenge traditional ideas of authorship in that they often contribute so much to the sound of the recording that they take on a significant creative role. Record producers such as Phil Spector, George Martin, and Quincy Jones are certainly thought of in this way. The same could be said of innovative recording engineers like Mark Linett (Pet Sounds) and Geoff Emerick (Sgt. Pepper) and Bruce Swedien (Thriller, et al.).
Sylvia: Good point, Lisha. It’s somewhat similar in Hollywood film and television production. For instance, a lead actor on a long-running TV show may claim ownership of the character she plays even though writers, directors, producers, editors, and studio executives author the role in various ways, as it is her performance that is visible to the public. This is especially the case if the show’s writers, directors, and producers come and go but the actor remains the same.
Lisha: One interesting side note is that Matt told us both George Martin and Geoff Emerick were present in the studio for the recording of “The Girl Is Mine.”
Willa: Wow! That’s sure intriguing, isn’t it? I wonder if there’s any footage of that?
Lisha: I’ll guess that if anyone knew the answer to that, they probably wouldn’t tell us! But surely there must be – talk about a historic moment.
I was thinking Captain EO is a good example of how challenging it can be to really define the authorship of recorded music. We know Michael Jackson was the composer, lyricist, performer, and producer of the songs heard in Captain EO, but we learned there was also a tremendous amount of responsibility given to Matt Forger, who recorded and mixed the songs. Matt described John Barnes as “a one-man band” working with Michael Jackson on “We are Here to Change the World” and “Another Part of Me.” Matt was also the theatrical sound designer for EO, working for the first time ever in 5.1 surround sound – a technology that was developed by Disney specifically for Captain EO – so he and the Disney engineers made an incredibly important contribution to Captain EO as well. But the entire film, really, is a recorded musical work – many contributed to it from a variety of disciplines.
Eleanor: I agree with you, Lisha, that in the production of music, especially today, the lines are blurred. The extent of Brad’s and Matt’s involvement in the creation of Michael’s music really made me question the whole idea of authorship or ownership, especially when an artist’s vision requires the knowledge and expertise – and artistry – of others to realize it. In trying to resolve this issue in my own mind, I thought about the music of classical composers and how I knew a piece of music was “theirs.” For example, I used to be able to recognize a piece of music by Bach, whether or not I had ever heard it before and regardless of who was playing it or singing it, from hearing only the first few notes, not because I know anything about the structure of his music, but because I have learned to recognize my own experience of it – a certain kind of “feeling tone” – as unique to Bach. And, based on my emotional experience, I recognize the music as indisputably Bach’s. It’s like it is an expression of his DNA. Is it the mark of great artists, and of great artistry, that their art is instantly recognizable as theirs?
Lisha: It’s hard to say, I suppose just about any kind of music could potentially have some recognizable features, good or bad. But it’s certainly true that in popular music, the demand for distinctive, original material is extremely high and there is no doubt that Michael Jackson met that demand. One of the things that really sets him apart is how he merged his distinctive sound with equally impressive visuals and original dance moves.
Sylvia: Yes, there is a totality to Michael Jackson’s work that few in popular music can match.
Eleanor: Michael Jackson’s dancing certainly sets him apart from anyone else on the stage. It is instantly recognizable – as is the feeling it gives me. Does Michael Jackson’s music – the music on his albums – carry his own unique artistic stamp? I believe it does.
Lisha: I believe it does too.
Eleanor: Matt said that, in producing music, Michael wanted to hit a target emotionally and that it was his job to interpret what that meant. I really liked that Matt said that. And, in my estimation, no one hits a target emotionally as perfectly as Michael Jackson does. I guess that in the final analysis, my feeling is that the power of Michael Jackson’s artistic vision was so strong that it influenced every aspect of the production, from start to finish, including the choice of a song, if it was written by someone else, the choice of a producer, or the choice of the sound engineers. And the power of his vision, among other very important, things, sets him apart and makes the music “his.” Which is not to diminish in any way the extraordinary contribution of the sound engineers and the amount of teamwork involved.
And I wanted to add that Michael’s vision, and playful, open approach, extended to “found sound” as well as surround sound. Brad told a funny but painful story about Michael repositioning a plywood screen to give himself a little more dancing room while recording “Dangerous.” The panels fell on him and the sound of them falling and hitting him was picked up by the mic. It was kept in, and a version of “Dangerous” containing it was ultimately released. Brad said that, in true MJ style, he finished the recording, and then Brad took him to the hospital to be checked for a concussion.
Lisha: Yes that’s a painful story, but from a musical point of view it is absolutely hilarious that he chose to put the sound of a studio accident in a song titled “Dangerous”! And how long have we been listening to this song without knowing what it was we were hearing? The fact that the engineers can take the ordinary sound of some objects falling and create a musical joke is utterly fascinating to me. The creative process seems limitless – contributions can come from anywhere within the system.
Sylvia: The issue of fluid forms of authorship is just another reason why the seminar – although geared towards MJ fans and MJ music aficionados – could actually be an appealing experience for anyone who is interested in music, performance, engineering, or the recording industry in general. There’s definitely a wider audience for this type of seminar. Brad and Matt’s memories and observations are really a testament to the possibilities and innovations of 1980s and 1990s American studio engineering for popular music. What other solo artist at that time was operating on this scale of resources?
Lisha: That’s probably the biggest question on my mind right now. Is there another artist in history who has ever created such massive musical productions with these huge multi-million dollar budgets? I certainly can’t think of one. I agree that learning about these recordings would be of interest to anyone interested in music as recorded art.
Eleanor: Yes, I think, as you point out, Sylvia, that the resources Michael had available allowed Matt and Brad to really push the envelope. So we were learning from the best about the best!
Lisha: Matt and Brad were quick to credit their employer, Michael Jackson, as well as their superiors, especially Bruce Swedien and Quincy Jones. They displayed a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for everyone involved and felt it was ultimately a group effort. It was definitely quite a team.
Veronica: I agree so much with what you all said about the complex teamwork needed to bring an enormous and ground-breaking project like Captain EO into being. Matt Forger, who worked on Captain EO throughout, all the way to its star-studded opening, was a marvelous window into that experience. He emphasized the evolving technology: in music, from large 24-track analog tapes, which were then transferred to laser disks, to digital recording – and in film, finding ways to create all those special effects before computers and CGI were available, using what Matt called “stop and go” special effects and building miniatures.
Brad and Matt emphasized that Michael was a “team player” and worked well with others. Brad talked about how the general motto in the studio was “Take the work seriously, but not yourself,” something that Quincy repeated with his saying, “Leave your ego at the door.” Matt emphasized over and over that MJ’s “work ethic was second to none,” and that others, including himself and Brad, would put in 16-hour work days, and sometimes MJ and Bruce Swedien even slept in the studio.
Lisha: Yes, and this went on day after day, week after week, year after year. I don’t think it’s generally understood how long and how hard Michael Jackson and his team worked to create these albums. Even before the formal recording sessions started, Michael Jackson could have a group working at Hayvenhurst for a year or more before even getting to day one of the formal recording process. Who knows how long he might have been working on a song even before that!
Veronica: Matt pointed out that in all MJ’s projects, “The creative intent is the highest priority.” And the creative intent was to strive for “the strongest emotional connection” possible, to make the listener feel the music emotionally. The songs were often born years, even decades, before and slowly worked their way into being. The albums took years, Matt said.
Eleanor: Yes, that really impressed me, Veronica! Although many people see art and technology – just as they see art and pop music – as occupying separate spheres, Michael clearly saw technology and popular music as a powerful means of achieving “the strongest emotional connection” and expressing himself as an artist.
Veronica: Matt also explained that the surround sound system for Captain EO was calibrated to meet specific music standards for highs and lows, designated by THX-approved systems, and that the four places where the film was shown – Anaheim, Epcot, Paris, and Tokyo – were checked through equalizers for sound quality.
Captain EO was shown in those four theaters for a relatively short time, from 1986 to the mid-90s, when the allegations caused the removal of the movie, and it was only restored in 2010 after MJ’s death. It is a work that has not yet received the full attention it deserves, having disappeared for such a long time. I agree with Sylvia, it is an important part of MJ’s Afrofuturism, as well as an even earlier work The Wiz – artist Derrick Adams sees this film as foundational for Afrofuturism. (Here’s a link.) I like Lisha’s reference to the “mythic” qualities in EO – such as the rainbow on his shirt and the name EO, meaning “Dawn” – and in MJ’s art in general. (And, Lisha, yes, the title HIStory: Past, Present, and Future is a very puzzling and intriguing title. It’s a fluid and complex “HIS story” for sure!)
I just wish that the film could somehow be made more generally available. There is so much there and I feel very grateful to Matt and Brad for bringing a greater understanding of the effort and dedication of so many to bring Michael’s “creative intent” into being. As Matt said, “The logistics were huge.” By the way, a recent interview with Matt is on Damien Shields’ blog, and a worthwhile video on The Making of Captain EO shows how meticulous the work was.
Lisha: Yes, I’m with you on that, Veronica. I would really like to see Captain EO made available to the public in some form or another – it is certainly worthy of much more attention. What a fabulous weekend we had learning about it and so many other Michael Jackson projects. Brad and Matt have more seminars coming up. I hope we get to do it again soon!
Willa: So Joie, on a number of occasions when asked about the scandals that surrounded him, and the way the media turned against him and really vilified him in later years, Michael Jackson suggested that one cause was jealousy. And I always interpreted that to mean that certain individuals (like Evan Chandler) were jealous of him, and that’s certainly true.
But then Lisha McDuff, Harriet Manning, and I did a post a few weeks ago about blackface minstrelsy and how it was motivated in part by envy – racial envy. And then the other day I was listening to a 2002 phone interview with Steve Harvey, a black comedian and radio host, and I was really struck by the fact that when Michael Jackson talked with him about jealousy, he said “us” – not “me” but “us,” that people are jealous of “us” – and I think that “us” means successful black entertainers.
It’s funny – that one little word opened my eyes to a completely different way of interpreting what he’d been saying all those years. It seems to me now that he’s not talking so much about personal jealousy, though of course that’s part of it, but about racial jealousy – the jealousy of whites against successful blacks. As he tells Steve Harvey,
They hate to see us grow and build and build, and there’s nothing wrong with that [with growing]. They can and it’s ok. What can I do but reinforce the talent that God gave me? That’s all I want to do, is share the love and gift of entertainment. That’s all I want to do. I don’t want to hurt anybody.
Here’s the interview, and the part about jealousy starts about 8 minutes in:
Joie: I had forgotten all about this Steve Harvey interview, Willa. And speaking as a Black American, I agree that he’s talking about race when he makes his jealousy statement.
You know, this is actually an issue that many black people have struggled with and talked about among themselves for many, many years. Michael’s statement that, “They hate to see us grow and build” is a very real phenomenon in our society, and it has been going on since the birth of our nation. Or rather, I should say, since the end of slavery in our nation. And he wasn’t just talking about successful black entertainers. He was talking about any Black American who has found great success in whatever field they happen to work in, whether they’re famous or not. In fact, I believe that it’s one of the prevailing factors for all the backlash President Obama has seen during his time in office.
Willa: I agree. Part of the backlash – against Michael Jackson and Obama as well – is caused by racial prejudice, I think, but I hadn’t thought about it before in terms of jealousy – racial jealousy. That’s interesting, and it’s also interesting that Michael Jackson’s words seem pretty obvious to you and not so obvious to me. I wonder if that’s intentional, and it gets back to the idea of “language and power” that we talked about with Bjørn in a post a while ago – that Michael Jackson is using language in a subtle way so that it means different things to different listeners.
You know, if we look at his exact words, he’s speaking in a pretty indirect way. He never says the words “black” or “white,” and actually never mentions race at all. But still, if a listener is familiar with that ongoing conversation that you’re talking about, Joie – one “that many black people have struggled with and talked about among themselves for many, many years,” as you say – then his words are obvious, but if a listener isn’t aware of that context, then that just goes right past them. So I wonder if he’s speaking in a careful way with two distinct audiences in mind – specifically, if he’s talking in a way that immediately resonates with blacks, but doesn’t alarm or offend whites because we don’t really get what he’s saying.
Joie: It’s interesting to me that you think that, Willa. That he’s talking in some sort of code or something in order to connect with the black audience but not alarm or offend the white audience. Because to me – and probably to any other black person listening to this interview – he’s not speaking in a careful way at all. In fact, when I listen to this interview, I hear him speaking in a very relaxed, very open way. He’s not being cautious and careful with what he says because he knows that there’s no reason to. He’s speaking to another black entertainer, and his two black co-hosts, on a radio show geared toward a black audience. He obviously felt very comfortable with his surroundings in that moment. And he obviously knew that he was among people of a similar background (the Black American experience) who would understand immediately what he was talking about. So there was no need to speak “in a very careful way with two distinct audiences in mind.” So, I’m saying that I don’t think he was purposely talking in code or anything.
Willa: Well, that’s true, Joie – he does sound relaxed and comfortable. But still, a lot of things are left unsaid, like the words “black” and “white.” It’s like there are gaps between his words. And he’s not just speaking to a black audience – radio waves go out to everyone – and whether it’s intentional on his part or not, I think different listeners interpret his words very differently. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they fill in the gaps differently.
There’s a similar situation in the song “Ghosts,” which was written after the 1993 allegations and strip search. Here’s the chorus:
And who gave you the right to scare my family?
And who gave you the right to scare my baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
And who gave you the right to take intrusion
To see me?
And who gave you the right to shake my family?
And who gave you the right to hurt my baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
You put a knife in my back
Shot an arrow in me
Tell me are you the ghost of jealousy?
A sucking ghost of jealousy?
He’s talking about the false accusations and the strip search (“who gave you the right to take intrusion / To see me?”) as well as the scandals that followed, and once again he suggests the real motivation behind them is “jealousy.” He never mentions race, and I never interpreted it that way – as racial jealousy. I thought he was just saying that Evan Chandler and Tom Sneddon and Diane Dimond and all those other figures working so hard to bring him down were envious of him and his success. But now I’m wondering if I was misunderstanding him – that he was talking specifically about racial jealousy – something Harriet mentioned was part of blackface minstrelsy, and a much larger cultural narrative as well, for more than a century.
Joie: Ok, I guess I see where you’re going with this. And when I think about it, there were no accusers or “other figures working so hard to bring him down” as you say that I can think of who were black. So, maybe you’re on to something.
Willa: Well, that’s true – none of the people working hardest to smear him were black, unless you count Stacy Brown. Just as importantly, it’s very interesting how different people reacted whenever he suggested – however indirectly – that the scandals plaguing him were tinged with racism or racial jealousy.
For example, in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson said that the public persecution he faced “has been kind of a pattern among black luminaries in this country.” When Jesse Jackson asks him, “How are you handling it?” he replies,
I’m handling it by using other people in the past who have gone through this sort of thing. Mandela’s story has given me a lot of strength – what he’s gone through. The Jack Johnson story … called Unforgivable Blackness. It’s an amazing story about this man from 1910 who was the heavyweight champion of the world, and thrust into a society that didn’t want to accept his position and his lifestyle. And what they put him through. And how they changed laws to imprison the man, to put him away behind bars just to get him some kind of way. And Muhammad Ali’s story … All these stories that I can go back in history and read about give me strength.
Here’s a link and the discussion of race starts about 4:15 in. It’s an astute reading of his situation, I think, and places the false allegations against him – and the police and public response to those allegations – within a context of other successful black pioneers who have been targeted by the authorities.
However, his words caused outrage, as well as some pretty snide remarks. In an opinion piece in The Los Angeles Times, a white academic, Elaine Showalter, wrote this:
Although he has tried to present himself as a target of racist envy and malice, comparing himself to Nelson Mandela (the ace of race cards) in an interview with that swiftest of spiritual ambulance-chasers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jackson’s race is as indeterminate and ambiguous as his sexuality.
Elaine Showalter was a groundbreaking feminist scholar in the 1980s – I read some of her work back then and had a lot of respect for her – and I can’t believe she of all people would be so oblivious and write something so simplistic and so snootily patriarchal. This is really troubling, I think, in many different ways – not the least being her assumption that, because his skin is no longer dark, he’s somehow disqualified from talking about race or pointing out the racism that surrounds him.
Joie: Yes, that remark is incredible, isn’t it? And you just want to ask her, you know … if she had suddenly found herself with a disease … let’s say breast cancer for instance, and had to have both her breasts removed, would she suddenly not be a woman anymore?
Willa: Wow, Joie. That’s a powerful question. I never thought of it like that before …
Joie: Or if there was a disease out there that caused a white person’s pigment to darken, would she no longer be allowed to identify herself as Caucasian? I mean, she’s not just saying he’s disqualified from pointing out the racism that surrounds him. She is saying that he no longer has the right to identify with the black race. That he no longer has the right to call himself a Black American. Her very comment is incredibly racist on so many levels.
Willa: That is really interesting, Joie. When you reverse the situation, it really highlights just how much she’s talking from a privileged position, doesn’t it? Why does a white person feel she has a right to decide if a black person is black enough to suit her? That isn’t just incredibly offensive, it’s nonsensical. I can’t imagine a black person ever saying that about a white person.
I mean, picture a person with two white parents who grew up in a white community, as Michael Jackson did with two black parents in a black neighborhood in Gary. And then try to imagine some sort of circumstance where a black person would say that person wasn’t white enough to speak from a white perspective. I just don’t think it would ever happen, and it wouldn’t make sense if it did because we don’t have a cultural history of blacks forcing whites to meet their expectations of whiteness. But we have a very long history of whites forcing blacks to fit white definitions of blackness, as Lisha and Harriet and I talked about.
But I shouldn’t oversimplify this. It wasn’t just whites who reacted badly to the Steve Harvey interview. An opinion piece by Sinclere Lee in Black News Weekly was just as snarky:
If Michael Jackson is guilty of anything and should go to jail, for, it’s when he compared himself to Nelson Mandela. I know Nelson Mandela! I met Nelson Mandela when he came to Washington! Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest freedom fighters in the world! Nelson Mandela spent 27-years in prison to free the Blacks in South Africa, and you can’t do a day in jail! Michael, don’t believe that shit Jesse Jackson is telling you, you are no Nelson Mandela!
Joie: And to me, this is a ridiculous statement because Michael Jackson, and Jesse Jackson for that matter, both knew Nelson Mandela personally as well. Michael didn’t simply “meet” the man when he came to Washington. He knew Mandela very well. He and Mandela were actually very close friends for many, many years.
And Michael wasn’t comparing himself to Mandela in that comment. He was saying that he uses Mandela’s story as a source of inspiration to deal with the blatant racism he was experiencing. There is a huge difference.
Willa: I agree completely, Joie. And what can possibly be wrong with saying that Nelson Mandela inspired him?
But while this article is just as bad as the Showalter piece in some ways, there’s an important difference, I think. While Lee criticizes Michael Jackson for comparing himself to Mandela (which he doesn’t do, as you pointed out), she doesn’t scoff at the idea that racism is involved, the way Showalter does.
Joie: That’s true, she doesn’t. In fact, she never even veers off in that direction. Her main focus is simply the fact that she was personally offended by the thought that Michael was comparing himself to such a great freedom fighter.
Willa: Exactly. And I think that difference is subtle but important. Elaine Showalter seems to think it’s ludicrous to suggest that racism played a role in determining how Michael Jackson was treated by the police and the press (while I think it’s incredibly simplistic to assume racism wasn’t involved) but Sinclere Lee doesn’t make such a naive assumption. While a white academic may think racism played no part in it, Lee knows better.
Joie: That is interesting, isn’t it? You know, Willa, sometimes I wonder if you could take a poll now that everything is over and done with and Michael is no longer with us … how many people today, white and black, would admit that race played a factor in how he was treated by the press and the police? You know, now that we’ve all gotten a little distance and perspective. I wonder what people think today. Does that make sense?
Willa: It does, and that’s another really interesting question, Joie. My sense is that feelings about Michael Jackson have softened a lot since he died, and people are much more likely to see him as innocent now that he’s gone. We talked about that in a post last spring. But I don’t think people in general – and white people in particular – are ready to acknowledge what a huge influence race and racism had on how the allegations were perceived by the police, the media, and the public. The idea of racial prejudice, and especially racial envy, makes whites very uncomfortable, I think, and most whites don’t want to even consider it. But the more I think about this, the more I think Michael Jackson was absolutely right, and racial jealousy was at the heart of it.
I mean, it’s very interesting to really look at what people are actually saying at different points, and how they’re saying it. Look at what Evan Chandler tells him the last time they meet. He points his finger at him and shouts, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down.” The implication seems to be that Michael Jackson has risen too high, and now Evan Chandler is determined to take him down.
Randy Taraborrelli expresses a similar idea in his biography. Based on Chandler’s accusations, the police conduct a strip search, and here’s how Taraborrelli leads into his description of what had to be a humiliating and truly horrible experience:
The bottom line is that Michael has done whatever he wanted to do for most of his life, living in a world of privilege and entitlement simply because of who he is. … However, in December of 1993 Michael was about to experience, if just for one day, what it might be like to live in the real world, where people often have to do things they may not necessarily want to do.
This passage is so shocking to me. You would think Taraborrelli’s focus would be on the evidence, and whether the strip search confirms or contradicts Chandler’s accusations – supposedly that’s the point of it, after all – but it isn’t. Taraborrelli is much more focused on the psychological impact of the strip search, and the effect it will have on how Michael Jackson sees himself and positions himself in the world. Taraborrelli seems very critical of Michael Jackson “living in a world of privilege and entitlement,” and now the strip search is going to bring him back down to “the real world,” and Taraborrelli speaks approvingly of that. He seems to think it’s appropriate that Michael Jackson will be brought down, “if just for one day.” And it really feels to me that Taraborrelli’s words express quite a bit of jealousy.
Joie: Well, you know how I feel about Taraborrelli, and I believe that there are several spots in that book where he comes off as jealous of his subject. So, I agree with you completely on that statement.
Willa: But is it jealousy because of his wealth and his celebrity? Or is it racial jealousy? Or is it a combination of both – is he jealous that a black man, especially, has been so successful? I really wonder about that, especially since both he and Evan Chandler talk specifically about the need to bring Michael Jackson “down.”
That language and imagery of bringing him down reminds me of a horrifying scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin that we talked about in a very painful post a long time ago. Rosa, a beautiful young slave, a teenager, tries on a dress belonging to her owner, Maria. Maria walks in and sees her wearing it, becomes furious, and sends Rosa to the whipping house. Here’s Maria’s explanation for why she orders such an extreme punishment for such a trivial offense:
She has all her life presumed on her delicacy, and her good looks, and her lady-like airs, till she forgets who she is; – and I’ll give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!
So Maria isn’t angry so much because of the dress, but because it’s a sign that Rosa “forgets who she is” – that she is a young black woman, and a slave. Maria feels very threatened by that, especially since in many ways Rosa is more truly “lady-like” in her looks and bearing than Maria is. So Maria intends to shame her and remind her of “who she is,” and scorch it into her memory so severely she’ll never forget again. In other words, Maria wants to bring about a psychological change in Rosa, and “give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!”
It seems to me that’s exactly what Taraborrelli is talking about with the strip search – that it will cause a psychological change in Michael Jackson that will “bring him down” from his “world of privilege and entitlement” – and what Evan Chandler is talking about when he points his finger and shouts, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down.” And I think it’s what Michael Jackson himself is referring to in “Morphine” when he sings, “I’m going down, baby.” He’s being brought down by the same impulse that brought down Rosa more than 150 years ago.
Joie: That’s an interesting comparison, Willa. And one you’re probably right about. But, I guess what I’m getting at is, I wonder if people’s attitudes about the whole situation … and really about his whole life … I wonder if their attitudes are truly shifting and softening, or if it’s simply a case of “don’t speak ill of the dead.” Do you know what I mean?
Willa: I do, but I don’t know the answer. And I’m not sure people themselves know why their feelings have changed, or how deeply they’ve changed. Or what truly motivated their feelings against him to begin with. I mean, maybe feelings have softened because he’s gone, so there’s no reason to feel threatened or jealous of him any longer.
Joie: I don’t know. I’m not even sure why it matters or why that question sort of haunts me. I guess I just feel like here was this special, beautiful, talented, loving man who only wanted to make the world happy, and he was ridiculed and persecuted and hated for it. That bothers me.
Joie: So, Willa, I’ve been wondering if you ever go through phases where you don’t listen to a certain song for a long time, and then suddenly, you can’t seem to get it out of your head. Like, for example, there are times when I won’t listen to certain things – like Michael’s early, Motown work – for several months. And then all of a sudden one day, no matter what I do I just can’t seem to get “Dancing Machine” or “Looking through the Windows” out of my head. Do you ever do that?
Willa: I do! And sometimes it isn’t even a song I like.
Joie: Oh, I do that too! I hate it when that happens!
Willa: I know. It’s not so bad if it’s a song you love, but sometimes it isn’t. Though if I think about it, sometimes I realize that song is telling me something I need to hear right then.
Joie: Hmm. Now that’s an interesting way of looking at it. Next time that happens I’ll have to think about what the song is trying to tell me.
Willa: It can be fun trying to figure that out – kind of like trying to interpret dreams and see what your subconscious mind is puzzling over, even though you may not realize it. Though I have to say, I’m not very good at it – generally it remains a mystery. Sometimes I can make sense of it, but most times it just seems completely random.
Joie: It certainly does feel random usually. Well, I’m asking because there is a song that I have been singing to myself for about a week or so now, and it’s one that I have not listened to for probably a year, at least. It’s “Blues Away” by the Jacksons.
The song is on their 1976 album titled simply The Jacksons, the first one under their new name and their new label, and it was actually one of the very first songs that Michael wrote himself that was released.
Willa: That’s true. In fact, I think it was the first. He also helped write “Style of Life” on the same album, but that one he wrote with Tito – in fact, Tito is listed first, meaning he’s the principal author. But “Blues Away” credits “Michael Jackson” alone, and it seems to be the first released song he wrote entirely on his own.
Joie: It’s a simple little song, just over three minutes in length, and it’s sort of sweet, but also sort of sad in a way. The chorus of the song says “You can’t take my blues away, no matter what you say.” And I have always been sort of intrigued by this, and I’ve spent considerable time wondering about it. So, I thought maybe we could talk about it and I could get your take on it.
Willa: Sure, that sounds fun. You’re right, it is a fairly simple song – it doesn’t have the depth or complexity of a lot of his later work. Just think about “Billie Jean,” which was released only three years later. “Billie Jean” has so much going on, musically and thematically – though it handles it all so effortlessly it’s easy to overlook just how complicated it is. But even a relatively simple song like “Blues Away” can be a challenge to interpret. Like a lot of his songs, its meaning is subtle and ambiguous. It slips around.
For example, if someone told me this was a courtship song – a song a guy was singing to a girl he wants to go out with – and if they told me the title was “Blues Away,” I would guess that he’s telling the girl he has the blues without her, and if she goes out with him it’ll send his “blues away.” That would be a more typical approach – kind of like “Ain’t No Sunshine.” But that isn’t what he’s saying.
Joie: No, it’s not what he’s saying at all, and actually, I’m not entirely sure that this is meant to be a courtship-type song. Although it does feel that way at times. The first verse opens this way:
I’d like to be yours
So I’m giving you some time to
Think it over today
But, you can’t take my blues away
No matter what you say, babe
So, at times, it does feel like a courtship song. He’s telling her that he’d like to go out with her and maybe be her boyfriend, but he’s not sure how she feels so he’s giving her some time to think it over. But then in the next breath he tells her that no matter what she decides, it’s not going to take away his blues. He’s still going to be a little bit depressed, even if she says yes.
Willa: Exactly, which isn’t at all what you’d expect, so I can see why you aren’t sure if this is really a courtship song or not. I’m not sure about that either.
I’m going to go way out on a limb here, but I don’t think Michael Jackson was a romantic – at least not in the conventional sense of the word. What I mean is, a lot of romantic songs seem to suggest that if two people really love each other, then that’s all they need to be happy. The rest of the world just sort of fades away into the background, and doesn’t really matter anymore. All they need is each other.
But I don’t think Michael Jackson saw things that way. I don’t think he ever could forget the rest of the world, or even his own troubled feelings about things. It reminds me of something he wrote in Moonwalk in 1988:
My dating and relationships with girls have not had the happy ending I’ve been looking for. Something always seems to get in the way. The things I share with millions of people aren’t the sort of things you share with one. Many girls want to know what makes me tick – why I live the way I live or do the things I do – trying to get inside my head. They want to rescue me from loneliness, but they do it in such a way that they give me the impression they want to share my loneliness, which I wouldn’t wish on anybody, because I believe I’m one of the loneliest people in the world.
That’s such a different way of seeing things. He expresses a profound loneliness – as he says, “I believe I’m one of the loneliest people in the world” – and just looking at his life story, I can believe it.
Joie: I agree.
Willa: He really was in a unique and terribly isolating position, wasn’t he? And generally, we think the cure for loneliness is to find someone who loves you and understands you, but he doesn’t seem to feel that way. Instead, he seems to suggest he has a loneliness so deep and absolute that sharing it can’t make it go away. It would just spread his loneliness to another person, and he “wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”
Joie: Willa, that is not only very interesting, but also amazing. I think you may have just put into words what he couldn’t fully express. We, as a society, do tend to believe that the cure for loneliness is to find someone who loves and understands you. Or at the very least, someone who simply accepts you as you are.
Willa: Oh, that’s a good point, Joie – someone who accepts you unconditionally, even if they don’t understand you.
Joie: But Michael didn’t feel that way. He didn’t share that belief with the rest of us. He seemed to be coming from a place much darker and more isolated than most of us could even fathom, I think. A place where his loneliness ran so deep that it permeated his soul. And he lived his life in a way that seems to suggest he feared his loneliness would only corrupt others if he let them get too close.
Willa: It feels that way to me too. But you know, the really odd thing is that, listening to his voice – which always seems to have a touch of sorrow in it, even when he was very young – helps our loneliness go away. That seems cruelly ironic, that his sadness helps us feel better, but it seems to … at least it does for me. He’s helped me through some really difficult times, and I’ve heard others say that too. He’s almost like an empath, taking on our troubles and helping us feel better, and I don’t think it would work the same way if he didn’t have that sorrow in his voice.
Joie: I think you are absolutely right! His voice does always seem to carry a measure of sorrow in it, and it did feel at times that he could feel our pain. That he already knew all about it because he had seen it or gone through it before himself. And you’re right, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of fans out there who will tell you that listening to his voice helped them through the toughest of trials in their lives. I’m one of those people too, Willa. And I love what you said about him being an empath.
You know, I’m a huge Star Trek fan, and my favorite Star Trek series is The Next Generation with Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. In that series, one of the main characters is a female Starfleet officer named Deanna Troi, and she comes from the planet Betazed, which is a race of telepaths who can hear your thoughts as though you’re speaking out loud. That’s how they communicate among themselves. They only lower themselves to speak when they’re dealing with “off worlders.” Well, Deanna wasn’t a true telepath because her father had been a human Starfleet officer, so while she could easily communicate telepathically with other telepaths, she couldn’t hear your thoughts. But she could feel your every emotion because she was an empath. And her empathic abilities gave her a very unique perspective on the people around her.
Willa: That’s a great description, Joie, and it reminds me of one of the original Star Trek shows. They meet an empath who not only feels the emotional suffering of others, but can also take on their physical suffering and heal it. One of the crew members – Captain Kirk, I think – is fatally wounded somehow, and even though she knows what it means, she takes on his wounds and his suffering, so he’s cured and she dies instead.
That’s an extreme example, but in some hard-to-define way Michael Jackson seems to have had an empathetic connection with people also – at least it feels that way to me – and in his own way was able to take on our suffering and help us feel better.
Joie: At times, it does seem like Michael Jackson must have had some kind of empathic ability somehow. I don’t think there’s ever been another person who just appeared to be so in tune with what others were feeling. And he seemed to have such a burden for the sick and the weak, almost as if he truly could feel their suffering.
Willa: I agree. And even those of us who never met him could listen to his voice and feel an emotional connection that just made you feel better somehow. He also inspires us to help others, as Sylvia Martin explores in an article we recently added to the Reading Room.
You know, thinking about all this in terms of “Blues Away” reminds me of a story from Randy Taraborrelli’s biography. When Michael Jackson was 13 or 14, his brother Tito decided to get married but Michael discouraged him, and his reasons are really interesting. Here’s what Taraborrelli says:
Michael felt strongly that Tito was letting their fans down by marrying, and attempted to convince him to change his mind. “Think about all the girls out there who love us,” he said, trying to reason with his brother one day in the Motown offices.
“They don’t even know us, Mike,” Tito said. “We can’t live our lives for perfect strangers.”
“But they do know us,” Michael argued, according to a witness, “and we owe them, Tito. We owe them.”
To be honest, this puzzled me for a long time. What difference does it make if Tito – or even Michael Jackson himself – gets married or not? It’s not like it would affect his voice, or his skill as a dancer. It shouldn’t affect his performance in any way. So why does he feel he “owes” it to his audience not to get married?
I think it’s because of how we relate to him, and how we project our feelings onto him and feel them reflected back at us. And I also think it’s because of the empathetic connection he felt with his audience. It required total dedication on his part – a willingness to open himself emotionally and commit himself fully and completely to his audience and his art. And he did that. He gave everything, body and soul. And I think he understood that from a young age – understood what was required of him to be who and what he was, to fill the cultural role he filled, and to be what we needed him to be.
Joie: I’ve never thought about it like that before, Willa. That’s really deep, isn’t it? And still so very sad. It’s almost like he willingly gave up his happiness so that he could make us happy instead. Sort of like someone laying down their own life for the life of his friend.
Willa: Oh, it’s terribly sad. You know, I think about his life sometimes, and all the things he went through, and it’s almost unbearable. I wish he could have found that “happy ending I’ve been looking for” that he talks about in Moonwalk. I wish his life could have turned out differently. I wish the 1993 allegations had never happened, or if they did happen that he was cleared somehow, and he could have found contentment and peace. I want it so badly it hurts – it’s like a physical ache – and I think a lot of fans feel that way.
Joie: I think they do too.
Willa: And maybe if he’d been more like Tito and made the same decisions Tito made, his life would have turned out differently. After all, Tito’s a very talented blues guitarist and performer and producer in his own right, as well as a father and grandfather. It is possible to be a musician and still have a happy home life.
But of course, Michael Jackson was so much more than a musician. He was an artist of a very rare caliber, and a transformative cultural figure who radically changed how we see ourselves and each other. And to be honest, knowing how dedicated he was to his art, I can’t really picture him making a decision different than the one he made. He lived his life with courage and passion and a total dedication to his art, and I’m filled with admiration because of that – as well as sadness for the things he gave up.
Joie: And he did give up so much when you think about it. You know, Willa, thinking about what you just said about the fans wanting so badly for circumstances in his life to have turned out differently … I truly agree with that statement. I think probably most of us who call ourselves fans would agree with that. But I have a confession to make. I sometimes think about Michael’s life, and about how dedicated he was to his art and how much he sacrificed to make us happy, and I feel extremely guilty about how things turned out for him. Does that make sense? And I’ve always wondered if others feel guilty or if it’s just me.
But getting back to the song, “Blues Away,” you know, that song was written back in the mid ’70s and I find it interesting to think that he knew even back then that his was going to be a life of sorrow. I mean, that’s basically what that song is saying, I think – that no matter what answer she gives him, no matter what happiness comes, there will always be that undercurrent of sorrow for him.
Willa: I think you’re right, Joie. As he tells her in that line you quoted earlier, “You can’t take my blues away, no matter what you say.”
Willa: This week Lisha McDuff and I are so honored to be joined by Brad Sundberg, who worked with Michael Jackson for nearly two decades. He served as Technical Director on the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory albums, and helped design the sound system at Neverland. While working on Bad, Michael Jackson gave him the nickname Really, Really Brad, as in “I’m Brad, I’m Brad, I’m Really, Really Brad.” That cracks me up!
Over the past year Brad has been offering seminars in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to share his insights as well as sound recordings from his work with Michael Jackson. Several of our friends and contributors – Lisha, Susan Fast, and Joe Vogel – attended his recent seminar in Toronto, and from everything I’ve heard it was incredible! Lisha asked Brad if he’d like to talk with us, and he said yes. Brad, thank you so much for joining us!
Brad: Thanks Willa, great to be able to hang out with you and Lisha.
Willa: I’m eager to hear more about your seminar, In the Studio with Michael Jackson. And I understand you’re planning a very special one at Walt Disney World about recording Captain EO. Is that right?
Brad: The seminars are a lot of fun, and I think this will be my 10th one! Each one is a little different, sometimes I add or remove segments as time dictates. Back in 1984 I first met Michael at Westlake Studios where he was recording Captain EO with Matt Forger. Matt and I have remained friends over the years and have worked together on countless Michael projects. Disney has strongly hinted that EO will be closing in 2014, so I thought it would be fun to bring Matt out to Orlando and do a seminar with Matt, with a strong emphasis on the Captain EO project. To make it even more fun we will do one full day in the studio for the seminar (with “Family Friday” dinner included!), then attendees will have the option to meet up with us at Epcot the next day to watch EO a few times together, ask more questions, and hang out in the park all day. I think it is going to be an amazing weekend for MJ fans.
Lisha: I’d say that’s an understatement! The seminar I attended in Toronto was truly incredible, plus I don’t think nearly enough has been said or written about Captain EO, so this is something I wouldn’t want to miss. Watching Captain EO at Disney’s Epcot Center is a totally different experience than seeing the film any other way, right? Not only was Captain EO the first film to include 4D effects (it is a 3D film that includes special effects inside the theater as well), it was also the first surround-sound film ever made.
Brad: That is correct! I was talking with Matt Forger several months ago, and we were talking about EO. I was a runner (get food, vacuum, roll cables, etc.) at Westlake in ’84/’85, when Matt was recording Captain EO. Disney actually developed a true-digital surround-sound system just for EO. Matt had to replicate how the theater would sound in the studio, so he had speakers all around the room, cables everywhere … it was awesome! But it allowed him to mix the music so it still sounds like Michael, but it also fills those giant theaters that Disney built.
Lisha: I’ve always wondered how that was initially planned and worked out, so I’m really anxious to hear more from Matt Forger about this. I did have the opportunity to see the film at Disney a while back and I remember there were speakers all around the theater, even in the back of the house behind the audience. Captain EO is historically important for a number of reasons, I think, especially in how it conceptualizes sound and the 4D effects. It must been have a thrill, Brad, to have witnessed all this being put together.
Brad: Here’s a funny side-note: my wife and I have always been Disney fans, and we would often go to Disneyland on Sunday nights for dinner. We were there on the Captain EO opening weekend, along with half of Los Angeles, and it was fun to see something I had been a very small part of in the studio take over Disneyland! We still have our original t-shirts, geeky as that may sound. And yes, the theater does have some Disney “4D” effects in it that make the experience far more immersive than seeing it on a computer screen. Plus the theater sound systems were originally tuned by Matt, so they sound amazing.
Lisha: I don’t think that sounds geeky at all! I’m sure you’re glad you hung onto to those original t-shirts – that’s such a great memory. And I agree that the sound system is amazing, plus I love all the special theatrical effects as well.
For example, I remember there are cables under each seat that create movement that is synchronized with the film. When the spaceship does its crash landing you can actually feel the impact of the crash in your seat. Another great effect is that there are tiny fans and misters installed in the seat backs, so when Hooter makes his elephant sounds, you get a little blast of air and mist right in your face, as if it’s coming right from his trunk!
Willa: That’s funny!
Lisha: It is! There are lots of special lighting effects too coming from every imaginable direction, even from under the seats, and a sparkling disco ball effect that happens when the “Supreme Leader” is transformed into a beautiful goddess. On the big screen there are lots of details that you can’t see watching it any other way, like the small colorful lights that ornament Michael Jackson’s electrified costume.
I thought the surround-sound effects were really fun, too. I especially remember the battle scene and the sound of laser gunfire moving rapidly throughout the theater. I could hear it zoom overhead from the back of the theater all the way to the front, immersing the viewer into the action of the film.
I’m afraid once Captain EO closes at Disney, there won’t be a way to experience the film as it was originally intended by its creators, Michael Jackson, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola, one of the most stellar creative teams ever assembled! This could really be the last chance to get to experience it.
Willa: Wow, Lisha. You’re making me feel like I really need to get down there before it closes. I haven’t seen Captain EO since, hmmm … 1986, I think, at Epcot Center. And I remember the seats jolting and vibrating but I don’t remember any mist from Hooter’s trunk! And I don’t remember that soundscape you’re describing so vividly – I can tell you’re a musician! I just remember that the sound and visual and physical effects were all pretty incredible.
Brad: Captain EO is unlike any sci-fi movie or music video (short film) ever created. It was a huge budget (for the time), and the talent pool is pretty remarkable. Yes, the costumes and hairstyles scream 80′s!! But it was the 80′s, and it was fun. I can’t say, nor do I know for certain when the attraction will close, but the rumors are growing that its days are numbered, so I would rather do an event now than wish I had in a few months.
Lisha: I understand the budget for this film was unprecedented. At a cost of $30 million for a 17-minute film, that comes to $1.76 million per minute! It’s the most expensive film per minute ever made, and it was a major undertaking for Disney, Lucas, Coppola, and Michael Jackson. As you said, Brad, half of Los Angeles turned up for the premiere!
For the fans who never had the opportunity to see Michael Jackson perform live, the 4D film experience might be as close as it gets, don’t you think?
Brad: Sadly, I suppose that is true. Did either of you ever get a chance to see him live?
Lisha: No, unfortunately! I’m one of the new fans. Several people have said it’s impossible to know what it was like to see Michael Jackson perform live unless you actually experienced it for yourself. How about you, Willa? That’s something I’ve wanted to ask you. Did you ever get to see Michael Jackson perform live?
Willa: No I didn’t, and for the opposite reason. I’ve felt a strong connection to Michael Jackson since I was really young, in elementary school, and it just felt so intensely personal I couldn’t imagine seeing him in a stadium with thousands of screaming people. And he never did a concert anywhere near where I happened to be at the time – I’m sure if he had, I wouldn’t have been able to resist. But still … I should have gone anyway. It’s hard to explain, but the first concert I ever saw was Aerosmith – a friend talked me into it and it was really fun, but pretty overwhelming for me – and I just couldn’t picture seeing Michael Jackson that way. It just didn’t feel right. I really regret it now though.
Lisha: Oh, me too. I really regret it – what was I thinking?
Willa: How about you, Brad? I imagine you were able to see him a few times. …
Brad: Can I tell you a quick story or two? When I was still in college in 1984 the Victory tour tickets went on sale in LA at Dodger Stadium. I really wanted to go, but you had to buy tickets in clusters for four in sort of a lotto set-up. It was complicated and expensive, and I just didn’t make it. Fast forward just four years to 1988, and I was watching the show with my wife from backstage at Madison Square Garden!
Brad: Now here’s the crazy thing – I had worked with and been around Michael extensively on EO and Bad, but I had never seen him on a stage. It was electrifying – it was like I knew him, but at the same time I had no idea who he was.
Willa: You know, I’ve heard several people say that, like Bruce Swedien and Frank Cascio, and I’m so curious about it. That must have been amazing to see him transform from his off-screen self to his on-screen self.
Brad: I was fortunate to see him perform many times on the Bad, Dangerous and HIStory tours, as well as during his rehearsals with the band and dancers. During one show in Paris in ’97 during the HIStory tour, my daughter Amanda (7 at the time) was on stage with several other kids during “Heal The World.”
Willa: Oh, that’s wonderful!
Brad: That was fun to see. But my favorite tour story was backstage during the Bad tour, at MSG NYC. Pepsi was the sponsor, and they had a “VIP Lounge” backstage. My wife Debbie and I were roaming around backstage, and I ducked into a bathroom. On the way out, headed back to the stage, I walked into the “VIP Lounge” to grab a Pepsi. There was only one other person in there: super-model Christie Brinkley! I said hi and we chatted very briefly, and I said I hoped she would enjoy the show, and walked out. Deb was waiting for me a short distance away, and she started laughing as soon as she saw me. I kept walking, and she laughed harder. I was dragging about 6 feet of toilet paper on my shoe. I told her who I had just met, and she laughed all the harder! OK, I’m getting off topic, and I’m embarrassing myself… what was the question again?
Lisha: Ok, I’m crying with laughter. Sorry, but that’s really hysterical! I hope that everyone is getting a sense of how much fun it is to hear you tell these stories!
Willa: That is funny! So I know very little about how musical films are made. Which generally comes first – filming or recording? What I mean is, with Captain EO were the songs recorded first, and then Michael Jackson sang to match them during filming? Or did the filming come first, and then he sang the songs to match the film? And at what point did you become involved in the Captain EO project?
Brad: That’s a great question, and the truth is somewhere in the middle. The music is recorded first, but sometimes the music needs to be edited to fit a certain scene. He was lip-syncing on film to the music Matt recorded in the studio. Captain EO was (to the best of my memory) in very early production when I started working at Westlake.
Willa: And what does that mean, “very early production”? I really do know very little about all this. Were the storyline, characters, songs, dialogue, choreography all pretty much set, or were details still being worked out?
Brad: I don’t know for certain, because we were only working on the music. Having been around many productions, my assumption is that most of the story had been written, but ad-libs and last-minute changes generally come in to play.
Willa: That’s interesting. And how involved was Michael Jackson in those last-minute changes and other decisions? Was he focused pretty exclusively on performing, or did he also have ideas about how he wanted the final piece to look or sound?
Brad: I know that Michael loved being around film productions. He loved to watch and learn the process from the pros. Knowing him, I would imagine he was very focused on his performance, and likely trusted the production team. After all, it’s hard to go wrong with Francis Coppola and George Lucas.
Lisha: Brad, can you tell us how you started doing your seminars, and what someone can expect if they would like to attend one?
Brad: Great question. The very short version of a long story is that I was approached by some French MJ fans to share my stories with them nearly two years ago. I flew to Paris for a few days in the summer of 2012, and we had a group of about 12 in a studio. I brought loads of tapes and it was somewhat disorganized but a lot of fun. I would grab a tape, play an old mix, and tell some memories I had about it.
Willa: Oh, that sounds fabulous! What an incredible experience.
Brad: They really enjoyed it, and I thought I would try it again in New York the following spring. I did two seminars there, but I added some video, and made it a bit more chronological in terms of my years working with Michael. Those seminars also went very well, and pretty soon I was doing them in Orlando, then Paris, Stockholm, Toronto, and now back in Orlando on February 8th.
Michael had a unique connection with many people, through his music, his dance, his benevolence, his humor, and maybe his pain. I didn’t walk in his shoes, nor was I his best friend – but I loved working with him, and I am proud to be able to call him a friend. I can still hear his laugh, I can still see his excitement over a great mix in the studio, or a new ride at the ranch. He was like no one you have ever met before. He was Michael – and if I can give people a sense of what it was like to be around him, that makes me happy.
Willa: That sounds wonderful. Everyone I’ve talked to who’s been to one of your seminars, Brad, just raves about it. For example, Stephenson went to one in New York and sent us an email about it with lots of interesting details and good comments, like this one:
He played parts of a 2 hour recording of MJ and Bill Bottrell creating Give In to Me – it was so amazing because the song – the music and lyrics – slowly emerged from the experimental sounds of Bill’s guitar and MJ’s singing, and you could hear it taking form piece by piece. WOW!!!!!
And just the incredible sound quality alone of your seminars … I’ve been told it’s like you’re hearing his music – I mean, really hearing it – for the first time. Following that with Captain EO at Epcot Center, with the full sensory experience as it was originally envisioned, is an added bonus.
Brad: Rumor has it that Disney is going to close Captain EO after an amazing run, so I reached out to Matt Forger and asked if he would join me for a seminar with a section specifically on Captain EO and Thriller. He agreed, so it will be a pretty special day.
As to what to expect, that’s a hard one. I go into each seminar with a bare-bones flow, and just see where it goes. Sometimes we spend a bit more time on Bad, or we dig deeper into Dangerous. I like to keep it fairly loose and not overly structured. There are certain moments that have been written about, and attenders really want to experience those, but I like it when someone comes and has no idea what to expect. I had one guest who brought her husband, who you would not describe as a mega-fan. He was a really cool guy, and it meant so much to me that he said he really enjoyed the day. I like to think that learning about Michael’s working style, and the group of amazing people in the studio could be of interest to a lot of people who may not think they are MJ fans. Having said that, I have certainly met some incredible fans who are so appreciative of what I am doing.
Willa: Oh, it sounds fabulous, and I would love to learn more about his working style and creative process! As I understand it, he composed most of his songs by capturing ideas with a tape recorder – is that right? He’d sing the melody, the harmonies, even sounds approximating drums or strings or horns or guitar licks to indicate how he wanted the instrumentation to sound. So he’d bring that into the studio, and then what? What’s the process for turning his ideas on a tape recorder into a song on an album?
Brad: We would sometimes give Michael a tape recorder, but keep in mind – Michael would lose something within 45 seconds of giving it to him. Seriously. It was more common for him to call Matt (or one of the team) and meet at a studio. We might bring John Barnes or Michael Boddicker to help get the track put together. Michael would sing the melody line, and the rhythm parts, and we would start putting it together in a sequencer. Other times he would simply sing the parts right to tape, and we would replace his voice with instruments later.
Willa: That’s so interesting! Lisha speculated that he did that – sang parts that were later replaced by instruments – in a post we did a few weeks ago. Lisha, you were right!
Lisha: I am so fascinated by how that worked!
Brad: He would also love to collaborate with other songwriters like Siedah Garret or Bill Bottrell on some songs. Once the song was past the demo stage, we would start bringing more musicians in to really take it to a new level. During my years with Michael, we never used digital pitch correction on his voice. He sang every note, every line, every part. I go into great detail about that process in the seminar.
Lisha: You mentioned in Toronto that Bruce Swedien’s secret for getting a great lead vocal is to just choose the right mic and record it properly in the first place! I’m not sure if people realize how closely you got to work with Bruce Swedien.
Brad: Oh man, Bruce is a dear friend and my mentor. My years with Michael would not have happened without Bruce, period. In 1986 I was working sessions at Westlake, and Bruce and I were becoming friends. I think he saw promise in me and asked if I wanted to sit in for the recording of Michael’s new album. Can you imagine?? I jumped at the chance!
Brad: During the day I would work on Taco Bell commercials (“Run for the Border!”), and at night I would watch Michael sing “Man in the Mirror” or “Smooth Criminal.”
Willa: Wow, that’s a contrast!
Brad: It was nothing short of amazing. When the album was released, Bruce’s assistant Craig went a different direction, and I became Bruce’s assistant (“Technical Director”) for nearly a decade. Next came Quincy’s Back on the Block, then Michael’s Dangerous and HIStory. The crazy thing is that each of those projects took sometimes two years or more when you factor in all of the production time, remixes, dance mixes, video mixes, on and on. Bruce is a master, is the master of his craft. His humor puts everyone at ease, but his ability to record and mix music, to create a sonic soundscape is beyond compare. There is no one like Bruce, and I am grateful for all that he has taught me.
Lisha: I read your interview in Bruce Swedien’s new book, The Bruce Swedien Recording Method, and I thought you really nailed it when you said, “when Bruce finishes a mix it actually leaves the speakers – it floats in front of you and all around you.” It’s just a magical experience listening to what Bruce Swedien can do with sound.
We all know there is a lot of technical know-how that goes into being a great sound/recording engineer, but I’m not sure it’s really understood how much artistry and just plain old good musicianship is required as well. For instance, at your seminar, Brad, I noticed that as you were speaking to the group, you were constantly listening and adjusting the way your voice sounded through the speakers. You reached over several times and made tiny changes that produced the most gorgeous quality of sound. It struck me as similar to the way a good musician listens and adjusts to what they are hearing.
Willa: That’s interesting!
Brad: Wow, Lisha, you were really paying attention! I drive my girls nuts because I will adjust the EQ in their cars, or make sonic adjustments when we are watching TV or a movie at home. I have even walked out of a movie theater during a movie because the sound was so bad.
Lisha: Occupational hazard! You also told a fascinating story about working with Bruce Swedien under less than ideal circumstances, and how you watched in amazement as he found a way to make it work. It really convinced me that the equipment and all the technical wizardry involved in recording is secondary to the artistry of the person running it.
Brad: I was working with Bruce one time in a home studio in LA. It was far from our typical pristine places like Record One or Hit Factory. It was a console in a living room with couches and lamps and typical residential surroundings. Nothing wrong with that, but not quite what we were used to.
Lisha: That’s putting it mildly!
Brad: Anyway, Bruce does a mix on this older console that gave me chills – it still does. It was so transparent and punchy, it didn’t match the place where it was born. Like going to Dairy Queen and getting a perfect rack of lamb chops and great bottle of wine. Bruce brings a level of talent to any room that no equipment, software, or gadget can replicate. God blessed Bruce with an amazing set of ears, and the talent to create sounds in a class all of their own.
Lisha: Speaking to a group of students at Full Sail University, Bruce Swedien said something that really stopped me dead in my tracks. In a very emphatic tone of voice he said: “The first thing I want to tell you is – no matter how good a song is, or how accomplished the musicians playing it are, a poorly done recording and mix of that song will leave you cold.” Here’s a clip:
What a dramatic statement to make! And I think he’s right. At the end of the day, the musicianship displayed by the recording/sound engineers is at least as important as any other musical element in a song. You and your colleagues played such a vitally important role in creating some of the finest records ever produced. It was truly a collaborative effort, and I feel like Michael Jackson understood that in a big way.
Brad: In no way is this meant to sound arrogant, but it is hard to describe how amazing it was to be in the same room with Quincy Jones, Bruce Swedien, Rod Temperton, Bill Bottrell, David Foster, Teddy Riley, Greg Phillinganes, Steve Porcaro, Siedah Garrett, Michael Boddicker, John Robinson, David Williams, Paulinho De Costa … The list goes on and on. Amazingly talented people, all working together, pooling those talents to make Michael’s records as musical, creative, and sonically incredible as possible.
It took an artist like Michael to bring that type of production army together. I hear things in those albums that bring back countless memories – but overshadowing everything was a love for what we were doing, and a love for who we were working for. I think Michael knew that, because he would work just a little bit harder than any of us. I don’t live in the past, but I was so blessed to be a part of something bigger than I could have imagined, and I am thankful to have been a small part of it.
Lisha: I just want to say that although you are very humble and self-effacing, Brad, no one should be fooled! It was apparent to me from watching you work that there’s a reason you got to be in the room with the greats. I can see that you strive for excellence in all that you do – in the seminars, in the studio, and at Neverland Ranch. I really think I understand why Michael Jackson valued and trusted you so much.
Willa: And I’m glad you’re sharing your memories of working with Michael Jackson and that incredibly talented team of musicians and recording artists, both through your seminars and with us today. It’s been really wonderful to hear you talk about it!
So I know Lisha is planning to attend your February 8th seminar in Orlando. If others want to come too, or want to find out about other seminars, how can they sign up or get more information?
Brad: February 8th in Orlando is going to be an amazing day. I haven’t seen Matt in years, so having him in the same room, sharing his stories and memories is going to be awesome. We will cover Thriller, Captain EO, Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory, plus a few surprises. It all takes place in a beautiful studio in Orlando, and I will bring my Westlake speakers. These are the exact same speakers Bruce used to mix Dangerous and HIStory. You will hear the music and mixes exactly the same as Michael did.
Additionally, I am bringing my catering rock star, Linda, back to prepare an amazing meal just like we used to have on “Family Fridays,” where Michael would encourage us to bring our families to the studio for a couple hours of laughter, stories, and great food.
Lisha: I can’t wait! See you there.
Willa: This week I’m so excited to be joined by Harriet Manning, the author of a fascinating new book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask, which was published recently by Ashgate Press, and Lisha McDuff, a professional musician and musicologist who wrote her dissertation on Black or White, approaching it in part as an example of “whiteface minstrelsy – or a reverse blackface minstrel performance.” Lisha shared some of her ideas about Black or White in a fascinating post with us last year. Thank you both for joining me!
Harriet: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Lisha: Thank you, Willa! It’s always a pleasure.
Willa: Oh, it’s always a joy talking with you, Lisha. And Harriet, there are so many interesting ideas in your book to talk about! But before we dive in, I’m curious to know how you first became interested in Michael Jackson, and in blackface minstrelsy. And then, how did you come to put them together?
Harriet: It started when I was learning blackface minstrelsy (the white theatrical parody of black dance, music and gesture). I was intrigued by the fact that despite its longevity (the tradition defined dominant pop culture throughout the 1800s in the U.K. and U.S.) it is considered long gone and its history is not widely known. I wondered how something so big could just disappear and pondered upon what form it might take today, when political correctness would no longer tolerate “blacking up.”
I did not know much about Michael Jackson but I got thinking: what if here was the legacy of blackface? I started studying the dance moves and the black stereotypes of the tradition and saw how Michael Jackson used these. A wonderful treasure trove opened: I had found the roots not only of MJ’s dance but also a mode by which to understand him and the various troubles he had to face.
Lisha: Harriet, that is so fascinating and I must say it’s been an eye-opening experience reading your book – not only for understanding how blackface minstrelsy is reflected in Michael Jackson’s work, but for understanding the minstrel show as “the first sellable pop form” of music. I think I’m just beginning to comprehend how prevalent this form of entertainment was at one time. So much of popular music can be traced back to blackface minstrelsy and I don’t think I was fully aware of that before.
Willa: I wasn’t either. I had no idea it was so incredibly popular, and for so long. Its popularity fluctuated, of course, but it held sway for over a century.
Lisha: That’s pretty incredible when you think about it – it’s such a huge cultural blindspot. As you were saying, Harriet, despite the minstrel show’s mass appeal in the 1800s, blackface parody seemed to vanish and it seems that most of us don’t have a clue as to how popular it once was. Was there a particular event that caused the British and American public to suddenly become aware of how offensive blackface parody was? What happened that caused such a dramatic shift in consciousness?
Harriet: The tradition became increasingly self-conscious in the mid-1800s with the lead up to the Civil War and then the abolition of slavery in the U.S. It fell out of vogue as its publics became uneasy with its racial content. The blackface mask then just became a stage convention and the overt racist material was removed. Then the mask itself disappeared.
Lisha: Interesting, since much of the same racist content still persists, but in a more subtle form. I’m so curious about what got you interested into really digging into this and uncovering even more about blackface minstrelsy?
Harriet: Blackface minstrelsy was part of a Black Music course I was doing for my music degree. I was really shocked by it. People need to know about it.
Willa: I agree. We do need to know about it, in part because we still see its influence today. On rare occasions we’ll see modern performers in blackface, like in Neil Diamond’s 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer. I can still remember how shocking that felt at the time, seeing Neil Diamond in blackface. And in the Do You Really Want to Hurt Me video by Culture Club, Boy George correlates the prejudice he’s been experiencing with racial prejudice, and there are pews of silent witnesses in blackface. Here’s a clip:
Lisha: Blackface is a really interesting choice in that clip, Willa, used very effectively as an “in your face” way of expressing how irrational and unconscious prejudice is.
Harriet: Do you read Boy George as equating racial prejudice with a sexual one?
Willa: I do. How about you, Lisha?
Lisha: Yes, I do. I’ve noticed that in a lot of discourse regarding gay rights, racial prejudice is used as a way to show how people have historically felt justified in discriminating against others, only to have their beliefs later exposed as terribly foolish and uncivilized. For example, it wasn’t so long ago that there were laws on the books restricting interracial marriage, just as today we still see laws restricting the rights of same sex couples.
Willa: That’s true, though I don’t know that civil rights leaders have always appreciated having their movement correlated with the LGBT movement. But there are a lot of parallels, as you say, and I think Boy George is subtly suggesting that in Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.
He’s on trial – we’re not sure why, but it seems to be because he expresses his sexuality in unconventional ways, or maybe it’s just because he’s different more generally. And the people judging him – the “jury of his peers” – is comprised of people in blackface acting in ways that enact the white stereotypes of blacks that were a staple of blackface minstrelsy. So he seems to be saying that, just as the dominant white population imposed their fears and prejudices onto blacks through blackface, the dominant straight population is now imposing its fears and prejudices onto him. And he’s doing it in a very “in your face” way, as you say, Lisha.
Lisha: Pun intended. It’s interesting how Boy George is looking backwards historically in this video, at a 1936 night club and a 1957 health club in London, as if re-examining old attitudes about race, gender and sexuality that need to be updated.
Harriet: Indeed blackface minstrelsy historically explored issues of sexuality and gender “under the mask” essentially because race and sexuality are profoundly aligned by their reliance on a “norm” (white and straight) and a different “Other” (black and gay).
Willa: I didn’t know that before – that the blackface tradition parodied gender and sexuality as well as race – and was very intrigued by that aspect of your book, Harriet. I’d really like to talk more about that today.
Lisha: I’m intrigued by this too. It really helped me understand how relevant the early minstrel shows are to Michael Jackson’s work.
But there is a fairly recent example of blackface I wanted to mention because I found it so surprising – a comedy act called “The Jackson Jive” that aired on the Australian variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday in October 2009. Unbelievably, this act was performed as a “song and dance tribute” to Michael Jackson following his death.
The performers and the host of the show seem completely unaware that this type of blackface parody could come across as offensive – not even the YouTube poster appears to have a problem with it! However, Harry Connick Jr., who was a guest on the program that night, said he would never have appeared on the show had he known such an act would be included. From my own (American) perspective, it’s shocking that anyone would find this kind of ridicule to be an acceptable form of entertainment.
Harriet: Absolutely. Also, what I noticed was that as the presenter invites Harry Connick Jr. to express his grievances, it apparently needs to be explained why: because the skit could be considered offensive “in his [Harry Connick's] country.” This implies that it is only America’s “problem” in a comment that then functions to get the show “off the hook.” Seriously not happy with that at all.
Willa: That’s a good point, Harriet. And Australia does have a long history of racism – just look at how the Aborigines have been treated – though their history is very different than ours. They didn’t have the institution of slavery that existed in the U.S. for centuries, but there were slaves in Australia and they do have a tradition of racism.
Lisha: No doubt about it. But one of the interesting things to me about this clip is how it demonstrates the geographical nature of racism. I think Harry Connick Jr. is right – this skit would have been perceived in a totally different way in the U.S. In fact, I don’t believe “The Jackson Jive” skit would air in the U.S. at all. I just can’t imagine any American broadcaster airing a blackface comedy act that ridicules race in this way. It’s not something I think Americans would tolerate, maybe because blackface parody is such a painful part of our history.
Harriet: It would never have aired in the U.K., either. I do admire Harry Connick Jr.’s explanation as to why he is offended. It reminds me of the problem with the golliwog (the manifestation of the blackface minstrel character with full moon eyes, wide smile, and woolly wig). The golliwog’s defenders say it is harmless, fun, and cute, but its history (rooted in racial ridicule) makes it none of these.
The clip makes me think of the 2004 Eminem video Just Lose It (discussed in my book), which provides another example of this sort of lazy racism (and in the form of a more overt contemporary “blackface” performance).
Willa: I like the way you express that, Harriet – “lazy racism.” That’s an excellent way to describe both of these. I hadn’t seen that “Jackson Jive” clip before, Lisha, and it’s thoroughly depressing. It’s especially troubling that they are performing “Can You Feel It” in blackface since that song is explicitly about overcoming racial prejudices, as Joie and I talked about in a post last August. It’s just horrifying to see this – and as you point out, Harriet, there’s an insinuation that if you find it offensive, it’s your problem.
As I remember, there was a similar feeling about the Eminem video when it came out – that if you were offended, you just didn’t have a good sense of humor and it was your problem. And it played fairly regularly on MTV, which is just as shocking as the “Jackson Jive” skit airing in Australia. Here’s a link to Eminem’s Just Lose It, though I want to warn readers that it’s really disturbing:
Lisha: The Eminem video is about as offensive as it gets, to my way of thinking. If Americans are tempted to claim the moral high ground for political correctness and for not tolerating a literal “blacking up,” then this video puts it all back into perspective. Harriet, you’ve pointed out that Eminem continues the tradition of minstrelsy with this white version of hip hop, parodying Michael Jackson in a way that is “in keeping with the harshest white portrayals of black men in traditional minstrelsy.” That’s even putting it mildly, don’t you think?
Harriet: It is, Lisha, yes. We should know better now, especially Eminem, who built his whole identity around his alliance with black artists. Eminem also went out his way to deny there was a problem with the video, which makes it even worse.
Willa: It really does. I hope these performers, including Eminem, evolve to a point where they are thoroughly ashamed of themselves someday. But this kind of overt reenactment or reference to blackface is fairly rare now, isn’t it?
Harriet: Overt references to blackface are rare, yes. This is for two reasons: firstly, because it is all too often a history “better off forgotten,” and secondly because, as the application of the mask has became increasingly socially unacceptable, it has been forced underground to become more subtle.
Willa: But while subtle, it can still have a powerful effect, as you discuss in your book. In fact, you suggest that the blackface tradition has had a pervasive influence on our perceptions of racial differences that is still very much alive today. For example, you point out that for a full century, blackface performers promoted a stereotypical view of blacks as violent and oversexed, with a secret longing to be white and to dress like upper-class whites – and this was generally presented in comic ways through the figures of the black dandy and the ignorant slave, Jim Crow.
And we still see those stereotypes today. Black men, especially, are all too often portrayed as violent and sexually aggressive, a prejudice that has significant legal and cultural implications. It may be one reason the police and public were predisposed to believe the 1993 allegations against Michael Jackson, despite all the evidence.
And white commentators often accuse Michael Jackson, and even Barack Obama, of being “too white” or “not black enough.” What they’re really saying is that Michael Jackson and Barack Obama don’t fit their stereotypical ideas of what it means to be black – stereotypes that were forged or at least deeply reinforced during the decades of blackface minstrelsy.
Harriet: Yes, blackface minstrelsy’s constructions of blackness, including the idea of black male hyper-sexuality, profoundly inform ways of thinking today. I don’t think it was any coincidence Michael Jackson courted accusations and persecutions for inappropriate (read “dangerous” and “uncontainable”) sexual activity. Black stereotypes today are all rooted in minstrelsy: blacks as mad, bad, and dangerous is today’s version of the most popular blackface character, Jim Crow, who was uncouth, unpredictable, and untrustworthy. This is a fundamental and direct legacy.
There are other ways blackface minstrelsy continues in contemporary pop culture as well, and not least in the form of the white appropriation of black music, dance, and gesture, usually without credit and in “whiteface.” But the legacy continues underground in another way: in the work and self-presentation of black performers.
Willa: Which as you point out in your book, is a very complicated performance – black artists “performing” their race for white audiences. And as you point out, that continues today in the violence, misogyny, and hyper-sexuality of much of hip hop.
Harriet: Yes, historically, black performers were denied access to the blackface minstrel stage until well after its heyday (after the Civil War). When they were finally allowed to present themselves in minstrelsy, they too wore the mask and played into the stereotypes of the tradition: black performers seemingly “gave in” in an apparent act of self-ridicule and disgust.
However, it has been suggested that there was much more to it than that, that black entertainers were actually working a double parody that said “if this is what you want me to be then this is what I will be” and they played to hitherto unseen extremes. So, it would seem they performed, sometimes or always, with a wink in the eye to in fact undermine the tradition’s racist constructions, and black audiences knew this (while whites tended to miss it).
Willa: This is such an important idea, and one of the most fascinating aspects of your book, I thought. And we see Michael Jackson overtly expressing this idea of “if this is what you want me to be then this is what I will be” in “Is It Scary,” for example, where he repeatedly sings, “I’m gonna be / Exactly what you wanna see.”
Harriet: Exactly. Another example is the whole Wacko image, much of which (in its early days at least) was generated by Michael Jackson himself. Mad, bad, and dangerous is what he repeatedly “told” us he was, not only in his music but also in his life. Looking at Michael Jackson, and indeed, hip hop acts, in this framework becomes really insightful.
Lisha: You know Harriet, that is absolutely incredible when you think about the lighthearted and fun part of the mad or “Wacko image” that MJ himself supposedly promoted (Bubbles and the hyperbaric chamber) and the fact that he put out two albums that are actually titled Bad and Dangerous!
Willa: I hadn’t thought of that, Lisha! You know, the first place I know of that phrase being used is Lady Caroline Lamb’s 1812 description of Lord Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” so it’s been around a long time. And interestingly, Byron and the other Romantic poets fostered that bad boy reputation, encouraging the public to see them in that way, just as Michael Jackson did to some extent. But I hadn’t linked that to the titles of the Bad and Dangerous albums before. That’s interesting.
Lisha: It’s also an interesting strategy for dealing with the child star/teen idol image that has been so difficult for adult performers to shed.
Harriet, you go into some detail about Michael Jackson putting on the blackface mask (I’m thinking hyper-sexualized, hyper-criminalized, rather than a literal blackface) using the panther dance in Black or White as an excellent example, a song that explicitly deals with race. I’ve always been intrigued by how Michael Jackson morphs out of the black panther to find a fedora hanging on the gate next to a pool of light, similar to what we see in live performances of “Billie Jean.” He then puts on the hat and steps into the “spotlight” to “perform” his race, gender, and sexuality. This scene always evoked blackface minstrelsy to me and I think you have identified precisely why this is so. But there is also something that feels radically different about it, too. Do you feel this as well?
Harriet: Yes, Lisha. The panther dance to Black or White is a good example of Michael Jackson playing the blackface minstrel character of “mad, bad, and dangerous.” He runs amok throwing trashcans, smashing windows, and acting out the animalist characteristics of the wildcat. Michael Jackson gives us (the white audience and music industry) exactly what we want, meaning white-created ideas of black masculinity.
However, what is different is that it comes after a happy vision of racial harmony (the main video in which “it don’t matter if you’re black or white”) making the performance of “mad, bad, and dangerous” an angry critique. It is a critique in its sheer extremity. It is a double parody.
The fact that Michael Jackson was condemned for the video and forced to issue a public apology shows how, as an audience, we cannot cope with the reality of its message.
Willa: I agree, and the panther dance is still excluded from the “official” Black or White video on Vevo, so apparently we still can’t cope with the power of his message, more than 20 years later.
What was most interesting to me in the Black or White section of your book, Harriet, was how you identify specific elements of the panther dance that you see as directly evoking and reworking the tradition of blackface minstrelsy – for example, his splayed-leg stance when he’s dancing on top of the car. Before I read your book, I didn’t realize that posture came straight out of blackface, and it seems significant to me that we see it in Black or White – which is a direct protest against racial stereotypes – and nowhere else in his work. I was really struck by that, and I think it’s important to nail down some of those details.
So in addition to the obvious “blacking up” of the color of the skin, what are other significant characteristics of blackface? What I mean is, are there certain gestures or dance moves or costumes that, when you see them, you immediately think of blackface minstrelsy?
Harriet: Yes, Willa, there are certain “blackface” gestures, and Michael Jackson embodies them all. The staple moves that made up the dances of blackface parody (dance was central to the performance as it reinforced the idea of black bodiliness) are all those of Michael Jackson’s own dance: angulated limbs with knee bends; spins and turns; toe stands (emphasizing the heel, as well as the toe, as slaves were traditionally portrayed as having large, flapping feet); sliding movements; and the crucifixion pose (originally down on one knee, arms outstretched in a visualization of black servitude).
Of note, in later blackface minstrelsy – when black performers took to the stage – white gloves would often be worn (made famous by Al Jolson in the movie The Jazz Singer) along with ankle cut pants and brimmed hat.
Lisha: Utterly fascinating. This opens up a whole other dimension to Michael Jackson for me.
Willa: And for me as well. For example, I had always assumed Michael Jackson adopted the white glove and the short pants with white socks to call attention to the movements of his feet and hands while dancing – and I still think that’s a large part of it. But then I think about Fred Astaire in blackface in “Bojangles of Harlem,” as Lisha and I talked about in a post a few weeks ago, with his cartoonishly large white gloves and the white spats on his shoes, and I wonder if there’s more going on as well – if Michael Jackson is reworking the blackface tradition as you suggest, Harriet.
If we look at the white glove and white socks that way, it’s remarkable that while that costume was designed to portray blacks as buffoons – as objects of mockery and scorn – Michael Jackson reclaimed that costume and made it elegant. Just think of how beautiful he looked at Motown 25. But he’s wearing the costume of blackface: the “white gloves … ankle cut pants and brimmed hat,” as you described it, Harriet. That’s an incredible transformation of how we “read” that costume.
Willa: It really is – it’s mind-boggling! I know we’ve all seen the Motown 25 performance a thousand times before but here’s a clip, and just look at how beautiful and elegant he is:
Wow. What a powerful act of reclamation and transformation.
Lisha: Stunning. And think of how often this iconic look has been admired and emulated all over the world.
Willa: And rightfully so! He’s completely redefined what that costume means and made it part of something many performers – including white performers – can only aspire to.
It’s also fascinating that you link the “crucifixion pose,” as you call it, Harriet, with supplication and “a visualization of black servitude” – I’m thinking of Al Jolson’s outstretched arms in The Jazz Singer – especially since many of Michael Jackson’s critics have interpreted that gesture in the opposite way, as evidence that he saw himself as the Messiah. So again, when we read him through the lens of the blackface tradition, it leads us to a radically different interpretation.
Harriet: This is it! What you say, Willa, lies at the heart of my reading of Michael Jackson and his genius and how, I believe, we should attempt to understand him.
Like the traditional blackface mask – through negotiations of racial, sexual, and gendered identities – Michael Jackson was amazingly clever at being readable in multiple ways and, furthermore, not just in multiple ways but in notoriously contradictory ones. This was a key reason for his enormous popularity (he could speak or “sing” to the individual and be what they wanted him to be). However, at the same time, it also allowed his downfall, providing fodder for his detractors. The “crucifixion” pose visualizes this: it was at once an image of black servitude and megalomania. The altered pallor of his face, his “mask,” also symbolizes this: his critics read it as black self-loathing but was it not rather a utopian vision of racelessness (“white” as not Caucasian at all but colorless)?
Traditionally denied to black performers, the blackface mask was reclaimed by Michael Jackson. In fact, he turned it inside out. Together with his lyrical and rhetorical calls for brotherhood, he completely obliterated it. No contemporary performer has ever come near to this.
So, that Michael Jackson danced out the dance moves of the traditional minstrel show really is just the start!
Lisha: Once again, I have to say I am absolutely amazed. Just when you think you might be on the way towards grasping the depth and breadth of Michael Jackson’s work, something like this comes along and blows your mind all over again.
Harriet, how common is it to see these dance moves and gestures in contemporary song and dance? For example, Willa and I talked earlier about Michael Jackson’s connection to Fred Astaire, and how often Astaire is cited in Michael Jackson’s work. But what is rarely mentioned is how much Astaire and the entire Hollywood musical genre owe to black dancers, including those who performed in the early minstrel shows.
Harriet: Blackface moves and gestures appear a lot, from tap dance to hip hop.
Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly took many black cultural gestures and ideas but never formally acknowledged this in tune with the entire production of the Hollywood musical genre, in which black performers were denied a part. This repeats the process of blackface minstrelsy: the denial of black self-representation but the white luxury to play with it. That Michael Jackson continually fought with criticism and condemnation for his self-representation, from his skin color and facial features to his angry panther characterization, also repeats this painful process.
Willa: I agree. It still astonishes me that white commentators feel they have a right to define what it means to be black, and then try to impose their definitions onto him. To me, that is the very essence of blackface – whites imposing black stereotypes onto blacks – so in that sense, the blackface tradition is still very much alive.
Lisha: So true. I’m thinking the “African warrior” scene in Black or White has a lot to say about white-created black stereotypes, when Michael Jackson makes his very first appearance ever with such light, “white” looking skin. In contrast to the other ethnic dance scenes in Black or White – which feature traditional dancers wearing their own authentic regalia – the black “African” dancers are dressed in obvious stage makeup and film costumes. They dance in a Broadway/Hollywood style of dance and their faces are smeared with white ash and painted in highly-stylized tribal designs. I see this scene as a parody of African-American dancers “whiting up” for the camera, performing their “African” heritage according to needs and expectations of a primarily white audience and white film industry. You could even think of African-American performers “whiting up” for the camera as Michael Jackson’s own “tribe” – the whiteface not used as a black parody of whites, but as an expression of the reality that black performers have tailored their “African-ness” to suit white sensibilities. In this way, the scene for me has much in common with the panther dance.
Willa: That’s so interesting, Lisha. I’d never thought about that until I read your dissertation. It’s interesting to think that they are “performing” black, especially since they’re then revealed to be on a Hollywood set, not in Africa. It reminds me of something James Brown said in a 1973 Jet magazine interview that Charles Thomson recommended and Destiny tracked down and shared with us last week:
I know I can act. All Blacks can act. The only reason we survive today is because we’ve had to act a certain way for the white man. Too many performers accept roles to act in movies when in truth they’re not allowed to act at all.
As you pointed out, Lisha, the “African” dancers in Black and White enact this “performance” of race that James Brown is talking about, and it’s also a very interesting reworking of the blackface tradition, on many different levels.
However, as you point out in your book, Harriet, blackface minstrelsy wasn’t simply a forum for promoting racial stereotypes and ridiculing black men and women, but actually a complicated brew of contradictory impulses. For example, in describing white appropriation of black gestures and dance moves, you say it was motivated by both “love” and “theft” – in other words, an appreciation for black expression as well as an impulse to steal it.
Lisha: “Love” and quite a bit of literal “theft”! Many whites have become quite wealthy exploiting black, musical, intellectual property.
Willa: That’s true, from blackface on through jazz and rock and now hip hop. And this “theft” not only enriches whites but also erases the achievements of black artists from public awareness. Joe Vogel talks about this in “The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music“:
The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.
And there were also complicated forces at work, psychologically, in this dual motivation of “love” and “theft.” As you point out, Harriet, minstrelsy mocked black men while also providing white men with a way to express and work through a sublimated “envy,” which was a fascinating idea to me – especially since Michael Jackson himself suggested a number of times that the backlash against him was motivated by jealousy.
For example, in your discussion of the “wench,” a white male enactment of black female stereotypes popular on the minstrel stage, you write that minstrelsy “showcased a bold and very public appreciation for the black male body in which cross-racial identification, including the envy of a supposed unsurpassed potency, lurked.” As you point out, this “presumed sexual potency” was very threatening “at a time when physical ‘manliness’ was especially important to white male working-class self-respect.”
So blackface minstrelsy certainly allowed white men to propagate hurtful stereotypes about what it means to be black, but it was much more complicated than that. For one thing, it also allowed those same white male performers and audiences to work through what it means to be white and male.
Harriet: Exactly, and this is where is gets very complicated. Recent documentation of the blackface tradition has brought to the fore the “love” that it also could have been seen to embody. These accounts argue minstrelsy was a way by which white men and woman could in fact secretly indulge and be close to blackness in a society in which this was otherwise condemned. Linked to this are theories arguing for (cross-racial) homosexual expression, in the transvestite “wench” stereotype particularly.
What is really most important here, though, is to understand that the blackface mask had the capacity to be inherently contradictory, and that Michael Jackson lived up to that.
Lisha: I find this kind of subterfuge in Michael Jackson’s work so delightful and nothing less than brilliant. I’m thinking about the film Ghosts, Harriet, and how you have interpreted some of the issues he addresses in this work.
Harriet: Ghosts (to which I devote a chapter in my book) is a masterpiece of turning ideas upside down, and documents in its narrative all of the racial stuff, dance, and imagery we have talked about. Through the film’s story of a scary “Maestro” character (played by Michael Jackson) being run out of town by villagers (who in turn get spooked by the Maestro and his “family” through dance and play), Ghosts embodies key issues we have noted: racism in the ridicule of the “Other” or the “different”; dance moves steeped in minstrel gesture; the process of the performer “giving others what they want to see” yet at the same time critiquing and undermining it through extremity of exaggeration.
But Ghosts also theatricalizes the mutilating impact that all this stuff must have had, and continues to have, on black performers. This comes in a powerful section near the end of the narrative. After the confirmation that the Maestro’s guests (despite having been “treated” to an awesome display of dance and song) still demand he leave town, the Maestro admits defeat and surrenders. With the aid of computerized special effects, we witness the disintegration of the Maestro. In an uncomfortable scene we watch the disappearance of Michael Jackson as he pounds first his fists and then his face into the ground so that he crumbles away until there is nothing left of him but dust.
Is this not what we saw in Michael Jackson’s real life too? An adherence to the performance of the constructions and traditions of blackface minstrelsy – to the blackface mask – that in the end was devastational, and the world just stood back and watched?
Willa: Yes, though in Ghosts the Maestro’s self-destruction is revealed to be an illusion – a performance designed to bring about important changes in the emotions and perceptions of the villagers. So once again – as in the blackface tradition – Michael Jackson is providing his audience with the stereotypes they’ve come to believe, and then exploding those stereotypes.
Harriet: Sure thing. Again, Michael Jackson turns our perceptions upside down; he turns the tables. Unlike the Maestro, however, not even Michael Jackson had the power and genius in “real” life to come back from the dead.
Lisha: Or maybe he did! For a sizable number of new fans, like myself, Michael Jackson’s work suddenly came to life in 2009, almost like a resurrection.
Willa: And he predicts that in Ghosts as well. After the Maestro dies, he comes back to life as a huge stone statue – a living work of art.
Harriet: Interestingly, it wasn’t long, back in June 2009, before rumors circulated that he wasn’t dead at all and that his death was a hoax.
Lisha: Yes, a very small handful of people said that, yet the media is so anxious to attach that to Michael Jackson fans in general. I’ve actually read quite a few news stories portraying Jackson fans as mad, bad, and dangerous – even suggesting that if Michael Jackson fans get angry, people should fear for their lives! Maybe the media and the public need the fans to play this role now that Michael Jackson is gone?
Willa: That’s an interesting take on that, Lisha. It’s true many media outlets seem determined to portray his fans as Wacko, but I hadn’t thought of it that way before – that now we’re filling the role of Other that he once filled.
Harriet: I wonder if it is rather a last ditch attempt to regulate Michael Jackson. Meaning, if his fans are understood as being hysterical or insane then his success and genius – his cultural and racial work – can be undermined and history rewritten. This relives the central process of blackface minstrelsy, whereby the black performing figure is molded and used by others and others’ needs; and, as was unfortunately the case with Michael, at the cost of the performer’s selfhood at best; his life at worst.
Lisha: I have a sinking feeling you might be right about that.
Willa: Hmmm. I don’t know – I think he subverted that in important ways, and reasserted his selfhood in ways we don’t yet fully understand. What I mean is, I think he resisted and rewrote the cultural narratives being imposed on him, just as he rewrote the meaning of the costume of blackface minstrelsy.
I feel like I’m not expressing myself very well, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t see his life as tragic. It’s certainly true that terrible things happened to him, but he fought back in creative and incredible ways. It’s like, if a promising athlete is paralyzed and spends the rest of his or her life on the couch imagining what might have been, that’s tragic. But if they somehow manage to achieve wonderful things despite their disability, then it isn’t tragic. Just the opposite. It’s inspirational. That’s how I see Michael Jackson – tragic things happened to him, but he responded in ways that continue to amaze and inspire me.
Lisha: No argument there!
Willa: So Harriet, I had one last question for you. Your book is fascinating and I’d love for all Michael Jackson fans to be able to read it, but it’s pretty expensive – as academic books often are. I just looked on Amazon and it’s $90 for the hardback, and even the Kindle edition is $70. That’s pretty steep. I think publishers price academic books so high because they generally don’t sell very many copies, so they need to charge more to cover their costs, and because they’re thinking most copies will be bought by university libraries where multiple readers will have access to them. I’m worried though that fans who don’t have access to a university library and can’t afford to buy it won’t be able to read it. Is there a less expensive way for fans to gain access to your book?
Harriet: My publisher has agreed to consider paperbacks next summer if sales are strong. In the meantime, a 50 percent discount is available for fans. Just go to http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409455103 and use this promotional code at checkout: A13IEC50. Fans can see more of the book and its illustrations at www.facebook.com/michaeljacksonblackfacemask.
Willa: You have some wonderful illustrations in your book and on your Facebook page, including photos from the shooting of Say Say Say where Michael Jackson seems to be evoking the tradition of blackface minstrelsy, as Joie and I talked about a little bit in a post last fall. He’s wearing a kind of variation of the blackface mask, but more clown-like and with painted tears in his eyes, which for me transforms the meaning of the mask from something burlesque – a comedy – to something much more somber and heart-felt – a tragedy.
Lisha: Well, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone that my favorite illustrations are the ones focusing on Black or White, since I am already on record as considering it one of the finest works of art of the 20th century! There are some really fascinating illustrations from the early minstrel shows in your book – juxtaposed with screen shots from the panther dance – that are of tremendous value to anyone interested in seriously studying Michael Jackson’s work. Harriet, your contribution to the already impressive body of scholarly literature on Michael Jackson, especially in regard to Black or White, is very significant indeed.
Willa: I agree, and I hope you publish your dissertation someday as well, Lisha. We need more Michael Jackson scholarship! Thank you both for the work you have done, and for joining me to talk about it. It’s been fascinating.
Willa: I don’t think there can be any doubt that James Brown was one of Michael Jackson’s earliest and most profound influences as a singer, dancer, and larger-than-life public figure. We’ve probably all seen clips of Michael Jackson’s 1968 audition at Motown, where he performs “I Got the Feelin’” in perfect James Brown mode – the inflections, the screams and drops, the a capella “baby, baby, baby” at the break, the spins and shuffles … even the confident way he grabs the microphone stand and slings it behind him at the opening notes. It’s a perfect imitation by an 9-year-old musical prodigy who loved James Brown and watched his every move. Here’s a clip:
This week Joie and I are very happy to be joined once again by Charles Thomson, a journalist who is probably best known among Michael Jackson fans for his insightful analysis of media bias in coverage of the 2005 trial. We have links to a number of Charles’ articles in our Reading Room, including a recent post he wrote about Michael Jackson’s participation in the 2006 World Music Awards in London, an event Charles attended, and how that event was reported in the media.
It’s fascinating, Charles, to read your first-hand account of the scene at Earls Court Arena, along with video footage you provide of the extremely warm reception Michael Jackson received there, and then compare that with the “chorus of boos” that was reported again and again in the London tabloids, and later the mainstream media as well. As you say in your post, this wasn’t a case of different observers interpreting a situation in different ways. It was “a purely fabricated story,” as you say, and that’s obvious from the video footage you provide.
But Charles, you’re also a “very passionate” James Brown fan, and you’ve even interviewed several people who knew him and worked with him, right? How did that come about?
Charles: Funnily enough, the last time I saw James Brown was less than three weeks before that World Music Awards ceremony in 2006. He appeared at the Roundhouse in London to perform a concert for the BBC. I was on Mr. Brown’s guest list and attended a pre-show press conference, where I got to ask him a question. What an honor!
Willa: Really?! You actually spoke to James Brown himself? That’s awesome! So how did you become interested in his music?
Charles: It was through Michael Jackson that I became a James Brown fan. I was roughly seven or eight when I discovered Michael Jackson and started collecting his music. My mother, who grew up listening to the Jackson 5, introduced me to his early output and to Motown in general. That’s where I developed my love of soul music.
I was always aware of James Brown, cited constantly by Michael and many others as the greatest entertainer of all time, but this was before the days of YouTube, before you could search “James Brown” and thousands of videos appeared.
Willa: It’s amazing how YouTube and sites like it have changed how we learn about music, isn’t it? It’s wonderful to have such a wealth of videos and films and concert footage available at your fingertips, but I have to admit I miss the days of going to the record store to buy albums.
Joie: Yeah, the entire music industry is in such a strange place right now. There are almost no record stores anymore. I mean, they don’t exist. I find something about that very sad. Even though it is awesome to have this wealth of music right at our fingertips, as you say, it’s just very weird to think that actual record stores – and even music sections in certain department and electronic stores – are dead.
And what you’ve just said about YouTube makes me think about my MTV rant. You know, I still think it is the height of absurdity to have a television station named Music TV whose programming has absolutely nothing to do with music anymore. And I’ve made a lot of noise in the past about how they should either change the name or get back to their roots. But the truth is, they really just need to change the name because the concept is now irrelevant since people can access YouTube and sites like it right on their laptops, tablets and phones.
Charles: It is sad that we are losing our record stores. The big HMV in Piccadilly, London, closed down recently and was replaced by a memorabilia shop, of which there are already about 10 within walking distance. It’s a shame so many people aren’t prepared to pay for good music. I always buy records by artists I like, because I want them to be able to make more.
That said, even 10 years ago – because I didn’t live in the city – my local record stores’ soul sections were rather pitiful. On top of that, I was too young to own a credit card and buy things online, and too young to travel into London on my own, where the record stores might actually have a decent selection. So for years, the closest I got to understanding why Michael loved James Brown so much was a live CD I found in a bargain bin at my local shopping mall. The power and energy of the performance was incredible but I’d never properly seen him in performance mode.
In 2004, I spotted in a newspaper that James Brown was taking part in a free concert in London and tickets were being raffled. I entered and won.
Willa: Wow, Charles, you seem to have extraordinary luck when it comes to James Brown! It’s like you were fated to cover him.
Charles: I do feel very lucky that I happened to spot that advert and happened to win tickets. Without those two pieces of incredibly good fortune, my life could have been very different. As it turned out, I only had a small window of time to see James Brown live before he passed away, so I’m glad I packed in as many gigs as I did.
That concert in 2004 was one of the first times I was allowed to go to London with my friends. I was 16. Other performers on the bill included Ozzy Osbourne and Rod Stewart, but James Brown – who was 71 – performed the longest and best set of the day. I queued for hours to get to the front and he was worth every minute. His band was mindblowing. He did his signature moves and the running man over and over again and seemed to barely break a sweat. I was hooked.
I saw him again in 2005 and then two more times in 2006. In 2005 I was right in the front row. He performed “I Got the Feelin’” with the “baby, baby, baby” breakdowns. It was unbelievable.
Willa: So he was in London a lot – more than I would have expected – and still performing a lot of shows, especially for a man in his 70s.
Charles: He toured constantly. It was pretty dependable that he would do a European tour every year. It not only kept Mr. Brown fit (and he tended to let himself go a bit once he clocked off, so it was good for him to keep working – he died during a two-month hiatus in 2006, the longest break from work he’d taken in about ten years), but there were dozens of other people who were reliant on him for their income.
For instance, the nature of his shows was such that his band had to be incredibly disciplined. They had to know probably 100 songs, and they had to be able to fall in and out of them at Mr. Brown’s whim. He would communicate with them through hand signals throughout the show. Michael Jackson did the same thing on the Bad tour, for instance, when he would signal how many “stabs” he wanted during the dance portion of “Another Part of Me” by placing discreet hand signals into his dance moves.
Willa: And apparently, some of James Brown’s hand signals to the band were fines! Each time he flashed five fingers at you, he was upping the fine. Soul Survivor: the James Brown Story talks about that about 40 minutes in. Here’s a link. That cracked me up, but it also shows just how aware he was of everything that was happening onstage with his band and background singers. If they weren’t giving it their all and meeting his expectations, he let them know it, right then and there.
Charles: Mr. Brown couldn’t put on a show the way he wanted by just hiring whoever was available as and when he felt like it. He needed his tightly-drilled band behind him – but to have that, he had to keep them working, or else they might not be there when he needed them.
Joie: That’s incredible.
Willa: I agree. I’d never thought about that before – that he had to provide steady employment for his band to keep them.
Joie: And it really explains why he was always known as “the hardest working man in show business,” doesn’t it?
Charles: His shows were stupendous. Although in later years he would fluctuate a little bit – sometimes sounding a little weak or not being able to dance as energetically as he usually did – the whole experience of his shows was extraordinary. It was like being transported back in time, or witnessing some incredible ancient ritual. Jonathan Lethem wrote a brilliant article called “Being James Brown” for Rolling Stone magazine in 2006, which included the most vivid, beautiful description of the magic and the mysticism of a James Brown show. I would advise everyone to seek it out.
More than anyone else I’ve seen, Mr. Brown was the epitome of the term “living legend.” It seemed slightly unbelievable at that gig in 2005, as I staked out my spot right in front of the stage, that the James Brown – of the TAMI show and of Boston ’68 and of Zaire ’74 – was about to appear mere feet in front of me and perform. I was convinced for a short while that I had made a boob and it was going to be some unknown singer/songwriter with the same name or something. The show was just euphoric. I’ve never experienced a gig like it since. It was dizzying. What an atmosphere.
The first thing he did after walking out and bowing was to give a few short bursts of “Make It Funky,” then throw the microphone towards the audience, catching the wire and yanking it back just before it hit someone. As it flew back towards him, he spun around 360 degrees and then caught the mic stand with perfect precision, immediately letting rip one of his trademark wails.
The show continued in that vein all night. He fell to his knees for “Man’s World” right in front of me. As he spun around during the upbeat numbers, beads of sweat would fly out across the front few rows. He did all his trademark moves (except the splits, of course) with gusto. During one song my camera started playing up and I looked down to see if I could fix it. As I looked up, I saw a microphone flying at my face and reflexively recoiled. Of course, it stopped about a foot short of my face and sprang up into Mr. Brown’s waiting palm, at which he burst out laughing. For the rest of the gig he kept coming over and flicking the microphone at me, then we’d share some laughter.
At one point he knelt down at the side of the stage, took off his bowtie and placed it in my friend Angela’s hand. She has since given it to me as I’m such a huge fan. It is a wonderful memento of what was easily the greatest concert I’ve ever been to. As I walked out after it ended, I could hear people all around me – the crowd was very young – expressing their shock and wonder at just how incredible he had been, given he was now in his 70s.
Joie: That sounds amazing!
Charles: I saw him twice more in 2006. The first gig was in July at the Tower of London – a great way to celebrate after finishing my college exams. Then, in September 2006 – just as I became a journalism degree student – he announced the BBC concert at the Roundhouse, which would become the fourth and final time I saw him live.
Willa: And that’s when you talked to him?
Charles: Yes. I had the brainwave of using my new student journalist credentials to apply for an interview. I was told he was only in town for a day and wasn’t giving any interviews, but his people invited me to the press conference, where I asked him a question about a new album I’d heard he was recording. That exchange, however brief, is one of my most cherished memories.
Willa: How wonderful!
Charles: There is a very short gif of us talking on my website. Sadly, he died less than two months after that press conference. Two years later I interviewed his former sideman, Fred Wesley, for the U.S. journal Wax Poetics. I knew Fred had been involved in that final album – which was never released – so I asked him about it. It got me wondering what had happened to those tracks, so I decided to find out. I interviewed anyone I could who was involved in the album – musicians, producers, songwriters, managers, vocalists – and wound up writing a 5,000-word article: “James Brown: The Lost Album.” Two extracts are available on my website, here and here.
It became the cover story on a magazine I published. Titled JIVE, it was my final practical project at journalism school. A thousand copies were printed. I still have some of them. You can read about JIVE here and view some sample pages here.
The James Brown article won me a feature-writing award from the Guardian newspaper a few months later, and I became a sort of go-to guy for articles about his life and work. Subsequent pieces have included an exclusive interview with his widow on the four-year anniversary of his death and an in-depth exploration of his humanitarian legacy.
Willa: I’m glad you mentioned that, Charles, because I don’t think his humanitarian work is very well known. I knew he played a concert in Boston the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and I knew that concert was credited by many with diffusing a very tense situation and preventing what could have been a destructive riot. On the 40th anniversary of MLK’s death, I heard an interview on NPR with David Leaf, the director of the film, The Night James Brown Saved Boston. Here’s a clip from that film:
I also knew he was very involved in promoting black empowerment and the idea that “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” But I didn’t know about his long history of charitable work until I watched Soul Survivor and another biography, James Brown: the Godfather of Soul. Here’s a link to that one also.
Charles: That concert in Boston was one of the defining moments in Mr. Brown’s career. It demonstrated his extraordinary significance to the black community. On the night of Dr. King’s assassination, riots broke out all over America – including in the black areas of Boston. The following day the city council was going to shut down his concert for fear it would attract rioters to the city center – the white neighborhoods – but they decided instead (without Mr. Brown’s permission) that they would televise the concert in a bid to keep people indoors.
Not only did the riots not spread – there were less reports of crime that night in Boston than there were on a regular night. The TV station showed the concert over and over again, back to back, and people stayed in all night to watch James Brown. His calming effect on the city’s black community was so incredible that other cities started asking for him. Washington immediately requested his presence, and he went there and calmed the riots too.
Willa: Apparently, this was when he became known as the Godfather of Soul. That title refers to the movie The Godfather, and it means that he was as powerful as a mafia don in his ability to control situations – only he controlled them by moving people with his music rather than threatening them with henchmen. So this idea we frequently see in Michael Jackson’s videos of music overcoming violence – like in Beat It, Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Smooth Criminal, Heal the World, Ghosts, even Captain EO – we see it literally happening through James Brown’s concerts after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.
Charles: The following year, Look magazine ran a cover story titled, “James Brown: Is He the Most Important Black Man in America?” The standfirst read, “Many men have gone from ghetto to glory, and forgotten. He bothered to come back.”
That was why, despite his various trials and tribulations, he retained the respect of America’s black community for the most part. The images of the crowds outside the Harlem Apollo for the public viewing of his body – no stars, no autographs, just a chance to pay respects – were unbelievable. Thousands and thousands turned out just to walk past his coffin and say a quiet goodbye. He commanded that respect because he never forgot his roots.
He refused to move away from Augusta, even though a relocation to Los Angeles would have aided his music career significantly. He gave to charities, funded a line of food stamps and handed out college scholarships at his concerts. Every year in Augusta he gave away hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys and bought thousands of Christmas presents for needy children.
Willa: That’s true. According to the documentaries I watched, he was very generous in giving back to help people in need in the communities that had supported him, especially Augusta and Harlem. And he was committed to promoting education, such as through his “Don’t Be a Dropout” campaign.
Charles: But like Michael Jackson, his humanitarianism extended beyond his actions and into his music.
Willa: Yes, as you point out in your article, James Brown saw music as a way to improve the world – to “take these kids to a better life and a better place,” as you quoted from his induction speech into the U.K. Music Hall of Fame. We definitely see that idea carried forward by Michael Jackson as well – that music and the arts can lift people up and inspire us to make the world a better place.
Charles: Bootsy Collins – James Brown’s bassist for a short time in the early 1970s – released an album about two years ago which included a tribute song called “JB – Still The Man.” It was a collaboration with Reverend Al Sharpton, who eulogized Mr Brown over a James Brown-style instrumental.
Willa: Here’s a video – from YouTube, of course! – and it looks like it was uploaded by Bootsy Collins:
Charles: One segment of the song goes:
Every time an artist goes in a studio and sings for a cause bigger than themselves, that’s James Brown. He’s still The Man. Every time we use our art and our music to lift those that are down at the bottom to look toward the top and dream for a better day, I know that James Brown is still The Man.
James Brown’s catalog is filled with socially conscious anthems – from “Don’t Be a Dropout” to “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothin’” to “The Funky President.” Even his Christmas songs were socially conscious: “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” He recorded music with humanitarian goals even when he knew it would make him unpopular. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” cost him a lot of airplay and a lot of contracts.
Willa: I didn’t realize that. That’s something we see in Michael Jackson also: the panther dance in Black or White was criticized for being too angry, “The Lost Children” was criticized for being too sappy, “Little Susie” was criticized for being too depressing, and “They Don’t Care about Us” was almost universally misunderstood and criticized as anti-Semitic. But even though he was heavily criticized for those songs and videos, he refused to stop trying to reach out through his music.
Charles: The humanitarian theme in Michael Jackson’s self-penned output was there right from the Jacksons days, with tracks like “Can You Feel It” – a funky track, designed specifically to pack out dance floors but also carrying a strong, positive social message. That’s textbook James Brown. But you’re right: he, like James Brown, also recorded humanitarian material in the knowledge that it might attract criticism. Can you imagine a less commercial song to release in the grunge era than “Heal The World”? A less “current” track in the mid-90s than “Earth Song”?
Willa: Exactly. He was in touch with musical trends, but his focus was always on creating work that is important and timeless, meaning it will last and be relevant even after current musical fads have shifted.
Charles: His more antagonistic, socio-political material was also steeped in James Brown influence. “They Don’t Care About Us” consists largely of a recurrent, abrasive drum track with staccato lyrics. Sure, lots of artists have recorded songs like that over the years – but it was James Brown who Michael cited as his greatest influence at any given opportunity. And when he sang lyrics like, “Black man, black male, throw the brother in jail / All I wanna say is that they don’t really care about us,” was the sentiment that far removed from James Brown’s “We’d rather die on our feet than keep living on our knees”?
Michael was raised on a diet of political music, of course. At 11, he was colleagues with Marvin Gaye during the recording of “What’s Going On.” He sat in on the recording of Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life, which included tracks like “Black Man.” He covered Sly Stone’s “Stand,” and Jermaine Jackson’s book revealed that a young Michael loved George Clinton’s Parliament / Funkadelic – no surprise since Michael had George take part in his 2003 documentary The One.
But as I said above – it was James Brown who Michael consistently cited as his greatest influence, so it would be rather naive to ignore the massive similarities in not only their humanitarian work, but their humanitarian and socio-political output.
Joie: I have to admit that this is all very fascinating to me. I have never really been a “fan” of James Brown in the true sense of the word. I mean, there are several of his songs that I can honestly say that I love, but I was never into him enough to bother with diving into his entire catalog of music or researching his history and humanitarianism.
But as a black child, I knew growing up that James Brown was an incredibly respected and well-loved human being in the black community. Among older black people – and I shouldn’t say “older” really, I just mean my parent’s generation – James Brown was like a hero. He was someone who had been in the trenches with them and had gone through the whole civil rights fight with them, and he could do no wrong. When James Brown sang “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” they sang that line loudly with him. He was, as the song says, “the man.”
Charles: As an aside – it’s interesting that “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” is rightly considered one of the most important songs of Mr. Brown’s career, but is almost exclusively talked about in terms of its lyrical content and its socio-political impact. I would urge anyone to set aside a few minutes one day to put on some headphones, turn “Say It Loud” up really loud, forget the lyrics for a little while, and just listen to the composition. It is one of the most incredible rhythmic compositions you’ll ever hear, complex but at the same time universally appealing. Even without the lyrics, it sounds almost militaristic. It’s like a call to arms. It was co-written with Pee Wee Ellis and is an incredible achievement.
Willa: Wow, I’m really going to have to go back and listen to it more carefully.
And it’s interesting to me that we were all first exposed to a different aspect of James Brown, and came to him through a different route. Charles, your first impressions were from listening to his music on CD. Joie, yours were from hearing your family talk about him as an important cultural figure. And mine were watching him as a dancer and performer on Soul Train. I babysat a lot in junior high and high school, and there weren’t many TV channels back then – just the three big ones and a few UHF ones that didn’t always come in very well. I’d be sitting in the dark in someone else’s house, trying not to creep myself out with all the odd sounds an unfamiliar house makes at night, and I always loved it when James Brown came on because he made me feel brave. For one thing, he was so energetic he completely changed the atmosphere – the house didn’t seem so empty when he was there. And he was fearless! He’d grab that microphone like it was a live thing and whip it around like he was wrestling a snake with his bare hands. You just couldn’t feel scared when he was on.
Joie: Energetic and fearless. I love that, Willa. Those are great words to describe him, I think.
Willa: He really was – extremely energetic and fearless. I remember going to see a laser light show at Stone Mountain, Georgia – gosh, 30 years ago – back when lasers were still pretty rare. It was the first laser light show I’d ever seen, and they played some classic James Brown songs while the laser traced an outline of a dancing James Brown on this huge rockface. It was frenetic! You got the impression even the laser was having a hard time keeping up with him. …
And of course, Michael Jackson learned to imitate that high-energy dancing from an early age, and then incorporated it into his own unique performances. He liked to vary the tempo of his concerts and include ballads and other quiet moments, but he could definitely turn up the dial and execute those quicksilver spins and shuffles when he wanted to. Here’s a clip of him from 1983, performing in classic James Brown style with his mentor looking on, and be sure to watch the spin. It’s incredible. He does three-and-a-half revolutions, I think – they’re so fast I can’t even count them. I don’t think an ice skater can spin that fast with skates on. Here’s the clip:
I love James Brown’s reaction! You can tell he got such a kick out of it. And here’s another clip 20 years later, from 2003, with Michael Jackson honoring his mentor once again:
So James Brown was an important figure in dance who had a tremendous influence on Michael Jackson, and he was a musical innovator as well. For example, in the tribute song you mentioned earlier, Charles, “JB – Still the Man,” Al Sharpton says,
He changed music as we know it … He literally changed the beat, to a 1 – 3 from a 2 – 4. He taught the world to be on the 1. That’s why he’s still The Man. Cause every time I hear a hip hop record on the 1, that’s James Brown.
That’s also discussed in Deep Soul: the Uprising of James Brown. Here’s a clip:
So his music was very rhythmically driven – as his drummer said, “it’s like a dinosaur walking” – and it was extremely important culturally as well as artistically. Deep Soul declares that “funk was defiantly black music.” As music critic Rickey Vincent explains, “Funk, it was a way to sort of signify that you’re celebrating everything about your raw life. You know, we’re trapped in these ghettos, but we got a lot of raw style.” This gets back to what Rev. Sharpton was saying also – James Brown is The Man both culturally and creatively.
According to his biographer, Bruce Tucker, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was like nothing that had ever come before. The “New Bag” is funk – the birth of funk. He moved the beat from the upbeat to the downbeat, added synchronicity, and invented a whole new genre of music.
Charles: Funnily enough, “Papa’s Bag” is often cited – including by Mr. Brown himself – as the first example of funk, but Brown experts look further back to tracks like “Out of Sight,” which had a pounding beat and an almost hypnotic rhythmic motif. In fact, “Papa’s Bag” doesn’t even have a 1-and-3 beat. Mr. Brown would often talk about coming up with the song in 1965 and stumbling on 1-and-3, but “Papa’s Bag” has a very clear 2-and-4 beat. His long-time manager Charles Bobbit told me a few years ago that Mr. Brown did this on purpose because, even decades later, he was very protective of his methods. According to Mr. Bobbit, he would refuse to enter into serious discussion of his work on most occasions, confiding in those around him that, “Them cats just wanna know where I’m coming from.” What actually spikes on the 1 in “Papa’s Bag” is the horns, not the beat.
Willa: Oh that’s interesting, Charles. I’ll have to listen again with that in mind and see if I can hear what you’re saying. You know, my understanding of music is pretty pathetic, actually, and it’s hard for me to figure out what’s going on in James Brown’s music, especially, because it is so complicated and so funky and so different.
But I’m really blown away by the idea that James Brown and his band created funk, a new genre of music. I used to think that music just evolved slowly over time, but the more I learn about music history, the more I realize that isn’t true. Every so often an incredible talent appears like a comet that changes the course of music, and then those innovations are gradually assimilated, and then another comet appears.
Bill Monroe invented bluegrass. It didn’t exist before him. That’s just astonishing to me. Southern Rock as we know it did not exist before Duane Allman and Wilson Pickett teamed up for their version of “Hey Jude.” And funk as a genre of music did not exist before James Brown “literally changed the beat,” as Rev. Sharpton says. And then I think Michael Jackson took that to a whole new level, inventing an entirely new genre of art. …
Charles: I don’t think Michael Jackson did invent a new genre of music. I can’t think of any sound or method he created that wasn’t already there. James Brown’s music sounded completely new and revolutionary. Michael Jackson’s just sounded incredibly good.
The three central tenets of funk were (1) the one-and-three beat, (2) the prominence of the bass and the drums and (3) the emphasis on rhythm over melody. Funk emerged in the early 60s. The last huge musical revolution had been rock & roll in the 50s, which was predicated almost exclusively on the two-and-four beat. Of course, one-and-three had been implemented here and there – but nobody had made a point of it; James Brown adopted it as his modus operandi. Additionally, he put the bass and drums at the front of the compositions, whereas they typically took a backseat to guitars. Thirdly, he gave his band the directive, “Play every instrument like it’s a drum,” meaning no melodic flourishes at all. Everything had to be rhythmic. The combination of those three elements constituted a completely new way of making music.
Conversely, Michael Jackson always worked within existing genres. Most of his early solo material fell comfortably within the genre conventions of soul, disco and traditional R&B. Off The Wall had a fair amount of jazz in it, too. The Bad album mostly sounded like typical 80s synth-pop with forays into genres like gospel and rock. Dangerous also explored those two genres, as well as classical and, of course, its overriding New Jack Swing sound. And so on and so forth.
What Michael Jackson did was to work within those existing genres – albeit sometimes fusing them in unusual ways (for instance, he was one of the first pop stars to start using guest rappers) – but to create his music to such a high standard that it set the benchmark for all of his peers. Did the Bad album constitute a new way of making music? No. But he made damn sure that of all the synth-pop albums recorded in the late 80s, it was one of the absolute best and would become one of the most enduring.
He was a perfectionist, meticulously recording dozens of songs per album, leaving years between releases, to make sure whatever he put out was the absolute best it could be. In this sense, he and Mr. Brown were very different. Mr. Brown would record entire albums in a matter of hours and largely hated retakes. Even if he or his band made mistakes, he would often put out the first cut rather than fix it. His saying was, “The first take is God. The second take is man.” It was all about the feeling for him.
One track with a mistake on, for instance, is “It’s a New Day.” Towards the end Mr. Brown starts singing the wrong line and has to quickly correct himself and rush out the right line as an afterthought. It’s noticeable, but the groove is so incredible that you don’t care. It just adds to that fantastic live and improvisational sound he cultivated.
I think both his and Michael Jackson’s methods were equally valid, but it’s an area where their music differed. Elsewhere, of course, Michael’s music displayed huge influence by James Brown. Perhaps the most immediately obvious similarity is their shared use of vocal tics like “ow” and “huh” throughout their recordings. James Brown explained the phenomenon in a 2005 interview with Jonathan Ross: “I used my voice like an instrument.” Michael took it that one step further, of course, and actually beat-boxed parts of his own songs.
While I don’t think Michael Jackson created any music genres, that’s not to say he wasn’t extremely influential. One area where his impact cannot be questioned is the music video. Nobody could deny his enormous influence on that art form. It could be argued, too, that Michael Jackson created a new genre of live performance – but the problem was that he did it so well that nobody who has since emulated it has been able to do it justice. By virtue of his colossal talent, Michael unwittingly set an impossible standard for his students and ultimately inflicted on us an endless parade of useless, fedora-fondling imitators – Usher, Chris Brown, etc – who I rather wish would just give up and go away, if I’m perfectly honest.
Willa: Hmmm … Well, I really like some of the new “fedora-fondling” performers who are following in his footsteps, though I agree they aren’t him. But that seems like an unfair standard! Someone like Michael Jackson is very rare indeed. …
And actually, when I said Michael Jackson created a new genre of art, I wasn’t referring to his music so much as his visual art, particularly the way he challenges how we “read” his face and body – and more generally, how we “read” race and gender and sexuality and nationality and identity and all those divisions we construct between ourselves and others. I don’t think we as a culture have even begun to understand this, which I see as his most revolutionary and important work.
But I do think he was innovative in his music as well, on many different fronts – for example, the way he juxtaposes different genres of music within one work to create a type of meaningful dissonance. Lisha McDuff talked with us about this in a post about Black and White, and then Susan Fast joined us for a post about his genre crossing more generally in both his recorded music and live performances. That’s an entirely new way of constructing music, and of thinking about how to convey meaning through music.
And like James Brown’s creation of funk, this new approach to composing music is important culturally as well as aesthetically since Michael Jackson often juxtaposes “black” and “white” genres in a way that subverts established racial hierarchies. For example, in her analysis of “Working Day and Night” from the Dangerous tour, Susan Fast told us, “Metal (the white genre) ‘serves’ the larger R&B/funk (black) genre.” That’s a subtle but powerful reversal.
Charles: Some of those genre-melding experiments were more successful than others, in my opinion. Personally, I think “Black or White” is a bit of a dog’s dinner and is often remembered more fondly than it might otherwise have been on account of the video being very good.
Willa: Oh heaven’s, Charles … “a dog’s dinner”? I’m speechless …
Joie: And I’m a little bit scandalized. While “Black or White” has never been one of my very favorites, I love the message of the song, and I certainly wouldn’t call it “a dog’s dinner.” But I have to admit, I love your British vernacular!
Willa: You’re being awfully diplomatic, Joie. …
Charles: His use of orchestral/classical musical was often very impressive, such as juxtaposing a haunting choral introduction with the hard, funky body of “Who Is It.”
That’s a very good point about the “Working Day and Night” performances. “Working Day and Night” is one of my all-time favorite Michael Jackson songs – whether on the album or on stage. Most of my favorite Michael Jackson songs are built on layers of rhythm, in the James Brown tradition. I found it very strange in later years that Michael would talk so often about how “melody is king,” given that the majority of his most popular material was rhythmic: “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” “Working Day and Night,” “Wanna Be Starting Something,” “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” etc. I’m looking forward to Susan’s book about the Dangerous album.
Willa: I am too! It’s supposed to come out this summer, I think, and I have a feeling it might go a long way toward changing critical opinion about Michael Jackson, the Dangerous album, and his work more generally – especially his later work, which has been terribly undervalued. Susan let me read a rough draft, and it’s fantastic! I was blown away again and again by her insights. I highly recommend it.
Well, thank you so much for joining us, Charles! I don’t always agree with you – a “dog’s dinner” indeed! Joie and I are going to have to work on you about that – but it’s always wonderful to talk with you.
And this feels like a very appropriate time of year to talk about James Brown. He died on Christmas Day seven years ago, and apparently Michael Jackson visited the funeral home and held a private vigil for him throughout the small hours of the night. A couple years later, after his own death, WRDW-TV out of Augusta carried a news segment about it. And while I hate to direct anyone to the New York Daily News, they actually ran a more in-depth article about it three weeks later.
According to Charles Reid, the funeral director, Michael Jackson showed up around midnight and stayed until dawn. He kissed James Brown on the forehead as he lay in the casket, and then curled a lock of hair on his forehead so it looked more like him. And he talked about how much he meant to him: “‘How important Mr. Brown was to him,’ Reid remembered. ‘What an inspiration he was.’” There’s something very touching to me about this – the image of Michael Jackson quietly holding vigil for the man who had meant so much to him for so many years.
Charles: Michael’s attendance at James Brown’s public memorial was his first public appearance in the U.S. after his trial. I think that is very significant and speaks volumes about his love for Mr Brown. I thought Rev. Al Sharpton’s introduction to Michael’s brief eulogy was very smart: “Even though he knows they’re gonna criticize him, Michael says he don’t care what they say. Michael came for you today, Mr. Brown.” Of course, that’s exactly what the media did the next day, mocking Michael for kissing his mentor on the forehead as he lay in state. Interestingly, Michael’s own memorial – and even his own coffin – were modeled on Mr. Brown’s. The teacher/student relationship continued right to the end.
The similarities between the aftermaths of their deaths didn’t end there. Michael was commemorated with a ceremony at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in the days after he passed away, attended by Rev. Sharpton. That’s another tradition which appeared to begin with Mr. Brown’s death in 2006. Rev. Sharpton gave a speech at an Apollo memorial to James Brown, which is far less-known than his shorter eulogy at the subsequent arena memorial Michael attended. While not definitive, I think that Apollo speech perfectly encapsulates the monumental importance of James Brown. It never fails to bring a tear to my eye. If I may, I’d like to end our discussion by posting that eulogy, as we approach the anniversary of his death:
Willa: That’s beautiful – warm and funny and powerful. And thank you again for joining us, Charles, and sharing your deep love and respect for James Brown.
Charles: Thank you for inviting me to take part in this discussion, which I have enjoyed enormously. Given the passion and the frequency with which Michael cited James Brown as his “greatest inspiration,” his life and legacy are rarely discussed and little-known in Michael’s fan community. I hope that people will seek out some of what we have discussed here – various documentaries and recordings – and he will acquire some new fans. Michael loved him for a reason. He was a true king.
Willa: So this week we’re going to take on a rather slippery topic: Michael Jackson’s nonverbal vocalizations, meaning the sounds he made with his voice that aren’t words, exactly. Yet those vocalizations can still carry a lot of meaning or evoke powerful emotion or add tremendous drama or texture to his songs. In fact, you could make the case that his nonverbal vocalizations are one of the elements that set him apart as a vocalist. But they’re hard to talk about simply because they are “nonverbal” and therefore outside language. How do you talk about something that’s “nonverbal”?
Joie wasn’t able to be with us this week, but I’m thrilled to be joined by two of our friends who are very interested in sounds and words: Lisha McDuff, a professional musician and musicologist, and Bjørn Bojesen, a poet and author of En Undersøgelse af Fænomenet Rim (or A Survey of the Phenomenon of Rhyming, for those of us who don’t speak Danish.) Thank you both so much for joining me! This is a challenging topic, and I’m so grateful to have you here to help grapple with it.
So I thought a good way to try to get a handle on this topic would be to look at some specific instances where Michael Jackson uses nonverbal vocalizations. For example, in their tribute issue after he died, Rolling Stone wrote this about “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough”:
Make a list of the top 10 “ooooh!” screams in history, and this hit has at least six of them.
For once, I agree whole-heartedly with Rolling Stone! So what are other examples that jump out at you as either classic Michael Jackson sounds or, on the flip side, give an indication of the wide variety of vocalizations he used?
Bjørn: Ouch, this is hard! Is there an MJ song where he doesn’t use any “non-words”? I think the sound most people associate with Jackson is “aoow!” (as in the beginning of “Black or White”), with “hee-hee” as a close runner-up. But this is guesswork! If I have to point at any particular song, I really like how he starts “Blame it on the Boogie”: “hee-hee-hee-hee.”
Willa: Oh, good choice! I love that too, especially the way the “hee”s start high and progressively drop down, almost like he’s playing scales with his voice.
Bjørn: In so many others of his songs his NVVs (non-verbal vocalizations) sound pained, but here it’s pure joy. You instantly know which song it is, and who the singer is. As you, Willa, and Joie revealed in a post some months ago, the song was also sung by Mick Jackson from Britain. It’s amazing to compare the two versions, and hear how “our” MJ makes this song his own just by adding some crystalline “tittering”!
Lisha: “Crystalline tittering” – what a poetic way of verbalizing the non-verbals, Bjørn! It’s so great to have a poet around. You both came up with some wonderful examples – NVVs that are as symbolic of Michael Jackson as the single sequined glove and the black fedora. Of course you could say the same about the vocal “hiccups” in “Billie Jean,” and the ad libbed “hoos” in the final chorus of “Earth Song.” These vocal sounds are so iconic, we often think of them as belonging only to Michael Jackson. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find an MJ impersonation that did not include them.
Bjørn: Or an MJ parody! In 2007, Chris Tucker did an absolutely unforgettable “hee-hee” on Conan O’Brien’s talkshow:
Lisha: Chris Tucker is absolutely hysterical! And he doesn’t miss a thing, does he? The “hee-hee” is a dead giveaway for Michael Jackson’s identity – it is a sound that has become synonymous with Michael Jackson.
And these vocalizations were such a powerful part of his performances, weren’t they? I absolutely loved Vincent Patterson’s story in Bad 25, when he tells what happened when Michael Jackson let out a full-voiced “hoo” on the set of The Way You Make Me Feel:
Willa: What a wonderful description! As Patterson says, “Everything stopped. We had to stop shooting because people just froze – they actually froze on the stage.” And I can believe it! That high, clear, powerful “hoo” is so arresting, even just listening to the video – a video I’ve watched a hundred times before. I can only imagine what it was like for the people there on set, hearing it live for the first time.
So what do you think makes these nonverbal sounds so compelling? For example, he could have used sounds from an instrument instead, or he could have sung sounds we recognize as words. What makes these sounds so powerful and expressive?
Lisha: Good question, and I wonder if anyone really knows how to verbalize the answer to that! Popular music scholars like to talk about “the grain of the voice,” based on a famous essay by Roland Barthes, which might give us a clue. If you think about the grain of a piece of wood, for example, there is an individual characteristic to that wood that could have aesthetic value. The same could be said of the voice, though it’s exceedingly hard to define and individual preference can easily come into play.
The grain of the voice is thought to be everything that makes a voice compelling, yet it lies beyond the scope of what you might learn about singing if you were to take singing lessons. It is beyond beautiful sound, good technique, and excellent breath control – though in the example above, all those things are present too.
Willa: That’s such an intriguing idea, Lisha. Is the grain of the voice part of what makes individual voices so unique? What I mean is that with “We are the World,” for example, even though everyone is singing in a somewhat similar style, pitch, volume, tone, tempo – all the usual characteristics we tend to think of when talking about sound – the voices are still so distinct and individualized. You don’t have to watch the video to pick out who’s singing what – it’s obvious from their voices. I don’t think anyone would confuse Willie Nelson’s voice with Ray Charles’ or Bruce Springsteen’s or Bob Dylan’s, for example, and they certainly wouldn’t confuse it with Diana Ross’ or Cyndi Lauper’s. Is that part of the “grain”?
Lisha: Well, actually it’s just a little different. As you pointed out, every voice has its own unique sound quality and no two voices are just alike. It’s the reason you don’t always have to identify yourself over the phone – you can just say “hey, it’s me” – and if the person knows you well, they know exactly who is calling. The musical term for this is “vocal timbre”; it’s the individual quality or tone color of the voice.
The “grain of the voice” is something more than timbre, that has to do with the aesthetic quality of the voice and the ability of the voice to go beyond the function of language or traditional musical expectations. It’s all of those undefinable qualities that account for why some can deliver a song in a very powerful and meaningful way, while others we just admire and move on – even if their performances were quite expressive and technically polished. They just don’t hit you where you live, so to speak. As I understand it, the “grain of the voice” is a way of describing how the voice works at the language and the music – it takes place beyond the realm of definable musical elements or linguistic function.
The example you gave of “We are the World” is an excellent way of clarifying this. If you think of voices like Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Dylan – those aren’t beautiful voices in the traditional pedagogical sense. Their singing doesn’t conform to the rules of great vocal technique like some of the others do. Yet, out of that amazing chorus of stellar vocal talent, those four singers are among the most respected – I would even say revered. It’s the “grain of the voice” that possibly accounts for the power of their vocal performances. They are very honest and convincing singers, capable of delivering a song in a way that really speaks to the listener.
Bjørn: That is really interesting, Lisha! I had never thought about voices like that before, and the grain concept really helps clarify some things. So, MJ’s “grain,” his way of using his voice in the music, might explain the power of his NVVs. Perhaps it might even explain why his verbal singing affects so many people beyond the mere meaning of the words?
Lisha: I think it at least gets us started in how to think about it. There is something very compelling about Michael Jackson’s voice that isn’t so easy to define. I think it’s one of the reasons a lot of TV talent shows inevitably feature a Michael Jackson episode. It’s quite a challenge for the judges and contestants to think about why Michael Jackson’s performances are so exceedingly difficult to match.
Bjørn: That’s a very good point, Lisha! One of the reasons why those rising TV stars can’t match MJ, I think, is that there is more to his singing talent than the quality of the voice itself.
Lisha: I agree.
Bjørn: Commemorating the fourth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, Joe Vogel posted a really wonderful description of MJ using a NVV in a non-song situation. He quotes Howard Bloom, who was a publicist for the Jacksons in the mid-1980s. Bloom was going to show the Jackson brothers some portfolios so that they might choose an artist for their next album cover:
We were all bunched together on the opposite side of the pool table from the art director. Michael was in the center. I stood next to him on his left. And the brothers were crowded around us on either side. The CBS art director slid the first of the portfolios toward Michael. He opened the first page, slowly … just enough to see perhaps an inch of the image. As he took in the artwork his knees began to buckle, his elbows bent, and all he could say was “oooohhhhh.” A soft, orgasmic “ooooh.” In that one syllable and in his body language, you could feel what he was seeing.
Willa: Oh, I can just picture that, Bjørn! It really conveys how expressive Michael Jackson could be, nonverbally, both through his voice and gestures – “his knees began to buckle … and all he could say was ‘oooohhhhh.’” What a great image!
And I’m intrigued by what you just said, Lisha, about Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan – how “their singing doesn’t conform to the rules of great vocal technique,” but their voices are still very expressive. It reminds me of the opening lines of an article I read a while ago in Village Voice, where critic Frank Kogan wrote, “An odd thing about Michael Jackson is that he has a totally spectacular voice but he doesn’t feel the need to amaze us with it. At all.”
I disagree with much of Kogan’s article, but I do agree with this. Michael Jackson had “a totally spectacular voice,” as Kogan says, but he didn’t put it on display – that wasn’t his focus. In fact, sometimes he’d make his voice rough or staccato or in some other way use his voice in a way that hid just how beautiful it was, but conveyed tremendous emotion and meaning, I think. And I wonder if this gets back to the idea of “grain” that you were talking about, Lisha.
Lisha: I think that’s exactly it, Willa. Serving the music was always Michael Jackson’s first priority. I honestly can’t think of a single example of where he indulges in a simple display of virtuosic vocal talent, though he certainly could have if he wanted to.
Willa: I agree. We know that Michael Jackson was very conscientious about his voice. He worked with a voice coach, Seth Riggs, for decades, and he’d meticulously run through an hour or more of vocal exercises before a concert or recording session to fully open his voice. He wanted to make sure that beautiful tenor and those pure, clear, high notes were available to him if he needed them. But his concerts and albums aren’t a showcase of beautiful notes. His focus was always on conveying ideas and emotion, on conveying something meaningful – as he said while still just a child, “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” And sometimes that means hitting a “crystalline” note, as you called it, Bjørn, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Lisha: Sometimes he withdraws his singing voice for musical emphasis. “Money” is the perfect example of this, also “Blood on the Dance Floor.” The verses are almost spoken rather than sung, and he uses very little of his voice, at times almost a whisper, which is such a perfect choice. The voice itself is carrying so much meaning in these examples, though it’s quite the opposite of a “showcase of beautiful notes.”
I also think it also goes back to what Bjørn was saying about Michael Jackson letting out an ecstatic “oooohhhh” when he saw that amazing artwork. It seems to me that human beings have a need to express themselves vocally. If you stub your toe or burn yourself in the kitchen, the first thing you do is vocalize with an “ow!” or “ouch!” Or if your team wins, or your favorite singer gives an amazing performance, you want to yell out “yyyeess!” “woo-hoo!” or “yeah!” Intense grief or anguish is associated with sobbing and wailing sounds. A big surprise is usually followed by a gasping sound – an audible inhalation. Disgust is often followed by “uh,” vocalizing a sharp exhalation. There are so many ways we use vocal sounds to express ourselves.
Willa: That’s a good point, Lisha, and maybe those exclamations are so evocative and emotionally powerful precisely because they’re prelingual – they happen reflexively before we have a chance to think and put our thoughts into words, so they seem more primal and maybe more true somehow.
Lisha: Or maybe they could even be described as translingual – in that they go beyond the function of language? Certainly Michael Jackson had a good command of language, but it seems there are times when language doesn’t fully support what he wanted to convey.
Bjørn: I’d say the ability to express our emotions is one of language’s primary functions! But I do see what you mean by the words “prelingual” and “translingual.” In linguistics, exclamations like “ouch!” or “yes” are called interjections. Unlike a verb (“to sing”), a noun (“a song”) or an adjective (“beautiful”), interjections cannot partake in the creation of phrases. Each interjection is like an autonomous phrase. When lifting your hand from a scorching cooking plate, there’s no need to formulate a phrase like “that hurt!” An “ouch!” says it all.
Some interjections are onomatopoeia or imitations of sounds in the world around us. Like when a child points at a cow and says “moo!” Other interjections are more spontaneous expressions of feelings, and this is where I see a direct link to Michael Jackson’s NVVs. As you point out in your book, Willa, one of MJ’s driving forces as an artist was his desire to help us see how belief influences our perceptions. We see a cow, think for a couple of milliseconds, then reach the mental conclusion “that’s a cow.” In that way, language helps us organize our impressions and gain some footing in the perceptional flux. The price is, however, that every time we use language to form a phrase, we also pass judgment on the world. To a certain extent, interjections are an exception to this.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn. I never thought of it that way – that interjections are nonjudgmental.
Bjørn: If you’ve never ever seen a cow, and then have your very first encounter with one, you might react by letting out a surprised “o!” – just like the romantic poets.
I think MJ’s use of NVVs has everything to do with a note he once wrote to himself concerning songwriting: feel, feel, feel, feel, feel, feel… His NVVs are so powerful because they derive directly from his feelings, with no intervention of analytical thought in order to put those feelings into words. A baby cries, a lion roars. Those sounds move us immediately, because they are natural or primal. They’re very impulsive, almost instinctive, reactions to emotions like fear, joy and wonder. They come directly from the heart, and MJ knew it (or felt it, I should say).
Willa: That’s a really important idea, Bjørn, and I think it gets to the heart of why these nonverbal vocalizations can be so powerful. It’s not just that we don’t need to say anything more than “ow!” when we burn our hand on the stove. If it hurts badly enough, we can’t say anything more – all we can do is moan, or gasp, or silently writhe on the floor. Language breaks down in the face of extreme physical or emotional pain – or extreme joy, as Michael Jackson describes in “Speechless.”
For me, the best example of this is the interlude in Smooth Criminal. Something terrible happens to Annie – we’re not sure what, but the implication is that she’s been shot by Michael, the Smooth Criminal (just as The Blond is shot by Fred Astaire’s character in The Band Wagon, and Charlotte is shot by Mike Hammer in I, the Jury- the two works Smooth Criminal is based on). Michael points his hand like a gun and shoots out the skylights, we hear the sound of a gunshot, and glass from the broken skylights crashes down on everyone in the nightclub. And importantly, there’s also a rupture in the flow of the video, and in language itself.
It’s like a psychotic break where Michael is forced to confront what he’s done and feel the pain of it, and there’s no singing or dancing or dialogue in this section – just stamping and moaning. It feels to me that we’ve entered a space of such intense emotion, language can’t function here. It’s like when you burn your hand on the stove and it hurts too much to speak in words, or when you feel emotional or psychological pain to such an extreme you can’t speak. We enter that primal, pre-verbal space in Smooth Criminal after Annie is shot.
Lisha: But isn’t Michael the guy in the white hat throughout this short film and the entire Moonwalker film? I’ve always interpreted him as the rescuer, not the perpetrator in Smooth Criminal. I think the long NVV “ooooo” helps to clarify this. It expresses the pain and agony he feels that Annie is not “ok” – the thing that motivated him to fight and restore order in the first place.
There was even a Sega Genesis home video game about Michael Jackson’s NVVs, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, that depicts this really well. The “first person shooter” in this game isn’t armed with guns or traditional weaponry. Instead, the player is armed with Michael Jackson’s NVVs and his iconic dance moves. The task is to rescue the little blond girl “Katie” from the evil Mr. Big and his henchmen:
Bjørn: Oh yes, I remember having played that game! The synthesized “hoows” sound worse than an underwater radio transmission of a cat, but no one is in doubt who the good guy is…
Lisha: Too funny, but you’re right, Bjørn! Michael Jackson was apparently very frustrated with the game sound technology available at that time. Perhaps that’s the reason the “hoows” are even used in a humorous way at times, like between scenes. Here’s a link to a Brad Buxer interview that discusses this (page 76).
Willa: That game is funny! I hadn’t seen it before, and I see what you’re saying about Michael being the rescuer. And I know how you feel, Lisha, about the idea of Michael shooting Annie. I really do. There’s something in me that completely rebels against that idea. It just feels so wrong.
But at the same time, I think what Michael Jackson is doing in Smooth Criminal is complicated but incredibly important. Our culture is steeped in stories of violence against women – or more than that, stories that glorify men who commit violence against women. That’s exactly what happens at the conclusion of I, the Jury and The Band Wagon. Both of those stories focus on a tough guy private investigator who crosses the line sometimes between legal and illegal, moral and immoral, and in both stories the protagonist shoots and kills the woman he said he loved and vowed to protect. And the really horrible thing is that, in both cases, he feels justified in killing her – and he’s presented as a hero, or rather a tough guy anti-hero, because of it.
I think that in Smooth Criminal, Michael Jackson is retelling those stories, or rather he’s “untelling” them – he’s evoking them and then undoing them. His protagonist, Michael, is morally ambiguous also. He’s “the guy in the white hat,” as you said, Lisha, but he’s also a “smooth criminal.” And he’s a mourner – think of the black armband. And he’s the narrator, since it’s his voice that sings the story of what happened. And he’s a member of the chorus, which like a Greek chorus in classical drama provides moral commentary (“Annie, are you OK?”). And to some extent he’s Annie also, since his voice sings her part as well. So he occupies many different subject positions.
Just as importantly, Michael isn’t nearly as hardened as Mike Hammer or Rod Riley, so his reaction to what happens is very different. Mike Hammer and Rod Riley seem liberated and reaffirmed as men when they kill those women, but Michael’s reaction is very different. Annie’s death is intolerable to him. It racks him with pain – you can hear it in his voice – and so we have that psychological break where language stops functioning, and all we hear are cries and other nonverbal vocalizations.
But this is just one interpretation. Both the song and video are really ambiguous about what exactly has happened, so it can be interpreted many different ways. And I fully understand where you’re coming from, Lisha.
Lisha: That’s really fascinating, Willa. I totally agree that Smooth Criminal is doing important cultural work when it untells “stories that glorify men who commit violence against women.” Now I have to go back and really re-think all this!
Bjørn: I really like that you introduced the wailing scene from Smooth Criminal, Willa. I was thinking about it as well, and how it shows the deep need we as human beings have to express ourselves with our voices, even when we’re in such an emotionally fraught state that we can’t produce words that point to anything in the outside world. When language breaks down, the barriers we set between us as humans also break down. (As an aside, scientists have just discovered that the one word that’s shared by most of the world’s languages is the interjection “huh”!)
Without all our words and labels, we’re no longer French or Chinese, teacher or student, sailor or politician, adult or child. We’re all just souls (or personalities or whatever one likes to call it) that happen to be embodied in a plethora of different shapes and colors. Each time MJ lets out an “ow!” he basically tells us “You’re just like me, I’m just like you” (or, in his own words, “You’re just another part of me”).
Willa: Oh, that’s a wonderful way of interpreting this, Bjørn! – his nonverbals as a way of bridging cultural differences.
Lisha: That is interesting, because when we use interjections like “ow!” or “ouch!” we are definitely speaking English and behaving in a way that is culturally acceptable in the English speaking world. I assume other languages have equivalent behaviors and expressions for crying out in pain. But the long “oooo” sound isn’t necessarily speaking English and it doesn’t seem limited to a specific language or culture to me.
Bjørn: Well, in my experience you don’t have to understand English in order to get Michael Jackson’s “aoows” and “hee-hees.” You could also say that laughter is a NVV – the whole world, from Greenland to New Guinea, would understand the laughter at the beginning of “Off the Wall” (and at the end of “Thriller”)! I even think it goes further, that he somehow uses his NVVs to destabilize the boundaries between humanity and nature. After all, the vocal sounds of animals are non-verbal. (In “Black Or White” the human Jackson uses both verbal and non-verbal vocalizations; the moment he’s transformed into a panther, he can only roar.) A good example would be the way he merges monkey sounds into the music in “Monkey Business.”
Lisha: Very interesting, Bjørn. And I wouldn’t rule out that some of those monkey sound effects are NVVs. After all, according to Bruce Swedien, it was Michael Jackson who produced the howling sounds in “Thriller.” For example, at about 20 seconds before the end of “Monkey Business” (at 5:26) there is a repeated “ach-a ach-a ach-a” sound followed by “hoo” (it’s on the far right if you’re wearing headphones) that sounds like Michael Jackson playing around with animal/monkey sounds to me.
“Monkey Business” also has something interesting in common with the album version of “Smooth Criminal,” which is the sound of the breath alone as a NVV. Just before the opening line, “Well Lord have mercy,” there is a dramatic intake of air, so close to the mic you can actually hear the air passing through the lips and teeth. And dang! Is it sexy the way he draws this breath!
Willa: Now, now, Lisha, compose yourself!
Lisha: Sorry, Willa, but it’s kind of hard not to notice!
Willa: I know what you mean. You can almost feel his breath …
Lisha: The way the song is recorded and engineered really contributes to this as well. You would have to be in very close proximity to someone to hear that much detail in their breathing and to hear such a soft voice so clearly, so the recording itself really conveys a sense of intimacy.
We also hear the sound of the breathing in the intro to “Smooth Criminal.” But in this case, the breathing gets faster and faster as the sound of the heartbeat begins to race, indicating a really frightening situation. What could be more cross-cultural, human, and natural than breathing and the beating of the heart? I think we could all agree, regardless of our cultural backgrounds, that the fast breathing in the intro to this song indicates fear and extreme anxiety, while the long, drawn out breath in “Monkey Business” is very relaxed and sexy.
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting, Lisha, that both songs begin with the sound of his breath, so close you can almost feel it, but it creates a very different effect – a feeling of intimacy in the first and a feeling of anxiety in the second. I hear something kind of similar at the beginning of “Is It Scary.” It’s like he catches his breath, but in a rhythmic way that’s both intimate and frightening.
Lisha: A brilliant example! “Is It Scary” uses this so effectively throughout.
Willa: It really does, though it’s not as intense as “Smooth Criminal.” I agree with you, Lisha – that quickening breath and racing heartbeat at the beginning of “Smooth Criminal” are really frightening. It’s almost like they create a physical entrainment, so our breath and heartbeats quicken in response to his. At least, I know mine does.
Lisha: The heartbeat is so audible, it’s as if the listener is being cued to identify with the protagonist.
Lisha: It feels as if you’re placed right inside his head before the song ever starts. Yet, it’s interesting how you and I interpreted “Smooth Criminal” so differently, which is informed by these NVVs. To be honest, we could probably find as many different meanings attached to all of these sounds as we find different interpretations of the songs, within a certain range of course. I mean, I doubt someone would hear that first breath in “Monkey Business” as fear and anxiety and the fast breathing in “Smooth Criminal” as relaxed and sexy. But, the exact meanings attached to these sounds will differ.
Having said that about differences in interpretation, I have to agree with Bjørn that there is also something powerful about breaking down language in an attempt to speak to our commonalities rather than our differences. For example, the entire chorus of “Earth Song” is a NVV, sung on “ah” and “oo.” Michael Jackson abandons language altogether here, not only to break down the boundaries between people, but to “destabilize the boundaries between humanity and nature,” as Bjørn said so well.
Willa: Which fits perfectly with the meaning of the song. The video reinforces this idea since we primarily see images of nature during the chorus. During the first quiet chorus, we mainly see the destruction of nature. During the second and third repetitions we see humans digging their hands into the devastated earth, reconnecting with nature, and that powerful wind begins to blow. … And then in the final glorious chorus, we see a vision of nature triumphant, with herds of animals restored to their rightful place.
Bjørn: Furthermore, those NVV choruses muddle the musical genres… I know many pop fans find classical music boring, because there’s no human voice they can relate to. (This includes the somewhat “unnatural” voices heard in opera.) Conversely, aficionados of classical music often find pop music too superfluous and ephemeral, maybe because it’s based on an individual voice (or voices) rather than some “timeless” instrumentation that talks directly to people’s deeper selves and doesn’t require any translation. Now, “Earth Song” works on both levels, doesn’t it?
Willa: It really does.In the chorus of “Earth Song,” his voice is literally his “instrument” since, to me anyway, it functions like an instrumental section – but he creates it with his voice, as you pointed out, Lisha. And the fact that it’s made of nonverbal sounds rather than lyrics is a big part of that, I think.
Lisha: I hear the “ah” and “oo” sounds not as instrumentals but as lead vocals all the way! Joe Vogel called attention to how these nonverbals work on several levels – as a cry for the earth, as humanity crying out together as one human family, and as a personification of the earth itself – Mother Earth crying out in pain. It’s a stunning example of the power of NVVs and Michael Jackson’s vision as a composer.
But speaking of NVVs as a part of the musical score, there are some fabulous examples of how Michael Jackson uses NVVs as instrumentation. For example, in the beginning of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” about 9 seconds in, the guitar line is actually a blend of guitar and Michael Jackson’s NVVs, “duh-tah duh-tah dum.” He is using his voice as part of the accompaniment and I would bet my last dime the vocals came first, and that the guitar sounds were chosen later to imitate the voice.
“Don’t Be Messin’ Round” is a gold mine for understanding how Michael Jackson used NVVs as a compositional technique. You can hear the song isn’t quite finished by how the NVVs are slowly being replaced by the instrumentals. A good example is at 3:58, about the last 20 seconds of the song, where you can hear the guitar imitating the voice.
Willa: Wow! You really can! I hadn’t noticed that before.
Lisha: The NVVs show how Michael Jackson would “write” music by recording his voice, rather than using a pencil and paper. Because of his exceptional vocal talent, this was an extremely efficient way for him to work. Like in the bridge at 2:38, I hear “bop-bop bah dup-bah-dup” as a trumpet line. My guess is that if this song had been finished, we would have heard a trumpet or brass section there. Hearing the line sung like that gives me a lot of information about what he wanted to hear, much more than just seeing it written out on the page, which is always an approximation of sound.
Bjørn: Yet I’ve occasionally seen claims that Jackson wasn’t a “real” composer, since he didn’t write notes like the classical composers. But who knows, maybe he was actually far ahead of his time, a composer who’s consciously ditched notes and paper because they aren’t “necessary” (as he said somewhere in his Mexico deposition)?
Lisha: I agree. I don’t think of Michael Jackson as a pre-literate composer, but as a post-literate composer. It’s a big mistake to assume “real” composers “write notes like classical composers.” The traditional way of writing music on paper is just a way of storing and communicating musical information. Michael Jackson had an extremely efficient method of doing both that I think is far more clever.
Bjørn: Maybe too clever for the critics? Composition and songwriting is yet another area where Michael Jackson liked to mix up everything. For example, he sometimes seems to have used an offbeat pronunciation on purpose. Remember all those discussions about things like “shamone!” or the exact lyrics of the world’s most famous denial, “The kid is not my son”? (“The chair is not my son,” as David Letterman heard it!) Jackson does a lot of roaming in the borderlands between “composing” and “improvising,” “meaning” and “not meaning,” “voice” and “instrument,” “man” and “nature,” and even “man” and “machine” – as when he uses a vocal synthesizer in “Leave Me Alone.”
And speaking of “Don’t Be Messin’ Round,” I think it’s amazing how Michael Jackson’s voice is capable of creating an independent space in the air and the listener’s mind. Did you get a chance to hear the original “Slave to the Rhythm” when it leaked? In the first seconds of that song, it is as if MJ is drawing energy out of thin air and then setting the stage for the entire song with his NVV’s! It’s so powerful, his sounds almost feel like physical objects. There’s a loud “hoo!,” then a string of commanding “chuck-chuck-chuck,” another “hoo!,” vocal hiccups and strained “ah!”s mixed with waxing-waning “woahoaow” lamentations, climaxing into a double “hoo! hoo!” Only after 22 seconds does the actual singing begin…
Lisha: I love those NVVs in “Slave to the Rhythm”! I was also thinking about the beginning of “Workin’ Day and Night” and how he’s got two different NVV hooks going at the same time – “de-dum dah” and “uh-ah uh-ah” – that are like extra percussion instruments. The Michael Jackson Immortal soundtrack really highlights this. I can even hear a “chu-chu” vocalization that blends with the percussion shakers.
Bjørn: While we’re at it – I just re-listened to “Speed Demon.” The NVVs of that song are very unusual. Once again, some 20 seconds pass before the singing begins. MJ sets the stage with three very guttural “chu!”s, followed by a peculiar, almost girlish “oo!” followed by another trio of “chu!”s. Nearing the end of the song, he lets out an entire NVV “monologue”: “oouh!” (2:55), “ogh!” (2:58), [“girlish”] “ah!” (3:00), “urh!” (3:03), “hoow!” (3:05). It reminds me of the printed sound effects in comics (“boom!,” “ugh!,” “kapow!”).
Willa: I agree! And that’s a great way of describing it, Bjørn.
Bjørn: I wonder if he created this particular “chu!” especially for “Speed Demon”? (It’s so throaty it sounds like cockney English or my own language Danish!) To some extent it carries the whole song – just like the “dah!” sound pervading “Bad.”
Lisha: In my opinion, “chu” was absolutely created for “Speed Demon,” as an onomatopoeia for the motorcycle engine sounds. Listen carefully and you can also hear a percussive rattling or shaking sound when the rhythm begins, after the engine revs up for the first couple of seconds of the song. If you’re wearing headphones you will hear it on the left side for 8 counts, then it moves to the right side for 8 counts, and continues to alternate left and right. That’s not a pre-recorded sound effect or another percussion instrument, but a very soft, whispered, rhythmic, NVV! And it’s a complicated pattern, not even sure how I could try to write that out without the benefit of hearing the isolated track, but it sounds like an imitation of an engine purring or rattling to me.
We talked earlier about how expressive Michael Jackson’s NVVs can be, and how they so effectively communicate emotion, but oftentimes they are used as sound effects or part of the instrumentals as much as anything else. And they are often so understated and blended into many different layers of sound, that they’re not necessarily noticeable. And they are just so imaginative, giving such amazing variety to the sound. There seems to be no limits when it comes to Michael Jackson’s imagination.
A favorite example is “Stranger in Moscow.” If you listen carefully, just before the vocals start, there is a short, whispered “tuh” sound, placed irregularly on the off beats, that adds a very soft, percussive sound. Later in the song, just after “when you’re cold inside” (1:42) he repeats that soft sound, “tuh tuh tuh tuh,” but it sounds like he’s actually breathing in on some of them, which creates a slightly different color. I mean, who else thinks like that?
In the line “how does it feel,” the word “does” is heavily accented and one of the sounds accenting that beat is a whispered “huh” that is brought up in the mix. But all these details often go unnoticed. You just feel the power of the music and the lyric blending with all these sounds.
Willa: Well, they certainly went unnoticed by me! That’s one thing I love about talking to you both – you highlight details I would never notice on my own. I feel sometimes like I’ve been listening to these songs for years and not really hearing them. It’s so fascinating to begin to hear some of the things you guys hear.
For example, I never noticed those “tuh tuh” sounds you’re talking about, Lisha, even though “Stranger in Moscow” is one of my favorite songs and I play it often. But you’re right – you can definitely hear them at several key moments. I hear them most clearly in the “We’re talking danger … I’m living lonely” section (about 3:45 in). It’s like an explosive exhalation occurring at regular intervals, almost like we’re listening to him lift weights or do some other kind of hard physical labor. And that repeated sound subtly conveys the feeling that he’s under duress and carrying a heavy load. At least, that’s how it feels to me.
Lisha: Great example, Willa. That exhalation feels very labored to me too, which adds so much weight musically to the song. It’s endlessly fascinating to listen for all these sounds and to try to understand how they are being used.
Oh, and I just can’t resist at least one more example of these very subtle NVVs, which is “People of the World,” a charity song that Michael Jackson wrote and produced for the people of Kobe, Japan in 1995, after a devastating earthquake:
Although it is in Japanese and Michael Jackson doesn’t sing on this track, his writing and production work are unmistakable. You can hear him literally breathe life into the song with a whispery NVV just before the vocals begin (1:38), and as a repeated percussive effect on off beats throughout. I am a huge fan of this song.
Bjørn: I can understand why. I’ve never heard this song before, and it is really beautiful. (Pop music by other performers often makes me cringe, so that ought to be proof enough that Michael Jackson’s spirit is alive in this song!) Thank you for sharing.
Lisha: I admit, I got a little addicted to it. It’s amazing that I feel like I somehow understand what is being said, though I don’t speak a word of Japanese. I guess that goes to the power of music and non-verbal musical expression!
Joie: So, Willa … I was thinking about how we’re already into our third year of this blog and all the wonderful posts we’ve done and the amazing conversations we’ve had. You know, we’ve talked about so many different aspects of Michael Jackson’s artistry, from his songs and short films to his impact on an entire generation of people and his contributions to music, fashion, pop culture and humanity. And during all those conversations, there’s actually a topic we haven’t really touched on at all, and I’m amazed that we’ve overlooked it. I’m talking about Remember the Time, both the song itself as well as the short film. In all of the conversations we’ve had the past two years, I don’t think we’ve mentioned it much. Have we?
Willa: No, we haven’t, and it’s a great one to talk about! But we haven’t talked about a lot of incredible work – short films like Beat It and Billie Jean and Scream, as well as other visual art and music and dance. Not to mention the unreleased songs and films, or the classical music he composed that hasn’t even been recorded yet. He left behind a huge body of work.
Joie: So, Remember the Time is actually one of Michael’s greatest short films, in my opinion. Partly because it has such a wonderful and entertaining cast – Eddie Murphy, Iman, and Magic Johnson all simply shine in their roles in this video.
Willa: That’s true, and the relationships between them and the characters they play is interesting as well. For example, Iman’s character, an Egyptian queen, is married to Eddie Murphy’s character, the Pharaoh. But you get the impression she really wants Michael Jackson’s character, a magical/musical mystery man with many hidden talents. The Pharaoh realizes this and feels very threatened by it, so he orders his guards. But while they’re running around chasing this mysterious figure, he’s off having a passionate moment with the Queen in her private chambers.
This is all kind of funny if you remember that, in the 1980s, Eddie Murphy repeatedly made fun of Michael Jackson on Saturday Night Live and in his comedy routines on the Delirious tour and others, implying in not so subtle ways that Michael Jackson wasn’t “masculine” enough. But watching Remember the Time, you get the impression his “wife,” the Queen, doesn’t agree.
Joie: That’s funny, Willa. I had never made that connection before. Of course, I’ve seen those Eddie Murphy skits over and over, but I never thought about them in terms of the Remember the Time video. That’s interesting.
Willa: It is interesting, isn’t it? You know, they really seemed to respect each other a lot, professionally, but there was an edge to it sometimes – just like there’s some animosity between their characters in this film. And there’s definitely an edge between the magician/musician and the Queen as well. It’s presented as an illicit romance, but there’s more to it than that. The Queen demands to be entertained, and when the first two performers don’t please her, she has them executed. So then the magician/musician tries his hand, and he’s drawn to her but seems kind of angry with her too – and you can see why.
Joie: Hmm. Actually I’m not sure that I know what you mean, on either point. With Eddie Murphy, I don’t feel like there was an edge to their friendship at all. I think it seemed really genuine. Those old skits you were talking about before, Michael said once that he thought they were really funny, and he was impressed with Eddie’s singing voice when he would mimic him. So I don’t think there was an edge to it at all.
Willa: Well, you’re right – Eddie Murphy does have a wonderful voice …
Joie: And in the video, the interaction between Michael’s character and Iman’s – I don’t feel that he’s angry with her. To me, the storyline created by the video is one of lost love. They obviously share a romantic history with each other, she is surprised to see him there in the palace that she now shares with her husband the Pharaoh, and he is subtly (or maybe not so subtly) asking her if she remembers “them” – how much in love they were, what they meant to one another. I don’t see him being angry with her.
Willa: That’s funny that we see this all so differently, Joie! My feeling is that Eddie Murphy respected Michael Jackson a lot for his talent and his charisma and his massive sales, but he didn’t understand him at all. According to Randy Taraborrelli, Murphy told him once, “I love Michael, but he is strange.”
Joie: Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t give too much credence to anything Taraborrelli says.
Willa: Well, ok, but it is true that Eddie Murphy ridiculed Michael Jackson a lot in his comedy sketches. I remember seeing a skit on Saturday Night Live a long time ago where he was holding a Michael Jackson doll and basically talking about how effeminate it was. And then at the end of the skit, he pulled the pants off the doll, pointed out it didn’t have any man parts – as if dolls generally do – and said something about it being anatomically accurate. It kind of shocked me, to be honest, just how harsh it was. I haven’t been able to find a clip of it so maybe I’m remembering it as worse than it was, but as I remember it had a very ridiculing tone to it.
I think Eddie Murphy did things like that primarily because he’s a guy-guy, a masculine fellow in a very traditional sense of the word, and he mocked Michael Jackson for not conforming to that – for attempting to redefine what it means to “be a man,” as we talked about with Bad in a post last fall. But while Michael Jackson may not have been macho in the traditional sense, he had an uncanny power that he exercised in gentle ways. We see a glimpse of that in this clip from the 1989 American Music Awards:
It’s a funny clip, but it’s interesting that Eddie Murphy starts to help him with the microphone “like I was working for him or something,” and then stops himself, like it’s beneath his dignity: “Wait, what am I doing?”
But even more importantly, I think, is that they see themselves, their careers, and their cultural function in very different ways. Eddie Murphy sees himself as an entertainer, while Michael Jackson was both an entertainer and an artist – and that’s a huge difference. An entertainer tries to please his audience and give them what they want – like the entertainers who try to please the Queen in the video. And as an entertainer, I think Eddie Murphy thought Michael Jackson was “strange” for not doing that – for not just giving us what we want.
But Michael Jackson had the vision of an artist as well as an entertainer, and artists don’t always try to please us. In fact, sometimes they defy us or make us angry or uncomfortable, or even reshape our desires and force us to question what it is we really want, and why – kind of like his character does with the Queen. He doesn’t just entertain her – he unsettles her as well.
Joie: I understand what you’re trying to say, Willa. But I think it’s a little presumptuous of us to state that we know for certain how Eddie Murphy sees himself, his career or his cultural function. I think it’s much safer to say that you feel this is how he sees things, but you don’t really know that. In fact, for all we know, Eddie Murphy doesn’t even think of himself or his career in terms of his “cultural function” at all. That thought may never have even crossed his mind before. It’s simply an idea that you’re placing on him.
And I would be willing to bet that Eddie Murphy does think of himself as an artist. After all, he does have two albums under his belt and is currently working on a third. He’s provided background vocals for other artists, and sang several songs in the Shrek film franchise. Here’s a link to his new single, a reggae tune called “Red Light,” featuring Snoop Lion.
Willa: You’re right, Joie, I should state things more carefully. I don’t know how he sees himself, but based on the projects he’s done in the past, my feeling is that he’s more an entertainer than an artist. And I say that in large part because, in his work, in general, he seems eager to please his audience and not really challenge us or alter our perceptions or beliefs in any way. His comedy routines can be pretty edgy sometimes – I would say he challenges his audience more through his comedy than his music or films – but he never comes close to bringing about the kinds of deep cultural shifts Michael Jackson did. Michael Jackson challenges us constantly in so many ways – how we think about race and gender, money and power and global inequality, animals and ecosystems and the natural world, children and marriage and family relationships, as well as romance and sexuality and desire. In fact, there are times where he really forces us to question why we desire the things we do.
I see this all playing out in interesting ways in Remember the Time. Iman’s character, the Queen, is bored and fickle and cruel. She wants an entertainer who will amuse her, and when the first two entertainers don’t please her, she casually has them killed, as mentioned before. It’s presented in a comic way, but it’s still chilling.
Then Michael Jackson’s character appears, but he’s way more than just an entertainer. He doesn’t look like much when he first appears in his simple robe and sandals, and the Pharaoh kind of mocks him – just like Eddie Murphy himself mocked Michael Jackson: “And what is it you’re going to do?” But this unimposing figure has uncanny abilities – like Michael Jackson himself – and he both exceeds and defies their expectations.
First he transforms himself into an indeterminate figure who’s wearing both modern black jeans and a transparent Egyptian skirt. It’s the kind of skirt you see Egyptian figures wearing in ancient murals, and I really kind of like it, actually, but it’s not very macho in a traditional sense. But then the Pharaoh realizes that his Queen is seriously turned on by this new kind of man, and his eyes practically bug out at the sight! And soon after we see Michael Jackson’s character surrounded by a ring of dancing harem girls – not bad for a guy in a skirt …
This magician/musician also challenges them both, especially the Queen – the woman who killed his predecessors. After he transforms, he brushes off his arms and juts out his jaw like he’s going into a fight. Then he swipes his mouth with the back of his hand – just like he did in Bad before telling the street thugs that they’re “doing wrong,” and in Ghosts before telling the Mayor and villagers that they’re “doing wrong” also. So this character is far more than an entertainer trying to please his audience. It’s much more complicated than that.
Joie: Well, that’s an interesting interpretation, Willa. And I agree with what you said before about us seeing this so differently because we really do. I believe that this one is simply mirroring the tale that the song is telling, and the Queen becomes hot and bothered when she recognizes her former lover, who is standing there asking her if she remembers the time they spent together. The King is obviously upset about this, and he decides to have him killed once he sees the connection this strange man has to his wife. As I’m fond of saying, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and not everything always has an underlying, symbolic meaning.
Willa: Well, that’s true, Joie, but to me there are a lot of unsettling little details that don’t really add up if this is just a love story. Like, why does he begin this video by showing us that the Queen is a murderer? That’s not very romantic! And why does he set it up so she’s married to someone else? And why does he spend so little time with her? He actually spends a lot more time dancing with the harem girls than he does with her. That doesn’t really fit a love story either.
Joie: I don’t think he’s trying to show us that the Queen is a murderer. I just think he’s trying to show us the culture and the time period that this short film is set in! And she’s married to someone else because she’s the Queen. I don’t know why he chose to set this particular short film in this particular setting. Would it be more romantic if he had set it at a modern-day church where he’s interrupting a wedding to ask the bride if she remembers how much in love they used to be? Maybe. And then he could have spent some time dancing with the wedding party instead of the harem girls!
Willa: But queens don’t have to be married! Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra was a powerful Egyptian queen who had passionate affairs with both Julius Caesar (played by Rex Harrison) and Mark Antony (played by Richard Burton) and she wasn’t married to either one of them. And you know Michael Jackson must have seen that movie, as much as he loved old movies and Elizabeth Taylor.
But my point is, if he simply wanted to make Remember the Time a steamy romance he easily could have, but he didn’t. I mean, there’s a love scene in it, but overall it just doesn’t feel like it’s primarily a love story to me. It seems to me that once again he’s evoking that double relationship we see so often in his songs and videos of a man with his lover as well as a performer with his audience. We’ve talked about that double relationship before in posts about the My Baby songs (songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous”) as well as a lot of the Invincible songs (like “Invincible,” “Don’t Walk Away,” “Butterflies,” “Whatever Happens,” and “Speechless”) and in videos like You Rock My World, Who Is It, and Give In to Me. Over and over we see him creating this double narrative that, on one level, seems to be talking about the relationship between a man and his lover, but on another level is talking about the relationship between a performer and his audience.
And to me, this double relationship is perhaps spelled out more explicitly in Remember the Time than in any other video – after all, he really is playing both roles simultaneously. He is both a man trying to reconnect with a former lover and an entertainer trying to please his audience, all at the same time. I don’t think we see that in any other video.
And if we approach this video that way – as both a lost romance and a story about a performer and his audience – then all those things that really bothered me before make perfect sense. For example, I can understand why he would depict the Queen as fickle and cruel, because audiences really are fickle and cruel. They love Charlie Chaplin or Shirley Temple or Michael Jackson or Justin Bieber one day, and then take great delight in tearing them down the next. And I can understand why he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand like he’s about to go into battle, because I imagine that a lot of times dealing with some members of his audience, especially critics, must have felt like a battle.
Joie: Ok, Willa, when you explain it that way, I can see where you’re coming from. And your interpretation actually makes a lot of sense. I can see the double relationship you’re talking about with the Queen representing the fickle audience here. You’re probably absolutely right. That double relationship was one that Michael used over and over again to get his point of view across and to attempt to educate the rest of us about our behavior. It was a “go to” sort of tactic for him, and one that served him well, I think. I wonder if other artists use it so effectively.
Willa: That’s a good question, Joie. I know it’s fairly common for artists – poets especially – to present the relationship between an artist and his muse as a love affair, but I don’t know about the relationship between an artist and his audience. Hmmm … that’s interesting.
But you know, I don’t mean to say this is the only way of approaching this video. I’m really intrigued by this interpretation, but I feel like I’ve been pushing it too hard. There are a lot of other really interesting ways to approach it as well. For example, I’d like to go back to a question you raised earlier when you said, “I don’t know why he chose to set this particular short film in this particular setting.”
That’s a really good question – why did he choose to set this video in ancient Egypt? It reminds me of something he said in an interview with Jesse Jackson in March 2005:
Michael Jackson: I really love Africa, and I love the people of Africa. … I spend more of my vacation in Africa than any other country. … They never show the sandy, white sugar beaches, and it’s there. … They never show how beautiful the place is, and it’s really stunningly beautiful! And I want to heighten that awareness with what I’m doing, and that’s been my dream for many, many years. …
Jesse Jackson: You know, we know about the high points of Rome because we see it on film.
Michael Jackson: That’s right.
Jesse Jackson: We know about the high points of Britain and the palace. We see it on film. Or on Paris. We don’t see much of Africa on film. We see Africa as misery, and Africa as problems. We do not see it as being this phenomenally endowed continent of sand and sea and oil and resources. …
Michael Jackson: The world is jealous of Africa for many centuries because the natural resources are phenomenal! It really is. And it is the dawn of civilization. Our history, a lot of our Bible history, is right there in Africa. And King Tut, all these great civilizations, that is right there in Africa. Egypt is in Africa! And they always try to separate the two, but Egypt is Africa.
That’s a long quotation, but I think it helps explain why Egypt was so important to him. We see this fascination with Egyptian art and culture running throughout his adult life, and I wonder if that stems in part from an urge to reclaim Egypt as part of black history and culture.
It’s interesting in this context to think about the fact that the Egyptian royal couple played by Eddie Murphy and Iman are black. We don’t usually see that – for example, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra was white. But in Remember the Time, the Egyptian royalty are black. In fact, the entire cast is black. I can’t think of another Michael Jackson video where that’s true. And I wonder if he set it up that way in part to emphasize the idea he expresses in the Jesse Jackson interview that “Egypt is in Africa … Egypt is Africa.”
Joie: That’s a great quote, and I completely agree with what he said in that quote, “they” do always try to separate Egypt from Africa, but it can’t be done. And I think you’re right in suggesting that perhaps that was part of his motive here – to bring an awareness or try to educate us about Egypt being Africa.
Willa: You know, I’d never thought about that before – that Egypt is often separated out from Africa – until I listened to this interview. That’s really interesting, and it adds a whole other dimension to Michael Jackson’s longtime interest in ancient Egypt and Egyptian art. For example, we see it in the Bashir documentary when he talks so enthusiastically about the Egyptian sarcophagus, and we see it in this portrait from the HIStory album, which is modeled after a sculpture of Pharoah Khafre and his protector, the god Horus, who often appears as a falcon:
Interestingly, this sculpture of Khafre and Horus is seen by many scholars as the model for the Sphinx.
Joie: I’ve always thought that was a very interesting picture of him. The likeness is remarkable, I think.
And it is interesting, isn’t it? How the western world attempts to separate the great civilization of Egypt from the brown skinned people who built and ruled it. And that’s just the sort of African (and African American) history that Michael Jackson always seemed to be very drawn to and interested in. The history that he always tried to educate us about.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and he continues our education in subtle ways in Remember the Time.
Willa: You know, Lisha, I’ve been trying to learn more about Fred Astaire because he was such an important inspiration for Michael Jackson. We see his influence in some of his dance moves and choreography, of course, and in some of his costumes, like his famous fedora. We see direct influences in the videos for Smooth Criminal and You Rock My World, and the lyrics to “Dangerous.” And we can see it more subtly in other places as well.
Michael Jackson always spoke of Fred Astaire with the utmost respect. For example, in a questionnaire he filled out in 1977, when he was only 18, he was asked which entertainers he admired most. His response was Fred Astaire and Stevie Wonder. And after he died, Kobe Bryant repeatedly mentioned how Michael Jackson encouraged him to go back and watch Astaire’s movies – like in this press conference and in a Time magazine article, “Remembering Michael”:
Beyond the genius of what he was, he was just a genuinely, genuinely nice person. He got me hooked on movies that I would normally never watch. Fred Astaire movies. All the old classics. … He was just a genuinely nice person who was exceptionally bright, exceptionally bright, and driven and talented. You mix those things together, man, you have Michael Jackson.
So I’ve been trying to watch as many Fred Astaire movies as I can, and last spring I happened to stumble across one called Ziegfeld Follies. It isn’t a movie with a plot like we generally think of. Rather it’s a series of song and dance numbers interspersed with comedy skits, like the original Ziegfeld shows that ran on Broadway for more than 25 years. And one of those numbers in particular completely captured my attention – in fact, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. It’s called “Limehouse Blues.” Here’s a clip:
Lisha: Wow, I have to say that’s really a beautiful Broadway/Hollywood style production number, but seeing Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer made up as Asian characters is pretty wild, isn’t it? I immediately thought of another film, Tony Randall’s 1964 movie 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, in which Randall assumes the role of 7 different mythic characters, including an ancient Chinese wise man, Dr. Lao, who claims to be 7,322 years old.
Did you know at one time Michael Jackson was under contract to remake the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao?
Willa: No, I didn’t!
Lisha: According to Captain EO producer/screenwriter Rusty Lemorande, it was just before the Evan Chandler scandal hit and unfortunately the project was scrapped due to the false allegations. That’s pretty disappointing, to say the least.
Willa: Oh, it’s heartbreaking. It really shows what an immediate and devastating effect those allegations had on his career. And it makes me feel so angry and powerless to think Evan Chandler plotted that all out and got exactly what he wanted, just as he predicted in those phone conversations with David Schwartz before the scandal broke – importantly, at a time when Jordan Chandler was saying he hadn’t been molested:
I will get everything I want, and they will be totally – they will be destroyed forever. They will be destroyed. June is gonna lose Jordy. She will have no right to ever see him again.… Michael, the career will be over.
And he was right – everything he predicted came true. He got “everything I want,” meaning the money he was after, June lost custody of her son, and Michael Jackson’s career was destroyed. In addition to the terrible blow to him personally, just think of how frustrating that must have been for him as an artist.
Lisha: Yes, for him as an artist and for us as an audience. We were all robbed. But while Michael Jackson’s career was damaged, it was far from “destroyed forever,” as Evan Chandler had planned. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it. Anyone else most likely would have been ruined. In the end, Evan Chandler only succeeded in destroying himself, his family, and many, but not all, of Michael Jackson’s artistic and charitable projects. There were no winners in his vicious scheme.
Willa: That’s true. We all lost. Michael Jackson still produced some amazing work, even though his career was irreparably damaged, but I do wonder what he might have accomplished if those allegations had never happened.
Lisha: Thinking about the Dr. Lao movie, I can imagine Michael Jackson would have been wonderful in that role. And I have no doubt he would have enjoyed the challenge of taking on those 7 characters – Medusa, Pan, Merlin, Apollonius, The Serpent, The Abominable Snowman and the magical Dr. Lao.
Willa: Yes, kind of like the multiple characters he plays in Ghosts.
Lisha: Exactly. Jackson was also committed at that time to remaking a 1938 James Cagney film, Angels with Dirty Faces. I find it interesting that all of these films include the concept of different “faces.”
Willa: That is intriguing, isn’t it? Especially since the idea of changing faces was such an important and recurrent motif in his art, from videos like Who Is It and Black or White to his own changing face.
So what do you think of Fred Astaire’s changing face in “Limehouse Blues”? Or more broadly, his playing the role of a Chinese immigrant? I have a conditioned reflex to be wary of any Western portrayal of the East as appropriation – or as Orientalism in the Edward Said sense, meaning an attempt to portray Eastern and middle-Eastern people and culture as exotic, mysterious, alluring but dangerous, and essentially unknowable. And I see that to some degree in “Limehouse Blues.” But at the same time, I actually think it’s attempting to do just the opposite. I’m really struck by the tenderness and humanity in Astaire’s portrayal of this character, and how we are encouraged to see the events that happen from his point of view. He isn’t a mysterious and unknowable cypher – he’s a sympathetic member of the human race with desires and frustrations we can all understand.
Lisha: Well, I guess I’m still kind of on the fence with this. My knee jerk reaction is that it’s a bit offensive in the way it oversimplifies Chinese culture. I hear it immediately in the musical introduction, with the gong and traditional symphonic instruments playing a five-note scale to suggest Asian culture in a very Broadway show style of writing. You can hear the same sounds in the Dr. Lao trailer as well; it’s the typical formula for instantly depicting the Far East through the musical score. Then we see Fred Astaire made up with slanted eyes, wearing traditional Chinese clothes and shoes, which is a little disconcerting. But, I also wonder if I have been cued to judge it that way.
I mean, isn’t this sort of the whole point of drama? To act out something for the audience from another time and place and to play the role of someone you are not? And aren’t simple cues needed to some extent to achieve that, such as costuming, make-up, “ethnic” instruments and musical scales?
Willa: Those are all really good questions, Lisha. Michael Jackson said a number of times that pretending to be “someone you are not,” as you say, was what he loved most about acting. And isn’t that what empathy is, really? Putting yourself in someone else’s position and trying to imagine things from their perspective?
Lisha: I believe that it is. But what are the limits to how far you can go with this kind of oversimplification of culture before it starts getting really offensive?
Willa: Exactly. Or before you start imposing your own values and beliefs onto another culture….
Lisha: I agree with you that Astaire’s character invites the viewer to see events from his point of view and attempts to illustrate the commonality of human experience, rather than simply emphasizing difference. So, it may not be entirely fair to just dismiss this scene because it engages some of these stereotypes as a kind of cultural shorthand.
I’m thinking there is a real difference between intentional and unintentional uses of stereotypes. For example, in the opening of You Rock My World, there is an overt use of Chinese stereotypes – the restaurant, the rickshaw, the karate chop, etc. It leaves little room for doubt that the scene is intentionally invoking over-the-top racial stereotypes in order to make a point. In “Limehouse Blues” I’m not convinced there is much awareness of how problematic stereotypes can be. The scene is set in Limehouse, the Chinatown district of London, and the opening lyrics get my attention right away: “In Limehouse, where Orientals love to play / in Limehouse, where you can can hear the flutes all day.” Apparently the lyrics were cleaned up a bit from the original song, which included the line “learn from those Chinkies, those real China blues,” as in this 1934 recording by the Mills Brothers:
Willa: Well, you’re right, Lisha, those lyrics are offensive, especially in the 1934 version – though as you point out, those lyrics were left out of the film. But there are a lot of stereotypes on display in the film too, as you described so well. Still, I’m reluctant to simply dismiss this performance as offensive and walk away. Like you, I’m really conflicted about it. And part of that, for me, is because I see so many connections to the panther dance in Black or White, and that’s led me to view “Limehouse Blues” in a different way, through the lens of Black or White.
You know, some of the most scornful criticism of Black or White when it first came out was because Michael Jackson still called himself black but appears white. For example, the Saturday Night Live character Queen Shenequa asked, “Black or White? If it doesn’t matter, then why are you so white?” But to me, his crossing of racial boundaries is one of the most brilliant aspects of that video. So why does it seem offensive, or at least problematic, when Fred Astaire crosses the boundary from white to Asian, but not when Michael Jackson crosses from black to white?
I agree with you that part of it comes from the awareness of the creators. Michael Jackson seems very aware of the implications of what he’s doing in Black or White, while it’s not so clear that Fred Astaire understood those implications in “Limehouse Blues.” I also wonder if another reason is because of how they’re positioned. In the U.S., where both films were made, white is the dominant culture and black and Chinese are considered minority cultures. So when Fred Astaire, a white man, appears Chinese it feels like appropriation, but when Michael Jackson, a black man, appears white it feels like resistance – or at worst assimilation.
Lisha: Absolutely. I thought it was hilarious a few years back when some American Indian students at the University of Northern Colorado decided to re-name the basketball team “The Fightin’ Whities.” They chose a stereotypical white man as their new mascot and even changed their fight song to “Ever thang is gonna be, all White.”
Willa: Really? That is too funny!
Lisha: I thought that was a brilliant and very humorous way of calling attention to how offensive it is when the dominant culture appropriates a minority culture, like when American sports teams choose names like the “Redskins,” or the “Indians.” That really makes me angry, but I don’t have the same reaction to white stereotypes.
But now you’ve really got me curious about the connection between “Limehouse Blues” and the panther dance. I have to admit, I don’t see a clear connection.
Willa: Hmmm … Well, now I’m going to have to think a minute. It’s one of those things I just sort of intuitively felt, so I’m not sure how well I can give reasons and put it into words …
I do remember that the first time I watched “Limehouse Blues,” I was immediately struck by the set – the darkened street with the lamppost and the row of shop fronts with big plate-glass windows. In fact, my first reaction was to wonder if it was the same set where the panther dance was filmed. You know, MGM used to have a huge backlot of permanent structures that were used over and over again in different movies, and I wondered if “Limehouse Blues,” Singin’ in the Rain, and the panther dance were all filmed on the same location. They weren’t – if you look carefully, the style of the lampposts and the shape of the windows are a little different in all three – but the overall mood of these sets is very similar, I think.
Here’s a screen capture from “Limehouse Blues.” Doesn’t that look like the set for the panther dance – and for the signature Singin’ in the Rain number as well?
Lisha: Definitely has a similar feel to it. And I see what you mean that it’s not an exact quote, as in other Fred Astaire films that Michael Jackson cited more directly, like The Band Wagon, which he references in Smooth Criminal, You Rock My World and “Dangerous.” It’s a little more subtle than that.
Willa: Exactly. It’s like when the new VW Beetle came out – the designers said they weren’t trying to create an exact replica of the original Beetle, just something “evocative” of it. That’s how the Black or White set is. It’s not an exact duplicate, but it certainly evokes the set of “Limehouse Blues.”
Lisha: That’s a good way of describing it.
Willa: They also have a similar narrative structure. Usually when a movie includes a fantasy sequence, it’s just a brief interruption in the flow of “real life.” The movie will begin in real life, then switch to a quick daydream, and then return to real life. But in “Limehouse Blues,” we follow the main character on the streets of Limehouse for about 7 minutes; then he’s shot and loses consciousness, and we jump to the dream ballet for about 5 minutes; and then he comes to just long enough to see the woman he loves reject the fan he was holding when he was shot, and he loses consciousness again. So the daydream lasts nearly as long as the “real life” sequence, and the main character never reenters his former life.
Black or White has a much more complicated structure, but if we take a big picture view it’s pretty similar. We have a series of vignettes engaging with the real world that goes for about 7 minutes. Then a panther walks downstairs – into the unconscious? I think you suggested that in an earlier post, Lisha. He morphs into Michael Jackson at precisely the 7-minute mark, and then the panther dance begins. It lasts for about 4 minutes, and then we jump to Bart Simpson and the film ends. So as in “Limehouse Blues,” we never see the main character reenter the real world, which is very unusual.
Lisha: Wow, that is interesting. It makes me think about the other short film Michael Jackson made with John Landis, Thriller. At the very end, when Michael Jackson comforts his girlfriend and offers to take her home, it appears that the dream world has finally been broken and we are now watching the action from the perspective of “real life.” But then he turns around and looks into the camera, and suddenly, there are those werewolf eyes again. So when the film ends on that still shot, we know the dream isn’t over yet.
Willa: Oh, interesting! I hadn’t thought about that.
Lisha: And I’ve never noticed that the panther morphs into Michael Jackson right at the 7-minute mark in the film. That is fascinating, since the number 7 is also a recurring theme in his work, such as the “777″ armband he wears in the HIStory teaser, not to mention the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao film he was interested in remaking. And as the black panther walks down those stairs and morphs into Michael Jackson, I do feel like he has just walked into the deep recesses of Michael Jackson’s unconscious mind.
Willa: I agree. And then another parallel is the scene where Michael Jackson’s character picks up a trash can and throws it though the store window. That’s usually seen as a reference to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, but there’s a very similar scene in “Limehouse Blues” as well. Interestingly, in Do the Right Thing, a black character breaks the window of a white-owned business (an Italian pizzeria) but in “Limehouse Blues,” a white character breaks the window of a Chinese business.
One very important similarity, I think, is how we as viewers are positioned. In all three films, we are not in the “white” position. In Black or White and Do the Right Thing, we are on the outside in the “black” position, watching the window break from the point of view of the person breaking it. Here’s a clip from Do the Right Thing:
And in “Limehouse Blues,” we are on the inside, in the “Chinese” position. We as an audience are inside the store, looking out the window and watching the white thugs break the glass toward us.
And actually, I guess that brings me around again to the main reason why I’m conflicted but not offended by “Limehouse Blues.” Usually in a film by a white production team, we are encouraged to see things from a white perspective, and to see whites as sympathetic figures – heroic, honest, virtuous – while minorities are portrayed as either not virtuous or simply as background characters, at best a comic sidekick. But in “Limehouse Blues,” the Chinese character is portrayed in very sympathetic ways, I think, and the white characters are thugs. And we’re encouraged to see things from his point of view. That’s a complete reversal from what we usually see.
Lisha: You are so right about that, Willa. And it’s not very common to see white men criminalized in that way either, unless it’s kind of a glorified thing, like Prohibition era gangsters or white collar crime.
Willa: That’s true.
Lisha: I guess the most obvious and striking similarity between “Limehouse Blues” and Black or White, for me, is a kind of racial cross dressing that happens in them both. As you’ve said, the criticism Michael Jackson faced was that he suddenly appeared white, not black, in that film.
I’m also thinking about something else you said earlier: “when Fred Astaire, a white man, appears Chinese it feels like appropriation, but when Michael Jackson, a black man, appears white it feels like resistance – or at worst assimilation.” As we know, Michael Jackson mastered the art of crossover long before Black or White, meaning he learned to make performance choices that appealed to multiple markets. Since market categories are often divided along racial lines, black performers have had to appeal to white sensibilities in order to reach a mass audience.
I think there are some great examples of Michael Jackson’s crossover talent in the early television series he did, and many of those performances demonstrate his fondness for Fred Astaire Hollywood-style production numbers. Here’s a number from The Jacksons variety show that begins with a lamppost/cityscape scene similar to what we see in the panther dance, “Limehouse Blues” and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain, a film the panther dance is often compared to. It also has many elements from The Band Wagon and Top Hat, and features the song “Get Happy” that Judy Garland sang in Summer Stock.
Willa: That is such a great example, Lisha! It really shows how well versed he was in the big song and dance numbers from the heyday of Hollywood musicals, doesn’t it? And from a very young age. Even the costumes – the white suit and white fedora with a black band, and the red dress with black gloves up past the elbows – are straight out “Girl Hunt Ballet,” Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s big number in The Band Wagon. Here’s a clip:
Lisha: It looks like a lot of The Jacksons variety show clip came straight out of that film. But, I also see a couple of things in Michael Jackson’s performance that could possibly elaborate on his connection to Fred Astaire. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend an outstanding presentation at Columbia College in Chicago by dance historians Bonnie Brooks and Raquel Monroe, titled “The Postmodern Genius of Michael Jackson.” They described Michael Jackson’s dance performances as a virtual history of dance and highlighted how he had synthesized so many disparate influences in such a seamless and original way, it could only be called “genius.” One of the most intriguing clips they used to illustrate this was a performance by the Nicholas Brothers from the film Stormy Weather. In The Jacksons clip above (starting around 2:25) I noticed the staircase, the ramp and the splits at the end, are quite similar to the end of the Nicholas Brothers performance:
Willa: Oh, and the spins as well! Wow, Lisha, when you put them side by side, you really can see those influences. And according to Fayard Nicholas, Fred Astaire told him, “That is the greatest dance number I’ve ever seen on film.” (Here’s a link to the Fayard Nicholas interview. That comment is near the end – about 7 minutes in.)
You know, one thing that strikes me about all this, Lisha, is that Stormy Weather is loosely based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the elegant but expressive dancer who helped pioneer dance and choreography for film. For example, he danced with Shirley Temple in a series of very popular films in the 1930s – and incidentally, I believe that was the first time a black man had ever danced with a white woman, or actually a young white girl, on either stage or film. The Nicholas Brothers pay tribute to Robinson in Stormy Weather, and Fred Astaire pays tribute to him in The Band Wagon (which mentions him by name) and in a very problematic number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” from the film Swing Time. So Bill Robinson influenced both the Nicholas Brothers and Fred Astaire, and then they greatly influenced Michael Jackson who, as you said, encompassed “a virtual history of dance.”
Lisha: It seems Bill Robinson was a major influence for all these artists. Fred Astaire’s work is based, at least in part, on the black tap dance tradition, as Brenda Dixon Gottschild notes in Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era. We know Michael Jackson was influenced by the black tap dance tradition as well – he even danced with the Nicholas Brothers in 1977 and possibly studied with them, too:
So the question is, who is appropriating whose culture in all these examples? Tap dance has roots in both European and African American traditions. Much has been said about Michael Jackson borrowing from Fred Astaire and Hollywood musicals, but little is said about how much white performers owe to black dancers such as Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers.
Willa: That’s an excellent point, Lisha. So when Michael Jackson quotes Fred Astaire in his dancing, is he pointing back to a white or black tradition? The answer to that is pretty complicated, as you suggest.
Lisha: At the same time that Hollywood marginalized black performers, it also capitalized on their talents. Anthropologist Elizabeth Chin wrote an incredible essay for the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled “Michael Jackson’s Panther Dance: Double Consciousness and the Uncanny Business of Performing While Black.” She sees a direct connection between Stormy Weather and Michael Jackson’s panther dance in this regard, as a dream ballet that represents “part of a continuing struggle on the part of African American artists to present their work on their own terms.”
Willa: Chin’s article is fascinating, especially the way she looks at the dream ballet, which she believes originated with Stormy Weather and perhaps reached its fullest expression in the panther dance. She sees the dream ballet as a place where black artists could break out of white stereotypes to some degree and express their own dreams and their own perspective – though as Chin acknowledges, this was tempered by the fact that those dreams and perspectives had to be made palatable to a white audience.
But I’m not sure Jackson did temper his dreams and his anger in the panther dance – at least not sufficiently for some white sensibilities, which is one reason it caused such an uproar when it first aired.
Lisha: I agree with you on that. When Michael Jackson puts on his hat and steps into the “spotlight” to perform a hyper-sexualized, hyper-criminalized tap dance, he is “performing” his race and gender in a very complex way that I believe exposes the beliefs, perceptions and expectations of white audiences. Again he embodies the lyric from “Is It Scary,” “I’m gonna be, exactly what you want to see.” As he acts out the dominant culture’s nightmarish perceptions of black men as hyper-sexualized criminals and entertainers, he also expresses his anger towards those beliefs and expectations. The dance is incredibly beautiful, but it’s also extremely intense and uncomfortable. “Shattering” is the word American studies professor Eric Lott used to describe the dance.
Willa: That’s a good description.
Lisha: But I think Chin makes an excellent point when she contrasts Gene Kelly’s “jaunty puddle splashing” in Singin’ in the Rain with “the stomping and screaming Jackson” in the panther dance. The black dreamscape is interpreted as taking back territory that white dancers appropriated from black tappers, something I think Kelly might be acknowledging in his performance with the Nicholas Brothers in The Pirate:
Willa: That’s a great clip, Lisha! And I agree that Gene Kelly seems to be paying homage to the Nicholas Brothers, specifically, as well as the black dance tradition in general – a tradition that both he and Fred Astaire drew from extensively in their work.
And that reminds me once again of that very problematic number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” that Astaire apparently performed as a tribute to Bill Robinson. What’s most disturbing about it is that he performs in blackface, and this is not in some obscure film no one ever saw. It’s from Swing Time, which many critics, including Roger Ebert, see as the best of his collaborations with Ginger Rodgers. I couldn’t find a clip of the entire number, but here it is in two pieces:
I remember the first time I saw this. I was stunned, and so disappointed he had done it. It feels deeply offensive, viewing it nearly 80 years after it was filmed, and I can’t shake that feeling. And I wonder what it felt like for Michael Jackson to see this, knowing how much he admired Fred Astaire?
Lisha: That scene is painful to watch, for sure.
Willa: It really is. But you know, if we look at this clip more carefully, there are some very interesting details that may complicate how we interpret it – especially those silhouettes that dance behind him in the second clip. Those silhouettes seem to represent the black dancers who have gone before him – specifically Bill Robinson, the “Bojangles” mentioned in the title – and those silhouettes are larger than he is. In fact, they tower over him, which makes sense psychologically. After all, our mentors can intimidate us as well as inspire us.
Those silhouettes also seem to be better dancers than he is (though of course, he’s dancing both parts). In fact, at one point he struggles to keep up with them. Later he proves he’s learned well and is a capable dancer – in fact, ultimately he seems to out-dance them. But ironically, even that can be read as a sign of how over-awed he is by them. It reminds me of Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence,” where he talks about how artists tend to undervalue their immediate predecessors simply to give themselves a little breathing room. The fact that Fred Astaire felt the need to prove himself in competition with those figures from the past reveals just how much they loomed over his imagination.
It’s also interesting to consider who’s foregrounded in this number. Fred Astaire is out front so it would seem to be him, but for me anyway, I can’t take my eyes off those silhouettes, and they’re actually leading the choreography for much of it. So if we look at this number as a reflection of Fred Astaire’s mind, there’s a lot going on in this performance – much more than we may think at first glance.
Lisha: Wow, that really is interesting and gives a lot of credence to the idea that this could be seen as a heartfelt tribute to Bill Robinson, despite the fact that the blackface issue is about as deeply disappointing as it gets. Just like “Limehouse Blues,” it is hard to dismiss the number entirely, as much as it seems we should. If you look at the live performances of “Smooth Criminal” from the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory world tours, it’s pretty clear that Michael Jackson himself gives a nod to this scene. He uses those silhouettes himself, possibly inserting himself symbolically into the history of dance, and paying tribute back to Astaire.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Lisha! And a very interesting way of interpreting this. You’re right, he does use those silhouettes a lot – on tour, as you say, and in the You Rock My World video, and in a very interesting and nuanced performance of “Dangerous” at the 1995 MTV awards. Here’s a clip:
Lisha: I don’t know that I had ever really thought about those silhouettes in this performance before, or how they were borrowed from both Smooth Criminal and Fred Astaire. What’s so interesting to me about this is that I usually think about this performance in reference to Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” in Summer Stock:
But now that you mention it, he has synthesized this performance with so many Fred Astaire quotes, you could see it either way.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, that’s incredible! There really are strong similarities to “Get Happy,” aren’t there? Especially in the intro. I hadn’t connected that – too focused on Fred Astaire, I guess. Astaire is referenced throughout the MTV “Dangerous” performance – from the lyrics and spoken lines that directly quote the “Girl Hunt Ballet” number in The Band Wagon; to the allusions to Smooth Criminal, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha, which is Michael Jackson’s artistic response to “Girl Hunt Ballet”; to those large silhouettes about 4:15 minutes in.
Like the silhouettes in “Bojangles of Harlem,” they move independently of Michael Jackson as he dances in front of them. But while those silhouettes seem to challenge Fred Astaire and even rebel against him, the silhouettes behind Michael Jackson nod approvingly and seem to support and encourage him. To me, that suggests he felt much more connected and aligned with his predecessors – more at peace with them – than Fred Astaire did.
Lisha: It seems many great Michael Jackson moments can be traced back to Fred Astaire, like the ceiling dance in Ghosts, which reminds me of “You’re All the World to Me” from Royal Wedding:
Fred Astaire’s kicking and shattering glass in “One for My Baby” from The Sky’s the Limit suggests to me the glass-shattering kicks in One More Chance or the sound effects in the opening of “Jam” to begin the Dangerous album:
Willa: Oh interesting, Lisha! I’d never made those connections before.
Lisha: Michael Jackson clearly admired and emulated Fred Astaire, so talk about feeling conflicted! Seeing Astaire in blackface in the Bojangles number is an intensely uncomfortable experience, much more so than seeing him portray a Chinese character. It would take a very lengthy and intense discussion to unpack all the reasons why that is so.
Willa: I agree absolutely. I feel so conflicted about that number, even kind of shameful watching it, but at the same time I think it’s an important discussion to have. And fortunately, there’s an expert on the subject who’s willing to join us and help us talk through all this.
Harriet Manning has just published a book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask, that explores some of these issues we’ve been grappling with today. So far I’ve only read the first two chapters, but what I’ve read is fascinating, and it presents a very different way of seeing both the blackface tradition – which was extremely popular in both the US and the UK for more than a century – as well as Michael Jackson in relation to that tradition. And Harriet has very kindly agreed to talk with us about it. So I hope you’ll join us again, Lisha, as we explore this uncomfortable topic a little bit further.
Lisha: I would love to! Harriet’s book sounds fascinating, and she is just the kind of expert we need on this subject. I’m really looking forward to reading her book, and really digging into the subject even more. As a human family, we still have a lot of healing to do on this issue.Special Note:
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. is currently featuring an exhibition, “Dancing the Dream,” that celebrates American dancers who have harnessed America’s diversity and dynamism into dance styles that define the national experience, culture, and identity. The exhibit is named for Michael Jackson’s 1992 book of poetry, stories, and essays and will run through July 13, 2014. It includes a holographic poster of Jackson and photographs of Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers. Here’s a link to an article about the exhibit.
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.