Monthly Archives: April 2012
Joie: This week, Willa and I are thrilled to be joined once again by Lisha McDuff, a professional musician who many of you know as Ultravioletrae in the comments section. She’s joining us to talk about Black or White, a song and video that hold special meaning for her.
Willa: So Lisha, back in February you made a fascinating comment about Michael Jackson’s complex approach to song composition and used Black or White as an example. Here’s what you said:
[T]he white rap section in Black or White uses black hip hop, but runs it through a white perspective, Bill Bottrell’s feel good lyrics and performance. The previous section, “I am tired of this devil” uses white hard rock and heavy metal but runs it through a black perspective and the frustration of racial injustice. He is deliberately confusing musical codes here, attempting to integrate all these perspectives into a single view in a very trans-ethnic way (the way he uses his body). He is autonomously choosing the perspectives he wishes to use, ingeniously expressing the Black or White theme in the song.
I’m so intrigued by this, and would really love to dive into this a little deeper so I understand it better. Can you explain in more detail what you hear going on in these two sections?
Lisha: These two sections in Black or White have revealed so much to me, not only about how brilliant and meticulously crafted this song is, but also about Michael Jackson as a musician, a composer, and all around force for good on the planet. It is such a thrilling concept: Black or White presents a literal “black or white” musical perspective. At any given point in the song, a simultaneous “black or white” musical idea is being offered to the listener in a way that embraces and honors both traditions. It suggests going beyond our false distinctions and ethnic boundaries. But at the same time, the song addresses some very serious issues and really challenges the listener on a more subtle level. There is a lot going on in the song and in the film, and it’s easy to be fooled by its deceptive simplicity.
At first, I was just curious about the song’s structure. There are two “middle 8″ sections in the song, which just means there are two sections in the middle of the song that are each 8 bars long. The function of a “middle 8″ is to introduce a new and interesting musical idea that sets up the return of the final verse and chorus. I’m talking about the “I am tired of this devil” and the “white rap” sections. While there are no hard and fast rules in song structure, it is more standard to have only one “middle 8″ section, not two.
Willa: And we usually call that “middle 8″ the bridge, right? But this isn’t just a long bridge – a “middle 16,” as it were. It’s actually two separate bridges juxtaposed in a very sophisticated and interesting way. Is that an accurate way of seeing this?
Lisha: Yes, that’s right. These sections function as a bridge back to the final verse and chorus, and they are significantly different from each other and the rest of the song. When I looked to see if I could understand why there were two sections like this, I began to realize there was a deliberate attempt to confuse the musical codes associated with “black or white” musical styles. This ingenious idea so beautifully expresses the lyrics and the visual images we see in the short film. The music itself expresses the message of the song: “it don’t matter if you’re black or white.”
“I am tired of this devil” is sung to the hard rock and heavy metal styles that have been overwhelmingly consumed by white audiences. According to the principal collaborator on Black or White, Bill Bottrell, Michael was very specific about this section, even composing the exact heavy metal guitar solo he wanted by singing every rhythm, note, and chord to Bottrell. The musical feeling here abruptly turns very dark, and the lyrics are direct and to the point. But they are not coming from the viewpoint of the white musical style being offered. The lyrics are coming from a black perspective of frustration and the horror of racial injustice, even invoking an image of the KKK with a reference to “sheets”:
I am tired of this devil I am tired of this stuff I am tired of this business Go when the going gets rough I ain’t scared of your brother I ain’t scared of no sheets I ain’t scared of nobody Girl, when the going gets mean
The next section is hip hop rap, a black musical style, but the rap lyrics are unmistakably white in tone and perspective – they were written and performed by Bill Bottrell. This rap section flies at a completely different altitude than we might expect. The message is uplifting and inspirational, and in the short film it is lip synced by Macaulay Culkin, the same white child who appears in the opening drama. Instead of appearing in a lily white suburb as he does earlier, the child is now in an urban melting pot and his clothing and mannerisms register black:
Protection for gangs, clubs and nations Causing grief in human relations It’s a turf war on a global scale I’d rather hear both sides of the tale You see it’s not about races, just places Faces, where your blood comes from Is where your space is I’ve seen the bright get duller I’m not gonna spend my life being a color
Joie: Lisha, I have to say that I just love talking to you about Michael’s work because you always bring such a unique perspective to the conversation. As Willa said the last time we spoke with you, it’s like you’re granting us entrance into a world that we can’t enter on our own, not being trained musicians as you are. This whole discussion of the two middle 8 sections in Black or White is completely fascinating to me, and so much more sophisticated and complex than you would expect a “pop” star to be.
Lisha: It really is very clever, isn’t it? We’re lucky to have a first hand account of how this record was created from an interview Bill Bottrell did for Sound on Sound in 2004. It seems that the use of “black or white” perspectives was an idea Michael had all along, starting with his choice of Bottrell as a co-producer for Black or White. Bottrell explained:
“As a co-producer, Michael was always prepared to listen and put his trust in me, but he was also a sort of guide all the time. He knew why I was there and, among all the songs he was recording, what he needed from me. I was an influence that he didn’t otherwise have. I was the rock guy and also the country guy, which nobody else was.”
Bottrell was selected to co-produce Black or White for the very reason that he would bring this rock/country perspective to the song. So from the very beginning, a “black or white” musical idea was beginning to take shape. Bottrell describes this song as having a Southern rock feel, achieved through his interpretation of the music Michael composed. He plays the famous guitar riff and many other parts throughout the song. Interestingly enough, it was Bottrell who had the idea to insert a rap section in the middle, not Michael. This led Michael to suggest placing a heavy metal section right next to it, side by side. However, I don’t believe Michael ever fully revealed his idea for these two middle sections to Bottrell.
The rap section was the very last part of the song to be completed after months and months of difficult, tedious and time consuming work. And while there were some serious rappers coming into the studio to work on other songs for the Dangerous album, Michael didn’t ask any of them to perform on Black or White. Bottrell couldn’t really figure out why, as he explains:
“All the time I kept telling Michael that we had to have a rap, and he brought in rappers like LL Cool J and the Notorious BIG who were performing on other songs. Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black Or White’, and it was getting later and later and I wanted the song to be done. So, one day I wrote the rap — I woke up in the morning and, before my first cup of coffee, I began writing down what I was hearing, because the song had been in my head for about eight months by that time and it was an obsession to try and fill that last gap.”
Bottrell decided to go ahead and do a mock up of the rap section when something very unexpected happened, the birth of “LTB”:
“It seems kind of random, but it’s as if he [Michael] makes things happen through omission. There’s nobody else, and it’s as if he knows that’s what you’re up against and challenges you to do it. For my part, I didn’t think much of white rap, so I brought in Bryan Loren to rap my words and he did change some of the rhythms, but he was not comfortable being a rapper. As a result, I performed it the same day after Bryan left, did several versions, fixed one, played it for Michael the next day and he went ‘Ohhh, I love it Bill, I love it. That should be the one.’ I kept saying ‘No, we’ve got to get a real rapper,’ but as soon as he heard my performance he was committed to it and wouldn’t consider using anybody else.”
If you’ve ever looked at the credits on this song and wondered, who is “LTB”? Now you know!
Willa: That story just cracks me up! As you showed so well, Lisha, he really needed a “white” rap for this section to balance the “black” rock, so he simply makes all these incredible rappers coming in and out of the studio unavailable for this particular song. As Bottrell says, “Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black Or White.’” Finally, he’s kinda forced to do it himself. That whole situation is too funny – I can just picture Michael Jackson telling him, “Ohhh, I love it Bill, I love it.” I think Bottrell is right – he really does “make things happen through omission” – and it’s pretty astute of Bottrell to pick up on that.
Lisha: I could laugh about it all day – I find that so hilarious. And it is just such a great example of how Michael used multiple perspectives as a compositional technique in this song. Genius. There is no better way to capture a certain perspective than to just utilize someone who is genuinely approaching music from that perspective.
Willa: That’s a really interesting way to look at this, Lisha. So, to begin expanding out to the other sections of the film, the intro section is set in a “lily white suburb,” as you say, with an Archie Bunker-like father who is throning it over his family from his recliner. The mother is completely silent as long as he’s in the house – and once he’s gone, she just worries about how upset he’ll be when he gets home. It is so stereotypically white and patriarchal.
Joie: That’s a very amusing assessment, Willa.
Willa: It is funny, isn’t it? I think there’s a lot of humor in Black or White, though it’s subtle and often overlooked. So the son is upstairs listening to loud rock music, which is generally coded as white also, just like the setting, but he has a poster of Michael Jackson hanging on the back of his door, so already there’s a bit of ambiguity. The father stomps upstairs and demands he “turn that noise off!” then slams the door. The poster falls to the floor, the glass shatters – the first of many scenes of shattering glass in this video – and it just feels to me like Michael Jackson has been released by the shattering glass. He’s no longer safely encased in the poster behind the door. He’s now been let loose, like a genie from his bottle.
The boy responds to his father’s demands with a blast of sound from his electric guitar – a mode of defiance that is generally coded as “white” – but ironically, that blast of sound shatters the windows of this insulated white suburban home and sends the father flying back to Africa and the origins of music, including ultimately hard rock and heavy metal. So it subtly forces us to question how we label and situate this music. After landing in Africa, the father observes Michael Jackson dancing with tribesman in traditional dress and body ornamentation, but they’re dancing to rock music, which again is generally coded as white. But this particular music was written by Michael Jackson, and is now forming the soundtrack for people around the world – Africa, India, North America, Russia – to engage with him in their traditional dance. So that “white” label is really being complicated and undermined on many different fronts.
Joie: As usual, Willa, your observations are brilliant and dead on! And listening to your take on the opening shots of this video really highlights just how calculating and methodical Michael was about every aspect of this project – both the song and the short film. He obviously had a vision and a message … a mission, if you will, for this particular song and video, and it’s really interesting to dissect it and decipher what that message is.
Lisha: You’re absolutely right, Joie, it’s not just a song – it’s a mission! And I really love what you said, Willa, about Michael Jackson being released from that shattered poster frame like a genie from his bottle. He comes in as such a powerful musical force when the song begins and we start to see the African landscape. The guitar introduces the strong musical motif, that famous 2 bar hook that repeats throughout the song. Underneath the guitar and the accompanying rock rhythms, you hear this light percussion with an African feel, things like cowbells and shakers. These percussive African-sounding instruments traditionally suggest the feeling of community and a continuous invitation to dance. As you point out, the short film extends that invitation out to the whole world.
According to musicologist Susan McClary’s book Conventional Wisdom, “one of the most important facts about culture of the last hundred years” is “that the innovations of African Americans have become the dominant force in music around the globe.” The short film really emphasizes this point. But it also emphasizes another point each time the camera pulls away from these traditional dance scenes. The sound stage is revealed, the artifice of the scene is exposed. We have to ask ourselves the question, is this the way it really is? Do we really dance together in harmony all over the world?
The way the sounds are layered and placed in the song tells a “black or white” story too. The white dominant culture is sonically represented by the overpowering guitar hook, but the African feel of the percussion underneath it is steady and understated, always inviting us to dance together in community.
Willa: Those kind of details are so interesting to me, Lisha, and I love your reading of this. It reinforces the idea once again that the central themes of Black or White are being expressed on so many fronts – through the lyrics and dance and visuals, but also through the music itself and how the music is structured.
Lisha: It is endlessly fascinating to think about the way the music itself gets used as part of the literal meaning in this song. One of the best examples is after Michael sings in the first verse “we’re one in the same.” Suddenly the guitar hook stops and all the musical focus is now on the down beat or the one. Beat one now carries a literal meaning of unity and oneness. “Now, I believe in miracles, and a miracle has happened tonight.” It happens again in the chorus when we hear: “If you’re thinkin’ about my baby it don’t matter if you’re black or white.” The emphasis on beat one is a sonic statement to remind us “we are one in the same.” Brilliant!
Joie: Now that’s really interesting, Lisha. Of course, we all focus on beat one as we listen to the song – as was probably Michael’s intention. But I never realized that beat one was a musical representation of our oneness. Of our unity. That is truly fascinating to me!
Let’s move on to the ending section of the short film, the part usually referred to as the panther dance. Almost from the moment the video was released on November 14, 1991, it was mired in controversy because of the suggestive way Michael danced and touched himself during the piece, as well as the uncharacteristic violence he portrayed. It was so controversial that many TV stations would only play the shortened version of the video, removing the panther dance sequence all together.
The interesting thing here to me is that, as Willa has pointed out many times in other conversations, when it came to his art, Michael usually had a very specific reason for everything he did. He knew that the public, and the ratings machine, were practically salivating at the thought of his next video. Since the colossal success of Thriller and the resulting videos for that album, Michael’s short films were debuted with all the drama of a major Hollywood release. People would mark the date on their calendars and gather around their TV sets with baited breath to watch a new Michael Jackson video, and Black or White was no exception. It was first broadcast on MTV, VH1, BET and Fox (giving that network its highest Nielsen ratings ever). It also premiered simultaneously in 27 countries around the world with an audience of over 500 million viewers – the most ever to watch a music video!
So Michael orchestrated this massive audience to sit and watch, knowing that what he was about to do would not only stir up controversy but would also be talked about for years to come! And I believe that’s exactly what he wanted from the panther dance – to create so much controversy that it would be assured that this song/video and its message could never be ignored or overlooked.
Lisha: I have to say that as I go back and look at what was going on for Michael Jackson in 1991, the release of this video seems as carefully orchestrated as the song itself. In June of that year, there was quite a stir when Madonna very publicly criticized Michael Jackson saying he needed a complete makeover. I actually remember this news item even though I wasn’t a fan at that time. Now I wonder if Michael didn’t recruit Madonna himself to make this statement because it got so much publicity! After all, they had been seeing quite a bit of each other that year. Two of Madonna’s dancers claimed to be in contact with the Jackson camp and said “we intend to get rid of the boots and buckles and glitter … We want to give him an updated street look that’s very what’s-happening-in-New-York-today.” This prompted Michael’s spokesman, Bob Jones, to release a statement denying their involvement, and he said something I find quite fascinating: “He [Michael] had a different look for each of his albums by his choice. Absolutely no one determines which direction Mr. Jackson goes.”
Willa: Wow, that is interesting, isn’t it? It states pretty clearly that “his look” – meaning the appearance of his face, his body, his hair, his clothing – was part of his art, and he hints at that in the film as well. There’s the morphing faces scene, which is so interesting, and then at the end of that section the director, John Landis, steps into the frame of the film (once again disrupting the illusion of reality and emphasizing the constructedness of this film, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha) and says to the actress, “That was perfect. How do you do that?” It’s a joke, of course, but the implication is that they aren’t using special effects to morph between different people of different races and genders; rather they’re simply filming one person as s/he morphs between race and gender. And of course, Michael Jackson himself morphed across race and gender lines, and a lot of people wondered, “How do you do that?” This is echoed immediately afterwards when the panther appears and then morphs into Michael Jackson. So there’s a lot of morphing going on – across race, across gender, even across species.
Lisha: I had never gotten that joke before. That is hysterical!
Willa: Isn’t it funny? I love that line.
Lisha: I do too, and what an insight into this piece and his entire body of work. When I go back and look at the physical images Michael released for the previous album, Bad, and even the photos of his outings with Madonna earlier in 1991, I see what we call “a person of color.” However, in this short film, what I see signifies white in my mind. I honestly think, and I am not exaggerating in any way, that this is arguably the most significant artistic creation of our time. This song and the physical image of the artist coming together in this way … I just don’t know what to say … I am awestruck by this kind of genius.
Willa: I agree wholeheartedly. He just blows me away. And it’s so interesting how what you were just saying about his body kind of echoes what you were saying earlier about the middle 8 sections, where he takes a white music genre – hard rock – and runs it through a black perspective, and takes a black genre – hip hop – and runs it through a white perspective. By this point in his career his appearance may have registered as white, but he still vigorously claimed his black identity. So just as he was “deliberately confusing the musical codes” in those middle 8 sections, as you described so well, he seems to be deliberately confusing racial codes – specifically the signifiers written on his body – and challenges how we read and interpret his face and body.
And we see that again in the panther dance that you were just talking about, Joie. His face does seem to register as white in the earlier sections of the video, as you mentioned, Lisha, but his racial “coding” is more ambiguous during the panther dance. For example, when he kneels in the puddle and rips his shirt open, I wouldn’t say his face and body in that scene can be easily classified as either black or white. But the message is definitely from a black perspective. It’s a strong protest against white imperialism, colonialism, racism, and oppression.
Lisha: Those agonizing cries and yells in this scene are so expressive – you can feel centuries of pent up anger and frustration in his vocals that point to just that. Words and literal meanings just aren’t necessary. You understand from the voice and the visual symbols what is being communicated. And I think there is something more ambiguous going on here musically too. Many have described the panther dance as being a silent dance without musical accompaniment, but I really hear this differently. I hear a complex layering of sound that feels more like an avant-garde composition, exploring the musical value of all kinds of things like glass breaking, wind, and water splashing. It feels like much more than just a soundscape. Over the recorded dance steps you can hear these very rhythmic, sharp, crisp aspirants or little whispers that function like a percussion instrument to hold the music together and keep the beat steady. Other “mouth percussion” sounds are there too, like “cha,” “sss,” “hew,” and popping sounds with the lips. It’s possible that this alternative musical expression is another form of protest as well.
Willa: Wow! That is fascinating!
Lisha: The ending panther dance coda is a little masterpiece of its own, and it creates such a perfect bookend for the song. The opening drama with its white suburban setting creates one bookend and the black panther dance set in the city streets creates the other. Perfect symmetry. We have this “black or white” song, co-produced through “black or white” perspectives, with its “black or white” middle sections, placed between these two “black or white” bookends. There doesn’t seem to be anything here that hasn’t been thought out to the “nth” degree to communicate the message of the song, including the artist himself!
Joie: Which goes back to what I was saying before about how he always had very specific, very calculated reasons for doing everything he did. When it came to his art, he really was very methodical and deliberate in his choices and his decisions. Remarkable!
Joie: Willa, last week we talked about the Ghosts short film and that got me thinking about the dance sequence in that video. You know, for so many years, Michael’s name has been synonymous with dance, and he has long been recognized as one of the greatest dancers of our time. I believe we would have to search long and hard to find someone – anyone – who would take issue with that statement. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be fans seem to have no trouble admitting that. In fact, he was the first figure from the world of rock and roll to be inducted into the prestigious National Dance Hall of Fame in 2010.
Willa: Really? How do you know all this, Joie? You’re just amazing. But no, I didn’t know about that. That is impressive.
Joie: Yeah, it is really impressive. Especially since the honor is usually reserved for classically trained dancers from the world of ballet and modern dance. The list of inductees includes names like George Balanchine, Martha Graham and Bronislava Nijinska as well as Fred Astaire and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
I think one of the reasons so many people acknowledge his dance talent is because he always used his short films to showcase that amazing ability, and I really love the big dance sequence in the Ghosts short film. Even though it’s the storyline and the dialogue that really drive this video, the dance sequence, to me, is really just as important. From the very beginning where he introduces the invading villagers to his “family” of ghosts, to the very menacing charge against the Mayor, to the almost angelic conclusion where the ghosts float from the ceiling in reverence. I think it’s one of the most complex dance sequences we’ve ever seen in a Michael Jackson video and I love how he used the background music to sort of shift the mood of the dance throughout – from lighthearted circus-feel entertainment, to very threatening, to almost ethereal. It’s just so much fun to sit and watch; I love to pop in this video and really immerse myself in it.
Willa: Oh, I agree! The dance sequences are fascinating and you’re right – they really propel us through a wide range of emotions. I wish I knew more about dance so I could be more aware of what’s happening and have a better understanding of what he’s doing and why. He had three choreographers, including Travis Payne, working with him and the other dancers on this movie, but the credits say, “All Dance Sequences Conceived and Staged by Michael Jackson.” And you can definitely feel his guiding vision in these dance sequences – they embody through physical movement some of the central themes of the film. And that first dance, with all those ghosts and ghouls dancing behind him, feels so different from any other dance sequence he ever did.
You know, he really liked to develop each dance so that it precisely fit what he was trying to convey in that particular piece. In a 1999 MTV interview, he described how he and Michael Peters choreographed the big dance sequence with the zombies in Thriller:
“It was a delicate thing to work on,” he says, because zombies move in such a stiff, unnatural way – they clomp around on their undead legs and can scarcely walk. As he says, “I remember my original approach was, How do you make zombies and monsters dance without it being comical?” He approached that problem by imaginatively putting himself in the body of a zombie and working through it that way. As he says, “I got in the room with Michael Peters, and he and I together kind of imagined how these zombies should move.”
And they solved the problem brilliantly. When you watch the big dance sequence in Thriller, it feels so right you don’t even think about how difficult it must have been to choreograph a dance for undead legs. He and the other zombies really move, so it’s fun to watch, but there are some distinctive gestures that vividly convey the idea that these are rigid, corpse-like bodies.
Joie: And, you know, it’s not something that most people would think about. But asking the question, “how do you make zombies dance without it being comical,” is really what made him such a brilliant talent – that attention to detail is incredible. He approached everything he did with that same obsessive attention to detail. It’s really astounding to think about! I just love when he says that he would even go so far as to show up for rehearsals with Michael Peters wearing monster makeup in order to get into character, to make it easier to envision just how these undead creatures would move and dance. That dedication to detail is key.
Willa: I agree. I think it’s subtle details like that, along with the ability to imaginatively put yourself in the emotional and physical space of your character, that sets apart great dancers, great actors, great artists. I remember reading an article one time about Baryshnikov when he was very young. He was dancing the role of a toy, I think it was, who comes to life, but he was acting listless on stage. His instructor stopped the music and asked if there was something wrong, and he said no, he just hadn’t come to life yet. I love that! He was dragging around on stage because he was completely immersed in that role and imagining what it would be like to inhabit a wooden mechanical body and not yet have a living body. How would your arms and legs move if they weren’t alive yet?
Michael Jackson had that same imaginative capacity to genuinely inhabit a character and move in a way that suggested he really was a zombie or a gangster or a mayor forced to dance against his will. He describes dancing as the Mayor in “The Making of Ghosts,” about 6½ minutes in:
Joie: You know what I love about that clip, Willa, is the fact that, even though he is being interviewed about his new video, he stays completely in character because of all the makeup and conducts the interview as the Mayor – with the voice, the attitude and everything! So funny.
Willa: I love that too! And then he starts to jerk and move, and it really feels like something inside him is yanking his muscles and compelling him to dance. And then he really gets into it and starts to groove, but there’s still that resistance the Mayor has to the dance. It’s just amazing to hear him talk through what’s happening as he does it, and so fun to watch him pull it off.
I see something similar but a little more complicated happening in the big dance sequence in Ghosts. He’s creating a dance that’s appropriate for these characters – for ghosts and ghouls – but he’s also creating a dance that carries out an important thematic function by evoking the grotesque. He suggests the grotesque in many different ways throughout Ghosts: in the contortions of his face when he first confronts the villagers, in the laughing fool with his jingling three-pointed hat, in the irreverent ghouls who challenge the Mayor, in the upside-down dancing on the ceiling. And he also evokes it through the dance steps themselves. There’s lots of splayed legs, and these skittery spider-like jumps and sidewinder movements that we’ve never seen him do before.
Joie: You’re right, there are lots of really different, menacing, even almost sinister moves in this one. In Thriller, even though they were portraying dancing undead zombies, the feel of the dance was still sort of lighthearted, soft-horror. But in Ghosts, the entire dance sequence feels much darker and more frightening because of the unique choreography.
Willa: I hadn’t thought about that, but it is kind of unsettling, isn’t it, just because it is so different from any dance I can think of. I don’t remember ever seeing a dancer move their body in quite that way before. And you know, while you see people from around the world doing so many distinctive Michael Jackson dance moves, you don’t see them doing those splayed-leg movements from Ghosts. I’ve never seen those moves outside this film, and maybe that’s also because they are so unnervingly different.
There is so much going on in this film, and in the dance sequences, and there are some subtle gestures that really jump out at me in interesting ways. For example, he begins the first dance sequence by calling up all these ghouls to dance with him and then wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. He uses that same gesture in Bad after calling up the imaginary gang members/artists to back him up in the big dance sequence there. And the Macaulay Culkin character does the same thing in the intro to Black or White, just before blasting the electric guitar so loud he sends his father flying back to Africa and the origins of music and dance.
That small gesture seems to carry the same meaning in all three cases. In all three, a rather powerless solitary figure is confronted with the threat of violence, and in all three he stands up to that threat and counters it with art: with music and dance. It’s almost like Michael Jackson is creating his own vocabulary of gesture, so when we see him wipe his mouth with the back of his hand in Ghosts, we feel the echoes of those prior films and kind of know what’s coming.
Joie: “His own vocabulary of gesture.” I like that!
Willa: You know what I mean, right? It’s just so fascinating to me what he’s doing – how he uses subtle gestures like that to signify a very specific concept, but in an unspoken way. He does something similar to begin the skeleton dance. As we were talking about last week, the villagers have very conflicted feelings about the Maestro – they aren’t sure if they can trust him or not – so he reflects that back at them by making himself unfamiliar, a skeleton, but then dances in a very fun, familiar way that draws them to him.
Interestingly, he begins the skeleton dance by jerking up his right shoulder – and that is exactly how he began the zombie dance in Thriller. And he’s dealing with a similar situation in both films. In Thriller, he’s addressing people’s very conflicted feelings about him as our first black teen idol. The United States was and is a racist country with oppressive taboos against inter-racial relationships – especially in the early 1980s when Thriller was made – and suddenly millions of teenage girls of all races were fainting at his concerts and affirming that he was sexually desirable. So he was really challenging those taboos, and a lot of people felt very unsettled about that. He responded to those conflicted emotions just as he does in Ghosts: he makes himself unfamiliar – a zombie – so he reflects those emotions back at us, but then dances in a way that’s unmistakably Michael Jackson and draws us in to him.
Joie: Ok, you have officially blown me away here! I never made that connection between the skeleton dance in Ghosts and the zombie dance in Thriller before. But you are right; he does begin both dances the exact same way, in order to remind us that he is still the same person. Wow!
Willa: Isn’t it fascinating? He just knocks me out, over and over again – he’s just breathtakingly brilliant. Every time I experience his work, I feel awed by it all over again.
Joie: Willa, that is a statement that I think so many of us can agree with. It never fails to astound me that, no matter how many times I listen to his music or watch one of his short films or watch a concert performance, I always discover something new that I had never heard or experienced before. It’s just amazing to me.
Willa: Oh, I know! And it’s so interesting to me how he conveyed meaning through so many different avenues simultaneously. For example, he conveys so much through that gesture of jerking up his right shoulder or wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and importantly, those gestures are nonverbal. I wonder if that’s one reason his work was so popular around the world – because even if you didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand the lyrics, you could still understand the central ideas because he was able to convey meaning in so many other ways.
And he didn’t just use gesture to convey concepts and emotions. He used them to convey personality details as well that brought his characters vividly to life. In a wonderful comment Nina posted a couple weeks ago, she describes how he was able to “sketch a character” through a few subtle gestures:
As some of the most skilled artist/draftspeople could sketch a character in an attitude or pose with just a few simple lines – so that we become privy to an essence the figure’s demeanor and personality – Michael could perform such a character “sketch” through movement alone. It’s gestural economy at its finest … you can recognize the “character” at once.
Nina goes on to say,
he can strike the attitude of a louche sort of fellow who runs a comb through his hair in “Billie Jean,” a gangster in “Smooth Criminal,” and a different [gangster] in “You Rock My World,” and so on. Each of these characters is composed of a few basic elements that are familiar throughout his repertoire. But these elements are rearranged and sequenced in a different way for each “number,” with variations throughout. It’s no wonder that, as a mime, he’d been going to perform with Marcel Marceau. And in film study, we’d consider Michael’s distinctive style that runs throughout his body of work the mark of an “auteur.”
Nina’s descriptions of his “gestural economy” are so interesting, and I absolutely agree about his ability to “sketch a character … with just a few simple lines,” so the “essence” of that character comes to life for us. So in Ghosts, for example, he isn’t just performing the dance of a generic Mayor forced to move against his will. He’s performing as a Mayor with a distinctive personality and specific desires and biases and beliefs, including a desperate need to be in control at all times. And those individualizing characteristics are conveyed to us through simple gestures, such as that abrupt gesture with his hands when his body begins to move. He’s losing control of his legs and then his hips as his body begins to dance, but he’s trying to reassure the villagers that he’s still in control – of the situation, of the Maestro, of them, of his own body.
Joie: Willa, I love the comment you used from Nina. I agree with what she says about the “elements being rearranged and sequenced in a different way for each number.” This is really true and we can see this in various performances throughout his career. One of my absolute favorites is the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards performance. His entire opening number is incredible. He performs a medley of “Don’t Stop,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Scream,” “Beat It,” “Black or White,” and “Billie Jean,” with a little help from his friend, Slash.
But it’s the full-length rendition of “Dangerous” that really makes this performance something special. He’s not even singing live here but, you quickly forgive and forget about it because the dance is so spectacular! Even now, nearly 20 years later, I can’t watch it without getting goosebumps. The way he moves is just so totally beyond anyone else; it’s like he’s made of rubber. His body bends and twists and moves in ways that regular people’s just don’t. There have been, and I’m sure there will continue to be, many imitators but, the simple fact is that nobody else moves like that! Slash once made this observation:
”The thing about Michael is he’s hands down one of the most professional, most talented performers I have ever worked with. All the brouhaha aside, when it comes down to it, you can have 60 choreographed dancers up there and you know which one Michael is.”
I just love this quote because Slash is absolutely right; you can always pick Michael out when he’s on stage with other singers and dancers. He just moves differently than anyone else. And I especially love that this quote came from Slash – someone you wouldn’t normally think would pay attention to the dancing, you know?
Willa: And what he says is absolutely true. When Michael Jackson is dancing with a group, you simply can’t take your eyes off him. Even in the group dance in The Way You Make Me Feel when all you can see are silhouettes of the dancers, you know which one is him and you can’t help watching him.
And of course, he also received praise from professionals who do pay close attention to dancing – people like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Debbie Allen, and Michael Flatley, as Jacksonaktak noted in a comment a couple months ago. I love this quote she cited from Baryshnikov, saying,
What Baryshnikov remembers most about Jackson, he said, was “… his simple, bouncy walk across the stage, that was what was most beautiful and arresting, swinging his hips, kicking his heel forward. That’s to me what he is: that superior confidence in his body as a dancer. You wanted to say, ‘Wow, this guy, what a cat; he can really move in his own way.’”
As soon as I read this, I could picture that “simple, bouncy walk” so well. I love that walk, and it’s so distinctively Michael Jackson. We see snippets of it throughout the MTV medley you love so much, Joie. He also performs it as the skeleton in Ghosts, and even as a skeleton, it is so distinctively him. It’s just so joyful and carefree, and as Baryshnikov says, it reflects “that superior confidence in his body as a dancer.”
Joie: Yeah, that is a great quote from Baryshnikov and, you’re right. He did receive a lot of praise from many in the dance community. From the highly acclaimed and regarded all the way to the neophyte just trying to catch a break – like all those young dancers at the beginning of the This Is It film. You know, during an interview on The Making of Thriller, Michael Peters talks about how Michael had never taken a formal dance lesson in his life and yet, there he was in the dance rehearsals with all of these classically trained dancers who had been studying dance for years, and he was not simply holding his own with them, but he was actually out-dancing them. “It’s just something you’re born with,” Peters said. “It’s just in him.”
Willa: So a recent article, “Who Is Peter Pan,” in The New York Review of Books mentions Michael Jackson’s identification with Peter Pan, and it rather nonchalantly drops this little bombshell:
Occasionally, young boys slept over in Jackson’s mansion; he was twice accused of having abused them, but never convicted. Today, the consensus seems to be that he was innocent.
Joie, I know I should be thrilled that people are finally coming to their senses, and I am. But I have to admit, I’ve been storming around ever since I read that, muttering to anyone who will listen about the fickleness of public opinion. When he died, the overwhelming “consensus” was that he was guilty. If he wasn’t guilty of molestation exactly, though most people thought he was, he was suspiciously weird and almost certainly guilty of something. Now, three years later, “the consensus seems to be that he was innocent.” Why the change? No significant new evidence has emerged. There is no logical reason for people to have changed their minds, but they have. Millions of people have changed their minds. Why?
Joie: I don’t know, Willa, but I understand exactly why you’re upset about it. It’s very distressing to know that this beautiful man, who only ever had love in his heart and compassion for his fellow man, was so tortured and ridiculed and falsely accused during his life. But now, in death, so many of those who were doing the maligning seem to have changed their tune. Now, when it’s much too late.
Willa: I know. I just keep feeling this deep regret that the change couldn’t have come about while he was still alive. But the most vexing part of all this is that it couldn’t have, because his death is what triggered the change. There’s no logical reason for public opinion to shift just now. People aren’t changing their minds because of startling new evidence. The only difference between now and three years ago is that he’s gone. He had to die before public sentiment could change. And for me, one of the most distressing aspects of all this is that he knew it – he knew he had to die before people’s attitudes would change. He told us so in Ghosts.
Ghosts is such a fascinating short film in so many ways. In M Poetica I said it was like a seminar on art theory, and it is. We could use it as a springboard to get into some really fascinating theory, like Lewis Hyde’s ideas about trickster figures, or Elaine Scarry’s ideas about the body, or Julia Kristeva’s ideas about the abject, or Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas about carnival and the power of the grotesque to disrupt and defy authoritarian power structures. That’s one of the core ideas of Ghosts. We could spend months just talking about this one short film.
But we can also look at Ghosts as an artistic response to the 1993 allegations and scandal, and that’s the approach I wanted to take this week. There is so much in Ghosts that directly corresponds to what happened in 1993, and the media firestorm that followed.
Joie: You’re right, Willa. Both the song and the short film are virtually all about the events surrounding the extortion attempt of 1993, and it’s not even hidden; it’s all right there on the surface. All anyone has to do is simply pay close attention, starting with the three songs he chose to spotlight in the short film itself – “Is It Scary,” “Ghosts,” and “2Bad.”
Willa: It’s true – all three of those songs deal very explicitly with the 1993 allegations – and the plot of Ghosts reinforces that. It opens with a mob of angry villagers invading the home of an artist, a Maestro. He’s become friends with some of the village children and has been telling them ghost stories, and the villagers think that’s inappropriate. As one mom from the village tells him, “Aren’t you ashamed? Young people are impressionable.”
And of course, that precisely parallels what was happening in real life: he was an artist who developed close friendships with children, and a lot of people thought that was inappropriate. And they responded by obtaining a search warrant and invading his home.
Joie: You know, Willa, it really is very difficult to watch Ghosts and not see the parallels to his real life. If you had been paying attention to what was going on in his life at all – and let’s face it, the world couldn’t help but pay attention because the news media was obsessed with “the scandal” – you don’t have to wonder where he got his inspiration for the storyline. It mirrors exactly what happened to him, and I think it’s wonderful that he chose to channel his frustrations in such a creative way. And I think that says a lot about his character that he was willing to put his personal pain on display in order to try and educate the rest of us.
Willa: I agree, Joie. I think he was working through a lot of emotions as he created and developed this film. But he was also helping us as an audience work through our emotions as well. As an artist deeply committed to social change, he didn’t just express his feelings through his work. He was also very interested in how his work influenced us as an audience and how it helped us work through our feelings – how it evoked and redirected our emotions and altered our perceptions, as we talked about in the on-screen audience posts a couple weeks ago. And the way he approaches that in Ghosts is fascinating.
When the villagers invade the Maestro’s home, the first thing he does is appear to them in a frightening mask: instead of seeing his face, the villagers see a skull. They gasp and retreat from him in horror. But as soon as they back off, he drops the mask and reveals it’s just a disguise. The villagers then breathe a sigh of relief, start to relax, and reapproach him in a more friendly way.
It’s very interesting what’s just happened, both dramatically and psychologically. The villagers have invaded his home, which is a very aggressive act, but he immediately flips that dynamic so they are the ones feeling threatened – not him – and then he removes that threat, so they actually feel kind of grateful to him. Importantly, the villagers have invaded his home because they see him as a kind of monster – the kind who would hurt children – and he responds by appearing to them as a monster. So through the mask he evokes the precise emotions they already feel about him. But then he reveals it’s just an illusion: he’s not a monster. So there’s a very quick up-and-down movement of crisis and release that functions on several different levels.
Joie: Hmm. I never really examined that before, but you’re right. The villagers have invaded his home – they are the ones who are threatening him. But even before they actually enter the house, they are made to feel very frightened and apprehensive. They haven’t even met him yet, but they already feel afraid of him; it’s all in their minds!
Willa: Exactly, and he reflects those emotions back at them through the mask, but then undoes them in a way. So through the mask, he encourages the villagers to vent their emotions and then subtly reconfigures those emotions.
The Maestro and the villagers begin to talk, and as they talk the Mayor gradually builds a case against the Maestro. He says, “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids. We don’t need freaks like you telling them ghost stories.” He then becomes more aggressive, saying, “You’re weird, you’re strange, and I don’t like you. You’re scaring these kids, living up here all alone.” He even begins to threaten the Maestro, saying, “Back to the circus, you freak. And do yourself a favor, OK? Don’t force us get rough with you because we will, if we have to.” Finally, he gives him an ultimatum, saying, “Are you going to leave, or am I going to have to hurt you?”
Joie: That’s very interesting, Willa, particularly in terms of the language he uses in the dialogue between the Mayor and the Maestro. As you pointed out, the Mayor’s words are very specific. “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids.” And, of course, that was always the main accusation leveled against Michael himself – he wasn’t “normal.” He was called “weird” and “strange.” Many people thought of him as a “freak.” So, it’s very telling that these are the words Michael would choose to use for this particular exchange. It makes me think of Joe Vogel’s article, “Am I the Beast You Visualized: The Cultural Abuse of Michael Jackson,” which we talked about back in November, where Joe referred to all of those hurtful words as “slurs.”
Willa: That’s a really important point, Joie, and I think you’re right. I think he chose those words very deliberately. As you say, they are exactly the words that were used against him so often in the later years of his life. So what’s happening on screen is precisely reflecting what’s happening to him in real life off screen. Just as the mask reflected the villagers’ emotions back at them, his word choices reflect our emotions back at us.
Importantly, the Maestro responds to this aggression exactly as he did before, only more intensely this time: he distorts his face beyond recognition and then rips it off altogether, so once again his face appears as just a skull. Once again the villagers retreat from him in terror, just as they did before. And once again, as soon as they back off, he restores his face and reveals it’s just an illusion, exactly as he did before. So once again there’s that very quick up-and-down movement of crisis and release that gives vent to the villagers’ emotions by evoking their fears and reflecting them back at them, and then resolving those fears by showing it’s just an illusion.
Joie: The message here is very clear, I think. He’s pointing out the parallels between the Maestro character and his own personal life. So, by showing that it’s just an illusion, as you say, he’s telling us very clearly that all the perceived “weirdness” surrounding his personal life is also just an illusion, and what we – the public and the media – think we see, isn’t actually the real story.
Willa: I think so too, though there’s also a lot going on psychologically as well. We see that when he repeats that same up-and-down movement of crisis and release a third time. It’s even more extreme this time – instead of his face becoming a skull, his entire body becomes a skeleton – but the villagers reactions are rather different this time around, so there’s been a psychological shift. They’re surprised but they aren’t terrified, and they don’t retreat this time. They stay and watch what he has to show them, and when the skeleton begins to dance, they smile and enjoy his performance. In other words, they aren’t having such a fearful response to the “strange” and the “weird” as they were before. They’re still wary, but they’re becoming a little more accepting of difference.
And then he repeats this up-and-down pattern of crisis and release a fourth and final time, and this is the most intense of all: he destroys himself. He asks them, “So, do you still want me to go?” Many of the villagers, the children especially, shake their heads no, but the Mayor affirms, “Yes! Yes!” So the Maestro says, “Fine. I’ll go.” He drops down and smashes his hands into the floor, then his arms, and then his face. His nose drops off, his entire face disintegrates, his body turns to dust, and an unearthly wind blows it away.
The villagers are horrified, but for a completely different reason than before: not because they’re scared of him, but because they’ve started to feel a connection to him and are horrified that he’s destroying himself. So their feelings over the course of the film have undergone a complete reversal. He’s left, so he’s done what they said they wanted him to do, what they invaded his home to force him to do. But by this point they no longer want him to leave, and as soon as he’s gone they feel a sense of loss and want him back.
Joie: Just like what we’re seeing now that he’s no longer here with us. Wow. That’s very compelling, Willa. So you believe he understood that both he and his art would only be truly appreciated after his death?
Willa: I do. But I also think there’s more going on than that. I’m still struggling to figure this out and articulate it for myself, but I keep coming back to these lines from “Is It Scary”:
I’m gonna be Exactly what you wanna see It’s you who’s taunting me Because you’re wanting me To be the stranger in the night Am I amusing you? Or just confusing you? Am I the beast you visualized? And if you wanna see eccentric oddities I’ll be grotesque before your eyes Let them all materialize … So tell me Is that realism for you, baby? Am I scary for you?
You know, after he died, a lot of commentators expressed surprise that there was such an outpouring of grief for him considering all the years of scandal and controversy – of “eccentric oddities,” as Michael Jackson calls them in “Is It Scary.” But I’m starting to believe just the opposite: that the public outpouring of grief wouldn’t have been possible without all those years of “eccentric oddities.” Those eccentric oddities performed a crucial function – they provided a series of mini-dramas of crisis and release – just like that repeated up-and-down movement in Ghosts. As in Ghosts, those eccentric oddities allowed us to vent our emotions about him following the molestation accusations and encouraged us to work through them. So when he died, we’d already dealt with a lot of those negative emotions, and once he was really gone it was revealed to us that those negative emotions were an illusion – as The New York Review of Books article says, “Today, the consensus seems to be that he was innocent” – and we were brought back to our true feelings, which is how much he meant to us.
Joie: That’s a fascinating take on all this, Willa. I’ve never looked at it in this way before.
Willa: You know, I’m still working my way through this, and I could be completely wrong about this, but it feels to me that something very significant was happening through those “eccentric oddities,” both culturally and psychologically, and I think Ghosts is the key to understanding it. He had a very sophisticated aesthetic – I’m convinced his work functioned at deep psychological levels – and he was dealing with some very difficult issues of group psychology after the 1993 scandal broke. Basically, he was dealing with mass hysteria and the fear of the unfamiliar, just like the Maestro, and he responded in a way that directly addressed that group hysteria.
His response may not seem logical at first, but the subconscious mind isn’t logical – or rather, it has a logic of its own that differs from the logic of the conscious mind – and I believe that, through his “eccentric oddities,” he’s speaking directly to the subconscious mind. As he tells us in Ghosts, those repeated mini-dramas of crisis and release had a very specific psychological effect, and they were deliberately created to produce that psychological effect. In “Is It Scary” he tells us very explicitly what he intends to do: “I’m gonna be exactly what you wanna see” and “If you wanna see eccentric oddities, I’ll be grotesque before your eyes.”
Joie: I agree with you about the deliberateness of his art, Willa, and I really do believe the three songs featured in the short film (“Ghosts,” “Is It Scary,” and “2Bad”) were chosen very deliberately. I think you and I could probably spend an entire blog – maybe even two – just talking about those three songs in detail and how they relate both to the film and to what was going on in his life at the time.
You know, since we have been working on this blog, I have come to understand that there really wasn’t much about Michael Jackson’s art that was not done deliberately. He usually had a very calculated reason for everything he did and it just leaves me in awe. Wouldn’t you love to be able to get inside the mind of a truly great artist … just to try to understand their passion and fire for their art? That thought is so fascinating to me for some reason and I would just have loved to talk with him about his art. I can’t believe that so many journalists, like Bashir for instance, wasted the precious time they were granted with him by talking about such trivial things like his skin color and his perceived odd behavior. What a colossal waste of an opportunity!
Willa: Oh I know! That’s what strikes me most about the Bashir documentary as well – that he was given this incredible opportunity and completely squandered it. Imagine if you could go back in time and talk to Van Gogh for eight months and learn more – maybe not about how to interpret specific works, since artists tend to be very reluctant to limit their work to just one interpretation – but about his worldview and how his art fit within that worldview. What an amazing opportunity that would be. And Bashir was given that opportunity and completely wasted it. And the really sad thing is that Bashir has fed his mind on a diet of scandal for so long he doesn’t even seem to realize there’s a bigger world out there. Michael Jackson is wrestling with complex issues of social justice and perception and how we make meaning, as well as art’s ability to profoundly influence how we perceive and make sense of the world, and Bashir spends the entire eight months asking tabloid-type questions. It’s just stunning.
Fortunately, Michael Jackson left a lot of clues to help guide us in developing ways to approach his work and understand his worldview. And as we see in Ghosts, there is so much to discover and explore.
Joie: A few weeks ago, Willa and I were talking about Michael’s repeated use of an on-screen audience in many of his short films. And during that conversation, we talked a lot about the performance videos – the videos that portray a “staged” concert – and how they have a different feeling about them than simply watching actual concert footage. Well, since that discussion, I have not been able to get Give In to Me out of my head. I started watching it over and over shortly after we posted Part 1 of the on-screen audience conversation and what I realized is that there are a lot of interesting things going on in both the video and the song.
I have often heard “Give In to Me” described as a love song and that always puzzles me because, in my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth here. To me, this is not a song about love; it’s a song about lust. And it’s really very raw and frank in its lyrics. In the first verse, he tells the object of his desire, “Don’t try to understand me / Just simply do the things I say.” Then in the second verse, he tells her, “Don’t try to understand me / because your words just aren’t enough.”
I believe there is something much deeper going on here, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But, on the surface, I believe he’s talking about very base emotions: sexual desire, lust, physical satisfaction. He’s telling her that he doesn’t want to connect with her on any emotional level. “Don’t try to understand me,” he repeatedly sings. Then he goes on to say this:
Love is a feeling Quench my desire Give it when I want it Taking me higher Love is a woman I don’t wanna hear it Give in to me Give in to me
Every time I listen to this song, I’m struck by that line, “I don’t wanna hear it.” He repeats it several times throughout the song. It’s like he’s saying he doesn’t want to talk at all, he just wants to have sex.
Willa: I agree, especially when he follows it up with the line, “Tell it to the preacher.” It’s like he’s saying, save the romantic talk for someone who cares, because I don’t. He just wants her to “quench my desire” and be quiet about it. A preacher may care about love and commitment, but “I don’t want to hear it.”
Joie: It’s such an insensitive, cold, unfeeling thing to say, and those are attributes that we don’t usually associate with Michael Jackson but, there it is. Whether he himself ever felt this way, we will never know – and it’s totally none of our business anyway. But he did write a song about it and performed it very convincingly. The frustration and sexual tension in his vocal delivery is palpable, and combined with the sultry rhythm of the music it makes for one very sexy song.
Willa: You know, everything you’ve just said is so interesting, Joie, because on the one hand, I know exactly what you’re saying. There are some lines in this song that, if someone I cared about said them to me, I would find pretty hard to take – lines like “Don’t try to understand me / Just simply do the things I say.” I can understand why you zeroed in on that one because it really jumps out at me too. No woman I know would tolerate something like that. And while we need to keep in mind that these are the words of a character Michael Jackson is portraying in song and not necessarily his own thoughts and feelings, it’s still a shock because they seem to completely contradict everything he was about.
Willa: But I tend to interpret this in a different way. I agree that “Give In to Me” is a song about passion – and sexual passion is definitely part of that, as we see in those steamy images in the video. But it’s also a song about artistic passion. As we’ve talked about many times, Michael Jackson frequently represents his relationship with his audience as a love affair. We see that double relationship throughout his work: in Dirty Diana, Remember the Time, Who Is It, Blood on the Dance Floor, You Rock My World, and One More Chance, to name a few. And I see that same parallel relationship here. In fact, it’s very explicit – after all, he isn’t with a woman in the images for this video. He’s on stage, singing to an audience. But he keeps cutting to some pretty steamy scenes, so it seems to me that he’s very deliberately juxtaposing those scenes of couples in a sexual passion with him on stage in a creative passion.
Joie: I agree, it is very deliberate, isn’t it? And that’s the “something deeper” that I alluded to earlier.
Willa: I think so too – as with a lot of his work, you can intuitively feel that “something deeper” even before you dig in to see what that something is. And if we look at those troublesome lines that way – as an artist speaking to his audience – they make a lot more sense. When he says, “Don’t try to understand me” and “Give in to me,” he means we should stop speculating about his love life and his boa constrictors and his mannequins and on and on, and stop trying to psychoanalyze his relationship with his father and his mother and his siblings – in other words, we should stop looking at his personal life and stop trying to understand him that way – and instead, we should simply “give in” to him as an artist, and let ourselves be swept up by the power of his art.
But as usual with his work, I don’t see this as an either/or situation, meaning I don’t think we have to choose one interpretation over the other. Instead, I see it functioning both ways. To me, this is a song about sexual passion AND creative passion, and it explores both at the same time.
Joie: Willa, I agree with you completely, although I don’t like to use the words “sexual passion.” To me, that implies a loving relationship is in existence here but, that’s clearly not the case. But for lack of a better word or phrase to use, I think we’re talking about the same thing here. Basic lust – no strings attached gratification.
As for the relationship between the artist and his audience – I think we have to look at which segment of his audience he is really speaking to here. Clearly he’s not addressing those of us who were already on his side or he would be expressing feelings of love. I think this is another one of those songs where his intended audience is everyone who’s giving him grief over his eccentric lifestyle. All those people who are so busy speculating about the rumors and his private life that they can’t enjoy the music anymore. They’re too busy trying to psychoanalyze him, as you said.
But you know, Willa, even though I see this mainly as a song about lust, I also see something else very interesting happening in the song itself, which the short film sort of echoes. In the second verse he says,
You always knew just how to make me cry And never did I ask you questions why It seems you get your kicks from hurting me
Then, in the bridge of the song, he goes on to say,
You and your friends Were laughing at me in town But it’s okay And it’s okay You won’t be laughing, girl When I’m not around I’ll be okay And I … I gotta find Gotta … some peace of mind, oh
So, even though on the one hand, he says he doesn’t want any emotional entanglements with this woman, in the very next breath he’s expressing his hurt feelings over the way she treats him. And we see this in the video as well. On the surface, it’s just a simple performance video but there are some interesting things happening in the background that really catch my eye. Interspersed with the “concert” are these really sexy shots of various couples kissing and touching each other. Then suddenly one of those couples is in the midst of a heated argument. The man is very upset with his girlfriend and we – the off-screen audience – can really feel his frustration. There are shots of people laughing – presumably at him – as they whisper and stare. He storms off and begins throwing things around.
Willa, continuing to view this song/video with this dual interpretation in mind, those lines in the second verse and in the bridge of the song make so much sense if he’s talking to that segment of his audience I mentioned earlier.
Willa: Oh, I agree, Joie. Can you imagine putting your heart and soul into an album, and then having snarky critics mock you for your efforts? Just imagine what that would feel like. And that’s exactly what I think of every time I hear that line, “You and your friends / Were laughing at me in town.” He was a visionary: he knew the value of his work, he knew it was ahead of its time, and he knew those critics were wrong. But still, that had to sting – to work so hard on something and have it be so horribly misunderstood and under-appreciated. But he was also very knowledgeable about art history, and he knew critics would come to appreciate his work some day. And that’s what I think of when I hear the lines, “You won’t be laughing, girl / When I’m not around.” And it’s proven to be true. We can see it happening already. Now that he’s gone, a lot of people are discovering or rediscovering his work, and starting to realize just how incredible and important it is.
Joie: That is so true! And isn’t it amazing? Why is it that we never seem to appreciate the good things until they’re gone and it’s much too late? It makes me think of something my grandmother used to say quite a bit. She would always say ‘give me my flowers while I’m still here to enjoy them.’ And when I was younger, I didn’t really understand that. But now that I’m older and I’ve lost a few people who meant a great deal to me – her included – I understand so completely. What is it about human nature that makes us take so much for granted?
But getting back to what you were saying about putting your heart and soul into an album only to have critics mock your efforts … no, I can’t even begin to imagine what that must feel like. I mean, I would think it must be such a huge act of courage to devote yourself to your art – to labor over it and pour your soul into it, as you said – and then to actually be brave enough to share it with the world. Just writing this blog with you was such a major step outside of my comfort zone, Willa. And you remember how nervous I was about that!
Willa: Oh, me too!
Joie: I can’t imagine doing anything on the scale that Michael was doing it. That man just amazes me every time I think about his life and all that he accomplished. It just boggles my mind.
Willa: I agree, and I think that in Give In to Me he’s dealing with both the exhilaration and the pain of that – of creating art that is witnessed by millions of people who may or may not understand it – by connecting it with all the intensely felt emotions surrounding sexual desire.
But I don’t think this is just a metaphor for him. I think he really did see a connection between artistic passion and sexual passion. In a wonderful 1982 interview with Gerri Hirshey, he told her,
“Being on stage is magic. There’s nothing like it. You feel the energy of everybody who’s out there. You feel it all over your body. When the lights hit you, it’s all over, I swear it is.”
Hirshey notes that, as he talks, “He is smiling now, sitting upright, trying to explain weightlessness to the earth-bound.” His mother told Hirshey that he fasted and danced for hours every Sunday, “a weekly ritual that leaves her son laid out, sweating, laughing and crying.” Hirshey goes on to write,
“It is also a ritual very similar to Michael’s performances. … There is nothing tentative about his solo turns. He can tuck his long, thin frame into a figure skater’s spin without benefit of ice or skates. Aided by the burn and flash of silvery body suits, he seems to change molecular structure at will, all robot angles one second and rippling curves the next. So sure is the body that his eyes are often closed, his face turned upward to some unseen muse. The bony chest heaves. He pants, bumps and squeals. He has been known to leap offstage and climb the rigging. At home, in his room, he dances until he falls down.”
In another interview, he talked about how, when he’s on stage and the lights hit him, it just feels electric – like electricity is playing across his skin – and that’s represented visually in Give In to Me. Especially near the end, we see blue streaks of electricity racing across the surface of his body. It’s really erotic, the way he describes the experience of being on stage, and I think in Give In to Me he’s trying to share that feeling with those of us who’ve never performed – as Hirshey put it so well, he’s “trying to explain weightlessness to the earth-bound.”
Joie: What he’s trying to describe in that interview is the feeling of ecstasy.
Willa: Exactly. He’s trying to express an inexplicable feeling to those of us who’ve never experienced it. I see something very similar in the beginning of Martin Bashir’s notorious documentary. I know a lot of people are morally opposed to watching the Bashir documentary, and I can understand that, but if you want to see the intro part, here it is.
About 30 seconds in there’s the reference to “classical” music that Utravioletrae mentioned in an intriguing comment last week. About 3 minutes in he tries to explain his creative process to Bashir, which is both fascinating and frustrating. And then about 11 minutes in he tells Bashir, “I love climbing trees. I think it’s my favorite thing. Having water balloon fights and climbing trees. I think those two are my favorite.” Bashir immediately sensationalizes it, of course, saying, “Don’t you prefer making love?” Michael Jackson just looks at him with this indulgent little smile and very patiently explains that he’s talking about hobbies, not passions. As he says, climbing trees is one of his favorite things “as my pastime fun. I can’t compare it to performing. Other people like to play football or basketball. I like to climb trees.”
What catches my attention in this conversation is that, for Bashir, the ultimate expression of passion is “making love.” But Michael Jackson knows a passion that goes even beyond that – the agony and the ecstasy of creative passion. It’s a type of passion Bashir will never know, and he doesn’t understand it and even kind of ridicules it. But I look at that scene and think, wow, Michael Jackson experienced intensities of emotion most of us can’t even imagine.
Joie: And you’re probably very right about that, Willa. He did experience things in his life – both highs and lows – that most of us will never be able to begin to comprehend. And again, it just boggles my mind when I sit and think about the events of his life and his amazing career.
And, it is very interesting – and also very telling – that he obviously equates making love with performing. “I can’t compare it to performing,” he says. Bashir is talking about sex and, in Michael’s mind, “making love” equals being onstage. To him, that’s the only thing that can rival all the intense emotions one goes through when caught up in a sexual passion. That is fascinating!
But getting back to the video for a minute, I have to say that this has always been one of my very favorite short films. I love how dark and intense it feels, and I love the whole “concert” set up and watching Michael interact both with the fans in the crowd and with the other musicians on stage with him. You know, Michael himself said that this entire video was shot in just about two hours, which shocks me. When it debuted during his famous interview with Oprah, this is what they said about it:
Oprah: So, we want to know how it starts on a piece of paper … quench my desire … and turns into that.
Michael: Well, “Give In To Me,” I wanted to write another song, you know, that was kinda exciting and fun and had a rock edge to it. You know, like when I did “Beat It” and “Black or White.” And Slash, who’s a dear friend of mine … I wanted him to play guitar [on it]. We got together and we went to Germany and we shot this thing in just like two hours. We had no time at all to shoot it. We wanted it to be exciting and fantastical and fans, you know, like it’s a rock concert and that’s how it ends up, that’s the result.
He makes it all sound so effortless, doesn’t he? Like, ‘oh anybody can do that!’ I just crack up every time I read that.
Willa: He really does, though he almost always understated things in interviews, so it’s completely in character for him to say that. But even so, it was only the concert footage that they were able to shoot in two hours – and as you pointed out earlier, there’s a lot more going on in this video than just the concert footage. There are all those steamy scenes, and then the way he juxtaposes them is so interesting.
Joie: The video was directed by Andy Moharan and features not only Slash, who at the time was still with rock group Guns ‘N Roses, but also GnR’s Gilby Clarke makes an uncredited appearance as well as Teddy Andreadis, who was GnR’s touring keyboardist at the time. So the concert scenes really have an authentic feel to them with all the talent on the stage and the excitement from the screaming fans in the crowd.
Willa: It’s true, it does, and that intense excitement is really important to this video, both experientially and thematically. He wants us to feel what he feels. He wants us to experience the intensity of the artistic passion he feels on stage, and he creates that intensity through the screaming crowd, and the steamy scenes of couples in a sexual passion, and the jolts of lightning playing across his skin, and his incredible voice, and the way his body moves, and, wow – I can understand why this is one of your favorite videos, Joie! I think I need a drink of water – really cold water.
Joie: Mmm, it is getting warm in here, isn’t it?
Willa: It really is! But I want to get back to those steamy scenes you were describing earlier, Joie, and how that one couple is fighting. I’d never really noticed that until you mentioned it and then described it in detail, but I went back and looked and, you’re right, those scenes are so interesting, especially the way he echoes on stage what they’re doing off stage. At the beginning, the guy is murmuring reassurances to his girlfriend, trying to soothe things over, as Michael Jackson sings softly into the microphone:
She always takes it with a heart of stone ‘Cause all she does is throws it back to me I spent a lifetime looking for someone Don’t try to understand me Just simply do the things I say
Then, as the woman slaps the man’s face and begins arguing with him, Michael Jackson’s voice becomes much louder and harsher as he breaks into the chorus:
Love is a feeling Give it when I want it ‘Cause I’m on fire Quench my desire Give it when I want it Talk to me, woman Give in to me Give in to me
Frankly, if someone talked to me like that, I’d feel really hurt and maybe want to slap his face too. I’ve never actually slapped anyone before, but I just might if they acted like that! And then, as the man rubs his face from the slap, Michael Jackson’s voice softens and he begins quietly singing the second verse, which you quoted earlier:
You always knew just how to make me cry And never did I ask you questions why It seems you get your kicks from hurting me Don’t try to understand me Because your words just aren’t enough
So he’s telling us this isn’t just a one-time argument but a perpetual problem – as he sings, “You always knew just how to make me cry.” And as he sings this verse, we see the couple trying to reconcile, but there’s an iron fence between them. There’s a barrier they can’t get through, though they grab it and shake it. They can speak through it, but their “words just aren’t enough.” Finally, the man staggers away in frustration, leans on the fence, kicks at it. By this point he’s inarticulate – there’s nothing more to say – and so is Michael Jackson. The electric guitar goes off on a raging solo while he remains completely silent, spinning and hugging himself on stage.
This is when things get really interesting, because suddenly the on screen images and off screen images diverge. So far, what’s happening on stage has precisely paralleled what’s happening off stage. But now it bifurcates. Off stage, the man reunites with his girlfriend, sort of: he’s trying to kiss her through the iron fence and they’re making the best of it, but they both seem pretty frustrated and unsatisfied. But on stage – oh my gosh. I need another long drink of cold water because Michael Jackson is, like, climaxing on stage: the electric guitars are going crazy, he’s in a dancing frenzy, blue electricity is sizzling all over his body, pyrotechnics are going off, steam is shooting up around him, and his voice is throbbing, “Give in to me. Give in to me. Give in to me.” Oh my. It is intense.
Joie: Wow. … That was … good, Willa. That … was really … really … good. I hope it was good for you too!
Willa: Actually, I’m feeling kinda woozy. No wonder he sold a gazillion records. So part of me wants to just settle in with a nice pitcher of iced tea and watch this video over and over again – just do what he says, “give in” to the experience, and just immerse myself in it and enjoy it. Believe me, I have no problem with that at all!
But then the English major part of me wants to figure out what it means, and it seems like he’s saying that, while sexual passion has its limits, artistic passion doesn’t. We live in an imperfect world with imperfect relationships, where it’s very difficult for people to really connect and understand each other, and our sex lives reflect that. Sexual relationships can be beautiful and exhilarating and nourishing to the spirit, like you’re closer to the person you love than you ever dreamed possible, but they can also be confusing and painful and frustrating, like you’re trying to kiss the person you love through an iron fence. But in many ways, art is a heightened version of real life. So artistically, you can take that frustration, sublimate it, release it through art, and discover a passion beyond sexual desire.
Joie: Well, I think I agree with you 100% on this one. I think he was attempting to share what it feels like for him – being onstage – with the rest of us mere mortals. He was trying to explain that feeling of ecstasy he experienced when performing, and boy, did he do a great job of it! You know, like I said, this has always been one of my favorite videos but, I could never really explain why. I’ve never sat and dissected it like this before. Now that we have, I feel spent and I’m fighting the urge to cuddle. I will never be able to watch this video the same way again.