Willa: This week Joie and I are very happy to be joined by our friend, Eleanor Bowman. Eleanor joined us a few weeks ago for a fascinating look at Michael Jackson’s environmental works, and how she believes he’s challenging our notions of a mind/body split as well as reconfiguring our relationship with nature. Since then, Eleanor has been researching what she sees as an important but largely overlooked period in Michael Jackson’s artistic development: the late 1970s, when he and La Toya Jackson were living in New York, he was working on The Wiz, and he was spending a lot of time at Studio 54. Eleanor, thanks so much for joining us!
Eleanor: Hi Willa. Thanks to you and Joie for inviting me.
Joie: We’re excited to have you.
Willa: So Eleanor, I love the interview you shared of Michael Jackson at Studio 54, talking with Jane Pauley about what made Studio 54 special and different from any other club:
Eleanor: Isn’t that interview great! His innocence and sweetness and kindness and sincerity are so “out there.” Probably one of the last unguarded interviews he ever did.
Willa: He seems so earnest, doesn’t he? Like he’s trying really hard to explain to Jane Pauley how he sees things and feels about things, but she isn’t quite getting it.
Eleanor: Right. One of the funny things about this interview is that Pauley seems amazed at MJ’s seemingly innocent enjoyment of Studio 54, which was notorious for sex and drugs – but he just wasn’t “going there” in the interview. He wanted to focus on other things – on the magic and fun and the freedom. I think Pauley didn’t really understand that Michael’s childhood touring experiences – sharing rooms with his older, sexually active brothers and opening for strip shows – had pretty much inured him to being shocked by anything (except, of course, cruelty and hate). I think she couldn’t understand that the innocent he appeared to be could take what he wanted and needed from the Studio 54 experience and leave the rest alone.
Joie: Why don’t you explain Studio 54, Eleanor, for those who aren’t aware of what it was exactly.
Eleanor: I’d be happy to, Joie. Studio 54 was a legendary Manhattan disco – the brainchild of a couple of young guys, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. It was so famous that it defined New York night life in the late 70′s and early 80′s. People came from all over the world to join the crowds outside its doors, hoping to get in. Rubell and Schrager apparently had hit on the perfect recipe for providing a place where the glamorous – celebrities and non-celebrities alike – could mix and mingle and dance, and live out their fantasies (which for some meant being able to openly indulge in sex and drugs). And, it was probably the last place I would expect to find the shy, retiring Michael Jackson. Yet, there he was, along with Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, Cher, Brooke Shields, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Mick Jagger, Bianca Jagger, Steven Tyler, Caroline Kennedy, Maria Shriver, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tatum O’Neil. Here are some pictures:
He was even rumored to DJ with Truman Capote….
Willa: Wow, Michael Jackson and Truman Capote DJing together? Wouldn’t you love to know what they played? And how they decided? And what they said into the mic? And what they said to each other?
Eleanor: I can’t even begin to imagine it – talk about an odd couple. But, from the number of times Michael shows up in photos of Studio 54 and the enthusiasm he displays in the Pauley interview, I think he must have been having a good time. This is one of the few periods in his life where we can see him relaxed and enjoying himself in a social situation. After his megastardom kicked in, this type of experience was no longer available to him.
Joie: It’s interesting to think of it that way, isn’t it? And it is almost strange, as a fan, to see him so relaxed in a social setting because we didn’t see that very many times during his life.
Eleanor: Yes, I know. But I’m so happy that at least he had that brief window of time where he could enjoy a relatively normal life – normal at least for MJ.
Willa: So why do you see this as such an important time period for him? And how does Studio 54 figure into that?
Eleanor: Well, this was the time (1977-79) when Michael was not only entering adulthood, but also transitioning from the lead singer of the Jackson 5 and The Jacksons to Michael Jackson, megastar. During this time his physical appearance and personal style also were undergoing a significant change, which I think mirrored the psychological changes he was going through and which are reflected in the photos and video clips taken of him at Studio 54. Right before your eyes you can see the excited wide-eyed nineteen-year-old Michael Jackson with the big ‘fro in the interview with Jane Pauley morph into the sophisticated young man in sports jacket, ascot, and Jheri curl, celebrating his 21st birthday.
I think he had a very clear idea of who he was and what he was capable of. As I was working on this post, I came across this interesting piece of information: in 1979, when Michael was 21, he wrote a note to himself, declaring exactly how he intended to transform himself – from the child star that he had been to the adult megastar he would become. He declared that he wanted to be magic:
“MJ will be my new name,” he wrote. “No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a totally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang ‘ABC,‘ ‘I Want You Back.’ I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.”
He knew where he was going, but he needed a vision. And along came Studio 54 – at just the right time. At Studio 54 it was all laid out in front of him, to pick and choose what he could use. I think Studio 54 gave him permission – and the tools – to act out his fantasies in terms of his appearance and his art – influencing his music videos, his creation of Neverland, and his live performances. He not only wanted to be the best – at everything – he wanted to be spectacular. He wanted to be magic – and he had seen magic and fantasy worlds created before his eyes at Studio 54.
Willa: This idea of creating “magic” and “fantasy worlds,” as you call it, Eleanor, sounds very Michael Jackson, doesn’t it? I can see how that would capture his imagination, and it really doesn’t seem to be the nightclub scene that he was after. As he says in the interview, “I’ve been to a lot of discotheques and I don’t like them,” but he says “I like the atmosphere at Studio 54.” And when Jane Pauley questions him about why Studio 54 seems different, he says, “I don’t know – the feeling, the excitement, the props coming down, the balcony. It’s just exciting, honestly.” So it does seem to be that feeling of magic and fantasy that he was after.
How did Studio 54 create that sense of “magic”?
Eleanor: Well, for one thing Rubell and Schrager hired Broadway set designers to create moveable sets, and they spent up to $20,000 a night to transform the cavernous space of Studio 54 into different fantasy worlds. For a New Year’s Eve party, four tons of glitter were dumped in a four-inch layer on the floor. Schrager described the experience as like “standing on stardust.” The lavish set-like decorations invited guests to dress up in costumes and become part of the show.
Michael saw how much people – even celebrities – seemed to hunger and long for escape – how they came night after night to escape into the magical world Rubell and Shrager created. He saw how people – through costumes and make up – could create incredible illusions; how transvestite men could become extravagantly beautiful women. Adding all this to his experience doing The Wiz, with its own elaborate sets (The World Trade Center was the set for the Emerald City. Isn’t that fascinating!), Studio 54 opened his eyes not only to the techniques of creating fantasy, but to how much people craved it.
It is this theatricality, this magic, that Michael focuses on in the Jane Pauley interview – and his description of how he experiences Studio 54 really got my attention. It reminded me so much of what Michael said, 30 years later, at the conclusion of This Is It when he tells the young singers and dancers that the show is a great adventure: “we just want to give them experiences, escapism, take them to places they’ve never been before, show them talent like they’ve never seen before.” And, it was Schrager’s and Rubell’s ability to do just that that contributed to Studio 54′s incredible success.
Joie: Eleanor, I think that’s fascinating! Honestly, I had never wondered where Michael first fell in love with this sense of magic and theatricality that was always so present in his solo work but, you are probably absolutely correct in saying that it most likely began with Studio 54 and the time he spent there. Amazing! And how many times throughout his career did we hear him talk about that escapism that people craved so much. He said it over and over, that he just wanted to make people happy and give them that escapism that they desired.
Eleanor: Right, Joie. And maybe it had something to do with that period of time when he came of age. You know, the Manhattan of the 70′s was very different from the Manhattan of today. Like most inner cities of that time, it was crumbling and crime ridden – a place where it was not just the rich and famous who craved escapism and found it in music. At night, the parks were filled with young people – mainly black – dancing to music pulsating from boomboxes wired up to lamp posts – and orchestrated by neighborhood DJ’s. Here’s a link to a short video about those times:
No matter where Michael Jackson looked, people rich and poor, white and black were looking for magic, for escape and finding it in music and dance – often his. Whether he was traveling the black streets of Manhattan and Queens (where The Wiz production studios were) or enjoying the privileged white world of Studio 54, he saw the power of music and dance – especially the power it had to provide not only an escape, but an ecstatic experience. But, he also saw the desperation in this need for escape, a desperation which often degenerated into sex and drugs (and sometimes violence) – whether in the parks or the disco. And he watched as excess quickly destroyed Studio 54 – its drugged-out proprietors stuffing walls and ceiling with cash until they were finally hauled off to jail for tax evasion – and the magic ended.
As Willa points out in M Poetica, I think he was coming to see music and dance as an alternative and safer means of escape – an alternative to indiscriminate sex and drugs and street violence. As a member of the Jackson 5 and the Jacksons, he knew his music could make people happy, bring joy to their lives. I love seeing video clips of him as a teenager engaging with the audience, getting them to sing along. But I think as he matured and became more and more aware of the terrible problems in the world, he also wanted to be an agent of change – and his experience at Studio 54 and in 70′s NYC not only deepened this desire, but provided him with both the psychological insights and the technical know-how to achieve his goals.
Willa: That’s a really interesting way to look at that, Eleanor, because for many people, Studio 54 didn’t represent fantasy and theatricality so much as the epitome of 70s excess, especially indiscriminate sex and drug use. So Studio 54 was kind of like a huge circus tent of human desire, in many different forms – from sex and drugs to escapism and magic. And it’s interesting to think of a young Michael Jackson wandering around in there, observing what humans desire most, how it expresses itself, and what the implications and consequences are of indulging those desires.
Eleanor: “A huge circus tent of human desire.” What a great image. And I love to think of him there, enjoying himself, yet detached. Soaking it all up, taking it all in, absorbing it, to be transformed into his own unique creations by his astonishing and awesome artistic vision. He truly was a magician. He was magic.
Willa: Oh, he was definitely a magician! I think we all can agree about that.
So thank you again for joining us, Eleanor. We really enjoyed it. Joie and I also wanted to announce that we won’t be publishing new posts from June 25th to August 29th. (It’s like our own 10-week version of Lent.) However, like last year we’ll be be posting summer reruns each week of some of our favorite posts. We hope this will give us a chance to revisit some of those posts and talk about them in more depth, and maybe explore areas we didn’t discuss the first time around. We’re also hoping to use this time to update the Reading Room, so if you have any suggestions for articles we should add, please let us know.
Joie: So, Willa, you and I talked recently about the recurring theme of cheating death in some of Michael’s work. And interestingly, that got me thinking about all of the other recurring themes we normally see from him. You know, he really did seem to have this certain set of subject matter that he would visit again and again, and if we look closely, we easily begin to see the pattern.
Honestly, if you think about it, Michael’s entire catalog can really be sort of divided up into certain boxes or themes. So many of his songs work so well together. In fact – and I know that I can’t be the only one out there who does this – but on my mp3 player and on my computer, all of my MJ playlists are sectioned off into these little theme boxes, and I give them names like ‘The Scary Mix,’ or ‘The Love Mix’ or ‘The Tabloid Mix’ or ‘The Humanity Mix.’ And I bet without me even telling you, you can figure out for yourself which of his songs I’ve placed into each of these playlists.
Willa: And don’t forget the Environmental songs and Global Issues songs and Children and Childhood songs – or do you include those with the Humanity Mix?
Joie: Oh, those aren’t all of my MJ playlists, I only mentioned four! And I actually have many songs in more than one playlist. But do you get what I’m saying about the recurring themes in Michael’s music?
Willa: Sure, it’s fun to group songs like that.
Joie: Yes, it is fun, but there’s more to it than that. I often wonder why Michael keeps touching on these certain themes. I mean, some of them make perfect sense to me. Like the songs I have in my ‘Humanity Mix.’ Songs like “We Are the World,” and “Heal the World,” and “Earth Song,” etc. Those make sense to me because we all know how much Michael loved this Earth and his fellow man.
But then there are the songs in my ‘Scary Mix’ that I can’t explain so easily. You know, songs like “Smooth Criminal,” and “Threatened,” and “Torture.” And, of course, “Thriller.” And I remember watching an interview Michael did for MTV and they were talking about the Thriller short film. Michael tells the interviewer that he never thought he would be involved in making such a thing because he is afraid to watch horror movies. But yet, he has become sort of synonymous with scary songs and videos like Thriller and Ghosts. That’s fascinating to me for some reason.
Willa: Oh, I know the interview you’re talking about, Joie. It’s one of my favorites – the 1999 MTV interview by Alex Colletti. Here’s a clip, and the part you’re talking about is around 3:30 minutes in:
As he says, “Believe it or not, I’m afraid to watch scary movies. … I never thought I’d be involved in making that sort of thing, but I am.” And you’re right, Joie – it is fascinating to think about why he spent so much time and energy on “that sort of thing.” As we know, he was very contemplative about his art and generally had important artistic reasons for approaching things the way he did, though sometimes those reasons aren’t obvious at first. So what was so compelling for him about the horror genre?
Joie: That’s one of my favorite interviews too, Willa. And I wonder if what he found so compelling about it was the fact that he got to transform into a monster. I mean, we know that he loved stage makeup and theatrics and special effects so, maybe that had something to do with it.
Willa: I think you’re right that he really loved disguises and enjoyed transforming into someone or something else. Just think of all the times he transforms on film – in Thriller and Moonwalker and Ghosts, among others. And apparently he enjoyed being the Scarecrow so much during filming of The Wiz that he was reluctant to transform back, and even wore his costume home a couple times!
But I think there was a lot more going on also. As we’ve talked about different times – with Thriller, “Threatened,” “Is It Scary,” Ghosts, and others – he seemed to have profound artistic reasons for evoking the horror drama. I’m still trying to figure all this out, but it seems to me it has something to do with a psychological notion called “affect,” which is a place where psychology, reason, emotions, and physical sensations all come together and interact.
For example, in the 1970s and 80s, America was in the midst of a terrible crime wave – an epidemic of violent crime – centered in the inner cities. There are complex social, political, and economic reasons for why that all happened, but the media pretty much ignored those reasons and simply focused on portraying young black men as violent criminals. But the 1970s and 80s were also a time when Michael Jackson was extremely popular, so he was in a very complicated position – he was a young black man who was celebrated in the media and loved by millions of white Americans, while other young black men were demonized in the press and treated with suspicion and fear. I think he felt that disconnect and wanted to address it.
So imagine you’re a young white woman walking down a city street in the 1980s and you see a young black man walking toward you. Because of all the scary stories you’ve been hearing in the media – like the gang rape and brutal beating of the Central Park jogger, a story that received extensive media attention across the U.S. – you might react to the sight of that young man differently than if you saw a white man or an Asian man or a woman walking toward you. You might look at him and think about the Central Park jogger and some of those other stories you’ve been hearing, and you might feel a sense of uncertainty or even fear.
Or you might not consciously think about anything at all, but still look at that young black man and immediately experience a quickened pulse and a vague sense of uneasiness without knowing why. That’s “affect” – when stimuli cause an immediate psychological, emotional, and physical reaction in us before we’ve even had time to think about it. And it’s extremely difficult to change our affective response to things because it’s pre-verbal and pre-cognitive. It’s a response that happens so fast and so instinctively we can’t control it. But that doesn’t mean it’s natural. It’s created by our social “conditioning” living in a racist culture – and that word “conditioning” is one Michael Jackson himself used.
As I said, I’m still working all this out, but because he was a black artist who celebrated his difference, the media and even the general public tended to see him as Other, even a monster, as we talked about last week. And I think in his “scary” films he was taking on a monumental task – he was attempting to undo our social conditioning and alter our affective response to certain stimuli, specifically differences of race and gender and other differences we have been conditioned to perceive as threatening in some deep psychological way.
Joie: I think that’s all very interesting, Willa. And I agree with everything you’ve just said. And I think you may have hit on the exact notion I’m trying to get at. You see, for years now, I’ve been wondering about these different reoccurring themes in Michael Jackson’s music and trying to figure out a reason why. Why does he keep touching on certain themes over and over and over again? And I think the reason is really very simple. He had something to say. He had a message he wanted to get out. A lesson he was trying to teach. Wisdom he felt compelled to impart.
If you think about it, all of his “scary” songs and films have the same general message. As you pointed out, he was taking on a monumental task by attempting to help undo our conditioning and alter affect. Well, in all of his “humanity” songs, he had the same general message as well – be good to each other. It sounds like such a simple thing, and something you wouldn’t think we would need someone to remind us of. But, of course, we do. Because we forget sometimes to treat one other with kindness and respect and love. And that was a message that Michael felt very strongly about. All you have to do is listen to songs like “Will You Be There,” “Heal the World,” and “Little Susie” to know that’s true. Even “They Don’t Care About Us” carries the same basic message.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and as he tells us in This Is It, he was trying to share an important environmental message as well. We see that especially in Earth Song and Dancing the Dream. Just as he was trying to change our response to our social environment through his “scary” films, he was trying to change our relationship with our natural environment through Earth Song and Dancing the Dream.
Joie: And “Planet Earth” as well. You know, Willa, I think you would be shocked to see all of the songs that I have grouped together in my “Humanity Mix.” Because I don’t just place his solo works in these playlists of mine, I go all the way back to the beginning. So, in my “Humanity” playlist, I also have songs like, “With a Child’s Heart” and “If’n I was God,” from his Jackson 5 days, as well as “Show You the Way to Go” and “Can You Feel It” from the Jacksons era, and so many others that would probably blow your mind. In fact, there are a total of 45 songs on my “Humanity Mix” playlist, and that includes early stuff, solo stuff, and rare & unreleased stuff. It even includes his duet with Eddie Murphy, “Whatsupwitu.”
Willa: Oh, I’d love to see what you have on your Humanity playlist, or all of your playlists actually. …
Joie: I guess the point I’m trying to make is that these little compartments didn’t just begin with Michael’s solo work. These messages of hope and love and humanity are something that began as a child for him. If you go back and listen to all of the early material, you’ll see what I mean. It’s all still right there, and his later solo work is really just a bigger and bolder expression of the sentiments he was trying to convey even as a child.
Willa: Yes, though he also expanded into some new areas as well, areas those early songs didn’t address, like the issue of celebrity and predatory tabloids. And it’s important to remember that he didn’t write those early songs – he wasn’t allowed to write his own material at Motown. But you’re right, it is interesting to listen to those songs he sang when he was a pre-teen and teenager – songs like “Ben” and “I’ll Be There” and “Music and Me” and see early signs of subjects he would address in more detail later on.
Joie: Exactly. And I always wonder how much those earlier songs, that he didn’t write, influenced his belief system later in life. I mean, I understand what you just said about the “paranoid” songs, and it makes sense that he would expand and branch out into new areas as he matured, and those songs were a very personal topic for him. But I just wonder about all those songs about humanity and loving one another. Was that a message that he took to heart as a young child because of all of the songs he sang with his brothers, or was that deep and abiding love for his fellow man already in him from the start?
Willa: That’s an excellent question, Joie. As he said in an early interview while still just a child, “Whatever I sing, that’s what I really mean. Like if I’m singing a song, I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” And he placed that quote at the beginning of “HIStory” (you can hear it about 30 seconds in) so apparently it was very important to him. He wanted us to know that, even as a child, songs were meaningful to him. He obviously enjoyed what he was doing, but it was more than just the joy of singing. As he said, “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it” – a trait he carried throughout his life.
Joie: Yes! Good point, Willa. I had forgotten about that quote!
Willa: It’s wonderful, isn’t it? So I think he had an uncanny wisdom and strong beliefs even as a child. But I also think he learned a lot from those early songs – about songwriting and conveying ideas to an audience, and about predicting how an audience will react.
You know, some people (like Quincy Jones and Dick Clark) thought he was crazy for recording “Ben,” a song about a friendship with a rat, and for continuing to perform it year after year. But audiences really responded to it in a way that doesn’t make logical sense when just looking at the subject matter from a PR point of view. However, “Ben” makes a lot of sense psychologically – just like his later horror films make sense psychologically, as we were talking about earlier – and I wonder if “Ben” helped him develop an understanding for how that process works, for how he could use his art to address deep cultural/psychological issues in a pre-cognitive way.
I also wonder if “Ben” helped give him the confidence to address those really uncomfortable issues he tackled later in his career, like racism and abuse and teen pregnancy. In other words, I wonder if he would have created “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” or “Billie Jean” or “Little Susie” or Thriller or Black or White or They Don’t Care about Us or Earth Song or Ghosts - or made them in such an edgy way – if he hadn’t learned from “Ben” that he could really challenge an audience, even make an audience uncomfortable to some extent, and they’d respond to that challenge in complicated ways.
Joie: You know what, Willa? I don’t think “Ben” is on my “Humanity Mix” playlist. I’m going to go add it right now.
Willa: Joie, I know we’ve tended to stay away from breaking news and sensationalized stories, with good reason. It’s all too easy to get caught up on the rollercoaster of rumor and innuendo and pseudo news, and lose sight of the big picture. In general, I think it’s much better to focus on Michael Jackson’s art and let the sensationalism wear itself out.
Joie: I couldn’t agree more.
Willa: But one interesting aspect of Michael Jackson’s art is that he wrestled with complex issues like mass media, public perception, and prejudice, and the complicated interconnections between them. And something happened last week that really underscored that for me. Wade Robson’s lawyer, Henry Gradstein, said in a prepared statement that “Michael Jackson was a monster, and in their hearts every normal person knows it.”
Joie, how many times did Michael Jackson warn us about this – about “normal people” becoming fearful of those who are different, and imagining they’re “monsters” because of that fear? That’s the central plot of Ghosts. (I can actually close my eyes and imagine the Mayor saying Gradstein’s words during that long speech when he’s confronting the Maestro: “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids. We don’t need freaks like you. …”) He addresses that fear in Thriller as well – in fact, it provides the psychological underpinnings of that short film. Thriller “works” because it taps into that fear. And that’s exactly what he’s talking about in “Is It Scary,” “Threatened,” and “Monster” as well.
Joie: You know, Willa, it’s still so shocking to me that people feel that way about him. I mean, it’s one thing to jump on the bandwagon and badmouth someone when everybody else seems to be doing it too. But to attack someone after they’re gone in such a vicious manner … I was just really shocked when I read that quote last week. In fact, I think I still am.
But to get back to what you just said, you’re absolutely right. Michael addressed this very topic over and over and over again. It’s almost as if it was constantly at the forefront of his mind and his imagination. And if you think about it, I’m sure it probably was. I mean, after all, it was a subject he just couldn’t seem to get away from. It was, quite literally, “the story of his life.” And I just think it’s so sad. When you first proposed this topic for this week’s post, the lyrics to “Monster” came immediately to my mind, and I just felt so tired. Do you know what I mean?
Willa: Oh, I do. I know exactly what you mean. …
Joie: Like I actually took a deep, sad breath and I just felt so exhausted. If I felt that way, can you imagine how he must have felt when he wrote these words:
Monster He’s a monster He’s an animal
We hear that short refrain over and over again in the song, and it just breaks my heart. He goes on to say:
Why are they never satisfied with all you give? You give them your all They’re watching you fall And they eat your soul like a vegetable
Don’t you ever wonder what that felt like to him? How lonely and miserable that must have been? I don’t know that there has ever been a more miserable soul on this planet than Michael Jackson’s. Which is truly heartbreaking when you think about the immense amount of talent he possessed and the staggering numbers of people that he brought happiness to. And yet, he himself was this miserable, tragic, sad, sad creature.
Willa: Well, yes and no. I mean, Michael Jackson endured a level of public vilification few of us can even imagine. I mean, it’s literally unimaginable to me – beyond my capacity to comprehend what he went through. But I think he also experienced a kind of joy few of us can imagine either – the joy of creative ecstasy as we talked about a little bit with Give In to Me last spring. So I guess I feel he had higher highs as well as lower lows.
But I do know what you’re saying, Joie, and I think those lyrics you quoted are really important, especially that last line, “they eat your soul like a vegetable.” One reason that jumps out at me is because it echoes words he wrote much earlier in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” where he repeatedly sings these lines at the end of each chorus:
You’re a vegetable (You’re a vegetable) Still they hate you (You’re a vegetable) You’re just a buffet (You’re a vegetable) They eat off of you (You’re a vegetable)
This song was written in the mid-1970s and “Monster” was written in the mid-2000s, sometime after the 2005 trial – that’s a 30-year time span – yet both songs express a similar idea using the same metaphor: that the press feeds off him (“they eat your soul”) just like the zombies in a horror movie feed off the souls of the living.
So there’s this interesting reversal where the mass media is portraying him as a “monster,” but he’s saying they are the true monsters. He’s alive – vibrantly alive – with the exuberant vitality of a dancer and creative artist, but their souls are dead – they have no creative spark animating them – and so they try to feed off him. He makes that reversal explicit the last couple of times he sings the chorus you quoted earlier, when he reverses the meaning by adding interstitial lines:
Monster (Why you haunting me?) He’s a monster (Why are you stalking me?) He’s an animal (Why’d you do it? Why’d you? Why you stalking me?)
Joie: Willa, I think that’s a wonderful interpretation of “Monster” and I love what you just said, comparing the press to flesh-eating zombies that can’t wait to feed off of Michael Jackson’s creativity and vitality. It’s a beautiful assessment of the situation.
Willa: It is fascinating how he sets that up and then flips it around, isn’t it? And that idea that the tabloids are feeding off him reminds me of those threatening teeth in Leave Me Alone that we talked about last fall. Those chomping teeth form the bass line of Leave Me Alone, which is an extended look at media excess that links modern tabloids with exploitative freak shows of the past. So again he’s suggesting that the press wants to feed off him, and the sound of those teeth throughout the video reinforces that.
Joie: What’s really interesting to me, Willa, is how, in one corner, you’ve got the press, who keep repeatedly referring to him as a monster, and all of the “talking heads” from all of the news outlets (be it tabloid or mainstream) join in on the charge. But then in the other corner, there’s Michael himself, pointing back at the press and stating very clearly for all who will listen, that he’s not the monster … they are! It almost feels like that episode of the old Twilight Zone series where the people in a diner all know very clearly that there is an alien/monster among them. Only no one is really quite sure exactly who the real monster is and they’re all accusing each other! Remember that episode?
Willa: No, I don’t think I ever saw that one, but it sounds really interesting. And thinking of The Twilight Zone reminds me of “Threatened,” with its posthumous Rod Serling intro:
Tonight’s story is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. A monster had arrived in the village. The major ingredient of any recipe for fear is the unknown, and this person or thing is soon to be met. He knows every thought. He can feel every emotion. Oh yes, I did forget something, didn’t I? I forgot to introduce you to the monster.
And then we hear Michael Jackson’s voice – he’s the monster Rod Serling was talking about. So we’re in the unusual position of hearing the story from the monster’s point of view.
And that reminds me of one of the first monster stories, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In the original novel, Mary Shelley casts Frankenstein’s monster as an intelligent, sensitive soul who’s abused and mistreated because his appearance is so frightening. In fact, in some ways the people he meets are the true monsters because they’re so vicious to him. So the question is, who’s the real monster in this situation?
That’s a question Michael Jackson raised many times. For example, in “Is It Scary” he says, “It’s you who’s haunting me / Because you’re wanting me / To be the stranger in the night.” And he concludes with this fairly blunt assessment:
I’m tired of being abused You know you’re scaring me too I see the evil is you Is it scary for you, baby?
In other words, the “evil” that people fear is coming from their own minds. They’re imposing their fears onto him, and he’s just a mirror reflecting their own thoughts and fears back at them:
Can the heart reveal the proof Like a mirror reveals the truth? See the evil one is you
Joie: Yeah, that song is just so telling. And really, if you just sit and listen to them, most of the “scary” songs are very telling, deeply personal glimpses into what his life must have felt like to him. And you know, Willa, whenever I let myself dwell on it, I just cannot imagine living with that level of scrutiny every single day of my life, and still being able to function. And ultimately, I guess the argument could be made that he wasn’t able to function that way for very long.
Willa: Oh, it’s just unbelievable what his life must have been like, but we can kind of get a glimpse of it through these “monster” songs and films because one thing he’s trying to do in these works is show us what it feels like to be in that position – to be the object of everyone fears.
You know, Michael Jackson had an incredible habit of empathy. We see it in his work as well as interviews. Whenever he’s trying to understand a situation, his first impulse is almost always to immediately look at it from the other person’s point of view. We see that over and over again, like in “Dirty Diana” where a groupie is trying to manipulate him, but instead of simply rejecting her, or using her and walking away as many rock stars would do, he tries to understand her by looking at things from her perspective. He does something similar in his “scary” songs where he doesn’t just push back against the attacks, but also tries to get inside the mind of his attackers and understand why they are treating him like a monster. (And by the way, this habit of empathy is one reason I’m so sure he would never molest a child, in addition to all the evidence. If you have that habit of empathy, you can’t abuse someone because you’re too aware of how that abuse must feel to them.) And he also encourages us to try to see things from his perspective as well.
So one way of interpreting his “monster” works is to see them as an artistic way for him to work through these issues and explore why the police, the press, and the public were so insistent on seeing him as a monster – and there are important cultural and psychological reasons for why that keeps happening. As he tells us in “Threatened,” “I’m not a ghost from Hell / but I’ve got a spell on you.” He is the Other, the “monster,” the embodiment of difference that both fascinates and frightens us – that is the “spell” he has on the public imagination – but he’s an Other who seems to know us all too well:
You’re fearing me ’Cause you know I’m a beast … I’m the living dead The dark thoughts in your head I heard just what you said That’s why you’ve got to be threatened by me
So we fear that he’s a “beast” but an extremely intelligent beast, a beast who knows “the dark thoughts in your head” and can move us emotionally and psychologically in ways we don’t fully understand – and what could be more frightening than that? That’s why he tells us “You should be watching me / You should feel threatened,” because he represents our worst fears.
But that’s not really who he is – he’s not really a monster – it’s just a reflection of our own minds. We’re simply giving vent to all our deepest fears by projecting them onto him.
Joie: And the ugly truth is that he made such an easy target of himself. He made it almost effortless for those doing the venting to project that madness onto him. But he always turned the other cheek with such dignity and grace, never lowering himself to their standards, never lashing out in anger. Not really the actions of a monster, huh?
Willa: Joie, a few weeks ago we were talking about “Best of Joy,” and you quoted some lines from Dylan Thomas:
Though lovers be lost, love shall not
And death shall have no dominion
I’ve been thinking about those lines ever since because we see this idea of “death shall have no dominion” a number of times in Michael Jackson’s work – perhaps most explicitly in “Heaven Can Wait,” but also when he seemingly dies but then returns in Moonwalker and Ghosts.
Joie: That’s true, Willa. It is a theme that we see more than once from him – in both songs and short films.
Willa: And not just from him, Joie, but many major artists, and I think it’s because death is probably the most difficult concept humans have to face. I read an article a long time ago where the author said he felt the real distinction between humans and other animals is the terrible knowledge that we’re all going to die. As he said, all animals die but humans are the only animals that know it. Or we assume we’re the only animals that know it. Elephants will sometimes visit the bones of their ancestors, and handle them in an almost reverent way. Does that mean they understand the concept of death? Do they know they’re going to die?
Joie: You know, I am a firm believer that animals know a lot more than we as humans will ever comprehend. I believe that some are more intuitive than others – like the majestic elephant – and they know things and understand things about our world. Much more than humans will ever give them credit for.
Willa: Oh I agree, and think it’s a huge mistake to assume that since we don’t know the depth of an animal’s thoughts and emotions, they don’t have profound thoughts and emotions. When one of my dogs died of bone cancer several years ago, the other went into deep mourning for a long time and never forgot his friend. If I mentioned his friend’s name in conversation, even years later, he’d look up and watch me very closely.
But the point I’m trying to make is that we all carry the terrible burden of knowing we’re going to die someday, and so are all the people we care about. And one function of art is to help us deal with our deepest emotions, like the fear of death and the grief of losing someone we love. Poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, musicians – artists in many different forms – have struggled for centuries to somehow come to grips with that terrible, terrible knowledge. How do you face life when you know you’re going to die? How do you let yourself love someone fully and deeply when you know they’re going to die? How do you have children when you know they will die someday and pass on this legacy of death? Does life become bitter for us, or does it seem all the more sweet and precious because of that constant threat of death?
Joie: Wow. Those are heavy questions, Willa. But you’re right … artists have struggled with that knowledge for centuries and have used it to fuel some of the greatest artistic works of all time.
Willa: They really have, and they’ve come up with a wide range of responses, though some are a lot more popular than others. For example, there’s the famous Thomas Herrick poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” where he advises “the Virgins” to go ahead and have a good time while they can:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
Herrick published this poem in the 1600s, and this “carpe diem” philosophy of “have fun now while you’re young and full of life” is expressed in poetry written more than 2,000 years ago. And it’s still very popular today – especially with musicians, it seems. You hear it on the radio all the time, like in the Kesha song with the repeated refrain, “Let’s make the most of the night / Like we’re gonna die young.”
Joie: Ok, I see what you’re saying, Willa. It is a very popular topic with musicians. But getting back to your question of ‘does life become bitter for us or does it seem all the more sweet and precious’ because of this constant threat of death … I think the answer to that lies with the individual. Some people are inevitably going to lean toward the bitter option. But I like to think that, for most of us, we tend to embrace the latter idea of life becoming more sweet and precious because of this knowledge. And I think what you said about some artists’ responses being more popular than others reflects that.
Willa: Yes, but artists can also lead us to think about these ideas in new ways. Like I just heard a song on the radio called “Carry On,” and it had these lyrics:
So I met up with some friends at the edge of the night
At a bar off 75
And we talked and talked about how our parents will die
All our neighbors and wives
But I like to think I can cheat it all
To make up for the times I’ve been cheated on
So what the band, Fun, seems to be saying with these lyrics is that they want to believe they can “cheat” death and in that way compensate for times when they’ve felt “cheated on” by life. You know, I’ve never thought about things in quite that way before.
An even better example, I think, is Michael Jackson’s “Be Not Always.” It’s a song about war (“Mothers cry, babies die / Helplessly in arms / While rockets fly”) and racism (“How can we claim to stand for peace / When the races are in strife / Destroying life?”) and poverty (“To have nothing / To dream something / Then lose hoping …”). In other words, this song addresses some of our biggest societal problems – problems so big and so complicated we tend to think of them as eternal and unsolvable. But Michael Jackson is begging us to stop thinking that way. He’s telling us these problems don’t have to be eternal … and shame on us if they are:
Be not always
But if always
Bow our heads in shame
Please, be not always
‘Cause if always
Bow our heads in blame
‘Cause time has made promises
This is the chorus, and he sings it twice with a slight variation between them. The first time he sings it, he ends with “Time has made promises / Just promises,” and to me, what he seems to be saying is that these problems are difficult but not everlasting. Time is what’s eternal, and “time has made promises” that we can solve these problems if we keep working at them. But as he goes on to say, time gives us “just promises.” Those promises won’t come true unless we work for them – and we must. In fact, we should “bow our heads in shame” if we don’t keep striving against them until we’ve solved them.
But then he sings the chorus a second time, and this time around he changes that final line. This time he sings, “Time has made promises / Death promises.” Joie, that line just gives me chills, but it’s also strangely inspiring. He’s revised what he told us before, and now his message is much darker. What he seems to be saying is that, really, the only thing Time promises us for certain is that we’re all going to die. Time makes “death promises.” And because of that – because Time will surely bring death to each of us someday – we need to strive with everything we have to preserve the preciousness of all life.
Joie: I see what you’re saying, Willa. But I have to be honest with you and admit that I really don’t care for that particular song. I understand the importance of the message behind it, but the song itself is so depressing and morbid in tone and feeling. And I understand why the critics at the time were really left scratching their heads when the Victory album came out. Their question was, what is this song of such gloom and doom doing on an album that is supposed to be a victorious celebration? It just didn’t fit, and I remember reading somewhere back then that the brothers weren’t very happy with Michael’s choice of song either.
But I’m getting slightly off topic here. You are right in your assertion that this song points out, rather bluntly, that the only thing Time really promises to us is death.
Willa: But so does the Kesha song, and no one seems to think it’s morbid. And to me, if a song is going to remind me of my own mortality, I’d much rather it be a beautiful ballad like “Be Not Always” than a flippant pop song. And the Thomas Herrick / Kesha idea that we’re all going to die so we should just party like there’s no tomorrow quite frankly isn’t very inspiring to me. In fact, it makes life seem pretty pointless. To me, Michael Jackson’s approach in “Be Not Always” is much more uplifting. It makes me feel like I should try to live in a meaningful way precisely because life is so short and so precious.
And actually, in one of those funny little moments of synchronicity, our friend Lisha McDuff just sent me a wonderful 10-minute short film called The Empathic Civilization that touches on this very topic. It’s based on a speech by economist and writer Jeremy Rifkin. Here’s a link:
I love this film, and two things especially jump out at me. First, scientists in Italy have found that mammals are “soft wired” to feel empathy – especially humans and primates, probably elephants, and maybe dogs and dolphins. And secondly, that our empathetic development takes a huge leap forward – an “existential leap” – when we realize that we’re going to die someday, and so is every other living thing on this planet. It’s precisely that painful knowledge that leads us to care deeply for other people we may not even have met. And to me, this is exactly the idea Michael Jackson is getting at in “Be Not Always.”
Joie: That is such an interesting video to watch, Willa. The animation really holds your attention and illustrates the “lesson” the narrator is giving.
But I disagree with your assertion that “Be Not Always” is more uplifting than Kesha’s “Die Young.” I’m not a fan of the song by any means but, all it’s really saying is ‘hey, let’s go out and have a good time tonight.’ “Be Not Always,” on the other hand is talking about some really heavy, overwhelmingly depressing subject matter. And his delivery of it, while poignant, heartbreaking and thought-provoking, is so raw. It’s almost too painful to listen to. For me, anyway. I’m sorry to be so negative here. You know that I can count the number of Michael Jackson songs that I really don’t like on one hand, but this song just happens to be one of them. In fact … I honestly can’t think of another one right now. This may actually be the only one.
Willa: Wow, that’s interesting, Joie. We have such similar reactions to so many of Michael Jackson’s works, it always kind of shocks me when we see things differently. And I guess we see “Be Not Always” very differently. To me, it’s a lot like Stranger in Moscow, where he’s taking a painful situation and turning it into something beautiful and meaningful. I love it when he does that. To me, that’s Michael Jackson at his best.
Joie: Well, I agree with that statement, Willa. That is Michael Jackson at his best. But I just don’t see that happening here. To me, “Be Not Always” just takes a painful situation and makes it more morbid. And I’ll admit that I’m probably just not “getting it,” but the message is totally lost on me because I can’t get past how depressing it is. And I know this is going to sound extremely shallow of me, but I can’t listen to a song that’s only going to depress me.
You know, we talked about “Little Susie” a few weeks ago, and to me that song is a great example of Michael taking a painful situation and turning it into something beautiful, as you said. And yet, even though the subject matter is sad and depressing, the lyrics are beautiful. The music itself is breathtaking. The song grabs a hold of me from the very beginning and draws me in, making me care about this poor, neglected, dead little girl.
“Be Not Always” doesn’t do that for me. Instead of being drawn in, I am repelled. There’s nothing for me to grab onto – the lyrics are distressing, the music is bleak, the mood is hopeless. At the end of the song I feel empty, not uplifted.
Willa: Joie, I’m just astonished. To me, “Little Susie” is far more depressing than “Be Not Always.” And the melody and his voice are so beautiful, and so is the instrumentation – just a simple acoustic guitar accompanying him throughout the entire song. It’s like his own version of MJ Unplugged, something we don’t get to hear very often.
Joie: Wow. I can’t believe you find “Little Susie” more depressing than “Be Not Always.” I’m actually equally astonished, Willa. And I find our differences in opinion on this one so interesting. I don’t know that we’ve ever had such a huge gap in our feelings about a song before, do you?
Willa: No, I think you’re right. We’ve disagreed about how we interpret different aspects of certain songs or videos, but I can’t remember us ever having such completely opposite reactions before. I feel like I need to listen to “Be Not Always” again with your words in mind to see if I can try to hear it the way you do, because I respond so differently.
But to get back to the theme of death, he actually touches on it fairly often, in different ways. Sometimes he addresses it more directly, like in “Gone Too Soon,” the song he dedicated to Ryan White. And sometimes he’s much more subtle. For example, it’s part of the backstory for the Bad short film, and contributes to the sense of threat and foreboding we feel in that film, I think.
Joie: Oh, I agree, it is a theme that he touched on often and in varying degrees.
Willa: It is, and what I really wanted to talk about were the “death shall have no dominion” ones. For example, in Moonwalker, the main character, Michael, is surrounded by armed soldiers with seemingly no escape. He transforms into an armed robot and begins fighting back – though interestingly, his most powerful weapon seems to be his voice, crying in pain. He then transforms into a spaceship and tries to escape, but is shot down and seems to be destroyed. But when the evil Mr. Lideo threatens the children, the spaceship returns and destroys Mr. Lideo and his entire operation instead – and again, even though he is now a spaceship and not human, we hear his voice, crying in pain. And again, his voice seems to be what makes him so powerful.
Then he begins to fly off into space, but a shooting star suddenly appears. We see a shooting star repeatedly in Moonwalker, and it’s somehow linked with the Michael character and with magic – it seems to call out the magic that’s within him. But this time the shooting star collides with the spaceship, there’s a big explosion, and he’s gone. The children miss him, and even start to question whether that magic exists – as Katie says, “It’s not a lucky star.” But then she says, “I wish he would come back,” and he does. So he seemingly dies not once but twice, and then against all odds he reappears and there’s a happy reunion.
Ghosts has a somewhat similar structure, but with some major differences also. Once again his character, the nameless Maestro, is under attack, but this time it’s not by a criminal mastermind and his thugs – it’s by the Mayor and townspeople where he lives. And they aren’t attacking him because they harbor evil ambitions, but because they’re frightened and want to make that fear go away. So his goal is different. He isn’t trying to defeat the villagers but connect with them and dissipate that fear. And as in Moonwalker, his voice – actually, the evocative power of both his singing and dancing – is his most powerful weapon.
However, the Mayor still wants him to leave, so the Maestro destroys himself – pounding himself to dust, which then blows away. After he’s gone, the children miss him, and even the townspeople who were trying to drive him out of town feel regret for what’s happened. And it’s after that change of heart that he returns.
Joie: Oh, I see what you’re saying, Willa. It’s as if he’s repeating that theme of “death shall have no dominion” in each of those short films by returning just when everyone starts to believe that he really is gone. You know, it’s a subject he addresses head on in the song “Heaven Can Wait.” And of course, much more subtly in “Best of Joy,” as we talked about a few weeks ago.
Willa: Exactly, but it seems to function a little differently here. He doesn’t seem to be trying to say something about death, so much as using death as an artistic device for psychological and artistic reasons. What I mean is, he’s using the presumed death and reappearance of these two protagonists to create a specific emotional effect in the audience.
In both of these films, the protagonist is under attack and undergoes a deep personal trauma – one we as an audience experience also through our identification with him. In Moonwalker, we witness Michael’s powerlessness as Mr. Lideo hits and threatens Katie, and then kicks and beats him when he tries to help her. In Ghosts we hear the Mayor threaten and ridicule the Maestro and stir the villagers against him, and then we watch the Maestro brutally destroy himself in front of our very eyes.
These are both very traumatic events. When Michael and the Maestro “die,” it draws out all the painful emotions evoked by those traumas: grief, fear, compassion, anger, outrage. It’s like a snakebite kit pulling venom from a wound. And then when Michael and the Maestro return, all of those emotions are washed away, and we’re left with a feeling of relief and renewal. So taken together, this double movement of death and reappearance provide us with catharsis – almost like a Reset button for rebooting our emotions so we aren’t stuck with the trauma of what we’ve experienced.
Joie: That’s a very interesting way of looking at that, Willa. I’m not sure I would have thought of it in that way before but, I like the way you put that.
Willa: Well, there are many different ways to interpret these two films, and this is only one approach. But it’s very interesting to me to think about how his character’s death and reappearance in these films affect us as an audience. The extreme emotional whiplash we experience when he dies and comes back to life seems to bring about a kind of psychological cleansing – a purging of the deep trauma we endured before this final crisis. And using art to purge an audience of uncomfortable emotions and bring about a feeling of rebirth or renewal is precisely what Aristotle meant by the word “catharsis.”
It’s a very old concept – more than 2,000 years old – and we tend to think we’ve changed a lot in those 2,000 years. But while daily life for humans has changed tremendously since then, human nature apparently hasn’t, and this process of catharsis still powerfully moves us as an audience, even today.
Willa: This week Joie and I wanted to talk about the poetry of Michael Jackson’s lyrics, meaning the rhythmic and sound qualities of his words as well as their meaning, but we thought we needed a little professional help. Fortunately, we have an expert among us!
Bjørn Bojesen is a regular participant in the conversations here at the blogsite and the author of En Undersøgelse af Fænomenet Rim, which is currently in publication and will be available later this year. (For those of us who don’t speak Danish, I’m told that translates as A Survey of the Phenomenon of Rhyming.) Bjørn has an M.A. degree in Scandinavian studies with a focus on Nordic languages and literature, and he wrote his master’s thesis on rhyming – in fact, his master’s thesis was the basis of his book. And he helped straighten out a complicated question in the comments a few weeks ago, which was very appreciated by many of us.
Unfortunately, Joie wasn’t able to join us after all, but thank you so much for joining me, Bjørn!
Bjørn: Thanks for inviting me to this discussion, Willa! It’s quite an honour.
Willa: Oh Bjørn, I am so excited and grateful to have you here! I’ve been fascinated by the poetry of Michael Jackson’s lyrics for a long time, and I’m so eager to hear your thoughts. So how did you first become interested in rhyming?
Bjørn: Well, I’ve always had this interest in words and images. As a teenager I wrote a lot of poems, and spent hours trying to make great rhymes. During my final years at the university, I tried to find a publisher for some of my poems. When that failed, I started to think about my use of rhymes. Most modern poetry I found in bookstores had no rhymes at all. But whenever I turned on the radio, all the rappers and pop singers were rhyming, including Michael Jackson… Had the rhymes left the books only to find a new home in music? I shared my thoughts with a friend, and she agreed it would be an interesting subject for my upcoming thesis.
Willa: That’s true, Bjørn. I hadn’t thought about those two shifts together before but you’re right – rhyming and other word play are very important elements of rap, while modern poetry almost seems to be in revolt against rhyming, or at least against regular rhyme schemes, as if they’re too constraining. And that’s interesting that you phrase that as a migration: “Had the rhymes left the books only to find a new home in music?” It’s intriguing to think about it that way.
So this use of rhyming in music is one of the things I’d like to talk with you about. When Joie and I first started bouncing around the idea for this post, I immediately thought of a comment you posted last spring about “The Way You Make Me Feel”:
Things like the first line of TWYMMF are rhythmically and sonically brilliant: ‘Hey pretty baby with the high heels on…’
Here ‘hey’ rhymes with the ‘ba-’ of ‘baby’; while ‘pretty’ and ‘baby’ sort of half-rhyme with the -y ending, which is also reflected in the i of ‘with.’ ‘Hey,’ ‘high’ and ‘heels’ alliterate (start with the same sound), giving the song’s opening a breathy, urgent feel. ‘High’ is like the dark echo of ‘hey.’
I love how you focus on the sound qualities of that first line, especially since I’ve always been struck by the wonderful cadence of that line – the rocking horse rhythm of the three trochees followed by the three strong beats at the end. I don’t quite know how to express that cadence in print, but it’s kind of like this: DUM DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM DUM DUM. So I was wondering if we could start by talking about this line a little more.
Bjørn: What’s great about this line is the way the sounds contribute to the forward movement of the song. One of the prime functions of rhymes is to create suspense and relief. Let me briefly jump to another song – “She’s Out of My Life.” Had Jackson stopped singing right after “and it cuts like a knife,” it would indeed have cut like one! But fortunately he goes on to “she’s out of my life,” and we as listeners are appeased – not just because of the completion of meaning, but also because of the sonic relief provided by the rhyme knife : life. Please note the way I write rhymes with a colon, it’s a custom I’ve borrowed from German literature.
Willa: Oh, I like that. I’ll try to use that format too.
Bjørn: So – we’re expecting a rhyme, and after some painful seconds of waiting we’re rewarded! Now, this is the game of traditional written poetry, and of ballads written in that vein.
Willa: In analyzing English poetry, we call that “closure” – that feeling of resolution after a period of suspense – and it’s amazing how powerful it is. When the syntax and the meter and the meaning and the rhyme all come together and coincide in a perfect conclusion, it gives a very strong sense of closure, and it just feels right to us as listeners.
A lot of modern poetry actively denies closure and thwarts that feeling of well-being it provides. And then there are poets like Emily Dickinson, for example, who like to play with it. She’ll suggest a rhyme scheme and then throw in some slant rhymes so everything just feels a little bit off somehow. It’s surprising how unsettling that can be, and how reassuring it feels when, as you said, Bjørn, “after some painful seconds of waiting we’re rewarded” with a perfect rhyme and a sense of closure. It’s interesting to think about Michael Jackson’s lyrics in terms of using rhyme to set up expectations, and hold them in suspense, and then resolve them.
Bjørn: Yes, I agree with that! You know, the great thing about song lyrics is that they’re not something you read in a book. A song is an organic whole, and rhymes and rhyme-like figures may pop up anywhere. You’re not confined to the visual endings of lines or the blank spaces between words. When we as listeners pick “The Way You Make Me Feel” and push the Play button, we’re not expecting “poetry” in the literary sense. But then Jackson literally assaults us with a string of rhymes – on top of “rocking horse rhythms” and “strong beats,” as you so fittingly describe it, Willa! Because of the intensity of his deliverance, a lot of seemingly random sonic similarities take on the function of rhymes: You’ve got the H- H- H- rhyme (which is an alliteration, just like in Old English poetry), you’ve got the assonance or “syllable rhyme” hey : ba- in “Hey … baby” … Depending on the scrutiny of your analysis, you could even say there’s an internal rhyme in “pretty” (pree : tee).
The point is, this patchwork of sounds echoing one another creates a lot of tension and drive! The very first word, “hey,” is echoed both in “baby” and “high” (and “heels”). Furthermore, as I indicated in that comment, “high” is the dark twin of “hey.” Up to that point, we’ve been tripping on light vowels: ey – e – e – ey – e – e – (eh). “High” is like a double marker: It brings darker vowels into the game, as a well as a remarkable change in the meaning of the lyrics….
Willa: That is so interesting, Bjørn! Especially how you say that it creates tension and drive – I hadn’t thought about it that way before. And it’s interesting to then look at the end rhymes of that first verse also. Here’s the first couplet:
Hey pretty baby with the high heels on You give me fever like I’ve never, ever known
The end words have a slant rhyme (on : known) – a not-quite-right rhyme – and we as listeners feel that at some level of consciousness, and feel that something isn’t quite right. But as the verse progresses, we’re given the satisfying feeling of true rhymes:
You’re just a product of loveliness I like the groove of your walk, your talk, your dress I feel your fever from miles aroun’ I’ll pick you up in my car and we’ll paint the town
The slight unease of the slant rhyme on : known gives way to the comfort of -ness : dress and aroun’ : town. And that parallels the increasing joy he feels at getting to know this young woman – or the excitement and anticipation of getting to know her.
Bjørn: I really like what you say about the end rhymes of that strophe, Willa! After that perfect first line, on : known is a bit jarring! It’s like a sonic illustration of that “fever” he’s singing about. As he also points out in “You Rock My World,” longing and desire often bring with them a mixed sense of “happiness and pain.”
Willa: Exactly! Getting to know someone new is exciting, but it can be unsettling as well – just like that slightly off rhyme. But then he becomes more comfortable with the idea, and that’s paralleled by the comfort of the true rhymes in those later lines.
But if we go back and look at how the first line leads into the rest of the song, I’m curious what you meant, Bjørn, when you said, “’High’ is like a double marker: It brings darker vowels into the game, as a well as a remarkable change in the meaning of the lyrics.” I see a rising sense of joy and well-being, but perhaps you see something else happening with those “darker vowels”?
Bjørn: I definitely do! But I must warn you: When analyzing sounds it’s all too easy to get carried away! In poetry, and by extension song lyrics, a lot of beautiful or interesting patterns appear out of pure coincidence or intuition. I don’t think Michael Jackson ever thought “let’s go for darker vowels here.” But he had a great feeling for words, and the word “high” certainly works on a sonic as well as a narrative level.
I think most people would agree “Hey pretty baby” sounds pretty trivial. What do you mean by calling someone “baby”? You could say it out of pure love and affection, as it is often done. However, I also think it contains an element of belittling the other person, especially if that person is an adult. That’s where Jackson gives his “pretty baby” high heels on. In that very instant the power balance is turned upside-down! She goes from “pretty baby” to a powerful woman who looms large above him on her high heels and gives him fever! And that change coincides with the light e sounds giving way to the dark sound of “high.” I almost hear her stamping her right heel angrily at that beat! Just one tiny detail in the large tapestry of the song, but it’s a brilliant detail.
There’s some similar juggling going on in “You’re just a product …” – hey, what kind of sexism is that! But then comes “of loveliness,” and we as listeners go straight from degrading consumerism to divinity. (And from muddy o and u sounds to the clear ee of “loveliness.”)
Willa: That’s so interesting, Bjørn, and I love the way you highlight the sound of the lyrics and how those sounds reinforce the meaning and emotional impact of his words – though I agree it’s possible to get “carried away,” as you say. Joie and I have talked about that a number of times – about the problem of artist’s intent, and how most of the time we can’t know how deliberate an artist was when creating a work. Was it a conscious decision, or was it an intuitive sense of what worked best? And does it matter whether it was created consciously or not? The result is the same either way….
So I was hoping we could apply this approach to other songs as well. For example, Joie and I talked about “Tabloid Junkie” a few weeks ago, and I was struck by the sound of the words in the first verse:
Speculate to break the one you hate Circulate the lie you confiscate Assassinate and mutilate It’s the hounding media, in hysteria
The dominant sound in this verse is the repeated -ate at the end of speculate, circulate, confiscate, assassinate, mutilate, and especially hate. To me, “hate” is the controlling word – it’s in a very prominent position at the end of the first line – and it just feels to me like this verse echoes with “hate,” in both sound and meaning.
Bjørn: “Tabloid Junkie” certainly is an interesting song. It’s like a gold mine of rhymes! In the verse you mention, Michael Jackson is singing in a way that is very close to rapping. There is hardly any melody, and the beat is almost unbearably tense…. The rhymes contribute to that feeling. They follow each other so fast that there isn’t much room left to feel the sense of relief that rhymes usually provide. Instead, they evoke a feeling of claustrophobia. It’s like being stuck in an echo chamber.
Willa: Oh, interesting! You’re right, that’s exactly how those lines feel to me – “almost unbearably tense” and claustrophobic, as you say, and the echoing rhymes are coming fast and furious, aren’t they? But I’d never thought about what it was exactly that made those lines so unsettling. Interesting.
Bjørn: In a book there can be several lines of text between the two halves of an end rhyme. In music, there are so many sounds that compete for our attention… Especially in rhythmic music, the rhymes have to be more immediate. Furthermore, since there are really no lines in music, only beats and breaks, rhymes between syllables are often more important than rhymes between whole words. An assonance like night : strike would ruin one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but it works just fine in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Because the important thing in the makeup of that song is the rhyme ni- : stri-.
What I want to say with all this is that Jackson understood the nature of song rhyming. He had a rapper’s ear for finding echoing syllables, and he loved cramming his lines with as many rhymes as he could. (Just think about “You give me fever like I’ve never, ever known” in the song we discussed above.) So, to your list of “hate” rhymes I’d even add the brea- of “break.” And I agree that they all somehow highlight the word “hate.” All the other words you mention are “advanced” words borrowed from Latin. “Hate” is a basic English word, and a basic notion. In the fourth line the word is even echoed by the alliteration hounding : hysteria – but now I might be stretching this too far!
Willa: I don’t think so – I feel the alliteration of hounding : hysteria pretty strongly, and I think it does reinforce the echoing sound of “hate” in that first verse.
So I’m intrigued that you see a difference between how rhyme functions in rap and in traditional poetry. Is that primarily because, with rap, we’re usually hearing it and with traditional poetry we’re often reading it? Or is it because we approach rap as music and approach poetry as literature? Or is there some other reason?
Bjørn: The difference lies in the way the art is created. Rhyming as a device has oral origins. Many places in Africa, there are still groups of people that sing together with a “song leader” starting off and the rest of the chorus replying. This way of singing is called “call and response,” and that’s probably the origin of the end rhyme. The response is immediate, there’s no time to ponder. All the cross-rhyming schemes of poetry – from sonnets to limericks – are the result of a poet sitting in front of a piece of paper with time enough to “think twice,” to use a quote from “Billie Jean”! The composition of “paper poetry” is very often a kind of intellectual play: “Hmm, maybe I should make the 3rd line rhyme with the 7th…” Rapping – especially when improvised, as in rap battles – reaches back to the roots. It does not try to follow a preconceived scheme – instead, it’s like a celebration of words that just happen to sound similar.
Of course, as you say, we also judge it differently because it’s boxed as “music.” However, reading and (music) listening are indeed different experiences. When you read, you’ve got just the sounds of the words in front of you. You’ve got the time to wait for a rhyme that appears several lines later. In a song, the trombone, the flute, the drum solo are going to divert your attention long before that… Because of all these other sounds, rhymes in songs also don’t have to be “pure” in the same way as in written poetry (where all your focus is on the words). Just listen to the rap song “Let’s Get Retarded,” composed by Jackson’s friend, will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. Notice how closely the rhymes follow each other, and how “slant” they look when you capture them in writing:
In this context, there’s no disrespect So when I bust my rhyme You break yo necks We got 5 minutes for this to disconnect From all intellect and let the rhythm effect
Willa: Those lyrics are fascinating, aren’t they? They actually seem to be describing the difference between composing poetry and composing lyrics, just as you described it, Bjørn. Composing a poem with a regular rhyme scheme is an act of writing words on paper, unless we go back to its ancient roots in the oral tradition, and it tends to be an intellectual exercise, while composing rap lyrics seems to be more like music improvisation – as will.i.am says, “when I bust my rhyme” he wants “to disconnect / From all intellect and let the rhythm effect.”
But I wonder if Michael Jackson somehow occupies a middle ground? He was very aware of the sound of words and generally composed his songs orally, with a tape recorder. But he was also a meticulous craftsman who wrote and revised his lyrics on paper. There are many examples of this. So he seems to have composed his lyrics with the double consciousness of a poet and a musician.
Bjørn: Yes, I agree with that! Jackson had both dimensions in mind. You see that in “Little Susie.” As was pointed out on this blog in February, Jackson took a cross-rhyming Thomas Cook verse and rewrote it as a verse rhyming in couplets (which works better with the melody). He was also aware that a melody can overrule the word accents of the spoken language. So, in the song “Free” from the Bad 25 bonus tracks, he feels indeed “Free, free like the wind blow/To fly away just like the sparrow” – and to rhyme in a way that would not have worked very well without the melody.
In “Tabloid Junkie” I think Michael Jackson made an interesting experiment which somehow bridges the gap between “improvisational rap” and “schemed poetry.” I’m thinking about the lines “They say he’s homosexual” and “She’s blonde and she’s bisexual.” They form a kind of “super-rhyme” that ties the whole song together, leading up to the final “You’re so damn disrespectable.” After so many interruptions, so many verses and musical sounds, it still works as a very strong rhyme. That says something about Jackson’s power – both as a singer and a lyricist.
Willa: That is so interesting, Bjørn! You’re right, those three lines are very powerful and sonically linked, especially since he abruptly stops the music and other background sounds during them, so it’s like they’re spoken to a suddenly silent room, as it were. So they do feel like they form a rhyme, even though they occur more than a minute apart. (The first one is about 1:30 minutes in, the second is at 2:50, and the third is at the very end, at 4:30.) So is that what you mean by a “super-rhyme” – a rhyme that spans the entire song?
Bjørn: Exactly. Those were the words I was looking for, Willa! “A rhyme that spans the entire song”… I can’t think of a poetry book achieving anything similar. Usually, the “rhyme effect” disappears after a few lines. By contrasting music and silence, Jackson manages to create a rhyme spanning the largest amount of time and distractions that I’m aware of…
Willa: That’s really interesting. So Bjørn, I was wondering if we could talk about another Michael Jackson song that, quite frankly, I’ve been kind of obsessed with lately: “You are My Life.” It doesn’t have a regular rhyme scheme, but it does use repeated sounds in a very complex way – maybe more like you were describing with rap than traditional poetry? I’m especially interested in how he uses internal vowel sounds. If we look at the first verse, we find it doesn’t rhyme, which is unusual, but it is dominated by long O sounds: alone, no one, own, lonely.
Once all alone I was lost In a world of strangers No one to trust On my own I was lonely
These O sounds are formed at the back of the mouth, back near the throat, and they’re primal kinds of sounds. If you listen just to the sounds of this verse and don’t really think about the meaning of the words, you can still get a sense of his emotional state. It’s almost like he’s moaning: O … O … O … O. And of course, that fits the meaning of this verse, so the texture and coloring of the word sounds help convey the meaning of the words – specifically, the sorrow he feels at being so isolated and alone, especially after the 1993 allegations hit.
Bjørn: O, that’s interesting! It reminds me of the essay “The Philosophy of Composition” by Edgar Allan Poe (1846). In this essay Poe links the O sounds to melancholia. In English, there are a lot of “O” words denoting a sense of loss, so I think that’s why Poe got the idea: old, gone, done, lore, before, forlorn, lost, loss, sorrow, mourning… Poe’s most famous poem, “The Raven,” exploits this:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. “’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door - Only this, and nothing more.”
And we all know that Jackson liked Poe!
Willa: Wow, Bjørn, I love that connection to Poe! And you’re right – that’s exactly the idea I was trying to get at. And that reminds me – there’s another Poe poem, “The Bells,” that ties in to this discussion really well also, I think. In “The Bells,” each stanza emphasizes a different sound to create the effect of different kinds of bells, both the sounds made by those bells as well as the emotions they evoke: the gaiety of sleigh bells, the hopeful promise of wedding bells, the sudden jerk of alarm bells, the mournful tolling of big iron bells.
And Michael Jackson does the exact same thing in “You are My Life,” with each verse dominated by a different vowel sound. Here’s the second verse:
You suddenly appeared It was cloudy before Now it’s all clear You took away the fear And you brought me Back to the light
So there are some rhymes, or slant rhymes, in appeared, clear, fear, me, but it’s irregular. It’s not a regular rhyme scheme like AA BB CC or AB AB CC. Importantly, the dominant sound is long E, which is pronounced at the front of the mouth and has a much brighter sound than the long O of the first verse, and again that fits the meaning of the song. In this verse, he’s talking about the birth of his children and what that’s meant to him, and how they’ve helped him deal with that dark time. There aren’t any long Os in this verse, though there is something kind of similar: the OR sound in “before.” Interestingly, this word refers back to the first verse – “it was cloudy before” – so again, the sounds of the words reinforce their meaning.
Bjørn: You’re right that the upfront EE sound is much brighter than the various sounds represented by the letter O. Michael Jackson had been experimenting with vowel qualities from a very young age. Just think about Jackson 5 songs like “Got To Be There.” At one point he sings the word “me” so loud and clear I can’t believe my own ears: meeeeeeeeeeeeee! In other songs, he lets other vowels “explode” too, as in “Ain’t No Sunshine” (suuuuuuuuuuun) and the much later “You are Not Alone” (alooooooooooooooooone). But still, nothing beats the clearness of the EE sound (which is usually spelt “I” in languages other than English). And in that second verse of “You are My Life” it does seem to indicate a shift in meaning (much like the “high heels” we discussed above). I think the rhymes add to that – even if they don’t follow a scheme. Rhyming can be great fun. Besides just transferring a piece of information from A to B, you allow yourself to play with the very shape of your message! So, the joy of the “you” appearing makes Jackson rhyme!
By the way, are you sure he wrote this song about his children? I always heard this as a love song from a husband to a wife… Most of the metaphors are in the singular, like the classical “You are the sun” (not “You are the suns”!) One of the first times I was listening to this song, in a moment of distraction I even misheard the recurring theme as “You are my wife”!
Willa: That’s funny! And actually, no, now that you mention it, I’m not sure. That’s just how I’ve always thought about it – maybe because of the music box feeling, especially in the opening. It just sounds like a kid’s song to me. We need Joie – I bet she’d know something about that. But I have to admit, now I feel the urge to listen to it again as a romance and see how it feels that way…
But I love what you just said, Bjørn, that “Rhyming can be great fun. Besides just transferring a piece of information … you allow yourself to play with the very shape of your message!” I see that playfulness throughout Michael Jackson’s work – a poet’s love of words and the joy of playing with the sounds of words, as well as a very skillful use of words for both sound and meaning. For example, the second verse that we were just talking about ends with the long I sound of “light,” which leads beautifully into the chorus:
You are the sun You make me shine More like the stars That twinkle at night You are the moon That glows in my heart You’re my daytime My nighttime My world You are my life
The chorus is really interesting, I think. When looking at poetry and traditional song lyrics – as opposed to rap, as you described, Bjørn – we tend to focus on the sounds at the end of each line, and in the chorus that position is dominated by long I sounds: shine, night, daytime, nighttime, and the double beat at the end, my life. To me, long I feels like a very bright sound, which again fits the meaning of the words, and there are more and more of them as the chorus progresses. The ending of the chorus is full of them: of the final 12 syllables, 8 have a long I sound.
Bjørn: Well, the English long I is essentially a diphthong or vowel glide. It starts as an “AH” sound then glides into an “E” finish. Many English-speakers are not very conscious about this, since it’s often spelt as a single letter. Spanish has a similar sound, but there it’s written so you can clearly see the two parts: ay (¡Ay, caramba!) So, as the Spanish spelling illustrates, long I is both a very dark and, as you said, a very bright sound. I hope I don’t come across as having a fetish for high heels now, but I have to drag them into the discussion once again! In the first line of “The Way You Make Me Feel,” what matters is clearly the dark quality of “high.” (It contrasts with all those bright E sounds.) He might just as well have sung Hey pretty baby with the HAH heels on. But you might be right that in this new context, it’s the finish of the “double sound” that shines…
Willa: That is so interesting, Bjørn! Because I see that idea of a “double sound” – and a double meaning – throughout the chorus. There are all those long I sounds but there are also some guttural, back-of-the mouth sounds (you, moon, you’re, more, glows) especially at the beginning of the line. So it’s not all light, and the lyrics reinforce this. He’s not in a place of endless sunshine – in fact, there are more nighttime than daytime images in the chorus, which is unexpected. What he seems to be saying is that he hasn’t left the darkness – the allegations are still there, and he’s still in a very dark time – but his children (or maybe a romantic partner?) have helped him see sources of light within the darkness: the moon, the stars. It’s almost like he suggests the metaphor of “the sun” (“You are the sun”) but then decides that’s not quite right – he’s not in daylight – so he revises that metaphor and says “more like the stars … the moon.”
Bjørn: I’m not sure I agree with you entirely on this, Willa. As someone very interested in religious matters, I guess MJ understood the yin-yang nature of things! There would be no light without shadows. That the lyricist is experiencing a “very dark time,” as you say, doesn’t mean that his nighttime images should be seen as a less desirable alternative to “broad daylight” (couldn’t resist quoting “Bad” here!) I remember Tom Mesereau telling how Jackson, during his trial, used to rise in the middle of the night to take a stroll underneath the stars. And as you and Joie have stressed several times (for instance in the “Best of Joy” discussion), MJ associated the moon with creativity. A modern Chinese poet (whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten!) wrote:
The dark night has given me my dark eyes With them I seek the light
Willa: That’s a very good point, Bjørn. We see the moon as an emblem of creativity repeatedly in Michael Jackson’s work – for example, in Moonwalker and the Childhood video. And that suggests another layer of meaning – that he’s thankful to the “you” in this song because they’ve helped inspire his creativity.
So then the third verse is dominated by long A sounds – wake, day, face, pain – which are made toward the front of the mouth, but not as far forward as long E sounds. They’re less bright than long E but calmer, I think. And the fourth verse is dominated by short A sounds – understand, answer, am, man – which are not as far forward as long A sounds, so it’s continuing the progression of the third verse. Like the second verse, the fourth verse ends with a long I sound, leading back into the chorus.
Bjørn: Long A and short A are actually quite different sounds. Long A is a diphthong (just like long I), while short A is a single sound. Long A’s “true nature” is revealed by the way it’s spelt in the word hey! It’s like a “short E” trying to reach the “long E” (ken > cane > keen). So yes, it’s less bright. But I don’t know how to interpret the A’s of these verses. They somehow occupy a neutral position between the guttural U and O sounds and the clear EE sounds, so it’s hard to find any “symbolism” here…
Willa: I agree that they’re kind of “a neutral position” – they feel calmer to me than the Os and EEs that came before….
Bjørn: But what’s most interesting to me is that Jackson seems to have patterned these lyrics on vowel themes rather than rhymes. That does sometimes happen in poetry, although it’s very rare! Right now all I can think of is a Danish children’s song about “Tre Små Kinesere” (Three Small Chinese). It is often sung as a “vowel game” where you’re only allowed to use one vowel at each singing. You start singing “Tra sma kanasara…,” continue with “Tre sme kenesere,” and so on.
So I guess Jackson’s playing with vowels might support your interpretation of “You are My Life” being a “kid’s song”…
Willa: There’s a similar song in English – a children’s song sung as a “vowel game,” as you said. It basically repeats the line “I like to eat, eat, eat / apples and bananas” over and over again, with a different vowel sound substituted in each time (“ay-pples and ba-nay-nays,” “ee-pples and ba-nee-nees,” …) And there does seem to be a strong sense of sound play in “You are My Life” as well.
I really see that in the bridge, which is very interesting in terms of long vowel sounds. I’ve highlighted some but not all of them:
You gave me strength when I wasn’t strong You gave me hope when all hope was lost You opened my eyes when I couldn’t see Love was always here waiting for me
This progression is fascinating to me because of how these sounds are made. Here’s a diagram to help explain it:
Long U is made all the way at the back of the mouth, by the throat. Long O is just before it. As you mentioned earlier, Bjørn, Long I is a diphthong – a complex sound that’s left off of most vowel diagrams. But it basically starts in the middle of the mouth and moves to the front. Long A is almost at the front of the mouth, and long E is at the very front. And the first three lines of this verse contain a series of short, one-syllable words that run through the vowel sounds from the back of the mouth to the front, almost like playing scales:
U A E
U A E
U O I I I E
Bjørn: That’s interesting, Willa! I like the idea of “playing scales” on vowels (after all, as a vocalist, the human mouth was Michael Jackson’s most important musical instrument!) He isn’t just “tripping” on vowels here, he’s starting at the very back of the mouth and walking all the way to the front teeth… That gives these lines a very strong sense of release. It’s like both he and the listeners are allowed to take a deep breath, and then breathe out all the air!
Willa: Oh, I hadn’t thought about it that way, Bjørn, but that’s fascinating! I read an article a long time ago that talked about how, when we read poetry out loud, we re-create the breath of the poet. For example, the author looked at the line lengths of different poets, including Walt Whitman, and noticed that line lengths tend to get shorter as poets become older. So when we read aloud a poem from early in Walt Whitman’s career, we need to take big robust breaths of air like a young man, but when we read aloud a poem from late in his career, we tend to take the shallower, more frequent breath of an old man. In effect, Whitman directs our inhales and exhales and pauses, so we are breathing in precisely the same way he was when he wrote it more than a hundred years ago. It’s interesting to think that when we sing Michael Jackson’s songs, we are re-creating his breath also, and that he is, to some extent, directing our breath – almost breathing through us.
Bjørn: Now, that is fascinating! I’d really like to read that article. I think something similar happens when reading or listening. We all have an “inner voice” that helps us process the words. This mental voice actually has a physical influence on us – I’ve heard one of the techniques taught to achieve speed-reading consists in learning to inhibit the small muscular movements that tend to happen in our mouth and jaws whenever we read!
Willa: Really? Wow! That’s interesting.
Bjørn: This is pure guesswork, but I like to think that the mere listening to a song would have an impact on our breath in one way or the other. I rarely “sing” MJ songs, but for me, a lot of them have this amazing power to change our mood and mind, and the thing you just said about re-creating his breathing pattern might be part of an explanation… (Not that I think he had divine powers, but he certainly expressed more energy and vitality than most of his contemporaries.)
Willa: That is so interesting, Bjørn! It’s kind of like musical meditation – after all, meditation is very focused on regulating the breath.
But getting back to the bridge, the two lines of the final couplet end with long E in a true rhyme – see : me – one of the few true rhymes in this song. Ending with a perfect couplet like this with a true rhyme is one strategy poets use to create a sense of closure, as we talked about earlier. But interestingly, Michael Jackson doesn’t end there. He returns to the chorus, singing it again and again in an increasingly urgent way.
So he gives us a brief moment of resolution in the final couplet of the bridge, but then he denies closure and emphasizes that his situation is not resolved.
Bjørn: Hm, Willa, you’ve given me some food for thought here! You’re right, there is no closure in the chorus, it’s more like a confusing sea of voices. This is something we know from other MJ songs – the reporters in the intro to “Tabloid Junkie” spring to mind. I would argue, however, that the final “You are my life” is an excellent closure to the song as a whole.
Willa: Really? Because as a listener, I feel much calmer and more settled before the final choruses – they really get me all stirred up. That’s what I meant by denying closure, though you’re right – that final line does resolve things somewhat.
Bjørn: Yes, imagine the state he would’ve left us in without that final line! After all, he does cater to our need for decent endings, even if he likes to stir things up a bit in the meantime.
Very well. In a blog post we have to give the readers a sense of closure too! I’d like to sum up what characterizes Michael Jackson as a lyricist:• a keen ear for rhymes and sounds in general • a rapper’s skill at improvisation combined with the afterthought of a poet • a clever use of sounds to convey feelings • a use of sounds and wordplay to entertain (and not just to transfer information) • a love of internal rhymes
Did you know, Willa, a decade ago I was trying to translate some Michael Jackson songs to Esperanto. Those internal rhymes were quite a headache! How do you transfer “As he came in through the win-dow / it was the sound-of / a crescen-do” (“Smooth Criminal”) to another language? Or “She was more like a beauty-queen from a movie scene…” (“Billie Jean”)?
Willa: Wow, I bet that was a challenge! How did it work out? Do you still have them? I’d love to see them!
Bjørn: Unfortunately, I had to give up on “Smooth Criminal,” and “Billie Jean” almost got a similar fate. But then, the very day Michael Jackson was remembered at the Staples Center, I participated in a culture festival in Denmark. A teenage rock group heard of my translation attempts, and asked me to finish “Billie Jean”! So, I sat down, and tried to imagine how it would have sounded like if Michael Jackson had sung it in Esperanto. Later in the festival, I handed the band my finished translation, and after a number of rehearsals, the band was able to enter the stage, with a very young female singer, in a clear but also timid voice, belting out this:
Ŝi aspektis belec-reĝin’ de fikcia kin’ Mi pardonpetis, sed kial vi miiin nomas la li Kies danc’ iros ek en la rond’ Ŝi diras mi estas li Kies danc’ iros ek en la rond’ Ŝi al mi nomis sin Bili Ĝin, kaŭzo de fascin’ Ĉar nun okulis la kapoj siiin-image la li Kies danc’ iros ek en la rond’ Kunuloj ĉiam diris, vin gardu en la far’ Ne rompu korojn de la knabinar’ Kaj panjo ĉiam diris, vin gardu en la am’ Vin gardu en la far’, ĉar mensogoj iĝos ver’ Bili Ĝin min ne koramas Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li Sed la id’ ne filas min Ŝi diras mi estas li Sed la id’ ne filas min Dum tago-nokta kvardek’ Helpis ŝin la leĝ’ Sed kiu daŭre kapablas kontraŭi Ŝian planaron Ĉar ni dancis sur la plank’, en la rond, kara! Do mi konsilas vin tre, memoru ke pensu vi re (Pensu re!) Laŭ ŝi ni dancis ĝis horo tri Ŝia vid’ al mi Ŝi montris foton, karino kriis Liaj okuloj tiel miis Ĉu ni dancu sur la plank’, en la rond’, kara! Kunuloj ĉiam diris, vin gardu en la far’ Ne rompu korojn de la knabinar’ (Ne rompu korojn) Sed vi venis ĉi-apuden Ekis dolĉparfumo flui Ĉi okazis tre tro tuj Ŝi min vokis al loĝuj’ Bili Ĝin min ne koramas Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li Sed la id’ ne filas min Ne, ne, ne, ne, ne Bili Ĝin min ne koramas Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li Sed la id’ ne filas min Ne, ne Ŝi diras mi estas li (ho, kara) Sed la id’ ne filas min Ŝi diras mi estas li Sed la id’ ne filas min Ne, ne, ne Bili Ĝin min ne koramas Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li (Vi scias kion vi faris, kara) Sed la id’ ne filas min Ne, ne, ne, ne Ŝi diras mi estas li Sed la id’ ne filas min Ŝi diras mi estas li Vi scias kion vi faris Ŝi diras li mia fil’ Rompas mian koron, kara! Ŝi diras mi estas li Bili Ĝin min ne koramas Bili Ĝin min ne koramas Bili Ĝin min ne koramas Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Willa: That’s wonderful, Bjørn! Thank you so much for sharing your version of “Bili Ĝin” with us, and for joining me today. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.
(“Bili Ĝin”, translation © Bjørn A. Bojesen)
Joie: Hey Willa, do you ever just look over Michael’s very impressive body of work and think, ‘Wow!’ I do that quite often and I always marvel at the fact that he was in the business for so long. And I like to go back and listen to some of that early work; I think it’s fascinating to listen to the progression from cute little child star with the Jackson Five to adult superstar as the King of Pop. But I have to say that I really enjoy the sort of in-between stage - the work he did with his brothers as The Jacksons.
Michael made six albums with his brothers as The Jacksons. One of them was the incredible Live album (in 1981) and one was the Victory album (in 1984), which doesn’t really count, in my opinion because Michael wasn’t all that involved in the whole project.
Willa: Oh, but Joie. It has one of my favorite Michael Jackson songs …
Joie: What song is that?
Willa: “Always / Please, be not always / And if always / Bow our heads in blame / ‘Cause time has made promises …” Oh, man! I love that song.
Joie: Really? That is one song that I can honestly say I don’t love.
But, getting back to the other four albums – The Jacksons (in 1976), Goin’ Places (in 1977), Destiny (in 1978) and Triumph (in 1980) – are what I want to concentrate on. More specifically, I want to zero in on Destiny for a while, if we can.
The Destiny album was very unique because it was the first album they had ever recorded where they were responsible for most of the creative content. They wrote nearly the entire album, with the exception of the song, “Blame It on the Boogie.” It is seen as the album that re-established the brothers as a top-selling group and it became their first certified platinum album. This is significant, I think, because for years they had tried to persuade the powers that be to let them record their own music. In fact, wanting more creative freedom was a major issue for them and one of the reasons that they left the Motown label when they did.
Willa: You’re right, Joie. Destiny was a huge album for them creatively. It proved to the record industry, the critics, the public, and most importantly themselves, that they could write and produce their own work. And you can hear it. I don’t know musical genres very well, and I don’t know how to describe what I’m hearing very well, but the Jackson 5 songs sound like Motown to me. I love them, and they’re obviously the Jackson brothers singing, of course, but they have that Motown sound. And then The Jacksons and Goin’ Places have the Philly sound.
But Destiny sounds like the Jacksons. I feel like I’m not explaining this very well, and I’m overstating things to make a point – the transition isn’t as abrupt as I’m making it out to be, and you can still hear a lot of different musical influences in Destiny. But it really sounds to me like they’ve come into their own, in some way.
Joie: You’re explaining yourself great, Willa. And you’re absolutely right! The Jackson 5 did have that very distinctive Motown sound; it was infused into each and every song they recorded. But when the group left Motown for CBS, they left that “bubble gum pop” sound behind. They had no choice. And really, I don’t think they wanted to hang onto it any longer anyway. They weren’t those chubby-cheeked, adolescent boys anymore, they were growing up. They were all young men by then and they wanted their music to reflect that. However, when I listen to their first two albums with CBS, I sort of get the feeling that the creative team there wasn’t entirely sure what to do with them or which direction they wanted to take them in. You know, it’s almost like the first two albums attempt to straddle the fence between that sweet, bubble gum pop sound and an older, slightly more sophisticated sound.
Willa: I see what you’re saying, Joie, but you know, in some ways it feels just the opposite to me. A lot of their songs at Motown seem too old for them. It’s like the Motown management liked the irony of kids singing adult songs, so you have a 10-year-old Michael Jackson singing “Who’s Loving You,” and Jermaine singing “I’m Losing You” (“Ah, woman, your touch has gone cold … I can feel the presence of another man”). And the Motown sound was developed for adult vocalists – groups like The Supremes and The Temptations and The Four Tops. I don’t mean to sound critical – I love the early Jackson 5 at Motown. But as a kid just a couple years younger than Michael Jackson, my favorite songs were the ones that were more age appropriate, where they didn’t sound like kids pretending to be grown-ups – songs like “Ben” and “ABC” and “Rockin’ Robin.”
So one of the things I like about Destiny is that, in some ways, they sound younger to me. Or rather, they sound like who they are – a group of very talented young men having a good time and finding their own sound.
Joie: Well, you’re right, a lot of the Motown stuff was way too old for them at the time. But to me, it still had that saccharinely sweet, bubble gum quality to it. Whether the songs were age appropriate or not. In fact, sometimes I think the fact that the song isn’t age appropriate only makes it sound sweeter and more schmaltzy because of the play on age (like the spoken intro of the live version of “Who’s Lovin’ You” when Michael exclaims ‘I gave her my cookies!’ – meaning that little exchange was the physical proof of his love, as if he had given her a diamond ring).
And with those first two CBS albums, sometimes it feels as if they are sort of stuck in the middle to me. Take the first album, The Jacksons, for example. With the first three songs on that album, you’ve got “Enjoy Yourself” – a fun, easy dance tune about young people out at a party, and he’s trying to persuade a girl to dance with him. Track three is “Good Times” – a really soft, sweet song about a young man thinking back over a love affair that’s ended. Both of those songs sound very age appropriate, and grown up to me. But sandwiched in between them is “Think Happy” – a song that, to me, sounds as if it could have been left over from some of those Motown recording sessions. It sounds very much like it could have been recorded by those fresh-faced adolescents who burst onto the scene with “ABC” and “I Want You Back.”
It’s like The Jacksons and Goin’ Places are both suffering from a little bit of an identity crisis. But then, once the brothers are allowed the creative freedom that they’ve been craving for so long, they are finally able to come into their own and introduce their own sound to the world. With Destiny, they finally have a distinct, cohesive identity. It’s like the brothers were saying, ‘Ok, let’s show ‘em what we can really do.’ At least, that’s how it feels to me.
Willa: Well, that’s interesting, Joie, because I definitely agree that Destiny is more “their own sound,” but I’m not so sure about the “cohesive identity” part. What I mean is, they didn’t create a distinctive sound by sticking with one formula or one style or even one genre. There’s a lot of experimentation on Destiny.
For example, the title track has a strong country flavor, I think – or at least it starts off country. It’s much funkier by the end. And country music is not what you’d expect from a Jacksons album, though apparently they came by that naturally. They mentioned in several interviews that the first songs they ever sang together were country songs. Their mother liked country music and liked to sing along with it on the radio, and they started joining in. But “Destiny” is one of the few songs where you really hear that influence.
Joie: I see what you’re saying, Willa, about the use of more than one style and genre – something Michael would continue to do as a solo artist – but I’m not really talking about the “sound.” What I said was that they finally had a distinct, cohesive identity. I’m talking about … the attitude, I guess. Maybe I’m explaining myself really badly but, what I’m getting at is that, with the Destiny album, the brothers finally graduated from a cute little kid act to adult music stars. Gone were the sweet, bubble gum, playing-it-safe songs like “Think Happy,” and “Living Together,” and “Music’s Takin’ Over,” and “Jump for Joy” that populated those first two CBS albums. The “safe,” adolescent stuff was finally replaced by songs with a much funkier edge to them, songs that really made you want to move to the music. Songs that made you think about life and love. Songs that the brothers were incredibly proud of because they had written and produced them themselves. They were adults now and their music was finally reflecting that.
They had been telling everyone at Motown for years that they could do it and begging for just a chance, but no one would listen. And they were promised that chance at CBS, but it was slow in coming. Everyone knew that these boys were immensely talented singers and dancers, but nobody wanted to hand over the reins of writing and producing to them. They were untried in that area and it was a risky prospect. But the brothers kept insisting that they could do it; that they were ready. And they were proven right when Destiny peaked at number eleven on the Billboard Pop Albums chart and number three on the Billboard Black Albums chart. It eventually went on the sell over four million copies worldwide and became their first RIAA certified platinum album. That had to be very rewarding for them.
Willa: Oh, I agree. And speaking of charts, here’s some interesting trivia – as you mentioned, Joie, the Jackson brothers wrote every song on Destiny except one, “Blame It on the Boogie,” and that song was written by … Michael Jackson. Not Michael Joseph Jackson but Michael George Jackson. He’s listed as Mick Jackson on the credits and that made me curious. Was he a cousin? So I looked into it and found out he’s no relation – he’s British but was born and raised in Germany and still lives there.
And here’s the interesting part: he recorded his own version of “Blame It on the Boogie” before the Jacksons picked it up, but his version had a delayed release for some reason, so both his version and the Jacksons’ version were released in England at basically the same time, and they both did very well. The Jacksons’ version reached #8 on the charts, and his version reached #15. Apparently Britons really liked the idea that there were two “Blame It on the Boogie”s by two different Michael Jacksons on the charts at the same time, so it set off a competition called the “Battle of the Boogie.” Mick Jackson’s son, Sam Peter Jackson, made a documentary about it a few years ago. Here’s a interview where father and son talk about the two releases and the “battle” between them:
And here’s Mick Jackson’s version:
Joie: Yes, I’ve heard the Mick Jackson version before. Wild to hear the differences between the two, isn’t it? But I wasn’t aware of the ‘Battle of the Boogie’ that ensued because if it. That’s a fun fact. And that’s an interesting clip about the documentary; thanks for sharing them, Willa.
Willa: It is interesting, isn’t it? And you’re right, it’s interesting to compare the two versions also. I mean, the Mick Jackson version is a well-sung, well-received pop song – it was #15 on the charts, after all. But then I listen to the Jacksons’ version, and wow! To me, it’s so much more compelling and dramatic. And I think a lot of that drama is simply Michael Jackson’s skill as a vocalist. In fact, I wonder if that’s one of the big differences between Destiny and the earlier albums – simply Michael Jackson’s growth as a vocalist, and the freedom he now had to explore what all he could do and convey with his voice.
I’ve been listening quite a bit lately to those first two albums you wanted to talk about, Joie – The Jacksons and Goin’ Places – and one thing that strikes me is that you don’t hear nearly as many of Michael Jackson’s non-verbal vocalizations that we’ve mentioned a couple of times in the past – his yips and yelps and the high-pitched “woo!” and “whoa!” and “ow!” (I love that high playful “ow!” that he does sometimes.) You also don’t hear his voice changing textures nearly so much, from rough low growls to crystalline falsettos. And those textures and vocalizations add so much to the character and drama of his songs.
Then along comes Destiny, which kicks off with “Blame It on the Boogie,” and the very first thing we hear him sing is “hee-hee-hee-hee,” starting high and falling like water. Those vocalizations are so expressive, and they let us know from the very beginning that this is a very different sound than we’ve heard from them before.
Joie: You’re right, Willa. And the fact that we don’t really hear all of those non-verbal ticks that we all love so much until the Destiny album is actually very interesting and also very telling, in my opinion. To me, that more than anything else, shows the creative oppression that he and his brothers must have felt before they were given the creative freedom to write and record what they wanted to instead of always having to do things “the established” way. Now that they finally had control of the reins, they felt free to let some of their real personality shine through in their music. And we can really feel that on the Destiny album in each and every song.
Willa: One of the things I love most about the community that has developed here at the website is the wide range of perspectives different readers bring to the discussion – fans, artists, academics, and professionals from many different fields and many different cultural backgrounds, all sharing a love of Michael Jackson’s work as well as your insights into what made him and his work so important and so compelling. I love that fascinating mosaic of different perspectives, and I’ve learned so much over the past 18 months from the comments you all have shared.
This week Joie and I wanted to talk about Michael Jackson’s spirituality and how that’s reflected in his work. We’ve touched on this before – for example, in posts about “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough“ and Dancing the Dream last spring. However, this week we wanted to explore this idea in a more in-depth way. And fortunately, someone in our community has a lot of ideas to share about that!
Unfortunately, Joie wasn’t able to join us this week – she’s working on an exciting personal project. But I’m thrilled that Eleanor Bowman, a regular contributor to the site, has agreed to step in. Eleanor worked with Costa Rica’s National Institute for Biodiversity in the early 1990s and, in her words, became “more and more concerned about the negative impact of our way of life on the rest of nature, and more and more puzzled as to why these concerns were not more widely shared when it was so obvious we were hurtling toward disaster.” She began to wonder if our religious beliefs played a role in shaping our attitudes toward nature, and she entered divinity school to explore that question. She received a Master’s degree in Theological Studies, and her graduate research focused on how notions of spiritual transcendence have shaped western culture’s relationship to nature. She is currently working on a book that addresses these issues - Beyond Transcendence: Seeking a Sustainable Relationship with Nature.
Importantly, Eleanor sees Michael Jackson as embodying a very different spiritual model – one of immanence rather than transcendence – that might lead us to see our relationship with nature in a different way. I am so intrigued by that! Thank you so much for joining us, Eleanor!
Eleanor: Hi Willa. Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in your ongoing discussions about Michael Jackson, his life and his art. In addition to providing your visitors with interesting insights and information, your blog has created a warm and caring community, an expression of MJ’s L.O.V.E. – which I am grateful to be a part of.
Willa: I’m very grateful for that community also, and think it’s a real testament to the power of Michael Jackson’s work – especially that his work is meaningful to people from such diverse backgrounds. For example, your appreciation of Michael Jackson seems to be strongly influenced by your knowledge of theology, which I know very little about. That’s one reason I’m especially eager to hear your ideas!
So before we talk about how you situate Michael Jackson’s spirituality in terms of these two models, I was wondering if we could start by clarifying what exactly you mean by transcendence and immanence. How would you describe these two models? How are they different, and why is that difference important?
Eleanor: Before I address your question concerning immanence and transcendence, I have to say that I have a little trouble talking about Michael Jackson’s spirituality as the term “spirituality” is becoming a foreign concept to me, and MJ is the last person in the world I would describe as spiritual – much less as having a “spirituality.”
Willa: Really? Wow, I’m surprised! Why do you say that, Eleanor? I’m wondering if maybe I didn’t express myself well, or didn’t ask the question the right way.
Eleanor: No, no. It’s not that. My reaction relates to my own idiosyncratic problems with the concept of transcendence and how it relates to the idea of spirituality. But, in no way am I “dissing” MJ. As anyone who has been reading my comments knows, I am one of MJ’s biggest admirers.
Willa: Yes, I know – that’s one reason I’m so confused right now.
Eleanor: Understandably. Because most people associate being a spiritual person with being a good person and MJ was demonstrably a very good person as well as a great artist. That being said, I admire MJ because of his “embodiment” – his materiality – rather than his spirituality. And, I think, by addressing your question and clarifying what I mean by transcendence (another word with very positive cultural associations) and contrasting it to immanence, I can also explain my problems with associating spirituality with Michael Jackson.
When I use the terms “transcendent” and “immanent,” I use them as descriptors for a worldview and value system. A transcendent worldview and value system divides spirit from matter and locates the sacred or ultimate value outside the material world, in spirit, draining nature and the earth of value, which is why, with my environmental concerns, I have come to view transcendence as sinister and the term “spirit” with suspicion.
Analyzing western culture in terms of transcendence provides an explanation as to why we, as a culture, have adopted such an exploitative attitude toward nature and the material world. And, “transcendent exploitation” doesn’t stop with nature. Along the same lines, we also think of mind as properly separate from the body, and we assign value to the mind, rather than the body.
Willa: That’s true, Eleanor. It reminds me of something Thomas Edison once said. He was a notorious workaholic who spent long hours every day in the lab, and a reporter once asked him what he did for exercise. Edison replied that the only thing he used his body for was to carry his mind from place to place.
Eleanor: Exactly! I’ve never heard that, but it fits perfectly.
Willa: It really highlights the mind/body split, doesn’t it? And I think a lot of people share that idea – not only that the mind and body are separate, but that the mind is what’s important, and the body is just an imperfect vessel for holding and transporting the mind.
Eleanor: Right. With an emphasis on imperfect! And they privilege those things and people associated with the mind over those associated with the body and nature. For example, they/we view reason as separate from and superior to emotion, and humanity (homo sapiens, the wise species) as separate from and superior to (a mindless) nature. By extension, any association with physicality, with the body, with nature – with matter – results in the devaluation of specific types of people and specific types of work.
Willa: I agree, which is one reason women, racial minorities, and lower class workers have historically been devalued, to use your term – because historically they’ve been associated with physical labor, especially labor that involves daily care for the body, things like cooking and feeding the body, making clothes and keeping the body warm and clean, nursing the body and tending to its wounds and disabilities, changing diapers and caring for the bodies of children or the elderly or the infirm. Those people in a more privileged position – generally meaning upper class, white, and male – have historically been associated with the life of the mind, and with work that is as far removed as possible from actual human bodies.
Eleanor: I know. So frustrating and so unfair. Because when you really think about it, this work is some of the most valuable on the planet; it is critical to survival. So, from my point of view transcendence is hazardous to the health of the planet and all its inhabitants. Which is why I am wary of using the term “spirit,” as it seems to reinforce the idea of a binary reality in which nature and those associated with nature and the body are devoid of value.
Willa: That’s interesting, Eleanor. And I’m starting to see the problem with my question, and why you said Michael Jackson was “the last person in the world I would describe as spiritual,” though that still kind of shocks me.
Eleanor: Well, naturally, it is shocking. It goes against the grain of everything we have been taught to believe in and value. But I think MJ in his life and art, epitomizes and personifies and promotes the immanent worldview – which is why his work is so shocking, so electrifying! He is truly radical. He radically changes our perception of reality. As an artist and as a person, he embodies a new worldview and value system: he, himself, is the materialization of a sacred energy. He is “the Avatar of Immanence.” He is “His Immanence” Michael Jackson.
Willa: As opposed to His Eminence, the Cardinal of New York or Chicago, where “eminence” emphasizes that these figures are separate from us and above us. That’s a wonderful title, Eleanor, and I love this view of Michael Jackson as integrating mind and body, and restoring value to the material, natural, physical world.
Eleanor: Well, I am pretty attached to it myself. And, as was pointed out in the discussion of MJ’s crotch grabs in “That Ain’t What It’s All About,” we can also add the integration of sexuality into what it means to be fully human, as opposed to looking on sexuality as an indicator of some sort of human failing. It is this perfect integration, his immanence, that gives his work so much authenticity, which gives his art its incredible emotional power, which distinguishes him from all other dancers on a stage.
In contrast to transcendence, immanence refers to a worldview which finds the sacred and value within matter. In an immanent reality, the term “spirit” has no meaning, because value and the sacred are now understood as being part and parcel of matter, specifically of nature and the body. There is no line dividing mind from body, reason from emotion, humanity from nature, no value system that automatically assigns value to humans over nature or whites over blacks or men over women or mental professions over physical labor. Immanence knocks the legs out from under racism and sexism – and the assumption that humans have the right to exploit nature.
To me, in everything he was and did, MJ represents this worldview, this new truth. And, it is the truth of his work which gives it so much beauty. For the first time in my life, watching Michael Jackson, I understood what Keats meant when he said,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Willa: Or when Emily Dickinson wrote, “I died for beauty,” and the person in the adjoining tomb responds,
“And I for truth – the two are one; We brethren are,” he said.
Eleanor: Yes. Exactly. And, his beautiful truth, his true beauty, is an expression of deep and true emotions, bravely revealed in his music, his dance, his art. He gives a true assessment of the world we live in and its imbalance and shows us the way to restore the balance which our world – and worldview – has lost: he puts value back in matter and nature and the body and women and people of color and everything and everybody our culture has stripped of value. And, as has been noted on this blog, he paid a high price for his steadfastness.
Willa: Yes, he did.
Eleanor: For me, Earth Song says it all. It is so amazing. The night after he died, as I you-tubed one MJ video after another, I discovered Earth Song. I was stunned. In this one work, he expressed what I had been trying to say for years …. and much more. For me, it is the most radical of all his works for it is nothing less than an indictment of the transcendent worldview and value system.
In a few deft phrases, he sketches the outlines of our global tragedy, expressing deep sorrow for the damage we ourselves are doing to the earth – a sorrow mixed with a compassion for a people who have only recently become conscious of the consequences of their own self-destructive actions, actions which somehow seem to be beyond their control to do anything about. And, as in so much of his work, there is the mixture of heart-broken sadness and anguished anger. In the complexity of its lyrics and music, it conveys a deep sense of betrayal that is very personal.
In Earth Song, MJ addresses none other than the conventional Judea-Christian God - transcendent spirit itself – the “you” who betrayed his only son, who (almost) betrayed Abraham, and whose worldview/ value system is betraying us. He calls on the transcendent god to acknowledge the mess the world is in – the mess a transcendent worldview and value system are largely responsible for.
What about sunrise? What about rain? What about all the things That you said we were to gain? What about killing fields? Is there a time? What about all the things That you said was yours and mine? Did you ever stop to notice All the blood we’ve shed before? Did you ever stop to notice The crying Earth the weeping shores? What have we done to the world? Look what we’ve done. What about all the peace That you pledged your only son? What about flowering fields? Is there a time? What about all the dreams That you said was yours and mine? Did you ever stop to notice All the children dead from war? Did you ever stop to notice The crying Earth the weeping shores?
Willa: That’s so interesting, Eleanor. I’ve always interpreted these lines rather differently – not as questions directed toward God, the Christian God, but as questions directed toward us and our ancestors. After all, our ancestors are the ones who developed and passed on the worldview that nature is simply something to be exploited to satisfy our own wants. They created the industrial revolution. They clear-cut forests. They hunted animals to extinction. In other words, they gave us the very destructive legacy that we are fulfilling today.
But listening to those lyrics you just cited with your ideas in mind, one line really jumped out at me: “What about all the peace / That you pledged your only son?” That really does suggest that he is addressing God – specifically, God the Father – doesn’t it?
Eleanor: Well, the first time I heard it, it did to me (and still does). And really knocked me out. At last, someone else, Michael Jackson, no less, seemed to “get it.” And seemed to understand and express all the complex emotions I felt. IN ONE SONG. For so many years, I believed in transcendence … and then suddenly one day I didn’t. And my overwhelming feeling was one of betrayal. I saw that in trying to be a good person and do the right thing, I was actually acting against the best interests of the planet and of myself as a woman – and society at large. And, at that moment I also lost whatever faith I had left in the JC God, because to me, as a symbol and a character in a book, the JC God represented that which no longer worked for the well-being of all. It was both a terrible and a liberating moment. I went to divinity school, in part, to see if I was correct in my assessment or, if not, if I could salvage some vestiges of my Christian faith, but, no one ever was able “to reconcile the ways of God” to nature or woman – or me. And, I came out more convinced than ever that I was on the right track (but I went to a very liberal divinity school).
To me, Earth Song is both a lament and an accusation. Michael Jackson’s lament is not only for what we are inflicting on nature, but for what we are doing to each other and what those in power are doing to the less empowered.
Hey, what about yesterday? (What about us?) What about the seas? (What about us?) The heavens are falling down (What about us?) I can’t even breathe (What about us?) What about apathy? (What about us?) I need you (What about us?) What about nature’s worth? It’s our planet’s womb (What about us?) What about animals? (What about it?) We’ve turned kingdoms to dust (What about us?) What about elephants? (What about us?) Have we lost their trust? (What about us?) What about crying whales? (What about us?) We’re ravaging the seas (What about us?) What about forest trails Burnt despite our pleas? (What about us?) What about the holy land (What about it?) Torn apart by creed? (What about us?) What about the common man? (What about us?) Can’t we set him free?….
By so tightly weaving his concerns for earth, nature, and humanity into a single thread – the themes of environmental degradation and man’s inhumanity to man, our wars on nature and each other – he is saying that these two tragedies are related, that they arise from a single source – the transcendent god of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose worldview and value system led his only son to the cross, whose worldview and value system brought Abraham to the brink of disaster, and whose worldview and value system are destroying the planet and leading us toward self-destruction. Earth Song is both an acknowledgement of the dire situation we find ourselves in and a recognition that we have all been betrayed.
And, when he cries out “What about us?” he identifies not only himself, but all of us, his listeners, with the disempowered and dispossessed.
Willa: I agree – he’s forcing us to acknowledge their concerns and asking us to care about those concerns. In other words, he’s giving voice to the voiceless – “the disempowered and dispossessed,” to borrow your words – including animals as well as oppressed people. And again I’m struck by the references to Abraham (“What about Abraham?”) and “the holy land / Torn apart by creed,” which support your interpretation.
The reference to Abraham is especially interesting since, as I remember the story, God comes to Abraham and asks him to sacrifice his son, Isaac – in other words, he asks him to choose between his physical, material, embodied son and a spiritual, disembodied God. Abraham chooses the spiritual over the physical and builds an altar for killing his son, though God stays his hand at the last minute. Abraham has proven himself – he made the right choice – so God allows his son to live. I can see how the story of Abraham would be very troubling to Michael Jackson on many different levels, and it ties in very closely with your interpretation of “Earth Song.”
Eleanor: Yes. I think the story of Abraham is difficult for many people to live with – especially MJ.
Although there is so much anger and pain in Earth Song, there is also hope, but this hope really is only revealed in the film, which shows Michael singing the earth and nature back to life. I love watching this, because, truly, I believe his music, his art, his very being reveal and express a new way of looking at things – a new worldview and value system – that can accomplish just that. If we let nature speak to us, if we can open our hearts, I think she will show us the way, for I believe, deep within every human, nature has planted a drive which drives us toward collective survival, and when a way of life is operating against our survival, we will instinctively react and seek to right our course.
Willa: I love that section of Earth Song also, and that’s a wonderful way to describe it, Eleanor – he truly is “singing the earth and nature back to life.” I think it’s especially important that this section undoes the destruction we witnessed in the first half of the video – the cut tree rights itself and once again becomes part of the forest canopy, the elephant regrows her tusks and comes back to life, the dead civilian opens his eyes. And something very specific seems to bring about the shift between the destruction we witness in the first half and the healing and reawakening we see in the second half – it’s all the people pushing their hands down into the dirt, reconnecting themselves with the physicality of the earth.
Eleanor: I had forgotten that bit. So perfect. So significant. No doubt about it, he was a genius.
This new way of seeing things is clearly set forth in “Planet Earth,” which comes from a different emotional place altogether, but addresses the same issues. Michael Jackson references the traditional western philosophical view of matter (a view of nature refined and espoused by Enlightenment thinkers) when he asks if the earth, the material world is
a cloud of dust A minor globe, about to bust A piece of metal bound to rust A speck of matter in a mindless void A lonely spaceship, a large asteroid
Cold as a rock without a hue Held together with a bit of glue
and simply and directly refutes it: “Something tells me this isn’t true.”
In “Planet Earth,” MJ celebrates earth’s innate value and claims his own, deep connection and oneness with the earth, and his debt to nature. Contrary to traditional belief, the human race Michael Jackson belongs to is not separate from and superior to nature, but an integral part of nature. I really love the following lines:
In my veins I’ve felt the mystery Of corridors of time, books of history Life songs of ages throbbing in my blood Have danced the rhythm of the tide and flood Your misty clouds, your electric storm Were turbulent tempests in my own form …
And, he establishes and models a new relationship to nature – that of the lover to the beloved, rather than the owner to the owned or the master to the slave. In “Planet Earth,” Michael Jackson loves and cherishes the earth.
Do you care, have you a part In the deepest emotions of my own heart Tender with breezes caressing and whole Alive with music, haunting my soul. Planet Earth, gentle and blue With all my heart, I love you.
Willa: I love those lines also, and you’re right – he entirely reframes our relationship with nature and the material world. I see that throughout Dancing the Dream, where he repeatedly locates the spiritual within the material, and finds a sense of wonder and enlightenment within the physical world, not above it. (And I’m sorry about that word “spiritual” – I can’t seem to avoid it!) Even the preface suggests this idea:
Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred. In those moments, I’ve felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists. I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished, I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing and then, it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge in one wholeness of joy.
I keep on dancing and dancing … and dancing, until there is only … the dance.
I’m especially struck by the line, “On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred.” Reading those lines in terms of what you’ve been saying, Eleanor, it seems significant that he connects a heightened spirituality, the “sacred,” with a heightened physicality, with “dancing.” The sacred isn’t something that transcends the physical body, but something he accesses through the physical body.
Eleanor: Yes, that is a theme he comes back to a lot. And, thanks for bringing this quote to my attention. As a relatively new fan of MJ’s, I’m afraid I still have a way to go in my Michael Jackson studies – but again, it fits so perfectly and reinforces my belief that he was very “consciously” trying to create a radically new way of looking at the world. … I love his saying that consciousness is within creation, in other words that matter has mind. Every time I look out my window or go for a walk, I wonder how anyone could ever doubt it – with each leaf knowing exactly how to position itself to get the most sun, with the roots of trees heading directly for my septic system for water, with my geese – not so silly – carefully teaching the goslings to swim and walking in a protective phalanx around them, my mare knowing so perfectly how to mother (how I wish my own mother had known as much) watching over her foal, high-tailing it and kicking up her heels in the sunlight. I don’t know about you, but I want to feel part of all this life – this energy – this consciousness within nature – not separate from the “one wholeness of joy.”
Willa: I agree. He creates a longing in his work to participate in “the eternal dance of creation” that we can see all around us, once we look at nature with deep appreciation for what it is and not just for how we can use it – for example, to appreciate a meadow or a forest for the wonder that they are and not just as a potential homesite or lumber to be exploited.
I’m also struck by the lines in the preface where he once again subverts all these hierarchical relationships – “the victor and the vanquished,” “the master and the slave,” “the knower and the known” – and connects the sacred with the lower sphere as well as the upper.
Eleanor: Yes, I guess it’s more surprising to me that he includes the “upper.” (Note how even our mental imagery is affected by the transcendent worldview.) In writing about Earth Song, I was reminded again that he seems not to blame those “on top” for the problems the world faces, but the system itself. We are all caught up in this system. And transcendence drives us all to rise to the top and seize control. By its very “nature,” it creates hierarchical relationships, so it is MJ’s goal to subvert them. And, he is not just subverting relationships, but the energy that drives us to create these relationships – the drive that energizes our culture. He wants to align the energy that drives human societies with the energy that drives nature. And, he himself is an example of someone really connected, really plugged in. I think it is this energy that he calls L.O.V.E. In the new global village, we can no longer afford to work against each other; survival depends on working for the well-being of all. And ALL means all life, not just human life (excluding mosquitoes and fire ants, of course).
Willa: Though I have a feeling he would include mosquitoes and fire ants as well! He sang a beautiful song about a rat, after all – it’s one of my favorite songs.
Thank you again for joining me, Eleanor. It’s been so interesting! You’ve really opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about these ideas of body, mind, and spirit (that problematic word again, “spirit”). Now I’m wanting to watch Earth Song and read Dancing the Dream again with these thoughts in mind, and I love that. I love it when someone gives me a new path for entering into a work and seeing it in a different way. Thank you, Eleanor.
Willa: So Joie, a few weeks ago we talked about how Michael Jackson seemed to see a connection between his creative life and his spiritual life, something we’ve talked about a couple times before. But you know, he also saw a connection between his creativity, his spirituality, and the physicality of his body, especially his body’s movements as a dancer. He seemed to feel a deep connection between spiritual energy, creative energy, and physical energy, including sexual energy.
All of this has me wondering – how is sex and sexual energy represented in Michael Jackson’s work, what does it mean, and does it perhaps mean different things at different times? For example, what does it mean when he sings about sex in “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough” or “Give In to Me” or “Superfly Sister” or “Break of Dawn”? What does it mean when he zips his fly during the panther dance in Black or White? And what does it mean, exactly, when he’s dancing and grabs his crotch?
Joie: Hmm. All very good questions, Willa. But you know, I seem to remember Michael telling Oprah that he really didn’t think about it when he was dancing and that the whole crotch grab thing just sort of happened on its own and meant nothing. I think he said he was just a slave to the rhythm or something.
Willa: Well, I think that’s true, Joie, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth. I think sometimes he’d be dancing and get really absorbed in the music and, Bam! He’d punctuate a dance sequence with a crotch grab, kind of like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. But I also think that sometimes he’d decide he liked that exclamation point and deliberately make it part of the choreography.
So, for example, we have that hilarious dance rehearsal in This Is It where two middle-aged women are teaching a group of young male dancers proper crotch-grabbing technique, and I have to say, that whole scene just cracks me up. First there is the Russian ballet instructor, Irina Brecher, explaining how the movements they’re doing compare with Baryshnikov’s:
“I saw you! You were going like this. What it this? That’s Russian! This is Russian. So Baryshnikov does it like this, and you guys are doing like this. Same thing.”
Then the assistant choreographer, Stacy Walker, helps them perfect their technique. She says, “One more time,” and they all do a crotch grab in unison. And they’re all so earnest – it just makes me laugh. Then she demonstrates proper crotch-grabbing movements while saying,
“We’re straight up and down now, right? I don’t think it’s anything except hand moving…. I think that’s smoother, you know what I mean? I mean, I have nothing to move….”
That is such a funny scene! I get such a kick out of it, but I also love seeing how trusting and respectful these talented young dancers are toward these older women. It’s really wonderful.
So this funny little scene shows us several important things: that the crotch grab was a deliberate part of the choreography, that it really wasn’t sexual in a traditional sense (and Michael Jackson always said it wasn’t), and that it certainly wasn’t a way to show dominance over women. After all, those two women were the instructors! And they were handling it in a very fun, lighthearted way.
Joie: Well, I find it very funny that we are having a discussion about crotch grabbing!
Willa: Oh c’mon, Joie. This is a very academic discussion!
Joie: Uh huh. But I have to say I agree with you, Willa. I believe that he did like ‘the exclamation point’ of the crotch grab and it really did become sort of his signature move – or one of his signature moves because, we all know, there are several.
Willa: That’s true. Like there’s that move called the Moonwalk that got a bit of attention….
Joie: Yeah. Or the twisting leg kick. But he really is synonymous with the crotch grab now. Whenever we see another singer or dancer execute that move, our minds will immediately, and forever, associate that with Michael Jackson.
But you said something that I find really interesting. You said the crotch grab wasn’t sexual and that Michael always maintained that it wasn’t sexual. The reason I find this statement interesting is because I think most people just always assumed the complete opposite. I think to most of the world, the reason the crotch grab was so controversial or provocative was precisely because they projected a sexual connotation onto it that Michael never intended for it to have.
Willa: Well, now you have me thinking, Joie – what did I mean when I said it wasn’t sexual? Hmmm … Now that I think about it, that seems too absolute because obviously there are sexual connotations, but I guess I meant it doesn’t seem erotic to me, like he isn’t using it to evoke a sexual feeling or suggest a sexual situation – not like, say, that long undulating crotch grab in the “Billie Jean” segment of This Is It. Oh my. Now, that is sexual. So he certainly knew how to do it in a suggestive way if he wanted to, but he never did that on stage, ever. That scene in This Is It was strictly a fun thing for the enjoyment of the cast and crew at the rehearsal, especially those young dancers. He never did anything like that in a real performance.
Instead, it was almost always just a quick exclamation mark, as we said earlier, and it seemed to me to express an artistic impulse rather than a sexual urge, though it’s hard to completely separate that out since he seemed to feel a strong connection between creativity and sexual energy. We talked about that a little bit with Give In to Me last April.
But there’s another element to it too, which is that the crotch grab always kind of struck me as something of a political statement as well, especially when he defiantly continued doing it despite all the controversy. You know, he was a very sexy black man – a sex idol, even – in a country that’s very uncomfortable with sexual black men, and I think he felt a lot of pressure to restrain his sexuality because of that. And in that sense, the crotch grab always kind of felt to me like a way for him to reclaim his sexuality and his own body, in a way. It’s like he’s calling attention to the fact that, not only does he have a beautiful, talented, amazing body, but it’s a sexual body as well.
Joie: I think you may be on to something, Willa. It could also have been a way for him to sort of flip off the world. I don’t mean to be crass here but, grabbing the crotch was never really seen as a nice gesture. In fact, long before Michael ever adopted it and turned it into a signature dance move, a guy grabbing his crotch was seen as either an insult (if it was directed toward another man) or a very lewd gesture (if it was directed toward a woman). So your suggestion that it could have been sort of political really fits here. It could definitely be considered a defiant, ‘up yours’ type of gesture.
Willa: Wow, that’s true, Joie. It’s funny but I never thought about that before, but you’re right, it definitely could be interpreted that way. And he did express those impulses every so often, as we see in Scream. And there’s that line in Shaquille O’Neal’s rap in “2Bad”:
Grab my crotch, twist my knee, then I’m through Mike’s bad. I’m bad. Are you?
“2Bad” as a whole is a declaration that he won’t be broken or bowed – “I’m standin’ though you’re kickin’ me” – and that line in particular is a pretty defiant statement.
Joie: That is a defiant statement, Willa. In fact, the whole song is pretty defiant, you’re right. But I wonder if we can go back to your original question if we can. You asked what does it mean when Michael sings about sex in his songs and how is that sexual energy expressed in his work? So, obviously I’m thinking you have some thoughts on this?
Willa: I don’t know that I really have thoughts, or any firm conclusions – just a lot of questions. I see sex represented so many different ways in his work, and I wonder how it all fits together. Like, what do you make of the sexual references in the panther dance? That whole section is a strong protest against racism, but it includes some pretty explicit sexual gestures – more explicit than critics were used to seeing from Michael Jackson, that’s for sure. There was a lot of criticism about that when Black or White first aired. Here was a song that a lot of critics interpreted as being about racial harmony, and suddenly in the panther dance section Michael Jackson is breaking glass, zipping his fly, and grabbing his crotch pretty explicitly. Why is that there? How do you interpret that?
Joie: Well, I’m honestly not sure about how to interpret it. But you’re correct in saying that it was much more explicit than critics were used to seeing from him, and sometimes I think that was the intended purpose. Perhaps it was done simply to shake things up a little bit. If you think about it, it was done at a time when Michael was going through some changes. He had broken away from his long and successful association with Quincy Jones and he was taking the reins of producing by himself and he was eager to try new things, new producers, new sounds. And the resulting album, Dangerous, really has a much edgier feel because of it. So maybe he simply wanted to do something edgy. And let’s face it, that panther dance is certainly edgy.
But also, I want to point out the fact that those racial slurs that are written on the car and the building in the panther dance weren’t actually in the original version that first aired to millions of people around the world. Those were added in after the initial hoopla over the “disturbing violence and simulating masturbation.” So, I’ve never really held the belief that that section of the video was meant to be a protest against racism. Maybe it was but, it doesn’t feel that way to me. How do you interpret it?
Willa: Really? Wow, I’m surprised, Joie. To me, adding in those slogans didn’t change the meaning at all, just clarified what was already there. I mean, the title of the song is “Black or White,” and the lyrics are all about standing up to racial prejudices – he even references the KKK specifically when he sings, “I ain’t scared of no sheets.” So when he added in the KKK and neo-Nazi and Aryan Nation-type graffiti, it felt right to me and just seemed to fit right in. How do you see it?
Joie: Well, that’s true, it does fit right in. But, I don’t know; I guess I’ve just always looked at it as an afterthought, a way to simply try and clean up the controversy. But what you just said makes a lot of sense too, that it was done as a way to sort of clarify the artist’s intentions. You’re probably right.
Willa: Well, it’s pretty ambiguous. There’s breaking glass throughout Black or White, beginning with the crashing poster and exploding windows in the opening sequence, so the violence of the breaking glass could mean many different things. In fact, the entire panther dance is pretty ambiguous, with so many intriguing elements and so many different ways to approach and interpret them.
It begins with the panther walking down into a basement, just like Michael Jackson’s character does before the first dance sequence in You Rock My World, and in both cases there’s a suggestion that we’re going into subterranean territory both literally and figuratively as well, into the subconscious. He transforms back into a human, and is immediately caught in a spotlight. For me, it doesn’t feel so much like the spotlight of a stage as the spotlight of a prison or an interrogation, and the bars on the windows and over the doorway reinforce that idea. But he strikes a pose in that spotlight nonetheless, with one hand on his crotch. Then he straightens up, stands tall, and a cat jumps out of a garbage can, which is interesting since Michael Jackson is frequently linked to cats symbolically. He was just a panther, after all.
So the cat’s out of the bag, or out of the can, and it feels like some aspect of Michael Jackson himself has been released. He pulls his shirt back like a gunslinger about to enter a duel with the town marshal, and an eerie wind blows past him that seems to suggest he’s entering an alternate space and time. (For example, a similar wind blows past him when he opens the door to Club 30s in Smooth Criminal, a wind that transports him back to Dem Bones Cafe of The Band Wagon.) He begins a dance routine that evokes a long history of dance in the U.S., then he and the panther yowl in unison, and that’s when he begins the segment that had critics in an uproar.
Joie: I like the way you put that, Willa. That some aspect of Michael Jackson himself has been released. And I think you just hit on exactly what it is that I feel whenever I watch the panther dance. You asked me how I interpret it, and you were surprised when I said that I have never ascribed any sort of racial protest to it. But I think you just touched on the reason why. Because to me, it just feels like Michael unchained and free. It is a very passionate, expressive dance sequence in which we are given the pleasure of watching one of the greatest dancers in the world just … let … go! We are treated to four blissful, astounding (and yes, erotic) minutes of Michael Jackson doing what only Michael Jackson can. And to me … there is nothing racially motivated about it. It is beautiful, it is celebratory, it is alive! It is the Eternal Dance of Creation that he talks about over and over again in Dancing the Dream, and it is pure joy to witness!
Willa: Oh I agree with that, Joie! But I also think it’s especially significant because of who he was and the cultural position he occupied.
We live in a very strange age where we as a culture are both over-sexed and overly repressed. It’s a bizarre combination. And I think Michael Jackson felt that much more intensely than most of us because of his unique position as the first black teen idol – a sex symbol who clearly aroused desire in white women, black women, women of many races. That was a potentially explosive situation, and he had to be very careful about how he presented himself in public. He was obviously very sexy on stage, but off stage he made sure that people – white people in particular – felt he was “safe,” asexual. In fact, I remember a Saturday Night Live skit years ago where Eddie Murphy pulled the pants off a Michael Jackson doll and used that as proof that he was literally asexual – without sex organs.
The panther dance feels like a dramatic departure from all that. He’s reclaiming his sexuality – he is black, beautiful, and sexual – but that doesn’t mean he plans to spend a lot of time with groupies. In other words, resisting sexual repression doesn’t seem to mean advocating a life of one-night stands. As he sings in “Superfly Sister,”
Push it in Stick it out That ain’t what it’s all about
So he isn’t talking about mindless sex. As we’ve talked about a couple of times before, he seems to see sexuality as much more than just a physical act. Instead, he seems to be saying that we need to reclaim our sexuality as part of our whole being, so that our sexuality isn’t something that only appears behind closed doors but is integrated with who we are as a person – creatively, emotionally, psychologically.
So to me, when looking at how sexuality is represented in the panther dance, the most significant part isn’t the “release” sequence that got critics in an uproar – though that’s important – but the “integration” sequence that happens immediately after. He’s standing on the sidewalk with that ethereal wind blowing, and the camera zooms past him four times as he repeatedly pushes his hands from his heart to his groin, visually joining them, integrating them.
Joie: Well, that’s an interesting interpretation, Willa. And it seems to me that our ideas are not that far off from each other. You seem to see the panther dance as a bold statement on reclaiming our sexuality. While to me, the panther dance is a very sexually charged, incredible dance sequence. One that Michael Jackson seems to delight in performing. Dancing just for the pure joy of dancing.
Willa: Well, actually, I see reclaiming his sexuality is just one aspect of it – to me, it’s really about reclaiming the entirety of himself and his body, including his sexuality. But I love what you just said, Joie, and I think you’re right, we’re not that far apart, and I think you put your finger right on the central point – it’s joy.
I think that, in the panther dance, we see Michael Jackson pushing back against all the cultural narratives that have been imposed on him and his body – ideas about what it means to be a man (or woman), what it means to be black (or white), what it means to be normal (or abnormal), what it means to cool (or uncool), what it means to be desirable (or not desirable), what it means to be lovable (or unlovable) – a human being worthy (or unworthy) of love. He pushes back so hard he shatters the confining narratives written on his body, just like he shatters the ugly confining narratives written on the glass.
And what we find when we break through all those labels and prejudices and false ideologies is something so simple yet so profound – a person fully inhabiting his body, and finding joy in that. As you said so beautifully, Joie, “It is beautiful, it is celebratory, it is alive! It is the Eternal Dance of Creation.”
Joie: Willa, I was thinking about “Little Susie” recently and the words of that song really struck me. You know, this is a song that I don’t think ever gets the recognition that it deserves and I think it’s because of the subject matter. It is such a sad, depressing, and troubling thing to think about; no one wants to dwell on it. But the song itself is truly beautiful and the music sort of commands your attention right from the beginning. In fact, I often find myself humming the melody of those opening bars because it is just so hauntingly beautiful.
But, as I was singing it to myself a few days ago, I started to really listen to the words and it made me think about Michael and that deep, almost empathic connection that he seemed to share with children in general, but with suffering children in particular. And I’m not really talking about the terminally ill. We’ve all seen the footage of Michael sitting by the bedside of some poor, sick child, offering whatever comfort he could. He was just as famous for that as he was for his amazing talent. But I’m talking about those children who were suffering in a different way. Those who were being abused or neglected. He shared a real connection with those children as well, and even wrote about it in songs like “Little Susie” and “Do You Know Where Your Children Are.”
Willa: Oh, I agree completely, Joie. “Little Susie” is “hauntingly beautiful,” as you say, and pretty complicated also – one of his most complicated songs, in some ways – so it takes a little effort to fully understand it. But it’s also just slit-your-wrists depressing, and I think you’re right – it tends to get pushed aside because it is so upsetting and depressing.
Joie: It really does. And when you just sit and really listen to the words, it’s heartbreaking. The song tells the story of a neglected little girl named Susie who is basically all on her own. As he says in one verse:
Father left home, poor mother died Leaving Susie alone Grandfather’s soul too had flown No one to care Just to love her How much can one bear
So, we don’t know whether Little Susie is in foster care, or if some other family member has stepped up. All we do know is that she is very much alone, and the only person who really feels her loss is the man from next door, as Michael tells us this:
Everyone came to see The girl that now is dead So blind stare the eyes in her head And suddenly a voice from the crowd said “This girl lived in vain” Her face bears such agony, such strain But only the man from next door Knew Little Susie and how he cried As he reached down to close Susie’s eyes
So we don’t know much about her, we don’t even know how old she was. All we know is that she was alone and she lived a very sad, meaningless existence. Neglected by everyone in her life, with the possible exception of the man from next door.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and that extreme isolation – a child on her own with no family to love and protect her and care for her – is a very important element of this song. You know, I didn’t know this until I watched the MJ Academia Project videos, but they said the lyrics were inspired by “The Bridge of Sighs,” a 1844 poem by Thomas Hood. Like “Little Susie,” it’s a poem about a young woman completely alone in the world. As Hood asks,
Who was her father? Who was her mother? Had she a sister? Had she a brother?
However, unlike Susie, this young woman has a home and a family, but they cast her out when she became pregnant:
Sisterly, brotherly, Fatherly, motherly Feelings had changed: Love, by harsh evidence, Thrown from its eminence; Even God’s providence Seeming estranged.
So she has a family but they’ve turned against her, and like Susie (though for different reasons) she suddenly finds herself completely alone, vulnerable and abandoned – “Even God’s providence / Seeming estranged.” In a seemingly hopeless situation with no one to turn to, this nameless young woman commits suicide by jumping from a bridge and drowning herself in a river.
So like “Little Susie,” “The Bridge of Sighs” focuses on a painful, troubling story – one that in the 1800s, especially, would have been considered an inappropriate topic for polite conversation. But through its compassionate portrayal of her story, it encourages us to look at a situation that is generally ignored and feel sympathy for this fragile young woman who had no one to comfort and help her. As Hood writes in the only repeated stanza:
Take her up tenderly Lift her with care; Fashion’d so slenderly Young and so fair!
This is very similar to the chorus of “Little Susie”:
She lies there so tenderly Fashioned so slenderly Lift her with care So young and so fair
In both cases, Thomas Hood and Michael Jackson are encouraging us to look at a situation we may not want to think about. More than that, they’re asking us to open our hearts as well as our eyes and try to care about someone no one cared about while she was alive.
Joie: That’s so true, Willa. And that’s something Michael Jackson was very good at – encouraging us to open our hearts and care deeply for those lost and overlooked souls that no one else wants to care about.
And I love that you pointed out that Thomas Hood poem. I also had no idea about “Little Susie”‘s connection to “The Bridge of Sighs” before watching the MJ Academia Project videos, but the comparisons and the similarities are really fascinating. I just love the symmetry between the repeated stanza in Hood’s poem and the repeated chorus in “Little Susie.”
Willa: I do too, and the way Michael Jackson evokes this older poem adds so much depth to the lyrics, I think. And we see him doing something similar with the music as well. For example, “Little Susie” opens with a choir singing “Pie Jesu” from Maurice Duruflé’s The Requiem. Here’s a link to mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly singing “Pie Jesu,” which roughly translates as “Pious Jesus”:
Then we hear a young girl winding a music box and singing the melody of “Little Susie” – not the lyrics, just the notes. This is followed by a few bars of one of my favorite songs, “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof. And then – nearly halfway through “Little Susie”‘s 6:13-minute runtime – Michael Jackson finally begins to sing the opening lines. So “Little Susie” opens with 3 minutes of musical “quotations,” and these musical references provide an important context for what we’re about to hear.
A requiem is music written for a Requiem Mass, which is a very formal and highly ritualized ceremony marking the passing of a community member, generally a prominent figure. And “Sunrise, Sunset” provides musical accompaniment for another very formal and highly ritualized ceremony: a Jewish wedding in turn-of-the-20th Century Russia. Here’s a clip of “Sunrise, Sunset” from the film version of Fiddler on the Roof:
So Michael Jackson has written a touching song about a little girl whose life passed unnoticed – a lonely, insignificant figure known only by the nameless “man from next door,” as you mentioned earlier, Joie. Yet he prefaces this song by evoking rituals performed for those who are important and deeply connected to their communities, which further heightens the pathos of Susie’s isolation – of her complete disconnection from a community that might have nourished and protected her.
This long intro performs another function as well, I think – it suggests that Michael Jackson felt Susie deserved a ritual of passage also. And so he has created one – a ceremony to mark the passing of one unloved and unprotected by her community. In this sense the tolling of the bells at the end of “Little Susie” is especially significant, because they memorialize one deemed too insignificant to have a requiem of her own.
Joie: I agree with you completely, Willa. He was making a very specific, very important point with this song from start to finish. He was trying to show us that everyone deserves a ‘ritual of passage,’ as you called it. Everyone deserves to be loved while we’re here and memorialized when we leave. I believe it was an idea that was very important to him. You know, our friend, Joe Vogel, had this to say about “Little Susie” in his book, Man in the Music:
“Little Susie” is yet another testament to Jackson’s range and depth as an artist. The song also demonstrates his commitment to his creative vision regardless of whom it might alienate. Many critics were simply baffled that a “mini-opera” about such a dark and grotesque subject could land on a mainstream pop record. “What it’s doing on an album with Dallas Austin and Jam and Lewis is anyone’s guess,” wrote Rolling Stone. For Jackson, however, the reasoning for “Little Susie” … was quite simple: He believed it was a great piece. Commercial viability or audience expectations didn’t matter. What mattered was the personal connection, the story, the melody.
So, apart from the melody, it was the personal connection and the story that was important to him. So important that it didn’t matter to him what the critics thought or what the audience’s expectations were. It was a story that he felt needed to be told.
Willa: I agree, and I love the way Joe pushes back against the frequently expressed yet utterly false notion that Michael Jackson measured his work strictly in terms of record sales. As Joe wrote and you quoted, “He believed it was a great piece. Commercial viability or audience expectations didn’t matter.”
Joie: Yeah, you know, I’ve never understood that argument either, Willa. All you have to do is really examine his body of solo work and you see that false argument holds no weight. But, Joe Vogel also goes on to point out what a masterpiece this song really is:
While “Little Susie” remains mostly unknown, it is one of the most poignant and unique songs in his entire catalog. ‘If he ever decides to stop being a pop singer,’ wrote Anthony Wynn, ‘this song [is] proof he could compose music for movies and seriously win Oscars for it. It’s sad, haunting, beautiful.’ Indeed, “Little Susie” reaffirms his substantial abilities as a songwriter.
And you know, Willa, it is just such a shame how true that statement is. “Little Susie” is almost virtually unknown outside of the fan world and it really shouldn’t be. It is such a beautiful song with so much to say.
Willa: It really is, and even among fans it’s not especially well known or well liked. It’s just not a feel-good song no matter which way you look at it. But while the story it tells may be painful to hear, it has something important to tell us nonetheless.
But I’m intrigued by Anthony Wynn’s belief that Michael Jackson would have been a successful composer of film scores. I think that’s true, in part because his music is so visual in some ways, as you and I talked about with Lisha McDuff in a post last March, “Visualizing Sound.” Also, he was skilled at integrating music from many different genres to create dramatic effects that would work very well in films, I think. And his music often had a grand sweep to it like good film music often does – like “Sunrise, Sunset” does, for example.
Actually, it’s really interesting to look at “Sunrise, Sunset” both in comparison to “Little Susie” and as it functions within “Little Susie.” It’s a very important motif in this song. Michael Jackson quotes it four times: in the intro just before the first verse and again after each chorus, including after the final chorus where it leads into the tolling of the bells. And thematically, “Sunrise, Sunset” forms a strong contrast with “Little Susie” because it’s the song that a father, a mother, and an entire community sing as a young woman marries, leaves her parents’ house, and starts a family of her own. So it’s a song of love for a daughter – of hope for her future as well as the pain of losing her – and it commemorates the bittersweet passage of time.
Importantly, the man she’s marrying is one she loves, one she accepted for herself, not the one her father accepted for her. In fact, now that I think about it, there’s a strong undercurrent in “Little Susie” about the fraught relationship between fathers and daughters. “The Bridge of Sighs” is the story of a young woman who loves a man without first gaining her father’s permission, so he and the rest of her family reject her – and without a man’s protection, from either a father or a proper husband, she dies.
Fiddler on the Roof then complicates that story. It’s based on a novel, Tevye and his Daughters, about a Jewish milkman and his five daughters, and it centers on the question of who should be allowed to pick their future husbands. The oldest daughter loves a poor tailor, not the wealthy butcher Tevye has promised her to. But he sees she loves him, and after some soul searching he gives them his blessing and support. “Sunrise, Sunset” is their wedding song, so in that sense it provides an exact counterpoint to “The Bridge of Sighs.”
Tevye’s second daughter stretches him even further from his traditional beliefs, falling in love with a political radical and Jewish scholar from out of town. It’s difficult for him, but he respects the young man and knows his daughter loves him, and again he gives his blessing. But then his third daughter falls in love with a young Russian who is not Jewish, and Tevye cannot accept that. When she elopes with this young man, Tevye disowns her – he’s deeply saddened by it, but nonetheless he tells his family that she “is dead to us. We’ll forget her.” She pleads with him, “I beg you to accept us,” but he can’t. As he says, “If I try and bend that far, I’ll break.” So she ends up abandoned by her family, though unlike the young woman in “The Bridge of Sighs,” she has a husband to stand by her.
It’s very interesting to me that Michael Jackson carefully situates the story of “Little Susie” against the backdrop of these other stories of young women accepted or rejected by their fathers. As you said earlier, Joie, Susie was abandoned by her father, and her mother and grandfather have died, so she has no family and no male protection of any kind – and without their support she dies. So if we take a feminist approach to “Little Susie,” there’s a subtle but strong critique of this patriarchal model where girls and even young women simply cannot survive without a male figure protecting and supporting them. We can interpret this literally to mean a father or grandfather or husband, or more expansively to mean the law of the father, which includes institutions that reinforce male power such as the family, the church, the police, the military, the media, the corporate world.
And of course, Michael Jackson routinely challenged all of those institutions of power and was constantly resisting both his own father (literally) and the law of the father (figuratively). So interpreting “Little Susie” this way seems to fit both his vision and his belief system.
Joie: Wow, Willa. I don’t think I would have ever tied “Little Susie” to the idea of challenging authority, or male power as you call it. But that is a really fascinating interpretation; thanks for sharing it! And I love what you said about the strong undercurrent of the fraught relationship between fathers and daughters in “Little Susie,” and I think you are right on the money here. By listening to the lyrics, we can guess that things would have turned out a lot differently for Susie had her father stayed home and remained a part of her life. Certainly she wouldn’t have been left all alone after her mother and grandfather passed away. Perhaps she would have had a happier existence and not been so neglected if her father and mother had stayed together and created a loving, stable environment for her. We can imagine a world where Little Susie had a happy childhood with two happy, doting parents. But sadly, that wasn’t her fate.
And you were right when you said that even among fans, this song isn’t really well known or well liked because it is just not a feel-good song. But it is a really powerful song, and a beautiful one, that deserves a lot more attention than it ever gets.
Joie: So, Willa, I’ve been thinking lately about Michael’s existence and about how surreal it would be to have that kind of public scrutiny on your life 24/7. Can you imagine how crazy that would be? Or how special your quiet, private time would become to you if that were your life? I can’t imagine being a public figure on that level. Well, on any level really but, especially on that level. When I really just sit and contemplate it, it blows my mind. He really was one of those people who the world loved to watch and hear about. Whether you loved him or loved to hate him, everybody always wanted more – we couldn’t get enough of him.
Willa: That’s true, Joie. His whole life was conducted on a global stage – not just his performances, but his off-screen life too. And as you say, it’s almost impossible to imagine what that would be like. What if every embarrassing thing you’d ever said or done ever in your life was exposed to the whole world? Or if your most painful moments were on display and debated by a global audience? Just imagine – your wife files for divorce, which is painful enough, but then millions of people around the world feel free to speculate about whether she ever really loved you to begin with. That’s just unimaginable to me.
Joie: It is unimaginable. And impossible to wrap your head around. He often wrote about his experiences in songs like “Leave Me Alone,” “Scream” and “Privacy.” And he was often accused by critics of being paranoid because of it. And actually, if you think about it, there are many, many songs that could fall into the ‘perceived paranoia’ category. Songs like “Tabloid Junkie,” “Money,” and “Is It Scary.” Even songs like “2Bad” and “This Time Around.” And the really big one that comes to my mind is the unreleased song, “Xscape.” Those lyrics are all about that ‘perceived paranoia.’
Everywhere I turn, no matter where I look The system’s in control, it’s all run by the book I’ve got to get away so I can clear my mind, Xscape is what I need, Away from electric eyes No matter where I am, I see my face around They pen lies on my name, then push from town to town Don’t have a place to run, but there’s no need to hide, I’ve got to, find a place, So I won’t hide away (Xscape) Got to get away from the system loose in the world today (Xscape) The pressure that I face from relationships that could go away (Xscape) The man with the pen that writes the lies that hassle this man (Xscape) I do what I wanna cause I gotta please nobody but me
I love that song so much; I really hope it finds its way onto a proper album someday so everyone can enjoy it. But for now, here’s a version you can listen to on YouTube:
Willa: Wow, Joie, I’d never heard that song before, but it’s fascinating, isn’t it? The drums have this rat-tat-tat-tat rhythm, like machine gun fire, and there are electronic sound effects that really give a sense that he’s under surveillance, or even being hunted by those “electric eyes.” And the lyrics reflect that too – it really feels like, no matter where he travels, he’s in a confined space with the walls closing in.
Joie: The words are really sort of sad in a way. What is that like to see your face on all the tabloids, everywhere you look, with unflattering, untrue, and even downright nasty headlines attached to it?
You know, I never really understood the whole paranoia claim. Yes, he seemed to make a point of including at least one such song on every album but, why label him paranoid for simply writing a song about his life experience? That just doesn’t seem fair to me.
Willa: And you aren’t being paranoid if what you’re saying is true. You’re only being paranoid if you have a delusional sense that people are out to get you when they aren’t. But people really were out to get him, from paparazzi ambushing him for a shock photo, to alleged business partners suing him for a piece of his wealth, to family members trying to guilt him into concerts he didn’t want to do, to executives trying to squeeze every last drop of revenue out of him that they could. That wasn’t paranoia. That was his life.
Joie: Exactly! That was his life! You know, I was watching the Golden Globes a few weeks ago and Jodie Foster was being given the Cecil B. DeMille Award for her lifetime achievements to her craft. And in her speech, she said something that really struck me and immediately made me think of Michael. She said,
“But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.”
That part of her speech really stood out for me because, as we all know, Jodie Foster is a notoriously private actress who is almost as famous for the way she fiercely guards that privacy as she is for her amazingly impressive catalog of films. She’s also someone who can totally relate to what Michael must have gone through in his lifetime. Like Michael, she became a huge star and a household name at a very, very young age, and she has gone to great lengths over the years to “fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal.” Yet, to my knowledge, no one has ever accused her of being paranoid for trying to protect her privacy.
Willa: That’s true, and I don’t think Jodie Foster ever experienced the level of intrusiveness Michael Jackson experienced. He really was on camera 24/7, as you said. It’s like that movie, The Truman Show, where an entertainment corporation adopts a baby and then puts his entire life on display as an extended reality show. In fact, this is interesting – Aldebaranredstar shared a quotation from Peter Weir, the director of The Truman Show, where says his ideas about the main character came from Michael Jackson:
“You watch The Truman Show and, I mean, Jim Carrey did a fantastic job, but Michael Jackson is Truman. He’s who I based him on and he is the nearest thing to Truman.”
Joie: You know, I hadn’t heard that until after Michael passed away. And I’ve never really been a fan of Jim Carrey so, I’ve actually never watched The Truman Show, believe it or not. But since hearing that comment from Peter Weir I really want to see it. Maybe I’ll rent it this weekend.
Willa: Oh, it’s fascinating, Joie – especially watching it with Michael Jackson in mind. I think you’ll get a lot out of it.
Joie: I’m really interested in it now. I’ll let you know when I watch it. But I want to talk about a couple of those other songs I mentioned earlier. For instance, the lyrics to “Tabloid Junkie” have always fascinated me, and when I think about them in the context of this ‘perceived paranoia’ that so many tried to label Michael Jackson with, they become really telling.
Speculate to break the one you hate Circulate the lie you confiscate Assassinate and mutilate It’s the hounding media, in hysteria
Those are very strong words, and I’m sure that from his point of view and his life experiences, those words were very true.
Willa: Those are strong words, in sound and meaning. In fact, I’m intrigued by the sounds of those words – speculate, circulate, confiscate, assassinate, mutilate – and how they echo the word “hate,” a word he places in a very prominent position at the end of the first line. The way those sounds are located, it almost seems like there’s a reverberation of “hate, hate, hate, hate, hate” throughout this verse. And I wonder if that’s what it felt like to him, being hit with one hateful story after another.
Joie: Wow, I never thought of it that way, Willa. It probably did feel like hate to him. But that was his life and I’m guessing that, at times, it must have seemed unbearable to him. But, looking at those words, I can also see where the critics – or the media – would take offense and want to strike back by trying to make him seem crazy and paranoid. Especially when he included words like these:
It’s slander You say it’s not a sword But with your pen you torture men You’d crucify the Lord
And he goes on to say this:
It’s slander With the words you use You’re a parasite in black and white Do anything for news If you don’t go and buy it Then they won’t glorify it To read it sanctifies it Then why do we keep foolin’ ourselves?
You know, it was almost like they were taunting each other. Michael would write a song about his life experience, the media would take offense to it and strike out against him, so he would lash out in the only way he could … by writing another song about the experience. A vicious cycle. It was a very precarious sort of relationship between them.
Willa: I see what you’re saying, Joie, but it’s a complicated issue, and we see some of that complexity in the verses you just cited. For example, in the lines “You say it’s not a sword / But with your pen you torture men,” he’s referencing the old saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” That adage is actually lauding the power of the written word to bring about positive social change. It’s saying that the written word – whether in novels or essays or poetry or the press – is more powerful than armies at resisting oppression, exposing injustice, and righting wrongs. That’s very similar to the idea he expresses in Beat It and Bad and Jam, among others, that art is more powerful than violence, and we know that was an idea he passionately believed.
But today’s press, with its focus on the sensational and the trivial, denies the power it has – “you say it’s not a sword” – and then carelessly squanders that power to “torture men.” Instead of being a beacon for good, they have become “a parasite in black and white.”
Joie: I just love that phrase! “A parasite in black and white. Do anything for news.” It’s so perfect for the predatory celebrity news that we see today, I think.
Willa: It really is. So it seems to me that he’s criticizing the press not only for attacking him, but for neglecting the higher purpose they should be fulfilling. They should be doing their part to “Heal the world / Make it a better place,” and they aren’t. Instead, they attack those who try. I’ve even read snarky articles about Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. As Michael Jackson tells the press in those lines you cited above, Joie, “You’d crucify the Lord” given the chance, instead of helping to fight injustice.
Joie: I agree with you, Willa. The entire song is a really scathing look at the media. It’s another example of Michael Jackson holding up a mirror for us to examine ourselves but, of course, no one’s listening but the fans. Everyone else is still calling him paranoid.
Willa: Oh, it’s a very scathing look. Not only are the attacks on him unfair and hurtful, but they also distract news organizations from the real work they should be doing. We see that idea in “Breaking News,” as well. In fact, the whole song is a play on the words “breaking news.” Usually those words refer to a news bulletin about an event that’s just happened, but he shifts the meaning so those words refer to how dysfunctional news organizations have become. Those organizations can no longer report real news because the traditional news-gathering systems are falling apart – as he says, “You’re breaking the news.”
It’s also interesting that once again he subtly refers to the idea that “the pen is mightier than the sword” when he sings, “You write the words to destroy like it’s a weapon.” So again, he’s saying that the media have this mighty sword – the power of the press – and they’re misusing it to “torture men” rather than expose corruption and injustice and fight for a better world.
Joie: You’re right, Willa. And what you just said about the press misusing their power to “torture men” instead of using it to fight against corruption and injustice makes me think of another song that could be included in this discussion, “Why You Wanna Trip on Me.” At first listen, it’s not really a ‘paranoid’ song but, when we examine the lyrics, it just fits in so well with what you just said:
They say I’m different They don’t understand But there’s a bigger problem That’s much more in demand You got world hunger Not enough to eat So there’s really no time To be trippin’ on me You got school teachers Who don’t wanna teach You got grown people Who can’t write or read You got strange diseases Ah but there’s no cure You got many doctors That aren’t so sure So tell me Why you wanna trip on me?
What he’s saying here is that, with all the millions of real problems in the world, why on earth is the media tripping on him all the time? Why are they breaking their necks to follow his every move and shove cameras in his face when there are so many other, much more important and distressing issues going on in the world?
Willa: Wow, Joie, I didn’t even think about “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” but you’re right – that really spells it all out, doesn’t it? As he says, “There’s a bigger problem / That’s much more in demand” for attention from the press, so why are they spending so much time and energy chasing and criticizing him?
But you know, it seems to me that when critics call Michael Jackson paranoid, they aren’t just referring to his songs about the press. They’re also referring to his songs about the lying, threatening, stalking women who hurt My Baby – songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous.” But as you pointed out in one of our very first posts, Joie, those threatening women can be interpreted as representing fame, celebrity, or more specifically, the media. For example, there are these lyrics from “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”:
Billie Jean is always talking When nobody else is talking Telling lies and rubbing shoulders So they called her mouth a motor
Bille Jean could be a woman who’s “always talking” and whose mouth is like “a motor,” but that’s a pretty accurate description of the tabloids as well.
Joie: Oh, wow. Good point, Willa! I never really think of those songs as being part of the whole ‘paranoia’ narrative but, you’re right; it does fit, doesn’t it? The threatening women in all those songs were sort of out to get him, weren’t they? That’s really interesting.
You know, this entire conversation still makes me think about that comment Jodie Foster made in that Golden Globes speech about fighting for a life that feels ‘real and honest and normal.’ And it’s just so sad that he never really had that because his life was constantly put on display. And as you said earlier, he wasn’t paranoid in the clinical sense because “they” really were after him. Everyday of his life. Maybe they weren’t out to get him but, they were certainly out to capture his every move.
Willa: Yes, they were. But as he points out in many of those songs, they’re providing what the consumer wants, as you quoted above from “Tabloid Junkie”:
If you don’t go and buy it Then they won’t glorify it To read it sanctifies it Then why do we keep foolin’ ourselves?
He expresses a similar idea in “Monster”:
It’s got you jumping like you should It’s got you bouncing off the wall It’s got you drunk enough to fall
So he’s saying that consumers have become addicted to those shock stories – “It’s got you drunk enough to fall” – and the media is feeding that addiction. But if we (the collective “we”) can somehow detox ourselves from that kind of slander and remove the market for those stories, that kind of journalism will shrivel up and die.
Joie: And you know, the really difficult thing to understand is why? It seems that everyone complains about “that kind of journalism” but still it persists. And so often, “that kind of journalism” isn’t even true or accurate. Michael pointed that out so well in “Tabloid Junkie”:
Just because you read it in a magazine You see it on a TV screen Don’t make it factual
Willa: And Joie, that’s perhaps the most important point of all. You know, I think most people realize that tabloid-style articles and television shows don’t really report the news – that they’re sensationalized or gross exaggerations or even complete fabrications – so why do they exist? What’s the point of “newspapers” and celebrity “news” shows that report false news? That doesn’t make any sense.
I think they’re actually a type of entertainment – a corrupt entertainment – not news. The tabloids turned Michael Jackson into a “monster” and an “animal,” as he sings in “Monster,” and then mocked him as a type of cruel entertainment. For some reason, we insist on turning people into monsters every so often, and the tabloids did that to him and forced him to play that cultural role. He talks about that phenomenon quite a bit in his later work – in songs like “Threatened” and “Is It Scary” and “Monster” and “Breaking News.” And it’s cruel.
You know, my son is 14 and he’s brought home a lot of information about bullying the last few years. The schools are really working hard to prevent bullying, and help kids deal with it when it happens. And one of the things I’ve realized is that almost everything my son has told me about bullying – from name-calling to cyber-bullying to ganging up on those who are perceived as different – applies to the tabloid press as well. They are bullies, and we should be as vigilant in preventing hurtful behavior by tabloid-style media as we are in preventing hurtful behavior by bullies.
We should prevent it not only because it hurts the targets, people like Michael Jackson, but also because it hurts us as well. I think most people think the tabloids are pretty harmless – just mindless fluff about UFOs and celebrities and Nostradamus predictions – and they don’t realize how damaging that constant barrage of misinformation and mean-spirited behavior can be. I think the tabloids and shock-jock radio shows and those kinds of inflammatory entertainment have influenced how we talk to one another, making us less civil and more judgmental. And whether we realize it or not, they’ve also influenced our perceptions and world view. As Michael Jackson told Oprah back in 1993, “If you hear a lie often enough, you start to believe it.”
Joie: Willa, I could not agree with you more. I especially like what you just said about tabloids and shock-jock radio shows being a type of inflammatory entertainment, and I think probably 90% of the so-called “reality” TV shows can be placed in that same catagory. And shows like that have influenced the way we talk to and relate to one another – and not at all in a good way. Again, it’s one of the many lessons that Michael Jackson tried over and over to teach us but, most refuse to listen.