Author Archives: Willa and Joie
The following conversation was originally posted on October 24, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
Willa: Last spring, longtime contributor Bjørn Bojesen shared his version of “Bili Ĝin,” which is an Esperanto translation of “Billie Jean.” That led to a behind-the-scenes discussion of Michael Jackson and foreign languages, with Joie, Bjørn, and me all brainstorming about songs or short films where he sang or incorporated words in a language other than his native English. This was such an interesting topic for us we decided to take the discussion online and talk about it in a post. Thanks for joining us, Bjørn, and for sharing “Bili Ĝin” with us!
So Esperanto is actually a good place to start this discussion since it’s such a Michael Jackson kind of concept. As I understand it, Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s using elements of many different languages to help promote global peace and understanding. Specifically, it was created by L.L. Zamenhof to provide a neutral means of communication that bridged divisions of language, nationality, and ethnicity. I can see how this would appeal to Michael Jackson since crossing boundaries and healing divisions is something he did throughout his career. And as you recently mentioned, Bjørn, he incorporated an Esperanto passage in the promo film for HIStory. Is that right?
Bjørn: Yes, that’s correct. At the very start, right before the soldiers come marching in with their heavy boots, an unseen man shouts out a declaration in Esperanto. Take a look:
In the YouTube video, there are some glitches in the subtitles, but the anonymous person’s message goes like this: “Diversaj nacioj de la mondo” (Different nations of the world) / “konstruas ĉi tiun skulptaĵon” (build this sculpture) / “en la nomo de tutmonda patrineco kaj amo” (in the name of global motherhood and love) / “kaj la kuraca forto de muziko” (and the healing power of music). A few seconds later, one of the smelters also shouts in Esperanto: “Venu ĉi tien!” (Come over here!)
The promo created quite a stir in the Esperanto community when it aired. Why would MJ use a snippet of Esperanto? I have no idea whether he actually spoke Esperanto, but I guess he scripted the lines (in English): “in the name of global motherhood and love, and the healing power of music.” Doesn’t this sound very MJ to you? I mean, just the idea of a universal motherhood instead of the usual brotherhood…
Willa: It really does. It sounds “very MJ,” as you say, and it’s also interesting how those words undercut the visuals. What follows those words is a show of military force, with goose-stepping soldiers evocative of Nazi military demonstrations. So there’s a strong tension between the Esperanto words, which describe the statue they’re building as a tribute to “global motherhood and love,” and the accompanying images, which place the statue in a military context.
Bjørn: Yes, but this tension only exists if you understand the words! 99.8 percent of the viewers would have no clue what the voice actor was saying. So, why didn’t MJ simply let the man speak his lines in English?
Willa: Well, that’s a good point, Bjørn – and I have to admit, I’m one of the 99.8 percent!
Joie: As am I. You know, Bjørn, I find this fascinating and I’m also really surprised by it. I had no idea those words were spoken in Esperanto. I don’t ever remember hearing that at the time of the video’s release. I just remember all the controversy over the film itself being declared hateful and narcissistic. But you ask an interesting question … why didn’t he simply use a language that was more easily recognizable to the masses? Even if he didn’t use English, he still could have used Russian or Spanish or even Japanese. Any other language that more people would hear and immediately recognize. But instead, he chose Esperanto. And Willa and I are of the belief that he rarely did anything artistic without a very precise reason for it. So I am intrigued.
Bjørn: I think you’re touching on something important, Joie, when you talk about a language that’s “more easily recognizable to the masses”! This is exactly why many upper-class art aficionados can’t stand Michael Jackson – they think he’s just feeding “the masses” with stuff they can easily digest. But I think MJ had a perfect understanding of this balance between being accessible and being esoteric. By dropping such small hard-to-get references – like his basing the You Are Not Alone video on the painting Daybreak by Maxfield Parrish – Michael Jackson added interpretational depth to his art. By the way, wasn’t it the MJ Academia Project that first revealed that the HIStory promo video is essentially a spoof of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Hitler propaganda film, Triumph of the Will?
Willa: I think so … at least, that’s the first place I heard it.
Bjørn: With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that the initiator of Esperanto, Zamenhof, was a Jew…
I also think MJ is reflecting on his own use of language. His mother tongue happens to be English – which since World War II has functioned as a second language for huge parts of the world. The English language helps MJ get his message across to the masses, but at the same time it gives native English-speakers like him a communicational advantage (while others have to search for words, you can just keep talking).
Esperanto is the wannabe international language with the potential to put speakers of different mother tongues on a more equal footing. Say all the countries of the UN decided to make Esperanto a global second language, and began teaching it in every classroom on the globe. That would give people from any culture a basic tool for communication – but it would also mean that native English-speakers would have to “make a little space.” So, in this promo video, MJ is somehow endorsing the idea of Esperanto. By letting the language “guest star,” he questions the status quo (using native languages for international communication). I guess you could call it an artistic discussion about language and power.
Willa: That’s a really interesting way to look at that, Bjørn. And we could push that idea of challenging “language and power” even further if we consider that English as a “global” language began with British imperialism and colonialism. As the British Empire spread around the world, so did English culture and language, with many indigenous people encouraged or even forced to give up their native language and use English instead. And of course, racism in the United States is a direct result of British colonialism and the slave trade. So in that sense, English can be seen as a language of oppression – the language of those colonizing and displacing indigenous people around the world.
So getting back to the HIStory teaser, it’s interesting that in the visuals he’s strongly pushing back against efforts to silence him and “put him in his place” following the false allegations of 1993, and in the Esperanto spoken parts he’s pushing back against English, the language that to some degree silenced his ancestors and tried to keep them in their place.
Joie: Wow. Really interesting way of looking at that, Willa!
Bjørn: Yes, I agree, Joie, I hadn’t thought about it like that either! So, if the HIStory teaser is a kind of rebuttal – to Nazism and colonialism and the extinction of native languages caused by English and other “big tongues” – couldn’t Liberian Girl be seen as an attempt to recover what was lost? Even if the song’s intro is in Swahili, which is an East African language, and most of MJ’s forebears probably came from West Africa…
Joie: Ah! Very clever thinking, Bjørn! We could almost say the same thing about the coda at the end of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.’” The Cameroonian chant, “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah.”
Willa: Wow, you guys, that is so interesting! I really like the idea of approaching those two from this perspective. You know, both of them seem to address the issue of representation and interpretation – or misinterpretation – to some degree, and in both the use of an African language signals a major shift in the mood of the song/video. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” he talks about how the media distorts meaning – like in these lyrics, for example:
I took My Baby to the doctor
With a fever, but nothing he found
By the time this hit the street
They said she had a breakdown
Most of the song is pretty edgy and fearful, and that’s all in English. But then the Cameroon part starts, and suddenly this edgy, trippy song shifts and becomes joyful and triumphant. It’s a very dramatic shift in mood.
There’s a similar shift in the Liberian Girl video. It begins in black and white, with an eerie, sustained, high-pitched note vibrating in the background as the camera pans around what seems to be a British colony in Africa. A waiter walks out of the Cafe Afrique, we see workers in African dress, and then a white missionary in European clothes with a rosary and clerical collar. The camera follows the missionary until he walks behind a beautiful black woman; then the camera stops on her. She looks up and speaks directly to the camera in Swahili, and suddenly everything changes. The black-and-white tone gives way to vibrant color, and we discover we’re not in colonial Africa but modern day Hollywood, in a studio filled with glittering celebrities.
One of the things that’s most interesting about this, in terms of language and colonialism, is that Liberia is an African nation founded and, in effect, re-colonized by free blacks and escaped slaves from the U.S. in the 1800s – people whose ancestry was African but who no longer had a home country to return to. And its official language is English, the only language this diaspora of people had in common. So it’s almost like the English language was re-colonized, just as the nation-state of Liberia was – the language of the colonizer was reclaimed and reappropriated by the colonized.
And we see that idea suggested in Liberian Girl as well. All the celebrities are milling around and Whoopi Goldberg asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Speilberg sitting in a director’s chair, implying he’s the director, but he’s looking at his watch and he’s no more in control than anyone else. Then at the end of the video we discover who’s really been calling the shots: Michael Jackson, behind the camera. So he has reclaimed the Liberian Girl video as his own, just as the former slaves from America reclaimed Liberia and English as their own.
Bjørn: Well, the problem with this interpretation, Willa, is that Liberia was already inhabited when the African-Americans founded it! Just like Israel was already inhabited by Arabs when it was founded as a place where Jews could live in peace. To my understanding, today the “original” Liberians – talking various African languages – are second-class (or at least less fortunate) citizens in a state dominated by English-speaking “American” Liberians (with ancestors ultimately hailing from many parts of Africa, not just Liberia).
I don’t know a lot about Liberia, and I can sympathize with the idea of the ex-slaves reclaiming “English as their own” (after all, who doesn’t love his mother tongue?) But I do think that Jackson’s use of African languages in these songs reflect a longing for the uncolonized past, maybe even for a romantic Africa that never really existed (or, perhaps, for a “garden of Eden” that could come into existence in the future!) As the linguist Ben Zimmer pointed out on his blog the day after MJ had died, the chant in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” was heavily inspired by a line from “Soul Makossa” by the Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango. (Dibango sued MJ for plagiarism, but they reached an agreement out of court.) Here’s “Soul Makossa”:
Dibango sings “ma ma ko, ma ma sa, ma ko ma ko sa,” which is in his native language, Duala. So, MJ’s chant isn’t really in any African language – but so close that is certainly sounds African. In the same way, he uses Swahili (from East Africa) as a symbol of (idealized) Africanness, even if the actual Liberia is in West Africa, far away from the places where people speak Swahili… So, for me, the use of African languages in these songs are really more about a “longing for paradise on earth” as it was before colonization, and as it could become once again.
Willa: I think that’s a very important point, Bjørn – that he’s referring more to an idea than an actual place. After all, after the shift in Liberian Girl, we aren’t in Liberia; we’re on a movie set in Hollywood, so he’s clearly demonstrating that the opening scene wasn’t really a scene from the actual nation of Liberia, but a Hollywood depiction of “exotic Africa.” The challenge for us, then, is to figure out what idea, exactly, he’s trying to get across when he sings with longing about a girl from Liberia.
It’s interesting in this context to think about the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Harriet Beecher Stowe sends Eliza, George, and the other escaped slaves to Liberia. For her, it represented a place where they could be safe and free, and where their son Harry could grow and thrive. For her, it truly meant a “paradise on earth,” as you said, Bjørn, but it also reveals a despair about her own country. Stowe didn’t think it was possible for them to ever be truly free in the United States, or even Canada, so she had to send them to Liberia to ensure their freedom.
But I don’t think Michael Jackson ever did give up on the United States – though he had good reason to, and he chose not to live here after the 2005 trial. And I think Liberia, as a concept, means something different for him than it did for Stowe.
Bjørn: That’s really interesting! I guess I’ll have to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin some day. Stowe’s “Liberia,” as you describe it, reminds me of Bob Marley and the other Rastafarians, who saw Ethiopia as a Promised Land. The name Liberia, which comes from the same Latin root as “liberty,” roughly translates as “the land of the free.” I once made an Esperanto translation of “Liberian Girl,” where the ethymology really shines through: Liberianin’ means “Liberian girl” as well as “girl from the country of freedom.”
Willa: Really? You translated “Liberian Girl” also? That’s wonderful! And I love the alternate meaning of “girl from the country of freedom.”
Bjørn: The rainforest sounds at the beginning of the song (a prequel to “Earth Song”?) could indicate that MJ used “Liberia” as a metaphor for Paradise. Now, “Paradise Girl,” that’s a little spooky, if you think about it. But I’ve always thought this song wasn’t about “Liberia” at all, but rather about a girl who’s very far away from the singer. Like MJ’s (extreme!) version of “Distant Lover,” if you know that Marvin Gaye song!
Okay, let’s get back to the language question. Why does Michael Jackson’s Liberian girl, whoever she is, speak in Swahili? Is that just to add some exotic spice, or what do you think?
Joie: Well now that is a really good question, Bjørn. And while I really enjoy picking apart a song or a short film and trying to analyze it and discern its true meaning, I also sometimes think that maybe a cigar is just a cigar. What would be wrong with adding in Swahili, or any other foreign language for that matter, for the sole purpose of adding a little exotic spice to your creation? Maybe he simply thought it sounded cool.
Willa: You’re right, Joie, it does sound cool, and it perfectly fits that space in the song. We know he was fascinated by sounds – found sounds, manufactured sounds, the sounds of nature, the sounds of the city, the sound of words – so it’s very possible he chose those phrases simply based on their sounds and rhythms.
But I’m still intrigued by the fact that both “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and Liberian Girl focus on American pop culture and the entertainment industry, and how certain things are represented or misrepresented within that industry. And both include an African phrase that serves as an important pivot point – one that changes the whole mood of the work. That seems significant to me. But what does it mean?
As you mentioned, Bjørn, “Liberia” shares the same Latin root as “liberty.” As I understand it, the name “Liberia” was chosen to emphasize that this new nation was envisioned as a place where former slaves could find peace and liberty. So it seems significant that Michael Jackson evokes Liberia, but more as an idea than a physical place, as you suggested earlier. And to me, that’s reinforced by the fact that he incorporates Swahili, but it’s Swahili that has become unmoored from its native country and is now being used in a Hollywood video that to some extent critiques Hollywood.
The lyrics to Liberian Girl suggest something similar when he says their romance is “just like in the movies”:
With two lovers in a scene
And she says, “Do you love me?”
And he says so endlessly,
“I love you, Liberian Girl”
So their romance is presented as something of a fantasy, something that’s been scripted by Hollywood. In all of these cases, it’s like he’s both evoking a fantasy and critiquing it at the same time, and looking at where it comes from. For example, in Liberian Girl he’s evoking the exotic while questioning what it means to be labeled as exotic.
Joie: That is a very interesting interpretation, Willa! Sometimes you really do blow me away with how your mind works. It’s fascinating!
Willa: Thanks, Joie, though I might be totally missing the boat with this one – it’s pretty subtle what he’s doing. It’s just so interesting to me that he begins Liberian Girl with a classic scene of “exotic Africa,” then reveals it’s all just a Hollywood fabrication, and then suggests that the real exotica is Hollywood itself. And the Swahili phrase is the turning point where our perceptions are flipped inside out.
Joie: Do either of you know what that Swahili phrase means? I would be very interested to know what she’s saying in the opening of the song.
Bjørn: According to the album booklet, it means “I love you too – I want you too – my love.” (Google Translate seems to agree, although it renders mpenziwe as ”lover”.)
Joie: Huh. I don’t think I ever knew that before. I’ve always simply wondered at the meaning. I can’t believe it was in the album booklet all this time and I never noticed.
Bjørn: No worries, Joie, an album’s booklet is often the last thing I study too! But you know what? It just struck me there’s an interesting semantic evolution going on in this song: It starts with rainforest sounds that don’t have any particular meaning to the average listener (but who knows what the animals are really saying?) Then it progresses to a line spoken in Swahili, which to the vast audience is just as meaningless as the sound of a bird. Then, at last, Michael Jackson starts to sing in English, and because we understand the language, all of a sudden we don’t hear his words as ”sounds” any more, but as meaningful pieces of information… Perhaps Jackson added Swahili just to emphasize that the meaning we assign to words really is arbitrary, and that we might as well be in a situation where Swahili carried the information, and English was some unintelligible but exotic spice, just like the language of the forest, or even the sound of instruments…
Willa: Wow, that is fascinating, Bjørn! And if we interpret the opening that way – as examining how we make meaning – that progression of sounds is paralleled in the visuals as well. As you say, the sounds gradually become more intelligible as we move from bird song (something we don’t understand and can never understand) to Swahili (something most of us don’t understand at first but can if we put a little effort into it) to English (which for most Americans is our native language). And the visuals begin with the Cafe Afrique sign, then pan out to the Casablanca-like scene, and then keep panning out to show the Hollywood set. So as we telescope out, the images become more familiar – closer to home, in a way – and our understanding of what we’re seeing shifts and gradually becomes more clear: we’re watching a film being made.
Bjørn: This film, as you say, is being referenced to in the lyrics as well: “Just like in the movies… With two lovers in a scene…” So maybe the chief function of the Swahili phrase is to underscore the very otherworldliness of this cinematic fantasy, much like the Elvish phrases in the Lord of the Rings movies or the Na’vi dialogue in Avatar. Yes I know, Swahili is a living language spoken by real people. But still, hardly anyone in Liberia speaks Swahili! As pointed out earlier, Swahili is an East African language. Its native speakers live along the Kenya-Tanzania coastline.
What’s intriguing about Swahili, however, is that it’s become a truly international language in much of Eastern Africa! Millions of people in Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya use Swahili to get their messages across a multitude of linguistic boundaries. It is, indeed, the closest we get to an African “Esperanto.”
Willa: Really? I didn’t know that.
Joie: Neither did I.
Willa: That’s fascinating to think about it as “an African ‘Esperanto.’”
Bjørn: If we look at it like that, the openings of “Liberian Girl” and the HIStory teaser are very similar: Something is being said by a non-MJ person in a cross-cultural language, before MJ himself enters the stage and reassures his English-speaking listeners that they’re not wholly “lost in translation”!
“Stranger in Moscow,” interestingly, takes the opposite approach. Here MJ’s loudly sung English-language lyrics are followed by another man whispering in the lingua franca of the Cold War Communist world: Russian.
Willa: Wow, Bjørn, that is so interesting! And to me, it feels like the Russian in “Stranger in Moscow” functions in a very different way as well. It reinforces the edgy, unsettled mood of the song, as well as the theme of alienation from his home country.
Joie: I agree with you, Willa. “Stranger in Moscow” has always been one of my favorites and I think it’s because it is such a beautifully constructed song. But you’re right, the use of Russian in the song really heightens the sense of loneliness, isolation and despair that he’s trying to convey here. The alienation as you put it. Whenever I listen to this song, I actually get the sense that his sole reason for using Russian here is to make us feel those negative emotions more fully.
Willa: It feels that way to me too, Joie, and that feeling intensifies once we learn what those Russian words mean: “Why have you come from the West? Confess! To steal the great achievements of the people, the accomplishments of the workers…”
Joie: Yes. It’s very intimidating, isn’t it? Imagine being a stranger in a strange land, detained by these scary officials and having those questions barked at you over and over again!
Willa: Or to bring it a little closer to home, imagine the police asking you, Why are you so kind and generous with children? Confess! It’s to lure them in so you can abuse them …
What I mean is, it wasn’t just the KGB who interrogated people in intimidating ways – the Santa Barbara police investigators did the same thing, and not just to Michael Jackson but to young children as well. They interrogated Jason Francia over and over again when he was only 12 years old. As he said later, “They made me come up with stuff. They kept pushing. I wanted to hit them in the head.” Like the stereotypical image of the KGB, they were determined to wring a confession from him.
And I think that’s the idea Michael Jackson is trying to get at here. He’s not pointing a finger at the Soviets – he’s pointing a finger at us, and saying in some ways we are as much of a police state as Cold War Russia. And the shock of that realization has made him feel like a stranger in his own country.
Bjørn: That’s fascinating, Joie and Willa. I hadn’t thought about it like that. Both “Stranger in Moscow” and “Liberian Girl” mention specific locations in their titles, which is a very unusual thing for MJ to do. (Most of his titles are quite unspecific – just think about “A place with no name”!) And both songs use great regional languages to create a specific mood. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of Jackson’s short films, but I have remarked a couple of times that Russians have commented that the scenes in Stranger in Moscow look nothing like Moscow at all.
Willa: That’s true. You can tell from the street signs and the close-up of the American quarter that it was filmed in the U.S. And that seems very deliberate – he wants us to know he’s really in the U.S. though he feels like he’s in a strange land.
Bjørn: So, I wonder if MJ is using Moscow and Russian in a metaphorical way, just like he uses Liberia and Swahili to evoke a dreamlike vision of Africa. Thanks to the Cold War, Russian must sound like a very alien language to many Americans. And Moscow must still be the very ”eye of the tiger” to some folks! (Poor Russian MJ fans!)
So, without demonizing too much here, we might say that while Jackson uses Swahili as a paradisaical or “angelic” language, Russian, as used by the KGB agent, does duty as the language of his demons…
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn! Or maybe the Russian is evoking a frightening unknown. In other words, it’s not so much that Russian is “the language of his demons,” but that Americans once demonized it because we didn’t understand it and were afraid of it. I have friends a little older than I am who remember the Bay of Pigs, and the school drills for what to do if the Soviets attacked with nuclear bombs. And the main feeling they remember is the uncertainty – the fear of something powerful that you don’t understand, that can attack at any time without warning. I can certainly understand how Michael Jackson might feel that way about the Santa Barbara police …
Joie: Wow. That’s really deep, Willa. And Bjørn, I love what you said about the “angelic” language and the “demon” language. I think it’s clear that both languages were used in very different ways to convey two very different realms of emotion, and that is very fascinating.
Bjørn: Yes, it is! And just as the languages help the music paint these emotional landscapes, the music also influences the way we – as non-speakers – perceive these foreign languages. Personally, I find Russian quite a beautiful language, with all its mushy sounds. And, importantly, it is whispered, as if the KGB agent is telling a secret. If we hadn’t just heard MJ’s lament, we might have thought it was a lover whispering something to his beloved, much like the Swahili girl in “Liberian Girl.” And this makes it all the more frightening – it’s like a cold embrace, followed by a stab.
Willa: Wow, that’s a fascinating way to look at that, Bjørn – and pretty chilling too.
Bjørn: So, in “Liberian Girl,” “Stranger in Moscow,” and the HIStory teaser, Michael Jackson uses bits of foreign languages to help create a mood or atmosphere. And the languages he uses have all – at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication: Swahili, Esperanto, Russian. Furthermore, the pieces seem to highlight different aspects of foreignness: the exotic and alluring (Swahili), the unfamiliar and strange (Esperanto), the threatening and repulsing (Russian).
Willa: And there’s another song that fits this pattern also: “They Don’t Care about Us.” It begins with a woman saying “Michael, eles não ligam pra gente,” which is Portuguese for “Michael, they don’t care about us.” As you said of Swahili, Esperanto, and Russian, Bjørn, Portuguese is another language that has “at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication.” Like England, Portugal was a powerful nation during the colonial era, and as a result, Portuguese is the official language of countries around the world, from Europe to South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
Joie: That’s very true, Willa. You know I think most people just think about Portuguese being spoken in Brazil and, of course, Portugal. But it’s actually the official language of many African nations, like Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau, and others. And, as you said, even in Southeast Asia. It’s interesting to think of it as “rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication,” because it really did at one point.
Willa: And still does in some regions – like I didn’t realize it was so widespread in Africa. That’s interesting, Joie. And to get back to what you were saying, Bjørn, about the different emotional effect of each of these languages, the Portugese lines at the beginning of “They Don’t Care about Us” have always struck me as sorrowful, in an almost maternal way – like the sorrow of a mother who cares deeply for her children and has seen too many of them come to harm.
Bjørn: You opened up my eyes here, Willa and Joie! I have to confess I’ve never heard that Portuguese part before. I gave the song another listen, and couldn’t hear it – but then it occurred to me that it had to be in the video! I’m a great fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but a lot of his films I haven’t watched in their entirety. So, I went to YouTube, and heard that phrase spoken for the first time.
I wonder, though, to what extent Portuguese is being used to create an emotional effect, and to what extent it’s being used to evoke an idea of “Brazil” – after all, the film does take part in real-world Brazil (not a fantasy “Liberia”), where Portuguese is spoken as the main language.
Willa: That’s a good point.
Bjørn: But if we look at the emotions, I do agree with you, Willa, that it sounds like a caring mother speaking to her son. By the way, those people who like blaming MJ for having a “Jesus complex,” should take an extra look… In the exact same moment as the Brazilian mother figure says the name “Michael,” the camera pans to the famous Rio statue of Christ the Redeemer…
Willa: Oh heavens, Bjørn! You’re just trying to stir up trouble, aren’t you?
Bjørn: Well, yes and no, Willa. This being an academic discussion, I don’t think I’d do the readers any favor by censoring what I see! It’s a fact that the name and the statue appear at the same time, and I’d like to think it’s intentional. But okay, let’s save the interpretation of that for an ”MJ and religious symbolism” post!
So, in the four “foreign language songs” we’ve looked at so far, we’ve got an Esperanto-speaking worker, a Swahili-speaking lover, a Russian-speaking agent and a Brazilian-speaking mother… MJ himself, however, still sings in his native English. The foreign culture remains inaccessible and different. Interestingly, on a couple of occasions he did cross the border, so to speak. I’m of course thinking about the versions he did of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” in two of the world’s great international languages: Spanish and French… What do you think about them?
Willa: Well, my first reaction is that I love them – they are both exquisitely beautiful, I think. And it’s interesting for me to hear a Michael Jackson song the way non-English speakers must usually hear them – where the meaning comes not so much from the words he is singing but from the expressiveness of his voice.
Joie: That’s an great point, Willa, one that I don’t often ponder. But it’s interesting to think about how non-English speakers perceive Michael’s music. Especially since his music is so very beloved all over the world. But you’re right that they must experience it much differently than native English speakers do.
You know I went through a similar phenomenon back in my teen years when I had a huge crush on the guys of the Puerto Rican boy band, Menudo. They would release albums in both Spanish and English, and oddly enough, I found that I really loved those Spanish speaking songs, even though my Spanish has never been all that great. To this day, I often find myself singing them.
Bjørn: When I discovered Michael Jackson’s music as a child, I hardly understood anything he was singing. I just liked the sound of it! So I can certainly follow you there… “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” isn’t among my favorite MJ songs, but I agree it’s nice to hear him sing in Spanish (which I understand) and French (which I don’t really understand). Why did he choose this particular song, do you think? I mean, if it was to promote the Bad album in Spanish- and French-speaking countries, he could have handed the translators the song ”Bad”… (I just hear it: ¡Porque soy malo, soy malo!)
Willa: That’s great, Bjørn! I’ll be thinking about that next time I hear, “Because I’m bad, I’m bad …”
So I don’t know why he chose “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” but it’s a beautiful song and it’s a duet – one of his few duets – and that would allow him to interact with someone while he was singing, someone fluent in Spanish or French. Maybe that’s part of why he chose this one. I don’t know about Spanish, but he did speak passable French. In fact, in the 1980s he was interviewed in French by a Montreal reporter, and he answered in French. And he loved Paris – he even named his daughter Paris. And of course he always liked to bridge boundaries, as we discussed at the beginning with Esperanto.
So thank you so much for joining us, Bjørn, and for adding a European, multilingual perspective! We always love talking with you, and hope you’ll join us again soon.
The following conversation was originally posted on September 26, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
In other news, Elizabeth Amisu and Karin Merx are about to launch a new website, michaeljacksonstudies.org, that they envision as an “online centre of academic studies regarding MJ.” It’s a wonderful idea, and could become a very useful resource for those interested in a deeper understanding of Michael Jackson’s work.
Willa: A few weeks ago our friend Lisha McDuff sent us a link to a documentary about the biggest pop star of his time, and it was so fascinating to me – especially the way he redefined art to include areas we don’t typically think of as art, like his fame, his public persona, his speaking voice, and even his face.
However, as the documentary makes clear, in a way he was forced to make his face part of his art because he suffered from auto-immune disorders that attacked the pigment of his skin. In the documentary, there are photos that show large white patches on his cheek and neck where the pigment has been destroyed. People who knew him later in life say his skin was unnaturally white, and he sometimes wore makeup that made it even whiter.
He was also very self-conscious about his nose – he thought it was too “bulbous” – and he almost certainly had plastic surgery to make it smaller and thinner. And he was known to wear god-awful wigs that he intentionally “damaged” himself, whacking at the front with scissors and dying the bottom layers a dark brown, while leaving the top layers white or silvery blonde.
Of course I’m talking about the Pope of Pop, Andy Warhol – an artist Michael Jackson met several times and pays homage to in his Scream video. Lisha, thank you so much for sharing that documentary, Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture, and for joining me to talk about it!
Lisha: It’s such a privilege to talk with you again, Willa, especially about the connections between Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson. Ever since I read your book and your brilliant analysis of Andy Warhol’s self-portrait in Scream, I’ve been fascinated by the connection between the two and the way both artists dared to challenge and redefine the boundaries of art. In your book, you wrote:
While Warhol forced us to look at Campbell soup cans and think about our relationship with consumer culture in a new way, Jackson forced us to look at him – the little boy we’d loved since childhood who grew up into something unexpected – and challenged our assumptions about identity and race, gender and sexuality.
That is especially interesting when you think about how Michael Jackson must have understood himself to be a trademarked product early on in life; he developed a star persona at such a very young age.
Willa: That’s a good point, Lisha. Motown not only produced music but also thoroughly groomed their artists, giving them lessons in speech, etiquette, fashion, demeanor – how to eat and drink in public, how to walk and talk, how to give interviews in a way that presented an appealing persona to a large crossover audience. And for Michael Jackson, those lessons started at a very young age, when he was only 10 years old.
Lisha: I’ve often wondered what it must have been like – learning to create a star persona that was even younger than his actual age. And what was it like for him to watch that star persona depicted as a cartoon character every Saturday morning on television? There are very few people in the world who could relate to that – developing a sense of self while learning to craft a public persona at the same time.
So I never imagined how many striking similarities there were in the lives of Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson until I watched this documentary. I realized that both men grew up in steel towns, Pittsburgh and Gary, because their fathers were steel workers. They were teased about their noses growing up and they suffered from medical conditions that destroyed their skin pigment and caused early hair loss. They became shy and soft spoken. And as adults, both men responded in such an unexpected and wildly imaginative way, it has captured the public’s attention ever since – by creating a larger-than-life celebrity persona – using glasses, wigs, light skin and a re-sculpted nose. You could easily argue that Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson’s greatest works of art are: Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson.
Willa: I agree, Lisha. When we think of art, we’re used to thinking about music, dance, painting, fiction, drama, poetry, sculpture, film, and all the other easily recognizable genres of artistic expression. But Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson didn’t just create incredible works of art – they also challenged how we define art. And perhaps their most important and experimental work hasn’t even been recognized as art, and that’s their innovative work with the art of celebrity and mass media, including the creation of a public persona, as you say, that captures and reconfigures the public imagination in important ways.
And that interest in celebrity seems to have started at a young age for both of them. Warhol became obsessed with celebrities, starting a scrapbook of photos and autographs while still in elementary school. One of his prized possessions was a signed photograph from Shirley Temple addressed “To Andrew Warhola.” And of course, Michael Jackson later became fascinated by Shirley Temple as well, though for him it wasn’t just admiration. Because she was a child star and suffered some of the same experiences he had, he identified with her and seemed to feel a deep connection with her. Later they became friends, and he describes their first meeting in a very emotional way – like two survivors reuniting after a tragedy.
The Warhol documentary talks about his celebrity scrapbook, including the Shirley Temple photograph, about 8 minutes in. Here’s a link to the full documentary, Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture, though it’s a bit spicy in places – people with children probably shouldn’t watch it with them in the room:
The discussion of Warhol’s face and public image – especially his visual image – begins about 12 minutes in, and picks up again around an hour in. And here’s an extra treat: there’s an image of Michael Jackson on the cover of Warhol’s Interview magazine at 1:13:20.
[Note: Unfortunately, this link no longer functions. Here's a new link, though the times are a little different. For example, the picture of Michael Jackson on the cover of Interview is at 2:10:25.]
Lisha: The influence of Shirley Temple on both of these artists is stunning to me. In Victor Bokris’ biography of Andy Warhol, he describes just how much Warhol truly idolized Shirley Temple. She inspired his basic philosophy of life: “work all the time, make it into a game, and maintain your sense of humour.” Warhol even took dance lessons to emulate her, and it was in reference to Shirley Temple that he famously said: “I never wanted to be a painter; I wanted to be a tap dancer.”
Willa: That’s so interesting, Lisha. I’d heard that quote before, but I thought he was joking!
Lisha: According to his nephew, James Warhola, Warhol privately maintained that kind of child-like spirit throughout his life. Warhola wrote a children’s book titled Uncle Andy’s, which describes Warhol’s home as a giant amusement park full of carousel horses, antiques and all kinds of “neat” art. Sounds a lot like Neverland to me!
Willa: It really does, doesn’t it?
Lisha: I think it’s safe to assume Shirley Temple and that child-like spirit influenced how both these artists viewed celebrity as well. As Crispin Glover says in the documentary, “There are certain people in history that you can just put a few things together and that’s the person, like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, or Groucho Marx.” You can easily see what he means. A stove pipe hat and beard = Lincoln. Nose spectacles and mustache = Roosevelt. A mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, and cigar = Groucho. Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson are most definitely that way.
With Andy Warhol, the light skin and the silver wigs immediately come to mind. Matt Wribican, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, said that the wigs were something Warhol began to formally think of as art, and he actually framed some of them for that reason. Ultra Violet, a Warhol “superstar” from The Factory days, described how Warhol was creating a new mythology through his art – the mythology of Hollywood and the American Dream. Prosperity, glamor, and celebrity were a big part of Warhol’s art, and his own celebrity persona could be interpreted as an extension of that.
With Michael Jackson, we think of the unprecedented fame, the hair and sunglasses; the sequined glove and the fedora, the signature dance moves, the “hee-hee” and “aeow”! That’s the cliched pop star image of Michael Jackson, anyway.
Willa: That’s true, and it’s fascinating to really think about how those symbols function, and how powerful they are. For example, my son decided to dress up as Michael Jackson for Halloween a few years ago, so he put on a black fedora, a black jacket and pants, and white socks. I suggested he make his hair dark as well, but he said no, that wasn’t necessary – and he was right. My son went around the neighborhood as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Michael Jackson, and everyone immediately knew who he was. He didn’t have to look like Michael Jackson – he just needed to tap into that iconography Michael Jackson had created for himself. Those symbols overrode everything else so completely, my neighbors looked at a little blond boy and immediately thought “Michael Jackson.” And my son understood that at 12 years old – better than I did, actually.
Lisha: Isn’t it interesting that it seems to work for all ages, races, ethnicities and body types, boys and girls as well? As long as you have some combination of those symbols, it is immediately recognizable. And come to think of it, there isn’t just one group of symbols that identifies Michael Jackson either. A retro 1980s club in my neighborhood invites people to come dressed as their “favorite Michael Jackson.” Think of the possibilities.
Willa: That’s awesome! And you’re right – there’s different symbology for different decades. A red leather jacket evokes a different era than a white T-shirt and black pants.
Lisha: Yes, for different eras and for different characters and songs, too. There are just so many of them: the armband, the surgical mask, the hair falling across the face, the glitzy military jackets, the arm brace, the glitter socks and black loafers … symbols that refer back to Michael Jackson and the whole “Michael Jackson” mythology. For example, the red leather jacket in Thriller or Beat It, and the white suit and hat in Smooth Criminal are symbols that were intended only for those specific songs and short films. And they became so inextricably attached to the music, it became necessary to include them in live performances as well. These symbols help form the characters that make up the whole “Michael Jackson” mythology.
I remember reading an interview once with David Nordahl, one of Michael Jackson’s portrait painters, who talked about the contrast between Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson,” the celebrity. Jackson didn’t like to sit for his portraits, so Nordahl painted from photographs. Believe it or not, he said it was difficult to get a good photograph of Michael Jackson unless he was “being Michael.” To an artist’s eye, Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson” even photographed differently.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, that is fascinating! And I think I know exactly what Nordahl is talking about. I’ve looked at thousands of Michael Jackson photographs, including a lot of candids, and it’s true – you can really tell when he’s “being Michael,” and when he isn’t. It’s like he strikes a pose, turns on the high beams or something, and transforms. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that distinguishes Michael Jackson from “Michael Jackson,” but you can sure feel it when you see it.
Lisha: To a great extent, you could say that all stars have carefully constructed personae and masks they use to create a public image. The music and film industries study these images very carefully because the celebrity/star system is crucial to how they market their products. But in the case of Michael Jackson, I feel like there is a lot more to it. Has there ever been a star persona that was so complex and radically changing as Michael Jackson’s? I believe there is a far more serious artist at work here who, like Warhol, is not at war with celebrity, mass media, or commerce. In fact, I believe he saw it both as art and as a delivery system for his art.
Willa: I don’t know, Lisha. I see what you’re saying, and I agree wholeheartedly that he was a very sophisticated choreographer of celebrity and the media, both to deliver his art and as an element of his art. In some ways, the mass media became part of his palette for creating his art, and I think that is so important and revolutionary. I really want to dive into that idea more deeply during our discussion today.
But at the same time, I do think there were times when he was “at war” with the mass media. You know, Warhol basically felt that all publicity was good. Regardless of whether the media was praising you or criticizing you, it was all good as long as they were still talking about you. As he said, “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.”
But I think Michael Jackson would complicate that, in part because of his experiences with racial prejudice and other prejudices, in part because of the molestation scandals, and in part because of some frightening experiences with uncontrollable mobs of people when he was a child. I think those experiences gave him a deep awareness – maybe even a fear – of mass hysteria and that mob mentality that can take over sometimes. And when the media is portraying you in ways that are completely counter to your core beliefs, and in ways that feed a type of mass hysteria based on ignorance and prejudice, I think he would strongly disagree with Warhol.
Lisha: I have to say you’re making some excellent points. And there’s no doubt that being a celebrated and powerful young black man dominating the entertainment industry is a very complicated situation to be in, bringing out all kinds of ignorance and prejudice.
Willa: Exactly, and those are complications Warhol never had to confront, or maybe even consider.
Lisha: But didn’t Warhol experience a lot of prejudice in his life, too? At a time when the white, male, heterosexual art world frowned on his appearance, his sexuality, and his success as a commercial artist?
Willa: Well, that’s a very good point, Lisha. Warhol did face resistance and prejudice from “the white, male, heterosexual art world” – and that world was pretty macho and homophobic, especially in the 1950s when he was starting out. I guess I was thinking about their public personae, specifically their faces as a provocative form of art. Warhol changed the shape of his nose, lightened his skin (in part to even out his skin tone from loss of pigmentation), wore wigs – and that public face challenged social norms and became an important part of his art, as we were discussing earlier. But it didn’t set off the firestorm that resulted when Michael Jackson did the exact same thing.
The color of your skin, the shape of your nose, and the color and texture of your hair have all been designated as racial signifiers, so when Michael Jackson dared to alter those signifiers, he was entering a cultural no man’s land. That simply wasn’t an issue for Warhol – that’s what I meant by “complications Warhol never had to confront, or maybe even consider.” Warhol’s changing appearance was noticed and commented on, but it didn’t set off the wave of hostility generated by Michael Jackson’s changing appearance, with accusations that he hated his race or had betrayed his race, or was brazenly attempting to “be white.”
Lisha: I think that’s exactly right. There was a much different reaction to Jackson’s appearance than there ever was to the same changes in Warhol, which generated so much hostility towards Jackson. But, even so, I still have to wonder – was Michael Jackson truly at war with celebrity and the media in general, or was he attempting to update and correct flaws in the system?
Willa: That’s an excellent question …
Lisha: Like Warhol, I think Michael Jackson was actually interested in some P.T. Barnum-style controversy, but there is an element in this that is beyond the celebrity’s control. One false allegation, fictitious scandal or unfair prejudice can ruin everything an artist has worked for their whole lives, through no fault of their own. We know the mob mentality is very real. Personally, I am very proud of the Michael Jackson fans who continue to challenge the media and expose some of the disastrous consequences created by the intersection of profit, news, and entertainment. I think Michael Jackson wanted to cooperate with the star system and use it to do good things, but he did not hesitate to point out where things went dangerously wrong, which again became part of his art.
Willa: I see what you’re saying, Lisha, and that’s an excellent way of framing this, I think: that he both used the celebrity media in some ways and critiqued it in others, and in fact used it to critique itself. And I agree that Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson both engaged with and choreographed their celebrity in new and fascinating ways – ways that suggest their celebrity itself was an important part of their art – and I’d like to get back to what you said earlier about David Nordahl and the distinction he makes, and others have made as well, between Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson.”
For example, I’m reminded of something Bruce Swedien mentions in his book, In the Studio with Michael Jackson. He worked with Michael Jackson for 30 years, and he and his wife Bea knew him – meaning the gentle-artist-working-in-the-studio side of him – very well. But then he’d step on stage, transform into “Michael Jackson,” and just blow them away. Swedien says, “Bea and I have traveled with Michael to his concerts, all over the world, [and] we have often thought that we don’t know Michael Jackson, the performer, that amazing person on stage.” They were like two completely separate beings.
Lisha: People who saw that say it was truly astonishing. In My Friend Michael, Frank Cascio fondly remembers going to his first Michael Jackson concert, when he actually had to ask his father, “Is that the same Michael Jackson who comes to the house?” The onstage transformation was so complete.
Willa: Oh, I imagine it was astonishing! And then, of course, there’s the “Michael Jackson” who existed in the media, and that’s a completely distinct entity as well. And in some ways it’s the most interesting of all, because it is such a deliberate creation. As you mentioned earlier, Lisha, it’s far more than presenting a positive image to the public. Instead, he seems to be exploring the constructedness of identity, and challenging the way we “read” identity based on physical cues, especially cues of race and gender. That’s something we see to some extent in Andy Warhol as well, like in the photographs in the documentary where he’s wearing lipstick and eyeshadow, so adopting signifiers normally associated with women, though still clearly a man. Here’s one image:
Willa: It really does. But what perhaps defines our identity most of all is our voice, and Warhol even had a separate public and private speaking voice – something that’s frequently been said of Michael Jackson as well. I was very surprised to hear Warhol’s voice talking to his brother on the phone (about an hour and a half into the documentary) because it’s so different from the slow, banal public voice we’re used to hearing.
We don’t know much about Warhol, the person behind the public persona – he’s a shadowy figure that we, the public, rarely saw. He was a devout Catholic who went to mass every week, a shy workaholic, and an innovative artist completely dedicated to his craft. But his public persona is very different: crassly materialistic, flippant, ironic, affectless, detached – an observer who drifted through the studio watching others create his work for him. In a couple of interviews, he said he wasn’t involved in creating his art anymore and wasn’t sure who was doing it – maybe his mother, maybe the cleaning lady. That’s a fabrication, of course, but that’s the image Warhol very deliberately created for himself.
And then Michael Jackson takes that to a whole new level …
Lisha: Sorry, I have to take a minute and recover from the thought of Andy Warhol telling the press that he wasn’t sure who was creating all that artwork, but possibly his mom or the cleaning lady were doing it. That’s about the funniest thing I’ve ever heard!
Willa: Isn’t that hysterical? He really was very funny …
Lisha: Though I have heard that Mrs. Warhola did actually sign some of Andy Warhol’s artwork for him – he just loved her handwriting. In fact, she is credited with creating this 1957 album cover with her son, for The Story of Moondog by Louis Hardin. It reminds me of Michael Jackson’s collaboration with his mother, Katherine Jackson, who contributed the shuffle rhythm in “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
Willa: Oh, really? I hadn’t heard that, about either of them. Though if it’s true that Andy Warhol’s mom did that album cover, she really did have wonderful handwriting.
And I guess we shouldn’t laugh too hard when Warhol implies he wasn’t creating his art himself because there’s an element of truth to it. What I mean is, Warhol didn’t create all of his prints himself. He was very involved throughout the process – designing them, specifying production details, reviewing them all – but he didn’t craft them all with his own hands. We don’t expect Calvin Klein, for example, to stitch every Klein garment – if he designs it, that’s sufficient to legitimately put his name on it. Yet there is an expectation that an artist will craft all of his artwork himself. Warhol challenged that, even calling his studio The Factory, and this is another area where he merged commercial art with high art to create not just new works, but a new aesthetic. And that new aesthetic is reflected in his persona as well.
Lisha: Exactly. This was an excellent point that Dennis Hopper brought out in the documentary and he’s absolutely right. We tend to forget that all the great European masters had other painters working in their studios under the artist’s direction. It’s not like a single artist got up on the scaffolding and painted the Sistine Chapel. But there is such a powerful cultural myth in circulation – that of the tortured artist all alone in their garret, working away on a great masterpiece while refusing to “sell out” for their art – as in Puccini’s famous opera La Boheme. In reality, I believe that is a notion of 19th century Romanticism more than an accurate reflection of the creative process. But once you tune in to that story line, you can see how prevalent it is.
Willa: That’s an interesting point, Lisha, and we see that bias toward the “solitary genius” even now in critical responses to Prince and Michael Jackson, for example. Prince is seen as the solitary genius alone in his studio, playing most of the instruments on his albums himself, while Michael Jackson was much more collaborative and perceived as more of a commercial artist. His thinking seemed to be that, if a musician dedicated to an instrument could play it better than he could, why not bring in the best?
Lisha: Being a musician, I would certainly agree with that! But, the myth of the solitary mad genius is such a cherished cultural icon that, in a lot of ways, I think we’re still having Beethoven-mania!
Like Warhol, Michael Jackson took the idea of working in collaboration to the extreme. On Dangerous, for example, the first album Jackson served as executive producer for, he had 3 production teams working simultaneously in 3 different studios for about 18 months to create the finished product. I don’t know if we’ll ever see those kind of production values again. The people who worked on the recordings talk about the unbelievable attention to detail that went into them, and the willingness of everyone involved to go all the way to create the best result humanly possible.
And though Jackson could be famously controlling of every detail, he was also very flexible in allowing creative input to come from anywhere within the system. For example, Bruce Swedien, a recording engineer, gets a writing credit on “Jam.” Bill Bottrell, a producer/engineer, created the rap and many of the rock/country instrumentals on “Black or White.”
So Michael Jackson was receptive to the ideas and talent around him, and he really used this to his advantage. Warhol seemed to have this ability as well – receiving help, ideas, and inspiration from many different sources. Apparently it was an art dealer, Muriel Latow, who suggested he should consider painting something as everyday and ordinary as a can of soup – the rest is history.
And I was surprised to learn that Andy Warhol actually did eat Campbell’s soup every day of his life; it wasn’t all postmodern irony and a critique of consumer culture as I had thought. His mother always had Campbell’s soup for him when he was a child, and it really seemed to mean a lot to him – warmth, nourishment, a mother’s love. He was painting his reality, and I see those paintings differently when I understand that about him, as opposed to his cool, detached celebrity persona.
Willa: Oh, I agree – I’ve always been struck by what a feeling of comfort I get from his Campbell’s soup paintings. They’re often interpreted as an ironic statement, as you say, and I can see that intellectually, but that isn’t how they feel to me emotionally. There’s a real feeling of warmth and reassurance there. It’s like he’s saying that the comfort people once found in the familiar icons of the Catholic church – the paintings of the Virgin Mary, for example – they now get from the familiar icons of consumer culture, like Campbell’s soup cans. So while artists in past centuries painted and sculpted religious iconography, his focus is on the new consumer iconography. It’s a brilliant insight.
Lisha: It truly is a brilliant insight, the marriage of the precious and the everyday. That’s something we see in every aspect of Michael Jackson’s work, from the high production values he brings to the devalued genre of pop, to the exquisitely made, hand-beaded couture jackets he wears with t-shirts and Levi’s 501 jeans. Creating art and myth through his celebrity persona is just another good example.
And as you were saying earlier, Willa, Michael Jackson takes the idea of the celebrity persona to a whole new level. I don’t even see how you could make an argument against it. I’m sure you’ve seen the 60 Minutes interview with Karen Langford, Michael Jackson’s archivist, when she displays some of his early writing which is now called the “MJ Manifesto.” It was Michael Jackson’s stated goal that “MJ” be a completely different person, a whole new character that he had big plans and ambitions for.
Willa: That’s funny, Lisha – I’ve been thinking about the manifesto also. Here’s what he wrote:
MJ will be my new name. No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a tottally 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.
And you’re right. It really does show how deliberate he was in thinking about and creating this new persona, this “whole new character” of MJ, doesn’t it?
Lisha: Every album had a new one. I’ll never forget the shock and awe of standing in the grocery store checkout line in 1984 searching for a photo of Michael Jackson, since that is about all anyone was talking about in those days, and when I couldn’t find it, somebody had to explain to me that I was already looking at a photo of Michael Jackson. It totally blew my mind as I tried to rectify the earlier Michael Jackson image I knew with the Thriller/Victory tour image I saw. Of course no one could even imagine what was yet to come. He morphed again and again, to the racially ambiguous character in Bad, to the boundary-crossing Black or White character on Dangerous, to the colorless alien “Other” in Scream for the HIStory album.
Willa: Which raises an important point – that the personae Warhol and Michael Jackson created weren’t necessarily intended to be appealing. They were much more complicated and provocative than that. As the narrator asks near the beginning of the documentary,
But who was Andy Warhol? On his journey from Andrew Warhola, he would not only change his name but also customize his personality to create a mechanical, factory-produced brand name that would embody the celebrity and consumer culture of the times.
That “mechanical, factory-produced” aspect of his “brand” was not especially attractive, at least not in the traditional sense. And neither were his wigs, for example, or his crassly materialistic public persona. But his wigs, his persona, and his brand aren’t judged by traditional standards of beauty or appeal because it’s understood that they were part of his art, and so they have to be interpreted in more complex ways, like art.
And I think this is one way a lot of critics have really misunderstood Michael Jackson. It is generally assumed that in his later career, he was trying to produce something attractive, something appealing to a mass audience, and failing. But if we look at the lyrics to “Is It Scary,” for example, we see that he was doing something much more complicated and interesting than that. Among other things, he was forcing us to confront our own prejudices – prejudices the press and public were trying to impose on his face and body because he was signified as “black,” as “male,” as a “pop star” or “just a pop star” – and later, horribly, as a “freak” and a “monster.”
So how does it change our perceptions if we begin to look at Michael Jackson’s public persona as an artistic creation, like we do with Andy Warhol? And how do we interpret it if we approach it that way?
Lisha: Well, I think it would have been a much easier path for Michael Jackson had he initially made his private medical conditions public, broken the myth, and explained the changes in his appearance. He could have become an advocate for those like him who suffer from vitiligo and lupus, raising awareness of these diseases. I don’t think he would have had to take the relentless media bashing and persecution that he did, if that was his goal.
But instead of benefiting just a few, I think Jackson saw a much bigger opportunity that still has tremendous cultural resonance today.
Willa: I agree absolutely. I don’t think we’ve even begun to measure the impact his changing face – as a work of art – has had on us psychologically, as individuals, and culturally, as a global society.
Lisha: It’s true. Dr. Sherrow Pinder, a Multicultural and Gender Studies professor at California State University at Chico, has argued that as Jackson challenged the notion of “natural bodies and fixed identities as prearranged and controlled,” he had to be “culturally resisted, restricted, or worse, punished and humiliated in order for society to safeguard the realm of normality.”
Willa: Absolutely, and the intensity of that backlash is an important indicator of just how profound and threatening this was – his transgression of a “fixed identity,” as Pinder calls it, based on traditional notions of race, gender, and sexuality. Michael Jackson challenged them all by “rewriting” his body, thereby complicating how identity is read through the body.
Lisha: Media all over the world continue to speculate and fabricate stories about “Michael Jackson,” often disregarding factual information that has been available for some time. The media fiction almost always follows some variation of the “wacko,” “freak” or “monstrous figure” narrative, reflecting more about society’s need to “normalize” him than it ever did about Michael Jackson. And Jackson became so acutely aware of his function as a mirror of collective thought that he began exploiting it for artistic purposes, as in “Is It Scary” (“I’m gonna be exactly what you want to see / It’s you whose haunting me, because you’re wanting me to be the stranger in the night”) and “Threatened” (“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”).
Willa: And we see that idea enacted literally in Ghosts when the Maestro enters the Mayor’s body, holds a mirror to his face, and forces him to witness his own inner “freakishness.” That freakishness the Mayor detests isn’t in the Maestro – it’s in himself.
Lisha: That is such a brilliant scene – demonstrating his true mastery of the phenomenon.
And yet another mythic, artistic creation of “Michael Jackson” was ready to “Heal the World,” imagining a new empathic civilization into being. One of his most impressive feats was to magically strip away the color of his skin to physically demonstrate once and for all “it don’t matter if you’re black or white.” When it became clear some still didn’t get the message, he took it a step further and became colorless – literally colorless. Scream and Stranger in Moscow demonstrate this so clearly.
Willa: And it’s fairly clear that was a deliberate decision. Both videos were filmed in black and white with overly bright lights on his face to wash out the color, even gradations of color.
Lisha: Absolutely. To me, it is obvious that this is the work of a brilliant and game changing artist. I hate to admit that it wasn’t until after Michael Jackson’s death that I finally looked at his work and realized what a new kind of art it was – imaginative and exquisitely crafted music full of sonic innovations and so-called “high art” aesthetics, synthesized with imagery and myth, delivered to the masses through the devalued genre of pop and the celebrity star system. But it was so much more – exploding off the stage and screen into our social discourses and everyday lives, encouraging us to go beyond our confused and violent past.
And although I wasn’t paying attention at the time, I came to realize how powerfully affected I was by Michael Jackson, without even knowing it. From 1969 to 2009, Michael Jackson was a constant presence, and I don’t believe you can overestimate the impact he made. Judging from the intense media coverage of his death, I wasn’t the only one who suddenly wondered what it was going to be like to live in a Michael Jackson-less world.
Willa: Oh, I agree. I believe Michael Jackson profoundly altered our perceptions, our emotions, and our affective responses to differences of race, gender, sexuality, religion, family relationships – stereotypes of all kinds – though we may not realize it yet. As you said, we were “powerfully affected … without even knowing it.” And I believe he also revolutionized our ideas about art, though he was so far ahead of his time we don’t realize it yet. Some of it we still don’t even recognize as art! We were in the midst of a gripping artistic experience without even knowing it.
It’s going to take a long time for art criticism and interpretation to catch up with him, I think, and begin to comprehend the enormous impact he’s had, both in terms of art and how we conceptualize art, and in terms of the deep cultural shifts he helped bring about. And that’s another way to evaluate an artist – by the depth and extent of their influence.
Near the end of the documentary, the narrator describes how Warhol’s influence is a constant presence in contemporary life, and then asks, “How can we miss you if you won’t go away?” You could ask the same question of Michael Jackson. He legacy is everywhere – from direct artistic influences on music, dance, film, fashion, to more subtle but perhaps more important cultural influences, such as how we read and interpret gender and racial differences.
Lisha: You know, that’s just the thing. Michael Jackson is everywhere you look. And do we really understand why he continues to have such an impact? The entertainment industry is full of crazy antics, plastic surgery, glam rockers wearing make-up, gender bending and so on. Rita Hayworth is a good example of a performer who “whitened up” her Hispanic ethnicity to become the glamorous “Gilda” onscreen. So why is everyone still tripping on Michael Jackson? I think it will take a while to understand all this. Until then, we’ll keep “dancing with the elephant.”
The following conversation was originally posted on September 12, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
A bit of news: Elizabeth Amisu has posted an interesting analysis of Dancing the Dream that made us want to read it all again. Here’s a link to her article. Also, we wanted to let you know that we’ve added a new page to our website: the Treasure Chest. This is a place where you can share some of your favorite Michael Jackson videos, tributes, poetry, whatever. Here’s a link.
Willa: So Joie, in our last post, we kicked off the new season with a look at one of Michael Jackson’s first videos, Can You Feel It, which he made in 1981 with The Jacksons. And we ended up looking at how the Jacksons themselves are portrayed in this video as almost mythic figures. They’re the size of Titans and kind of translucent, like something supernatural, and they’re sprinkling golden stardust on amazed earthlings and giving them a supernatural glow also. Through these images, Michael Jackson seems to be saying something important about the role of the artist, and how he believes artists can use their art – their “golden stardust” – to bring about social change.
Joie: That’s an interesting summation, Willa. I like the way you put it all in a very tidy package.
Willa: Thanks! Anyway, for some reason, that discussion reminded me of Say Say Say, a video he made two years later with Paul McCartney. It’s very different in tone and feeling from Can You Feel It, but Say Say Say also has some very interesting things to say about the cultural function of artists. But it approaches it in a different way – not by portraying artists as supernatural figures, but as tricksters and con artists.
Joie: Once again, Willa, the way your mind works astounds me! I would never have drawn a connection between Can You Feel It and Say Say Say. But I think I see where you’re going with this, and I am amazed. Tell us more.
Willa: Well actually, Joie, you’re the one who opened my eyes to Say Say Say and got me thinking about it in a new way, back when we did a post on Michael Jackson’s repeated use of an on-screen audience. As you described back then, “Mac” and “Jack” are both entertaining their audience and scamming them at the same time.
Joie: Hmm. That was an interesting and fun conversation. But how does that relate to Can You Feel It?
Willa: Well, just that both videos are talking about specific ways artists can use their art to make the world a better place. Can You Feel It approaches that question in an almost mythic way, while Say Say Say takes more of a historical approach. What I mean is, it takes a pair of modern musicians – Paul “Mac” McCartney and Michael “Jack” Jackson – and places them within a long tradition of troubadours and vaudevillians and other traveling performers. And then it looks at the different ways they interact with different audiences, and how that brings about subtle changes. In other words, it looks at their cultural function, just like Can You Feel It does, though it approaches it in a different way.
Joie: Okay, I see what you’re getting at. But something you just said struck me, Willa. You mentioned the “long tradition of troubadours and vaudevillians and other traveling performers.” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about musicians and life on the road. You know, many bands are on the road almost constantly. Some performers, like Michael Jackson for instance, really didn’t care for touring that much. We’ve all seen the video clip of him talking about how he hated touring because it was hard on the body, etc.
Willa: Oh, do you mean this one?
I love this clip! He is too funny. …
Joie: But there are many bands out there who actually love being on the road, and they’re out there for over a year and a half at a time, promoting a single album. Then they go back into the studio, make another album, and get right back out on the road all over again. And if you think about it, with the exception of making an album, all those traveling troubadours and vaudevillians lived out their lives on the road in much the same way.
Willa: That’s true, Joie. And he seems to be exploring that life in Say Say Say. The Mac and Jack characters are almost like gypsies – another tradition of traveling musicians.
Joie: Ah, gypsies! I forgot about them, but you’re right! They’re part of that whole tradition of traveling troubadours and con artists as well.
Willa: Exactly. I don’t know that gypsies really were con artists, but that’s how they were perceived. In fact, that’s come to be an important part of the mythology of gypsies – that they weren’t just musicians but peddlers of exotic, even magical, objects, as well as fortunetellers with an uncanny knowledge. And they were tricksters who could help you out, but maybe not – maybe their magic trinkets could trick you and work against you.
So there was an aura of magic and intrigue around them, and when they came to town, they disrupted everyday life with a spirit of carnival that was both fun and unsettling. And we definitely see that in Say Say Say. When Mac and Jack roll into town, the villagers flock to them but aren’t quite sure if they should trust them or not.
Joie: That’s a really good description of what we see at the start of the video, Willa. Everyone is gathered around to watch the presentation and see what’s going on. They’re all very curious about the supposed “medical” potion that will make them strong. You can see the uncertainty and the skepticism on all of their faces. But yet, they can’t walk away because they are fascinated.
Willa: Yes, and what fascinates them is a performance. Only they don’t know it’s a performance, and neither do we, actually. We’re in the same position as the villagers at first. Mac is selling a magic potion “guaranteed to give you unbelievable power,” and a slim figure from the audience – Jack, though we don’t know that yet – volunteers to give it a try. He’s so weak he can’t even get the top off the bottle, but one sip sends him spinning, and then he’s able to beat a strongman with bulging muscles in an arm-wrestling contest. The villagers flock to buy the potion, and Mac winds up leaving town with a satchel full of money. Then we discover the strongman is traveling with him, they stop and pick up Jack on the outskirts of town, the strongman gives him a smile, and we realize the whole thing was a scam.
But what’s interesting is that it’s a scam that’s also an artistic performance. Everything the villagers experienced was scripted ahead of time by Mac and Jack, just like a play, and it has actors and a plot, like a play. Only this play crosses the line between reality and art because it doesn’t announce itself as art, so the villagers think it’s real. And it has real effects – it encourages the villagers to buy the potion. So is it real, or is it art? We’re used to drawing clear distinctions between the two, but that question doesn’t really make sense in this case because it’s both.
And it’s fascinating to me to think about all that in terms of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic – for example, in terms of the changing color of his skin – because I see that the same way. It’s an artistic performance that we (the audience, the media, the commentators on his life) didn’t see as art, so it blurs the boundary between what’s real and what’s art also. To some extent, it was very real – he really did suffer from vitiligo, suffered terribly – but it was also an artistic performance. And it was a performance that had real effects. I think it profoundly influenced how we think about racial differences.
Joie: That’s an interesting parallel you’ve drawn, Willa. I’m not sure I would have made that connection between Say Say Say and Michael’s skin disorder, but I can totally see your point. You have a unique way of looking at things that always amazes me somehow.
Willa: Well, I don’t want to push that connection too hard – that’s just an example. There’s lots more, like think of the times he and Slash played out a charade that Slash was taking over the stage – that he was playing his guitar out of control and couldn’t or wouldn’t stop. Stagehands would even come from off stage and try to drag Slash off. It was all just an act, but if you weren’t in on the joke, it wasn’t clear if it was real or not.
Michael Jackson did things like that quite a bit, so it’s really interesting to me that Say Say Say begins by depicting an artistic performance, but it’s a different kind of art. It’s not like a painting that sits in a frame on the wall. This is art that refuses to stay on the wall. It jumps out of its frame and draws everyone into the performance. Looking at it that way, Say Say Say is presenting a very different view of art, and of the artist as well – as a trickster or con artist who engages everyone around him into his art, not just as an amused audience but as unwitting performers.
Joie: You know, Willa, this video is all about presenting that different type of artistic performance. They repeat that theme in the latter half of the film as well when we see them onstage doing their vaudeville act. And again, it’s a performance that’s also a con in a sense, because they end up using it to elude the police who come looking for them over the whole “Mac and Jack” wonder potion scam.
Willa: And because they’re pool sharks, apparently. At least, Mac is. …
Joie: But what I find truly interesting about this video is that our tricksters are actually con artists with hearts, because separating these two scenes of possible criminal activity is a sweet little interlude where we see Mac and Jack, and their two cohorts, delivering a large satchel of money to an orphanage. So we learn that they aren’t just out there conning the public for their own selfish gain. Instead, they have a much more noble cause. They are actually a small band of Robin Hoods, if you will – taking money from those who can afford to spare a little, and giving it to those who have nothing.
Willa: I agree, and that’s a great way of describing it, Joie. They really are like Robin Hoods, aren’t they? In their own small way, they’re helping to redistribute wealth from those who have enough to those who don’t.
But they don’t just provide the orphans with money – they entertain them also. Mac performs magic tricks, pulling a bouquet of flowers out of thin air, while Jack walks across a balance beam, then spins and bows. And they’re singing the entire time, so they bring music to the orphanage as well. And actually, that suggests another function of art: it can provide joy or inspiration or comfort to those who are having a hard time, and maybe lift the spirits of those who are feeling down.
Joie: Oh, my goodness, Willa! You make that sound like an afterthought, or like it’s just a pleasant side effect or something. But to me, that is the most important function of art! Of any kind of art, no matter what it is – painting, dancing, music, whatever.
I know that there are probably those out there who will disagree with me on this, but that’s ok because they would be perfectly correct in doing so. Because I think art functions as many different things to many different people. Don’t you? I mean, trite as this may sound, but some people – maybe even most people – couldn’t care less about the political message or the social implications behind a particular work of art. They just know that it moves them in some way and it makes them feel happy or sad or pensive, or whatever it makes them feel. Whether it’s a song or a painting, or a performance.
Willa: Hmmm … Is that the most important function of art? Wow, I’m going to have to think about that. That’s one of the things I love most about our conversations, Joie – you always make me think!
Boy, I’m really going to have to think about this for a while, but my first response is to wonder if maybe this isn’t one of the dividing lines between entertainment and art. I’d say the primary function of entertainment is to move us – to engage us emotionally and make us feel “happy or sad or pensive,” as you say. But to me, art has to do much more than that. I guess I would say that, for me, the main distinction between art and entertainment is that entertainment tends to reinforce what we already think or feel about things. So if a light-hearted song makes us feel happy or a John Phillips Souza march makes us feel patriotic or a Norman Rockwell painting makes us feel nostalgic, then that’s entertainment. But while art can definitely move us emotionally, it also challenges our preconceived ideas about things. There’s always something a little unsettling about art, even though it can be as pleasurable as entertainment, because at some level it forces us to question ourselves and how we see and respond to the world.
And to me, what’s so incredibly powerful about Michael Jackson is that he’s both an entertainer and an artist. He caught our attention as an entertainer, and we fell in love with him as an entertainer. As Berry Gordy said at his memorial service, he was perhaps “the greatest entertainer that ever lived.” But we can’t get him out of our minds because he’s also an artist. His work disturbs us in a way that won’t turn us loose – we, as a culture, can’t stop thinking about him – because he was also a powerful artist … the most important artist of our time, I think.
Joie: Willa, I’d like to say that I don’t disagree with you. But … just for the sake of playing devil’s advocate here for a minute … if we apply what you just said, about Michael Jackson’s work both entertaining us and disturbing us “in a way that won’t turn us loose,” to other entertainers, then can we say that someone like E.L. James, for instance, is also a powerful artist? After all, her erotic trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey – which no one would call a literary masterpiece by any means – was both entertaining, and it greatly disturbed us in a way that won’t turn us loose. We, as a culture, can’t seem to stop thinking about it. But I’m not sure I would call her a powerful artist.
It’s a bit of a reach but, I guess the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t believe there always has to be an unsettling component to art. I don’t find anything disturbing or unsettling about any of Edgar Degas’ ballerina paintings, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, or even B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” for that matter. And those are just three small examples of great art that moves us emotionally. I’m sure if I really sat and concentrated on making a list, I could find many, many more examples.
Willa: Those are great examples, Joie, and they can really help clarify this, I think. I’m not talking about a moment’s titillation of sex or violence that shocks us for a few days or even a few years and then fades away. I’m talking about an earthquake that permanently shifts the landscape, forever changing how we experience our world.
I don’t know much about Fifty Shades of Grey, but from what you just said it sounds like a temporary titillation. But Degas and the Impressionists were something completely different. Looking back, we tend to forget they were radicals whose work was rejected by the Academy. Paintings of ballerinas, everyday ballerinas, made from blobs of bright color smeared onto the canvas? That was heresy! Everyone knew a proper painting should portray the nobility sitting stiffly upright, or maybe a scene from Greek mythology, and should be meticulously crafted with careful, invisible brush strokes. The Impressionists challenged all that, and revolutionized how we see and experience art. To them, the important thing was to try to capture the experiential essence of a moment – of seeing and feeling and experiencing that moment – and it’s a measure of how completely they changed our ideas that they became the new normal. Today, when we think of the great works – the masterpieces of western art – many of the paintings that immediately spring to mind are Impressionist paintings.
You could say the same about Beethoven. Like the Impressionists with visual art, Beethoven revolutionized how people thought about and experienced music. He remains one of the most influential composers of all time. And B.B. King influenced a whole generation of blues guitarists, and through them rock guitarists. You can still hear his influence all over the radio, especially when you hear a high wailing guitar solo. R&B and rock music would sound different today without B.B. King.
It’s too early to tell what Michael Jackson’s long-term impact on the arts will be – and that’s not even talking about his cultural impact, such as how we think about race and gender. But I think it will be far greater than his direct influences on music, dance, videos, fashion, visual art, though those are huge. I think he’s doing something far more fundamental, and challenging how we define art itself.
Joie: Well, I don’t want to get sidetracked on this, but I have to point out that Fifty Shades is more than just temporary titillation that shocks us for a minute and then we let go of it. No one is letting go of it. That’s the point.
Willa: I’m sorry, Joie! I didn’t mean to dis Fifty Shades. I know absolutely nothing at all about it, other than what you’ve told me.
Joie: Well interestingly, it has become as much a part of our cultural experience as Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And, much like Thriller helped to revolutionize the record industry back in the early 1980s, Fifty Shades of Grey is helping to do the same for the publishing industry. At least the fiction side of it.
There are millions of women out there who have begun writing for the first time in their lives, all because of a fascination with E.L. James’ titillating little story. The term Fan Fiction has become a household word. And hundreds of those women have begun branching out, using Fan Fiction as a springboard to create and self-publish their own original works of fiction. This is an exciting time to be a fiction writer because of outlets like Amazon and Book Baby, making self-publishing so easy and accessible.
But it’s the writers who have found success in unconventional ways – like Ms. James and her titillating read that began as Fan Fiction – who are fueling the imaginations of readers and inspiring them to try their hand at creating something as well. Much like B.B. King and his influence on a whole generation of blues and rock guitarists. I think that counts as “an earthquake that permanently shifts the landscape, forever changing how we experience our world.”
Willa: You could be right. It is impressive that she’s inspired so many other women to write.
Joie: Like I said, it’s an interesting topic, but getting back to our conversation about Say Say Say, the point I was trying to make is that I believe that art can be many different things to many different people. And for me personally, the most important function of art is that it provides joy and inspiration and comfort. It makes me feel happy, it lifts me up when I’ve had a difficult day, it soothes me when I’m feeling down. I don’t care what the political message was behind it, or what social injustice the artist was attempting to address when he or she created it. My only concern is how it makes me feel in the moment. That’s a very real function of art. But I wasn’t saying it was the most important function. I said it was the most important function for me.
Willa: I think I see what you’re saying, Joie, and I agree that connecting with an audience is really important. It doesn’t matter how innovative a work is – if no one cares about it, it isn’t going to survive. And I think Michael Jackson himself would agree with you too. When asked what makes a good music video, his first response was that “it has to be completely entertaining.” So I hope it didn’t sound like I don’t care about that, or think it isn’t important. Michael Jackson’s music and films move me more than I can say, and I wouldn’t care about them nearly so much if they didn’t.
But some artists do more than move us or soothe us or make us feel better. Some actually change the current of art and send it flowing in a new direction, and they lead us to think about art – how we define and experience art – in a new way. And I think Michael Jackson was one of those rare people. He was constantly pushing the boundaries of art, and questioning the role of the artist and of art itself. That’s developed more fully in his later work, but it’s interesting to me that we can see elements of it in his early work as well.
For example, Say Say Say begins with Mac and Jack as traveling minstrels, as we mentioned before – a tradition that goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. Then later we see them doing a vaudeville show, as you said, Joie. That’s a tradition that’s very problematic for black artists because performing in blackface was such an prominent part of vaudeville. So it’s significant, I think, that they paint their faces during that section – not in blackface but as crying clown faces. And then, they subtly evoke film musicals also since, during the vaudeville show, they’re kind of re-creating the “Fit as a Fiddle” number from Singing in the Rain, as Nina pointed out in a comment last year. Here’s a clip of “Fit as a Fiddle”:
So Say Say Say is a very fun and entertaining video – and I don’t in any way dispute that, or think it isn’t important – but it’s more than that. It’s also subtly taking us on a tour through the tradition of music performance or music theater – from traveling troubadours to the vaudeville stage to Hollywood musicals – and it’s both celebrating and questioning that tradition, I think.
Joie: That’s an interesting take, Willa. And it makes me wonder where they could have gone with it, you know? As you say, they subtly take us on a tour through the tradition of music performance or music theater – and I wonder what that video may have looked like if they hadn’t stopped at a certain point, but instead kept the history lesson going up to the present. From traveling troubadours and Hollywood musicals, up through the traveling concert tours of today. Now that would have been interesting!
Welcome to Summer Rewind 2014! Over the next few weeks, we’ll revisit some posts from this past year that we think deserve a second look. The following conversation was originally posted on August 29, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
Willa: Hi Joie, welcome back! Did you have a good break, despite all the controversy this summer?
Joie: Yes, I actually had a great summer! I did a lot of traveling for family weddings and such, which can sometimes be very stressful, you know? And as far as the controversy, I really just did my best to avoid it all. I didn’t watch a single news clip about the AEG trial. It was very liberating and refreshing to bury my head in the sand and pretend it wasn’t happening. You?
Willa: That’s funny, Joie – you’ve always been so informed about everything, and I’ve gotten most of my Michael Jackson news from you! What will I do now?
So I had a really fun summer also. We went to Yellowstone, which is so beautiful, and saw a huge bull moose and a grizzly bear and a black bear and a pair of sandhill cranes, and lots of elk and bison. It was wonderful. And I didn’t avoid the news, but I didn’t seek it out either. I figured if anything important happened, it would filter its way through the fog. It seems to me that at times like these I need to stay focused on what’s meaningful and nourishing to me, which is his art, and remember why Michael Jackson and his work are so important.
Joie: I think you’re right, Willa. It is important to go back and rediscover the magic, so to speak.
Willa: Exactly. And you know, we’ve talked a lot over the past two years about his music and dancing and films, as well as the way his public persona – even his face and the color of his skin – became an important element of his art. But we still haven’t taken an in-depth look at some of his most iconic films – films like Beat It and Billie Jean and Smooth Criminal. We’ve touched on them, but we haven’t really settled in with them the way we did with You Rock My World or In the Closet or Give In to Me. So one of my goals for this year is to get back to basics and take a close look at some of those classic films, and it seems to me a good place to start is Can You Feel It.
Joie: I would love to talk about Can You Feel It.
Willa: Oh good! I would too. It’s the first film where he’s listed as a producer and creative consultant – as it says in the credits, this film was “conceived and written by Michael Jackson” – and you can really feel his creative input throughout. He wrote the song with his brother Jackie, recorded it with The Jacksons, created the concept for the film, and then helped carry that vision through to completion. Here’s a remastered version that’s really wonderful, I think:
Joie: You know, Can You Feel It, to me has always been sort of like the mother of Michael Jackson’s video genius. It really was kind of the short film that started it all. And you can see from the very beginning that making short films was going to be an area where he was going to excel. It was just spectacular. If you watch it now, you’ll undoubtedly think that some of the special effects are pretty cheesy. But you have to remember that it was created back in 1980, and at that time, those special effects were cutting edge.
Willa: Well, maybe I’m kind of cheesy because I like those special effects, especially in the opening sequences. And I think it’s true that in many ways this is “the mother of Michael Jackson’s video genius,” as you said – not only because of the visuals but because of the ideas as well. We see the seeds of concepts that will resonate throughout his work for the rest of his career.
Joie: That’s very true.
Willa: And these are not small concepts either – they are immense in both scale and importance. He’s already thinking about how to bring about significant social change on a global scale. For example, Can You Feel It begins with images of a mythical landscape and a deep voice telling us a creation story:
In the beginning, the land was pure. Even in the early morning light, you could see the beauty in the forms of nature. Soon men and women of every color and shape would be here too, and they would find it all too easy sometimes not to see the colors and ignore the beauty in each other. But they would never lose sight of the dream of a better world that they could unite and build together in triumph.
The song hasn’t even started yet, but we already see evidence of Michael Jackson’s deep love of nature, and how he links that love of nature with racial equality, social justice, and love for one another.
Joie: And the idea of working together to make the world a better place (for you and for me and the entire human race). You’re right, Willa. We hear all that before the music even begins. And as you said, those are concepts that would stick with him throughout the rest of his career and resurface on album after album.
Willa: That’s true, and it’s all there in that initial creation story. But you know, what really caught my attention when I watched Can You Feel It recently is that it then goes on to tell a “re-creation” story – a story of a new creation or transformation, or rather a series of new creations and transformations – and it does so in a way that feels very Biblical to me. You know the Bible much better than I do, Joie, but it begins with a creation story also. Here are the first lines of Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good. …
And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. …
And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.
So both the Bible and Can You Feel It begin with a story of creation: “In the beginning …” And this world that is created is beautiful but not perfect, because people aren’t perfect. In fact, in Genesis, only a few chapters after the initial creation story, we read that people have become so “corrupt” and “full of violence” that God decides to wipe them out and start over. Only one righteous man and his family are spared, along with a representative pair of each kind of animal. So in the story of Noah’s Ark we have a re-creation story: a flood washes over the surface of the earth and destroys everything, and then that destruction is followed by a new beginning.
We see echoes of that in Can You Feel It. Immediately after the initial creation story, the music begins and we see one of those special effects you were talking about, Joie – an image of water washing over the entire world. So as with Noah’s flood in the Bible, the earth is being washed clean of corruption and violence, and we are about to experience a re-creation as we begin to move toward “a better world.”
And then we see something interesting: Randy Jackson’s character lifts a rainbow over his head. This is Biblical also. In the Bible, God promises that he will never again destroy his creation through flooding, and he creates a rainbow as proof of that promise. As God tells Noah, “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant. … Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.”
Joie: That’s true, Willa. And you know, we also see that in many of the creation stories of Native Americans. I’ve always enjoyed reading the creation myths of various tribes, and many of them have this same sort of re-creation theme to them that you’re talking about. Like the Sioux for instance. Here is part of their creation story:
The Creating Power said to himself, “l will sing three songs, which will bring a heavy rain. Then I’ll sing a fourth song and stamp four times on the earth, and the earth will crack wide open. Water will come out of the cracks and cover the land.” When he sang the first song, it started to rain. When he sang the second, it poured. When he sang the third, the rain-swollen rivers overflowed their beds. But when he sang the fourth song and stamped on the earth, it split open in many places like a shattered gourd, and water flowed from the cracks until it covered everything. …
So after the flood comes the rebirth, or re-creation:
The Creating Power said to them, “The first world I made was bad; the creatures on it were bad. So I burned it up. The second world I made was bad too, so I drowned it. This is the third world I have made. Look: I have created a rainbow for you as a sign that there will be no more Great Flood. Whenever you see a rainbow, you will know that it has stopped raining.”
Here’s a similar tale from the Cree:
After the Creator had made all the animals and had made the first people, he said to Wisakedjak, “Take good care of my people, and teach them how to live. Show them all the bad roots, all the roots that will hurt them and kill them. Do not let the people or the animals quarrel with each other.”
But Wisakedjak did not obey the Creator. He let the creatures do whatever they wished. Soon they were quarreling and fighting and shedding much blood. The Creator became very angry.
“I will take everything away from you and wash the ground clean,” he said.
Still Wisakedjak did not obey the Creator. He did not believe until the rains came and the streams began to swell. Day after day, and night after night, the rains continued. The water in the rivers and the lakes rose higher and higher. At last they overflowed their banks and washed the ground clean. The sea came up on the land, and everything was drowned except one Otter, one Beaver, and one Muskrat.
The narrative, of course, goes on to the rebuilding of the earth. But, we see this notion of a Great Flood over and over again in the creation stories and myths of the varying Native tribes of America, and I find it fascinating. And, you’re right, Can You Feel It is telling a very similar tale here.
Willa: Wow, that’s so interesting, Joie! I’ve read quite a few American Indian trickster tales, but not too many creation stories – though in some cases, the trickster is the creator of all things. I didn’t realize some of those creation stories had a flood that washed the earth clean of wickedness. And it’s interesting that in the Sioux story, there’s a rainbow “as a sign that there will be no more Great Flood.” You can really see how some archetypal stories are told again and again, across time and across cultures. But there are some important differences between them also.
You know, Michael Jackson was raised in the church, so I assumed the origin of those ideas in Can You Feel It was Biblical, but now I’m reconsidering that. After all, the landscape is clearly the American southwest with its mesas and arches, and that supports your interpretation, Joie. And near the end, a tribal elder steps forward, and he has a look of knowing in his eyes. He seems awed by the vision in front of him, like all the other spectators, but he also seems to understand what’s happening in a way the others don’t. So I really think you’re onto something.
Also, there’s the image of a new race – a golden race – springing forth from a blue watery globe, like the earth. Later we see a face inside a powerful ring of fire, like the sun, and it’s a female face. To me, that supports your interpretation also since Christianity is very male-centered, with power and authority centered in God the Father, while older, more Earth-centered modes of spirituality tend to be more female-centered, with a focus on Mother Nature as the giver of life.
Joie: Well, I really wasn’t offering any sort of “interpretation,” Willa. Only an observation.
Willa: Well, it’s a different way of seeing things – a different approach or context for interpreting what’s happening.
Joie: But it is very interesting, isn’t it? And I like what you said about Christianity vs. Native beliefs. It does seem to tie right in.
Willa: It does, doesn’t it? And it’s interesting how it also ties in with a deep love and respect for nature, which is something Eleanor Bowman talked about when she joined us in a post last spring.
So all of these creation stories and re-creation stories suggest a yearning for enlightenment, in a way. It’s like the physical world was formed perfect and good, and so were our bodies, but our minds are easily corrupted by envy and greed and hatred and violence. So we need to reach a state where our hearts and minds, our compassion and understanding, are as perfect as the physical world we were given to inhabit. We see this yearning in Can You Feel It also, in the emergence of the golden people. But what’s interesting is that when the first golden person appears about halfway into the video, s/he is being sprinkled with golden stardust – and that stardust is also sprinkling down on a lot of everyday people, who then develop a golden glow as well. So those golden people aren’t some new race in the future. They’re us!
And it seems important to me that the stardust is coming from the hands of the Jacksons, who appear golden also, but kind of translucent, like supernatural figures, and they’re taller than skyscrapers. And these towering golden figures are sprinkling golden stardust on everyone.
Joie: Almost as if they are the creators, or the tricksters, in this creation tale they’re telling.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Joie! I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that’s really intriguing. And you know, the Jackson really were creators in a literal sense – they were creators of music and dance and art.
It seems to me that, in Can You Feel It, Michael Jackson is predicting a major transformation and cultural change – a change that will lead to an enlightened way of living together in harmony, and “loving each other wholeheartedly.” And I think the golden stardust the Jacksons are sprinkling about is music and art. That’s what artists give to the world, and that’s how they bring about transformation and social change.
Joie: Ah! I like that interpretation, Willa! Very nicely done! And it makes perfect sense.
Willa: It does make perfect sense, doesn’t it? He’s so brilliant – I just love looking at his work and seeing all the details, and then thinking about how those details fit together. He never fails to amaze and inspire me.
But I want to get back to this idea of the Jacksons as creators. You know, one of the many criticisms leveled against Michael Jackson was that he had a messiah complex – that he thought he was the second coming of Christ or something like that – and critics point to examples like Can You Feel It as evidence of that. But I think that’s an overly simplistic interpretation that leads to misunderstanding.
Throughout Michael Jackson’s work, we see him developing a new definition of art and an expanded vision of the role of the artist. He believed artists had the power to bring about deep social change by changing perceptions and attitudes, prejudices and emotions. For example, artists have the power to use their art to rewrite our cultural narratives – like our myths and creation stories – so we see ourselves and our relation to each other in a new way.
That’s how Michael Jackson hoped to change the world – through music and art. But that doesn’t mean he saw himself as a messiah. Instead, he saw himself as an artist – but it’s a far greater definition of “artist” than we’re used to. And importantly, he imagined a world where we are all artists, where we all share “the dream of a better world that we could unite and build together in triumph.”
Joie: I think you’re absolutely right, Willa.
Willa: So Joie, can you believe we’ve just finished our third season of posts at Dancing with the Elephant?
Joie: Did you ever think it would run this long, Willa? I know I didn’t. And I honestly can’t believe we’re coming up on the 5 year anniversary of Michael’s passing. That blows my mind.
Willa: You know, it’s funny – sometimes it feels like he’s been gone a really long time – longer than five years – and sometimes it feels like it just happened. I mean, you’d think after five years it wouldn’t hurt so much, but it still does.
I just read a powerful article, “Throwing Stones to Hide Your Hands: The Mortal Persona of Michael Jackson,” by Elizabeth Amisu, where she compares the media persecution he had to endure to a public stoning, and it really struck a chord with me. It did feel at times like a public stoning – or at the very least, a very public kind of bullying. It’s almost like he was bullied to death. And it’s just really hard to come to grips with that – not just with his death, but with all the events the last 16 years of his life leading up to his death.
Joie: Hmm. Bullied to death. That’s an interesting way to put it, but unfortunately, it’s completely accurate.
So … Willa and I had something special in mind for today’s post, however …
Willa: However … it’s not quite ready. That’s my fault. I thought it would be ready in time, but it isn’t.
Joie: It’s not her fault. … In any case, we’re simply going to leave you with our heartfelt gratitude for your continued support.
Willa: Yes, we both wanted to say a very sincere thank you to all of you. Our goal from the beginning was to explore the many facets of Michael Jackson’s art in all its wondrous complexity, to learn more about his art as well as his ideas about art, and maybe help change the way people think about him and his art, and how he used his art to bring about social change.
Thank you so much to all of you who’ve joined us on this journey, and thanks especially to those who’ve participated in the conversation and shared your ideas. We’ve learned so much from you.
Joie: Yes. Thank you! So, getting back to that special project … when it’s completed, we will post it right here.
Willa: And we hope that will be soon. As most of you probably know, we don’t publish new posts from June 25th to August 29th. Instead, each year during that time we revisit some of our older posts that we think deserve a second look, and we’ll be starting Summer Rewind 2014 in a couple of weeks. We hope the special post will be ready before then.
Joie: But if it isn’t, we will interrupt the Summer Rewind and post it then. We hope you all have a wonderful summer.
Willa: Last week Joie, Lisha, and I were talking about “HIStory,” and after we finished I mentioned that I’d been looking for the video to “Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson,” a remix of “HIStory,” for a really long time. This video was supposedly produced and released in 1997, but while I’d seen references to it (like here in Wikipedia), I’d never seen the video itself, though I’d been looking for it off and on for several years.
Joie has a big deadline looming so wasn’t able to join us again, but Lisha, who is like a super sleuth when it comes to all things Michael Jackson, took on the challenge and found it that very afternoon! And right there on YouTube! I was stunned. Here’s the video that I looked for for so long and never found:
It’s unclear how involved Michael Jackson was in the production of this video, but it’s a fascinating piece, and I’m delighted to finally get to see it. Thank you so much for taking on the challenge, Lisha! So were you able to find much background info about this video? Like when and where it was produced, and who was involved?
Lisha: I found it rather curious that there wasn’t much information available at all on this video. To my knowledge, it was never released on any compilation of Michael Jackson’s work.
Willa: I think you’re right, and it’s not on Vevo either with his other “official” videos. You wouldn’t think a Michael Jackson video would be so hard to find …
Lisha: Many will recognize this as a remix of the song “HIStory,” produced for Michael Jackson’s 1997 album Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix. That album featured eight remixes of songs from his previous album, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1 (2005). The official title of the remix featured in the video is “HIStory (Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson).”
I was able to find out a little more information about it, thanks to Gary Crocker, one of the co-founders of the site MaxJax: HIStory Continues. It was produced in July 1997 and directed by Jim Gable, the same director who made one of my all-time favorite MJ documentaries, Michael Jackson: The One (2004), which features some great interviews with Quincy Jones, Dick Clark, Beyoncé, Pharrell Williams, Savion Glover, Missy Elliott, Wyclef Jean, and many more.
Willa: Oh, I love that documentary too. And you’re right, it has some wonderful interviews.
Lisha: Gable also received a producer credit on the Michael Jackson’s Vision box set (2010) and was the restoration director for the Michael Jackson Live at Wembley DVD, recorded in 1988 and included with the Anniversary Edition of the Bad 25 album (2012). Steve Reiss produced the video for “HIStory (Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson)” and I discovered he was also the visual effects supervisor on Jam back in 1992.
I would assume Michael Jackson was involved to some degree in making this video because at the very least he would have had to approve the use of his previous work. The video includes clips from more than a dozen of his short films, as well as footage from the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory world tours.
Willa: That’s a good point, though I have no idea who owns the rights to what. Maybe Sony could have moved ahead with it without his permission…?
Lisha: I wouldn’t know for sure either without reading the contracts, but it would really surprise me if Sony had the right to produce this video without his approval, since Michael Jackson was pretty savvy about his copyrights. At any rate, I really enjoyed it and thought it was unusual that I haven’t heard more fan discussion about it.
Willa: I do too, or any discussion at all about it, really.
Lisha: The concept is rather interesting. You know, we could get into a very heavy philosophical discussion about this in relation to time and the way it collapses the past, present, and future into a single view. Reminds me very much of a film I just saw based on a Marvel Comics storyline, X-Men: Days of Future Past. I remembered reading once that Michael Jackson was quite a fan of the X-Men comics and he expressed an interest in playing the role of Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men films.
Willa: Really? Wow, that’s fascinating – and that would have been a great role for him! Though I also like what Patrick Stewart did with it. And I can see how the X-Men movies would appeal to him since the “mutants,” mostly teenagers with superpowers, encounter terrible prejudice because they’re different, and are forced to hide their amazing abilities to fit in with the fearful “normal” people around them.
Lisha: I think it would have been a perfect role for Michael Jackson, and I consider it a real tragedy he didn’t get to play the part or fulfill his dream of developing the Marvel catalog himself. So I can’t help relating the X-Men: Days of Future Past to the concept of Michael Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future. Both deal with how these three divisions of time – the past, present, and future – are constantly intermingling and interacting with each other. The video for “Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson” illustrates this so well.
Willa: It really does, and it makes sense since we are always viewing the past and the future through the lens of the present. So while we tend to think of them as distinct, in reality they are always “collapsed” together in a way this video suggests in several different ways. For example, it really cracks me up about 2 minutes into the video when we see Michael Jackson do the moonwalk, followed immediately by Neil Armstrong doing his “moonwalk” – the original one, where he’s bouncing along the surface of the moon.
Lisha: I love that moment in the video!
Willa: I do too! And then a lot of the dancers, who seem to be dancing in the future, are mimicking Michael Jackson’s dance moves. So Michael Jackson did his moonwalk and kind of appropriated it. I mean, when you hear the word “moonwalk,” who do you think of first – Michael Jackson or Neil Armstrong? In the 1970s, it would have been Armstrong, no question, but I bet most people today would say Michael Jackson. And now these dancers from the future are appropriating him – they’re doing his dance moves and making them their own. In fact, frequently there’s a kind of double vision where we see the dancers performing the exact same moves that Michael Jackson is performing on the huge screens behind and around them, though it just occurs in flashes – not a sustained choreography.
Lisha: I noticed that too, especially with the Beat It choreography. It looks really great. And it is pretty amusing to see those two historic moonwalk clips next to each other. Just for fun, I googled “moonwalk” and the results I got were Michael Jackson, not Neil Armstrong! Too funny. I also searched “first moonwalk” and Motown 25 popped up, not Apollo 11.
Willa: Really? Well, there you go … empirical proof that when it comes to the moonwalk, Michael Jackson owns it!
Lisha: The audio clip of Neil Armstrong’s first moonwalk in the original song is pretty intriguing: “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It comes at the very end of the song, almost as an afterthought, and I assume it is included not only as a reference to Apollo 11, but as a reference to Michael Jackson’s famous dance as well. The video captures this perfectly and shows how one event influenced the other.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Lisha. I never thought about that before – that when Armstrong says those words at the end of “HIStory,” he’s literally getting ready to do the “moonwalk.” That’s funny!
Lisha: It is! There’s another really funny moment in the video that makes me laugh every time, and it just screams Michael Jackson humor to me. It’s when you hear the lyric “Keep moving, moving / Keep, keep, keep-keep moving” (1:32) – and there is a guy on some kind of flying bicycle contraption that goes crashing into the pavement. Sorry, but that’s really hilarious in a slapstick sort of way!
Willa: It is, like something from a Keystone Cops or Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin movie, or even the Three Stooges, and we know how much Michael Jackson loved those movies.
Lisha: Yes, I get the feeling Michael Jackson loved slapstick in general.
There is another audio clip at the end of the original song that I also interpret as having a similar self-referential, double meaning as the Apollo 11/Michael Jackson moonwalk. That’s the clip of Senator Edward Kennedy eulogizing his brother Robert F. Kennedy in 1968: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.” Apparently both Robert F. Kennedy and his brother John F. Kennedy were fond of this quote attributed to the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Because Michael Jackson described himself as a “visionary” on more than one occasion, I interpret this as a self-reference as well as a reference to the Kennedys.
Willa: I do too, and as inspiration for all of us.
Lisha: Yes, it is. I also noticed that earlier in the song, the birthdate of John F. Kennedy is cited, so there are references to three influential members of the Kennedy family: Senator Edward Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy. All three were known not just for their family’s wealth but also for their political ambition, their strong commitment to equal rights, and the dream of achieving racial equality in the U.S.
Willa: That’s true, and as we mentioned briefly last week, the fight for racial equality in the U.S. is one of the themes running throughout “HIStory,” especially in the audio clips and the list of dates, and in the lyrics as well.
Lisha: I think it is the most inspiring aspect of the song and album, and makes the strongest case for why history matters so much today and in the future.
Willa: I agree. And I love the double movement about 1:45 minutes into the video where Michael Jackson raises his fist in the panther dance, and then Desmond Tutu raises his fist.
Lisha: Good spot, Willa. And it’s like POW! Right on the first beat of the measure. Nice editing work!
Willa: Oh, you’re right! I hadn’t noticed that before. There’s even kind of a POW sound, like from a cartoon. And it happens again about 2:25 in when the protagonist of Scream punches his fist at us, POW.
Lisha: Or even earlier with the guitar smash from Scream at 1:25! It happens every 4 measures or every 16 beats. It’s interesting to see how they time those with the video.
But I was also thinking about how the whole idea of remixing music makes a point about how the past can interact with the present and future. The remix itself is taking something from the past and introducing it into the present, just as the dancers in the video are interacting with the earlier short films.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Lisha.
Lisha: But the woman in the video experiencing the song through her virtual reality goggles illustrates how the past and present will also resonate in the future. It reminds me of the French philosophers, Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, who theorize that time cannot be measured by a clock. A more accurate conception of time would be the experience of present moment as influenced by memories of the past and our desires for the future. I think I see what they are getting at, don’t you?
Willa: I think so. And not only is the present “influenced by memories of the past,” as you said, but our memories of the past are influenced by the present also. So the past – or rather, our understanding of the past – is constantly shifting as current experiences change how we view the past.
Lisha: I think you’re absolutely right about that.
Willa: I went to a talk by Maxine Hong Kingston several years ago – quite a few years ago, actually – and she talked about her brother, who is a Vietnam War veteran, and more generally about how we all tend to deal with painful memories from the past. She said there are some stories that are just too painful to tell, and there are basically two ways to deal with that. We can either bury those stories and try to forget them, so they remain painful but locked away, or we can engage in some form of talk therapy – either with an actual therapist or with friends, or even in our own minds. She said the point of talk therapy is to tell and retell a painful story over and over and over again, gradually shifting it over time, until finally we have a story we can live with. And she kept emphasizing that we are constantly retelling the past, reshaping it to fit what we need it to be now, in the present.
Lisha: Isn’t that what history is? Those stories we tell over and over again as a group, “reshaping it to fit what we need it to be now, in the present”? And isn’t the whole point of interacting with the past an effort to create a better future?
Willa: Well, that’s interesting, Lisha. I’ll have to think about that … but my first reaction is that you’re right.
Lisha: Well it does get complicated. As lighthearted and fun as this video is in many ways, it doesn’t hesitate to point out that revisiting history isn’t always a terribly pleasant thing to do. There are a number of references to war, conflict, senseless divisions between people, pollution, and destruction of the earth. The original song portrays these two poles very effectively with all the crowd cheering and excitement when recounting some of our greatest achievements, while at the same giving us plenty of reminders that there is an awful lot from the past (and present) we cannot be so proud of: racism, discrimination, the struggle for human rights and equality. I noticed that during the audio clip from an early Michael Jackson interview, there is also a badly warped record of a military band playing “America the Beautiful.” As the pitch bends from the degradation of the record, it gives a subtle suggestion that not everything about America is so beautiful.
Willa: Yes, I’ve noticed that too, and think it’s a very significant part of “HIStory.” A very young Michael Jackson is saying, “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.” He sounds so sincere and earnest, but in the background there’s a scratching sound like a needle dragging across the record, and then a kind of warped version of “America the Beautiful,” like you said. The music is very patriotic, but as you pointed out, the distortions subtly undercut that, so there’s both the ideal and the suggestion that we aren’t living up to the ideal.
Lisha: Beautifully said.
Willa: It’s especially significant if you consider that those distortions are happening as an immensely talented young black boy is speaking those words within a predominantly white culture where the odds are stacked strongly against him, and then consider what our flawed prosecutorial system did to him when he grew up, with complicity by the press and the public. We still live in a very racist country that is far from living up to its ideals.
Lisha: No doubt. It’s painful to think about what Michael Jackson had to endure and realize that, for the most part, the public has no way of knowing what really happened unless they do extensive research on their own. And I am afraid for how this story will be told in the future and how history will repeat itself until we face it and learn from it.
For example, I remember when I was a kid, absolutely no one had a problem historicizing Christopher Columbus as the great and wonderful explorer who “discovered” America. Talk about a story we tell ourselves when real truth is too painful or too inconvenient to deal with! How different would things be now if we had just owned up to the truth about slavery and genocide a long time ago?
Willa: That’s a good question. And you’re right – we do tend to tell the story of Columbus very differently now than our teachers did even 40 years ago, when you and I were kids, and that reflects as much about the time period in which they were speaking as it does about Christopher Columbus.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, we as a culture emphasized the glory of that trip across the Atlantic and the courage of Columbus and other explorers sailing into the unknown. And that makes sense – we were preparing to go to the moon! Neil Armstrong did his moonwalk in 1969. We needed to glorify explorers in the 60s.
We tell that story in much more complicated ways today, focusing as much on what was lost through colonization as what was gained. And that reflects our cultural priorities today.
Lisha: Yes, I’m sure that’s true, but funny, I don’t remember ever hearing about Matthew Henson, the great Arctic explorer mentioned in “HIStory,” who happens to be black.
Willa: That’s a good point. Some people, and some groups of people, were definitely much more celebrated than others, and still are.
Lisha: I can get pretty agitated thinking about this, because when choosing who and what to historicize, some things are glossed right over in order to celebrate certain select achievements. There are still so many blind spots and issues that remain unresolved – so many lessons from history yet to be learned.
Willa: I agree. It’s a lot easier to celebrate the exciting moments of history than to face and learn from the painful parts.
Lisha: I decided to make a list of all the historical events cited in the original version of “HIStory” and put them in chronological order to see if I could get a sense of why these events were chosen and how they might relate to the lyrical content of the song. Here’s what I came up with and I have to say, it’s quite a list for a six-and-a-half-minute song:
“Monday, March 26, 1827” The death of Beethoven
“February 11, 1847 Thomas Edison is born”
“January 18, 1858 Daniel Hale Williams is born”
“November 19, 1863 Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg address”
“April 9, 1865 The Civil War ends”
“December 30, 1865 Rudyard Kipling is born”
“August 8, 1866 Matthew Henson is born”
1877 Thomas Edison invents the phonograph
“October 28, 1886 The Statue of Liberty is dedicated”
“December 5, 1901 Walt Disney is born”
“December 7, 1903 The Wright Brothers first flight”
1906 The first promotional recording is made
“May 29, 1917 John F. Kennedy is born”
“January 31, 1919 Jackie Robinson is born”
“November 2, 1920 The first commercial radio station opens”
May 21, 1927 Charles Lindbergh’s first nonstop flight from NY to Paris
“September 1928 The discovery of penicillin”
“January 15, 1929 Martin Luther King is born”
“November 28, 1929 Berry Gordy is born”
“October 9, 1940 John Lennon is born”
October 13, 1940 Princess Elizabeth’s wartime speech to the children of England
“January 17, 1942 Muhammad Ali is born as Cassius Clay”
“October 14, 1947 Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier”
“July 17, 1955 Disneyland opens”
“December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger”
“July 17, 1959” The death of Billie Holiday
“April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight”
August 28, 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech
“February 9, 1964 The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show”
February 25, 1964 Muhammad Ali defeats Sonny Liston, proclaiming “I am the greatest”
June 28, 1964 Malcolm X pledges to bring about freedom “by any means necessary”
June 8, 1968 Senator Edward Kennedy eulogizes his brother, Robert F. Kennedy
December 21, 1968 Apollo 8 manned space flight
“July 20, 1969 Astronauts first land on the moon”
1970 Michael Jackson interview: “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.”
April 8, 1974 Henry Aaron breaks home run record
“April 12, 1981 The first Shuttle flight”
“November 10, 1989 The Berlin Wall comes down”
Willa: Wow, you’re right, Lisha! That is quite a list! Thanks for putting this all together – that really took some work. And when you look at it this way, there are a number of intertwining threads that really jump out, aren’t there? Like the history of air travel – there’s the Wright brother’s first flight in 1903, Lindbergh’s first flight across the Atlantic in 1927, Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in 1947, Yuri Gagarin’s trip to outer space in 1961, the Apollo 8 manned space flight in 1968, the moon landing in 1969, and the first space shuttle flight in 1981. There are similar threads for sports, and the arts, and the fight for racial equality.
Lisha: Yes. I see a thread emerging that has to do with the history of recorded music starting with the death of Beethoven in 1827 (as in Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”), the invention of the phonograph recording in 1877, the first commercial radio station in 1920, the birth of Berry Gordy in 1929, the birth of John Lennon in 1940, a very fruitful musical dialogue between the U.S. and England represented by Elizabeth’s 1940 speech and the Beatles’ performance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. The next musical reference is a 1970 interview with Michael Jackson from right around the same time the Jackson 5 appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and began dominating the record charts with four #1 hits for Motown Records.
I’ve read many times that Michael Jackson was quite the history buff so I would imagine these dates were chosen with a great deal of care. I can definitely see that these threads relate to each other as well, having to do with erasing divisions and false boundaries. For example, look at all those milestones in aviation achievement. Air travel is a development that has required us to build systems based on international cooperation and organization. Anglo-American popular music and its global distribution systems are another development that continues to break down boundaries between people and nations. Medical discoveries such as penicillin and Daniel Hale Williams’ surgical advances benefit only a few unless we have distribution systems and ways of sharing information that make them available to more and more people. (By the way, Stevie Wonder’s “Black Man” also pays tribute to Williams.)
Willa: That’s true – a lot of these dates have to do with breaking barriers in some way. And as we mentioned last week, Thomas Edison’s invention of sound recording and transmission technologies helped break boundaries of time as well as space. Billie Holiday died before I was born – the date she died, July 17, 1959, is on your list – but because of audio-visual recordings, I can go to YouTube and hear her voice sing “Strange Fruit” and see the pain and anger in her face as she sings it, and feel moved by her performance.
We see that process of people “feeling” an experience across time and space in the Tony Moran video also. The spectator with the space goggles isn’t really at the dance club, but she experiences the sounds and visuals as if she were there. And in fact, the video allows us to experience her experience, but also see “through” it at the same time, if that makes sense.
Lisha: It really does.
Willa: We see her walking around inside the dance club and interacting with other dancers, but we also see that she’s actually sitting at home in her space lounger, waving her arms in an empty room. So even though she’s not physically at the dance club, she is immersed in the sensations of that time and place and she experiences it as if she were there – just as I experience Billie Holiday’s performance as if I were there more than a half century ago.
Lisha: Yes, it is as if she has stepped into the scene and is interacting with music that is not of her own time and place, just like you are able to do with “Strange Fruit.”
Willa: Exactly. And now Michael Jackson is gone, but those dancers from the future are surrounded by repeated images of him on the screens all around them, and the way he moves his body on screen is reenacted in how they move their bodies on the dance floor. And the woman with the space goggles is watching both the dancers and Michael Jackson, and we watch her and them as well as her experiencing them. There are layers of surveillance throughout this video, and we are the ultimate spectators – unless someone is watching us!
Lisha: I suppose in this day and age that is not only possible, but probable!
This brings me to something that I have wanted to ask you about Willa, that has to do with the word “history” and playing with third person perspective by using the spelling “HIStory” or HIS-story. The lyrics start with “He got kicked in the back / He say that he needed that…” I’m wondering exactly who does “he” refer to? So often we think about the HIStory album as a response to the false allegations Michael Jackson faced in 1993, but like just about everything else Michael Jackson, there is more than one way to look at it. In this case, it seems the events of “history” and “HIStory” are related to each other.
Have you seen this video on Thomas Mesereau and Susan Yu’s website? It’s another gem I found thanks to my pal at MaxJax:
The video was produced by MJJsource, Michael Jackson’s own website:
Willa: Wow, Lisha, I hadn’t seen either of these before. That’s awesome! And I agree with the video – June 13, 2005, was an important day in history.
Lisha: It certainly is to my way of thinking. I noticed that June 13th was compared with three other important dates: the birth of Dr. King, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the day Nelson Mandela was freed from prison.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting. I think Michael Jackson was very aware of his place in history – aware that, because he was such an important cultural figure, for black America especially, everything he did had social implications beyond himself. So June 13, 2005, isn’t just a day when our judicial system – a system built on “a jury of one’s peers” in part to help protect citizens from overzealous prosecution – worked properly for one person. It’s also a day when the most successful entertainer of all time, an emblem of black achievement and pride, was publicly vindicated after being falsely accused and persecuted by the police and the press for more than a decade – though the press, of course, didn’t interpret the jury’s decision that way.
Lisha: Unfortunately for us all, they did not. When the jury acquitted Michael Jackson on all 14 charges, rejecting every single thing the prosecutors were alleging, in my mind that also means the media was found guilty for the careless way they covered the case. With few exceptions, the press utterly failed in their duty to take a more critical look at what the prosecutors were saying. No wonder it was so hard for them to accept the verdict.
Willa: I agree completely. What a travesty of justice in the media, on a day when justice was finally enacted in the courts.
But you asked about pronouns. I have to say, I am so intrigued by Michael Jackson’s use of pronouns. It’s so fascinating to me, and the use of third person pronouns at the beginning of “HIStory” ties in beautifully with this dual perspective of the individual and collective significance of June 13, 2005, and the events surrounding it. The first person pronoun “I” is specific to the person speaking – it signifies the speaker’s unique situation. But as you pointed out, Lisha, “HIStory” begins with lyrics that describe Michael Jackson’s emotional experience pretty accurately, but spoken in third person: “He got kicked in the back / He say that he needed that….”
To me, that conveys Michael Jackson’s specific situation while universalizing it at the same time. We could fill in that “he” slot with many different names from history, especially black public figures such as Jack Johnson, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Muhammad Ali, even Tiger Woods. As Michael Jackson himself said in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson, “there has been kind of a pattern among black luminaries in this country” – a pattern where they are “kicked in the back” at the height of their fame. Joie and I talked about that in a post a few months ago.
Lisha: Your post with Joie really had a big impact on me. So did Charles Thomson’s outstanding piece comparing Michael Jackson’s FBI files to the Jack Johnson and Chuck Berry cases. That was like an arrow in the head – it’s really shocking stuff.
Willa: It is shocking, very shocking. According to Charles, the Mann Act was explicitly conceived with racist intent – namely, to bring down Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion and a very flamboyant figure who did not conform to social expectations. As Charles told Joie and me in a post a while back, “The Mann Act is an inherently racist law which was widely used after its introduction to punish black men who consorted with white women.”
It was also used against Chuck Berry – he went to prison because of it. Carl Perkins said he “never saw a man so changed.” According to Perkins, “He had been an easygoing guy before, the kinda guy who’d jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes.” But afterwards “he was cold, real distant and bitter.”
And District Attorney Tom Sneddon encouraged the FBI to use it against Michael Jackson as well.
Lisha: Absolutely unbelievable.
Willa: It really is. And actually, this clash between racist politics and black celebrities brings up another point I wanted to mention about “HIStory” and Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson – the way they give entertainment and sports figures equal footing with political figures. I think this is so important, but easy to overlook.
In general, there are two competing visions of history. The traditional view is that history reflects the actions of a few bold men – people like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and George Washington. Then in contrast to this “top-down” view of history, there’s a “bottom-up” view which says that change starts with the people, and then successful leaders simply follow and act on the public mood. This is what Margaret Mead was talking about when she said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (By the way, this puts Barack Obama in an interesting position since he is the President, but he began his career as a community organizer and successfully drew on his “bottom-up” grassroots organizing skills to get elected. So he belongs in both camps.)
Michael Jackson seems to have a very interesting take on all this that draws on both of these views but suggests a third approach – one that gives prominence to artists and other pop culture figures. In this view, the public mood brings about political change, but pop culture helps shape the public mood. For example, Abraham Lincoln was obviously an important figure in leading the U.S. through the Civil War and bringing about an end to slavery. But Harriet Beecher Stowe and her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, may have played an even larger role since they galvanized public opinion against slavery, and arguably sparked the Civil War. Lincoln himself credited Stowe’s influence the first time he met her, saying, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”
So while political figures and events are important in changing the course of history, perhaps the real power lies with those who can lead the public to think or feel about important issues in a new way – in other words, artists. Michael Jackson suggests this repeatedly in his work.
Lisha: Well said – governments have always feared the power of art for this reason. Look at the album cover for HIStory and the promotional campaign to introduce that album. Many people didn’t know what to make of these giant statues of Michael Jackson. We don’t think twice about a statue of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or George Washington but a popular black artist daring to appropriate this imagery just blew people’s minds because it shattered the concepts attached to these images.
Willa: I think you’re exactly right. It’s assumed that statues are for one of those few bold political leaders, not for popular artists and celebrities.
Lisha: Well maybe Beethoven is ok, but not Michael Jackson! I’m thinking of the bust of Beethoven that sits on top of Schroeder’s piano in the Peanuts cartoons.
Willa: Oh, I love that bust of Beethoven on Schroeder’s piano! But he’s a classical composer, not a popular artist, and even Beethoven gets cut off at the neck!
Lisha: I think statues of the big four: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, are fairly common in the Western world and they are often depicted pretty much the same way we would see Alexander, Caesar, or Washington. Haydn is also included at times in this handful of god-like composers. But only a few of the great dead whites get this kind of treatment and it’s an interesting point that the most popular statue of a composer is the bust. I had a small set of them on my piano when I was a child!
Willa: No wonder you like Schroeder and his bust of Beethoven so much! And it’s true – there may be busts of the major composers, or revered authors like Shakespeare and Milton. But when have we ever seen an artist, especially a popular artist, depicted in the glorious ways political leaders are? Off the top of my head, I can only think of the HIStory statues, as you mentioned, or the portraits Michael Jackson commissioned for himself, like this one astride a horse a la King Phillip II:
And don’t forget there’s the issue of the HIStory teaser, the promotional film that was inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda, Triumph of the Will. It is the perfect example of how well the Nazis understood the power of art and how they exploited Riefenstahl’s talent to their political advantage. Michael Jackson disrupted the power of that historic imagery by inserting himself into it, transforming it into a force for good, just as his hero Charlie Chaplin did in The Great Dictator.
Willa: Oh absolutely. It reflects a very sophisticated understanding of how the power of art intersects with the power of persuasion – rhetorical and emotional – and how that relates to political power. This is something Michael Jackson mentioned in interviews, like in his discussions of Hitler with Rabbi Boteach. And even early in his career, in a 1980 interview with Sylvia Chase, he said this about the effect his concerts have on his audience:
When they’re all holding hands and everybody’s rocking, and all colors of people are there, all races, it’s the most wonderful thing. Politicians can’t even do that.
We see this idea reflected throughout Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson as well. For example, we see images of President Kennedy and civil rights marches, but we also see clips from the panther dance in Black or White, and They Don’t Care about Us, and Earth Song, and Scream. These videos have shaped history as well – particularly addressing racial prejudice and inequality – and they will continue to influence public opinion as new generations discover them.
Lisha: That’s exactly it!
Willa: And there’s something really subtle as well. About 2:55 minutes into the video we see the woman with the space goggles imaginatively walking around inside the dance club, and the DJ invites her to come up and join him.
Lisha: I noticed that too. From her position in virtual reality she has entered the scene as if she is in actual reality. So there is this blurring of the virtual (past memory and future desire) and the actual (present moment).
Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting way to interpret that, Lisha! It’s like the DJ is inviting her to cross the boundary between “virtual” reality and “actual” reality.
Then at 2:58 we see a clip of Michael Jackson looking very sexy in Don’t Stop til You Get Enough, which is important if you think about what the U.S. was like in 1979 when that video came out. He was a black sex symbol who appealed to women of all races. We tend to forget just how radical that was. This is kind of underscored by what’s happening in the video. We suddenly jump back to the woman (who is white) and the DJ (who is black), and at 3:00 we see him helping her into the DJ booth with him. At 3:09 we see Michael Jackson looking incredibly hot in In the Closet, one of his steamiest videos ever, and at 3:30 there’s a quick clip of Rock with You. And talk about sexy – you should hear Joie talk about that video. Oh my!
Lisha: I’m sure that’s pretty entertaining!
Willa: Oh, I promise, you will never look at that video the same way again!
Lisha: I fully intend to ask her about that! And I noticed one of the other females in that scene is not too happy to see the new girl catch the DJ’s eye.
Willa: Really? I missed that.
Lisha: It’s at 3:02, the girl with the third eye.
Willa: I’ll have to look for that. It’s true she’s getting pretty friendly with that DJ. In fact, by 3:35 she has her hands all over him. But at 3:36 we suddenly shift perspective and are reminded that she’s not really at the dance club. We see her in her empty room with her space goggles on, and she’s running her hands along an invisible person who isn’t really there. This is all happening in a virtual place – a place created by art, Michael Jackson’s art – and those images on screen are leading this young white woman to imaginatively experience desire for a black man. That is truly radical, or was in 1979. And to quote a very wise young man, “Politicians can’t even do that.” Politicians can’t change our feelings and shape our desires the way artists can.
Lisha: I also get the feeling that this is a time and place where you do not have to examine someone’s skin pigmentation to determine whether or not you like them. It’s like we’re imagining a space where humanity has gotten beyond all that insanity.
Willa: Oh, that’s a really good point, Lisha. So just as this young woman is experiencing an alternate reality through art, so are we – one where racial differences don’t matter when forming relationships.
There’s also one more subtle thing I wanted to point out. It’s a line in the lyrics of “HIStory” where he sings, “She say this face that you see / Is destined for history.” I think the shifts in how people perceive Michael Jackson’s face was perhaps the most important cultural phenomenon of the late 20th Century, radically changing how people think about and experience racial differences and other differences that divide us. In that sense, I think he had the most important face in history. What other face has caused such turmoil, or such deep-seated change in cultural perceptions and beliefs? So I definitely agree that “this face that you see / Is destined for history.”
Lisha: Once again, Willa, you have absolutely blown me away.
Willa: I know what you mean. He blows me away on a regular basis …
Lisha: You know, it’s one thing to spot some beautiful water lilies and paint them in pretty colors on a giant canvas (no offense to Monet fans), but it’s quite another to take a devastating illness like vitiligo and create an artistic statement that will have an impact upon generations to come. It gives new meaning to the words “Every day create your history.”
Willa: It really does.
So before we go, I also wanted to let everyone know about a new book that just came out this week, Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics. It’s by Susan Woodward, a clinical social worker with training and experience as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. In her book, she analyzes some of the most virulent writing against Michael Jackson and reaches a fascinating conclusion – that it’s motivated at least in part by fear of his “extraordinary power.” Here’s what she says:
Two reasons have typically been given by Jackson fans for the negative media responses to Jackson: racism and deep discomfort with his “otherness,” meaning his supposed eccentricities and his fluid identity signifiers. While these reasons have seemed to me to be obviously true, I had the persistent feeling that there was something else going on. After studying hostile writings about Jackson I began to see that there was another factor to which journalists were reacting, with distrust or even fear: a perception of extraordinary power.
She goes on to say that “the power they feel … derived from not just his fame and wealth but also from his otherness,” which is ironic since he was harshly criticized for his otherness. I’m really intrigued by this – that while many critics treated his difference (his “eccentric oddities,” as he called them) with contempt and ridicule, Woodward suggests they also feared it as one source of his power. I’ve only had a chance to read the first few pages, but it sounds like a fascinating approach to a really complicated and important question – namely, why so many journalists, and others as well, reacted to Michael Jackson the way they did.
Lisha: That sounds incredible, Willa. I really look forward to reading it. Thanks so much for letting us know about it.
Willa: Yes, it’s definitely on my summer reading list. Well, thanks for joining me, Lisha. I always learn so much from you!
Lisha: Thank you, Willa. That was quite a HIStory lesson.
Joie: Today, Willa and I are joined by our good friend, and frequent contributor, Lisha McDuff, and we’re talking about the title track of Michael’s HIStory album. More specifically, we’re talking about a certain aspect of that title track. Thanks for joining us again, Lisha!
Lisha: Thanks so much for having me!
Joie: Ok, ladies, here’s a question that I know we’ve all thought about many, many times, and I would be willing to bet that just about every Michael Jackson fan has pondered at least a dozen times while listening to this multi-layered song. What do all of those dates at the beginning and the ending of “HIStory” mean, and do they have some personal significance for Michael beyond their obvious significance to the rest of the world?
Willa: I think they have tremendous significance. For example, there are two dates set off by themselves at the beginning of the track – all the other dates come at the end. And as you pointed out, Lisha, when we first started kicking around the idea of doing a post on “HIStory,” those two have special significance.
Lisha: Exactly so. The first words spoken in the song are “Monday, March 26, 1827,” and “November 28, 1929.” Although it is never spelled out what these dates specifically reference, I find it interesting that these happen to be two important dates in music history: the death of Ludwig van Beethoven and the birth of Berry Gordy, Jr.
Willa: So do I. Putting those two dates together the way he did suggests Michael Jackson saw a connection or correlation between these two men. We don’t tend to think of them together, but Michael Jackson had tremendous admiration for both of them, and they both had a huge impact on music history. More specifically, they were both important transitional figures in the history of music.
I think most people would agree that Beethoven was one of the greatest classical composers, if not the greatest. But he also helped usher in the Romantic period in music. You know much more about this than I do, Lisha, but he helped bring about the shift from Classicism to Romanticism, right?
Lisha: That’s absolutely right. Beethoven seemed to have one foot in the Classical era and the other in the Romantic era of Western music at the same time. He is considered the bridge between these two periods.
Willa: And as the founder of Motown, Berry Gordy was also a transitional figure. He led the way in integrating “black” music into the “white” mainstream in a way that was extremely popular with both blacks and whites. And that changed the face of music in America and around the world.
Lisha: Berry Gordy essentially redefined pop by insisting it was just as black as it was white and this appealed to a very broad audience. Gordy’s impact is felt not only in American popular culture, but all over the world, as you said. He is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in all of recorded music.
I have to say, citing these dates at the top of the song is such an interesting choice, we could probably focus our entire discussion on those two dates alone!
Joie: I agree.
Willa: Me too.
Lisha: I also suspect these dates have been highlighted not only for what each of these men contributed, but also for how their contributions have been historicized.
There is no question that Beethoven is commonly thought of as one of the most important composers in all of music history, if not the most important. How we think about Beethoven is fundamental to our concept of what a composer is, what a musical work is, what intellectual property is, and what a musical genius is. The history of Western music in many ways revolves around the Beethoven paradigm and the Austro-German musical canon. It’s the Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms history of music we’ve all been taught in some form or another.
But scholars are increasingly challenging this. Does it really make any sense that musical genius could be isolated to specific time periods in Austria and Germany? And what exactly is musical genius anyway? The time has come to think a little more critically about it, and I’m guessing Michael Jackson thought quite a bit about this when he highlighted the death of Beethoven and the birth of Berry Gordy at the beginning of the song. I think we’ve all been cued to take Beethoven terribly seriously, but we usually don’t think about popular music or non-European composers in the same way.
Willa: I agree completely. In general, critics tend to maintain a strict division between “high art” composers like Beethoven and “popular” music producers like Berry Gordy, and it’s almost heresy to mention them in the same breath. But Michael Jackson repeatedly challenged that division between high art and popular art, and this is one more great example of that.
It’s also really interesting, Lisha, that you seem to see the reference to “Monday, March 26, 1827” not only in terms of Beethoven’s death, but also as representing the “death” of the canon. Is that right? In classical music, as well as other “high art” forms such as literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, or even relatively new forms like film, the canon tends to be dominated by dead white men, as the saying goes. So in that sense, by juxtaposing the date of Beethoven’s death and Berry Gordy’s birth, Michael Jackson is also suggesting the “death” of one way of thinking about music – which privileges a small group of men from Germany and Austria, as you said – and ushering in the “birth” of a new way of thinking about music.
Lisha: Yes, I believe that Michael Jackson is highlighting a new paradigm and inviting us to think about popular music and American musical achievement in a much more serious way. But, believe it or not, the idolization of the great “dead white men” in music history is a more recent phenomenon (historically speaking, that is – 19th and 20th century) that essentially revolves around our reverence for Beethoven. In many ways Beethoven’s death represents the birth, not the death, of the musical canon. So perhaps Jackson is suggesting that the death of the canon is best represented by the birth of Berry Gordy.
Willa: Oh, interesting!
Lisha: The whole idea of musical genius (commonly conceptualized as the solitary, autonomous, slightly mad composer, touched by the heavens, who remains true to his art by resisting political pressures or economic considerations) is more or less based on how we historicize Beethoven. Earlier composers, like Bach and Mozart, were employed by the church or the court, and their music was created primarily to satisfy the needs of their employers and to express their views and ideals.
But Beethoven challenged this and felt artists should be much more autonomous and free from any interference or worldly demands. As a result of his influence, the role of the composer was elevated and composers were ultimately given much more status, recognition, and control of their work. Musicians became very focused serving the composer’s vision and the great “musical work,” a concept that has been attributed to Beethoven.
It’s interesting that in the liner notes of “HIStory,” a credit is given for a sample taken from the children’s film Beethoven Lives Upstairs. To be honest, I have never found the sample in the track. I don’t know if I just keep missing it or if it was possibly omitted in a subsequent revision, but I’m interested in how this film relates to “HIStory.”
Willa: Well, the bells tolling in the background at the very beginning of the film remind me of the bells tolling in the background as Beethoven’s date of death and Berry Gordy’s date of birth are spoken in “HIStory.” Could that be it?
Lisha: Hmmm. In the beginning of the film I hear church bells ringing, and in “HIStory” I hear orchestral chimes. So, I don’t think they are the same instruments or the same sample. But now that you mention it, it is really interesting how similar the pacing of the bells and chimes are. That’s a very astute observation, Willa. I also noticed that the first words spoken in both the film and the song are “Monday, March 26, 1827.” Of all the dates mentioned in “HIStory,” I do believe this is the only one that also includes the day of the week (“Monday”). The rhythm and pacing of the voiceovers sounds pretty much identical to me. I’m getting the feeling that this film is a bigger inspiration for the track than I thought.
Watching the film, I was amazed by how precisely it reinforces the Beethoven paradigm and the myth of the composer as a god-like musical genius who can also be very peculiar, difficult, a bit mad, and terribly misunderstood. The film doesn’t miss a single cliché really. But it might be next to impossible to find a film on classical music that doesn’t historicize the composer this way. I’m thinking of Amadeus for example.
I don’t know if either of you have had a chance to see Motown The Musical, the new Broadway show written by Berry Gordy, but it’s a fabulous production that allows Gordy himself to historicize his own work. Far from expressing any desire to remain free of commercial, economic forces or other worldly demands, Gordy says that he envisioned Motown as a music company that would mimic the auto industry’s assembly line model of production. He recently explained this in a fascinating interview with the Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic, Hedy Weiss:
Willa: Wow, that really is very different from the Beethoven model, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not at all the solitary artist working obsessively alone on his magnum opus as you described, Lisha. In fact, it’s almost the total opposite.
You know, what this reminds me of is Andy Warhol, another artist who incorporated assembly-line production methods to create art, especially his screenprints – art that also questioned the divide between high art and commercial art, as we talked about in a post last fall.
Lisha: It is fascinating to me that these artists who lived and worked in a fiercely capitalistic society found themselves embracing this model, either as a critique or an expression of their own time, place, and life conditions. Remember that the songwriter/producer/arranger team behind the early Jackson 5 hits was Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, and Deke Richards and they were all credited for their work as simply The Corporation.
Willa: Oh, that’s right! And Andy Warhol called his studio The Factory. That’s really interesting that what Berry Gordy was doing in music, Andy Warhol was paralleling in visual art.
But getting back to the differences between the Beethoven and Berry Gordy approach – I’m trying to think where to position Michael Jackson in terms of these two models, and as with so many things, he doesn’t seem to belong strictly in either camp. As he mentioned many times in interviews, the inspiration and ideas for his songs often came to him when he was alone with his tape recorder. But when it came time to develop his ideas into songs for an album, he followed a much more collaborative approach to music production – more like the Berry Gordy model.
Lisha: Yes, that’s true, but he often worked in the conception stage with other musicians and songwriters as well. It is a highly collaborative approach that reimagines the role of the composer. The genre of rock takes quite a different approach and places a very high value on performers who author their own music, more like the Beethoven paradigm. But in the pop/Motown model (also in the Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building tradition), the songwriter primarily serves the performer and producer’s needs. In this model, I would say it is actually the performer whose importance is elevated.
However, Michael Jackson could be in a league of his own due to the fact he was so highly accomplished as a performer, singer, dancer, producer, songwriter, arranger, lyricist, musician, choreographer, film director, stage director, lighting and costume designer, businessman and marketing genius … I could keep going, but you get the idea. Of course David Bowie, Madonna, and Prince are examples of other multi-talented artists who also worked this way. But, when you look at how deeply Jackson understood all these disciplines and the way he orchestrated all these elements to work together, it does suggests he was the solitary genius behind a truly impressive body of work.
Willa: I would agree with that!
Lisha: It’s also true Jackson became very wealthy and powerful early in life so he was freed from subsistence needs or worries that his art would not be funded. Yet, he often seemed to measure his success as an artist in terms of units sold. My guess is that he believed his impact and reach were directly related to strong sales and aggressive commercialism.
Joie: Wow, you guys! You know, the two of you together are really fascinating to listen to sometimes. Have I ever told you that? This is already a completely engrossing conversation and we just got started!
Willa, I love what you said about it being the “death” of a very old and tired way of thinking about music – and truly great music – which privileges a small group of dead white men. And, as Lisha put so well, “Does it really make any sense that musical genius could be isolated to specific time periods in Germany and Austria?” So, I think we’re all in agreement that Michael did in fact have some very deliberate reasons for opening the song with these two dates.
Now I’m interested to know about the other dates at the end of the song. And maybe it’s a little weird that we’re focusing only on those dates in this conversation instead of talking about the lyrics or the actual song itself, but to me the dates have always been the most intriguing aspect of this song. Every time I listen to it, I always turn up the volume at the end so that I can try and decipher another date or two. It can become a very obsessive exercise. Have either of you ever counted them? Do we know how many dates there are? Willa, you started an actual list of all those dates, didn’t you?
Willa: Yes I did, but it’s pretty rough, with big gaps in some of them – and I’m sure I’m missing others altogether. I have a really hard time hearing some of them.
Joie: Yes, so do I.
Lisha: I’ll admit I really had a hard time with this, too. But in struggling with it, I think I discovered a trick for listening to all those dates. With a little practice and a good set of headphones, it’s possible to hear the entire segment clearly without missing any of the dates mentioned.
The spoken dates at the end of the song have been organized into four different threads that are staggered and layered on top of each other. The secret to hearing them all is to concentrate only on one thread at a time without getting distracted by competing sounds. It really helps to focus on the location of the sound as well. For example, the first thread begins in the top portion of the sound field, slightly to the right of center. It starts just after the final chord of the song (5:41) and sounds like:
February 11, 1847 Thomas Edison is born
December 30, 1865 Rudyard Kipling is born
December 7, 1903 The Wright Brothers first flight
January 15, 1929 Martin Luther King is born
October 14, 1947 Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier
February 9, 1964 The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show
November 10, 1989 The Berlin Wall comes down
Now go back (5:42) and try to isolate the second thread, which is located in the left channel of your headphones:
January 18, 1858 Daniel Hale Williams is born
August 8, 1866 Matthew Henson is born
May 29, 1917 John F. Kennedy is born
September 1928 The discovery of penicillin
January 17, 1942 Muhammad Ali is born as Cassius Clay
April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight
April 12, 1981 The first Shuttle flight
The third thread is located on the right (5:43):
November 19, 1863 Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg address
December 5, 1901 Walt Disney is born
November 2, 1920 The first commercial radio station opens
October 9, 1940 John Lennon is born
July 17, 1955 Disneyland opens
July 20, 1969 Astronauts first land on the moon
Finally, listen once again to the top portion of the soundfield, but this time it is slightly to the left of center (5:44). You should hear:
April 9, 1865 The Civil War ends
October 28, 1886 The Statue of Liberty is dedicated
January 31, 1919 Jackie Robinson is born
November 28, 1929 Berry Gordy is born
December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger
Joie: Oh. My. Gosh. You have just cracked this code wide open! I have never been able to hear all of that in its entirety before, but now that I’ve gone back and listened with your notes in front of me, it’s all right there – like a long unsolvable puzzle has just been made crystal clear! That is amazing! I am thoroughly impressed. Both with your listening skills, and with your earphones!
Willa: Me too! I bow before you, Lisha. I can tell you have those incredible musician’s ears – your list is way better than mine!
Lisha: You guys are too funny! But it is thanks to Bruce Swedien’s brilliant engineering work that this segment is so beautifully organized.
Willa: That’s true, but still … some of these I hadn’t heard at all, like “the discovery of penicillin” and “Disneyland opens.” And there’s the second mention of Berry Gordy’s birthday. I didn’t realize that date was spoken twice, at the beginning and ending of “HIStory.” That tells me that, to Michael Jackson, this was a very significant date.
Lisha: Very significant indeed. I believe the importance of Gordy’s musical contribution is reinforced throughout the song. Probably the biggest difference between the Beethoven and Motown paradigm is that one compositional form is written while the other is based on recorded music. Popular music takes such a different approach to music that musicologists are having to rethink how to analyze, interpret, and historicize it. This new approach is often referred to as the “new musicology,” and it is a radically interdisciplinary field of research.
In “HIStory,” I believe Michael Jackson is pointing towards this shift between written and recorded music with those two dates at the top of the song and the track illustrates this quite well musically. It includes music from the classical and instrumental band repertoire, but there is also a lot of studio and technical wizardry involved. There are also two very important events in recording history that have been included towards the end of the track (6:10). The first of these is a historical clip of the first promotional recording ever made in 1906:
I am the Edison phonograph, created by the great wizard of the New World to delight those who would have melody or be amused.
Layered over this is a second clip of Thomas Edison himself, recalling the first words he spoke to create the world’s first phonograph recording in 1877:
Mary had a little lamb
It’s fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go
Believe it or not, Edison made his first recording in 1877, just 50 years after the death of Beethoven.
Willa: Seriously? Edison’s first phonograph recording was only 50 years after Beethoven? I never would have guessed that. It’s funny how our perceptions of time can telescope in and out. Like I was reading something the other day about how the Beatles “invasion” of America 50 years ago is actually closer in time to World War I than it is to us today. That stunned me.
Lisha: It’s really disorienting, isn’t it? Somehow I thought there were bigger gaps between these events as well.
Willa: Oh I know, and I think Edison and his phonograph have a lot to do with that. What I mean is that I think video and sound recordings compress our perceptions of history. We can “see” the Beatles performing on Ed Sullivan and experience it for ourselves, so it feels close in time to us. Beethoven lived before that recording technology was invented, so we will never experience him in the same way – never hear his actual voice, never see his body move. So in that sense he feels “prehistoric” to us, meaning he existed before recorded history – before history could be captured in sound and video recordings.
Lisha: Interesting, and I agree completely. Recordings keep these events much closer in our memories.
Willa: Exactly. The Beatles played on Ed Sullivan 50 years ago, but for me they also played there yesterday, which is the last time I experienced that performance. I saw them on Ed Sullivan just yesterday. Mentally I know it happened 50 years ago, but emotionally it feels really familiar to me, even though I was too young to experience when it originally happened.
So that’s another reason Edison and his phonograph would be important in a song about “history.” They’ve profoundly changed how we perceive and experience history.
Lisha: Great point as always, Willa.
Willa: Thanks, but I’m sorry, Lisha. I interrupted you in mid thought. You were talking about the huge shift from written music to recorded music, and how you think “HIStory” not only suggests that shift but also kind of reenacts it in how the song is structured, with passages of classical music at the beginning and audio clips of Edison and his phonograph at the end. That is such a fascinating idea, especially when you think of the huge impact audio recording has had on music – not only on how it’s distributed, but how it’s conceptualized and created. I’d really like to get back to that, if we could.
Michael Jackson, especially, used music technology as a “compositional tool,” as you pointed out in some fascinating comments to a post Joie and I did a long time ago with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson. As you said in one comment under your pen name, Ultravioletrae,
I have no doubt if Jackson needed music notation he would have used it, but his own method of recording on multi tracks was far more efficient and desirable than pencil and paper or music notation software. Reading and writing in musical notation would have been a tremendous liability for a musician like him. As an example, he worked with complex, subtle rhythms that can’t be accurately notated, only approximated.
Before I began talking with you about all this, I tended to think of recording music as part of the distribution process – something musicians did to capture their music in a format where it could be shared with others. But you’ve helped me see that recording has become far more than that. It’s now an integral part of composing and creating music, but in a very different way than the Beethoven model.
Lisha: The whole idea of the great “musical work” as an exclusively written compositional form is most likely a direct result of the Beethoven myth and how we have elevated the status of (dead, white, male) composers. It’s hard to let go of this image of the composer because it has become so ingrained in the culture. But music is an aural phenomenon, so it makes an awful lot of sense to use the technology we have available to store musical information in an aural format.
When recorded music first began, the goal was to simply replicate a live performance as accurately and realistically as possible. But there were a couple of game-changing events that essentially changed all that. The first was guitarist Les Paul’s innovations in multi-track recordings, which allowed Paul to layer sound in a very creative and imaginative ways. As Bruce Swedien once told Sound On Sound’s Richard Buskin:
The first time I really got excited about pop music was when I discovered that it was possible to use my imagination. That had come with a record that I myself didn’t work on, Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “How High the Moon.” Up to that point the goal of music recording had been to capture an unaltered acoustic event, reproducing the music of big bands as if you were in the best seat in the house. It left no room for imagination, but when I heard “How High the Moon,” which did not have one natural sound in it, I thought, “Damn, there’s hope!”
Think about the imaginative way all those dates in “HIStory” are staggered and layered over each other. That is a great example of Michael Jackson and Bruce Swedien’s imaginative use of the recording studio as a compositional format, made possible by Les Paul’s inventive approach to recording.
Another milestone in recording history happened in 1967 when the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album Rolling Stone named “the greatest album of all time.” After retiring from touring in 1966, the Beatles turned their attention to the recording studio and racked up an unheard of 700 hours in the studio to make Sgt. Pepper. The album pushed the limits of multi-tracking and the recording technology so far that the recording process itself came to be recognized as a compositional format. With no plans to return to the stage, the recording itself became the “musical work.” Any attempt to perform it live would be understood as a replica of the recording, a 180-degree flip from the original use of recording technology.
“HIStory” includes the written music paradigm with an orchestral performance of “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, followed by several examples of American military-style band music. In these examples, musicians perform from printed music and attempt to recreate the composer’s intentions down to the most minute detail. The way this music was conceived, created, and performed revolves around the concept of the written “musical work,” which has been set in stone through the printed score.
But in recorded music, the role of the composer is reconceived when the “musical work” is a sound recording that also contains significant contributions from the performers, producers, and engineers.
Willa: That’s fascinating, Lisha, and it really is a very different way of thinking about a piece of music, isn’t it? In the classical model, you have the ideal vision of the piece as imagined by the composer and “set in stone” in his manuscript, as you said, and the goal of everyone after that is to try to stay true to that ideal.
The new model is not only more collaborative, as you said, but also much more fluid – perhaps too fluid, as we’ve seen with all the remixes lately – where songs are kind of a perpetual work in progress. I think it was Brad Sundberg who said that Michael Jackson would sometimes continue to make small modifications to his songs even after an album had been released, so one Dangerous album might have a slightly different version of “Black or White” than another one that came out just a few months earlier. And even songs where there is a fairly “definitive” version, like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” or “Billie Jean,” are sampled and integrated into new songs by other artists, so we can hear snippets or song shadows of them on the radio in different settings, leading us to think about them in new ways.
In other words, what I’m trying to get at is that in the new model, songs are not “set in stone” at all – they are constantly shape shifting.
Lisha: Yes, that’s definitely true, and this has created a lot of confusion in the area of intellectual property and determining who has the right to profit from a recording. But when you think about how much more sound information is contained in a musical recording as opposed to a sheet of printed music, in many ways the opposite is true. For example, I know far more about what Michael Jackson wanted “Billie Jean” to sound like than I know about what Beethoven wanted his music to sound like.
Willa: Well, that’s true, Lisha! Interesting – so music is more fixed in some ways, and more fluid in others.
Lisha: I also think classical music is not as fixed as most of us imagine. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which is featured at the beginning of “HIStory,” is a piece of music that has been reorchestrated numerous times. The version we hear on the recording is actually an arrangement or “remix” by Maurice Ravel! And over the years, musicians change their thinking about how composers like Beethoven should be performed, and debate the merits of many different performances.
But no one has to guess what Michael Jackson wanted to hear – we have a definitive record of it. And what would be the point in trying to replicate his recordings anyway? The record company is happy to manufacture as many copies as anyone would like to buy.
Willa: That’s certainly true. So this paradigm shift in how music is composed – from a model of a lone composer writing notes on paper to a very different model of a team of musicians and sound engineers working in a studio – that shift was facilitated by new technology, like Edison’s phonograph. But also by new production models, like Berry Gordy developed at Motown and Michael Jackson experienced from a young age. So if we look at “HIStory” the way you’re suggesting, Lisha, it makes perfect sense that Michael Jackson would place Beethoven, Edison, and Gordy in such prominent positions.
Lisha: It makes a lot of sense. Especially because the old paradigm currently still exists along with the new. It really hasn’t gone anywhere yet, though we see more and more signs of its decay. As far as I can tell, there is always a period of overlap between musical eras. It’s not that easy to define when one ends and the next one begins. I think it’s important to think about how we have historicized the past and how we will historicize our present moment in the future. After all, the concept of the album is HIStory: Past, Present and Future. I think Jackson could be advocating that as we historicize great music in the future, we don’t fall into the trap of preferencing “dead white men.” I concur!
Joie: Wow, you know, I’ve never thought about “HIStory” in terms of music before, if that makes any sense. I’ve always just thought about all those dates, and the enormity and importance of the game-changing, history-making events they represent.
But what you’re saying, Lisha, is that Michael actually used the song itself not only to highlight those history-making events, but also to make us aware of this great shift from the Classical music paradigm to the “new musicology,” as it were. And what better way of doing that than by pointing repeatedly to Berry Gordy, a man who took that new musicology and pretty much created a whole new genre and style of music. Ask almost anyone around the world and they can probably tell you what the Motown Sound is and who created it.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and he created an appreciation for “black music” around the world as well, and then helped break it out of that fairly segregated category, so black music and black artists became much more integrated into popular music generally.
And of course, we see that in Michael Jackson as well. He won one Grammy for Off the Wall: Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. R&B traditionally means “black music,” so he basically won an award for best “black music.” He was extremely upset about that and vowed his next album wouldn’t be ghettoized like that … and of course, his next album swept the Grammys. Thriller didn’t just win Best Album of the Year, it won six other Grammys as well. And it’s the biggest-selling album of all time, around the world, to many different races of people.
That leads into another important aspect of “HIStory” – that it also pays tribute to black artists, politicians, sports heroes, and other figures and shows the huge impact they’ve had on history – not just black history but human history. The roll call of important dates includes the birthdays of Martin Luther King, Daniel Hale Williams and Matthew Henson (I didn’t know who they were – I had to look them up), Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, as well as the day “Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger.” And the audio clips that form the sound “collages,” as you called them, Lisha, commemorate Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, Muhammad Ali proclaiming he is “the greatest of all time,” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Often black pioneers and historical events are relegated to “black history,” but Michael Jackson placed them front and center in his list of important dates, demonstrating that he sees them as a very important part of our history – the shared history of all of us. Anyone who thinks Michael Jackson forgot his roots or didn’t feel pride in his race needs to pay closer attention to “HIStory.”
Joie: Oh, don’t even go there, Willa! That is a whole other conversation that we could, and probably should, have someday. But you’re absolutely right in saying it.
Well, Willa and I want to thank Lisha again for joining us today. It’s always an interesting and thought-provoking conversation when you’re here! We also want to encourage readers to check out Lisha’s lyrics and sound collages in the Lyrics Library.
Willa: So this week Joie and I wanted to talk about a song that’s a favorite for both of us: “Whatever Happens” from the Invincible album. I was so glad you suggested it, Joie, because I absolutely love this song.
Joie: Now that’s really funny to me, Willa, because I remember you suggesting this song, not me. And when you did, I was really happy because it’s been one of my favorites from the start.
Willa: Really? I suggested it? Wow, Joie, I’m sorry – I have this middle-aged brain and it’s not always super reliable. I was sure you’d suggested it, and I remember being excited about it.… Anyway, I think I’ve told you this before, but after Michael Jackson died I played this song a lot. For some reason, it was really comforting to me, just hearing that beautiful voice sing, “Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand.”
Joie: Actually, I don’t think I knew that, but I can understand it perfectly.
Willa: Yeah, it’s like it conveyed something I really needed to hear right then. But I loved it even before he died. It tells a complicated story that isn’t resolved at the end, so it’s bittersweet, as many of his songs are. And you know, one thing that’s interesting about this song is that, in it, we see the intersection of two important themes for Michael Jackson. The first is the problem of communication between men and women, which runs throughout his songwriting – especially on the Invincible album. We talked about that a little bit during our month-long celebration of Invincible. And the other is the problem of work, and how crushing it can be to the spirit to work in an unfulfilling job.
Joie: Ok, first I want to say that I loved that month-long celebration of Invincible so much. Those posts are still some of my most favorite that we’ve ever done, and I know it’s because I just completely adore that album from start to finish!
But enough gushing … because you just said something that sort of puzzles me. I never think about the theme of working an unfulfilling job as a Michael Jackson staple. I’m probably going to be smacking my head in a moment, but besides “Working Day and Night” I can’t think of any song where this theme has played a major part, so please explain.
Willa: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a staple – it’s not something he focuses on in song after song, like he does with some other themes. But he does touch on it every so often, and he focuses on it pretty extensively in “Working Day and Night,” like you said, and in “Keep Your Head Up.” As he sings in the opening verse:
She’s working two jobs, keeping alive
She works in a restaurant night and day
She waits her life away
She wipes her tears away
It’s part of “Slave to the Rhythm” also, though there’s more going on than that. The main character isn’t just working in an unfulfilling job during the day. When she comes home at night she’s also slaving away for an unappreciative husband. And it’s central to “Whatever Happens,” of course.
Joie: Ok, I see what you mean now, and you’re right, it is a theme he touches on more than once.
Willa: And over a long period of time. “Working Day and Night” was released in 1979 and “Whatever Happens” in 2001. That’s more than two decades.
But you know, it’s really interesting to compare these two songs because they’re both addressing a similar scenario – a man toiling away in a dead-end job because of the woman he loves – but they couldn’t be more different. In “Working Day and Night,” his girlfriend is encouraging to him to put in the hours on that job because she wants his money. But the situation in “Whatever Happens” is much more subtle and much more complicated than that.
Joie: I agree that the situation in “Whatever Happens” is much more complicated than the high-maintenance girlfriend in “Working Day and Night.”
In “Whatever Happens” we are introduced to a couple in love – presumably a husband and wife – who obviously love and care very deeply about one another, but they are in the middle of a crisis of some type. And although we are never told exactly what the conflict is between them, we know immediately that it’s a pretty serious issue, as he sings in the opening verse:
He gives another smile
Tries to understand her side
To show that he cares
She can’t stay in the room
With everything that’s been going on
“Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand”
So right off the bat, he tells us that the man is trying very hard to understand her side of things, but the woman is so upset about the situation that she can’t even stay in the same room and discuss it. But at the same time, she begs him not to let go of her hand, no matter what.
Willa: What a terrible situation! And you’re right, Joie – she’s “so upset … she can’t even stay in the room to discuss it.” You know, as many times as I’ve listened to that song, I never got that before. But you’re right, she leaves the room when he tries to talk to her – and that’s really important because, whatever the crisis is, the real problem is that they can’t seem to talk about it. We see that in the second verse also:
“Everything will be all right,”
He assures her
But she doesn’t hear a word that he says
Afraid what they’ve been doing’s not right
He doesn’t know what to say
So he prays,
“Whatever, whatever, whatever
Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand”
So he tries to talk to her – tries to tell her “Everything will be all right” – but she either can’t or won’t listen to him: “she doesn’t hear a word that he says.” So by the end of the verse he seems to give up. Instead of talking to her, he’s praying.
They both really care about one another, obviously, and they don’t want to break up. The first verse ends with her saying “don’t let go of my hand,” as you said, Joie, and the second verse ends with him praying the exact same words. And by the end, in the ad libs, Michael Jackson is singing, “I said, yeah, don’t you let go, baby.” So the pronouns shift from “she says” to “he prays” to “I said.” I swear, someone could write a book simply about his use of pronouns, and how he’s constantly shifting point of view.
So we look at this situation from her perspective and his perspective, and they both truly want to be together, but you can just feel them tearing apart. It’s really tragic. Neither one wants it – we can see that very clearly – but they don’t seem to know how to stop it.
Joie: It does seem like a very heartbreaking song on some level, doesn’t it? And in the third verse we see that theme of working a dead-end job that you mentioned before when he says:
He’s working day and night
Thinks he’ll make her happy
Forgetting all the dreams that he had
He doesn’t realize
It’s not the end of the world
It doesn’t have to be that bad
She tries to explain,
“It’s you that makes me happy”
So here is where we see the main difference between this song and “Working Day and Night,” because unlike the girl who only wants his money, the woman in this song isn’t interested in the things the man’s money can buy her. Instead, she keeps trying to tell him that he is what makes her happy, not the money or the things, just being with him. But he doesn’t seem to understand this, and instead he’s focused on spending all of his time working to buy those “things” when he could be focusing on following the dreams he once had, and on the love that they presumably once shared.
Willa: Yes, though is he working just to buy extravagant things, or does his paycheck pay the rent? or the mortgage? or buy clothes for the kids? Just making ends meet can be really overwhelming when you’re on a tight budget – so overwhelming it’s hard to remember your dreams. And Michael Jackson seemed very aware of that fact – that, ironically, sometimes it’s the ones we love most who end up trapping us in an unfulfilling life. For example, he sings this in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”:
If you can’t feed your baby
Then don’t have a baby
And don’t think maybe
If you can’t feed your baby
You’ll be always trying
To stop that child from crying
Hustling, stealing, lying
Now baby’s slowly dying
So he’s telling this person that, if she has a baby she isn’t able to care for financially – at least not yet, not at this point in her life – then she could become trapped in a life of “hustling, stealing, lying” to try to support her child. We don’t know, but it could be kind of a similar situation in “Whatever Happens.” It could be the man in the story is giving up his dreams and working in a boring job because they really need the money.
Joie: Well, that’s certainly true, Willa. And I know from experience that men tend to internalize that kind of thing, and carry it around like they have the entire world sitting on their shoulders. They let it become their whole existence until they’re just crushed by the depression and the stress of trying to make ends meet. And I think you’re right, I believe that is what’s going on in this song, at least in part. And I feel like I identify with the woman in this song. I understand what she’s going through, trying to make him understand that worrying about the money – or lack thereof – is no way to live. They still have each other. They could still find a way to pursue their dreams and focus on the love they share, instead of always obsessing over the lack of money. It gets frustrating trying to keep a man in a positive frame of mind when money is extremely tight.
In fact, now that I think about it … I’m seeing that first verse a lot differently. When he says,
She can’t stay in the room
With everything that’s been going on
Before I said that she was so upset that she couldn’t even stay in the room and discuss their problems. But now, looking at this song in a new light, I think she can’t stay in the room not because she’s upset, but because she’s frustrated and angry. She feels like she’s beating her head against a brick wall trying to make him understand that their money problems are “not the end of the world.” And I think this interpretation is supported by that third verse you mentioned earlier.
Willa: Wow, Joie, that’s a really interesting way of approaching this – that it’s highlighting a cultural difference between men and women, and “that men tend to internalize that kind of thing, and carry it around like they have the entire world sitting on their shoulders.” That really jumped out at me when you said that because it ties in with something he expresses in “Working Day and Night”:
You say that working
Is what a man’s supposed to do
But I say it ain’t right
If I can’t give sweet love to you
I’m tired of thinking
Of what my life’s supposed to be
So he’s questioning that expectation that men are supposed to bury themselves in work and be the providers – which is a terrible burden, especially if they’re stuck in a job they don’t like. But many men do it because, as he says, “working / Is what a man’s supposed to do.”
Joie: It is a terrible burden, Willa. I’m sure we can all relate to working a job that we hated at some point in our lives. If we’re lucky, that happens at the start of our adult lives when we’re young, and then we go on to discover what it is that we really love to do and are able to transition into a job that we enjoy. But for many people it doesn’t always happen that way, and it’s unfortunate. And it can cause some really distressing issues in our personal lives. In fact, it could even be detrimental to our health, both physically and emotionally.
Willa: That’s true, or even change our personalities to some extent. Our dreams are a big part of us, of who we are. They help define us. If we give up our dreams, we lose that part of ourselves, and it changes us.
Joie: That’s very true, Willa.
Willa: So the woman in “Whatever Happens,” she obviously loves this man – a man who had dreams – but now he’s giving up those dreams, so he’s not quite the same person she fell in love with. But he’s making that sacrifice for her, or thinks he is. As the narrator sings in the last verse you quoted, Joie, “He’s working day and night / Thinks he’ll make her happy / Forgetting all the dreams that he had.” But she doesn’t want him to give up his dreams.
Joie: No, she doesn’t. And she keeps trying to explain that to him, but he’s not getting it because all he can see are their money issues.
Willa: It does seem that way, doesn’t it? Though the song begins with the lines “He gives another smile / Tries to understand her side / To show that he cares,” as you quoted earlier. So he’s trying to see things from her perspective. But he doesn’t seem able to, and she doesn’t understand him either – can’t even listen to him – so they’re both really frustrated.
It’s a really complicated situation, and you can genuinely feel for both sides. This is not a simple story of a good guy and an uncaring woman taking advantage of him, which seems to be the situation in “Working Day and Night,” or a good woman and an uncaring man taking her for granted, which is what we see in “Slave to the Rhythm.” Rather, it’s a much more complicated story that explores all the conflicting emotions of two people who love each other deeply and want what’s best for the person they love – they truly want to make each other happy – but they can’t understand each other, can’t even see what the other person really wants and needs. So they’re pulling against each other and struggling to resolve it without tearing themselves apart.
You know, Joie, actually, thinking about all this … I’m thinking maybe you’re right – maybe I did suggest this song. I know I was thinking about it quite a bit while we were doing our last post on “Someone Put Your Hand Out” – specifically, when we were talking about that line that refers to “handicapped emotions.” There were quite a few people – even people who seemed to genuinely like Michael Jackson – who suggested he was in a state of arrested development. Specifically, they seemed to think that because he maintained a childlike wonder, he never matured psychologically beyond the level of a child.
For example, here’s an interview with John Landis, and it’s obvious he feels great affection for Michael Jackson. But he also says he was like “an incredibly gifted 10 year old” and that he was “emotionally stunted”:
I have such mixed reactions watching this. I have some good feelings for him because he clearly cared about Michael Jackson and is very upset that he’s gone, but I’m also just stunned at some of the things he says. I mean, John Landis is known for creating adolescent comedies like Animal House and American Werewolf in London, and there are some funny scenes, but have you seen Kentucky Fried Movie? I hate to be critical, but my goodness … talk about juvenile …
Joie: I don’t know, Willa, I think it’s a really nice interview. I think we get to see John just being John, and I love the fact that he gets emotional and doesn’t try to hide it or explain it away. He talks about Michael wearing his heart on his sleeve, and yet here he is wiping tears because his friend is gone.
Willa: That’s true.
Joie: And yes, I have seen Kentucky Fried Movie, and Animal House, both of which I find very juvenile. But I’ve always loved An American Werewolf, so I understand what you’re saying, but I think what he’s getting at is that Michael wasn’t so much “juvenile” as he was “childlike.” You know there’s a difference between movies with juvenile humor and movies with childlike charm. One is very immature jokes with sexual connotations while the other is sweet, innocent fun and adventure. So when he calls Michael a “really talented 10 year old,” to me he’s saying that Michael had a very “childlike” nature and thought process.
Willa: Yes, but he also says he was “emotionally stunted” and “had all kinds of issues.” I haven’t seen all of John Landis’ movies by any means, but as far as I know he never created anything as emotionally complex as “Whatever Happens.” I mean, he’s a professional filmmaker, but has he ever made a film with the emotional depth or nuance of Billie Jean or Smooth Criminal or Stranger in Moscow? Or what about the profound psychological insights of Ghosts – or Thriller, for that matter? He directed Thriller, but whenever he talks about it he doesn’t seem to realize it’s anything more than a cheesy monster movie. And yet he describes Michael Jackson as a “gifted 10 year old.” How is that possible, that the man who created Kentucky Fried Movie calls the man who created “Whatever Happens” – a poignant, exquisite song that explores the heartbreak of two adults struggling through painful, difficult emotions – “emotionally stunted”? That just feels completely backwards to me.
Joie: Well, I haven’t seen all of his films either, but I have seen several. And while I agree completely that we wouldn’t normally think of someone who is labeled as “emotionally stunted” as being able to create works so emotionally complex as “Whatever Happens,” “Billie Jean” or “Stranger in Moscow,” I would argue that John Landis is actually brilliant at what he does. You know, everybody thinks that comedy is easy and horror always gets a bad rap … but there is actually a great deal of skill and mastery needed to scare people half to death or make them laugh, and do both in really intelligent – or juvenile – ways. I mean, they may not have been Oscar contenders, but John Landis is responsible for some of the most iconic films in our culture. You named two of them: Animal House and An American Werewolf in London. But there are others too, like The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and Coming to America. All five of those films are beloved by millions of people.
And, Willa … I stand by what I said in our last post on “Someone Put Your Hand Out.” I believe that Michael did have what he himself called “handicapped emotions” in that song. I believe that he was able to express himself so beautifully in song, with lyrics that were poignant and full of complex emotional depth and “profound psychological insights.” But I also believe that on some level, at the very core of who he was, Michael was, if not “emotionally stunted,” emotionally handicapped.
You have to think about how he grew up. He had a childhood that not many of us could ever truly comprehend. He was never allowed to really play or interact with other children his age because he was always working. Always being groomed to think about work, to think about how he was perceived by the audience, and how to make the performance better. That was his life from age three. He didn’t learn things like how to properly interact with others his age. He didn’t learn the normal social cues that other children learn at the various life stages. Willa, there is a reason why he never had a “normal” courtship or married life with either of his two wives, and there are lots of quotes out there from people who believe that Michael was sort of an asexual being. Well, I can’t speak on that, but I do believe that he was simply unable to express that kind of real feeling or emotion unless it was in a song, or in a video, or on a stage. I believe that unless it had to do with a performance, it just wasn’t in his repertoire. The performance was his life. His life was the performance. So, in that sense, I think the term “emotionally stunted” is accurate.
Willa: Wow, Joie, I’m astonished. I guess this is one of those areas where we’re just going to have to agree to disagree, because I disagree completely. I have a lot of friends who are not coupled up in long-term relationships, and there is absolutely nothing “emotionally handicapped” about them. Things just didn’t work out that way for them, or they chose not to live that way. But I disagree that says anything about them psychologically, and I also disagree with the assumption that if people aren’t coupled up then that’s evidence there’s something wrong with them.
In fact, I think that assumption is really dangerous, and one of the biases Michael Jackson had to fight against. I think a lot of people assumed there was something wrong with him, and that maybe he really was a pedophile, simply because he wasn’t married or have a long-term girlfriend. And I think he understood that. As the Mayor tells the Maestro in Ghosts, “You’re weird, you’re strange, and I don’t like you. You’re scaring these kids, living up here all alone.” I think the Mayor is simply echoing what a lot of people were saying about Michael Jackson back then – that he was “weird” and “strange” and scary simply because he lived alone.
By the way, it’s interesting how the Maestro responds to the Mayor in Ghosts. He says, “I’m not alone” and then brings a host of fantasy people to life, so the townspeople can see the figures who have been populating his imagination. In other words, he’s not alone because of his art, and his life is full because of his art.
Joie: I think you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not saying that because he wasn’t in a long-term relationship that something must have been wrong with him. In fact, I shouldn’t have even brought up his romantic relationships at all, but I was attempting to illustrate my point. A point which you ignored completely in your rush to defend how he lived his life. But you’re right in saying it’s dangerous to make assumptions about a person’s psychological makeup by looking at their relationship status – and that’s not what I was doing. I’m sorry if it came off that way.
Willa: I’m sorry, Joie. I guess I did misunderstand you. I should have asked you to clarify, rather than jumping in and preaching you a sermon. I’m sorry about that.
Joie: Well, that’s ok. But the point I was trying to make is that Michael didn’t grow up like other kids. He didn’t spend time with other kids his age – at any age! Besides his brothers, he was always in the company of adults, talking about adult things like work and how to do the work better, and how to become the best at it. He never had a chance to learn all of the subtle, nuanced social cues that most 5 year olds learn from other 5 year olds. Or the ones that 8 year olds learn from other 8 year olds. Or the ones that 12 year olds learn from other 12 year olds, and so on, and so on, and so on. So, in that sense, he was emotionally, and socially, stunted.
Willa: Well, I think I have a better idea now of what you mean, Joie, and you’re right – I don’t think anyone else has ever had a childhood like he had. Not only was he a child star, but he was put in the difficult role of being a representative of black America when he was only 10 years old. If he did something wrong, it wasn’t just damaging to him and his reputation – it also reflected badly on an entire race of people. That’s a huge additional pressure – something Shirley Temple and Elizabeth Taylor and Justin Bieber never had to think about. That pressure only intensified as their success – the success of the Jackson 5 and him personally – grew, and he had a very controlling father who was determined his sons weren’t going to mess up. As you said, Joie, it’s hard to even imagine what that was like – what his childhood was like. But while I agree he had an extremely difficult childhood, and it must have had an effect on him, I still disagree that he was left “emotionally stunted” because of all that.
Joie: Well, that’s ok too. It’s ok to disagree about things. But I think something you just said sort makes my point for me. In talking about Ghosts, you said, “He says, ‘I’m not alone’ and then brings a host of fantasy people to life, so the townspeople can see the figures who have been populating his imagination. In other words, he’s not alone because of his art, and his life is full because of his art.” This is exactly what I meant when I said that the performance was his life, and his life was the performance. That’s what it was all about for him, and yes, he lived a beautiful and fulfilled life because of it. But, Willa … someone who lives their life completely inside their own imagination is by definition socially – and therefore emotionally – stunted to some degree.
Willa: I think I see what you’re saying, and I agree that in a lot of ways “the performance was his life, and his life was the performance,” as you said. Especially after the 1993 allegations, his life and his art became intertwined in ways that are hard to untangle. But I don’t think he lived his life entirely in his imagination. His imagination enriched his life – and ours as well – but it didn’t replace his life. That wasn’t what I meant when I quoted that scene from Ghosts.
I think that, because of his art, Michael Jackson had a rich, full, rewarding life – he had a kind of emotional self-sufficiency that we aren’t really used to – but he also repeatedly emphasized the connections between us, and how important it is to honor those connections. That’s a different way of being in the world – one that I find both intriguing and inspiring.
It seems to me that a lot of times people are kind of desperate to couple up because they’re lonely or because there’s an emptiness in their lives, and they think sharing their life with someone else will make that loneliness and emptiness go away. We like the romance story where two incomplete people meet and complete each other – where two halves come together and, between them, form a whole – and where everything else is sacrificed to the ideal of romantic love. But ironically, I think this can actually lead us to be “emotionally stunted,” to use John Landis’ words, because in that model we only learn to be half of a whole, not a fulfilled, self-realized person on our own. We see that a little bit in “Whatever Happens,” where this man is limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams to be what he thinks the woman he loves wants him to be.
On the other hand, in America, especially, we have the story of the rugged individual – the loner, the cowboy, the tough-as-nails private investigator – who doesn’t need anyone, and doesn’t really connect with anyone. That’s subtly suggested in “Whatever Happens” also, by the genre of this song. The beginning, especially, sounds like a western. I can easily imagine that intro being used as the soundtrack to a Clint Eastwood movie – one where the mysterious hero rides into town alone, rescues a girl (who inevitably falls in love with him, and just as inevitably dies), gets rid of the bad guys, and then rides off alone.
Those are two competing cultural narratives, and most people pick one or the other. They’re either the rugged individualist or the hopeless romantic. But Michael Jackson is subtly critiquing both of those models, I think – not just here but repeatedly in his art – and he seems to be working toward a different model. It’s one where we find fulfillment within ourselves – something he found through his art – but where we still care deeply for others and value the connections between us.
Joie: Well, I disagree with some of what you’ve said here about romantic love, but mostly I disagree that the man in “Whatever Happens” is limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams to be what he thinks his woman wants him to be. I think he’s limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams because he feels he has no choice financially. He has a family to provide for, and being emotionally stunted by romantic love has nothing to do with that. I’m also not sure I agree that most people choose one or the other between those two cultural narratives you just described. I think it’s possible for a person to be both. But I understand what you’re getting at where Michael is concerned.
Willa: Well, you’re right that I’m talking about these as models, so they’re an extreme. As with any model, few people fit them entirely. Few people are a Clint Eastwood character – the self-reliant individual who doesn’t need anyone, and doesn’t want anyone dependent on them. And on the other hand, few live the romantic ideal we see on screen so often where a person is really only half of a couple, and their sole source of happiness comes from the love they share with their romantic partner.
But I do think that, in general, people tend to see themselves as one or the other – as an autonomous individual or as defined in large part by their relationships. And as with so many dichotomies, Michael Jackson seems to be suggesting a different way. He’s not dependent on others for fulfilment – he finds that within himself through his art. But then he shares that with others, and the connections he feels through his art – to his audience, to the long line of performers who came before him, to the deep rhythms of the cosmos that he talks about in Dancing the Dream – are integral to who he is. As the song says, “You’re Just Another Part of Me.”
So before we go, I wanted to mention a new book that just came out – or actually, Book One of a trilogy. It’s The Algorithm of Desire by Eleanor Bowman, a regular contributor here. In fact, she discussed some of the ideas she was working on for her book in a post with us last spring. To quote Eleanor,
Book One … investigates the role of creation myths in the construction of a society’s perception of reality, how creation myths program a society’s views and values of the world, and how a culture’s worldview and value system promote, or threaten, collective survival.
Eleanor’s ideas are fascinating, and Book Three of her trilogy focuses on Michael Jackson. As she says, he “not only understood the predicament we find ourselves in, but showed us how to ‘heal the world.’” I’m really looking forward to that.
Book One of the trilogy is available now through Amazon, and Eleanor is offering it for free from May 8th through 12th.
Joie: You know, Willa, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Michael’s unreleased songs. Actually, that’s something I tend to think about a lot. And that rumored vault that is said to exist somewhere with hundreds of songs in various stages of completion. Doesn’t that thought just blow your mind? To think that that could be true?
Willa: It does, and I think it is true. Joe Vogel has conducted dozens of interviews with people who worked on those songs, and apparently there’s an intriguing variety of styles and genres – not just the many different styles we’ve seen Michael Jackson work in before, but also some country, some lullabies, even an album of classical music he composed.
Joie: Well, you know they recently announced the release of a new album, Xscape. And supposedly it’s going to be all new music that we’ve never heard before. Or, I should say music that hasn’t previously been released on a proper album, since some of us have gotten pretty good over the years at snatching songs when they’re leaked online. So since the title of this new project is called Xscape, I’m guessing there’s a good chance that song will be on the album.
Willa: Yes, I’ve heard it will be on there. In fact, if you get the two-CD set there will be two versions: the one MJ created with Rodney Jerkins before he died and one that has been “contemporized” by Jerkins.
Joie: I can’t help wondering though what some of the others might be.
Willa: Me too. I’ve been looking for an official track list but haven’t found one yet, though I’ve found several unofficial ones. I imagine they’ll release the official one soon. And apparently all of the songs on Xscape will be presented twice, with the “contemporized” versions on one CD and the source material that Michael Jackson left behind on the other. I was really happy to hear that, especially after all the controversy around Michael. In fact, I wish they would release a two-CD version of Michael that included the source material for those songs. I’d love to hear that!
Joie: I’m excited to see what they do with this new release, but thinking about the upcoming album only gives me the urge to go to my playlist of unreleased music. There are so many wonderful songs on there that may or may not ever see a proper release on a real album. But there are also a few that have finally been released, just maybe not here in the US. Or they were released as part of an anthology, like The Ultimate Collection boxed set.
One such song is “Someone Put Your Hand Out.” And I don’t think we’ve ever talked about that one before, but it is a hauntingly beautiful song that I feel Michael really pours his heart out on.
Willa: Oh, I agree. This song feels intensely personal to me. In fact, I feel kind of guilty listening to it – almost like I’m reading his diary or something.
Joie: Yes, it does feel incredibly personal, doesn’t it? Like he’s baring his soul to us. The lyrics are very simple, but so very intimate, and you get the feeling that he really is begging, as he says in the chorus:
Someone put your hand out
I’m begging for your love
‘Cause all I do is hand out
A heart that needs your love
It’s as if he’s reaching out for someone, anyone, to save him. And I always find myself wondering what it is exactly that he’s wanting to be saved or rescued from. As he says in the fourth verse, “Save me now from the path that I’m on.” What does he mean by that? What does he want to be saved from?
Listening to the song in its entirety, you get the feeling that he’s referring to the loneliness. But given the way he died, it makes you wonder if perhaps he was talking about something else. Of course, I’m a firm believer that loneliness was a major factor, or cause, of his other issues.
Willa: You’re right, Joie – he does seem to be asking for someone to both love him and save him from something. It’s not exactly clear what the problem is, but it does seem to be loneliness plus something more, as you said. He talks about that a bit in the verse that follows the chorus:
I’ve lived my life the lonely
A soul that cries of shame
With handicapped emotions
Save me now from what still remains
You know, it’s not clear who the speaker is in this song. Michael Jackson often adopted a persona in his songs, so he could be speaking in the character of a fictional person. Because this song feels so very personal, it’s tempting to assume it’s Michael Jackson himself, which we probably shouldn’t do. But if he is speaking his own true feelings in this song, then this verse is really troubling to me. Did he honestly believe he had “handicapped emotions”? Did he feel a sense of “shame” because of that – because he thought he couldn’t feel or express emotions the way he should? Is he asking someone to not only love him but teach him how to love?
Joie: Wow, Willa, that’s profound – teach him how to love. That never occurred to me, but you could be right. I believe he probably did feel as though he had “handicapped emotions.”
Willa: Really? Because I’d never considered that before. I mean, there were quite a few people making hurtful comments after the 1993 allegations came out, saying that he was a regressed 12-year-old – meaning they felt he couldn’t really relate to adults because he’d never developed psychologically beyond a 12-year-old level. And I always strongly, strongly disagreed with that. I mean, just look at the psychological complexity of his work, and how emotionally rich it is. That is not the work of a 12 year old. In fact, I would say his work reveals a rare sensitivity and maturity.
So I never accepted the idea that he had “handicapped emotions,” and I would never have dreamed he might feel that way about himself. Though again, he may be speaking in character when he says this, and not speaking as himself.
But you know, it does seem to me that almost everyone he met felt this longing to be validated by him – or more than that, to be fulfilled by him. It’s like they wanted him to fill up any empty places they felt in their lives. Everywhere he went there were all these grasping hands, not just wanting his money but wanting him. And he couldn’t fulfill all their desires – he couldn’t parcel himself out to millions of different people. And I wonder if that’s part of it – if he felt inadequate somehow because he wasn’t able to meet the emotional demands being placed on him by everyone he met.
Joie: Perhaps he felt like he was unable to express a true emotion unless it was written in a song. That’s sort of crazy to think about, isn’t it?
Willa: It is, but it makes sense. In fact, he kind of suggests that in these lyrics:
I’ll be your story hero
A serenading rhyme
I’m just needing that someone
Save me now from the path I’m on
It’s almost like he’s saying that when he engages in romance, he’s just playing a role – a role he’s performed on stage for years: “I’ll be your story hero / A serenading rhyme.” And he’s asking for someone to save him from simply acting that role and allow him to actually feel it.
You know, there’s a kind of distancing that happens when you sublimate your experiences into art. I’ve heard photographers talk about that quite a bit. If you’re a photographer and find yourself plunged in a profound cultural moment, what should you do? Should you distance yourself emotionally, look at it with a photographer’s eye, and document it? Or should you put the camera down and experience it? I can see how Michael Jackson might have encountered that dilemma also, since so much of his work comes from his own experiences – like this song, for example. It feels intensely personal, as you said earlier.
Joie: I think I see what you mean, Willa. You’re wondering if perhaps he ever asked himself that question – should I “document” this deeply personal life experience, or should I just experience and process it and keep it to myself?
Willa: Yes, that’s what I mean.
Joie: That’s an interesting question.
Willa: It is. You know, Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, was thrown into the dungeon of Chillon Castle in Switzerland for having an affair with a man from a lower social class than himself – and the class difference was an important part of why he was imprisoned. The lower classes were seen as less sophisticated and more innocent than the upper classes, so having a homosexual relationship with a lower-class man was very disturbing back then – kind of like corrupting a minor is seen today.
Anyway, I’m sure it was pretty uncomfortable being imprisoned in a dungeon, but Byron drew on his experiences for a poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon,” and I get the feeling he thought it was rather romantic for a poet to be imprisoned in a dungeon. Very Gothic. He even carved his name into one of the pillars in the dungeon to memorialize his stay. I visited there one time and saw it. So instead of seeing his imprisonment simply as a hardship, I think he saw it as good background material for his poetry.
So I’ve kind of wandered around a bit, but what I’m trying to say is that using your life experiences as source material for your art can actually change how you relate to those experiences, I think.
Joie: I agree, and I think probably most artists draw on their own personal life experiences more often than we know.
But getting back to the song, you know, not much is known about it in terms of the inspiration for it or the writing of it, except that it was originally written for the Bad album, and then reworked for the Dangerous album. It failed to make it onto either one, but it was eventually released in the UK/Europe in May of 1992 as a Pepsi exclusive cassette single to promote the Dangerous Tour. They were included in a promotional package along with a poster, a giant sticker, and a press file about the tour. It was also released in Japan as a CD single.
Years later it would finally see a proper US release when it was included on The Ultimate Collection boxed set in 2004. And according to Chris Cadman and Craig Halstead’s book, Michael Jackson: For the Record, it was sampled by Ludacris on the track “One More Drink” from his Theater of the Mind album.
Willa: That’s interesting, Joie. I knew it was on the shortlist for Dangerous and then was left off, but didn’t know it was originally written for Bad. So he was still fairly young when he wrote it … I wonder if his feelings changed as he got older?
You know, one thing that strikes me about this song is that the intro is spoken in a deep voice – quiet but deep, much lower than we’re used to hearing his voice – but then the rest is sung in a high voice, what many people would call falsetto. That’s very unusual. Typically, he’ll include high parts as accents, or to evoke a specific emotion at a certain point in the narrative. I’m thinking specifically of that high interlude in “Smooth Criminal” – the “I don’t know … I don’t know … I don’t know why” part that I love so much. But here, the entire song is sung in his higher range. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another song where he does that.
I was reading an interesting article not too long ago that might help explain this – why he uses his high voice so extensively here. It’s “The Nonsensical Truth of the Falsetto Voice: Listening to Sigur Rós” by Edward D. Miller, and he makes a number of intriguing claims. For example, he says “soul/funk singers such as Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Curtis Mayfield sang in falsetto and expressed emotions of love, longing, sexual desire, and political discontent.” He goes on to say that male soul and R&B singers, as well “virile” rock singers like Mick Jagger and Robert Plant, tend to use falsetto, specifically, when they want to express a sense of “longing” or “a dramatic tenderness” or “moments of great passion.”
If that’s true, it makes sense that in a song where the main character expresses intense “longing” for someone to love, Michael Jackson would sing in falsetto.
Joie: Hmm. That’s interesting, isn’t it?
Willa: It is. It also makes me wonder about the contrast between his unusually low spoken voice in the intro and his high singing voice throughout the rest of the song. I wonder if, at some level, it suggests a contrast between his inner life and outer life.
What I mean is that in the intro we hear his everyday world – his spoken life – and he speaks with a normal voice and seems content. (And sounds unbelievably hot, I might add … Yow.) But then we enter his inner world – his singing life – and there’s this high urgent voice expressing unfulfilled desire, a longing to love and be loved. So maybe this contrast between his low spoken voice and his high singing voice represents a disparity between how he feels inside and how he appears to others. As he sings in the opening lines, “I live this life pretending / I can bear this hurt deep inside.”
Joie: That actually makes a lot of sense, Willa. Especially since by many accounts from those closest to him, his natural, everyday speaking voice was at least an octave or two lower than the world seemed to think it was.
Willa: That’s interesting, Joie, especially since many critics – male critics, especially – mocked him for his public speaking voice. Miller kind of suggests a reason for that also. In his article, he claims there is nothing “false” about the falsetto. He believes the notion that it is not an authentic male voice arises from cultural ideas about gender identity, not anything biological about male vocal cords. As he says in his article,
when the male is using this range, he is confusing gender distinctions. He is entering into tonalities usually designated for women and mimicking a range attributed to women. But the falsettist is not authentically female. It is a form of drag: a vocal masquerade. In this way, the falsetto voice challenges the authenticity of gender-assigned voices. When voices are so strictly assigned to particular bodies, the falsetto becomes transgendered – it moves between binaries of male and female.
I thought this might help explain some of the discomfort male critics, especially, seemed to feel toward Michael Jackson – that it wasn’t just his appearance that crossed boundaries, but his voice as well.
But then Miller undercuts this with a very odd footnote:
One is duty bound from the get-go to acknowledge Michael Jackson. He uses his falsetto range expertly in often a hiccupping fashion, and yes he does appear to be quite bizarre – of course for complicated reasons, mainstream media searches for ways to display his racial/sexual weirdness and to ensure that his status is as monstrous as his role in the video Thriller.
I don’t quite know how to interpret this. It’s Miller’s only footnote, and his only mention of Michael Jackson, and it seems really out of place here – especially in an academic article. It’s almost like Miller is criticizing those who are uncomfortable with falsetto voices, claiming they are falling victim to a cultural bias, but then he adds this footnote that suggests he himself feels a degree of discomfort with Michael Jackson, whom he acknowledges “uses his falsetto range expertly.” I don’t quite know what to make of it, though I think his comment about the media is pretty insightful – especially since this article was published in 2003, before Michael Jackson died and public attitudes about him began to soften and change.
Joie: Well, that is strange. But when reading the first quote here, the only thing that comes to my mind is why is it such a big deal? Why is it odd or “confusing gender distinctions” for a male singer to take full advantage of his entire vocal range? Why does it have to be a case of “entering tonalities usually designated for women”? Especially since so many male singers use the falsetto so often. You would think it would no longer be looked at as “mimicking a range attributed to women,” but simply as part of the natural male vocal range. You know, sometimes I honestly believe that some people think about things too much. Do you know what I mean?
Willa: Ha! That’s funny, Joie. You’re right, academics do tend to think about things a lot, and maybe read too much into things sometimes. But except for that unfortunate footnote, I think Miller is really onto something when he talks about the gendering of voices – and he means that in an expansive way, encompassing all the things we’re taught about what it means to be masculine or be feminine. As he says,
In most cultural understandings of the voice, high notes signify passion and evoke drama and excitement for the listener. The falsetto voice does not mimic the female one, but it grants an expressivity to male singers, allowing them to articulate and communicate a frenzy of precise emotions to the auditor. If this is confusing to gender normatives, it is because the male is taught restraint. Thus he must move beyond his “real” voice to his “false” one to express real emotion.
I was really intrigued by this. If I’m interpreting this correctly, that high voice that Michael Jackson uses so beautifully to evoke intense emotions may be seen as feminine not only because it’s so high but precisely because it’s so emotional, and because we as a culture are uncomfortable with emotional men. As Miller says, “the male is taught restraint.”
This puts male singers in a bind since one of the primary goals of singing is to express emotion. But to do that, they have to enter the realm of the feminine – what we falsely call feminine – both vocally and emotionally.
And that reminds me again of the line from “Someone Put Your Hand Out” about “handicapped emotions.” How ironic that Michael Jackson may have felt a sense of “shame” because he thought he wasn’t emotional enough, or fully capable of emotions, when perhaps he was actually perceived – and criticized – for being too emotional. Or that he may have thought he couldn’t express his emotions fully enough, when few people could express their emotions half as well as he did.
Joie: That is interesting. But it’s sort of like when you hear artists – and Michael was one of them – who say that they are extremely introverted, especially in one-on-one situations, and yet they feel perfectly comfortable getting on stage in front of millions. He expressed a wealth of emotions so freely and so well when it was in song or on stage or on a video. But this extremely personal song is telling us that he feels his emotions are “handicapped.” It’s an interesting paradox.
Willa: It is and, Joie, I think you’ve put your finger on something really important. It’s like he says in Moonwalk: “The things I share with millions of people aren’t the sort of things you share with one.”
Joie: You know, Willa … you might think I’m crazy for what I’m about to say here, but this song reminds me quite a bit of another deeply personal Michael Jackson song – “Stranger In Moscow.” They have a very similar feel to them, and they evoke a similar emotion in me. I mean, think about the chorus from each song:
Someone put your hand out
I’m begging for your love
‘Cause all I do is hand out
A heart that needs your love
How does it feel (How does it feel)
How does it feel
How does it feel
When you’re alone
And you’re cold inside
To me, both of these songs are about the same thing. They both suggest that he almost felt trapped by this crushing sense of “aloneness,” if that makes any sense. They’re both so forlorn, do you know what I mean?
Willa: Wow, Joie, that’s interesting because these songs seem very different to me. Hmmm … I’m going to have to think about that … I see what you mean that they’re both about isolation and loneliness, but why do they feel so different to me?
I wonder if it gets back to that idea of public and private that we were talking about earlier. To me, “Someone Put Your Hand Out” is talking about his private life, and how he would like to have someone share his inner life with him. But to me, “Stranger in Moscow” is about something a little different – about his “swift and sudden fall from grace” and what it feels like to be a social outcast.
But that’s not quite right, because “Stranger in Moscow” then asks us to imagine “how does it feel” to be in that situation, to be a social pariah. As you quoted from the chorus, “How does it feel / When you’re alone / And you’re cold inside?” So he’s merging the public and private and asking us to imagine what his private life was like after his public life fell to ruins. So yeah, Joie, I think I see what you’re saying. That’s really interesting. I don’t think I would have put those two together on my own.
Joie: I don’t know that I ever would have either if I hadn’t been thinking about how the song made me feel, but it’s an interesting comparison, I think. And it brings to mind your earlier question when you said that you wonder if his feelings changed as he got older. I know there were different and pretty serious circumstances going on at the time he wrote “Stranger In Moscow,” but just from the feeling of the two songs I would say the answer to that question was no.
Willa: Well, you’re right, Joie – his circumstances changed a lot. I mean, if he felt isolated in the 1980s when he wrote “Someone Put Your Hand Out,” imagine how he felt in the 1990s after the scandal broke. So I’m sure that in some ways his feelings of loneliness actually intensified.
But you know, in other ways the scandals seemed to make him a lot stronger, even more determined and sure of himself. So I wonder if he would still talk about the “shame” of “handicapped emotions” toward the end of his life? Judging from his work I don’t think so, but it’s hard to say. And it’s hard to know if he was even talking about himself in “Someone Put Your Hand Out,” or speaking in character. And it’s hard to know how much might have been attributable to the specific circumstances he was in.
Joie: That’s very true. But whatever motivated him to write this incredibly beautiful, intensely personal song, I’m grateful that he chose to share it with the world because it’s always been one of my favorites.
Willa: A few weeks ago, Lisha McDuff and Harriet Manning joined me for a very interesting discussion about Harriet’s new book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask. In fact, it was so interesting we couldn’t stop! We continued our discussion through email even after the post went up, and in the course of those emails Harriet suggested a fascinating idea:
Perhaps, because racial identity by appearance is still so fundamental to our perception of others, racial facial features (in Michael Jackson’s case, skin colour and nose shape) are processed by our brains as being “bigger,” more all-encompassing than they actually are. So, even when a face has otherwise not changed much, if these particular features – these strong racial signs – are altered, the perception is that the whole face has radically changed, when in fact it has not.
Lisha and I were both blown away by this, and now we’re all itching to talk about it. Harriet, I really think you’re onto something important here. Thank you both so much for reconvening to talk this over!
Harriet: You are very welcome, Willa, but it was born out of all our thoughts, so a group effort!
Willa: You know, this idea reminds me of a book I read a long time ago – like 25 years ago, so I may not be remembering it exactly right – but I was totally fascinated by it. It’s called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. According to Edwards, most adults can’t draw very well, but it isn’t a skill problem – meaning, an inability to draw lines on paper. It’s a perception problem. Her theory is that most adults have the skills we need to be able to draw very well, but ironically our knowledge of the world gets in the way.
For example, she says if you give an adult a photograph and ask them to draw that image, most draw something pretty amateurish and not very accurate. But if you turn the same photograph upside down and ask them to draw it, they do much better. In fact, most can draw it fairly well.
Lisha: I read that same book many years ago too, Willa, and that’s exactly the way I remember it as well. I always wished I had a little more time to spend on the drawing exercises in the book. Apparently the drawing isn’t really the difficult part. It’s the seeing that is really hard to do.
Willa: Exactly! She says the problem is that most of us don’t really look at the world around us – or in this case, the image on the photograph. We look just long enough to label it – oh, that’s a face or a chair or a cat – and then we try to draw our idea of what a face or chair or cat looks like. We think we’re drawing what we see, but we aren’t. We’re drawing what’s in our mind’s eye instead.
But most of us don’t have a mental image of what an upside-down face or chair or cat looks like, so when we try to draw the image that way, we’re forced to actually look at what’s in front of us and draw the shapes and lines the way they actually appear on the photograph. So our ability to sketch the image on paper is much better – sometimes astonishingly better.
Lisha: Amazing, isn’t it?
Willa: It really is, and like you I’d love to spend some time working through her exercises. Anyway, I wonder if something similar was happening with public perceptions of Michael Jackson’s face. We tend to look at a face just long enough to categorize it – oh, that face is black/white/Asian, young/old, male/female, handsome/not handsome – and then once we’ve categorized it we don’t really look at it anymore. We think we are, but we aren’t. We’re just looking at it long enough to label it. And as you pointed out, Harriet, some signifiers are more important than others in determining those labels: for example, the color of your skin, the shape of your eyes and nose, the color and texture of your hair, the length of your eyelashes, the color of your lips.
Harriet: Yes, “important” because dominant culture (from which we take our cues) has defined certain features as such in its constructions of race and gender.
Willa: That’s an important point, Harriet. They are just social constructs – or social “conditioning” as Michael Jackson would say. But even though they’re “just” constructs, they’re still very powerful. We can see how powerful they are by looking at how people read and respond to Michael Jackson’s face.
When he was young, people would look at his face just long enough to label it (young, black, male) and then would only see the labels, not his actual face – which as Betty Edwards suggests is fairly typical. But when he began altering some of the signifiers we use to determine those labels, people would think “young,” “black,” “male,” but his face didn’t really fit those labels anymore. It set up a dissonance between what we saw and the labels we had stored in our heads. So as you suggested in your email, Harriet, this caused people to think his face had radically changed when it hadn’t. It was actually the way we interpret his face that had changed, not his face itself.
Lisha: That was certainly true for me back in the 80s as a non-fan. I remember when photos from the Victory tour hit the newsstands, it was really hard to believe that was actually Michael Jackson – he looked like a totally different person to me. I had to really study the photos to see it was him, especially since I had missed the Off The Wall era. The shape of his nose and his skin color had changed a bit – no doubt about it – but what I remember most is how the new, thinner eyebrows threw me. I don’t think I could rectify the image of a good looking black male with feminine, old-fashioned Hollywood arched eyebrows and makeup. At the time it was fashionable for women to have full eyebrows and very natural looking faces, like Brooke Shields. So, it was startling and confusing to see this. It was amazing how these details changed the way I interpreted his entire face – to the point he was unrecognizable.
This is what Michael Jackson looked like in my mind’s eye back in the early 80s, and this is what he looked like in Victory tour photos:
Willa: Those are great examples, Lisha, and I know what you mean. I’ve experienced that too – of doing something of a double take when he came out with a new look, like for Thriller or Bad or Dangerous or HIStory … It seems like he unveiled a new look for each album. And sometimes it was a radically different look, altering his image at a more fundamental level than just a new hairstyle – a level that really challenged the mental image I had of him.
And maybe, as you suggested, Harriet, those shifts in the image we had in our mind’s eye is what led people to believe he’d had far more plastic surgery than he’d actually had.
Harriet: I think his changes in image also revealed how business-savvy he was, too. He was a kind of recurrent reinvention, which worked to keep him “new,” fresh and exciting.
Lisha: Yes, for sure. At the time I think I assumed it was all about marketing but I don’t think that way anymore.
Willa: That’s a good point – it did capture a lot of attention and keep him “fresh and exciting,” as you said, Harriet. But like you, Lisha, I think there was a lot more going on as well.
Just as a mental experiment, I’ve been playing around with two photos that illustrate this issue of “seeing” and “labeling” very well, I think. I really like these two photos because they look very similar to me, but we tend to interpret them very differently. The first one – from 1987 – registers fairly clearly as “black” and “male,” while the other – from 2003 – is more ambiguous. What I mean is, if you don’t know who it is, it’s harder to figure out how to label it. Here are those two photos:
And here are black-and-white xeroxed images of the same photos:
In the black-and-white xeroxes, you can’t see the difference in skin tone, or the red lipstick in the later image, so the racial and gender signifiers don’t stand out so much. What you do see – much more clearly, I think – are the basic lines of his face, and those are unchanged.
Harriet: What an excellent experiment, Willa. Thinking this over and studying these images, I have become very aware of the parts that makeup and hairstyle play also, plus that of the camera. Willa, you go into the latter quite a bit in “Re-Reading Michael Jackson,” don’t you? Makeup, hairstyle and camera angle (and linked to all of these, the context in which a photograph is taken) massively affect an image of a face. Here in the UK (and in the US too, I am sure) there is a tabloid trend for juxtaposing two hyper-different images of someone famous, such as an image taken at a red carpet event versus a caught-in-the-street paparazzi shot. Google Images comes up with these comparison shots a lot, too. The trick (and that is exactly what it is) illustrates very well the huge effects on imagery of makeup and hairstyling, photography and context.
But furthermore, in the case of Michael Jackson – amidst the attention given to his plastic surgery and skin change – the role played by more “regular” physical processes affecting appearance, such as weight change and aging, have been continually denied. Weight change, for example, drastically alters someone’s face especially if, like Michael Jackson, they are of a slight build; then, even a very minimal weight change up or down can have a big effect, especially in the face. If you compare images of Michael Jackson in 2001 around the release of Invincible (and his protests against Sony bosses) with 2009 This Is It rehearsal photos, weight change plays a big part in the difference. Here is an example photograph from each era respectively:
The two images you select, Willa, visualize (to my eye at least) the effects less of plastic surgery than weight change and/or that of the work of the camera. I’m sure everyone will have noticed how sometimes, when an image is moved or played about with (quite often when trying to resize it) its proportions can change? This can make a face quite slim or really quite rounded in comparison to its original. The later photo of yours, Willa, looks like it might have been subject to this.
Willa: Really? Because to me the proportions and lines of his face look exactly the same in both photos. That’s why I like them so much. He’s 15 years older in the later photo, and the hollows of his cheeks have become a little more pronounced, but other than that the basic structure of his face looks exactly the same to me. The only differences are surface signifiers such as lipstick and false eyelashes.
Lisha: Yes, I agree with you, Willa. I think the basic structure of the face looks the same though we tend to focus on the differences. With Michael Jackson you have to look very closely and very deliberately to see the actual structure of the face because the surface signifiers somehow really take over.
Harriet: So I guess we are highlighting our own argument: that impressions or readings of an image can be variable, even polar opposite, and (in my case but not so much yours, Willa) based on certain features over fundamental structure. However, the more pronounced “hollows of his cheeks” you do note, Willa, are signs of weight loss and/or aging I would say, in which case his whole face would likely have been a little slimmer at the time the second photo was taken.
Lisha: He does look slimmer in the second photo through the cheeks, which could be due to weight loss, aging, or even medication used to treat skin and scalp issues. I can see a tiny difference in his overbite that might be the result of cosmetic dentistry. But the interesting thing to me is that I think we’re pretty used to absorbing some changes in the appearance of entertainers and performers, including surgical procedures, that aren’t magnified like they are here. You don’t have to go beyond the Jackson family to look for some good examples this. We sort of accept their beauty and fabulousness and don’t comment too much about the changes they have made.
But with Michael Jackson, this is not the case. His changing appearance caused so much confusion and produced some very strong reactions and assumptions. Still does.
Harriet: Yes, and there were a whole host of reasons for this. I would put part of our resistance to his “change” down to the amazing longevity of his career that started at such a young age. This meant that he was forced to contend with an inescapable ever-present pictorial past of himself as distinctly black-skinned and boyish. Subconsciously, I would argue, we always perceive Michael Jackson in relation to these early images, which continue to float around in the media, continue to have cultural currency, and yet provide nothing but an outdated mode by which to try and “read” him. This, I think, further fuels the common perception that Michael Jackson’s face altered in a way that needed explanation through excessive plastic surgery more than was ever actually indicated.
In addition to Michael Jackson’s ever-present pictorial past, I wonder whether his highly distinctive choreographic and iconic self-repetition also worked to highlight his physical change.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Harriet. So for example, every time he performed “Billie Jean” it was compared to his iconic performance at Motown 25?
Harriet: That’s exactly what I mean, yes. It’s a bit like if two woman wear the same dress: we suddenly focus in on their differences not their similarities. The same process works in mimicry more broadly, as with the many Michael Jackson impersonators.
Lisha: I wonder if that could be a part of it and I agree that we compare Michael Jackson against his own past. I also think we subconsciously judge his appearance against a huge number of images we have previously identified as things like “young,” “entertainer,” “black,” or “male.”
Here’s another piece of photographic evidence that was highly persuasive to me – an image taken from a rehearsal for This Is It. This photo convinced me that my eyes play tricks on me when I look at Michael Jackson.
The shadows across his face obscure his skin tone and makeup here, sort of like those black and white xeroxes do. I was struck by how differently I see his features in this photo compared with the way I usually interpret them. His eyes, nose, and mouth all register as much more “African” to me, though many assume he surgically altered his face to look more “white” or “female.”
Harriet: I guess if we were to apply our own thesis, though, this photo would rather exemplify the “interfering” roles played by camera, lights and makeup (or rather “non makeup”)?
Lisha: Yes, that’s true, but it’s a rare opportunity to observe what happens when some of the most common techniques are absent. My understanding is that this image was captured for documentation/study purposes only, not for promotional use. It’s one of the very few photos where I cannot see the effects of makeup contouring (strategic use of light and dark shades of makeup), special poses or “attitude” for the camera, flash photography or other strong lighting on the face.
Willa: Yes, and those poses or “attitudes,” as you called them, have a powerful effect. You can really tell when he is adopting the pose of Michael Jackson, icon, and when he isn’t.
Lisha: Yes, there is no doubt he knew how to work the camera!
This keeps reminding me of one of my all-time favorite TED talks, which was presented by neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor a few years back. Dr. Taylor gives a brilliant explanation of how each side of the brain functions, and I think it really supports and expands on what we are talking about here. She says the function of the right brain is to perceive sensory information in the present moment (possibly even well enough to draw it as Betty Edwards says), while the left brain methodically categorizes all that information, kind of like a serial processor on the computer. While the right brain is busy collecting information, the left brain is analyzing and interpreting it in order to project out possibilities for the future.
Michael Jackson so forcefully disrupted how we perceive, analyze and interpret his appearance, I think it’s important to grasp how this works. It’s worth watching Dr. Taylor’s talk and consider why Michael Jackson might have been cuing us to step to the right of our left brain.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, that is fascinating! It’s like the two sides of our brains represent two completely different ways of understanding the world. As Dr. Taylor points out, the right side is more sensory, while the left side is more analytical. The right side is focused on the present moment, while the left is constantly making comparisons with the past and projecting out into the future, as you mentioned. The right is more about feeling, while the left is trying to capture what we feel and express those emotions through language. In fact, the “mind chatter” our brains tend to constantly engage in comes from the left side of our brains, according the Dr. Taylor.
It was really interesting to hear her talk about her stroke, which was in her left hemisphere and how, ironically, she felt an unexpected sense of euphoria as it was happening. It’s like her right side was momentarily released from the constraints of her left side, and it reveled in that freedom.
She also said that, during her stroke, she couldn’t distinguish her own boundaries, which was very interesting to me. She couldn’t tell where “she” ended and the rest of the world began, so in a very literal sense she experienced the phenomenon of “you’re just another part of me.”
Lisha: Yes, Dr. Taylor goes into detail about this in her book, My Stroke of Insight. I thought it was a fascinating read. She also talks about a fact we all accept as scientifically true – that our bodies are made up of about 70 percent water – and she claims this is also quite literally true. Once the part of your brain shuts down that interprets the body as a separate, solid mass, you can actually perceive the body as a liquid and experience that as a part of your ordinary reality.
Willa: Wow, that’s fascinating! I’d love to experience that somehow – without having a stroke, of course …
Lisha: Me too! She said she really liked knowing her body was liquid and it was one of the last parts of her brain to heal from the stroke. According to Dr. Taylor, “you’re just another part of me” is not just a philosophy, it is a scientific truth. Perception is everything – which begs the question – what’s really out there?
Harriet: “What’s really out there?” We need to come back to this!
Willa: That is the question, isn’t it? And can we ever know what’s really out there? Philosophers have debated that for centuries.
So in terms of what we’ve been talking about with perceptions of Michael Jackson, the right hemisphere of the brain is trying to gather in all the sensory input available at any given moment – it’s trying to collect “what’s really out there” – while the left is trying to make sense of it. It’s categorizing and labeling that input, and putting it within a historical context. That ties in exactly with what Betty Edwards says in her book, though she emphasizes that our left side also prioritizes and filters what we look at, and therefore what we see.
That leads to another reason why Michael Jackson’s face was so misinterpreted: our perceptions were strongly influenced by the constant narrative of plastic surgery that was repeated again and again in both the tabloids and mainstream press. That narrative shaped the mental and cultural filters through which we saw his face, and those filters are really powerful. It gets back once again to what Michael Jackson called our cultural “conditioning.” We were “conditioned” to see the effects of plastic surgery whenever we looked at him, and so we did.
Harriet: Absolutely, and I think that’s why it’s important to consider the role of the stereotype here, for in the realm of identity formation (which is where we are in grappling with “reading Michael Jackson’s face”), it is the stereotype that largely creates this conflict between the two interpreting parts of our brain. In understanding Others, the stereotype is deployed: built on previous “knowledge” and imagery, it “makes sense” of a person by, as you say, Willa, categorizing, labeling, and contextualizing. Meanwhile, though, the other side of our brain knows that to a large extent this is all just a construction, a fiction, and that there is other “matter” (parts of a person) left undiscovered and unexplained. Because this “matter” is more difficult, less instant in interpretation, we leave it out.
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting, Harriet.
Harriet: Not only did Michael Jackson have to contend with pervasive stereotypes of masculinity and blackness, he had to contend with the stereotype of the Hollywood plastic surgery addict that generated once his face began to change. By this, he provides a wonderful example of someone (an “Other”) onto whom multiple stereotypes were projected but none of them fitted. He therefore generated lots of this remaining “matter” that our brains couldn’t quickly make sense of, and this “stuff” just got left behind in our reading of him. It just got submerged and forgotten (or in some cases, was maybe not even ever acknowledged).
Lisha: I think you’ve just hit the nail on the head. The multiple stereotypes we tried to project onto him just wouldn’t fit. There were too many labels and categories being disrupted all at once. We lacked a quick, easy explanation that could make sense of this.
Harriet: Totally, and the result is really quite confounding. My own brain, for example, is constantly battling between two visions and two readings: Michael Jackson radically changed aesthetically, and Michael Jackson didn’t really change aesthetically much at all. And this conflict continues despite the close observations we have made here, which point toward the latter.
Lisha: You’re touching on something that I find in many aspects of Michael Jackson’s work, Harriet, when you say Michael Jackson appears to have both changed and not changed aesthetically. I’ve noticed Michael Jackson is not an “either/or” type of guy – he’s a “both/and” proposition. If you’re looking closely, his face appears to have both radically changed and stayed the same over the years.
I decided to take a look at the psychology literature to see if I could find some research that would support what we’re talking about here in terms of perception and how the brain could potentially misinterpret visual information. I’m really amazed by what I am finding, especially in the area of facial perception and race. Apparently facial perception is a rather complex brain function – it isn’t nearly as straightforward as you might think. Belief and expectation radically alter what people actually see. This is something that has been studied for years.
For example, there was a study in 2003 by Eberhardt, Dasgupta, and Banasynski titled “Believing Is Seeing: The Effects of Racial Labels and Implicit Beliefs on Face Perception.” Researchers morphed head shots together until they had an ambiguous photo that 50 percent of respondents identified as a “black male,” while the other 50 percent identified the exact same photo as that of a “white male.” The photo was given to another group who were then asked to draw the photo. Each copy of the photo was randomly labeled either “black” or “white.”
Participants were told that they would receive a nice monetary bonus if the next group could correctly identify the photo from their drawing of it. But despite the incentive for making an accurate drawing, the “black” and “white” labels altered what participants drew and their drawings were consistent with their beliefs about the labels. This study was summarized by Adam Alter in an article that appeared in Psychology Today magazine titled “Why It’s Dangerous to Label People: Why labeling a person ‘black,’ ‘rich,’ or ‘smart’ makes it so.” Here is one of the photos used in the study and two drawings of the same photo:
Harriet: Lisha, this article is so in tune with what we have discussed.
Willa: It really is!
Harriet: This is the nub:
The people we label as “black,” “white,” “rich,” poor,” smart,” and “simple,” seem blacker, whiter, richer, poorer, smarter, and simpler merely because we’ve labeled them so.
Of course, as a society we like labels because they help us to apparently understand the world around us and our place in relation to it. As the subtitle of the article puts it, with them we are constantly “decision making.” Michael Jackson shook up decision making in so many ways it was almost like society couldn’t cope with it, so we over-compensated in defining him, as in the extensive plastic surgery narrative / imagery that was so strongly projected that we all came to believe it. I personally think we need to take from Michael Jackson’s cues and look towards a utopian way of Being without “decision making” though this might be a big ask …
As you put it, Lisha, labels are largely about “either/or”; that is, they are often structured as an oppositional binary (black/white, man/woman young/old etc). But Michael Jackson blew this out the water by being a “both/and proposition”: Michael was black and white, young and old, and (in many ways) man and woman, and this quality is visualized in his face, which “appears to have both radically changed and stayed the same over the years.”
Lisha: It’s as if he didn’t cross boundaries – he inhabited them. And it’s much easier to believe these changes were achieved through plastic surgery than it is to consider our own psychological lapses in perception.
Willa: That’s interesting, Lisha. I hadn’t thought about it that way before – that we prefer to believe the difference is out there, in him, there rather than in us, in our own minds.
Harriet: The “both/and proposition” that is visualized in Michael’s face, and the complexity of perception and identity more broadly, makes me think of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit doodle in Philosophical Investigations. The doodle, which many will recognize, depicts at once the outlined images of a duck and a rabbit, and therefore also their continual oscillations.
This doodle has been applied (I’m thinking here by W.T. Lhamon Jr. in his wonderful book Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop) to illustrate how two identities can be held together, can be variably seen either together or separately or even with the exclusion of the other but all the while together in a kind of “third.” This is Michael Jackson all over to my mind and what I understand to be at the core of his attraction. He could be anyone and everyone. Michael Jackson was not about strict definition or separation but about crossing and merging and bringing us altogether, label-free, as one.
Willa: Or as three-in-one. That’s really interesting, Harriet. So it’s not a process of becoming one by shedding or denying our differences – a oneness of homogeneity – but by developing a more complex understanding of identity, of the multiplicity of identity.
Harriet: That’s it, yes, in which “difference” becomes less absolute and all-encompassing.
Willa: To be honest, I’m still kind of blown away by what you were talking about earlier, Harriet – about stereotypes and how half our brain applies those kinds of labels to help us quickly identify and categorize sensory input, while the other half realizes those labels aren’t true – that it’s “all a fiction and that there is other ‘matter’ (parts of a person) left undiscovered or unexplained,” as you said. That’s such an interesting idea, and I wonder if this kind of double knowledge – with half our brains (the more accessible part) thinking one thing while the other half (less accessible) secretly knowing it’s not true – helps explain something that’s been a big mystery to me.
Before Michael Jackson died, it seemed that most people believed he was utterly corrupt: a pedophile, a drug addict, a plastic surgery addict, a man who used his fame and his wealth to twist other people – especially the parents of young boys – into doing whatever he wanted. But the moment he died, there was this outpouring of grief, and public opinion shifted dramatically. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would so many people grieve so deeply and feel such tenderness for an utterly debauched rock star? I can understand how people might change their minds gradually as more sympathetic information began to emerge, but it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t gradual. It was instantaneous. Why would people feel such a profound sense of loss if they genuinely believed he was “a monster,” as he himself describes it? I just can’t understand that, and I’ve puzzled about it a long time.
I wonder if this sort of double knowledge you’re talking about, Harriet, helps explain it. I wonder if, at one level of consciousness, people saw the tabloid headlines and heard the innuendo and seemed to accept those horrible labels that were being forced onto him. They threw him into “a class with a bad name,” as he says in “They Don’t Care about Us.” But at a deeper level, they knew it wasn’t true, knew it was just a fiction, knew those monstrous labels didn’t fit him. So when he died, that deeper knowledge led to a grief that couldn’t be explained.
Harriet: That is intriguing and very insightful, Willa. In other words, death allows us to finally “feel” without (social) restriction. It is like the death of a person rids us of the limitations imposed on us by a society fearful of difference, of the “matter” that cannot be explained by labels, which, deep down, each one of us knows is really there.
Lisha: I absolutely believe this is true. One of my favorite research projects is to log onto the “Toys R Us” mega-store website and search their merchandise using the search term “Michael Jackson.” They offer dozens of Michael Jackson products for children – puzzles, games, toys, child-size glitter gloves, etc. If as a culture we really believed Michael Jackson was “an utterly debauched rock star” who committed crimes against children, would we be mass producing these products?
Willa: That’s an excellent question, Lisha. And would there be so many CDs of Michael Jackson songs performed as lullabies to play for your children as they go to sleep? I just did a quick search on Amazon and there are five different CDs of Michael Jackson lullabies. Would Amazon really be selling Michael Jackson bedtime music for children if people genuinely believed he was a pedophile? I don’t think so.
Lisha: I actually started a collection of Michael Jackson baby CDs to illustrate this very point – if Michael Jackson is safe enough for your baby’s nursery, then Michael Jackson is safe, end of story!
Harriet: I agree, but I can’t help but wonder if it is also about seeing a market (the mothers of young children) and exploiting it. After all, when there is a fortune to be made anything can happen, as Michael Jackson himself knew only too well.
Willa: Yes, but would the mothers of young children be buying if they really thought he was a child molester?
Lisha: And would the demand for these products be high enough to mass produce them for a giant mega-store chain like “Toys R Us”?
Harriet: Maybe I am being too skeptical, but a large tranche of the demographic of Michael Jackson fans will be mothers of a child-bearing or rearing age, don’t you think?
Lisha: It’s a good question and I don’t really know for sure. Those of us in Michael Jackson’s age bracket (age 55) are more likely to buy these for grandchildren rather than our own kids, so maybe there are at least two strong markets there – mothers and grandmothers.
Harriet: I wanted to return to something that is just so fundamental to “reading Michael Jackson’s face,” and that is what you touched on earlier, Lisha, that “perception is everything, which begs the question – what’s really out there?” As philosophers have explored and identified at length, nothing is really “out there” because it is all filtered by our own individual interpretation. That is, there is actually no “true” reality and no “truth.” It seems to me that in Michael Jackson’s face we see this impossibility of grasping at reality, at “truth.” Not only do we all seem to read Michael Jackson in very different ways, some of us also read him differently within our own minds at different times (sometimes he has changed aesthetically and sometimes he has not).
I’m sure people can recall the collection of promo shots released ahead of Michael Jackson’s appearance on Oprah Winfrey back in 1993. This is one of them:
From the commentary I have found it seems this image (and the decision to “black out” Michael’s face), was quite widely read as a marketing ploy used to entice viewers by playing on the cultural fascination with Michael Jackson’s face. However, I wonder if there was actually more going on. The decision to “black out” the detail of Michael’s face could be read as a very public recognition on his part of the issue we have raised in this discussion: the huge problem we have with the (mis)interpretation of visual information and especially that relating to identity.
Perhaps Michael Jackson is saying here: “People will see what they want to see anyway.” It could be his resignation to this or, more likely I would say, a way by which he was inviting us to think very seriously about how we saw, or didn’t see, his face.
Willa: I agree. It reminds me of the Invincible album cover, where instead of being “blacked out” his face has been “whited out” to the point where the details of his face have been lost. So as you say, in both cases we are left to fill in the image for ourselves. As he sings in “Is It Scary,” “I’m gonna be exactly what you wanna see.”
Harriet: A face is like a mirror: it can reflect back at us (it “mirrors”) what we want, hope or expect to see, rather than reflect what is really there. This photo perhaps argues this. So, to read Michael Jackson’s face we need rather to read ourselves. I’m reminded here of the phenomenon “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” which shifts the power away from the subject towards the spectator in the creation of visual image, meaning, and significance. I go into this in the conclusion of my book and consider it paramount in discussion of Michael Jackson, whose ambiguity – his “both/and proposition” – allowed this interpretative process in a very elaborate way.
Lisha: It’s absolutely true. With this is mind, we should have another look at the HIStory teaser, one of Michael Jackson’s most misunderstood works. His first appearance in this film (1:14) is quite possibly my all time favorite Michael Jackson image for all the reasons we have talked about here. We’re not just looking at Michael Jackson, we’re confronting our own psychological projections and seeing who we believe he is.
Harriet: And there it is. Brilliant.
Willa: It really is. He continually reflects our projections back at us in ways that utterly amaze me.
So before we wrap up I wanted to mention a couple of things. I’m sure everyone is very curious to know more about the new album, Xscape, scheduled to come out in May. Damien Shields has an interesting post describing each of the songs predicted to be on it.
And there’s a new book coming out the end of June that ties in with the ideas we’ve been talking about today in fascinating ways. It’s by Lorena Turner, a photographer and sociologist who contributes to the conversation here sometimes, and it’s called The Michael Jacksons. I’ve only read a few chapters, but I’m really intrigued by what I’ve seen so far.
It looks at Michael Jackson impersonators not only in terms of how they interpret and reenact and memorialize Michael Jackson himself, but how they continue his legacy of “performing” race and gender in fluid ways. Lorena quotes J.Martin Favor that “Race is theatrical – it is an outward spectacle – rather than being anything internal or essential,” and looks at how Michael Jackson and his impersonators “perform” his/their identity. I’m really looking forward to seeing how she develops these ideas. Here’s a link with more information, as well as a gallery of some of her photos.
Harriet: I am really excited about Lorena’s book, not least because it is closely linked to my own work. I mean by this that we could understand Michael Jackson impersonation as being part of the theatrical tradition of blackface minstrelsy, a tradition that was built on (cross-racial) impersonation – performers “putting on” and “taking off” an Other’s body. Despite the minstrel show’s racism for which it is best known, the tradition could at times in its long history articulate cross-racial admiration and alliance (“love”). This reminds me of Michael Jackson impersonators who are so dedicated to and passionate about their subject. Depending on their individual skin color, Michael Jackson impersonators even “black up” or “white up.” I understand Lorena plans to include a chapter on the history of blackface impersonation.
Willa: Yes, I think that’s true. She mentions blackface minstrelsy in the pages I read, and also looks at the history of black artists performing for white audiences, from minstrelsy through Motown.
Lisha: Sounds fascinating!
Willa: It really does. So thank you both so much for joining me! It’s always such a pleasure to talk with you.