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.
Joie: So, Willa, I was cruising through YouTube, as I sometimes do, and I came across some video footage that I hadn’t seen in a while. And it was so completely adorable it just made me smile. Then it made me laugh. And before I knew it, it actually had me in tears. But, while they were tears of sorrow for the amazing man that we lost, they were also tears of joy and wonder that we even had him at all. Tears of gratitude that he walked this earth and we were allowed to witness the simple love and happiness he brought with him.
The video that brought on these feelings is an old clip of a Disney special, televised for Disneyland’s 25th Anniversary:
In the clip, a very young Michael Jackson sings a Disney medley that includes “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Ease On Down the Road.” The special was filmed in 1980, at a time when Michael had the world on a string, so to speak. He had just made his feature film debut in The Wiz, he and his brothers were enjoying success with the Triumph album, and he himself was riding the crest of solo superstardom with Off the Wall. So to see him slow down and take part in a celebration for the happiest place on earth was really a special treat. And I think it says a lot about how much Disney meant to him that he would take the time to celebrate with them.
Willa: It is fun to watch this clip and see him so young and exuberant. But I’m surprised that he’s singing “Ease on Down the Road” during a Disney celebration. The Wiz wasn’t a Disney film, was it? It reminds me of when he sang “Billie Jean,” a song he recorded for Epic, during a Motown celebration. I get the impression he didn’t like being told what he could and couldn’t sing! But regardless of who owns the rights to what, I love hearing him sing those songs.
Joie: Well, like I said, it was a time when the name Michael Jackson carried a whole lot of weight in the music and entertainment industries. He could really do no wrong in the early 1980s so, if he said he wanted to sing a certain song, I don’t think there were going to be too many people who were going to try to tell him no.
But getting back to the clip itself, you know I just think there’s something so innocent and sweet about it. When I watch it, I get extremely nostalgic for a time that will never come again. It takes me back to my childhood in a way. Back to a time when there were no problems and the world made sense. Everything in life was easy, and Michael Jackson was your friend. Not the enemy. It’s a period of history (my history anyway) that I will always cherish and look back on with great fondness.
You know, Willa … I can vividly remember sitting down in front of the television set with my family and watching that entire special when it originally aired back in 1980.
Willa: That’s funny, Joie. I keep forgetting you’re a lot younger than I am! I was in college in 1980 with no television set, so I didn’t see that special and I’ve never seen this clip before.
Joie: Oh, my gosh! Really? You’ve never seen it before now? Oh, well now I’m really curious … what do you think of it? Does it evoke any certain feelings for you?
Willa: It does, a lot of feelings. Even though I don’t have the specific memories you have of watching it when it first came out, it still takes me back in time – but more back to his past than mine. Like you I love seeing him so young and happy, and it just fills me with dread to think about what lies ahead. It’s very bittersweet watching this knowing what he was going to have to face in the years to come. It’s kind of like seeing a snapshot of a happy family taken before a tragedy strikes. You look at those smiling faces and wish you could just go back in time somehow and change a few little incidents so things turned out differently. Like if Michael Jackson’s van hadn’t broken down that day, he wouldn’t have met Jordan Chandler or Evan Chandler.
Joie: Oh, I know what you mean. And it’s odd to think about, isn’t it? You know, we have all watched some movie or TV show where the premise is that the hero goes back in time – maybe for a few days, or maybe even for an hour – and attempts to change the past in order to change the future. It makes for great entertainment. But it really does make you think. What if we really could go back and change just one thing? Just one moment in time. That one incident – his van breaking down on Wilshire Blvd. that day – changed the trajectory of his entire life. And unfortunately, not for the better.
Willa: That’s true, though in some ways those terrible experiences pushed him to develop some of his greatest, most important art. So I wonder sometimes – if he had a chance to go back and change that one little thing, so his van didn’t break down that day and the allegations never happened, would he? Or did he learn some things through those horrible experiences that he needed to know? I wonder about that a lot, actually….
Another thing that strikes me watching this Disney clip is that he seems kind of self-conscious in a way we don’t usually see in him, except in interviews. Usually when he’s performing, he’s so absorbed in the moment he doesn’t seem embarrassed or self-conscious at all. But then he’s usually performing on stage for a big audience that’s feeding him a lot of energy, or he’s in a studio interacting with other actors, or he’s singing quietly to himself, like in Stranger in Moscow. But in this clip, he’s performing for a big audience, but they’re all out in TV land. They aren’t there with him. The only people there watching, presumably, are the camera crew, and they’re busy filming and doing their jobs – they aren’t giving him the energy he needs to get in the zone. So part of me wishes this had been set up a little differently, like with a live audience or something, so he felt more comfortable.
Joie: That’s an interesting observation, Willa. I hadn’t thought of that before. But you’re right, he does seem very self-conscious and inhibited here. Plus he’s dancing and interacting with a bunch of heavily costumed Disney characters, and that had to be at least a tiny bit awkward I would think.
Willa: That’s true! I hadn’t thought about that.
Joie: But it’s still a really sweet clip.
Willa: It is. You know, his performance is also in a very different style or genre than usual. He’s not in “rock star” mode, like in Dirty Diana or Give In to Me or Come Together. And he’s not doing James Brown soul moves, which were like second nature to him – he’d been doing James Brown’s spins and shuffles since he was 5 years old. And for the most part he’s not doing the Motown moves he perfected with the Jackson 5 either, through he does break into a few at the end of the clip.
Instead, this performance refers back to a much earlier time in musical theater – to the days of Ethel Merman, Al Jolson, and Jimmy Durante, when performers belted out songs with big, dramatic, very stylized hand gestures. Actually, you know what this performance reminds me of? The birthday tribute he did for Sammy Davis, Jr. Here’s a link:
Do you see what I’m saying about the style of his performance? To me, it feels kind of old fashioned in a way, just like the Disney clip. In both of these performances, he’s evoking a much earlier time in the history of musical performance – back to the 1930s. But then he ends the Sammy Davis, Jr., tribute with a crotch grab – a very stylized crotch grab. I don’t think Al Jolson ever did that!
Joie: No! I don’t think he ever did, Willa. I swear, you are too funny! But I agree with you about the style of this performance. It does harken back to a much earlier and simpler time. And I think that adds to the sense of innocence that I feel when I watch it. It’s also a very appropriate style of performance for Disney.
Willa: That’s true. It is.
Joie: And that may ultimately be why he chose to perform this number the way he did. After all, Disney is the happiest place on earth. A place for children of all ages, and one of Michael Jackson’s all time favorite things.
Willa: That’s true too – he spent a lot of time at Disneyland. And actually, it’s interesting to think about all the Disney connections – like, the very first song on the Jackson 5′s very first album is “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the theme song to Disney’s Song of the South, which was later adopted as the theme song for the Wonderful World of Disney. I didn’t see the Disney special that has such happy memories for you, Joie, but I do remember watching the Wonderful World of Disney almost every Sunday night for years, and seeing the bluebird land on Uncle Remus’ shoulder as he sang that song. And then there’s Captain EO. I took my younger brother to see Captain EO at Walt Disney World not too long after it opened at Epcot Center. Did you get a chance to see it, Joie?
Joie: I did. That was an experience, actually seeing it at Disney, wasn’t it?
Willa: It was. In fact, I think that was the first 3D movie I’d ever seen because I can remember being blown away by the 3D effects. How about you? What do you remember?
Joie: Well, I saw it at Disney World, and I just remember being really caught up in all the excitement. You could feel it even as you were standing in that long, winding line waiting to get in. Everyone was just so excited and eager to see it. And I remember coming out of the venue and getting right back in line to wait almost an hour to see it again. And we weren’t the only ones doing that!
Willa: Did you really? That’s funny! My reactions were a little more mixed, actually. To be honest, I didn’t like the ending, and while I see it a little differently now, I still have reservations about it. I was an ardent young feminist in 1986 – still am, actually, though a bit grayer now – and it really bothered me that there’s this powerful, creative, active woman who’s portrayed as evil, and at the end she’s transformed into a completely silent, completely passive, statue of a woman who’s seen as good.
We see that same narrative structure so many times, especially in Disney movies. Like in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there’s this powerful stepmother using all sorts of wildly creative magic, and we’re told she’s vain and evil – the prototypical Evil Stepmother. And of course, at the end of the story she’s displaced as queen and replaced by passive, helpless, domestic Snow White, and we’re told she’s good. And she is good – I like Snow White – but why does the powerful queen have to be evil? We see that same structure in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid – even 101 Dalmations, with vain and evil Cruela deVil trying to kill the puppies to make herself a fur coat.
But what’s most interesting to me now is that, in Captain EO, the “evil” characters – the queen and her henchmen – aren’t destroyed, as evil characters generally are. Instead, they’re transformed, and what brings about that transformation is art – specifically, music and dance. And that’s an idea we see over and over again in Michael Jackson’s work, from Beat It and Can You Feel It in his early years all the way through to probably its fullest expression in Ghosts. Over and over again, we see him telling us that art can lead us to see ourselves differently and bring about spiritual awakening and deep social change. And we see that to some degree in Captain EO as well. As Captain EO tells the queen, she’s “very beautiful within, but without the key to unlock it.” Music and dance provide that key, and transform the queen as well as her guards, changing them from soldiers into dancers.
Joie: Wow, Willa! I knew that you had strong opinions on feminism, but I didn’t know that you felt so strongly about those fairy tales. I tend to straddle the fence on that particular argument. I can clearly see the feminist side of it, and it does concern me that those are the stories we’re expected to teach our little girls. But at the same time, I have always been a staunch and hopeless romantic. I love those fairy tales, and part of me truly loves the idea that “someday my prince will come,” and that happily ever afters are really out there.
Willa: Joie! You can be a feminist and still be a romantic! Why can’t there be a powerful queen in a Disney movie who’s portrayed as good? as powerfully, actively, creatively good? And why can’t a special someone fall in love with her because she’s so powerfully, actively good? What’s wrong with that story? And why doesn’t that story ever get told?
Joie: Because it’s a Disney movie that’s been dumbed down for small children, and whoever makes those decisions obviously believes that children wouldn’t understand good vs. evil unless you have those very clear lines drawn. But children are really smart – smarter than most adults give them credit for – and I think they could understand a powerful queen who’s portrayed as good.
But you also have to remember that most of those stories like Snow White and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, they were all made at a time when the woman was expected to stay at home and be passive and domestic. That was good. Back then, a woman in a position of power and not being very domestic or maternal was seen as very, very bad. So they also reflect the time period they were created in.
But getting to what you said about the evil queen and her henchmen not being destroyed … this is very interesting to me. I never thought about it before but, you’re absolutely right. We do normally see the evil doers completely destroyed at the end of the story – whether it’s a fairy tale or an action movie we’re watching. But here, that’s not the case at all. The bad guys are instead transformed into good, caring people.
Willa: And that’s really important, I think. Sometimes those “evil” characters are killed in terrible ways. For example, in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales story of “Snow White” – one of the first published versions, if not the first – the evil queen is given a pair of glowing red iron shoes that have been heated in a fire, and she’s forced to dance in them until she dies. Isn’t that a horrible image – of someone forced to dance in red hot shoes until she dies? It kind of reminds me of “Slave to the Rhythm,” a little bit.
But the story ends very differently in Captain EO. Instead of the queen being killed and having Snow White take her place, she’s transformed into Snow White, meaning a Snow White sort of character.
Joie: Hmm. Interesting observation, Willa. I would never of thought of it in that way.
Willa: Well, it gets back to the idea of cultural narratives that we’ve talked about before. There are certain stories – like the story of the evil stepmother, a powerful evil woman – that get told over and over again. For example, there are more than 700 different versions of “Cinderella” from around the world, and they’ve been passed down from one generation to the next for centuries. And that’s not even counting all the other witches and mean queens and evil stepmothers in thousands of other stories, from Chinese folktales to Shakespeare to Cruela deVil. But they all share the same feature of a powerful, even magical, evil woman, and together those stories form a cultural narrative.
And then there are other stories that rarely if ever get told at all, like the story of the powerful, creative, magical good woman. That story is not part of our cultural heritage. In fact, it’s almost nonexistent. And that’s important because our cultural narratives hardwire our brains. They create our collective memory and cultural psychology, they shape our perceptions, and they form our beliefs. How we feel about women – motherly women, powerful women, intelligent women – reflects our cultural narratives.
Joie: Cultural narratives are a fascinating topic, Willa, and they play a very important role in all of our lives. As you said, they hardwire our brains. And the truly interesting thing to me is that most people have no clue that it’s even happening. We often hear the phrase, “well that’s just the way things are.” But most people don’t understand that things are the way they are because of those old cultural narratives. Very interesting.
Willa: It is very interesting, and very important too because we tend to believe things that fit our cultural narratives. For example, in 1993 a white man (Evan Chandler) falsely accused a black man (Michael Jackson) of committing a sex crime against a vulnerable white person (Jordan Chandler). And despite all the evidence, the police, the press, and the public tended to believe the white man and not believe the black man. There are a lot of reasons for why that happened, but I think the main reason is that it aligns with our cultural narratives – to the stories we as a culture have told ourselves for centuries.
And I believe Michael Jackson was engaged in a project to rewrite our cultural narratives, especially as they influence how we perceive race and gender and other differences between us. We see that again and again in his work – this insistence on telling stories from a very different perspective, often the perspective of those whose voices have been excluded. And we even see that happening a little bit in Captain EO, in how he transforms the powerful queen and her guards instead of destroying them.
Willa: A few weeks ago our friend Lisha McDuff sent us a link to a documentary about the biggest pop star of his time, and it was so fascinating to me – especially the way he redefined art to include areas we don’t typically think of as art, like his fame, his public persona, his speaking voice, and even his face.
However, as the documentary makes clear, in a way he was forced to make his face part of his art because he suffered from auto-immune disorders that attacked the pigment of his skin. In the documentary, there are photos that show large white patches on his cheek and neck where the pigment has been destroyed. People who knew him later in life say his skin was unnaturally white, and he sometimes wore makeup that made it even whiter.
He was also very self-conscious about his nose – he thought it was too “bulbous” – and he almost certainly had plastic surgery to make it smaller and thinner. And he was known to wear god-awful wigs that he intentionally “damaged” himself, whacking at the front with scissors and dying the bottom layers a dark brown, while leaving the top layers white or silvery blonde.
Of course I’m talking about the Pope of Pop, Andy Warhol – an artist Michael Jackson met several times and pays homage to in his Scream video. Lisha, thank you so much for sharing that documentary, Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture, and for joining me to talk about it!
Lisha: It’s such a privilege to talk with you again, Willa, especially about the connections between Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson. Ever since I read your book and your brilliant analysis of Andy Warhol’s self-portrait in Scream, I’ve been fascinated by the connection between the two and the way both artists dared to challenge and redefine the boundaries of art. In your book, you wrote:
While Warhol forced us to look at Campbell soup cans and think about our relationship with consumer culture in a new way, Jackson forced us to look at him – the little boy we’d loved since childhood who grew up into something unexpected – and challenged our assumptions about identity and race, gender and sexuality.
That is especially interesting when you think about how Michael Jackson must have understood himself to be a trademarked product early on in life; he developed a star persona at such a very young age.
Willa: That’s a good point, Lisha. Motown not only produced music but also thoroughly groomed their artists, giving them lessons in speech, etiquette, fashion, demeanor – how to eat and drink in public, how to walk and talk, how to give interviews in a way that presented an appealing persona to a large crossover audience. And for Michael Jackson, those lessons started at a very young age, when he was only 10 years old.
Lisha: I’ve often wondered what it must have been like – learning to create a star persona that was even younger than his actual age. And what was it like for him to watch that star persona depicted as a cartoon character every Saturday morning on television? There are very few people in the world who could relate to that – developing a sense of self while learning to craft a public persona at the same time.
So I never imagined how many striking similarities there were in the lives of Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson until I watched this documentary. I realized that both men grew up in steel towns, Pittsburgh and Gary, because their fathers were steel workers. They were teased about their noses growing up and they suffered from medical conditions that destroyed their skin pigment and caused early hair loss. They became shy and soft spoken. And as adults, both men responded in such an unexpected and wildly imaginative way, it has captured the public’s attention ever since – by creating a larger-than-life celebrity persona – using glasses, wigs, light skin and a re-sculpted nose. You could easily argue that Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson’s greatest works of art are: Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson.
Willa: I agree, Lisha. When we think of art, we’re used to thinking about music, dance, painting, fiction, drama, poetry, sculpture, film, and all the other easily recognizable genres of artistic expression. But Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson didn’t just create incredible works of art – they also challenged how we define art. And perhaps their most important and experimental work hasn’t even been recognized as art, and that’s their innovative work with the art of celebrity and mass media, including the creation of a public persona, as you say, that captures and reconfigures the public imagination in important ways.
And that interest in celebrity seems to have started at a young age for both of them. Warhol became obsessed with celebrities, starting a scrapbook of photos and autographs while still in elementary school. One of his prized possessions was a signed photograph from Shirley Temple addressed “To Andrew Warhola.” And of course, Michael Jackson later became fascinated by Shirley Temple as well, though for him it wasn’t just admiration. Because she was a child star and suffered some of the same experiences he had, he identified with her and seemed to feel a deep connection with her. Later they became friends, and he describes their first meeting in a very emotional way – like two survivors reuniting after a tragedy.
The Warhol documentary talks about his celebrity scrapbook, including the Shirley Temple photograph, about 8 minutes in. Here’s a link to the full documentary, though it’s a bit spicy in places – people with children probably shouldn’t watch it with them in the room:
The discussion of Warhol’s face and public image – especially his visual image – begins about 12 minutes in, and picks up again around an hour in. And here’s an extra treat: there’s an image of Michael Jackson on the cover of Warhol’s Interview magazine at 1:13:20.
Lisha: The influence of Shirley Temple on both of these artists is stunning to me. In Victor Bokris’ biography of Andy Warhol, he describes just how much Warhol truly idolized Shirley Temple. She inspired his basic philosophy of life: “work all the time, make it into a game, and maintain your sense of humour.” Warhol even took dance lessons to emulate her, and it was in reference to Shirley Temple that he famously said: “I never wanted to be a painter; I wanted to be a tap dancer.”
Willa: That’s so interesting, Lisha. I’d heard that quote before, but I thought he was joking!
Lisha: According to his nephew, James Warhola, Warhol privately maintained that kind of child-like spirit throughout his life. Warhola wrote a children’s book titled Uncle Andy’s, which describes Warhol’s home as a giant amusement park full of carousel horses, antiques and all kinds of “neat” art. Sounds a lot like Neverland to me!
Willa: It really does, doesn’t it?
Lisha: I think it’s safe to assume Shirley Temple and that child-like spirit influenced how both these artists viewed celebrity as well. As Crispin Glover says in the documentary, “There are certain people in history that you can just put a few things together and that’s the person, like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, or Groucho Marx.” You can easily see what he means. A stove pipe hat and beard = Lincoln. Nose spectacles and mustache = Roosevelt. A mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, and cigar = Groucho. Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson are most definitely that way.
With Andy Warhol, the light skin and the silver wigs immediately come to mind. Matt Wribican, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, said that the wigs were something Warhol began to formally think of as art, and he actually framed some of them for that reason. Ultra Violet, a Warhol “superstar” from The Factory days, described how Warhol was creating a new mythology through his art – the mythology of Hollywood and the American Dream. Prosperity, glamor, and celebrity were a big part of Warhol’s art, and his own celebrity persona could be interpreted as an extension of that.
With Michael Jackson, we think of the unprecedented fame, the hair and sunglasses; the sequined glove and the fedora, the signature dance moves, the “hee-hee” and “aeow”! That’s the cliched pop star image of Michael Jackson, anyway.
Willa: That’s true, and it’s fascinating to really think about how those symbols function, and how powerful they are. For example, my son decided to dress up as Michael Jackson for Halloween a few years ago, so he put on a black fedora, a black jacket and pants, and white socks. I suggested he make his hair dark as well, but he said no, that wasn’t necessary – and he was right. My son went around the neighborhood as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Michael Jackson, and everyone immediately knew who he was. He didn’t have to look like Michael Jackson – he just needed to tap into that iconography Michael Jackson had created for himself. Those symbols overrode everything else so completely, my neighbors looked at a little blond boy and immediately thought “Michael Jackson.” And my son understood that at 12 years old – better than I did, actually.
Lisha: Isn’t it interesting that it seems to work for all ages, races, ethnicities and body types, boys and girls as well? As long as you have some combination of those symbols, it is immediately recognizable. And come to think of it, there isn’t just one group of symbols that identifies Michael Jackson either. A retro 1980s club in my neighborhood invites people to come dressed as their “favorite Michael Jackson.” Think of the possibilities.
Willa: That’s awesome! And you’re right – there’s different symbology for different decades. A red leather jacket evokes a different era than a white T-shirt and black pants.
Lisha: Yes, for different eras and for different characters and songs, too. There are just so many of them: the armband, the surgical mask, the hair falling across the face, the glitzy military jackets, the arm brace, the glitter socks and black loafers … symbols that refer back to Michael Jackson and the whole “Michael Jackson” mythology. For example, the red leather jacket in Thriller or Beat It, and the white suit and hat in Smooth Criminal are symbols that were intended only for those specific songs and short films. And they became so inextricably attached to the music, it became necessary to include them in live performances as well. These symbols help form the characters that make up the whole “Michael Jackson” mythology.
I remember reading an interview once with David Nordahl, one of Michael Jackson’s portrait painters, who talked about the contrast between Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson,” the celebrity. Jackson didn’t like to sit for his portraits, so Nordahl painted from photographs. Believe it or not, he said it was difficult to get a good photograph of Michael Jackson unless he was “being Michael.” To an artist’s eye, Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson” even photographed differently.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, that is fascinating! And I think I know exactly what Nordahl is talking about. I’ve looked at thousands of Michael Jackson photographs, including a lot of candids, and it’s true – you can really tell when he’s “being Michael,” and when he isn’t. It’s like he strikes a pose, turns on the high beams or something, and transforms. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that distinguishes Michael Jackson from “Michael Jackson,” but you can sure feel it when you see it.
Lisha: To a great extent, you could say that all stars have carefully constructed personae and masks they use to create a public image. The music and film industries study these images very carefully because the celebrity/star system is crucial to how they market their products. But in the case of Michael Jackson, I feel like there is a lot more to it. Has there ever been a star persona that was so complex and radically changing as Michael Jackson’s? I believe there is a far more serious artist at work here who, like Warhol, is not at war with celebrity, mass media, or commerce. In fact, I believe he saw it both as art and as a delivery system for his art.
Willa: I don’t know, Lisha. I see what you’re saying, and I agree wholeheartedly that he was a very sophisticated choreographer of celebrity and the media, both to deliver his art and as an element of his art. In some ways, the mass media became part of his palette for creating his art, and I think that is so important and revolutionary. I really want to dive into that idea more deeply during our discussion today.
But at the same time, I do think there were times when he was “at war” with the mass media. You know, Warhol basically felt that all publicity was good. Regardless of whether the media was praising you or criticizing you, it was all good as long as they were still talking about you. As he said, “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.”
But I think Michael Jackson would complicate that, in part because of his experiences with racial prejudice and other prejudices, in part because of the molestation scandals, and in part because of some frightening experiences with uncontrollable mobs of people when he was a child. I think those experiences gave him a deep awareness – maybe even a fear – of mass hysteria and that mob mentality that can take over sometimes. And when the media is portraying you in ways that are completely counter to your core beliefs, and in ways that feed a type of mass hysteria based on ignorance and prejudice, I think he would strongly disagree with Warhol.
Lisha: I have to say you’re making some excellent points. And there’s no doubt that being a celebrated and powerful young black man dominating the entertainment industry is a very complicated situation to be in, bringing out all kinds of ignorance and prejudice.
Willa: Exactly, and those are complications Warhol never had to confront, or maybe even consider.
Lisha: But didn’t Warhol experience a lot of prejudice in his life, too? At a time when the white, male, heterosexual art world frowned on his appearance, his sexuality, and his success as a commercial artist?
Willa: Well, that’s a very good point, Lisha. Warhol did face resistance and prejudice from “the white, male, heterosexual art world” – and that world was pretty macho and homophobic, especially in the 1950s when he was starting out. I guess I was thinking about their public personae, specifically their faces as a provocative form of art. Warhol changed the shape of his nose, lightened his skin (in part to even out his skin tone from loss of pigmentation), wore wigs – and that public face challenged social norms and became an important part of his art, as we were discussing earlier. But it didn’t set off the firestorm that resulted when Michael Jackson did the exact same thing.
The color of your skin, the shape of your nose, and the color and texture of your hair have all been designated as racial signifiers, so when Michael Jackson dared to alter those signifiers, he was entering a cultural no man’s land. That simply wasn’t an issue for Warhol – that’s what I meant by “complications Warhol never had to confront, or maybe even consider.” Warhol’s changing appearance was noticed and commented on, but it didn’t set off the wave of hostility generated by Michael Jackson’s changing appearance, with accusations that he hated his race or had betrayed his race, or was brazenly attempting to “be white.”
Lisha: I think that’s exactly right. There was a much different reaction to Jackson’s appearance than there ever was to the same changes in Warhol, which generated so much hostility towards Jackson. But, even so, I still have to wonder – was Michael Jackson truly at war with celebrity and the media in general, or was he attempting to update and correct flaws in the system?
Willa: That’s an excellent question …
Lisha: Like Warhol, I think Michael Jackson was actually interested in some P.T. Barnum-style controversy, but there is an element in this that is beyond the celebrity’s control. One false allegation, fictitious scandal or unfair prejudice can ruin everything an artist has worked for their whole lives, through no fault of their own. We know the mob mentality is very real. Personally, I am very proud of the Michael Jackson fans who continue to challenge the media and expose some of the disastrous consequences created by the intersection of profit, news, and entertainment. I think Michael Jackson wanted to cooperate with the star system and use it to do good things, but he did not hesitate to point out where things went dangerously wrong, which again became part of his art.
Willa: I see what you’re saying, Lisha, and that’s an excellent way of framing this, I think: that he both used the celebrity media in some ways and critiqued it in others, and in fact used it to critique itself. And I agree that Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson both engaged with and choreographed their celebrity in new and fascinating ways – ways that suggest their celebrity itself was an important part of their art – and I’d like to get back to what you said earlier about David Nordahl and the distinction he makes, and others have made as well, between Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson.”
For example, I’m reminded of something Bruce Swedien mentions in his book, In the Studio with Michael Jackson. He worked with Michael Jackson for 30 years, and he and his wife Bea knew him – meaning the gentle-artist-working-in-the-studio side of him – very well. But then he’d step on stage, transform into “Michael Jackson,” and just blow them away. Swedien says, “Bea and I have traveled with Michael to his concerts, all over the world, [and] we have often thought that we don’t know Michael Jackson, the performer, that amazing person on stage.” They were like two completely separate beings.
Lisha: People who saw that say it was truly astonishing. In My Friend Michael, Frank Cascio fondly remembers going to his first Michael Jackson concert, when he actually had to ask his father, “Is that the same Michael Jackson who comes to the house?” The onstage transformation was so complete.
Willa: Oh, I imagine it was astonishing! And then, of course, there’s the “Michael Jackson” who existed in the media, and that’s a completely distinct entity as well. And in some ways it’s the most interesting of all, because it is such a deliberate creation. As you mentioned earlier, Lisha, it’s far more than presenting a positive image to the public. Instead, he seems to be exploring the constructedness of identity, and challenging the way we “read” identity based on physical cues, especially cues of race and gender. That’s something we see to some extent in Andy Warhol as well, like in the photographs in the documentary where he’s wearing lipstick and eyeshadow, so adopting signifiers normally associated with women, though still clearly a man. Here’s one image:
Willa: It really does. But what perhaps defines our identity most of all is our voice, and Warhol even had a separate public and private speaking voice – something that’s frequently been said of Michael Jackson as well. I was very surprised to hear Warhol’s voice talking to his brother on the phone (about an hour and a half into the documentary) because it’s so different from the slow, banal public voice we’re used to hearing.
We don’t know much about Warhol, the person behind the public persona – he’s a shadowy figure that we, the public, rarely saw. He was a devout Catholic who went to mass every week, a shy workaholic, and an innovative artist completely dedicated to his craft. But his public persona is very different: crassly materialistic, flippant, ironic, affectless, detached – an observer who drifted through the studio watching others create his work for him. In a couple of interviews, he said he wasn’t involved in creating his art anymore and wasn’t sure who was doing it – maybe his mother, maybe the cleaning lady. That’s a fabrication, of course, but that’s the image Warhol very deliberately created for himself.
And then Michael Jackson takes that to a whole new level …
Lisha: Sorry, I have to take a minute and recover from the thought of Andy Warhol telling the press that he wasn’t sure who was creating all that artwork, but possibly his mom or the cleaning lady were doing it. That’s about the funniest thing I’ve ever heard!
Willa: Isn’t that hysterical? He really was very funny …
Lisha: Though I have heard that Mrs. Warhola did actually sign some of Andy Warhol’s artwork for him – he just loved her handwriting. In fact, she is credited with creating this 1957 album cover with her son, for The Story of Moondog by Louis Hardin. It reminds me of Michael Jackson’s collaboration with his mother, Katherine Jackson, who contributed the shuffle rhythm in “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
Willa: Oh, really? I hadn’t heard that, about either of them. Though if it’s true that Andy Warhol’s mom did that album cover, she really did have wonderful handwriting.
And I guess we shouldn’t laugh too hard when Warhol implies he wasn’t creating his art himself because there’s an element of truth to it. What I mean is, Warhol didn’t create all of his prints himself. He was very involved throughout the process – designing them, specifying production details, reviewing them all – but he didn’t craft them all with his own hands. We don’t expect Calvin Klein, for example, to stitch every Klein garment – if he designs it, that’s sufficient to legitimately put his name on it. Yet there is an expectation that an artist will craft all of his artwork himself. Warhol challenged that, even calling his studio The Factory, and this is another area where he merged commercial art with high art to create not just new works, but a new aesthetic. And that new aesthetic is reflected in his persona as well.
Lisha: Exactly. This was an excellent point that Dennis Hopper brought out in the documentary and he’s absolutely right. We tend to forget that all the great European masters had other painters working in their studios under the artist’s direction. It’s not like a single artist got up on the scaffolding and painted the Sistine Chapel. But there is such a powerful cultural myth in circulation – that of the tortured artist all alone in their garret, working away on a great masterpiece while refusing to “sell out” for their art – as in Puccini’s famous opera La Boheme. In reality, I believe that is a notion of 19th century Romanticism more than an accurate reflection of the creative process. But once you tune in to that story line, you can see how prevalent it is.
Willa: That’s an interesting point, Lisha, and we see that bias toward the “solitary genius” even now in critical responses to Prince and Michael Jackson, for example. Prince is seen as the solitary genius alone in his studio, playing most of the instruments on his albums himself, while Michael Jackson was much more collaborative and perceived as more of a commercial artist. His thinking seemed to be that, if a musician dedicated to an instrument could play it better than he could, why not bring in the best?
Lisha: Being a musician, I would certainly agree with that! But, the myth of the solitary mad genius is such a cherished cultural icon that, in a lot of ways, I think we’re still having Beethoven-mania!
Like Warhol, Michael Jackson took the idea of working in collaboration to the extreme. On Dangerous, for example, the first album Jackson served as executive producer for, he had 3 production teams working simultaneously in 3 different studios for about 18 months to create the finished product. I don’t know if we’ll ever see those kind of production values again. The people who worked on the recordings talk about the unbelievable attention to detail that went into them, and the willingness of everyone involved to go all the way to create the best result humanly possible.
And though Jackson could be famously controlling of every detail, he was also very flexible in allowing creative input to come from anywhere within the system. For example, Bruce Swedien, a recording engineer, gets a writing credit on “Jam.” Bill Bottrell, a producer/engineer, created the rap and many of the rock/country instrumentals on “Black or White.”
So Michael Jackson was receptive to the ideas and talent around him, and he really used this to his advantage. Warhol seemed to have this ability as well – receiving help, ideas, and inspiration from many different sources. Apparently it was an art dealer, Muriel Latow, who suggested he should consider painting something as everyday and ordinary as a can of soup – the rest is history.
And I was surprised to learn that Andy Warhol actually did eat Campbell’s soup every day of his life; it wasn’t all postmodern irony and a critique of consumer culture as I had thought. His mother always had Campbell’s soup for him when he was a child, and it really seemed to mean a lot to him – warmth, nourishment, a mother’s love. He was painting his reality, and I see those paintings differently when I understand that about him, as opposed to his cool, detached celebrity persona.
Willa: Oh, I agree – I’ve always been struck by what a feeling of comfort I get from his Campbell’s soup paintings. They’re often interpreted as an ironic statement, as you say, and I can see that intellectually, but that isn’t how they feel to me emotionally. There’s a real feeling of warmth and reassurance there. It’s like he’s saying that the comfort people once found in the familiar icons of the Catholic church – the paintings of the Virgin Mary, for example – they now get from the familiar icons of consumer culture, like Campbell’s soup cans. So while artists in past centuries painted and sculpted religious iconography, his focus is on the new consumer iconography. It’s a brilliant insight.
Lisha: It truly is a brilliant insight, the marriage of the precious and the everyday. That’s something we see in every aspect of Michael Jackson’s work, from the high production values he brings to the devalued genre of pop, to the exquisitely made, hand-beaded couture jackets he wears with t-shirts and Levi’s 501 jeans. Creating art and myth through his celebrity persona is just another good example.
And as you were saying earlier, Willa, Michael Jackson takes the idea of the celebrity persona to a whole new level. I don’t even see how you could make an argument against it. I’m sure you’ve seen the 60 Minutes interview with Karen Langford, Michael Jackson’s archivist, when she displays some of his early writing which is now called the “MJ Manifesto.” It was Michael Jackson’s stated goal that “MJ” be a completely different person, a whole new character that he had big plans and ambitions for.
Willa: That’s funny, Lisha – I’ve been thinking about the manifesto also. Here’s what he wrote:
MJ will be my new name. No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a tottally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang “ABC,” “I Want You Back.” I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.
And you’re right. It really does show how deliberate he was in thinking about and creating this new persona, this “whole new character” of MJ, doesn’t it?
Lisha: Every album had a new one. I’ll never forget the shock and awe of standing in the grocery store checkout line in 1984 searching for a photo of Michael Jackson, since that is about all anyone was talking about in those days, and when I couldn’t find it, somebody had to explain to me that I was already looking at a photo of Michael Jackson. It totally blew my mind as I tried to rectify the earlier Michael Jackson image I knew with the Thriller/Victory tour image I saw. Of course no one could even imagine what was yet to come. He morphed again and again, to the racially ambiguous character in Bad, to the boundary-crossing Black or White character on Dangerous, to the colorless alien “Other” in Scream for the HIStory album.
Willa: Which raises an important point – that the personae Warhol and Michael Jackson created weren’t necessarily intended to be appealing. They were much more complicated and provocative than that. As the narrator asks near the beginning of the documentary,
But who was Andy Warhol? On his journey from Andrew Warhola, he would not only change his name but also customize his personality to create a mechanical, factory-produced brand name that would embody the celebrity and consumer culture of the times.
That “mechanical, factory-produced” aspect of his “brand” was not especially attractive, at least not in the traditional sense. And neither were his wigs, for example, or his crassly materialistic public persona. But his wigs, his persona, and his brand aren’t judged by traditional standards of beauty or appeal because it’s understood that they were part of his art, and so they have to be interpreted in more complex ways, like art.
And I think this is one way a lot of critics have really misunderstood Michael Jackson. It is generally assumed that in his later career, he was trying to produce something attractive, something appealing to a mass audience, and failing. But if we look at the lyrics to “Is It Scary,” for example, we see that he was doing something much more complicated and interesting than that. Among other things, he was forcing us to confront our own prejudices – prejudices the press and public were trying to impose on his face and body because he was signified as “black,” as “male,” as a “pop star” or “just a pop star” – and later, horribly, as a “freak” and a “monster.”
So how does it change our perceptions if we begin to look at Michael Jackson’s public persona as an artistic creation, like we do with Andy Warhol? And how do we interpret it if we approach it that way?
Lisha: Well, I think it would have been a much easier path for Michael Jackson had he initially made his private medical conditions public, broken the myth, and explained the changes in his appearance. He could have become an advocate for those like him who suffer from vitiligo and lupus, raising awareness of these diseases. I don’t think he would have had to take the relentless media bashing and persecution that he did, if that was his goal.
But instead of benefiting just a few, I think Jackson saw a much bigger opportunity that still has tremendous cultural resonance today.
Willa: I agree absolutely. I don’t think we’ve even begun to measure the impact his changing face – as a work of art – has had on us psychologically, as individuals, and culturally, as a global society.
Lisha: It’s true. Dr. Sherrow Pinder, a Multicultural and Gender Studies professor at California State University at Chico, has argued that as Jackson challenged the notion of “natural bodies and fixed identities as prearranged and controlled,” he had to be “culturally resisted, restricted, or worse, punished and humiliated in order for society to safeguard the realm of normality.”
Willa: Absolutely, and the intensity of that backlash is an important indicator of just how profound and threatening this was – his transgression of a “fixed identity,” as Pinder calls it, based on traditional notions of race, gender, and sexuality. Michael Jackson challenged them all by “rewriting” his body, thereby complicating how identity is read through the body.
Lisha: Media all over the world continue to speculate and fabricate stories about “Michael Jackson,” often disregarding factual information that has been available for some time. The media fiction almost always follows some variation of the “wacko,” “freak” or “monstrous figure” narrative, reflecting more about society’s need to “normalize” him than it ever did about Michael Jackson. And Jackson became so acutely aware of his function as a mirror of collective thought that he began exploiting it for artistic purposes, as in “Is It Scary” (“I’m gonna be exactly what you want to see / It’s you whose haunting me, because you’re wanting me to be the stranger in the night”) and “Threatened” (“I’m the living dead, the dark thoughts in your head / I heard just what you said, that’s why you’ve got to be threatened by me”).
Willa: And we see that idea enacted literally in Ghosts when the Maestro enters the Mayor’s body, holds a mirror to his face, and forces him to witness his own inner “freakishness.” That freakishness the Mayor detests isn’t in the Maestro – it’s in himself.
Lisha: That is such a brilliant scene – demonstrating his true mastery of the phenomenon.
And yet another mythic, artistic creation of “Michael Jackson” was ready to “Heal the World,” imagining a new empathic civilization into being. One of his most impressive feats was to magically strip away the color of his skin to physically demonstrate once and for all “it don’t matter if you’re black or white.” When it became clear some still didn’t get the message, he took it a step further and became colorless – literally colorless. Scream and Stranger in Moscow demonstrate this so clearly.
Willa: And it’s fairly clear that was a deliberate decision. Both videos were filmed in black and white with overly bright lights on his face to wash out the color, even gradations of color.
Lisha: Absolutely. To me, it is obvious that this is the work of a brilliant and game changing artist. I hate to admit that it wasn’t until after Michael Jackson’s death that I finally looked at his work and realized what a new kind of art it was – imaginative and exquisitely crafted music full of sonic innovations and so-called “high art” aesthetics, synthesized with imagery and myth, delivered to the masses through the devalued genre of pop and the celebrity star system. But it was so much more – exploding off the stage and screen into our social discourses and everyday lives, encouraging us to go beyond our confused and violent past.
And although I wasn’t paying attention at the time, I came to realize how powerfully affected I was by Michael Jackson, without even knowing it. From 1969 to 2009, Michael Jackson was a constant presence, and I don’t believe you can overestimate the impact he made. Judging from the intense media coverage of his death, I wasn’t the only one who suddenly wondered what it was going to be like to live in a Michael Jackson-less world.
Willa: Oh, I agree. I believe Michael Jackson profoundly altered our perceptions, our emotions, and our affective responses to differences of race, gender, sexuality, religion, family relationships – stereotypes of all kinds – though we may not realize it yet. As you said, we were “powerfully affected … without even knowing it.” And I believe he also revolutionized our ideas about art, though he was so far ahead of his time we don’t realize it yet. Some of it we still don’t even recognize as art! We were in the midst of a gripping artistic experience without even knowing it.
It’s going to take a long time for art criticism and interpretation to catch up with him, I think, and begin to comprehend the enormous impact he’s had, both in terms of art and how we conceptualize art, and in terms of the deep cultural shifts he helped bring about. And that’s another way to evaluate an artist – by the depth and extent of their influence.
Near the end of the documentary, the narrator describes how Warhol’s influence is a constant presence in contemporary life, and then asks, “How can we miss you if you won’t go away?” You could ask the same question of Michael Jackson. He legacy is everywhere – from direct artistic influences on music, dance, film, fashion, to more subtle but perhaps more important cultural influences, such as how we read and interpret gender and racial differences.
Lisha: You know, that’s just the thing. Michael Jackson is everywhere you look. And do we really understand why he continues to have such an impact? The entertainment industry is full of crazy antics, plastic surgery, glam rockers wearing make-up, gender bending and so on. Rita Hayworth is a good example of a performer who “whitened up” her Hispanic ethnicity to become the glamorous “Gilda” onscreen. So why is everyone still tripping on Michael Jackson? I think it will take a while to understand all this. Until then, we’ll keep “dancing with the elephant.”
Willa: So Joie, in our last post, we kicked off the new season with a look at one of Michael Jackson’s first videos, Can You Feel It, which he made in 1981 with The Jacksons. And we ended up looking at how the Jacksons themselves are portrayed in this video as almost mythic figures. They’re the size of Titans and kind of translucent, like something supernatural, and they’re sprinkling golden stardust on amazed earthlings and giving them a supernatural glow also. Through these images, Michael Jackson seems to be saying something important about the role of the artist, and how he believes artists can use their art – their “golden stardust” – to bring about social change.
Joie: That’s an interesting summation, Willa. I like the way you put it all in a very tidy package.
Willa: Thanks! Anyway, for some reason, that discussion reminded me of Say Say Say, a video he made two years later with Paul McCartney. It’s very different in tone and feeling from Can You Feel It, but Say Say Say also has some very interesting things to say about the cultural function of artists. But it approaches it in a different way – not by portraying artists as supernatural figures, but as tricksters and con artists.
Joie: Once again, Willa, the way your mind works astounds me! I would never have drawn a connection between Can You Feel It and Say Say Say. But I think I see where you’re going with this, and I am amazed. Tell us more.
Willa: Well actually, Joie, you’re the one who opened my eyes to Say Say Say and got me thinking about it in a new way, back when we did a post on Michael Jackson’s repeated use of an on-screen audience. As you described back then, “Mac” and “Jack” are both entertaining their audience and scamming them at the same time.
Joie: Hmm. That was an interesting and fun conversation. But how does that relate to Can You Feel It?
Willa: Well, just that both videos are talking about specific ways artists can use their art to make the world a better place. Can You Feel It approaches that question in an almost mythic way, while Say Say Say takes more of a historical approach. What I mean is, it takes a pair of modern musicians – Paul “Mac” McCartney and Michael “Jack” Jackson – and places them within a long tradition of troubadours and vaudevillians and other traveling performers. And then it looks at the different ways they interact with different audiences, and how that brings about subtle changes. In other words, it looks at their cultural function, just like Can You Feel It does, though it approaches it in a different way.
Joie: Okay, I see what you’re getting at. But something you just said struck me, Willa. You mentioned the “long tradition of troubadours and vaudevillians and other traveling performers.” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about musicians and life on the road. You know, many bands are on the road almost constantly. Some performers, like Michael Jackson for instance, really didn’t care for touring that much. We’ve all seen the video clip of him talking about how he hated touring because it was hard on the body, etc.
Willa: Oh, do you mean this one?
I love this clip! He is too funny. …
Joie: But there are many bands out there who actually love being on the road, and they’re out there for over a year and a half at a time, promoting a single album. Then they go back into the studio, make another album, and get right back out on the road all over again. And if you think about it, with the exception of making an album, all those traveling troubadours and vaudevillians lived out their lives on the road in much the same way.
Willa: That’s true, Joie. And he seems to be exploring that life in Say Say Say. The Mac and Jack characters are almost like gypsies – another tradition of traveling musicians.
Joie: Ah, gypsies! I forgot about them, but you’re right! They’re part of that whole tradition of traveling troubadours and con artists as well.
Willa: Exactly. I don’t know that gypsies really were con artists, but that’s how they were perceived. In fact, that’s come to be an important part of the mythology of gypsies – that they weren’t just musicians but peddlers of exotic, even magical, objects, as well as fortunetellers with an uncanny knowledge. And they were tricksters who could help you out, but maybe not – maybe their magic trinkets could trick you and work against you.
So there was an aura of magic and intrigue around them, and when they came to town, they disrupted everyday life with a spirit of carnival that was both fun and unsettling. And we definitely see that in Say Say Say. When Mac and Jack roll into town, the villagers flock to them but aren’t quite sure if they should trust them or not.
Joie: That’s a really good description of what we see at the start of the video, Willa. Everyone is gathered around to watch the presentation and see what’s going on. They’re all very curious about the supposed “medical” potion that will make them strong. You can see the uncertainty and the skepticism on all of their faces. But yet, they can’t walk away because they are fascinated.
Willa: Yes, and what fascinates them is a performance. Only they don’t know it’s a performance, and neither do we, actually. We’re in the same position as the villagers at first. Mac is selling a magic potion “guaranteed to give you unbelievable power,” and a slim figure from the audience – Jack, though we don’t know that yet – volunteers to give it a try. He’s so weak he can’t even get the top off the bottle, but one sip sends him spinning, and then he’s able to beat a strongman with bulging muscles in an arm-wrestling contest. The villagers flock to buy the potion, and Mac winds up leaving town with a satchel full of money. Then we discover the strongman is traveling with him, they stop and pick up Jack on the outskirts of town, the strongman gives him a smile, and we realize the whole thing was a scam.
But what’s interesting is that it’s a scam that’s also an artistic performance. Everything the villagers experienced was scripted ahead of time by Mac and Jack, just like a play, and it has actors and a plot, like a play. Only this play crosses the line between reality and art because it doesn’t announce itself as art, so the villagers think it’s real. And it has real effects – it encourages the villagers to buy the potion. So is it real, or is it art? We’re used to drawing clear distinctions between the two, but that question doesn’t really make sense in this case because it’s both.
And it’s fascinating to me to think about all that in terms of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic – for example, in terms of the changing color of his skin – because I see that the same way. It’s an artistic performance that we (the audience, the media, the commentators on his life) didn’t see as art, so it blurs the boundary between what’s real and what’s art also. To some extent, it was very real – he really did suffer from vitiligo, suffered terribly – but it was also an artistic performance. And it was a performance that had real effects. I think it profoundly influenced how we think about racial differences.
Joie: That’s an interesting parallel you’ve drawn, Willa. I’m not sure I would have made that connection between Say Say Say and Michael’s skin disorder, but I can totally see your point. You have a unique way of looking at things that always amazes me somehow.
Willa: Well, I don’t want to push that connection too hard – that’s just an example. There’s lots more, like think of the times he and Slash played out a charade that Slash was taking over the stage – that he was playing his guitar out of control and couldn’t or wouldn’t stop. Stagehands would even come from off stage and try to drag Slash off. It was all just an act, but if you weren’t in on the joke, it wasn’t clear if it was real or not.
Michael Jackson did things like that quite a bit, so it’s really interesting to me that Say Say Say begins by depicting an artistic performance, but it’s a different kind of art. It’s not like a painting that sits in a frame on the wall. This is art that refuses to stay on the wall. It jumps out of its frame and draws everyone into the performance. Looking at it that way, Say Say Say is presenting a very different view of art, and of the artist as well – as a trickster or con artist who engages everyone around him into his art, not just as an amused audience but as unwitting performers.
Joie: You know, Willa, this video is all about presenting that different type of artistic performance. They repeat that theme in the latter half of the film as well when we see them onstage doing their vaudeville act. And again, it’s a performance that’s also a con in a sense, because they end up using it to elude the police who come looking for them over the whole “Mac and Jack” wonder potion scam.
Willa: And because they’re pool sharks, apparently. At least, Mac is. …
Joie: But what I find truly interesting about this video is that our tricksters are actually con artists with hearts, because separating these two scenes of possible criminal activity is a sweet little interlude where we see Mac and Jack, and their two cohorts, delivering a large satchel of money to an orphanage. So we learn that they aren’t just out there conning the public for their own selfish gain. Instead, they have a much more noble cause. They are actually a small band of Robin Hoods, if you will – taking money from those who can afford to spare a little, and giving it to those who have nothing.
Willa: I agree, and that’s a great way of describing it, Joie. They really are like Robin Hoods, aren’t they? In their own small way, they’re helping to redistribute wealth from those who have enough to those who don’t.
But they don’t just provide the orphans with money – they entertain them also. Mac performs magic tricks, pulling a bouquet of flowers out of thin air, while Jack walks across a balance beam, then spins and bows. And they’re singing the entire time, so they bring music to the orphanage as well. And actually, that suggests another function of art: it can provide joy or inspiration or comfort to those who are having a hard time, and maybe lift the spirits of those who are feeling down.
Joie: Oh, my goodness, Willa! You make that sound like an afterthought, or like it’s just a pleasant side effect or something. But to me, that is the most important function of art! Of any kind of art, no matter what it is – painting, dancing, music, whatever.
I know that there are probably those out there who will disagree with me on this, but that’s ok because they would be perfectly correct in doing so. Because I think art functions as many different things to many different people. Don’t you? I mean, trite as this may sound, but some people – maybe even most people – couldn’t care less about the political message or the social implications behind a particular work of art. They just know that it moves them in some way and it makes them feel happy or sad or pensive, or whatever it makes them feel. Whether it’s a song or a painting, or a performance.
Willa: Hmmm … Is that the most important function of art? Wow, I’m going to have to think about that. That’s one of the things I love most about our conversations, Joie – you always make me think!
Boy, I’m really going to have to think about this for a while, but my first response is to wonder if maybe this isn’t one of the dividing lines between entertainment and art. I’d say the primary function of entertainment is to move us – to engage us emotionally and make us feel “happy or sad or pensive,” as you say. But to me, art has to do much more than that. I guess I would say that, for me, the main distinction between art and entertainment is that entertainment tends to reinforce what we already think or feel about things. So if a light-hearted song makes us feel happy or a John Phillips Souza march makes us feel patriotic or a Norman Rockwell painting makes us feel nostalgic, then that’s entertainment. But while art can definitely move us emotionally, it also challenges our preconceived ideas about things. There’s always something a little unsettling about art, even though it can be as pleasurable as entertainment, because at some level it forces us to question ourselves and how we see and respond to the world.
And to me, what’s so incredibly powerful about Michael Jackson is that he’s both an entertainer and an artist. He caught our attention as an entertainer, and we fell in love with him as an entertainer. As Berry Gordy said at his memorial service, he was perhaps “the greatest entertainer that ever lived.” But we can’t get him out of our minds because he’s also an artist. His work disturbs us in a way that won’t turn us loose – we, as a culture, can’t stop thinking about him – because he was also a powerful artist … the most important artist of our time, I think.
Joie: Willa, I’d like to say that I don’t disagree with you. But … just for the sake of playing devil’s advocate here for a minute … if we apply what you just said, about Michael Jackson’s work both entertaining us and disturbing us “in a way that won’t turn us loose,” to other entertainers, then can we say that someone like E.L. James, for instance, is also a powerful artist? After all, her erotic trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey – which no one would call a literary masterpiece by any means – was both entertaining, and it greatly disturbed us in a way that won’t turn us loose. We, as a culture, can’t seem to stop thinking about it. But I’m not sure I would call her a powerful artist.
It’s a bit of a reach but, I guess the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t believe there always has to be an unsettling component to art. I don’t find anything disturbing or unsettling about any of Edgar Degas’ ballerina paintings, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, or even B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” for that matter. And those are just three small examples of great art that moves us emotionally. I’m sure if I really sat and concentrated on making a list, I could find many, many more examples.
Willa: Those are great examples, Joie, and they can really help clarify this, I think. I’m not talking about a moment’s titillation of sex or violence that shocks us for a few days or even a few years and then fades away. I’m talking about an earthquake that permanently shifts the landscape, forever changing how we experience our world.
I don’t know much about Fifty Shades of Grey, but from what you just said it sounds like a temporary titillation. But Degas and the Impressionists were something completely different. Looking back, we tend to forget they were radicals whose work was rejected by the Academy. Paintings of ballerinas, everyday ballerinas, made from blobs of bright color smeared onto the canvas? That was heresy! Everyone knew a proper painting should portray the nobility sitting stiffly upright, or maybe a scene from Greek mythology, and should be meticulously crafted with careful, invisible brush strokes. The Impressionists challenged all that, and revolutionized how we see and experience art. To them, the important thing was to try to capture the experiential essence of a moment – of seeing and feeling and experiencing that moment – and it’s a measure of how completely they changed our ideas that they became the new normal. Today, when we think of the great works – the masterpieces of western art – many of the paintings that immediately spring to mind are Impressionist paintings.
You could say the same about Beethoven. Like the Impressionists with visual art, Beethoven revolutionized how people thought about and experienced music. He remains one of the most influential composers of all time. And B.B. King influenced a whole generation of blues guitarists, and through them rock guitarists. You can still hear his influence all over the radio, especially when you hear a high wailing guitar solo. R&B and rock music would sound different today without B.B. King.
It’s too early to tell what Michael Jackson’s long-term impact on the arts will be – and that’s not even talking about his cultural impact, such as how we think about race and gender. But I think it will be far greater than his direct influences on music, dance, videos, fashion, visual art, though those are huge. I think he’s doing something far more fundamental, and challenging how we define art itself.
Joie: Well, I don’t want to get sidetracked on this, but I have to point out that Fifty Shades is more than just temporary titillation that shocks us for a minute and then we let go of it. No one is letting go of it. That’s the point.
Willa: I’m sorry, Joie! I didn’t mean to dis Fifty Shades. I know absolutely nothing at all about it, other than what you’ve told me.
Joie: Well interestingly, it has become as much a part of our cultural experience as Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And, much like Thriller helped to revolutionize the record industry back in the early 1980s, Fifty Shades of Grey is helping to do the same for the publishing industry. At least the fiction side of it.
There are millions of women out there who have begun writing for the first time in their lives, all because of a fascination with E.L. James’ titillating little story. The term Fan Fiction has become a household word. And hundreds of those women have begun branching out, using Fan Fiction as a springboard to create and self-publish their own original works of fiction. This is an exciting time to be a fiction writer because of outlets like Amazon and Book Baby, making self-publishing so easy and accessible.
But it’s the writers who have found success in unconventional ways – like Ms. James and her titillating read that began as Fan Fiction – who are fueling the imaginations of readers and inspiring them to try their hand at creating something as well. Much like B.B. King and his influence on a whole generation of blues and rock guitarists. I think that counts as “an earthquake that permanently shifts the landscape, forever changing how we experience our world.”
Willa: You could be right. It is impressive that she’s inspired so many other women to write.
Joie: Like I said, it’s an interesting topic, but getting back to our conversation about Say Say Say, the point I was trying to make is that I believe that art can be many different things to many different people. And for me personally, the most important function of art is that it provides joy and inspiration and comfort. It makes me feel happy, it lifts me up when I’ve had a difficult day, it soothes me when I’m feeling down. I don’t care what the political message was behind it, or what social injustice the artist was attempting to address when he or she created it. My only concern is how it makes me feel in the moment. That’s a very real function of art. But I wasn’t saying it was the most important function. I said it was the most important function for me.
Willa: I think I see what you’re saying, Joie, and I agree that connecting with an audience is really important. It doesn’t matter how innovative a work is – if no one cares about it, it isn’t going to survive. And I think Michael Jackson himself would agree with you too. When asked what makes a good music video, his first response was that “it has to be completely entertaining.” So I hope it didn’t sound like I don’t care about that, or think it isn’t important. Michael Jackson’s music and films move me more than I can say, and I wouldn’t care about them nearly so much if they didn’t.
But some artists do more than move us or soothe us or make us feel better. Some actually change the current of art and send it flowing in a new direction, and they lead us to think about art – how we define and experience art – in a new way. And I think Michael Jackson was one of those rare people. He was constantly pushing the boundaries of art, and questioning the role of the artist and of art itself. That’s developed more fully in his later work, but it’s interesting to me that we can see elements of it in his early work as well.
For example, Say Say Say begins with Mac and Jack as traveling minstrels, as we mentioned before – a tradition that goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. Then later we see them doing a vaudeville show, as you said, Joie. That’s a tradition that’s very problematic for black artists because performing in blackface was such an prominent part of vaudeville. So it’s significant, I think, that they paint their faces during that section – not in blackface but as crying clown faces. And then, they subtly evoke film musicals also since, during the vaudeville show, they’re kind of re-creating the “Fit as a Fiddle” number from Singing in the Rain, as Nina pointed out in a comment last year. Here’s a clip of “Fit as a Fiddle”:
So Say Say Say is a very fun and entertaining video – and I don’t in any way dispute that, or think it isn’t important – but it’s more than that. It’s also subtly taking us on a tour through the tradition of music performance or music theater – from traveling troubadours to the vaudeville stage to Hollywood musicals – and it’s both celebrating and questioning that tradition, I think.
Joie: That’s an interesting take, Willa. And it makes me wonder where they could have gone with it, you know? As you say, they subtly take us on a tour through the tradition of music performance or music theater – and I wonder what that video may have looked like if they hadn’t stopped at a certain point, but instead kept the history lesson going up to the present. From traveling troubadours and Hollywood musicals, up through the traveling concert tours of today. Now that would have been interesting!
Willa: Hi Joie, welcome back! Did you have a good break, despite all the controversy this summer?
Joie: Yes, I actually had a great summer! I did a lot of traveling for family weddings and such, which can sometimes be very stressful, you know? And as far as the controversy, I really just did my best to avoid it all. I didn’t watch a single news clip about the AEG trial. It was very liberating and refreshing to bury my head in the sand and pretend it wasn’t happening. You?
Willa: That’s funny, Joie – you’ve always been so informed about everything, and I’ve gotten most of my Michael Jackson news from you! What will I do now?
So I had a really fun summer also. We went to Yellowstone, which is so beautiful, and saw a huge bull moose and a grizzly bear and a black bear and a pair of sandhill cranes, and lots of elk and bison. It was wonderful. And I didn’t avoid the news, but I didn’t seek it out either. I figured if anything important happened, it would filter its way through the fog. It seems to me that at times like these I need to stay focused on what’s meaningful and nourishing to me, which is his art, and remember why Michael Jackson and his work are so important.
Joie: I think you’re right, Willa. It is important to go back and rediscover the magic, so to speak.
Willa: Exactly. And you know, we’ve talked a lot over the past two years about his music and dancing and films, as well as the way his public persona – even his face and the color of his skin – became an important element of his art. But we still haven’t taken an in-depth look at some of his most iconic films – films like Beat It and Billie Jean and Smooth Criminal. We’ve touched on them, but we haven’t really settled in with them the way we did with You Rock My World or In the Closet or Give In to Me. So one of my goals for this year is to get back to basics and take a close look at some of those classic films, and it seems to me a good place to start is Can You Feel It.
Joie: I would love to talk about Can You Feel It.
Willa: Oh good! I would too. It’s the first film where he’s listed as a producer and creative consultant – as it says in the credits, this film was “conceived and written by Michael Jackson” – and you can really feel his creative input throughout. He wrote the song with his brother Jackie, recorded it with The Jacksons, created the concept for the film, and then helped carry that vision through to completion. Here’s a remastered version that’s really wonderful, I think:
Joie: You know, Can You Feel It, to me has always been sort of like the mother of Michael Jackson’s video genius. It really was kind of the short film that started it all. And you can see from the very beginning that making short films was going to be an area where he was going to excel. It was just spectacular. If you watch it now, you’ll undoubtedly think that some of the special effects are pretty cheesy. But you have to remember that it was created back in 1980, and at that time, those special effects were cutting edge.
Willa: Well, maybe I’m kind of cheesy because I like those special effects, especially in the opening sequences. And I think it’s true that in many ways this is “the mother of Michael Jackson’s video genius,” as you said – not only because of the visuals but because of the ideas as well. We see the seeds of concepts that will resonate throughout his work for the rest of his career.
Joie: That’s very true.
Willa: And these are not small concepts either – they are immense in both scale and importance. He’s already thinking about how to bring about significant social change on a global scale. For example, Can You Feel It begins with images of a mythical landscape and a deep voice telling us a creation story:
In the beginning, the land was pure. Even in the early morning light, you could see the beauty in the forms of nature. Soon men and women of every color and shape would be here too, and they would find it all too easy sometimes not to see the colors and ignore the beauty in each other. But they would never lose sight of the dream of a better world that they could unite and build together in triumph.
The song hasn’t even started yet, but we already see evidence of Michael Jackson’s deep love of nature, and how he links that love of nature with racial equality, social justice, and love for one another.
Joie: And the idea of working together to make the world a better place (for you and for me and the entire human race). You’re right, Willa. We hear all that before the music even begins. And as you said, those are concepts that would stick with him throughout the rest of his career and resurface on album after album.
Willa: That’s true, and it’s all there in that initial creation story. But you know, what really caught my attention when I watched Can You Feel It recently is that it then goes on to tell a “re-creation” story – a story of a new creation or transformation, or rather a series of new creations and transformations – and it does so in a way that feels very Biblical to me. You know the Bible much better than I do, Joie, but it begins with a creation story also. Here are the first lines of Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good. …
And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. …
And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.
So both the Bible and Can You Feel It begin with a story of creation: “In the beginning …” And this world that is created is beautiful but not perfect, because people aren’t perfect. In fact, in Genesis, only a few chapters after the initial creation story, we read that people have become so “corrupt” and “full of violence” that God decides to wipe them out and start over. Only one righteous man and his family are spared, along with a representative pair of each kind of animal. So in the story of Noah’s Ark we have a re-creation story: a flood washes over the surface of the earth and destroys everything, and then that destruction is followed by a new beginning.
We see echoes of that in Can You Feel It. Immediately after the initial creation story, the music begins and we see one of those special effects you were talking about, Joie – an image of water washing over the entire world. So as with Noah’s flood in the Bible, the earth is being washed clean of corruption and violence, and we are about to experience a re-creation as we begin to move toward “a better world.”
And then we see something interesting: Randy Jackson’s character lifts a rainbow over his head. This is Biblical also. In the Bible, God promises that he will never again destroy his creation through flooding, and he creates a rainbow as proof of that promise. As God tells Noah, “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant. … Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.”
Joie: That’s true, Willa. And you know, we also see that in many of the creation stories of Native Americans. I’ve always enjoyed reading the creation myths of various tribes, and many of them have this same sort of re-creation theme to them that you’re talking about. Like the Sioux for instance. Here is part of their creation story:
The Creating Power said to himself, “l will sing three songs, which will bring a heavy rain. Then I’ll sing a fourth song and stamp four times on the earth, and the earth will crack wide open. Water will come out of the cracks and cover the land.” When he sang the first song, it started to rain. When he sang the second, it poured. When he sang the third, the rain-swollen rivers overflowed their beds. But when he sang the fourth song and stamped on the earth, it split open in many places like a shattered gourd, and water flowed from the cracks until it covered everything. …
So after the flood comes the rebirth, or re-creation:
The Creating Power said to them, “The first world I made was bad; the creatures on it were bad. So I burned it up. The second world I made was bad too, so I drowned it. This is the third world I have made. Look: I have created a rainbow for you as a sign that there will be no more Great Flood. Whenever you see a rainbow, you will know that it has stopped raining.”
Here’s a similar tale from the Cree:
After the Creator had made all the animals and had made the first people, he said to Wisakedjak, “Take good care of my people, and teach them how to live. Show them all the bad roots, all the roots that will hurt them and kill them. Do not let the people or the animals quarrel with each other.”
But Wisakedjak did not obey the Creator. He let the creatures do whatever they wished. Soon they were quarreling and fighting and shedding much blood. The Creator became very angry.
“I will take everything away from you and wash the ground clean,” he said.
Still Wisakedjak did not obey the Creator. He did not believe until the rains came and the streams began to swell. Day after day, and night after night, the rains continued. The water in the rivers and the lakes rose higher and higher. At last they overflowed their banks and washed the ground clean. The sea came up on the land, and everything was drowned except one Otter, one Beaver, and one Muskrat.
The narrative, of course, goes on to the rebuilding of the earth. But, we see this notion of a Great Flood over and over again in the creation stories and myths of the varying Native tribes of America, and I find it fascinating. And, you’re right, Can You Feel It is telling a very similar tale here.
Willa: Wow, that’s so interesting, Joie! I’ve read quite a few American Indian trickster tales, but not too many creation stories – though in some cases, the trickster is the creator of all things. I didn’t realize some of those creation stories had a flood that washed the earth clean of wickedness. And it’s interesting that in the Sioux story, there’s a rainbow “as a sign that there will be no more Great Flood.” You can really see how some archetypal stories are told again and again, across time and across cultures. But there are some important differences between them also.
You know, Michael Jackson was raised in the church, so I assumed the origin of those ideas in Can You Feel It was Biblical, but now I’m reconsidering that. After all, the landscape is clearly the American southwest with its mesas and arches, and that supports your interpretation, Joie. And near the end, a tribal elder steps forward, and he has a look of knowing in his eyes. He seems awed by the vision in front of him, like all the other spectators, but he also seems to understand what’s happening in a way the others don’t. So I really think you’re onto something.
Also, there’s the image of a new race – a golden race – springing forth from a blue watery globe, like the earth. Later we see a face inside a powerful ring of fire, like the sun, and it’s a female face. To me, that supports your interpretation also since Christianity is very male-centered, with power and authority centered in God the Father, while older, more Earth-centered modes of spirituality tend to be more female-centered, with a focus on Mother Nature as the giver of life.
Joie: Well, I really wasn’t offering any sort of “interpretation,” Willa. Only an observation.
Willa: Well, it’s a different way of seeing things – a different approach or context for interpreting what’s happening.
Joie: But it is very interesting, isn’t it? And I like what you said about Christianity vs. Native beliefs. It does seem to tie right in.
Willa: It does, doesn’t it? And it’s interesting how it also ties in with a deep love and respect for nature, which is something Eleanor Bowman talked about when she joined us in a post last spring.
So all of these creation stories and re-creation stories suggest a yearning for enlightenment, in a way. It’s like the physical world was formed perfect and good, and so were our bodies, but our minds are easily corrupted by envy and greed and hatred and violence. So we need to reach a state where our hearts and minds, our compassion and understanding, are as perfect as the physical world we were given to inhabit. We see this yearning in Can You Feel It also, in the emergence of the golden people. But what’s interesting is that when the first golden person appears about halfway into the video, s/he is being sprinkled with golden stardust – and that stardust is also sprinkling down on a lot of everyday people, who then develop a golden glow as well. So those golden people aren’t some new race in the future. They’re us!
And it seems important to me that the stardust is coming from the hands of the Jacksons, who appear golden also, but kind of translucent, like supernatural figures, and they’re taller than skyscrapers. And these towering golden figures are sprinkling golden stardust on everyone.
Joie: Almost as if they are the creators, or the tricksters, in this creation tale they’re telling.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Joie! I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that’s really intriguing. And you know, the Jackson really were creators in a literal sense – they were creators of music and dance and art.
It seems to me that, in Can You Feel It, Michael Jackson is predicting a major transformation and cultural change – a change that will lead to an enlightened way of living together in harmony, and “loving each other wholeheartedly.” And I think the golden stardust the Jacksons are sprinkling about is music and art. That’s what artists give to the world, and that’s how they bring about transformation and social change.
Joie: Ah! I like that interpretation, Willa! Very nicely done! And it makes perfect sense.
Willa: It does make perfect sense, doesn’t it? He’s so brilliant – I just love looking at his work and seeing all the details, and then thinking about how those details fit together. He never fails to amaze and inspire me.
But I want to get back to this idea of the Jacksons as creators. You know, one of the many criticisms leveled against Michael Jackson was that he had a messiah complex – that he thought he was the second coming of Christ or something like that – and critics point to examples like Can You Feel It as evidence of that. But I think that’s an overly simplistic interpretation that leads to misunderstanding.
Throughout Michael Jackson’s work, we see him developing a new definition of art and an expanded vision of the role of the artist. He believed artists had the power to bring about deep social change by changing perceptions and attitudes, prejudices and emotions. For example, artists have the power to use their art to rewrite our cultural narratives – like our myths and creation stories – so we see ourselves and our relation to each other in a new way.
That’s how Michael Jackson hoped to change the world – through music and art. But that doesn’t mean he saw himself as a messiah. Instead, he saw himself as an artist – but it’s a far greater definition of “artist” than we’re used to. And importantly, he imagined a world where we are all artists, where we all share “the dream of a better world that we could unite and build together in triumph.”
Joie: I think you’re absolutely right, Willa.
NOTE: The following conversation was originally posted on February 20, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
Lift Her with Care
Joie: Willa, I was thinking about “Little Susie” recently and the words of that song really struck me. You know, this is a song that I don’t think ever gets the recognition that it deserves and I think it’s because of the subject matter. It is such a sad, depressing, and troubling thing to think about; no one wants to dwell on it. But the song itself is truly beautiful and the music sort of commands your attention right from the beginning. In fact, I often find myself humming the melody of those opening bars because it is just so hauntingly beautiful.
But, as I was singing it to myself a few days ago, I started to really listen to the words and it made me think about Michael and that deep, almost empathic connection that he seemed to share with children in general, but with suffering children in particular. And I’m not really talking about the terminally ill. We’ve all seen the footage of Michael sitting by the bedside of some poor, sick child, offering whatever comfort he could. He was just as famous for that as he was for his amazing talent. But I’m talking about those children who were suffering in a different way. Those who were being abused or neglected. He shared a real connection with those children as well, and even wrote about it in songs like “Little Susie” and “Do You Know Where Your Children Are.”
Willa: Oh, I agree completely, Joie. “Little Susie” is “hauntingly beautiful,” as you say, and pretty complicated also – one of his most complicated songs, in some ways – so it takes a little effort to fully understand it. But it’s also just slit-your-wrists depressing, and I think you’re right – it tends to get pushed aside because it is so upsetting and depressing.
Joie: It really does. And when you just sit and really listen to the words, it’s heartbreaking. The song tells the story of a neglected little girl named Susie who is basically all on her own. As he says in one verse:
Father left home, poor mother died Leaving Susie alone Grandfather’s soul too had flown No one to care Just to love her How much can one bear
So, we don’t know whether Little Susie is in foster care, or if some other family member has stepped up. All we do know is that she is very much alone, and the only person who really feels her loss is the man from next door, as Michael tells us this:
Everyone came to see The girl that now is dead So blind stare the eyes in her head And suddenly a voice from the crowd said “This girl lived in vain” Her face bears such agony, such strain But only the man from next door Knew Little Susie and how he cried As he reached down to close Susie’s eyes
So we don’t know much about her, we don’t even know how old she was. All we know is that she was alone and she lived a very sad, meaningless existence. Neglected by everyone in her life, with the possible exception of the man from next door.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and that extreme isolation – a child on her own with no family to love and protect her and care for her – is a very important element of this song. You know, I didn’t know this until I watched the MJ Academia Project videos, but they said the lyrics were inspired by “The Bridge of Sighs,” a 1844 poem by Thomas Hood. Like “Little Susie,” it’s a poem about a young woman completely alone in the world. As Hood asks,
Who was her father? Who was her mother? Had she a sister? Had she a brother?
However, unlike Susie, this young woman has a home and a family, but they cast her out when she became pregnant:
Sisterly, brotherly, Fatherly, motherly Feelings had changed: Love, by harsh evidence, Thrown from its eminence; Even God’s providence Seeming estranged.
So she has a family but they’ve turned against her, and like Susie (though for different reasons) she suddenly finds herself completely alone, vulnerable and abandoned – “Even God’s providence / Seeming estranged.” In a seemingly hopeless situation with no one to turn to, this nameless young woman commits suicide by jumping from a bridge and drowning herself in a river.
So like “Little Susie,” “The Bridge of Sighs” focuses on a painful, troubling story – one that in the 1800s, especially, would have been considered an inappropriate topic for polite conversation. But through its compassionate portrayal of her story, it encourages us to look at a situation that is generally ignored and feel sympathy for this fragile young woman who had no one to comfort and help her. As Hood writes in the only repeated stanza:
Take her up tenderly Lift her with care; Fashion’d so slenderly Young and so fair!
This is very similar to the chorus of “Little Susie”:
She lies there so tenderly Fashioned so slenderly Lift her with care So young and so fair
In both cases, Thomas Hood and Michael Jackson are encouraging us to look at a situation we may not want to think about. More than that, they’re asking us to open our hearts as well as our eyes and try to care about someone no one cared about while she was alive.
Joie: That’s so true, Willa. And that’s something Michael Jackson was very good at – encouraging us to open our hearts and care deeply for those lost and overlooked souls that no one else wants to care about.
And I love that you pointed out that Thomas Hood poem. I also had no idea about “Little Susie”‘s connection to “The Bridge of Sighs” before watching the MJ Academia Project videos, but the comparisons and the similarities are really fascinating. I just love the symmetry between the repeated stanza in Hood’s poem and the repeated chorus in “Little Susie.”
Willa: I do too, and the way Michael Jackson evokes this older poem adds so much depth to the lyrics, I think. And we see him doing something similar with the music as well. For example, “Little Susie” opens with a choir singing “Pie Jesu” from Maurice Duruflé’s The Requiem. Here’s a link to mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly singing “Pie Jesu,” which roughly translates as “Pious Jesus”:
Then we hear a young girl winding a music box and singing the melody of “Little Susie” – not the lyrics, just the notes. This is followed by a few bars of one of my favorite songs, “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof. And then – nearly halfway through “Little Susie”‘s 6:13-minute runtime – Michael Jackson finally begins to sing the opening lines. So “Little Susie” opens with 3 minutes of musical “quotations,” and these musical references provide an important context for what we’re about to hear.
A requiem is music written for a Requiem Mass, which is a very formal and highly ritualized ceremony marking the passing of a community member, generally a prominent figure. And “Sunrise, Sunset” provides musical accompaniment for another very formal and highly ritualized ceremony: a Jewish wedding in turn-of-the-20th Century Russia. Here’s a clip of “Sunrise, Sunset” from the film version of Fiddler on the Roof:
So Michael Jackson has written a touching song about a little girl whose life passed unnoticed – a lonely, insignificant figure known only by the nameless “man from next door,” as you mentioned earlier, Joie. Yet he prefaces this song by evoking rituals performed for those who are important and deeply connected to their communities, which further heightens the pathos of Susie’s isolation – of her complete disconnection from a community that might have nourished and protected her.
This long intro performs another function as well, I think – it suggests that Michael Jackson felt Susie deserved a ritual of passage also. And so he has created one – a ceremony to mark the passing of one unloved and unprotected by her community. In this sense the tolling of the bells at the end of “Little Susie” is especially significant, because they memorialize one deemed too insignificant to have a requiem of her own.
Joie: I agree with you completely, Willa. He was making a very specific, very important point with this song from start to finish. He was trying to show us that everyone deserves a ‘ritual of passage,’ as you called it. Everyone deserves to be loved while we’re here and memorialized when we leave. I believe it was an idea that was very important to him. You know, our friend, Joe Vogel, had this to say about “Little Susie” in his book, Man in the Music:
“Little Susie” is yet another testament to Jackson’s range and depth as an artist. The song also demonstrates his commitment to his creative vision regardless of whom it might alienate. Many critics were simply baffled that a “mini-opera” about such a dark and grotesque subject could land on a mainstream pop record. “What it’s doing on an album with Dallas Austin and Jam and Lewis is anyone’s guess,” wrote Rolling Stone. For Jackson, however, the reasoning for “Little Susie” … was quite simple: He believed it was a great piece. Commercial viability or audience expectations didn’t matter. What mattered was the personal connection, the story, the melody.
So, apart from the melody, it was the personal connection and the story that was important to him. So important that it didn’t matter to him what the critics thought or what the audience’s expectations were. It was a story that he felt needed to be told.
Willa: I agree, and I love the way Joe pushes back against the frequently expressed yet utterly false notion that Michael Jackson measured his work strictly in terms of record sales. As Joe wrote and you quoted, “He believed it was a great piece. Commercial viability or audience expectations didn’t matter.”
Joie: Yeah, you know, I’ve never understood that argument either, Willa. All you have to do is really examine his body of solo work and you see that false argument holds no weight. But, Joe Vogel also goes on to point out what a masterpiece this song really is:
While “Little Susie” remains mostly unknown, it is one of the most poignant and unique songs in his entire catalog. ‘If he ever decides to stop being a pop singer,’ wrote Anthony Wynn, ‘this song [is] proof he could compose music for movies and seriously win Oscars for it. It’s sad, haunting, beautiful.’ Indeed, “Little Susie” reaffirms his substantial abilities as a songwriter.
And you know, Willa, it is just such a shame how true that statement is. “Little Susie” is almost virtually unknown outside of the fan world and it really shouldn’t be. It is such a beautiful song with so much to say.
Willa: It really is, and even among fans it’s not especially well known or well liked. It’s just not a feel-good song no matter which way you look at it. But while the story it tells may be painful to hear, it has something important to tell us nonetheless.
But I’m intrigued by Anthony Wynn’s belief that Michael Jackson would have been a successful composer of film scores. I think that’s true, in part because his music is so visual in some ways, as you and I talked about with Lisha McDuff in a post last March, “Visualizing Sound.” Also, he was skilled at integrating music from many different genres to create dramatic effects that would work very well in films, I think. And his music often had a grand sweep to it like good film music often does – like “Sunrise, Sunset” does, for example.
Actually, it’s really interesting to look at “Sunrise, Sunset” both in comparison to “Little Susie” and as it functions within “Little Susie.” It’s a very important motif in this song. Michael Jackson quotes it four times: in the intro just before the first verse and again after each chorus, including after the final chorus where it leads into the tolling of the bells. And thematically, “Sunrise, Sunset” forms a strong contrast with “Little Susie” because it’s the song that a father, a mother, and an entire community sing as a young woman marries, leaves her parents’ house, and starts a family of her own. So it’s a song of love for a daughter – of hope for her future as well as the pain of losing her – and it commemorates the bittersweet passage of time.
Importantly, the man she’s marrying is one she loves, one she accepted for herself, not the one her father accepted for her. In fact, now that I think about it, there’s a strong undercurrent in “Little Susie” about the fraught relationship between fathers and daughters. “The Bridge of Sighs” is the story of a young woman who loves a man without first gaining her father’s permission, so he and the rest of her family reject her – and without a man’s protection, from either a father or a proper husband, she dies.
Fiddler on the Roof then complicates that story. It’s based on a novel, Tevye and his Daughters, about a Jewish milkman and his five daughters, and it centers on the question of who should be allowed to pick their future husbands. The oldest daughter loves a poor tailor, not the wealthy butcher Tevye has promised her to. But he sees she loves him, and after some soul searching he gives them his blessing and support. “Sunrise, Sunset” is their wedding song, so in that sense it provides an exact counterpoint to “The Bridge of Sighs.”
Tevye’s second daughter stretches him even further from his traditional beliefs, falling in love with a political radical and Jewish scholar from out of town. It’s difficult for him, but he respects the young man and knows his daughter loves him, and again he gives his blessing. But then his third daughter falls in love with a young Russian who is not Jewish, and Tevye cannot accept that. When she elopes with this young man, Tevye disowns her – he’s deeply saddened by it, but nonetheless he tells his family that she “is dead to us. We’ll forget her.” She pleads with him, “I beg you to accept us,” but he can’t. As he says, “If I try and bend that far, I’ll break.” So she ends up abandoned by her family, though unlike the young woman in “The Bridge of Sighs,” she has a husband to stand by her.
It’s very interesting to me that Michael Jackson carefully situates the story of “Little Susie” against the backdrop of these other stories of young women accepted or rejected by their fathers. As you said earlier, Joie, Susie was abandoned by her father, and her mother and grandfather have died, so she has no family and no male protection of any kind – and without their support she dies. So if we take a feminist approach to “Little Susie,” there’s a subtle but strong critique of this patriarchal model where girls and even young women simply cannot survive without a male figure protecting and supporting them. We can interpret this literally to mean a father or grandfather or husband, or more expansively to mean the law of the father, which includes institutions that reinforce male power such as the family, the church, the police, the military, the media, the corporate world.
And of course, Michael Jackson routinely challenged all of those institutions of power and was constantly resisting both his own father (literally) and the law of the father (figuratively). So interpreting “Little Susie” this way seems to fit both his vision and his belief system.
Joie: Wow, Willa. I don’t think I would have ever tied “Little Susie” to the idea of challenging authority, or male power as you call it. But that is a really fascinating interpretation; thanks for sharing it! And I love what you said about the strong undercurrent of the fraught relationship between fathers and daughters in “Little Susie,” and I think you are right on the money here. By listening to the lyrics, we can guess that things would have turned out a lot differently for Susie had her father stayed home and remained a part of her life. Certainly she wouldn’t have been left all alone after her mother and grandfather passed away. Perhaps she would have had a happier existence and not been so neglected if her father and mother had stayed together and created a loving, stable environment for her. We can imagine a world where Little Susie had a happy childhood with two happy, doting parents. But sadly, that wasn’t her fate.
And you were right when you said that even among fans, this song isn’t really well known or well liked because it is just not a feel-good song. But it is a really powerful song, and a beautiful one, that deserves a lot more attention than it ever gets.
NOTE: The following conversation was originally posted on February 6, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
With Your Pen, You Torture Men
Joie: So, Willa, I’ve been thinking lately about Michael’s existence and about how surreal it would be to have that kind of public scrutiny on your life 24/7. Can you imagine how crazy that would be? Or how special your quiet, private time would become to you if that were your life? I can’t imagine being a public figure on that level. Well, on any level really but, especially on that level. When I really just sit and contemplate it, it blows my mind. He really was one of those people who the world loved to watch and hear about. Whether you loved him or loved to hate him, everybody always wanted more – we couldn’t get enough of him.
Willa: That’s true, Joie. His whole life was conducted on a global stage – not just his performances, but his off-screen life too. And as you say, it’s almost impossible to imagine what that would be like. What if every embarrassing thing you’d ever said or done ever in your life was exposed to the whole world? Or if your most painful moments were on display and debated by a global audience? Just imagine – your wife files for divorce, which is painful enough, but then millions of people around the world feel free to speculate about whether she ever really loved you to begin with. That’s just unimaginable to me.
Joie: It is unimaginable. And impossible to wrap your head around. He often wrote about his experiences in songs like “Leave Me Alone,” “Scream” and “Privacy.” And he was often accused by critics of being paranoid because of it. And actually, if you think about it, there are many, many songs that could fall into the ‘perceived paranoia’ category. Songs like “Tabloid Junkie,” “Money,” and “Is It Scary.” Even songs like “2Bad” and “This Time Around.” And the really big one that comes to my mind is the unreleased song, “Xscape.” Those lyrics are all about that ‘perceived paranoia.’
Everywhere I turn, no matter where I look The system’s in control, it’s all run by the book I’ve got to get away so I can clear my mind, Xscape is what I need, Away from electric eyes No matter where I am, I see my face around They pen lies on my name, then push from town to town Don’t have a place to run, but there’s no need to hide, I’ve got to, find a place, So I won’t hide away (Xscape) Got to get away from the system loose in the world today (Xscape) The pressure that I face from relationships that could go away (Xscape) The man with the pen that writes the lies that hassle this man (Xscape) I do what I wanna cause I gotta please nobody but me
I love that song so much; I really hope it finds its way onto a proper album someday so everyone can enjoy it. But for now, here’s a version you can listen to on YouTube:
Willa: Wow, Joie, I’d never heard that song before, but it’s fascinating, isn’t it? The drums have this rat-tat-tat-tat rhythm, like machine gun fire, and there are electronic sound effects that really give a sense that he’s under surveillance, or even being hunted by those “electric eyes.” And the lyrics reflect that too – it really feels like, no matter where he travels, he’s in a confined space with the walls closing in.
Joie: The words are really sort of sad in a way. What is that like to see your face on all the tabloids, everywhere you look, with unflattering, untrue, and even downright nasty headlines attached to it?
You know, I never really understood the whole paranoia claim. Yes, he seemed to make a point of including at least one such song on every album but, why label him paranoid for simply writing a song about his life experience? That just doesn’t seem fair to me.
Willa: And you aren’t being paranoid if what you’re saying is true. You’re only being paranoid if you have a delusional sense that people are out to get you when they aren’t. But people really were out to get him, from paparazzi ambushing him for a shock photo, to alleged business partners suing him for a piece of his wealth, to family members trying to guilt him into concerts he didn’t want to do, to executives trying to squeeze every last drop of revenue out of him that they could. That wasn’t paranoia. That was his life.
Joie: Exactly! That was his life! You know, I was watching the Golden Globes a few weeks ago and Jodie Foster was being given the Cecil B. DeMille Award for her lifetime achievements to her craft. And in her speech, she said something that really struck me and immediately made me think of Michael. She said,
“But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.”
That part of her speech really stood out for me because, as we all know, Jodie Foster is a notoriously private actress who is almost as famous for the way she fiercely guards that privacy as she is for her amazingly impressive catalog of films. She’s also someone who can totally relate to what Michael must have gone through in his lifetime. Like Michael, she became a huge star and a household name at a very, very young age, and she has gone to great lengths over the years to “fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal.” Yet, to my knowledge, no one has ever accused her of being paranoid for trying to protect her privacy.
Willa: That’s true, and I don’t think Jodie Foster ever experienced the level of intrusiveness Michael Jackson experienced. He really was on camera 24/7, as you said. It’s like that movie, The Truman Show, where an entertainment corporation adopts a baby and then puts his entire life on display as an extended reality show. In fact, this is interesting – Aldebaranredstar shared a quotation from Peter Weir, the director of The Truman Show, where says his ideas about the main character came from Michael Jackson:
“You watch The Truman Show and, I mean, Jim Carrey did a fantastic job, but Michael Jackson is Truman. He’s who I based him on and he is the nearest thing to Truman.”
Joie: You know, I hadn’t heard that until after Michael passed away. And I’ve never really been a fan of Jim Carrey so, I’ve actually never watched The Truman Show, believe it or not. But since hearing that comment from Peter Weir I really want to see it. Maybe I’ll rent it this weekend.
Willa: Oh, it’s fascinating, Joie – especially watching it with Michael Jackson in mind. I think you’ll get a lot out of it.
Joie: I’m really interested in it now. I’ll let you know when I watch it. But I want to talk about a couple of those other songs I mentioned earlier. For instance, the lyrics to “Tabloid Junkie” have always fascinated me, and when I think about them in the context of this ‘perceived paranoia’ that so many tried to label Michael Jackson with, they become really telling.
Speculate to break the one you hate Circulate the lie you confiscate Assassinate and mutilate It’s the hounding media, in hysteria
Those are very strong words, and I’m sure that from his point of view and his life experiences, those words were very true.
Willa: Those are strong words, in sound and meaning. In fact, I’m intrigued by the sounds of those words – speculate, circulate, confiscate, assassinate, mutilate – and how they echo the word “hate,” a word he places in a very prominent position at the end of the first line. The way those sounds are located, it almost seems like there’s a reverberation of “hate, hate, hate, hate, hate” throughout this verse. And I wonder if that’s what it felt like to him, being hit with one hateful story after another.
Joie: Wow, I never thought of it that way, Willa. It probably did feel like hate to him. But that was his life and I’m guessing that, at times, it must have seemed unbearable to him. But, looking at those words, I can also see where the critics – or the media – would take offense and want to strike back by trying to make him seem crazy and paranoid. Especially when he included words like these:
It’s slander You say it’s not a sword But with your pen you torture men You’d crucify the Lord
And he goes on to say this:
It’s slander With the words you use You’re a parasite in black and white Do anything for news If you don’t go and buy it Then they won’t glorify it To read it sanctifies it Then why do we keep foolin’ ourselves?
You know, it was almost like they were taunting each other. Michael would write a song about his life experience, the media would take offense to it and strike out against him, so he would lash out in the only way he could … by writing another song about the experience. A vicious cycle. It was a very precarious sort of relationship between them.
Willa: I see what you’re saying, Joie, but it’s a complicated issue, and we see some of that complexity in the verses you just cited. For example, in the lines “You say it’s not a sword / But with your pen you torture men,” he’s referencing the old saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” That adage is actually lauding the power of the written word to bring about positive social change. It’s saying that the written word – whether in novels or essays or poetry or the press – is more powerful than armies at resisting oppression, exposing injustice, and righting wrongs. That’s very similar to the idea he expresses in Beat It and Bad and Jam, among others, that art is more powerful than violence, and we know that was an idea he passionately believed.
But today’s press, with its focus on the sensational and the trivial, denies the power it has – “you say it’s not a sword” – and then carelessly squanders that power to “torture men.” Instead of being a beacon for good, they have become “a parasite in black and white.”
Joie: I just love that phrase! “A parasite in black and white. Do anything for news.” It’s so perfect for the predatory celebrity news that we see today, I think.
Willa: It really is. So it seems to me that he’s criticizing the press not only for attacking him, but for neglecting the higher purpose they should be fulfilling. They should be doing their part to “Heal the world / Make it a better place,” and they aren’t. Instead, they attack those who try. I’ve even read snarky articles about Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. As Michael Jackson tells the press in those lines you cited above, Joie, “You’d crucify the Lord” given the chance, instead of helping to fight injustice.
Joie: I agree with you, Willa. The entire song is a really scathing look at the media. It’s another example of Michael Jackson holding up a mirror for us to examine ourselves but, of course, no one’s listening but the fans. Everyone else is still calling him paranoid.
Willa: Oh, it’s a very scathing look. Not only are the attacks on him unfair and hurtful, but they also distract news organizations from the real work they should be doing. We see that idea in “Breaking News,” as well. In fact, the whole song is a play on the words “breaking news.” Usually those words refer to a news bulletin about an event that’s just happened, but he shifts the meaning so those words refer to how dysfunctional news organizations have become. Those organizations can no longer report real news because the traditional news-gathering systems are falling apart – as he says, “You’re breaking the news.”
It’s also interesting that once again he subtly refers to the idea that “the pen is mightier than the sword” when he sings, “You write the words to destroy like it’s a weapon.” So again, he’s saying that the media have this mighty sword – the power of the press – and they’re misusing it to “torture men” rather than expose corruption and injustice and fight for a better world.
Joie: You’re right, Willa. And what you just said about the press misusing their power to “torture men” instead of using it to fight against corruption and injustice makes me think of another song that could be included in this discussion, “Why You Wanna Trip on Me.” At first listen, it’s not really a ‘paranoid’ song but, when we examine the lyrics, it just fits in so well with what you just said:
They say I’m different They don’t understand But there’s a bigger problem That’s much more in demand You got world hunger Not enough to eat So there’s really no time To be trippin’ on me You got school teachers Who don’t wanna teach You got grown people Who can’t write or read You got strange diseases Ah but there’s no cure You got many doctors That aren’t so sure So tell me Why you wanna trip on me?
What he’s saying here is that, with all the millions of real problems in the world, why on earth is the media tripping on him all the time? Why are they breaking their necks to follow his every move and shove cameras in his face when there are so many other, much more important and distressing issues going on in the world?
Willa: Wow, Joie, I didn’t even think about “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” but you’re right – that really spells it all out, doesn’t it? As he says, “There’s a bigger problem / That’s much more in demand” for attention from the press, so why are they spending so much time and energy chasing and criticizing him?
But you know, it seems to me that when critics call Michael Jackson paranoid, they aren’t just referring to his songs about the press. They’re also referring to his songs about the lying, threatening, stalking women who hurt My Baby – songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous.” But as you pointed out in one of our very first posts, Joie, those threatening women can be interpreted as representing fame, celebrity, or more specifically, the media. For example, there are these lyrics from “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”:
Billie Jean is always talking When nobody else is talking Telling lies and rubbing shoulders So they called her mouth a motor
Bille Jean could be a woman who’s “always talking” and whose mouth is like “a motor,” but that’s a pretty accurate description of the tabloids as well.
Joie: Oh, wow. Good point, Willa! I never really think of those songs as being part of the whole ‘paranoia’ narrative but, you’re right; it does fit, doesn’t it? The threatening women in all those songs were sort of out to get him, weren’t they? That’s really interesting.
You know, this entire conversation still makes me think about that comment Jodie Foster made in that Golden Globes speech about fighting for a life that feels ‘real and honest and normal.’ And it’s just so sad that he never really had that because his life was constantly put on display. And as you said earlier, he wasn’t paranoid in the clinical sense because “they” really were after him. Everyday of his life. Maybe they weren’t out to get him but, they were certainly out to capture his every move.
Willa: Yes, they were. But as he points out in many of those songs, they’re providing what the consumer wants, as you quoted above from “Tabloid Junkie”:
If you don’t go and buy it Then they won’t glorify it To read it sanctifies it Then why do we keep foolin’ ourselves?
He expresses a similar idea in “Monster”:
It’s got you jumping like you should It’s got you bouncing off the wall It’s got you drunk enough to fall
So he’s saying that consumers have become addicted to those shock stories – “It’s got you drunk enough to fall” – and the media is feeding that addiction. But if we (the collective “we”) can somehow detox ourselves from that kind of slander and remove the market for those stories, that kind of journalism will shrivel up and die.
Joie: And you know, the really difficult thing to understand is why? It seems that everyone complains about “that kind of journalism” but still it persists. And so often, “that kind of journalism” isn’t even true or accurate. Michael pointed that out so well in “Tabloid Junkie”:
Just because you read it in a magazine You see it on a TV screen Don’t make it factual
Willa: And Joie, that’s perhaps the most important point of all. You know, I think most people realize that tabloid-style articles and television shows don’t really report the news – that they’re sensationalized or gross exaggerations or even complete fabrications – so why do they exist? What’s the point of “newspapers” and celebrity “news” shows that report false news? That doesn’t make any sense.
I think they’re actually a type of entertainment – a corrupt entertainment – not news. The tabloids turned Michael Jackson into a “monster” and an “animal,” as he sings in “Monster,” and then mocked him as a type of cruel entertainment. For some reason, we insist on turning people into monsters every so often, and the tabloids did that to him and forced him to play that cultural role. He talks about that phenomenon quite a bit in his later work – in songs like “Threatened” and “Is It Scary” and “Monster” and “Breaking News.” And it’s cruel.
You know, my son is 14 and he’s brought home a lot of information about bullying the last few years. The schools are really working hard to prevent bullying, and help kids deal with it when it happens. And one of the things I’ve realized is that almost everything my son has told me about bullying – from name-calling to cyber-bullying to ganging up on those who are perceived as different – applies to the tabloid press as well. They are bullies, and we should be as vigilant in preventing hurtful behavior by tabloid-style media as we are in preventing hurtful behavior by bullies.
We should prevent it not only because it hurts the targets, people like Michael Jackson, but also because it hurts us as well. I think most people think the tabloids are pretty harmless – just mindless fluff about UFOs and celebrities and Nostradamus predictions – and they don’t realize how damaging that constant barrage of misinformation and mean-spirited behavior can be. I think the tabloids and shock-jock radio shows and those kinds of inflammatory entertainment have influenced how we talk to one another, making us less civil and more judgmental. And whether we realize it or not, they’ve also influenced our perceptions and world view. As Michael Jackson told Oprah back in 1993, “If you hear a lie often enough, you start to believe it.”
Joie: Willa, I could not agree with you more. I especially like what you just said about tabloids and shock-jock radio shows being a type of inflammatory entertainment, and I think probably 90% of the so-called “reality” TV shows can be placed in that same catagory. And shows like that have influenced the way we talk to and relate to one another – and not at all in a good way. Again, it’s one of the many lessons that Michael Jackson tried over and over to teach us but, most refuse to listen.