I Pray, Pray, Pray Every Day that You’ll See Things Like I Do
Willa: So Joie, in our last post, we kicked off the new season with a look at one of Michael Jackson’s first videos, Can You Feel It, which he made in 1981 with The Jacksons. And we ended up looking at how the Jacksons themselves are portrayed in this video as almost mythic figures. They’re the size of Titans and kind of translucent, like something supernatural, and they’re sprinkling golden stardust on amazed earthlings and giving them a supernatural glow also. Through these images, Michael Jackson seems to be saying something important about the role of the artist, and how he believes artists can use their art – their “golden stardust” – to bring about social change.
Joie: That’s an interesting summation, Willa. I like the way you put it all in a very tidy package.
Willa: Thanks! Anyway, for some reason, that discussion reminded me of Say Say Say, a video he made two years later with Paul McCartney. It’s very different in tone and feeling from Can You Feel It, but Say Say Say also has some very interesting things to say about the cultural function of artists. But it approaches it in a different way – not by portraying artists as supernatural figures, but as tricksters and con artists.
Joie: Once again, Willa, the way your mind works astounds me! I would never have drawn a connection between Can You Feel It and Say Say Say. But I think I see where you’re going with this, and I am amazed. Tell us more.
Willa: Well actually, Joie, you’re the one who opened my eyes to Say Say Say and got me thinking about it in a new way, back when we did a post on Michael Jackson’s repeated use of an on-screen audience. As you described back then, “Mac” and “Jack” are both entertaining their audience and scamming them at the same time.
Joie: Hmm. That was an interesting and fun conversation. But how does that relate to Can You Feel It?
Willa: Well, just that both videos are talking about specific ways artists can use their art to make the world a better place. Can You Feel It approaches that question in an almost mythic way, while Say Say Say takes more of a historical approach. What I mean is, it takes a pair of modern musicians – Paul “Mac” McCartney and Michael “Jack” Jackson – and places them within a long tradition of troubadours and vaudevillians and other traveling performers. And then it looks at the different ways they interact with different audiences, and how that brings about subtle changes. In other words, it looks at their cultural function, just like Can You Feel It does, though it approaches it in a different way.
Joie: Okay, I see what you’re getting at. But something you just said struck me, Willa. You mentioned the “long tradition of troubadours and vaudevillians and other traveling performers.” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about musicians and life on the road. You know, many bands are on the road almost constantly. Some performers, like Michael Jackson for instance, really didn’t care for touring that much. We’ve all seen the video clip of him talking about how he hated touring because it was hard on the body, etc.
Willa: Oh, do you mean this one?
I love this clip! He is too funny. …
Joie: But there are many bands out there who actually love being on the road, and they’re out there for over a year and a half at a time, promoting a single album. Then they go back into the studio, make another album, and get right back out on the road all over again. And if you think about it, with the exception of making an album, all those traveling troubadours and vaudevillians lived out their lives on the road in much the same way.
Willa: That’s true, Joie. And he seems to be exploring that life in Say Say Say. The Mac and Jack characters are almost like gypsies – another tradition of traveling musicians.
Joie: Ah, gypsies! I forgot about them, but you’re right! They’re part of that whole tradition of traveling troubadours and con artists as well.
Willa: Exactly. I don’t know that gypsies really were con artists, but that’s how they were perceived. In fact, that’s come to be an important part of the mythology of gypsies – that they weren’t just musicians but peddlers of exotic, even magical, objects, as well as fortunetellers with an uncanny knowledge. And they were tricksters who could help you out, but maybe not – maybe their magic trinkets could trick you and work against you.
So there was an aura of magic and intrigue around them, and when they came to town, they disrupted everyday life with a spirit of carnival that was both fun and unsettling. And we definitely see that in Say Say Say. When Mac and Jack roll into town, the villagers flock to them but aren’t quite sure if they should trust them or not.
Joie: That’s a really good description of what we see at the start of the video, Willa. Everyone is gathered around to watch the presentation and see what’s going on. They’re all very curious about the supposed “medical” potion that will make them strong. You can see the uncertainty and the skepticism on all of their faces. But yet, they can’t walk away because they are fascinated.
Willa: Yes, and what fascinates them is a performance. Only they don’t know it’s a performance, and neither do we, actually. We’re in the same position as the villagers at first. Mac is selling a magic potion “guaranteed to give you unbelievable power,” and a slim figure from the audience – Jack, though we don’t know that yet – volunteers to give it a try. He’s so weak he can’t even get the top off the bottle, but one sip sends him spinning, and then he’s able to beat a strongman with bulging muscles in an arm-wrestling contest. The villagers flock to buy the potion, and Mac winds up leaving town with a satchel full of money. Then we discover the strongman is traveling with him, they stop and pick up Jack on the outskirts of town, the strongman gives him a smile, and we realize the whole thing was a scam.
But what’s interesting is that it’s a scam that’s also an artistic performance. Everything the villagers experienced was scripted ahead of time by Mac and Jack, just like a play, and it has actors and a plot, like a play. Only this play crosses the line between reality and art because it doesn’t announce itself as art, so the villagers think it’s real. And it has real effects – it encourages the villagers to buy the potion. So is it real, or is it art? We’re used to drawing clear distinctions between the two, but that question doesn’t really make sense in this case because it’s both.
And it’s fascinating to me to think about all that in terms of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic – for example, in terms of the changing color of his skin – because I see that the same way. It’s an artistic performance that we (the audience, the media, the commentators on his life) didn’t see as art, so it blurs the boundary between what’s real and what’s art also. To some extent, it was very real – he really did suffer from vitiligo, suffered terribly – but it was also an artistic performance. And it was a performance that had real effects. I think it profoundly influenced how we think about racial differences.
Joie: That’s an interesting parallel you’ve drawn, Willa. I’m not sure I would have made that connection between Say Say Say and Michael’s skin disorder, but I can totally see your point. You have a unique way of looking at things that always amazes me somehow.
Willa: Well, I don’t want to push that connection too hard – that’s just an example. There’s lots more, like think of the times he and Slash played out a charade that Slash was taking over the stage – that he was playing his guitar out of control and couldn’t or wouldn’t stop. Stagehands would even come from off stage and try to drag Slash off. It was all just an act, but if you weren’t in on the joke, it wasn’t clear if it was real or not.
Michael Jackson did things like that quite a bit, so it’s really interesting to me that Say Say Say begins by depicting an artistic performance, but it’s a different kind of art. It’s not like a painting that sits in a frame on the wall. This is art that refuses to stay on the wall. It jumps out of its frame and draws everyone into the performance. Looking at it that way, Say Say Say is presenting a very different view of art, and of the artist as well – as a trickster or con artist who engages everyone around him into his art, not just as an amused audience but as unwitting performers.
Joie: You know, Willa, this video is all about presenting that different type of artistic performance. They repeat that theme in the latter half of the film as well when we see them onstage doing their vaudeville act. And again, it’s a performance that’s also a con in a sense, because they end up using it to elude the police who come looking for them over the whole “Mac and Jack” wonder potion scam.
Willa: And because they’re pool sharks, apparently. At least, Mac is. …
Joie: But what I find truly interesting about this video is that our tricksters are actually con artists with hearts, because separating these two scenes of possible criminal activity is a sweet little interlude where we see Mac and Jack, and their two cohorts, delivering a large satchel of money to an orphanage. So we learn that they aren’t just out there conning the public for their own selfish gain. Instead, they have a much more noble cause. They are actually a small band of Robin Hoods, if you will – taking money from those who can afford to spare a little, and giving it to those who have nothing.
Willa: I agree, and that’s a great way of describing it, Joie. They really are like Robin Hoods, aren’t they? In their own small way, they’re helping to redistribute wealth from those who have enough to those who don’t.
But they don’t just provide the orphans with money – they entertain them also. Mac performs magic tricks, pulling a bouquet of flowers out of thin air, while Jack walks across a balance beam, then spins and bows. And they’re singing the entire time, so they bring music to the orphanage as well. And actually, that suggests another function of art: it can provide joy or inspiration or comfort to those who are having a hard time, and maybe lift the spirits of those who are feeling down.
Joie: Oh, my goodness, Willa! You make that sound like an afterthought, or like it’s just a pleasant side effect or something. But to me, that is the most important function of art! Of any kind of art, no matter what it is – painting, dancing, music, whatever.
I know that there are probably those out there who will disagree with me on this, but that’s ok because they would be perfectly correct in doing so. Because I think art functions as many different things to many different people. Don’t you? I mean, trite as this may sound, but some people – maybe even most people – couldn’t care less about the political message or the social implications behind a particular work of art. They just know that it moves them in some way and it makes them feel happy or sad or pensive, or whatever it makes them feel. Whether it’s a song or a painting, or a performance.
Willa: Hmmm … Is that the most important function of art? Wow, I’m going to have to think about that. That’s one of the things I love most about our conversations, Joie – you always make me think!
Boy, I’m really going to have to think about this for a while, but my first response is to wonder if maybe this isn’t one of the dividing lines between entertainment and art. I’d say the primary function of entertainment is to move us – to engage us emotionally and make us feel “happy or sad or pensive,” as you say. But to me, art has to do much more than that. I guess I would say that, for me, the main distinction between art and entertainment is that entertainment tends to reinforce what we already think or feel about things. So if a light-hearted song makes us feel happy or a John Phillips Souza march makes us feel patriotic or a Norman Rockwell painting makes us feel nostalgic, then that’s entertainment. But while art can definitely move us emotionally, it also challenges our preconceived ideas about things. There’s always something a little unsettling about art, even though it can be as pleasurable as entertainment, because at some level it forces us to question ourselves and how we see and respond to the world.
And to me, what’s so incredibly powerful about Michael Jackson is that he’s both an entertainer and an artist. He caught our attention as an entertainer, and we fell in love with him as an entertainer. As Berry Gordy said at his memorial service, he was perhaps “the greatest entertainer that ever lived.” But we can’t get him out of our minds because he’s also an artist. His work disturbs us in a way that won’t turn us loose – we, as a culture, can’t stop thinking about him – because he was also a powerful artist … the most important artist of our time, I think.
Joie: Willa, I’d like to say that I don’t disagree with you. But … just for the sake of playing devil’s advocate here for a minute … if we apply what you just said, about Michael Jackson’s work both entertaining us and disturbing us “in a way that won’t turn us loose,” to other entertainers, then can we say that someone like E.L. James, for instance, is also a powerful artist? After all, her erotic trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey – which no one would call a literary masterpiece by any means – was both entertaining, and it greatly disturbed us in a way that won’t turn us loose. We, as a culture, can’t seem to stop thinking about it. But I’m not sure I would call her a powerful artist.
It’s a bit of a reach but, I guess the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t believe there always has to be an unsettling component to art. I don’t find anything disturbing or unsettling about any of Edgar Degas’ ballerina paintings, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, or even B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” for that matter. And those are just three small examples of great art that moves us emotionally. I’m sure if I really sat and concentrated on making a list, I could find many, many more examples.
Willa: Those are great examples, Joie, and they can really help clarify this, I think. I’m not talking about a moment’s titillation of sex or violence that shocks us for a few days or even a few years and then fades away. I’m talking about an earthquake that permanently shifts the landscape, forever changing how we experience our world.
I don’t know much about Fifty Shades of Grey, but from what you just said it sounds like a temporary titillation. But Degas and the Impressionists were something completely different. Looking back, we tend to forget they were radicals whose work was rejected by the Academy. Paintings of ballerinas, everyday ballerinas, made from blobs of bright color smeared onto the canvas? That was heresy! Everyone knew a proper painting should portray the nobility sitting stiffly upright, or maybe a scene from Greek mythology, and should be meticulously crafted with careful, invisible brush strokes. The Impressionists challenged all that, and revolutionized how we see and experience art. To them, the important thing was to try to capture the experiential essence of a moment – of seeing and feeling and experiencing that moment – and it’s a measure of how completely they changed our ideas that they became the new normal. Today, when we think of the great works – the masterpieces of western art – many of the paintings that immediately spring to mind are Impressionist paintings.
You could say the same about Beethoven. Like the Impressionists with visual art, Beethoven revolutionized how people thought about and experienced music. He remains one of the most influential composers of all time. And B.B. King influenced a whole generation of blues guitarists, and through them rock guitarists. You can still hear his influence all over the radio, especially when you hear a high wailing guitar solo. R&B and rock music would sound different today without B.B. King.
It’s too early to tell what Michael Jackson’s long-term impact on the arts will be – and that’s not even talking about his cultural impact, such as how we think about race and gender. But I think it will be far greater than his direct influences on music, dance, videos, fashion, visual art, though those are huge. I think he’s doing something far more fundamental, and challenging how we define art itself.
Joie: Well, I don’t want to get sidetracked on this, but I have to point out that Fifty Shades is more than just temporary titillation that shocks us for a minute and then we let go of it. No one is letting go of it. That’s the point.
Willa: I’m sorry, Joie! I didn’t mean to dis Fifty Shades. I know absolutely nothing at all about it, other than what you’ve told me.
Joie: Well interestingly, it has become as much a part of our cultural experience as Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And, much like Thriller helped to revolutionize the record industry back in the early 1980s, Fifty Shades of Grey is helping to do the same for the publishing industry. At least the fiction side of it.
There are millions of women out there who have begun writing for the first time in their lives, all because of a fascination with E.L. James’ titillating little story. The term Fan Fiction has become a household word. And hundreds of those women have begun branching out, using Fan Fiction as a springboard to create and self-publish their own original works of fiction. This is an exciting time to be a fiction writer because of outlets like Amazon and Book Baby, making self-publishing so easy and accessible.
But it’s the writers who have found success in unconventional ways – like Ms. James and her titillating read that began as Fan Fiction – who are fueling the imaginations of readers and inspiring them to try their hand at creating something as well. Much like B.B. King and his influence on a whole generation of blues and rock guitarists. I think that counts as “an earthquake that permanently shifts the landscape, forever changing how we experience our world.”
Willa: You could be right. It is impressive that she’s inspired so many other women to write.
Joie: Like I said, it’s an interesting topic, but getting back to our conversation about Say Say Say, the point I was trying to make is that I believe that art can be many different things to many different people. And for me personally, the most important function of art is that it provides joy and inspiration and comfort. It makes me feel happy, it lifts me up when I’ve had a difficult day, it soothes me when I’m feeling down. I don’t care what the political message was behind it, or what social injustice the artist was attempting to address when he or she created it. My only concern is how it makes me feel in the moment. That’s a very real function of art. But I wasn’t saying it was the most important function. I said it was the most important function for me.
Willa: I think I see what you’re saying, Joie, and I agree that connecting with an audience is really important. It doesn’t matter how innovative a work is – if no one cares about it, it isn’t going to survive. And I think Michael Jackson himself would agree with you too. When asked what makes a good music video, his first response was that “it has to be completely entertaining.” So I hope it didn’t sound like I don’t care about that, or think it isn’t important. Michael Jackson’s music and films move me more than I can say, and I wouldn’t care about them nearly so much if they didn’t.
But some artists do more than move us or soothe us or make us feel better. Some actually change the current of art and send it flowing in a new direction, and they lead us to think about art – how we define and experience art – in a new way. And I think Michael Jackson was one of those rare people. He was constantly pushing the boundaries of art, and questioning the role of the artist and of art itself. That’s developed more fully in his later work, but it’s interesting to me that we can see elements of it in his early work as well.
For example, Say Say Say begins with Mac and Jack as traveling minstrels, as we mentioned before – a tradition that goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. Then later we see them doing a vaudeville show, as you said, Joie. That’s a tradition that’s very problematic for black artists because performing in blackface was such an prominent part of vaudeville. So it’s significant, I think, that they paint their faces during that section – not in blackface but as crying clown faces. And then, they subtly evoke film musicals also since, during the vaudeville show, they’re kind of re-creating the “Fit as a Fiddle” number from Singing in the Rain, as Nina pointed out in a comment last year. Here’s a clip of “Fit as a Fiddle”:
So Say Say Say is a very fun and entertaining video – and I don’t in any way dispute that, or think it isn’t important – but it’s more than that. It’s also subtly taking us on a tour through the tradition of music performance or music theater – from traveling troubadours to the vaudeville stage to Hollywood musicals – and it’s both celebrating and questioning that tradition, I think.
Joie: That’s an interesting take, Willa. And it makes me wonder where they could have gone with it, you know? As you say, they subtly take us on a tour through the tradition of music performance or music theater – and I wonder what that video may have looked like if they hadn’t stopped at a certain point, but instead kept the history lesson going up to the present. From traveling troubadours and Hollywood musicals, up through the traveling concert tours of today. Now that would have been interesting!
Posted on September 12, 2013, in Michael Jackson and tagged B.B. King, Can You Feel It, Degas, Fifty Shades of Grey, gypsies, Impressionists, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Say Say Say, Singing in the Rain, vaudeville. Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.