Monthly Archives: September 2011
Joie: Willa and I are very happy to be joined by Joe Vogel this week. As you all know, his much-anticipated book Man in the Music will be released on November 1st, and now he’s just about to release a print version of his eBook, Earth Song. Thank you for joining us Joe!
Ok, here’s what I would like to know. Why did you choose to single out “Earth Song” and write a separate piece on it? Do you have a special affinity for the song yourself, or did you simply become intrigued by Michael’s process – or obsession – with the song as you were researching for Man in the Music?
Joe: I’ve always loved “Earth Song.” The power and majesty and passion of the song always just struck a deep chord with me. When I was working on Man in the Music, though, I was listening to all of MJ’s work so closely that many songs made new impressions. “Earth Song” was one of them. The more I learned about it and the more I listened, the more convinced I became that this was Michael’s most important song. It encompassed so much. The call and response with the choir, to me, is one of the most powerful moments in the history of music. Yet there was so little recognition for the song among critics. Very little had been written about it that wasn’t condescending and dismissive. So I wanted to somehow write about it in a way that would communicate its power – and I was excited about the prospect of really being able to zoom in on one song and do all the interviews and research with that kind of focus and depth.
Willa: I loved that! The level of detail you provide is wonderful, and I love the way your book provides insights both into “Earth Song” and into Michael Jackson’s creative process as well. You begin your book by discussing how our world is in peril, and with descriptions of him experiencing that peril as an almost physical, wordless pain – and then you show him beginning to channel and shape and express those profound feelings into music. Can you tell us more about this process, and some key moments for how “Earth Song” came to be what we experience today?
Joe: Sure. I think, first of all, the process of “Earth Song” provides a great window into how Michael operated as an artist. That’s what made it so much fun to write. You start making connections, putting pieces together. For example, I spoke with Matt Forger about this original concept of “Earth Song” as a trilogy (with an orchestral part, the song, and a spoken poem); after learning that, I returned to Bill Bottrell to figure out who the composer was that Michael was collaborating with and what it sounded like; Bill led me to Jorge del Barrio, who I subsequently learned worked with Michael on songs like “Who Is It” and “Morphine” as well. Through del Barrio I learned some wonderful insights about the concept/feel Michael was aiming for and how it transformed. So you speak to different people and all kinds of new connections emerge: new details, new angles. And you learn how carefully and thoughtfully Michael went about his work.
In interviews, Michael tended to be really vague about his creative process, but what Earth Song reveals is how obsessed he was with every detail of his work from inception all the way to the final mix. He surrounded himself with great talent, but it was his creative vision and perfectionism that drove his projects.
Willa: You just highlighted something that really struck me when reading your book. You show that he was very knowledgeable and involved in the actual mechanics of creating “Earth Song” – that he was involved in every stage of the process. But in interviews he did tend to be vague about that, as you say, and kind of distanced himself from that aspect somewhat, focusing more on inspiration and being receptive to the song itself. He said in a number of interviews that the music just came to him and “fell in his lap.” You write in your book that he often told himself to “Let the music create itself,” and you tie this back to a quotation from John Lennon that he kept on display as a reminder to himself while working on “Earth Song”:
“When the real music comes to me,” it read, “the music of the spheres, the music that surpasseth understanding – that has nothing to do with me, ’cause I’m just the channel. The only joy for me is for it to be given to me, and to transcribe it like a medium…. Those moments are what I live for.”
When I read this section of your book, I immediately thought of the Romantics. If we look at drafts of their poems, they did revise them and were in fact very knowledgeable and involved in the craft of creating poetry. They were skilled wordsmiths. But like Michael Jackson, they were reluctant to talk about that. They preferred to talk about creating poetry as an act of inspiration rather than craftsmanship, and tended to say they were merely scribes – writing down the words that some creative impulse larger than themselves expressed through them – rather than creators, which is an idea Michael Jackson frequently expressed. In fact, he kind of struggled to explain that during his deposition for the 1994 plagiarism case for “Dangerous,” saying that he did write all of his songs, but in a way he didn’t – they just came to him.
I know you’ve studied the Romantics, so you know a lot more about this than I do. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about this Romantic ideal of the artist as merely a receptive channel for creativity to flow through, rather than a creator, and how that’s reflected two centuries later in John Lennon and Michael Jackson.
Joe: A common metaphor in Romantic poetry is the Aeolian harp: When the wind blows, the music comes. You don’t force it. You wait for it.
Willa: That’s beautiful.
Joe: Michael believed strongly in that principle. That being said, Michael was without question a craftsman. He rarely released work in raw form. Another metaphor he liked to use to illustrate his creative process is Michelangelo’s philosophy that inside every piece of marble or stone is a “sleeping form.” His job as an artist, then, was to chip away, sculpt, polish, until he “freed” what was latent. So it requires a great deal of work. You might have a vision of what it should look like, but you have to be in tune throughout the process and you have to work hard to realize it.
Willa: What a wonderful image! I love that idea of the “sleeping form,” and it really clarifies how creativity requires both inspiration and craftsmanship. The idea of the song reveals itself to you and creates itself, as Michael Jackson liked to say, yet it requires the skill and dedication of a craftsman to free it.
Joie: Joe, in your book you talk about the absurdity of the fact that “Earth Song” was never released as a single in the U.S. even though Michael’s previous U.S. single, “You Are Not Alone,” debuted at number one. And yet, in other parts of the world, “Earth Song” was not only released as a single but went to number one in 15 countries. I agree with you when you say that decision was pretty telling – that the ‘powers that be’ didn’t feel the land of excess would tolerate a song with such an ‘in-your-face’ look at the human condition. But, I believe that decision was a huge mistake. I think, had it been released here, it would have done very well. Despite the dismissive reviews it received, it is a difficult song to ignore and I think it would have gotten significant radio play if it had been offered to the stations.
Joe: You could be right. It’s hard to know. On the one hand, Michael’s popularity had waned in the U.S. because of the 1993 allegations. But his first two singles reached the Top 5. It’s odd how quickly Sony seemed to bail on the album after that in terms of singles. It would have been nice to at least see the song given a chance with American audiences.
Joie: I love the way you compared “Earth Song” to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” saying that they both ask the listener to care for the world we have rather than dreaming of an afterlife. But can you talk a little bit about your statement that “Imagine” is more palatable to the average music listener than “Earth Song” is?
Joe: Well, “Imagine” is an absolutely beautiful song that also happens to be quite subversive. Because it is so pleasant to listen to, and evokes such nostalgia, however, many people don’t really catch on to what it’s actually saying. It calls for revolution, but plays amicably in dentist’s offices and department stores. So some of its impact can be blunted in that way. When it plays at Times Square on New Year’s Eve, it serves as a kind of feel-good anthem. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think “Man in the Mirror” is very similar in terms of tone and psychological effect. But “Earth Song” is different. It has a different urgency and intensity to it. Imagine “Earth Song” blaring out of the speakers at full blast on New Year’s. Better yet, imagine Michael performing it. Audiences would probably be stunned. The song wasn’t designed to make people feel good; it was designed to prick people’s consciences, to wake people up.
Joie: Which only makes me wonder all the more how it might have been received had it been given proper promotion and radio play in the U.S.
Willa: And if it didn’t do well here, that would say something important too, since it did do well in many other countries.
Joe: Great, prophetic art is often neglected or misunderstood in its time. There are so many examples of this, from Blake to Van Gogh to Tchaikovsky to Picasso. Michael was a student of history and art and he understood this. He was confident that the work he created would hold up over time. “Earth Song” is a song that was, and continues to be, massively popular throughout the world. But ultimately it was a song that was going against the grain — so the resistance, from corporate executives, critics and other gatekeepers, makes sense.
Joie: Well, thank you for joining us and talking about “Earth Song.”
Joe: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure and I’m really pleased with the whole idea of Dancing with the Elephant as a space for thoughtful discussions on Michael Jackson.
Joie: Thanks. Willa and I have been having a great time with it! I’m curious, now that the release date for Man in the Music is just around the corner and Earth Song is also on its way to being published in book form, what’s next for Joe Vogel? Do you have any plans for book signings coming up or other appearances?
Joe: I’m working with my agent and publicist on all of the promotional plans for Man in the Music and I should have a clearer sense in the next few weeks. It’s going to be busy, but I’m excited for people to finally read what I spent all these years working on.
Joie: Well, I pretty much devoured the advanced reading copy you gave to MJFC so, I know the fans are going to love it. It really is a wonderful book! Any new writing projects you’re currently working on?
Joe: Ummm…. I always have a bunch of projects in progress. I can’t say yet which ones will materialize. Man in the Music and Earth Song could be it for me in terms of Michael Jackson books. But we’ll see. There are a lot of practical considerations that make it difficult, but it’s hard to resist if/when the wind blows.
Willa: Well, we’ve really enjoyed talking with you. And if anyone reading would like to join in the conversation, Joe will be dropping in on the comments page this week, so you can post questions or comments for him there.
Willa: Joie, I’m so curious to hear about your trip to Montreal to see the Cirque du Soleil rehearsals! So, first impressions – what did you think?
Joie: Well, my friend and MJFC Team mate, Jonathan texted me just as I was returning to my hotel room after the show, asking me that very same question and I believe my only response to him was OMG!!! Honestly, the only thing that could make this show better is if Michael himself were on the stage.
Willa: You know, that’s exactly what I’ve been wondering about most. From what I’ve read, The Immortal World Tour kind of sounds like a Michael Jackson concert without Michael Jackson. Did it feel that way to you?
Joie: Well, that’s kind of a tricky question and here’s why. This is the first time ever that the Cirque du Soleil has done a show using a live band. Their Elvis show didn’t have a live band; their Beatles show didn’t have a live band. It’s never been done before. And the way they’ve worked it is really kind of cool. Kevin Antunes, the musical director for the show, has been given exclusive access to all of Michael’s original master recordings, and he has taken those tracks and basically removed the music and elevated Michael’s vocals so that they are crisper than you have ever heard them before. So during the show, you’ve got Michael’s vocals on top of a live band and the result is amazing. And, of course the band includes Greg Phillinganes and Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett who both toured with Michael for many, many years so, the band itself is phenomenal. So, I guess, in that way it is sort of like a concert experience but, there is just so much going on here visually that it is definitely much more than a concert. It’s more like a journey through Michael’s life and career.
Willa: So it doesn’t feel like there’s a big empty hole on stage where he should be? It’s a satisfying experience in its own right?
Joie: Yes, definitely. And it’s a spectacle, you know? I was there with 14 other MJ fan community representatives and, after it was over we had half a dozen or more people – Cirque people, Estate people, even John Branca and Greg Phillinganes – all coming up to us as we’re still sitting there in the stands and they were all clamoring, very eager to know what our thoughts were. And we all had the same reaction. We had to just sit there for several seconds and try to absorb it all before we could even respond, and I imagine that will be the reaction of most everyone who sees it, fans and non-fans alike. They will leave the arenas with a sense of awe and wonder. You know, the Cirque du Soleil is sort of known for specializing in awe and wonder, and they have worked the same magic with this show.
Willa: So give us some details! What all did you see?
Joie: Oh boy, where to begin? Well, I don’t want to give away any spoilers. And I want to make it really clear that some of the numbers I watched may not even make it into the final production when the show opens in October because it is still a work in progress. But, of the rehearsal I saw, right from the opening number, which was “Childhood,” you will be amazed. It’s like they’re taking you inside the gates of Neverland and, as you know, Michael had the most beautiful bronze statues of children at play and they dotted the landscape of Neverland. Well, those statues play a really magical role in that number and it is incredible. And then there was this really sweet moment a little later on during “Ben” where Michael’s elephants come out and dance, and it was just such fun to watch. Really cute. And I thought of you, Willa, because I know how much you love that song!
Then there was this whole sort of gangster segment where they did “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Smooth Criminal” and “Dangerous.” The segment began with this very scantily clad female cellist playing her heart out on this electric cello and she is fantastic! Then all of a sudden her maddening solo turned into the opening strains of “Heartbreak Hotel” and the band kicked in and the music started rocking. The whole segment ended with these five or six guys dancing around a pole dancer to “Dangerous” – which, by the way, we had to imagine because the female dancer had injured herself in earlier rehearsals. But even without her the number was incredible so, I would love to see it again with all of the elements in place.
There was also a segment that highlighted some of Michael’s scary songs with “Is It Scary,” “Monster” and “Thriller” and the whole thing was just a whole lot of fun visually with a dancing monster clawing its way out of the pages of a storybook and giant bats with glowing eyes dancing around the stage, and it culminated with a stage full of mummies doing the Thriller dance in a graveyard. Just really imaginative ideas that you know Michael would have really loved!
In another segment – actually my favorite part of the whole show – the band was doing “Another Part of Me” and the dancer was up there doing his thing and the music was really rocking and we’re all sitting there jamming, and suddenly the song changed to “Speechless.” And just when you start to get into the shift in direction, something amazing happens! And the song changes again to “Human Nature” and the arena is transformed into the night sky. I really want to give you more details about this part but, I just can’t because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone but, please believe me when I tell you that it was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful and I was not the only one moved to tears. And later, when talking to the Cirque and Estate people who wanted to know what our favorite part of the show was, we all agreed that it had to be “Human Nature.”
You know, one of the things I love so much about Cirque du Soleil are the aerialists; they are really beautiful to watch. In the rehearsal I saw, they were showcased in “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” which Kevin Antunes mixed beautifully using both the English and the Spanish versions of the song. And the aerialists performed a very romantic, very sensual ballet high above our heads. It was just so pretty.
Willa: That does sound beautiful. So where are they in the production process? Did you see a fairly polished show with full costumes and music and everything, or is it more of a work in progress – kind of like what we saw in This Is It? It sounds like they are still making some decisions.
Joie: Well, it is still a work in progress, they definitely stressed that to us going in but, what we saw was about a 75-80% complete show with costumes and music from the beginning straight through, just like a dress rehearsal. And there were a few technical mishaps and glitches, as you would expect with a work in progress. They were still perfecting the ending segment so we didn’t get to see the last 30 minutes or so of the show and we were told that would include the songs “Billie Jean,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Dirty Diana” and “Can You Feel It.” But, as a whole, it was a very polished show.
Willa: You know, I’m not quite sure how to ask this, but what makes Michael Jackson so special to me and sets him apart from everyone else is his ideas and how he expresses those ideas, and his commitment to that message. He had a beautiful voice, and it sounds like the Cirque du Soliel show has captured that through the master recordings, and he was an incredible dancer, and it sounds like the show evokes that through the acrobats and aerialists and dance numbers. But what about his ideas? Do you know what I mean? Did it feel like Michael Jackson?
Joie: Oh, that is a very good question; I’m so glad you asked that! Willa, they have really worked very, very hard to capture Michael’s spirit and his heart and it shows. I posted a news item about my experience on the MJFC website where I called this show the ultimate tribute to Michael and I truly feel that way and I’ll tell you why. You have to remember that this show is being guided by people who knew Michael. People who worked with him and loved him. During my two days in Montreal I saw Greg Phillinganes, Jonathan Moffett, Zaldy, and three Estate execs get very emotional when talking to me about their time with Michael and how important this show is to them. They are all so passionate about doing something that he would love and getting it right. For him. And from the opening segment all the way through to the ending, you can feel Michael’s presence; you can feel his spirit. And his message of L.O.V.E. is front and center. In fact, in another segment of the show, I think it was “Will You Be There,” suddenly these big red, glowing hearts appear from all over the arena and made their way onto the stage. It was really moving and it just reminded you that Michael’s message was love. It’s all he ever talked about and it was what he preached. And they haven’t forgotten that and it’s clear that they don’t want others to forget it either.
Willa: I’m so glad to hear that – that the people working on this show care so deeply, and are passionate about both his music and his ideas. You also wrote in the MJFC news article that they asked for feedback and actually incorporated some suggestions. Here’s what you wrote: “They listened to what we had to say and they took our feelings and suggestions into consideration. And it wasn’t just lip service. Changes were made to the show immediately based on our feedback.” Can you tell us more about that?
Joie: Well, it was really sort of surprising actually. At the end of the show when they were all clamoring around us wanting to know what we thought, I had been talking to Navi, the representative from MJFC UK about a certain number and how he believed it could have been done better. So when they asked, he told them what he thought and suggested ways to make the number stronger. And they listened to him and began making the changes immediately. Then the next day we went on a tour of the Cirque du Soleil campus and met with the creative director of the show, among others. And again, in that meeting they wanted to know what we thought – what our favorite parts were and also what parts didn’t we like. What, if anything, did we have issues with. And so, we told them. We (the fan community representatives) were honest with them about our feelings and we all sort of agreed on one certain point in the show that we felt was a little questionable and could maybe be done a little differently. And again, they listened to our concerns and they took notes on what we had to say and began thinking of ways to change things a bit.
But, I just think it’s so telling that the people putting this show together are so willing to talk to the fans and I really believe that they are trying very hard to get it right. Not just for Michael but for the fans as well. I think they are really trying to please Michael’s fans with this one. I think it’s important to them. And I was told by one of the Estate people during the meeting that this was a first. The Cirque didn’t do this for the Elvis show or the Beatles show. They didn’t invite their fans to a rehearsal to get their input before the shows opened. And I think that says something about how important Michael’s legacy really is. About how important he was and still is, both as an artist and as a cultural figure.
Willa: Well, from everything you’ve said, it sounds like there’s a really dedicated group of people working behind the scenes and the show itself sounds incredible. I love your descriptions, Joie. Thanks for sharing those with us. And then next week we have Joe Vogel joining us to talk about his Earth Song book, which is about to be released in print. So lots of exciting things happening right now!
Joie: So, you know how sometimes you get this idea in your head about something and your mind is made up. But then you stumble upon new information and suddenly that thing you were so certain about just takes on brand new meaning? Well, that’s what happened to me and my view of Michael Jackson’s One More Chance video.
Gonna do my best to make it right.
Can’t go on without you by my side.
Come and rescue me out of this storm
Get out of this cold, I need someone.
(If you see her)
Tell her this for me:
All I need is
One more chance at love….
This R. Kelly ballad is a really beautiful song sung to perfection by Michael, and when it was released on 2003′s Number Ones, I loved it instantly. And after Michael died and the Estate announced that they would be including the long-lost video for this song on the much anticipated Vision box set, I was ecstatic that we would finally get the chance to see Michael’s last short film.
But once the video collection was released and I eagerly sat down to devour it, my excitement was short lived. I have to admit, I did not love the video. I didn’t even like it. Not even a little bit. Where was Michael? The setting was gorgeous and romantic, the premise – with the audience on the stage – was unusual and intriguing, the song was beautiful and one of my favorites. But where was Michael in the video? It was all seemingly shot either totally from behind him or at really weird angles, his face – and therefore, his amazingly expressive eyes that I love – completely hidden from view. And in fact, the video even sparked some debate at MJFC as to whether it was even Michael at all. Perhaps it was merely a body double, a really good MJ impersonator! I was so disappointed. Just between you and me… I often get into my comfy sweats, fire up the DVD player and snuggle in with my Vision box set when I have a free afternoon. But honestly, the One More Chance video was one that I would frequently skip over.
And then recently I stumbled upon an article published just after the Vision box set was released in November of 2010. The article was written by journalist Charles Thomson and titled, “One More Chance: The Dream That Turned into a Nightmare.” Now I have to make a confession here: this article actually came across my inbox shortly after it was published but, things have a way of getting very busy for me with MJFC and my everyday life (and now I’m dancing with elephants too!) so, I set it aside with the intentions of reading it later. Well, “later” turned into much later and, I’m ashamed to say, I just recently found it sitting in my “To Do” folder. So I took a few moments and read it. And boy…. did it change EVERYTHING!
In writing this article, Charles Thomson researched the video thoroughly, speaking to Michael’s publicist and his manager at the time as well as several of the crew members and extras who worked on the video, and in doing so, he gives us a peek into where Michael Jackson’s life was at the time this video was created. And it is that context, that knowledge that puts this entire video in a whole new light for me. I look at the video with new eyes now and, whereas before it really held no connection for me at all, now I have such an emotional attachment to this video and it holds so much meaning for me.
Willa: That is so interesting, Joie. My initial response to the One More Chance video was much more positive than yours, though I know what you mean about “where’s Michael?” And my response to Thomson’s article was much less positive. I appreciate all the background information Thomson provides, and it’s definitely an article worth reading, but I thoroughly disagree with his interpretation and assessment of this video.
Like you, I thought “One More Chance” was a beautiful love song and was eager to see the video, and like you I watched it as soon as the Vision DVDs came out. And I was surprised – it wasn’t at all what I was expecting – but I loved it. As often happens with Michael Jackson’s videos, it led me to completely rethink my ideas about this song and opened up a whole new way of interpreting it. Now I see “One More Chance” as much more than a love song. Responding to it as a beautiful love ballad is still there for me and still valid, but other interpretations have become apparent to me as well. And frankly, I think Thomson’s interpretation completely misses the boat.
In his article Thomson writes rather critically of the video’s concept:
The song was a yearning ballad about lost love in which Jackson pleaded with an ex-girlfriend for “one more chance at love.” The video would feature a unique role reversal in which an audience would stand onstage and watch Jackson as he performed the track in an empty, upscale nightclub, hopping banisters and jumping on tables. The set-up seemed to have little correlation with the song and appeared to be more of a comment on the press and public’s perpetual invasion into Jackson’s privacy – a common theme in the star’s videos – essentially showing a crowd of bystanders watching over Jackson in an intimate, off-stage moment, transfixed by his heartbreak.
Thomson is right to some extent: if we see “One More Chance” simply as a love song, then the video doesn’t make much sense and the “set-up seem[s] to have little correlation with the song.” But I disagree with Thomson’s interpretation. I don’t think the point of this video is show “a crowd of bystanders . . . transfixed by his heartbreak.” Jackson doesn’t treat the on-stage audience in this video like intrusive voyeurs, that isn’t the mood he creates here – the mood is much more celebratory than that – and that isn’t what this video says to me. As you know, Joie, I’m all for multiple interpretations, and I think any interpretation is valid as long as it can be supported by evidence from the work, but I see very little evidence to support Thomson’s interpretation.
But what if we approach this video like the My Baby songs and view it more metaphorically? In his videos, Michael Jackson frequently parallels the relationship between a man and his lover with that of a performer and his audience. What if we view One More Chance that way? What if he isn’t talking to an ex-girlfriend, but to us, his audience? What if he’s telling us, his audience, that the false allegations and misunderstandings and years of bad press have been terrible for him – it “Hurts so bad sometimes it’s hard to breathe” – but he’s ready to try again, despite everything, and he wants us to give him “one more chance?”
As Thomson writes in his article, Michael Jackson made this video at an important turning point in his life. He was planning to make a fresh start in film, and saw this as a new beginning to his career. So maybe he’s telling us, his audience, that “This time / Gonna do my best to make it right.” Maybe the reason he set up the video with an audience on stage is because he’s talking directly to us, his audience, when he says “All I need is / One more chance.” If we view it that way, this video makes perfect sense. And the fact that the police raided his home the very next day is heartbreaking.
Joie: It is heartbreaking. Thomson explains that with “One More Chance” – the single and the video – Michael was fulfilling his contractual obligations to Sony and CBS. Once they were completed, Michael was done. He was freeing himself from his contract with Sony and preparing to move on to bigger and better things. He was tired of touring and he wanted to venture into the realm of film. Ironically, something he tried to do in 1993 but couldn’t once the first allegations happened. So, in the video, that last shot of him turning his back on the audience and walking out of the frame with a smile on his face, was very symbolic of the transition he was about to make. He was walking away from the music industry and walking toward his long-harbored dreams of making movies. All he needed was “one more chance.”
And, in answer to my question of “where is Michael,” Thomson tells us that the video was purposely shot from behind Michael in order to track his movements more fluidly. The following day, they were all set to capture the frontal shots and close ups of Michael doing his thing. But that never happened because the following morning came the bad news that the police were raiding the Neverland Ranch for the second time. And I can’t help but think of the lyrics to the song itself:
‘Bout to strike and rain only on me.
Hurts so bad sometime its hard to breathe.
I imagine those lyrics mirror what Michael must have been feeling when he got the news and realized that his dreams were being snatched away for the second time.
Willa: Those are good points, and I really do appreciate all the background information Thomson provides. It’s really deepened my understanding of this video. Maybe I’m being a little hard on Thomson simply because One More Chance has become very special to me. Just the idea of Michael Jackson in pain but ready to try again and asking us for “one more chance” is incredibly poignant. And then the conclusion of the video is so moving, and very motivating for me personally. At the end, he has left the room, but his audience is still on stage. It’s up to us now. He’s no longer here, but we are – we’re the ones left on stage – and we’re the ones who have to act to preserve his legacy and “help these mysteries unfold.”
Joie: I think you are being hard on Thomson. I don’t think he really offered any sort of interpretation of the video at all. I think he was merely just giving us the set up, explaining the premise, if you will. But I don’t think his one-sentence assessment of the premise of the video was ever intended to be viewed as an interpretation.
But I do understand your readiness to defend something you love. As you said, this particular video has become very special to you so, wanting to explain it and possibly make others love it as much as you do is only natural. I feel the same way about a certain ballad from the Michael album that you and I violently disagree on but, we’ll save that for another discussion!
Willa: Joie! That is just wicked. You really aren’t going to let me forget about that are you? Oh well, I guess I deserve it. (Heavy sigh). You really are just too funny sometimes. . .
Joie: Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But this video is as special to you as that song is to me so, I understand how you feel about it.
Willa: So here’s some exciting news. Joie is flying to Montreal this morning to see a sneak preview of Cirque du Soleil’s tribute to Michael Jackson – The Immortal World Tour and next week she’ll tell us all about it!
Willa: Last week Joie and I danced with one of those elephants in the room and discussed the question, “Was Michael Jackson Black Enough?” And we began by saying we weren’t talking about skin color. This week we are. We’re going to dance with a really big elephant and address the question of why the apparent color of his skin shifted from dark to light.
Joie: As Willa mentioned in our very first blog post, she and I have really drastically disagreed over this particular issue. For months now we have had very heated discussions on this topic, going back and forth and back and forth, and finally we seem to have met somewhere in the middle. But I think it’s important to note that we were not always on the same page on this one. In fact, we were polar opposites for a very long time, and we each felt very strongly about our points of view. But the following conversation is what finally brought us together, and made us each understand where the other was coming from…..
Joie: Well, I have a first-hand account of sorts of the turmoil that Michael must have gone through. So my mom was out of town at the funeral of a relative and, as always happens at those sorts of gatherings, it turned into a kind of family reunion. Anyway, she was startled to see a distant cousin of hers who has Vitiligo. Startled not because she wasn’t aware that the woman had the condition, but because she wasn’t aware of the new way she was treating it. Seems her condition had worsened in the past few years and her spots had grown more widespread. What she used to be able to cover up and hide with dark makeup was just too overwhelming now. So instead, she had resorted to depigmentation – removing the remaining dark pigment in the skin in order to produce a more uniform skin tone. My mother said her skin looked a lot like Michael Jackson’s.
So, that got me thinking about what it must feel like for a person with this disease and I tried to put myself in their shoes. Imagine this…. You are a music superstar. From the time you were a little kid you have been “major” famous. You had four number one hits by the time you were 11 years old and the world loves you. Oh, I forgot to mention that you are African American AND your career began during the late 1960’s in America. That’s right, say it loud… “you’re Black and you’re Proud!” Not only does the world love you; Black America really LOVES you!
Still with me? OK, good. Now imagine that the older you get, the more successful and more famous you become. You grow from a teenage music superstar into an adult music icon. You are a Rock Star! You are bigger than that Elvis guy (oh yeah, I said it!). Now imagine that at the height of your fame and popularity, your doctor tells you that you have a devastating, autoimmune disease known as Vitiligo.
Vitiligo is a disorder that causes a loss of pigmentation in the skin. Patients with Vitiligo develop white spots in the skin that vary in size and location. The disease affects both sexes and all races, but the distinctive patches of discoloration are most noticeable in people with darker skin tones. Because Vitiligo causes such dramatically uneven skin color, most patients experience emotional and psychological distress – especially if the spots develop on visible areas of the body, like the face, hands, arms, feet, or even on the genitals. Most patients often feel embarrassed, ashamed, depressed, and worried about how others will react. So, for an African American person who’s been in front of the camera for most of his life – and who has already been disillusioned with his own reflection because of severe acne as a teenager and a nose that he was never happy with – this diagnosis would be traumatic, to say the least. Especially if he were constantly confronted with cruel and unfair reporting from a biased media, basically calling him a liar and leading the very same public that used to love him into believing that he just didn’t like the color of the skin he was born with.
Sounds really awful, doesn’t it? This was Michael Jackson’s life. For years after the Vitiligo began, thousands, maybe even millions of people around the world believed that Michael Jackson was ashamed of his race and all because the media refused to believe him when he said that he had no control over the loss of color in his skin. In fact, it was only after his death when the coroner’s report confirmed that he did indeed suffer from the disease, that the world finally believed him. And every news story you read was basically saying the same thing: “Huh, I guess he was telling the truth after all,” or “Well, we finally got that mystery cleared up.”
OK, is it just me? Am I the only one who finds this scary? For years, this incredibly talented, kind-hearted man told us over and over that he had this condition and that it bothered him deeply because he loved his race and he was proud of his heritage and the media (both tabloid and mainstream alike) called him a liar who just wanted to be White. They laughed big belly laughs when the late-night comedians took up the charge and poked fun at his skin color and called him all sorts of unkind and hurtful things. They basically tortured him about his disease for the rest of his life, and now that he’s gone all they can say is, “Hmm, guess he was telling the truth.” I’m sorry but, I find that scary. And really, really sad.
I remember watching the Oprah Winfrey show years ago – way before she ever interviewed Michael – when her friend, Maya Angelou, was a guest. And I don’t know why this stuck with me but it did. Ms. Angelou said that when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them. She reasoned that they know themselves a whole lot better than you know them so, when someone tells you who they are, believe them! It sounds so simple. Yet, Michael told us over and over again who he really was, but no one ever believed him. That must have been so frustrating for him!
Willa: Joie, that is really powerful, and I absolutely agree with everything you just said. But I don’t think the story ends there. If we continue to imagine ourselves in his shoes, imagine you’re Michael Jackson, a deeply spiritual person who said numerous times that he felt he must have been given his talent for a reason – that he was put on this Earth and given his tremendous talent to fulfill some higher purpose. And he becomes a superstar, but he’s much more than that. He’s not just a famous singer and dancer. He’s also a transformative cultural figure who leads people to think differently about race, and he takes that very seriously. Can You Feel It, the first video he produced and developed, from initial concept through final production, beautifully expresses the idea that we are all one people, regardless of racial differences, and he returns to that idea again and again in his work. This is a concept he thought about extensively and cared about deeply.
And then, at the height of his fame, he discovers he has Vitiligo. And it is devastating and traumatic, as you say, and he begins wearing a glove and dark makeup. But the disease keeps progressing. More and more of his skin is losing its pigmentation – on his face, his neck, his arms, his whole body. And it is horrifying to him. But he’s a strong person with deeply held convictions, and he’s an amazing artist, with an artist’s sensibilities. And maybe he begins to wonder if he was given Vitiligo for a purpose as well, if there’s some reason why he has been put in this incredibly difficult position. He’s the most famous Black man ever, celebrated for promoting pride in being Black, and now his skin is literally turning white. How ironic is that? But it highlights a crucial issue as well. He’s been telling us for years that racial differences don’t matter – that we are all one people regardless of skin color. And now, the color of his skin is literally changing from dark to light.
Racism against Black people in America is nothing more than a web of lies that have been told and retold for centuries, and that we as individuals have more or less internalized to some degree. But at the heart of this web of lies is one central lie, the lie that all others radiate out from: that Black people and White people are essentially different. That is the lie at the very center of racism in America. And growing up in the South in the 1960s I received a lot of conflicting messages, but still I was told that lie over and over again in numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways: you shouldn’t swim in an integrated swimming pool, you shouldn’t drink water from a water fountain immediately after a Black kid, you shouldn’t borrow a Black girl’s comb (which I did one time when I was “old enough to know better”). The unstated reason is that Black bodies and White bodies are essentially different and should remain separate. That was the message I was told again and again growing up in the South forty years ago.
But when Michael Jackson’s skin changed from dark to light, he proved that is a lie – he proved that Black bodies and White bodies are essentially the same – and he struck a shattering blow at the very heart of racism.
I have a White college friend who grew up with a Black housekeeper. One day the housekeeper was working in the kitchen and cut her hand, and my friend, who was just a child at the time, was shocked to see that her blood was red. Before that, she had assumed her blood was dark – as dark as her skin. My friend told me this story several times, generally with a laugh at how silly she’d been. But despite her laughter, I could tell this story was very important to her. It was one of those rare “Ah ha!” moments when your perceptions flip upside down and you’re suddenly forced to question things you thought you knew to be true.
When Michael Jackson’s skin changed from dark to light, I think he created an “Ah ha!” moment like that on a global scale. He had told us repeatedly through his music and his videos that we are all one people, regardless of skin color, and now he had a chance to prove it artistically. He could prove in a way that cannot be denied that our bodies are essentially the same, and he could do it in a way that even a child could understand. That is an incredibly powerful message, and he seized an opportunity to illustrate and broadcast that message in a way that had never been done before. And he expanded the definition of art in a way that had never been done before either. That’s why he was so misunderstood.
Joie: Willa, you make a very convincing argument. And I’m sure that, being the incredibly artistic person that he was, he probably did tend to look at things or approach difficult situations from an artistic point of view. So, you could be absolutely correct in saying that he made a conscious decision to turn his disease into an artistic commentary on racism. And you know, when we first began disagreeing over this issue I never would have imagined I’d say that but, there it is.
Willa: Well, as I mentioned in our very first blog, you’ve really changed how I see this also. This isn’t a new thing for me. I’ve been fighting this battle for years. I can remember going to grad school in the South in the mid-to-late 1980s, and almost every semester someone at some point would bring up Michael Jackson and the changing color of his skin. And they would almost always say something like, it was an incredible cultural phenomenon, but of course it was just a product of his own insecurities. He was creating this incredibly powerful cultural moment that was forcing White America, especially, to question some of our deepest racial prejudices, but he was doing it accidentally.
And I always questioned that. Why assume it’s accidental? He’s a brilliant artist, he’s been actively fighting racial prejudices for years, he’s obviously thought about this issue deeply – so why assume he doesn’t know what he’s doing? I always thought he knew exactly what he was doing, and I think the evidence backs me up. His dermatologist has said that he frequently called his face “a work of art.” And as I tried to show in both M Poetica and “Rereading Michael Jackson,” I think he tried to explain through his work – through his short films, especially – that his changing appearance began as a medical decision but became a deliberate artistic decision.
But until I started talking with you, I didn’t realize just how difficult and painful that decision must have been for him. I knew he was the object of a lot of snarky comments by White commentators that just made me heartsick. And I knew there were people in the Black community who felt betrayed by him and by the changing color of his skin. But I didn’t realize how deeply those emotions ran, or how painful the accusations of betraying his race must have been for him.
Joie: Oh, it must have been horrible! I always think about his interview with Oprah when he tells her, “I’m a Black American, I am proud to be a Black American, I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am. I have a lot of pride and dignity….It is something that I cannot help, ok? But when people make up stories that I don’t want to be who I am, it hurts me….I mean, it makes me very sad.”
Those are his words. And the emotion in his voice and the pain on his face as he said them were obvious. But now, as I look back on that interview, I notice that he also said this during that same conversation: “But you know what’s funny, why is that so important? That’s not important to me. I’m a great fan of art. I love Michelangelo. If I had the chance to talk to him or read about him I would want to know what inspired him to become who he is….I mean that’s what is important to me.”
So, maybe he told us then and we just didn’t listen. Maybe he was saying, ‘Yes, I have this disease and it is horrifying and no one believes me but, I don’t care because I’m going to use it to educate you anyway!’
Willa: This week Joie and I wanted to dance with one of those elephants in the room and address the recurring criticism that Michael Jackson wasn’t “Black enough.” We’re not talking about skin color. We’re talking about the criticism that began way back in the 1970s and 80s, when critics would look at his penny loafers and his public persona and say he wasn’t doing enough to embrace his Black heritage.
Joie: OK, this is a hard one for me. Not because I don’t know where I stand on this issue but, because this question makes me a little angry for a couple of reasons. One of them is that it’s a question that has been leveled at me on more than one occasion. I had a very middle-class upbringing and the schools I went to in the 1970s and ’80s were a pretty good mix of Black and White. But because I chose not to strictly hang out with only the other Black kids and instead had many friends who were White, suddenly I was trying to be a White girl. And this criticism came not just from other Black kids, but from one of my own siblings as well. Never mind the fact that I had more in common with the kids I chose to hang out with than I did the kids who looked like me. That, apparently wasn’t the point. But here’s the thing… I’m still not really sure what the point is and I don’t believe anyone else knows either.
My nephew, whom I adore, recently graduated from Morehouse College. It’s an all Black, all male campus (its female counterpart, Spelman, is just across the road). I asked him what he thought of this “Black enough” question and I have to admit I was a little saddened by his response. Saddened because he said that even on an all Black campus, there were guys who had to endure this same criticism – either because of the way they dressed (like fitted clothes instead of baggy or relaxed hair instead of natural) or who they dated (White girlfriends instead of Black). Well, by that standard, there are any number of Black people out there – both male and female (myself included) who are just not Black enough anymore! Why, oh why didn’t someone tell me that by relaxing my hair and entering into an interracial marriage that I was selling out my race! Oh the shame!! Guess it’s a good thing I’m a firm believer that we all come from the same race – the Human one!
Willa: Joie, that sentence, “I’m still not really sure what the point is and I don’t believe anyone else knows either,” really caught my attention. Because what exactly is the underlying issue here? I do understand the fear that a group’s cultural heritage will be lost. I really do get that. My grandfather’s grandmother was Potawatomi, but except for a few quilt squares they made together when he was a child and an old sepia-toned photograph, I have no access to my great-great-grandmother or to that culture. That’s all completely lost to me. If I’m filling out a form and have to check a box to identify myself, I check White. Even if I’m allowed to check more than one box, I still only check White. Genetically I’m a little bit Potawatomi, but culturally I’m not, and it would feel presumptuous to me to claim a connection to a heritage I know nothing about. I really regret that that heritage has been lost to me, but at this point it has.
At the same time, I find it very troubling when commentators, especially White commentators, criticize Michael Jackson or President Obama or any Black public figure for allegedly not embracing a more-traditional Black identity. For one thing, it assumes there’s only one definition of Black and that everyone who is Black should conform to it. I know if I were shopping at the grocery store in jeans and a t-shirt and a man came up to me and told me I needed to embrace my femininity, I’d be pretty taken aback by it – and a little offended, frankly. What right does he have to impose his ideas about what’s feminine onto me? I get to decide for myself what’s feminine and what isn’t, or whether or not I even want to be feminine, whatever that means, and I think most people would agree with me.
Yet somehow it’s OK for White commentators to impose their definition of what’s Black onto Michael Jackson. And generally when they say that, it doesn’t feel like it’s expressing concern for Black culture. It feels like a put-down, of a really manipulative and insidious kind.
Joie: That’s because it is a put-down. But here’s what really bothers me about this issue, Willa, and it’s something that you just touched on. And I would like for all of those doing the criticizing to really pay attention and understand this: what is a “traditional Black identity?” Because the truth is that whatever your response is to that question will undoubtedly be a stereotype. There is NO SUCH THING as a “traditional Black identity.” There are as many different “kinds” of Black people as there are shades of Black. We come from all walks of life, from all social and economic backgrounds – contrary to what the media would have you believe! And why is it that if I’m listening to Rap music and talking in slang, that’s OK but, if I’m listening to Heavy Metal and speaking articulately, then I have lost touch with my heritage? In my nephew’s words…. why are we allowing pop culture to be the measuring stick by which we decide who’s “Black enough?” In order to really be Black you have to wear certain clothes and listen to/sing certain music and date certain people and speak a certain way? That’s just plain silly. And that line of thinking that insists all Black people must conform to a certain stereotype is, in a way, its own weird form of internal, self-imposed racism. I don’t understand that thinking at all. I mean, if all Black people went through life taking this view to heart, how much beauty and wonder would the world be deprived of because of it? Would there even be a Michael Jackson for us to discuss then?
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, YES! Michael Jackson was plenty Black enough. And so are Darius Rucker and Charlie Pride, for that matter! Whoever said that music has to be color-coded? Who said that our Black public figures had to fit into some imaginary stereotypical pigeon hole in order to be seen as valid? Why can’t we simply take pride in the fact that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – became the greatest, most celebrated entertainer of all time, beloved by millions the world over? Why can’t we take pride in the knowledge that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – became the most influential musical innovator in the world; he never followed the trends, he set them! Why can’t we just celebrate the fact that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – is responsible for the biggest-selling album in history? He will forever be known as the one and only King of Pop. A Black man did that! A proud, beautiful, strong, hard-working Black man did all that and so much more! Why can’t we just celebrate him instead of accusing him of not being “Black enough?”
I guess the real reason this question upsets me is because I find it extremely insulting that it is never asked of anyone else. No one ever asks is Jackie Chan Chinese enough or is Robin Thicke White enough? I mean really, let’s just look at that for a minute. Robin Thicke is a very talented singer with a really wonderful voice. But he sings R&B and he kind of talks Black and he is married to a beautiful Black woman so, I don’t know…. I think maybe he’s sold out his White heritage. Is anybody worried about that?
Willa: That’s a really interesting point, and one I’d never thought about before. I’ve never once in my life questioned if I was White enough, and I’ve never felt I had to rein myself in or second guess myself or limit myself in any way to conform with my racial identification. I can wear my hair straight or permed or even in dreadlocks, I can have French toast for breakfast and sushi for lunch and fish tacos for supper, I can fall under the spell of a book by Toni Morrison or Leslie Marmon Silko or Maxine Hong Kingston, and it’s simply not an issue. Because I’m White and belong to the “dominant” culture, I can explore other cultures as much as I want and it doesn’t threaten my identity in any way. And no one ever questions that. I could be accused of appropriating someone else’s culture, which is a whole other issue. But I’ve never had to deal with the kinds of external criticisms or internal self-doubts you’re talking about.
Maybe that’s what Michael Jackson was referring to in the rap section of “Black or White” when he wrote, “I’m not going to spend my life being a color.” I believe Michael Jackson resisted anything that led us to limit ourselves, including our age, gender, nationality, sexuality, or racial identification. As you said, he “was plenty Black enough” – he was a direct heir of James Brown and Jackie Wilson and Sammy Davis, Jr., and was very proud of that – but he reserved the right to define for himself what it means to be Black.
Ideally, everyone should have that right of self-definition, of defining for ourselves who we are and who we want to be. Artists tend to experiment with that right of self-definition more than most people – and no one pushed that right of self-definition further than Michael Jackson did. He absolutely refused to be boxed in by other people’s expectations of him. If he wanted to wear red lipstick, he did. However, that resistance to cultural expectations has a long history as well. Josephine Baker and James Baldwin severely challenged the cultural roles laid out for them, but that doesn’t in any way suggest that they didn’t respect their Black heritage. Instead, they were extending it, and creating a new chapter in the history of Black culture. And as you described so well, Michael Jackson boldly created a whole new chapter all his own.
I think Michael Jackson was a transformative cultural figure who profoundly influenced how we as a people perceive and experience the differences that segment and divide us – differences of race, gender, age, religion, nationality, sexuality – and I believe he was the most important artist of our time. Not the most important Black artist. The most important artist, period. No artist since Warhol has challenged and changed us the way Michael Jackson did. And ironically, he accomplished that, in part, by defying the very constraints he’s accused of transgressing.
Joie: Wow. I love the way you put that: “…by defying the very constraints he’s accused of transgressing.” You’re so right. And I really believe it was his goal to unite the world – all races, all colors, all nationalities – through his gift of music. He once told reporter Sylvia Chase:
“When they’re all holding hands, and everybody’s rockin’ and all colors of people are there, all races… it’s the most wonderful thing. Politicians can’t even do that!”
The awe in his voice as he said those words to her is so real and so reverent, you just know that he truly is moved by the sight of it. You can feel it in his voice and I believe that he really felt what he sang in “Black or White”: “If you’re thinkin’ of being my brother / it don’t matter if you’re Black or White.” I believe those lyrics really spoke to him and were important to him. I think on the surface, it was seen by most people as a sweet,”can’t-we-all-just-get-along,” yeah unity type of song but, really it was a very serious message that he was trying to get across to us all. It really doesn’t matter if you’re Black or White, and all of the judging and the labeling is only serving to keep us all down. Is someone Black enough? White enough? Chinese enough? Puerto Rican enough? That’s not even a valid question. Certainly not one that anybody – of any race – should ever be asking of anyone else because only the individual can answer that question. Only I have the right to ask if I’m Black enough just like only you, Willa, have the right to ask if you’re White enough. And only Michael Jackson had the right to question whether or not he was Black enough. And I think he answered that question for us over and over again both in his art and in the causes he chose to support, like the United Negro College Fund and the Equality For Blacks in the Music World conference.