Monthly Archives: August 2011
You’ll never make me stay
So take your weight off of me
I know your every move
So won’t you just let me be
I’ve been here times before
But I was too blind to see
That you seduce every man
This time you won’t seduce me
Joie: With these words begin the game of seduction that is “Dirty Diana.” And it’s apparently one they’ve been playing for some time. He knows her “every move,” he’s “been here times before.” But this time it’s different. This time he’s finally opened his eyes and he sees her now for what she really is, and he doesn’t want to go through it again.
She’s saying that’s ok
Hey baby do what you please
I have the stuff that you want
I am the thing that you need
She looked me deep in the eyes
She’s touchin’ me so to start
She says there’s no turnin’ back
She trapped me in her heart
She wants him and she’s not willing to take no for an answer. So she taunts him, telling him that she knows exactly what he wants and what he needs. Then she touches him suggestively and says, “there’s no turnin’ back.” He’s been trapped by this beautiful, ruthless seductress and he’s torn. On one side there’s My Baby, the woman he loves and has waiting for him at home. But standing right in front of him is this wicked temptress, telling him that she’s ready and willing. He wants to be faithful. But he’s also strangely drawn to this other woman. She’s wild and exciting and unpredictable and he likes that. But he also likes the fact that My Baby is in his life, someone who knows him and loves him and cares about him. He feels this same dilemma in “Dangerous”:
She came at me in sections
With the eyes of desire
I fell trapped into her
Web of sin
A touch, a kiss
A whisper of love
I was at the point
Of no return
Once again, he feels trapped. But this time, it’s a little darker. The first time, he sings, “She trapped me in her heart.” The second time, he is “trapped into her web of sin.” The Bad album was released in 1988 when Michael was still a relatively young, inexperienced man but Dangerous is released a few years later in 1991, and few years can make a whole lot of difference. So in 1988, he was a little bit naive and then caught completely by surprise when Diana grabs the phone out of his hand and tells My Baby that he’s not coming home “because he’s sleeping with me.” But in 1991, he’s not so naive anymore and he knows exactly what he’s getting into.
Her mouth was
Smoother than oil
But her inner spirit
Is as sharp as
A two-edged sword
But I loved it
‘Cause it’s dangerous
He knows it’s wrong. He knows he shouldn’t. But he can’t help himself; he’s inexplicably drawn to her. But who is she really? And if we continue to see My Baby as representing a part of his psyche or his inner self, then who exactly are these other women who constantly threaten her and try to come between them? Could these women possibly represent another side of his own psyche? Perhaps the part of him that courted fame, the side of him that was drawn to entertaining and creating and being on stage. That part of him that loved being in front of a camera or onstage performing in front of 80,000 people. Is it possible that these “dangerous” women represent fame itself and that Michael Jackson often felt seduced by it? Compelled to go off with her instead of going home to My Baby. Compelled to pursue his career instead of nurturing that secret part of himself that he tried to keep safely hidden away from the limelight.
Fame is the dream of many, the hope of millions. But it always comes at a price and often, those who find it end up wishing that it was different. Fame is wild and exciting and unpredictable – just like the temptress in both “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous.” But fame can also be brutal and unkind and hurtful to those who get in its way. Just ask My Baby.
Willa: Wow, Joie. You’ve officially blown me away. I had never considered the possibility that these seductive, threatening women were fame itself, or that part of himself that was drawn to fame. But now that you say that, it makes perfect sense. I’ve never understood why he would be attracted to a cruel person, to someone whose “inner spirit is as sharp as a two-edged sword.” But fame is cruel, and he knows it, but still he’s drawn to it. That makes perfect sense. It also explains why he can’t escape it – why these seductive women reappear again and again, album after album, threatening My Baby. He can’t escape it because it’s also a part of him, just as My Baby is – the part of himself that’s drawn to fame.
It also explains why this complicated love triangle that has entangled him for years suddenly disappears after the false accusations came out in 1993, and he discovered just how cruel fame could be. That was such a searing experience for him that fame no longer attracts him. The spell has been broken, and now he sees fame for what it truly is. He still recognizes and respects its power – maybe more so than before – but he’s no longer naively drawn to it, and he doesn’t let it threaten My Baby.
Joie: No, he doesn’t let it threaten My Baby anymore. It’s like from that point (1993) on, he goes to much greater efforts to keep the two apart, and he makes a conscious decision to focus on My Baby – or his private life. He gets married and tries to start a family. It doesn’t work the first time but, he keeps trying. He becomes a father. He takes active steps to build a happy private life, to nurture My Baby a little bit.
And I never thought about it before either! For years, I always thought that the threatening women were referring to the media, the tabloids, the paparazzi, etc. It wasn’t until writing this blog and focusing on “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous” that it hit me like a lightning bolt. Fame is the bold, threatening presence in this threesome. I think it all makes so much sense now.
Willa: I agree, and I’m so intrigued by this idea. I really want to go back and listen to those earlier songs again with this interpretation in mind, and see if it sheds new light on that ongoing conflict between the protagonist, My Baby, and the women who threaten her. But this conflict abruptly disappears after 1993. After the horror of that experience, he no longer lets the allure of fame threaten My Baby. She’s still somewhat fragile and in need of protection, but the threats are different now.
We’re introduced to one of those threats in “Ghosts,” the first song to reference My Baby after the 1993 scandal erupted. As the video makes clear, he’s addressing a threatening figure – a figure many critics saw as representing District Attorney Tom Sneddon, the man who led the investigation against Jackson. The protagonist is standing up to this figure and demanding answers, repeatedly asking him,
And who gave you the right to shake my family?
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
So once again My Baby is at risk, but this time it isn’t a seductress who hurts her. It’s the police. And this time the protagonist isn’t torn by conflicting impulses. He knows whose side he’s on, and he’s doing everything he can to defend and protect her. He’s clearly addressing an authority figure in this scene, and importantly, he’s challenging the very basis of his authority. As he repeatedly asks this man, “who gave you the right . . . ?” Why do you have this authority, this power to “shake” another person’s life? Where does this authority come from? What gives you the right to treat other people this way?
This line of questioning is repeated three times over the course of “Ghosts,” but the third time it’s extended and a new question is subtly added in the midst of the other questions:
And who gave you the right to shake my family?
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
And who gave you the right to take intrusion,
To see me?
And who gave you the right to shake my family?
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
This new question is “Who gave you the right to take intrusion / To see me?” I think this is clearly a reference to the strip search that was conducted on December 20, 1993 – a procedure ordered by Tom Sneddon – where the most intimate parts of Michael Jackson’s body were photographed and videotaped by the police.
My sense is that he experienced that strip search as a rape – a police-authorized rape – and I don’t use that word lightly. For example, in “They Don’t Care about Us,” he says, “I am the victim of police brutality. . . . You’re raping me of my pride.” And in “Privacy” he references “that cold winter night” when “my pride was snatched away.” The immediate context suggests he’s talking about the death of Princess Diana while being chased by paparazzi, but she died in August. The strip search occurred in December. And if we look at the wider context of those lyrics, we see that he repeatedly juxtaposes his experiences and hers.
I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate how deeply the events of 1993 impacted Michael Jackson. His world view shifts in profound ways after that time, and one of those shifts is in the way he viewed institutions of power, such as the police or the press. He was always very concerned about injustice and discrimination, but before 1993 his focus was on occasional injustices that occurred within those institutions. After 1993, his focus is on the institutions themselves, and what gives them the right to invade the most intimate aspects of a person’s life – the place where My Baby dwells.
Joie: Willa, I completely agree with you that he experienced the strip search as a rape and was deeply affected by it. It’s like after the events of 1993 and that whole battle, he is a different person in terms of his relationship with his fame. And I think you were right when you said that My Baby is still fragile and in need of protection but that the threats to her are different now. In fact, the threats to her seem to have turned a little bit sinister after the allegations. Just listening to the lyrics of “Ghosts” makes that clear. And the lyrics of “Heaven Can Wait” are somewhat sinister as well, and also slightly sad.
Each moment spent with you is simply wonderful
This love I have for you girl, it’s incredible
I don’t know what I’d do, if I can’t be with you
The world could not go on so every night I pray
If the Lord should come for me before I wake
I wouldn’t wanna go if I can’t see your face
Can’t hold you close
What good would Heaven be
If the angels came for me I’d tell them no
On the surface, it’s a beautiful song about how he loves this woman – My Baby – so much that he doesn’t want to leave her for anything. Not even for Heaven. But if My Baby represents his private life that he has worked so hard to build and maintain – a life that now includes his precious children who he adores – then this song suddenly takes on new meaning. And if we continue our theory that the threat to My Baby is fame itself, then these lyrics are like a foreshadowing. Almost as if he has resigned himself to the fact that, ultimately, his fame will be the reason for his demise and he feels powerless to overcome that. At the end of the song he begs, “Just leave us alone. Please leave us alone.” It’s a futile attempt and he knows it, but he has to try anyway. His babies – My Baby – are at stake now.
Willa: Joie, I agree with you for the most part, except that I see him feeling much more empowered than you do. He’s been severely tested now. Really, he’s been to hell and back. And he survived, with his soul, his psyche, his inner being intact. It was horrible – no one should have to go through the years of misery he endured – but he survived. He knows nothing can separate him from My Baby without his permission. And now he’s challenging Death itself to divide him from that innermost part of himself. As he sings in the final stanza, he refuses to go without her:
Oh no, can’t be without My Baby
Won’t go, without her I’ll go crazy
Oh no, guess Heaven will be waiting
He knows his own strength now. He may lose everything else – he can’t control fate – but he won’t lose My Baby: his soul, his psyche, his self-knowledge, his creativity.
Joie: No, don’t misunderstand me. What I’m saying is that his plea, “Just leave us alone,” is futile. He knows that, no matter how much he begs, fame (or death, or the media, or Sneddon) is never going to leave him alone. All of those threats to My Baby are never truly going away. But I agree with you that he is empowered. As I said, he is a much different person after the events of 1993, and in many ways he is much stronger and much wiser than he ever was before. And he’s also much more at peace. It’s like My Baby is his anchor and he finally realizes that and respects it and he’ll do anything to protect it.
Willa: We first meet My Baby in “Heartbreak Hotel” (or “This Place Hotel”), which Michael Jackson wrote and recorded for The Jacksons’ 1980 Triumph album. And it seems to have been an important song for him: he performed it with his brothers on the Triumph and Victory tours, and it was the only Jacksons’ song he sang throughout his Bad tour.
“Heartbreak Hotel” begins with a reference to a traumatic loss that happened “Ten years ago on this day”:
Live in sin
Ten years ago on this day my heart was yearning
I promised I would never ever be returning
Where My Baby broke my heart and left me yearning
Importantly, “ten years ago” is when Michael Jackson first became a public figure on the national stage: “I Want You Back” became the Jackson 5′s first number one hit in 1970.
The protagonist and My Baby enter Heartbreak Hotel together. It’s a public place where they encounter a crowd of “faces staring.” And while the staring people are strangers, they seem to know him: “they smiled with eyes that looked as if they knew me.” But they don’t really know him, and he doesn’t know them. It’s a pretty accurate description of the life of a celebrity. This stanza ends with Jackson singing, “This is scaring me.”
He and My Baby walk upstairs together and enter his hotel room, but two women are there already. One of them approaches him and says, “This is the place / You said to meet you right here at noon.” It’s not true, but My Baby believes her – believes this stranger is his lover – and Jackson sings, “Hope is dead.” He goes on to describe how My Baby is hurt because she doesn’t understand the situation, but ends with “Someone’s evil to hurt my soul.” So this lie not only hurts My Baby; it also hurts “my soul.” The two are so closely connected, it’s as if My Baby is his soul. The stanza ends with these lines:
This is scaring me
Then the man next door had told
He’s been here in tears for fifteen years
This is scaring me
Who is this man? Could it possibly be Elvis? After all, Elvis begins his song “Heartbreak Hotel” (which was his first number one hit) with the lines:
Since My Baby left me
I found a new place to dwell
It’s down at the end of Lonely Street
At Heartbreak Hotel
So apparently Elvis lives there. Now Michael Jackson has checked into the room next door, and he’s in the same position Elvis was in for years.
This “man next door” says “He’s been here in tears for fifteen years,” so since 1965 – right when Elvis’ career began its decline, and his celebrity began to take an ugly turn. Elvis was the King in the late 1950s and early ’60s, but then the British Invasion took place from 1964 to 1966. Suddenly, the Beatles and Rolling Stones were climbing the pop charts, and Elvis was increasingly seen as outdated and irrelevant, even an object of ridicule.
So in these two very different songs with the same name, Elvis and Michael Jackson describe a situation that’s emotionally devastating to them. However, while Elvis is clearly singing about a romantic loss, Jackson’s song is much more complicated, and much more ambiguous. Is it just a shattered romance, or more than that? Jackson’s “Heartbreak Hotel” ends with these lines:
Someone’s stabbing my heart
This is Heartbreak Hotel
Ten years ago today
Hurting my mind
You break My Baby’s heart
This is Heartbreak Hotel
Just welcome to the scene
“Welcome to the scene” is a pretty odd ending for a song about lost love. So again, there seems to be more going on than just an ill-fated romance. And once again, he and My Baby are conflated: his heart is hurt, her heart is hurt, his mind is hurt. They share the same pain. He’s feeling what she’s feeling, as if she were a part of him.
Joie: Wow! Not sure I would have made the obvious Elvis connection here but, I’ve got to say, it makes a crazy kind of sense.
Willa: I know. It does sound kind of crazy, doesn’t it? I wasn’t expecting to go off on an Elvis tangent, and obviously “the man next door” could mean many different things, but suddenly that idea popped into my head and I went with it, just to see where it took me. I think any interpretation – even a crazy-sounding interpretation – is valid as long as it can be adequately supported by evidence from the text, and there’s quite a bit of evidence to support this. And it does make a lot of sense if you see this song as talking about celebrity, which was a very important theme for Michael Jackson.
Joie: Well, I’ll go with that for a minute and say that, if this was intentional on Michael’s part, it’s actually brilliant. However, when The Jacksons made the decision to change the name of the song to “This Place Hotel,” Michael did say that he was not familiar with Elvis’ song. So, while I agree that the imagery of both songs work very well together, I’m skeptical that there is any real connection between the two.
But I love what you have to say about My Baby possibly representing his own soul. And that line towards the end where he says “Hurting my mind.” It’s like My Baby represents him: his psyche. His mind, his heart, his soul – the inner self that he keeps protected from public view. As I said last week, Michael sings about My Baby as if she is someone who is very important to him and has been in his life for a very long time, and I think this notion that she is symbolic of his own inner being carries a lot of weight. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” Michael says,
Someone’s always tryin’
To start My Baby cryin’
Talking, squealing, lying
Saying you just want to be startin’ somethin’
If we look at this verse in these terms, it’s very easy to see how My Baby could be a euphemism for his inner self. Someone’s always trying to hurt him. He goes on to sing,
Billie Jean is always talkin’
When nobody else is talkin’
Telling lies and rubbing shoulders
So they called her mouth a motor
Sticking with this theory we can argue that Billie Jean – and all of the other “bad girls” who come his way – represents his public life and all the baggage that comes with it (the lies, the media, the paparazzi, etc.).
Willa: I agree, and I really like that quotation you cited. “Billie Jean is always talkin’” – just like the media is always talking. From a very young age, Michael Jackson faced constant commentary and speculation about his private life. And the media’s mouth isn’t just “a motor.” It’s an industry.
Joie: An industry he would end up battling for the rest of his career. But we’ll talk more about that next time when we take a closer look at the “bad girls” in this threesome.
Willa: Right. And this three-way conflict between My Baby, the intrusive women who hurt her, and the protagonist who finds himself caught between the two continues to evolve – just as Michael Jackson’s relationship with the media evolved. We see this scenario of My Baby being hurt by an aggressive, dishonest woman recurring again and again: for example, in “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” on Thriller, in “Dirty Diana” from Bad, and in the title track to Dangerous. And then she disappears. My Baby isn’t mentioned once on his HIStory album, which was his first album after the 1993 molestation allegations. It’s like his public life has become so toxic she’s completely hidden from view now.
Or maybe not. Maybe she does appear, but in an unexpected way, and in an unexpected place – in the video to a song he didn’t write, “You Are Not Alone.” The song opens with a story of lost love:
Another day has gone
I’m still all alone
How could this be
You’re not here with me
You never said goodbye
Someone tell me why
Did you have to go
And leave my world so cold
However, the video opens with a crowd of reporters and photographers pressing in on him as he walks by with his head bowed. It’s the exact same situation he sang about repeatedly in earlier albums: these intrusive people are claiming to know him and telling lies about him, and My Baby has left him. Only this time he’s telling that story through visual cues.
He’s devastated, heartbroken, feeling so sad and alone. Then he hears a voice. We don’t know whose voice it is, but it “whispers” to him, and this is what it tells him:
You are not alone
I am here with you
Though you’re far away
I am here to stay
You are not alone
I am here with you
Though we’re far apart
You’re always in my heart
But you are not alone
Whose voice is this? The lyrics don’t say, but once again there are visual cues. The scene of walking before a sea of aggressive reporters alternates with another scene, far removed from the media: it’s the setting of Maxfield Parrish’s Daybreak, a beautiful painting of serenity and rebirth. He’s happy, and sharing an intimate moment with a woman.
And it’s not just any woman. It’s his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley. When Elvis’ public life was falling apart and he was a target of criticism and even ridicule by the press, he had a little girl who stood by him and brought some joy into his life. Now Michael Jackson is in the same position Elvis was in before. And that little girl has grown up and married him, and she’s standing by him through one of the worst periods of his life and bringing some joy into his life. I’m pretty uncomfortable talking about all this because these are real people, and I try very hard to stay out of an artist’s private life as much as possible. But these real people also symbolize certain things, and the symbolism of that image with Lisa Marie Presley is so powerful to me.
Joie: Well, I absolutely agree with you that the still small voice in “You Are Not Alone” is definitely that of My Baby. But I can’t agree that it has anything to do with Lisa Marie Presley in the literal sense. In the abstract as a visual cue, yes definitely. The recreation of Daybreak for this video was an inspired choice in my opinion as it expertly captures the intimate, private place that Michael is trying to take us to here, and the use of his wife as the visual portrayal of My Baby makes perfect sense to me. After all, if My Baby were a real person, she would certainly be the person who was closest to him and knew him intimately – as a wife does.
However, he repeatedly says that “something whispers in his ear.” Not someone, something. That still small voice. His very soul. His inner self. That part of him that he has nurtured and tried so hard to protect over the years and keep pure. Away from all of the “bad girls” and the bad media that have threatened My Baby for so long. And what does that voice say to him? “You are not alone.” Even though he may feel like the loneliest person on the face of the earth – which is the feeling all those shots of him standing alone in front of the beautiful nature scenes and onstage in the deserted theater are meant to evoke – he is not alone. He still has his soul and it’s intact and strong. It may be a little bruised and banged up but, it is still there. And he can still feel it, calling to him, telling him that what he has just been through was a nightmare but, he got through it and he came out the other side and there is still hope for a bright future.
Even though Michael didn’t write this particular song, I believe that the lyrics must have spoken to him on some level and perhaps they expressed something – some emotion or idea – that he could relate to and identify with. And I think that something was My Baby.
Willa: Joie, that’s beautiful. I was groping forward, trying to get at what that recurring scene symbolized and why it was so moving for me, and just not getting there. And you beautifully captured in words that feeling I have when I watch this video. I do think it’s significant that the woman in this scene is Lisa Marie Presley. It wouldn’t have the same depth of meaning if it were just any actress from a casting call who didn’t have her history. But I love the way you brought our discussion back to the idea of My Baby as representing a part of himself – as something that will always be there for him, whether it’s his soul or his heart or his muse. As you describe so well, this video is an affirmation that there is something inside that will sustain him, regardless of what threatens him in the outside world.
We’ll conclude this series on My Baby next week when we look more closely at what some of those threats are.
Joie: And don’t forget to weigh in on our discussion and let us know what you think about My Baby. You can comment here or on our Facebook page.
Willa: As Joie mentioned last week, the idea for this blog grew out of a long series of emails we were exchanging back and forth. We were having a wonderful time sharing ideas and comparing notes about Michael Jackson’s work, and we each really enjoyed talking with someone who knew his work and cared about it as much as we did. One thing she and I discovered over the course of our emails is that we’re both fascinated by My Baby, and have been for a long time.
Joie: You all know who she is; you have heard Michael sing about her for years. She is presumably the girl of his dreams, the woman who knows him and loves him and truly cares about him. She’s also the woman who is constantly hurt time and time again by other devious, “bad girls” who throw themselves into Michael’s orbit like in “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous.”
Willa: She’s a very important figure in Michael Jackson’s work, appearing on album after album, from Triumph and Thriller in the early 1980s to Invincible in 2001. And, as Joie says, she’s almost always hurt or threatened in some way. In fact, we often see her walking away in tears.
Joie: What draws my attention to her, I guess, is the fact that Michael sings about her as if she is someone who has been in his life for a long time. Even though her appearance on the songs I just mentioned – and others – is usually brief, we get the feeling that she is incredibly important to him. He loves her and he clearly wants to protect her from the ‘wicked women,’ he sings about in “Heartbreak Hotel,” (a.k.a. This Place Hotel). We see him constantly fretting over the fact that she will be hurt somehow by the “bad girls” and that they will drive her away from him.
Someone’s always tryin’
to start My Baby cryin.’
Talking, squealing, lying,
saying you just want to be startin’ somethin.’
It’s almost as if he’s describing a relationship that has seen its share of ups and downs. They’ve been through this sort of thing before and My Baby always ends up hurt. At least, in the early years of their relationship – in the 1980s and ’90s. But by 2001′s “Heaven Can Wait,” it’s clearly a much different relationship. Here we see that My Baby not only loves him and cares about him, but now she trusts him too; she has faith in him. Their relationship is solid and no one can come between them anymore. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with and it’s the greatest love affair either of them has ever experienced. He loves her so deeply that he doesn’t want to leave her for an instant – not even for heaven!
Oh no, can’t be without My Baby.
Won’t go, without her I’ll go crazy.
Oh no, guess Heaven will be waiting.
It’s really interesting to me that their union changes over time. The way he writes about her grows and matures over the years just as if it were a real relationship. We see the initial infatuation in songs like “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and “Streetwalker,” and we watch it grow and blossom in songs like “Black or White,” and “Fly Away.” And then we see the culmination of their love on the beautiful “Heaven Can Wait.”
Willa: As Joie says, in his early albums, she’s threatened by another woman. My Baby seems to be a private person who knows and cares about the protagonist, though she avoids the limelight and seems somewhat uncomfortable with his fame. He loves her and tries to protect her, but she’s repeatedly hurt by another woman who wants to push her out and take her place. This second woman doesn’t really know him or care about him, but she’s much bolder than My Baby and is actually attracted to fame, the protagonist’s fame – in fact, she’s something of an adventurer. The protagonist recognizes all that and distrusts her. Yet at the same time, he finds himself strangely drawn to this other, bolder woman.
Joie: And his relationship with this other woman is just as interesting as his relationship with My Baby. It’s almost like you can’t have one without the other. Like they are two halves of the same coin, so to speak.
Willa: I agree. The recurring conflict between these women is very interesting. There’s obviously something very important going on here – something Michael Jackson explored and wrestled with for years. I think that’s one reason I started seeing My Baby as representing more than just a romantic relationship. To me, My Baby and the other woman seem to represent his shy side versus his public side, or his private life versus his public life, with the intrusions of the media and intense public interest in him threatening to destroy his private life, just as that bold other woman threatens to drive away My Baby. Or these two women could represent his muse – the woman of myth who has quietly inspired artists’ creativity for centuries – and the audience and critics who kept demanding that he create another Thriller and just wanted him to sing “Billie Jean” over and over again for the rest of his life. But it’s not an either/or situation. While I see these other interpretations, I still see My Baby as a woman who knows him and cares for him, and provides for him emotionally as well.
Joie: My Baby is fascinating on so many levels and when Willa and I discovered that we were both very interested in her – and her nemesis – we were really surprised. I think it was then that we really started to talk in earnest about doing a blog together because we were curious as to whether or not we were the only two people out there who had ever wondered about this particular topic. So, we intend to look at My Baby more closely in the coming weeks. Our plan is to look in depth at different songs in which she is featured and talk about what/who she is and what Michael was trying to tell us through her.
Willa: And again, our goal with this blog is to create a place where a community of people can come together and share their interpretations of Michael Jackson’s work and what it has meant to them at different times – because interpretations do evolve over time. And it’s ok if we disagree – even passionately disagree – as long as we’re respectful about it. To be honest, I disagree with myself sometimes! Sometimes I see My Baby as a person, sometimes I see her as symbolic, and lots of times I see her as both. And I love that ambiguity. To me, that’s one of the things that makes Michael Jackson’s work so rich – that it can mean so many different things at different times to different people. So let us know what you think, and what My Baby means to you. We’d love to hear from you, either here or on our Facebook page.
Joie: So, “Dancing With the Elephant.” Pretty strange title for a blog about Michael Jackson, huh? Well, not really. Not once you understand where my friend and I are coming from and how this blog came to be.
My name is Joie Collins and I am one of the dedicated individuals who helps run the MJFC (Michael Jackson Fan Club) website. Needless to say, I’m a huge Michael fan and have been since I was a very small child watching the Jackson 5 perform on Soul Train. I’ve been doing what I do for MJFC for a long time and I love it! I get great satisfaction out of overseeing the website’s News page and answering the website’s business mail. Recently, I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know Dr. Willa Stillwater when I agreed to read her new book, M Poetica, and give her my honest, gut-reaction from a fan’s point of view.
I’m not sure she knew exactly what she was asking of me at the time. As you know, we MJ fans tend to take our opinions very seriously! And, as you may have guessed, my “honest, gut-reaction” sparked an immediate, heated debate! Willa and I went back and forth and back and forth over various topics and points covered in her book. I would tell her all the things I loved about it, but I also pulled no punches in telling her what I hated about it. And she would counter with all the reasons why she had written it the way she had written it and I would explain to her why I felt the way I did and why most fans would agree with me. This went on for a couple of weeks, and finally she and I began to understand that we had hit on something special.
What we realized is that, during our debates, we actually had some pretty interesting discussions about Michael Jackson, his art and his music. We were talking openly and honestly, having real, in-depth conversations about the work of the greatest entertainer of all time. And even when we were disagreeing (which happened a fair amount of the time), we both always came away from the conversation with an enlightened point of view, and a new way of looking at the King of Pop than we had previously. So we thought… what if we continued the conversation on a larger scale? And what if we invited all of you to witness that conversation and even take part in it yourselves?
Still doesn’t explain the name though, right? Well, we wanted a name that spoke to both of us and also had relevant meaning to Michael himself. We all know how deeply Michael felt about the majestic elephant. He loved them! Gypsy and Babar were among his favorite animals at his Neverland Valley Ranch zoo. He even wrote a beautiful essay about elephants in his book, Dancing the Dream called “So the Elephants March.” In it, he talks about the lessons that elephants have been trying for centuries to teach man. He writes, “But the elephants’ most important message is in their movement. For they know that to live is to move. Dawn after dawn, age after age, the herds march on, one great mass of life that never falls down, an unstoppable force of peace.” I think that last part describes Michael pretty well. “An unstoppable force of peace.” In many ways, that’s what he himself was.
For me, not only are elephants amazing animals, but they also symbolize a “touchy subject.” A difficult conversation that people may wish to avoid. For example, I’m a Black American (I don’t like the term “African” American because neither I, nor my parents, nor my grandparents – or even my great-grandparents for that matter - have ever been to Africa) and my husband is White. He and I often talk about different racial issues and it’s wonderful because we can do so in a very open and honest way without the fear of offending anyone or hurting each other’s feelings. We’ve been married for 10 and a half years now and we often interact with one another’s families – all of whom have always been very supportive of our relationship. During our conversations about the differences between Black families and White families, one of the things I often say to my husband is that, in my experience, White families sometimes tend to want to avoid “the elephant in the room,” preferring to dodge the uncomfortable topics of conversation, while Black families tend to draw as much attention to the awkward topic as possible, often wrapping Christmas lights around that elephant and setting up big flashing arrows pointing right to it! It’s a generalization, of course, but you get what I mean. The point is, sometimes people (of all races) don’t really know how to tackle the uncomfortable topics, so instead they “avoid the elephant in the room.”
Well, I think we can all agree that when it comes to Michael Jackson there are a lot of uncomfortable topics that might come up. Even in a blog that focuses on his art. And Willa and I are not going to avoid those elephants. Instead, we’ve decided to dance with them!
Willa: Joie, I love your description of the elephant in the room! I just love it. It creates this little movie in my mind of a bunch of people sitting in a room with an elephant no one invited, and everyone is feeling uncomfortable and awkward and no one knows what to do. Finally someone walks right up to the elephant, welcomes him, and invites him to dance – and they all find out he’s not so scary after all. Suddenly, that awkward situation becomes much more comfortable, and maybe even turns into a party. I just love that image of dancing with the elephant!
I also think it’s crucially important to openly acknowledge the elephant in the room when trying to interpret Michael Jackson since confronting painful issues, especially racial prejudice, was so central to his work – from relatively straightforward anthems like “Black or White” to more complicated things like the changing color of his skin. I don’t think you can understand him and what he was doing and how incredibly important it is if you exclude race from the picture, or marginalize it off to the side somewhere. Confronting prejudice in one form or another was at the heart of almost everything he did, both as an artist and as a cultural figure.
Because we aren’t honestly acknowledging the elephant in the room, I don’t think we’ve even begun to realize the deep, tectonic shifts he helped bring about. I’m White and I grew up in the South, in a very racist place. Yet, as a teenager, my definition of the ultimate in sexiness was Michael Jackson, a young Black man. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. And there were millions of girls around the world who felt the same way I did. There’s a whole generation of us whose ideas about race and sexuality – about what’s sexy and what isn’t – were shaped by him. That’s huge. He was a teen idol, our first Black teen idol, and the implications of that are deep and powerful and profound, but no one’s really talking about that, or what it means culturally.
You know, every time he ripped his shirt on stage, like in Dirty Diana or Come Together, and showed us his dark chest and how beautiful and sexy it was, he was challenging how White America, especially, “read” his body. But he did it in such an interesting way. He was beautiful and sexy, but he was always a genuine person too – in part, I think, because he had the courage to let himself be vulnerable, and let us see that side of him too. He wasn’t just a Chippendale guy. He was sexy, but he never became just a glossy sex object because we could always see the humanity in him. I look at him in Dirty Diana up on stage with his bare chest and shoulders, and he’s so sexy I can hardly stand it, but he also looks so vulnerable. I don’t know whether to faint or make him some soup.
Joie: Faint or make him soup! I love the way you put things sometimes!
Willa: Well, you know what I mean! You just feel the urge to take care of him sometimes, and I think that vulnerability was really important also. This was during the 1980s, when the inner cities were erupting in gang violence and the dominant narrative in the media was that young Black men were scary and alien and dangerous. We kept getting told that – in news reports and movies and even commercials – but then there’s Michael Jackson, and he’s almost single-handedly pushing back against that dominant narrative and offering a very different vision. He was a young Black man, but he was sweet and funny and smart and sexy and vulnerable. He gave us an alternate image of what it means to be a young Black man in America, and for me, his vision always seemed more honest and human and believable than that scary stereotype.
Joie: Well, I agree with you completely. He did give us an alternative image of what it means to be a young Black man in America and, to this day, Black Americans take pride in that. And I could go off on a whole different tangent here, but before I do that, why don’t you explain what the title means to you.
Willa: So “Dancing with the Elephant” speaks to me about art and interpretation. To me, interpretation isn’t about passively observing a work of art, but about actively engaging with it, “dancing” with it, opening yourself up to it, and becoming emotionally invested in it.
It also reminds me of a folktale I love about six blind men trying to understand and describe an elephant. The first approaches the elephant and happens to touch his trunk. He feels the elephant’s trunk, realizes how strong yet flexible it is, and announces that an elephant is like a huge snake – like a python or boa constrictor. The second blind man steps forward and touches one of the elephant’s legs. He feels all around, noting the round shape and how sturdy it is, and says, no, an elephant is more like a column or pillar. The third comes forward and encounters the elephant’s side. He spreads his hands along the vast breadth of the elephant’s side and says they are both wrong: an elephant is like a wall. Then the fourth steps forward, happens to catch the elephant’s tail, and says, no, an elephant is like a rope. The fifth feels his ear waving back and forth and says an elephant is like a fan. The sixth feels his tusk and says an elephant is like a spear.
Each of the blind men is providing an accurate description of that aspect of the elephant he happened to encounter and experience for himself, but none of them comprehends the entire animal. They only perceive bits and pieces. Only by sharing their experiences and combining their ideas will they ever be able to develop some understanding of an elephant and begin to fully appreciate what a truly magnificent animal it is.
I love this story of the six blind men, and think it’s especially important to compare notes and share our perceptions and experiences when trying to understand something as complicated and subjective as a work of art, especially with an artist as experimental as Michael Jackson who pushed so many boundaries and challenged so many preconceived ideas and accepted beliefs.
For example, Joie and I really went back and forth and around and around about how we interpret the changing color of Michael Jackson’s skin. She wasn’t kidding when she talked about our heated debates. I saw it as a brilliant artistic decision that profoundly influenced how White America, especially, experiences racial differences. Joie saw it as a wrenching emotional decision that he struggled with for years. My discussions with Joie haven’t fundamentally altered my interpretation, but they’ve influenced me tremendously. Her ideas have deepened and complicated my understanding of this aspect of his work and actually made it much more powerful and meaningful to me by helping me understand just how difficult this decision must have been for him, and how very painful it must have been to be so misunderstood.
Joie: So, with this blog, Willa and I hope to have some really in-depth conversations about Michael Jackson’s art and his cultural impact. We intend for this to be a weekly blog, so come back next week and we’ll get the conversation started.
Willa: Our goal is to have a substantive discussion where we can all share ideas and even disagree sometimes, but in a respectful way that leads to a deeper understanding of his work. If you would like to contact us with questions or future blog topics, our email address is email@example.com.
Joie: And you can also check us out on Facebook and give us your own take on our discussion. Tell us what you think. We want to hear it!